Walking and Not Fainting is Still Moving Forward

I’m trying something new this school year (which is a term I use loosely):  early morning times with Jesus.

Truthfully, this is an old something new. Years ago, I got up early to have my “quiet time” before starting my day with the boys and school and chores. It lasted a while, then I stopped.

Mornings are hard for me.

Then, in the fall of 2015, I decided to start fresh with morning quiet times. I enjoyed the stillness and the quiet at that time of day, sitting at the kitchen table with Bible and journal, wrapped in a blanket–not because I felt cold but because it felt comforting.

But mornings are hard for me.

blue green clothespins

I persevered valiantly, for as long as I could. But connecting with God felt nearly impossible in those dark early morning moments. I would pray and then forget what I’d just prayed. I’d keep praying but feel that my prayers were scattered, that they needed to follow a more sensible line of thought. I found myself praying and then feeling I’d gotten off track with some tangent (although still prayer) and then try to circle back to the original topic. Sometimes, I just wanted to cry about my seeming  lack of ability to meet with the Lord. I ended those times not feeling fortified for the day but feeling discouraged at having wandered and rambled for 45 minutes. The blanket would slide off my slumped shoulders as I stood up from the table feeling discouraged and alone.

Often, my struggle with a frequently-present sense of defeat, failure, and guilt looms largest in the early morning. And trying to meet with Jesus at that time of day felt like one more failure. Mornings didn’t feel difficult because of the needs of my house or my children or even lack of sleep–the boys have slept through the night for many years now. They felt (and feel) difficult because I often wake up with a vague but genuine sense that I just might (or will probably?) ruin whatever is in front of me:  parenting, teaching, walking with Jesus. {I’m working on this with my spiritual director, by the way.}

Instead of starting my days in the embrace of my Father, I felt instead I started them feeling alone even though I reached out to find Jesus.

And I always felt I was to blame for that.

So I stopped those early morning times with Jesus. I’d still pray as I got breakfast or made the bed, asking Jesus to live His life through me; and the boys and I have a morning time together before we start lessons in which we sing, pray, read verses.

I just couldn’t let time set aside to connect with Jesus be another source of defeat–perceived or real.

So, I would carve out time at night–I’m a night person, after all–or in the early afternoon while the boys had their own “down time.” That worked.

Calvin eating from a bowl

But I want to try again with mornings. I desire to start the day in intimate fellowship with the Savior. I want to take this step of faith–and it’s scarier than you might imagine–believing that the Lord’s victory is for me even when I feel weighed down at the start of another new day.

It’s scary because I don’t want to risk feeling disconnected from the Lord. It’s scary because I don’t want to risk hearing the Enemy’s lies so loudly in the early morning–when I’m at my weakest and most vulnerable–that tell me God just might need to reject me.

So…I came up with a plan. Not a formal check list of must-do items in order to declare I’ve completed a “quiet time.” But a step-by-step guide to help me, to remind me–as I see it in writing–that I AM doing what I need to do to make myself available to engage with my Lord. The real me meeting with the real Jesus. 

I’ve even been so specific as to write down a few short prayers to start the time, just words that express my heart and my needs in something a friend calls a “breath prayer.” Which I suppose means the words we breathe out as prayers…

I found a Bible reading plan to start fresh next Monday morning–a plan to read through the Bible chronologically. I’m looking forward to viewing Scripture through fresh eyes.

This could very well be the most titanic step of faith I’ll take the entire school year. It makes me cry to think of it even now. Not because I’ll need to go to bed earlier so I can wake up earlier, but because I hate the idea of feeling even more defeated by 7 AM because I set out to meet with Jesus and ended up squandering it by…well, by just being me.

The Enemy’s lies are so targeted, aren’t they? So tailor-made to poke hardest at our weak spots.

Recently, my best friend Lynn and I talked about Isaiah 40:31–but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

I shared with Lynn that I feel I’m in a perpetual state of walking and not fainting, that I don’t know if I’ll ever see a time again when I mount up with wings like an eagle. Or run and not grow weary. I know there’s no shame in walking instead of running or soaring. I know I can still obey even if I’m “just” walking.

Know what she told me?

Walking without fainting is not settling. Walking without fainting is still moving forward. It’s still obeying; it’s still following God. It’s still moving in the right direction. 

So, when we start a new school season next Monday morning, my plan is to walk to the kitchen table, to bring my whole self to meet with Jesus, and then to walk with Him throughout the day. Moving in the right direction. 

 

 

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I’ve Been Hurt by Christians, and I Still Follow Christ.

When I served in Romania after college, I felt at times that my year had been sacrificed for some leader’s ministry goal. I wouldn’t trade that season of life for anything. Yet two different women expressed to me–at two separate times–that they wouldn’t have placed me on that team had they been part of that decision, a team of two American men, one Romanian woman, and me.

brown eggs in nest

I didn’t expect to have an easy year, but I did feel that what was best for me as a person was secondary to some strategic plan for expanding campus ministry. I’d trusted those leaders, and–although that year shaped me for the rest of my life–I’d been hurt.

The year before I’d gone to Romania, I’d spent the summer in another eastern European country on a summer mission with Cru. A few days after arriving, the director announced he’d be leading a sort of “theology club” during our six weeks. We’d read and discuss a book together, but he’d brought only a certain number of books. For those interested in participating, we would sign up to join the book club and to receive a copy of the book–strictly first come, first served.

I added my name to the list in order to reserve a book. Later, when the director brought out the books after a meeting, those who’d requested a book went to retrieve their copies. A few minutes later, I walked up to the table where the leader stood. While he talked with a few students, I looked into the book box–only to find it empty.

Hmm… I thought. There were X number of books, and I was one of X number of people. By that time, Mr. Director noticed I’d come to pick up my book, only to find none left.

I was confused. “Oh, sorry, Allison; I guess they’re all gone,” Mr. Director said. To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t question the group about who’d picked up a book without having requested it. He didn’t do a re-count of the books that had been claimed, to see if there were actually X number to begin with. He also never offered any solutions–making copies of the chapters we’d discuss, for example.

Once he informed me there weren’t any books remaining, Mr. Director walked away. I assumed he considered the matter closed. I borrowed my roommate’s copy when she didn’t need to use it, so I could read and prepare for the book club.

Later, near the end of our time overseas, I’d been asked one morning to find one of the other students. I asked around, couldn’t locate that person, and then went into the large meeting room where the director led a group of European high school and college students in a conversational English class.

I’d tried to sneak quietly in the back and began scanning the room for the person in question. All summer, as various leaders on our mission project had taught this class, the American students might stay for part of it; some would remain for the entire session. Others would go in and out. The environment seemed casual, so, when I went into class that morning–when it had already begun–I didn’t imagine I was doing anything different than had been done all summer. I didn’t imagine I was being disruptive, either.

Then, Mr. Director spotted me. “Everybody, this person who just came in…this is Allison. See Allison, everybody?” He waited for the group of 40 or 50 people to turn around in their chairs and take note of me. He continued, “I’m punishing her a bit because she came in and interrupted our class. Hi, Allison!”

Stunned. Embarrassed. Humiliated. I gave a half wave to the staring audience and then slunk out of the room.

For the next few days, I wrestled with what to do. Then the time arrived for my team to return to the States. At the end of our final night, I approached Mr. Director. I wanted to apologize for causing an interruption and to talk about how confusing it was that he’d shamed me that way to the class. I’d never known the expectation was that nobody enter the room after class had begun.

So, working up my courage, I drew him aside (no small feat) and told him I wanted to ask his forgiveness. After I’d gotten that out–and was working up the nerve to deal with the rest of it–he brusquely said, “Oh, don’t worry about it!” and walked away.

That situation never fully got resolved, at least not for me, although I feel content with having done the best I could. Sometimes, though, the Enemy of our souls uses this old story to reinforce his lies about my worth.

Maybe you’ve been hurt by Christians, even those in leadership, in far worse ways than I’ve described here. And maybe that’s caused you to turn away from following Jesus Christ, to abandon Him because in some ways His people abandoned you.

If so, I hurt alongside you. Maybe there’s no way to get resolution on what happened. And maybe forgiveness seems impossible. I’d like to ask you a favor, though:  Will you, for a moment, set aside the wounds other Christians have inflicted and consider again the heart of the Savior?

When Jesus asked His disciples if they also wanted to leave him–as others had done–Peter answered, in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life.”

I believe He still holds the words of life, and, in our hurt, He longs to speak life to us. Bruised and weary brother or sister, may I encourage you to listen to his life-giving words today?

 

My Back Yard Conversation with God

This time, I knew I couldn’t revive it. There would be no rescue, no starting over.

On Sunday, I threw out my sourdough starter–the one I created from scratch, the one birthed in November of 2013, the one that took me 3 tries to get right. The one I’d envisioned possibly even outliving me. Did you know about this 160-year-old yeast in San Francisco? 

When we moved out of our old house in June of 2015, I drove with the sourdough starter in a bowl in my lap over to the home of friends where we camped out for a couple of weeks. Then when we moved from there into a trailer in a 55+ community (belonging to the parents of a friend) for 10 days, I transported that starter the same way.

We finally moved into our new-to-us house in August of 2015, and I tenderly traveled with the starter one more time with it nestled in my lap. I have cultivated and nurtured this starter, of flour and water and “wild” yeast that has risen more loaves of bread over these almost-5 years than I could possibly count.

Last summer, I brought it with us to Colorado. It survived the trip out west fine, but on the way back home, it didn’t fare so well. Perhaps it got too warm, or maybe I didn’t feed it enough during those several days on the road.

The starter had been ailing since last August. Many times, I wondered if it had reached the end of the road, this living, bubbling kitchen pet. But I would scrape away the parts that looked unhealthy and put the remainder into a fresh bowl, feeding and watering it with great attention.

On Sunday, though, as I pulled the bowl of sourdough starter out from under the bag where I had it covered on the kitchen counter, I realized it was too far gone. There was truly nothing left to salvage.

branches

Carrying the bowl, I quietly went outside and sat down on the little square of concrete by our back door. I set the bowl in front of me and just looked at it, aiming to dump the contents in the compost (eventually). But I needed to sit for a minute. To grieve, I guess.

Something I’d nourished and built, given time and attention to, created with my own two hands, had come to ruin. I figured the moment called for prayer.

Sitting on the cement, listening to our air conditioner whir, I thanked God:  for all the bread I’d made for my family from this starter, for how many years I’d gotten use from it. I told Him I remembered–and was still trusting–that He’s still good and in control, that He nourishes and nurtures me with time and attention.

I keep a scrap of paper scrawled with the words Whatever comes, I will praise the Lord on a kitchen cabinet door. And I will praise Him, even when something good dies.

Long ago, I heard a pastor teach about trusting God when circumstances don’t make sense. Trusting God in the darkness, I believe he called it. And he said sometimes the darkness just looks like not being able to find your car keys when you really need them.

I thought about that darkness when I scraped my sourdough starter into the compost on Sunday. But thanking and praising God helped bring in a little light.

Psalm 147:1 “Praise the LORD. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!”

 

When Shoes are the Way to My Heart

As my new friends and I stepped into the subway car, I felt almost dizzy from our afternoon of drinking in the fashion, style, and funky-ness of New York City. On this afternoon off–early in our summer of inner-city ministry as college students–we’d browsed through upscale retro clothing stores I’d only ever seen in the pages of Seventeen magazine.

I hadn’t bought anything on that excursion, but I remember thinking that I wanted to go back and pick up something. Some item that would impart to me the sense of funky flair that breathed NEW YORK CITY.

Then I saw the little girl sprawled across her mother’s lap on one of the subway seats. Both of them looked exhausted, but what I noticed more were the girl’s shoes:  white patent leather dressy shoes with little buckles and big black scuff marks. I wondered how much her little feet must hurt, how many blisters she must have, especially since she wasn’t wearing socks.

My temporary materialistic insanity wafted right out the open subway door. My daydreams of a cool old-but-new outfit from a cool Manhattan shop seemed inconsequential in the face of…well, real life. Real, hard-working, struggling people and their real, exhausted children with sore feet.

It was the shoes. They got to me.

They aren’t the only shoes that have gotten to me.

The boys and I study 6 artists each school year, and this year we studied works by Rembrandt (among others). One of his pieces we appreciated was The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

Rembrandt_Prodigal-medium
The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. From the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University.

We also study 6 composers each year (although last year we studied hymns), and one of those has been Tchaikovsky. In May, we attended a performance of Swan Lake, a ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. At the church where we saw this ballet, we noticed a giant print of Rembrandt’s prodigal son rendition hanging on a wall.

This all probably makes us sound more cultured than we are. We occasionally reprimand our boys about fart jokes at the dinner table, and when they ask permission to wear flip-flops to church, I respond, “Sure! As long as your toenails are clean!”

So…the shoes. Shabby, broken-down, used up. I weep even now when I look at them. Broken-down shoes reflective of this broken-down soul. 

Because I feel broken, stumbling my way toward Jesus, limping along, leaning heavily on what John Piper would call “the cross-shaped crutch of Christ.” 

One of our pastors preached on the story of the prodigal son (from Luke 15) this past Sunday. The image of Rembrandt’s kneeling prodigal came to mind as I listened…the self-indulgent wild child who’d essentially declared he wished his father dead so he could obtain the inheritance early. The father, though, who put together the portion of this son’s inheritance and released him to go and squander his wealth…he was the one who then abandoned decorum and ran–ran–to greet the returning son.

He threw his arms around his son, and he kissed him. Before there was repentance or any apology, the father kissed the son. The son who shuffled and stumbled home in rags and shambles met the love of his father in the arms of his father. Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners. 

A few years ago, we studied the artist James Tissot. He also produced a rendering of the prodigal son’s return.

james tissot return of the prodigal son
The Return of the Prodigal Son, James Tissot. In the public domain.

Tissot depicts the father leaning and reaching and moving toward the wayward son. The villagers may scoff and tsk tsk, but there’s the father, welcoming him home. And the Father welcomes us.

Oh, how I cry in church these days. How can I not? Empty, needy, clinging to the solid rock of Christ for dear life, I show up to be with the Lord but have nothing to offer. No words, hardly any focus or attention. I kneel by the bed at home to pray then stand up and pace the room.

Yet He still welcomes, reaches, and gives the kiss. Right now, I can’t do much more than receive. And He has so much to give.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Little Risk Brings Sweet Reward

A certain Ukrainian proverb goes something like this:  He who doesn’t risk, doesn’t drink champagne. In English, we’d probably say Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Either way, the point seems clear…If we take no risks, we’ll have no reason to celebrate.

champagne

Which is why I listed Write + submit, submit, submit! as one of my 2018 goals. Every time I offer something I’ve written for publication–whether for a paying market or not–I’m risking rejection. I recently started some additional work with Cru, and it involves writing (and being edited by other people). I’m still rounding the learning curve in both these new roles, so I make mistakes. Of course. 

I took a risk in raising my hand to volunteer for this ministry work, just as I take a risk in submitting my writing.

The risk pays off, even if only in experience gained. But sometimes the risk results in other gains, too.

mug and magazine

Woman’s World magazine published a little blurb I wrote in their “Circle of Kindness” feature; you can read it in the June 11 issue (see it up there?). I’ve often written stories about kindness, and this one tells of a good deed performed as a service to me. I’ve sent at least 7 stories to the “Circle of Kindness” feature; now I get to see one of them in print.

The other little present in the photo? A gift from the Distinguished Young Women of Mobile County scholarship program I judged (along with 4 other individuals) this past weekend in Alabama.

As a high school student, I competed in this program (called Young Woman of the Year back then) and earned enough to pay for 2 semesters of college. I’ve judged programs in Florida and Georgia and invested thousands of hours volunteering for this program over many years in Florida. Although I no longer serve any particular program, I always appreciate an opportunity to judge.

There was a bit of risk involved with this, too. Months ago, feeling that I needed to unearth more outlets for myself (apart from serving my family and serving with Cru), I contacted a volunteer with the Distinguished Young Women program in my hometown. I asked her if she would mention me as a potential judge if she interacted with volunteers from other programs in need of judges (so far I haven’t been able to judge in my hometown).

That request could have come to naught, but she did pass my name along, and, in March, I received a phone call asking me to judge in early June this year. If you’re reading this Ms. Audra, thank you! 

If we take steps of faith in obedience to God’s leading, that’s the victory. Obedience in itself is a blessing. This weekend, God heaped on a few extra blessings, too. Now I’m off to celebrate–not with champagne but with herbal tea in my new Distinguished Young Women mug.

Cheers!

 

 

Raising Money as an Act of Faith

Mike and I are currently, as we say, in a season of raising support. This means we (mostly Mike at this point) contact people we either know or who have been referred to us by current ministry partners, asking them to contribute to our ministry. “Ministry partners” are those who commit to pray and to give financially to our mission work with Cru. To continue as full-time missionaries, we must not only have a consistent amount of incoming financial support; we also need to increase the amount of monthly giving we currently receive.

Almost 5 years ago, we lowered our salary due to a shortfall in the donations we were receiving. That decision kept our Cru staff account in a healthy range, but we now earned less money than we did prior to having children. But God sustained us, as He does. And since last October, we’ve seen significant amounts of new financial support committed. Mike has worked consistently on our ministry partner development, pursuing new supporters and increases in monthly giving.

Just this month, we are bumping our salary back up! I have not felt deprived during this season, and transforming into a one-car family over 6 years ago definitely reduced our expenses.

black and white calendar

So we’re thankful. Thankful, sure, for extra salary as a missionary family. And thankful for how the Lord constantly provides.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to raise money for your salary by asking others to contribute? Not just for a week-long mission trip or a summer of serving others, but for decades?

In a nutshell, it’s a wild ride demanding we act on our faith. After I returned from Romania as a 23-year old, I didn’t anticipate continuing to serve with Cru–at least, not for the foreseeable future. I looked for a job at the end of 1997 and early 1998, without the help of the Internet. I substitute taught; I worked for 2 weeks at a children’s science museum in Alabama. (That’s a whole ‘nother story.) Then I decided to return to full-time ministry; I wanted to invest my  life, and Cru was what I knew.

After completing a summer of staff training, I got back on the support-raising trail. I’d had to raise funds to cover my year of ministry in Romania, but that goal was short-term (just one year) and much lower. Now, I needed to ask people to commit indefinitely to joining my ministry partner team. This was much more difficult.

But it happened quickly, within just a few months. Then I reported to my ministry assignment at Mississippi State University. I had actually exceeded my monthly goal by $50.

It lasted only a brief time, though. Within a few months, I had lost a big portion of my support. One individual, who’d committed $60 in monthly giving, donated one month–then nothing. When I called to check with him, he replied that he didn’t realize the extent of the financial commitment he’d made and could no longer give.

red phone

Another family, who’d offered to give $90 each month, contributed one month. I contacted them, too, to be sure they had the necessary paperwork–only to hear the husband declare, “We’re doing the best we can!” and then hang up the phone.

Yet another couple, for whom I’d worked briefly during high school, committed to a $50 per month donation. They gave one month, skipped the next, then gave one more month. I remember contacting them about whether they wanted to continue, but I don’t remember the conversation. They didn’t make any more donations.

A different couple committed an amount that finished my monthly goal–and they gave it in a large lump sum to cover the entire year. “Come back and see us next year,” they said. I called them when I returned to my hometown a year later, and they informed me they’d decided to give toward other needs instead. That dropped me down another $72 per month.

There were others, too, who gave a bit, then stopped within a few months. Or who told me later that they’d only intended to commit for a year. Within one year of reporting to my assignment–by the fall of 1999–I began receiving short paychecks. I had my bottom wisdom teeth extracted at the end of 1999 (the only time I’ve been under anesthesia), and hadn’t even come close to reaching my insurance deductible. That $900 expense cut into savings at the same time I was receiving 2-digit paychecks.

During the spring of 2000, I remember getting a $24 paycheck and discovered I had $19 in my Cru staff account. I’d paid off my used car, didn’t have school loans, and had few expenses. Still, I dragged my wet laundry back from the washing machines in the apartment complex, draping it over kitchen chairs and open cabinet doors to dry. I saved several dollars a month that way.

laundry between buildings.jpg

Eighteen years later, I continue to serve with Cru. How did I come back from all that? I raised support. And raised more support, and raised more support. And as I stepped out in faith to do the work God had given me to do, He was faithful to provide.

I pray that God will make me as faithful to Him as He is to me. 

Our Frugal Fast From Netflix

In January, I persuaded my husband to commit to a Netflix fast for one month:  from January 13 to February 13. Our subscription payment came due on the 13th of each month, which determined the dates of our fast.

We don’t have cable/satellite/dish and haven’t since 2004. If I had my preference, we wouldn’t own a TV. But since we do (and I don’t think it’s all bad), I want us to consider how we use it–and how much money we spend on it.

black and white 2 boys in flowers

Our family possesses one TV–only one–and we’ve never had a TV in our bedroom, save for a few weeks during our first year of marriage, before we sold a small extra TV Mike owned when we got married. We limit screen time for the boys; they have a budget of 4 half-hour shows from which they can choose during the week.

Most weekends, they watch no TV–and they don’t own or use tablets, iPads, cell phones, or the like. Although Woodrow has learned to use my phone to take photos, mostly of the fish he and Garfield catch…Once in a while, we allow them an extra half-hour show on a weekend afternoon. Or even a movie, such as the one we watched on Mother’s Day evening.

We have an Amazon Prime membership, and with that comes access to Prime Video:  movies and TV shows we can watch at no extra charge. During our Netflix fast–which, incidentally, stretched from one month to a total of 4–the boys used Prime Video to view Popular Mechanics for KidsWild Kratts, and Thunderbirds Are Go. And the Mother’s Day movie? The Nut Job, also accessed via Prime Video.

board cinema

As we neared February 13, and the end of our one-month Netflix fast, we easily decided to extend it for another month. Then another, and another. May 13 approached, and I understood that my husband hadn’t committed to an indefinite departure from Netflix. So, that day, Mike reinstated our membership (for streaming videos only, the only Netflix subscription we’ve had).

For those 4 months without this service, we saved over $40 in a painless way. And I have to say, I didn’t miss the extra TV options. It actually felt freeing. A couple of times during this season, Mike and I found a movie on Hoopla (a free service provided by our library for e-books, audio books, movies, and TV shows). This gave us extra entertainment choices, all for free.

colorful guitars

Entertainment deserves a category in our budget, but a small (and sparsely funded) one, I think. For now–this month, at least–Netflix gets a spot in that budget. While we have it, we’ll enjoy it. Going without it for a time makes us more appreciative of it now. Just yesterday, the boys (gratefully) watched an episode of Magic School Bus that they’ve gone without for months.

Have you embarked on a “frugal fast” from anything in particular lately? Did you save for a special goal–or simply to spend less on luxuries?