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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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. 

Re-purposed Soap: From Nothing to Something

The plastic grocery bag of Ivory soap crumbles had lain in the cabinet under our bathroom sink for close to a year. Periodically, I would wonder what I could do with those bits, left over from a Cub Scout soap-carving activity. After the boys of Garfield’s Scout den had practiced on these bars of soap (Ivory is evidently best for soap-carving), they were more prepared to earn their Whittling Chip, which would afford them the privilege of owning and carrying a pocket knife.

And I was afforded the bag of soap flakes and flecks. I wanted them, don’t get me wrong. My frugal, use-it-up, reduce/reuse/recycle bent wanted to rise to the challenge of re-purposing the remains of the soap bars. But I was at a loss.

soap bubble

Finally, I did what all wannabe crafters do when seeking helpful household hints:  I searched on Pinterest. And I discovered this post, which details the process of transforming soap scraps into “new” soap.

The steps are easy to follow, plus the soap was already mostly grated. It didn’t take much elbow grease to get the pieces melded together and deposited into a muffin tin to “set”:

soap scraps in tin

There’s another soap carving planned for another den of Scouts this spring, which my husband will lead. I hope to be the recipient of those leftovers, because I’d like to try this once again. Next time, I might add a little more water when mixing the scraps. Incidentally, if you wonder about germs on the soap, the crumbles get microwaved on high with a small amount of water to make them easier to squish into new bars. I figure the heat killed any lingering baddies.

Here’s the end result, after a few days of setting:  4″muffins” of soap. Although they look more crumbly than I expected, they hold together better than they might appear.

soap on a plate

One “new” cake of soap has already been used in the shower:  so far, so good. They aren’t pretty enough to give as gifts, I suppose, but I think of these soaps as gifts even so. Go with me here…

As a follower of Jesus and His Word, I believe God the Creator spoke the whole universe into existence. There was nothing–and then there was something. Lots of something. He formed this world for His glory, and we get to enjoy it, too. It all belongs to Him, and He graciously allows us to delight in it.

God made something out of nothing and then gave it to us as a gift. These soap crumbs seemed like nothing, and a different Cub Scout leader might have tossed them in the trash (not the Lees!). To be able to form something useful and purposeful out of seemingly nothing feels like a gift to me. And it connects me more with the heart of our Creator and Savior.

 

Grace and Truth at the Soccer Field

I pulled the back of my t-shirt higher up my neck, hoping to prevent sunburn as I faced away from the sun. We were at our first soccer game of the day; Garfield’s team–coached by Mike–had so far held the opposing team to zero. But they faced a tough challenge.

Our boys have always played with the YMCA, which emphasizes participation and learning over competition. Our boys love to win, of course. Mike and I love that we don’t have to travel out of town for games.

This past Saturday, the family members of both teams set up our chairs and water bottles on the same side of the field. Nobody wanted to face into the sun. Our cheering for our own children’s teams got all jumbled together. That is, except for the two teen girls (big sisters of the players, perhaps) who evidently had experience playing soccer and loudly commented on the strategy of Garfield’s team. To each other, to parents of that team. Not only was their knowledge of the sport evident, their low opinion of the Lions’ strategy was evident, too.

mic on stand

As the two girls commented freely on “the coach’s strategy” while critiquing the team against which their little brothers played, one of them yelled, “The stupid coach keeps telling them to kick the ball out.” Loudly. Loudly enough that, sitting 8 or 10 people down the line from her, I heard it.

Stupid coach? 

My heart started to thud, and I wondered if I should talk to her after the game. I wondered if I wanted to, if it were the right and appropriate thing to do.

In the meantime, I cheered my heart out for those 2nd and 3rd grade Lions. They lost, and I kept cheering for them as they came off the field. As I cheered, I’d also been formulating a rough draft of what I might say to the teenager who’d screamed out the “stupid coach” comment.

red and white crane

I considered how I might approach her and be honest while remaining calm. Standing my ground and holding her accountable while also being gentle and respectful. In other words, speaking the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

I felt my hands shake a bit as I stuffed our chairs into their pouches. Many of the fans had left at this point. But not the 2 teen girls. I walked over to them, asking the brunette if I could speak to her for just a minute.

Me? she asked. I nodded, smiled, told her my name.

Then, anticipating she might accuse me of simply being upset that my son’s team had lost, I started out this way:  I know every game has to have a winner and a loser. I’m so proud of our team and how they played, even though they lost. (Voice is quavering a bit, because it’s so important to me to get this right. Not to blow it by letting emotion take the reins.)

But…I continued…I heard you yell out “stupid coach.” Like most coaches, my husband volunteers his time to come out to practice, to attend the games. I’m not an expert on soccer, and you are free to have whatever opinions you want to have about our team and our coach. But I don’t think what you showed is the spirit we want to show to the players on the field. It’s taking it too far, in my opinion.

When I read Peaceful Parenting in January, I noted that the author recommends always endeavoring to speak in a calm voice, even when upset, because it helps everybody to remain calm. I put that into practice, very intentionally, in speaking with this girl at the field.

woman with glasses

She stayed quiet, looking at me with an expression that broadcast “I’m embarrassed but trying very hard not to show it, because I must look cool at all times.” I’m sure I wore that look as a teen many times.

I finished with this:  I know I said inappropriate things as a teenager, and I’m thankful for the times people called me out on it–because it taught me that words have consequences  (I’d really planned ahead to use that phrase). I just think what you said today was taking it too far, in my opinion.

With eyebrow cocked, she said OK, and I smiled and nodded and returned to my family and our mountain of stuff to load in the van.

I felt victorious for the rest of the day. Hard things are worthy things, I read in a book called The Homeschooling Housewife. I didn’t shirk a hard task, and I showed restraint. I endeavored to confront (in a non-confrontational way) with grace. To speak the truth in love.