“Home is where your story begins.”

And I actually have a hand painted sign with this saying on it that’s hung above my front door for years, three different houses now, and still, I can’t bring myself to part with it… maybe home means something else entirely.

Over these last several weeks God’s been teaching me a lot about whittling, and not that I’ve ever carved a single thing from wood in my life, though, I think I may have tried as a child, still, whittling is the word that comes to mind, at least as of late it is.

You see, yesterday I started packing for a move across country, literally; from Florida, to where I grew up in Oregon, except this time I’m leaving almost everything I own behind; parting with an entire household of goods, and I won’t lie, it’s a mixed bag of emotions. On the one end of the spectrum is a freeing feeling, a feeling of new beginnings, and even more exciting; adventure! And on the other end is everything that goes along with all of one’s stuff: the memories attached to it and that dreaded word; sentimentality.  And if there’s one thing I am, then it’s this: dreadfully sentimental, to the point that I actually gave my farmhouse country pine table a hug goodbye last week before I let it go to its new owners. Hey, it was a good table.  But parting with one’s stuff can be a bit traumatic and yet, through it all, God reminds me; “it’s just stuff, Jen.”  That, and I did vow when I moved it all to Florida three years ago, “I’ll never move it again!” and so I figure this is just God’s way of holding me to my word.  Yeah, whittling.

Whittling down to what’s really important, what really matters, and what can you absolutely not part with? And so far, I have about five boxes, small boxes, and to be honest, what they’re mostly filled with are pictures, a few trinkets, antiques, things that were my Grandmother’s, my Mother’s, things that my Children gave me, friend’s gave me, even a twenty eight year old teddy bear, and the more I think about it, what it really all boils down to, what seems to matter most are those things that are personal, that have a story behind them.  Couches and tables and chairs are all replaceable, but not oil paintings by a Great, Great, Grandmother, or that clay heart that forever holds your child’s hand print in it when they were all of four, and yet, even as I type this I realize that compared to some, five boxes is a lot, and for all of it I am thankful.  Through it all, God reminds me that stuff, honestly, is just stuff anyway,  and that it’s only the people behind it that makes it special.  When whittling, you really start to narrow down your priorities, until much like the wood carver, the more you shave away, the clearer you can see the picture, and that’s exactly how I like to think of it.

As God helps me whittle down to what really matters in my life, I find at the same time He whittles away at me, and that’s a good thing I think, because, whenever we find ourselves under the knife of the Expert Carpenter we can expect great things!  Whenever God pulls out the knife in our lives He does so for good reason, and even if it seems painful for the moment, we can rest assure that when He’s finished we will emerge – changed.  Whenever we find ourselves being pared down in the hands of Jesus our prayer should be, “God, shave away! shave away! Until literally, this ‘block of wood’ becomes all you intend it to be.”

You know, it may take a lifetime, but the way I see it is, it can be a lifetime of adventure, and when I get to the end of it I look forward to the unveiling.  For now, it’s all about the road trip but what I’m finding out is, is this; the lighter you pack, the easier it is to get to where you’re going.  Only keep what matters – give away the rest!

Yesterday while my son and I were exiting our favorite froyo joint, I couldn’t help but overhear a comment made by one woman to another as they were exiting behind us, and it was simply this, “fail to plan, plan to fail,” and oh, how true.  Could there be three words that you could string together twice that could form a truer statement? and yet, for some of us this might actually be a painful statement.  And how do I know this? Because it actually stung a little when I heard her say it, and then I had to wonder, out of all things, why did I have to hear her say it in the first place?  Why did I have to be reminded, on this particular day, of all my failures, when in all actuality, I was already thinking about them anyway? And then I thought, maybe because God wanted me to.  Maybe because God wanted me to take that statement and re-access, and so, I got to thinking.

Thinking about all the times I’d failed to plan.  Thinking about all the times I did plan and then the plan didn’t go as planned at all and instead, went completely south.  And it happens, to a lot of us and when it does what comes along with it can be a lot of heartache and disappointment.  Sometimes when our plans fail it can be our own fault; whether it’s due to poor planning, or we don’t see it through to completion, or even sometimes when our plans aren’t completely ours to begin with and to become a reality they are dependent on a second or a third party who doesn’t follow through. I mean, what are you gonna do?  You can wallow in it or, you can take some advice a friend of mine gave me just the other day, “you can make the most of the cards you’re dealt with.”  And as of late it seems my life has been littered with all sorts of uplifting little catch phrases like this, and I don’t believe it’s coincidence. I believe a lot of times God places those things in our lives because He knows when we need to hear them and so yes, I’ve been re-accessing.

Re-accessing that, though our plans do sometimes fail, or even when we fail to plan, there is always a chance for new beginnings. We always have the opportunity to start over, or just start period, and that’s what I love about God.  With Him there is never a finality to any bad situation, where God points a finger at us and says, “well, you shouldn’t have done that.” Or, “now look at the mess you’re in,” Or, “you made your bed, now lie in it.”  Rather, I think God is exactly who He says He is: He is the God of hope, who turns around everything for our good, who sees our mistakes, our failures, wants us to learn from them, but then encourages, “there is always tomorrow. Tomorrow you can make better choices. Start new dreams and then, reach for them!”  And I believe He wants us to do just that so, let me encourage you.

If you find yourself in a current situation where nothing has gone as planned, and I believe there are many of you out there, especially in today’s economy where some of you have lost your jobs, your homes, or are facing such situations with a feeling of impending doom (and believe me, I know because I’m right there with you) then first off I’d like to encourage you.  I’d like to encourage you to not, “cry over spilt milk.”  Whether your plans failed due to something you did or something that was completely out of your control; what’s in the past is in the past and no amount of rehashing will change one iotta of it.  And secondly, remember that, “there is always tomorrow,” so look forward to it!  Believe that God can pull you through any circumstance you may find yourself in, grow you the stronger for it, the wiser for it, and then go out there and – start something new! Look at your future as a future filled with all kinds of possibilities – because literally, it is. The only person that can hold you back is you. And on that, I’d like to close with some fortune cookie wisdom I got at a Chinese restaurant just last week and it read, “you can’t walk backwards into the future.” Or in other words; you can’t move forward if you’re looking back, and so, be encouraged: make some new plans!

Always seek to understand others and you cannot fail to love them.

Still in the throws of Brennan Manning’s, Abba’s Child, I can’t help but be reminded of the Lord’s second greatest commandment, as Manning manages to so eloquently drive it home page after page and yet, for good reason. He knows as Christians, we need to hear it like a mantra, “love one another,” because all too often we tend to forget this and would rather resort to fault finding and judging our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Like a broken record, Manning comes back to this time and time again, even exampling himself; where he’s failed to miss this mark, in hopes of opening our eyes to see that we are all on the same level, the playing field is equal, or in other words, not one of us is better than the other, so why then should we not love with impartiality, even as Christ loved us?

In any case, if you’ve forgotten the second greatest commandment it is simply this (and I’ll throw in the first as well, just for good measure):

Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

And when Jesus says all He means everything.  When He says, “love your neighbor,” He means, “do unto everyone as you would have them do unto you.”  When He says, “love God with all that you are,” He means, “love God with complete and utter abandonment – with no thought to yourself.”  And yet, who of us lives like this?  Can any one of us, save Jesus, walk in such perfection, 100% of the time? Why would Jesus, knowing full well the frailty of our human form; the human condition, wrought with sin, give us a picture of ultimate Christian perfection when He knows full well that none of us can achieve it?

Didn’t Paul say, “run the race to win it?”  But what if we fall? What if we fail? Are we suddenly disqualified? Does God rip away our “Child of God” status and suddenly disown us, leaving us orphaned to the world?  Never!  When Christ gave the example I think He did it to serve as the shining pinnacle, to hold everything we do up to as a sort of measuring stick, because due to our human condition He knew we would need it. He knew we’d fall short, mess up, even at times act completely contrary to our new nature, because even when we become a Child of God we still have our sin nature to contend with, that wars against us, and unfortunately, sometimes wins out.

But thankfully, we are not alone in this.  Even Paul, Paul the Apostle, who was one of the greatest apostles, who pretty much launched the gospel, had his own demons to contend with and yet, he lays it out for us with sheer and utter transparency, the war that’s waged within every Christian; between right and wrong, between walking in the flesh and walking in the Spirit:

For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.  So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans: 7:19-24)

And to answer Paul’s last question, I would have to say that even as Christ was crucified in the flesh so we must crucify ours. That’s why Manning, who bats a thousand out of a thousand most of the time continues to drive home, paragraph after paragraph, this simple theme; love one another. But if it were so simple why devote entire chapters to it? Because it’s not simple, not by any means, and Manning knows this.  He knows that as Christians, we can be some of the most critical and judging people and that if we were to take an honest look at ourselves, it becomes glaringly apparent. Not only in our judgment of the world, but even more so of each other, and it comes from both ends of the spectrum all the way to the middle. Yes, the body of Christ is far from united and would rather nit-pick each other to death.  The only way we can love like Christ loved is to crucify the flesh, and I think Manning describes perfectly how Paul contended with this; the sin nature, and it’s found on page 112:

Paul had the audacity to boast that he had the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).  His boast was validated by his life.  From the moment of his conversion his entire attention was riveted on the risen Christ.  Jesus Himself was a force whose momentum was ceaselessly at work before Paul’s eyes (Philippians 3:21).  Jesus was a Person whose voice Paul could recognize (2 Corinthians 13:3), who strengthened Paul in moments of weakness (12:9), who enlightened him and consoled him (2 Corinthians 1:4-5).  Driven to desperation by the slanderous charges of false apostles, Paul admitted to visions and revelations from the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:1).  The Person of Jesus revealed the meaning of life and death (Colossians 3:3).

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch said, “You’ll never understand a man ’til you stand in his shoes and look at the world through his eyes.”  Paul looked so unflinchingly at himself, others, and the world through the eyes of Jesus that Christ became the ego of the apostle – “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galations 2:20).  Didymus of Alexandria said, “Paul was full of Christ.”

And how many of us could honestly say we are full of Christ?  No, instead all too often I think many of us are rather full of ourselves.  Thinking so highly of ourselves, in our “better” ways or our “better” thinking, that we thumb our noses down at others. Others who don’t look like we do, talk like we do, or think like we do. Others who disagree, argue, or who act pious, when all the while we point our finger at them we fail to see our own piousness. Haven’t we all been there? I know I have. The good thing is though, we don’t have to stay there. And the good thing is, we have the help of the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth and righteousness, who gently points out (well, hopefully gently) when we’re not choosing to ask God to help us see things through His eyes, and if we want to be able to love like Christ loved then this has to be our daily prayer, “Lord, give me Your eyes to see,” because when we judge others I believe we’re simply looking at them through the wrong lens.  I mean, who am I, who are we, to know what’s in the heart of another? That’s God’s business.

On that note, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories: The Sneetches, and I’ve loved this story since childhood and now as an adult, I think it speaks perfectly as to what so often transpires, not only in the world around us, but unfortunately, where it should not: within the Body of Christ.

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24).

I picked up a new book over these last few weeks, Brennan Manning’s, Abba’s Child, and recently found the time to dive in.  And it’s one of those books that comes to you at a time when you need it most, that somehow has a way of finding you, and I am grateful it did. I find that Manning seems to have a way of speaking to the very depths of my being, inspiring me to not only walk closer to the Savior, in constant recognition of my own brokenness and need for grace, but also serves as a good reminder to always strive to live a life that shows grace and compassion towards others.

I guess that’s what I love so much about Manning’s books, having read The Ragamuffin Gospel a few years ago, is his lack of pretense.  It is a rare find, and unfortunately I’d have to say even in myself, to hear someone speak from such an honest place, and currently in the throws of the book I hope to glean some wisdom as to how one gets to such a place, to how one “arrives.”

So far I’ve already marked several key sentences that struck a chord, even an entire chapter, the one concerning our Authentic Self vs. our False Self, appropriately titled, The Imposter, recognizing as I did that still small voice of God saying, “Jen, this is what I want you to work on.”  Sigh.

And yet, I sigh with hope, ever mindful that we are all works in progress and there are times we go about our merry business, oblivious, until something upsets the balance and God so gently (and I use the word lightly) points out, “we need to work on this.”  Ugh, and just when I thought I had all my crap figured out.

But God is like that, orchestrating events in our lives, or merely allowing them, and then turning them around to form something in us, change something in us, that makes us a little bit more Christ reflecting, and I am convinced that this is God’s ultimate agenda in almost everything, or in other words, what I like to refer to as the great emptying and sometimes the great emptying can be a painful process, but one I’m finding as the years go by, that God seems to only allow to come to us in growth spurts, and for that – I am thankful for.  Like the child; we grow, level out for awhile, and then grow again – and yes, unfortunately growing pains are included and at the moment, I feel them.

I feel them because as I read Manning, God calls me to authenticity, to take off the mask of the false self, who is always striving; for the approval of others, the attention of others, even to self-protect from others (and for me, this is the biggie), and instead, to just live in the freedom that I don’t have to, I don’t have to self-protect anymore. That if only I can remember that it’s God who affirms me, loves me infinitely, delights in me even, then it’s He who will get me to that place where I won’t feel the need to put on pretense anymore, because when we live under the guise of the false self we can miss out on so many of God’s blessings and the blessing that we can be and should be to others.

In the middle of growing pains, what I’m finding about growth spurts is this: that the more we go through them the more we start to recognize them for what they truly are: a chance to draw nigh our Heavenly Father, bask in His presence, and let Him transform us – to be like the child that waits in wonder and anticipation of what they’ll be when they grow up. “Oh, make me like you, Lord, make me like you!”

At the beginning and end of each day, Oh Lord, I am reminded of your great love for me, each painted with your colorful bookends, your sherbert colored skies, and here you dare me to try your love, “oh, taste and see, taste and see!”

“Yes, faithful lover, who burns the skies for me.”  And so dipping spoon in I take a bite and find that you are sweet.  True always to your Word, Oh Lord, true always to me.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.
  Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8)

I have a favorite quote at the bottom of my blog and it goes like this, “the true mark of a Christian is not one who is perfect, but one who strives to have Christ perfected in them,” and I honestly can’t remember where I came across this saying, or even who said it for that matter, only that it struck me as profound – and it is.  It serves as a reminder to us all that we will fail in our walks with God, time and time again, and yet, I believe God isn’t as concerned as much with our failings as He is with our ability to get back up, back on, and back in the game.

True, when we fail it has the ability to set us back, but for how long and how much, I believe, is really up to us.  The one thing we can be certain of though, is that God isn’t in the booing section.  When we fail/fall He is more apt to come out into the arena, pick us up, dust us off, and then say, “now, get back out there!  Get back in the game!”  because just as with sports, there’s no time for sulking.  We can’t win if we’re sulking, brooding, having pity parties or lamenting over past sins, and believe me, we will have them, we all have them, but God has the remedy for this and it’s called repentance.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

And there’s that word “if” again and “if” is an action-y kind of word, is it not?  It literally requires that we do something and that something when it comes to sin in our lives is hopefully honing the ability to quickly recognize when it rears its ugly head and if and when it does to immediately take it to the cross.  Repentance simply means recognizing a wrong doing, showing sincere sorrow for it, and then turning from it.  In other words, when you take it to the cross, leave it there, because this is what God does.

He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:10-12).

And so if God is able to forget our sins then shouldn’t we?  And not to make light of sin, because we should never make light of it, but rather, once repentance takes place to learn from it, grow from it and then simply – move on.  To look God in the face after He’s put our band-aid on and say, “okay, I’m ready to get back in the game again.”  Because honestly, I don’t think there’s anything that could make God happier.

For as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. (Psalm 103:13).

“Play ball!”

The other evening I watched the new Tim Burton movie Alice in Wonderland with my cousin and her two children and it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it.  It was for them mind you, but I’d already seen when it came out in theaters and I actually fell in love with it then.  So much so, I forked out the money and bought the DVD. (What can I say? I am a sucker for fantasy stories, always have been).   But I loved Burton’s take on it, what I’d call a sequel to the original Alice and while watching it I couldn’t help but notice an interesting similarity in theme to a very familiar Bible story, and not one of those secondary bible stories mind you, but what I’ll refer to as “THE MOTHER OF ALL BIBLE STORIES,”  the one most of us tend to forget, the one that pretty much encapsulates them all.  You know? The one about good vs. evil/God vs. the Devil/ and somehow, somewhere in the middle of this “MOTHER OF ALL STORIES” we have a role to play, and for me, Alice couldn’t have brought this element of God’s story home more clearly.

Now, if you haven’t seen the movie I’d highly recommend it, especially going into it with this mentality.  Imagine, you’ve just been thrust into a “Underland” (otherwise known as Earth) when somewhere along the way, as a Child of God, you’re suddenly made aware that you have a calling, and trust me, every Christian has a calling.

“A calling?” you ask, “and what’s that?” When, much to your surprise, you find that two rotund twins, named Tweedledee and Tweedledum have the answer, “Oh, you just have to slay a dragon,” they say, “called the Jabberwocky.”

You cough, blinking twice, “a what?” you ask.

“A dragon,” they say, “and when you do, then Underland can once again be ruled by the White Queen.”  And it’s here they clap emphatically.

Hah! and how many times have we heard this story? Does Moses ring a bell anyone? Yeah, when God calls, like many of the Bible characters in those secondary stories we tell God, “hey, look, you’ve got the wrong Alice. Call somebody else!”  and it’s classic. When we find what we’re up against so often our first reaction is to retreat into cowardice, “send somebody else!” we say and unfortunately, for many of us, we’d rather settle for the more complacent stories, stories that require of us nothing because there’s no risk that way, but much like Underland, life is full of risk, and we can either run from it or face it, and from this character I know called God, He wants us to face it, is actually the one who calls us into the middle of the fight to begin with, because it’s here, He changes us, He trains us.  Yes, trains us.

Have you ever wondered what it’s all about and for what? I have, and I do a lot, actually, where half the time I think I’m asking God, “why am I here in the middle of this story?” And true, God wants relationship with us, but that doesn’t seem, at least to me, that that’s all there is, that that’s all He wants.  Yes, God wanted relationship but then His Enemy sabotaged it, and His Enemy, Satan, is now our enemy and does everything within his power to come between us and God and our true calling. I think because the enemy knows if we discover it, then we’d be quite a force to reckon with. Case in point: another theme in Alice I’d like to touch on that I found to be quite enlightening actually, spoken, like some gem of wisdom within just one line.

Alice, still contemplating whether or not she actually has the gumption to face the dragon is told by Absolem, the catepillar, that all she needs to do to defeat the dragon is hang onto the Vorpal sword.  “Really?”  You mean, she doesn’t have to do anything, except muster up the courage to go out there and face the enemy, the dragon, but it’s not by her power that she’ll defeat him, but it’s by the power of the sword?  Again, “really?” Anybody else seeing a similarity here? Dragon (Satan)?  Sword (God’s Word)?  Huh.  Now, if there’s anything we as Christians tend to forget then I’d have to say it’s this: we forget what we’re up against, and we forget what our ultimate weapon of choice is: God’s Word.  We forget that there’s an entire battle being waged around us in the spirit realm and we forget how to fight it.  God says, “open your eyes, Child!  If you’re up against something then this is what it is!”  It’s not your boss, your spouse, your children, it’s not even yourself, it’s that age old Adversary doing what he does best: wreaking havoc, and hoping you won’t notice, hoping you’ll fall back into complacency and won’t recognize that there’s a sword you can grab hold of to fight him back with. If you did, you might actually overcome some of those hurdles/obstacles that have been holding you back.  Back from becoming a better employee, father, mother, spouse, or even overcoming some of those things in your own life that keep you from becoming the best you can be, which ultimately, is Christ reflecting.

Instead, like Alice, so many of us cry, “send somebody else!”  But God says, “no, I want you to do it! I want you to slay the dragons in your life until you reach your potential IN ME,” which brings me back to my title, and for that, you’ll have to see the movie if you haven’t already because it’s about overcoming six impossible things.

You see, just a few days ago I was sitting out on the back deck of my cousin’s house looking at a mountain when God brought to mind His words about casting mountains into seas (see Matthew 21:21) and I was like, “you’ve got to be kidding, God. Why would you tell us such an impossible thing?” and the words He laid on my heart were, “because I expect my Children to do such things,” or in other words, “I want you to have this mentality.”  “Really?”  “Yes, really.”

Can you imagine? And it’s mind blowing honestly, but with God all things are possible and so it inspired me. It inspired me to make a list, and I am not a list maker by any means, but I wanted to make a list, a prayer list, of six impossible things in my life that God and I could turn around together and make a possibility, and I’ve decided I want to make this a habit, my prayer habit, to do this every morning before breakfast. Because as with all things, it has to be a daily thing.

God requires that we love Him. Love, unadulterated. Our first love. Our true love. Until He is at the center of the heart. Until He, and only He captures and captivates our attentions, and until then we will be of little use.  Oh, we may be touting our own horns. We may put on displays so that others, of course, should see, and all in His good name, but – all for what?  Vanity.  Though, still God works through the vain conceits of men to do His good bidding.  Much of nothing would be accomplished if God only used the pure of heart, for even those who start out with the best intentions so easily are led awry.  It is only by God’s grace, His love, that we continue.  His love covers a multitude of sins, and fills like paste, the cracks in our hearts.  True, if there be any horn we should be touting then it should be His: Majesty, who loves us with an unadulterated love.  Wholly giving, not self-serving.  Are we not the clay pots He chooses to fill that we might be poured out, leaks and all, because this pleases Him?  And can we love Him like this?  We cannot, not even come close, but God doesn’t require perfection, only a willingness and a desire to want to, to try, and that is all.