Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Suitcase

If I had to choose an ornament from my tree to represent 2014, I suppose I would choose this one. A suitcase. Which is ironic because one of the things I hate most in life is packing a bag. I love to travel. I hate to pack. I put it off to the very last minute, and it is about the only time EVER that I actually resort to whining. But I'm learning to accept packing and suitcases as a regular part of life these days. 

In 2014 I:
  • crossed the Atlantic 6 times
  • took over 20 trains
  • set foot in 4 countries
Compared to those who travel for business, my miles are fairly conservative. But compared to my life ten years ago, where I rarely left Spokane, my miles are significant. I can't even count the number of times I've packed my suitcase, as the above numbers don't take road trips into account. But I do know that there were only three months out of the year (Feb, Mar, Jul) that I didn't use my suitcase, and there were many months (May, Jun, Aug, Oct, Nov) when I used it multiple times. 

And mostly I like the activity. I love the things that I get to do, the ministies with which I am involved, and the people I get to meet and serve. It all comes at a lovely season in life, as my boys are becoming more independent and I have been able to begin seminary and make greater investments outside of the home. The travel itself can be exhausting, but the reasons for the travel are extremely After four and half years in France, I am finally finding my sweet spot. 

The Lord gave me the word, "fly" for 2014, and apparently it had both literal and figurative meaning. Being married to a pilot, I have many tiny airplanes hanging on my tree. So why did I choose the suitcase instead of un avion? I think it's because the flights represent the changes and transitions, but the suitcase stays the same. In the suitcase, I have my essentials. No matter where I go, the clothes I bring are pretty much the same. I pack my necessities, and while I don't have much, I always have enough. Seasoned travelers--of which I am becoming one--travel light. They quickly learn that having too much is not an asset, it's a liability. 

This has been a year of learning what is essential. Of clinging tightly to the things that matter, and releasing freely everything else.  

There is already a decent bit of travel on the calendar for 2015, not to mention a move. We will be relocating--still in France--to plant a church in another village. I suppose the suitcase may be a lasting icon for my life. In some ways, I was made to be a vagabond. In other ways, my feet long for a place to root. A nest that feels like home. A place to belong. Suitcase people belong everywhere and nowhere all at once. I need to let my heart find its continual rest in Jesus while my body practices perpetual motion. And I'm learning to lean into the comfort of the few brave souls that God has given me as refuges--they are like spiritual docking stations located around the globe. These people carry me with their prayers, sustain me by their encouragement, and bless me with their love. They know how a kind word spoken at the right moment can traverse any distance. They help me stay connected to my source. 

So as the year draws to a close, and I replay with wonder the joys and the sorrows that have graced 2014, I'm thankful. Thankful for suitcases and docking stations. For meetings and partings. For God's kingdom work around the globe, and the tiny role I get to play in his redemptive drama. 

And now, I kid you not, I need to go pack. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Counting by Subtraction

We count our blessings by addition. That's how it's done.

But I wonder, can we also count our blessings by subtraction? 

Can we look at the things that have been taken from us, and count ourselves blessed? Can we see the grace of God by what he gives AND by what he takes away?

Often when we pass through the valleys of life well-meaning people will tell us to think of those who have it worse. In the beloved movie White Christmas, Bing sings, "When my bankroll is getting small, I think of those who have none at all, and I fall asleep counting my blessings." 

Is this how we are meant to traverse the trials of life? There are two major problems with this approach! First, it reveals a tremendous lack of compassion for those whose struggles are greater than my own. The fact that I have it better than another person is no reason to rejoice! That thought should double my grief, not ease it. Second, this approach fails for the one is at the bottom of the pile. Finally someone has it worse than everyone else. Where is their consolation? I don't think that God ever advocates the comparison technique. It's great to have perspective so that we don't become completely overwhelmed by a hangnail, for example. But we can't grade God's grace on a curve. His grace and love are always 100% for every living being. 

If I start there-- if I begin with the belief that come what may, God is always acting on my behalf with amazing grace and unending love, then I look at my trials through different lenses. In fact, I think we need such lenses--corrective lenses--to see our life and our circumstances more clearly. 

So while 2014 has been a beautiful and blessed year in so many ways, we have also had the privilege of walking a difficult path, where regret threatened to overwhelm us. But the mighty hand of God proved greater and stronger than all our shame.

Many of you know that back when we lived in the States, our house flooded severely. We lost everything on the ground floor of our home and it took more than six months to rebuild and refurnish. Because our house was situated in a 100-year flood plain, and because the house hadn't flooded in 80 years, we figured that we had suffered our one flood for our lifetime. We put great care into every detail of the rebuilding, believing that this would be the home where we would spend the rest of our lives. And then God called us to France. So we rented out our home, believing that keeping it would allow us to continue paying off a mortgage so that when we finally retired we would have a paid-for house. 

But the house flooded again in 2012. By this time we were in France. Renters were left homeless and we were left without renters for another 4 months of renovations, which we managed to negotiate from France because we had enormous help from dear friends in Spokane. 

Once again restored, the house was happily occupied by a young widow and her four children. She loved the house! And we were thrilled to have such a great renter. The only problem was that house needed a new roof. We had saved some towards a new roof, but we were far from having the full sum. Then David's beloved Granny died and left us an inheritance. While it wasn't millions, it was probably the most money we had ever had at our disposal in one lump sum. We thanked God for his provision, and we spent every penny of it on a new roof for our house. That was in October of 2013.

Then, in 2014, the house flooded again. Severely. Twice.

 That made four floods in eight years. Clearly, the "100-year flood plain" designation was no longer accurate. We looked at having the house raised and numerous other options, but in the end, we couldn't find anything that would work.

So we found ourselves with the grave realization that we could not continue to rent out a house that flooded every other year. We could not sell a house that flooded every other year. Nor could we afford the mortgage on a house that flooded every other year when God had called us to be missionaries in France.

We didn't regret buying the house, because there wasn't a single day that I lived in that house that I did not sense God's hand of grace on our lives there. We had many, many happy days in Spangle. But we did regret the fact that we were helpless to repay a loan on a house that was no longer habitable. And we did regret that fact that we had just put a beautiful new roof on an uninhabitable house. And we scratched our heads and wondered how that inheritance--which had seemed like such a blessing at the time, had slipped through our hands into oblivion. 

We did our best to keep up on the mortgage while we explored options, but in the end, the only option that made sense was what the bank called a "Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure." The bank got the house and all of the insurance money for the last two floods, and we walked away without any further mortgage obligations. We couldn't even take the new roof with us. The fig trees failed to blossom....

Yet, I will praise him. 

There is no amazing twist to the end of this story. Sometimes God works a miracle and turns a lousy situation into something great. But sometimes lousy is the end of the story. The story of our house, our retirement plan, our new 30-year roof, ends in loss. 

Yet, I will praise him.

Because his love for me is not revealed through my circumstances. His love for me is revealed despite my circumstances. His care for me is sure. He knows the plan in full, I only see parts. My house is gone. But my feet are sure. Like the feet of a deer. He makes me able to walk on the rocky cliffs.

In fact, I think I finally understand what Paul meant when he wrote, "Whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ." 

The cost of true discipleship is not cheap. Following Jesus costs me everything. I know this. But do I hold my blessings in an open hand? Am I in love with the blessings or the bless-er? And if all the blessings were suddenly gone, would I still praise him? His love for me is unconditional...but is my love for him unconditional? 

Yet, I will praise him.

I will praise him because he saved me. He fills me with joy and he grants me his peace. His love is inexhaustible and his grace is greater than all my sin. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, which means that wherever he leads, I will follow. But if I want to go to the heights with the Lord, I need sure feet and empty hands. And so when the Lord takes something dear from my hands, I can be sure he is taking me to the heights. And I can praise him.

Can you count your blessings by subtraction? When he takes something from your hands can you count the loss among your blessings? What have you lost this year? Yet, will you praise him?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Unlikely Christmas Letter

Advent. The season of anticipation, where we look forward to the coming Christ. It's also a time when many of us look back over the year, reflect and evaluate. As we prepare to write those Christmas letters, we look for highlights and focus on the positive. No one wants to read about hardship and suffering, so we all become spin doctors, putting a shine on the stories we choose to share.

And while I understand the heart behind these glad tidings, while I rejoice that your child is on the honor roll and I'm thrilled that you finally took that long-anticipated vacation, and I'm excited that your remodeling project turned out even better than expected (if not a wee bit over budget), I find myself asking if maybe we are missing something.

Don't get me wrong, I hear (and I share!) your genuine gratitude for the many ways that God has blessed you this year. And there is nothing wrong--in fact there are many things right--with taking time to recognize the hand of God in our lives. We bless God for the good things. As well we should. But have we learned to bless God for the bad things?

Can we appreciate the sovereignty and grace of God in the messy parts of life, and bless him? I wonder what would happen if, in all sincerity, my Christmas Letter read like Habakkuk 3, where the prophet speculates about a season of total and utter disaster. The fig trees don't blossom, there are no grapes on the vine, the olives fail, and the fields produce no crops. To top it all off, there are no sheep in the pens and no cattle in the stalls. Remembering that Habakkuk was speaking to a group of people whose total livelihood was dependent on agriculture, this is a pretty grim picture.

Can you go there? Maybe, in fact, you have been there this year. Maybe everything that you attempted failed. Maybe your child is not on the honor roll, but is struggling to earn passing grades. Maybe you didn't take a vacation--and you can't imagine that you will ever be able to afford one. Maybe remodeling isn't in the picture because you can barely keep up with the mortgage. Add to that the death of a beloved pet, a scary health diagnosis, and a fractured friendship, and we'd be getting close to the what Habakkuk was talking about. In essence, the Christmas Letter in Habakkuk 3 reads like a tragedy in verses 16 and 17. Which is why the following verses are so profound. Habakkuk basically describes a worst-case scenario, and then he says this:

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Why is Habakkuk joyful? Is this that fake Christian "paste a smile on your face and don't let anyone see your pain" sort of rejoicing? Is this some platitude of what "should" be, but something that no one actually experiences? Or does Habakkuk live in the State of Washington, where pot is now legal? The following verse gives even greater depth to what Habakkuk is describing:

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

No, this is not a shallow joy. This is the hard-won joy of a weay traveler. The sovereign Lord--that is to say, the one who allowed all of the crops to fail, the one who had the power to stop my suffering and didn't, the one who may have even ordained such pain for my life--the sovereign Lord is my strength. Have I learned to let the sovereign Lord be my strength? Do I trust the one who brought me TO the hard places to take me THROUGH the hard places?

Here's how I'll know. My feet will be agile, able to tread on the heights. Agile feet don't get bogged down by rough terrain. Agile feet keep moving. Agile feet love to run broad meadows, but they are not detered by steep cliffs. Many of us want to tread on the heights, but we are not willing to scale the mountains. The heights are often discoved through the depths. 

When I finally grasp that, then suffering becomes a welcome friend--an invitation to climb a mountain with the one who will make me sure-footed. 

To be continued...
Later this week, I'll share our Habakkuk 3 experience from 2014.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tending or Sending?

I spent the first half of the week at a conference in Lyon that brings together leaders from 9 different French denominations to work to accelerate the rate of church planting in France. This conference is part of a three-year project, where participants gather every six months for a little teaching and a lot of figuring out how to understand and apply what was taught so that, working together, the National Council of French Evanglicals can reach their goal of tripling the existing number of churches in France. This was the third of six gatherings over the three-year period, and I came away, once again, blessed  and amazed by the work that God is doing here. 

It will take more than one blog to summarize even just the high points! Let me start by telling you about the first speaker, Jeff Fountain. Fountain is the former director of YWAM Europe and the founder of the Schuman Centre for European Studies. He talked about the history of Christianity in Europe and its relationship to the the state of Europe today. Missiologist Lesslie Newbingen says (and Fountain agrees) that the difference between the pre-Christian pagan and the post-Christian pagan can be likened to the difference between a virgin and a divorcee. Europe was fundamentally shaped by the Gospel, and subsequently by its rejection of the Gospel. But Fountain is not discouraged. He sees how these roots of Christianity have benefitted Europe and believes it is time to reclaim those roots!

Fountain talked a lot about "soft powers" and the "powerful minority," harkening back to how Christians in Europe have succeeded in impacting their continent through powers like forgiveness and reconcilliation. The demolition of the Berlin wall in 1989 was the result of some such efforts. He encouraged the church to persist in these efforts, bringing life and truth into the comunities where they are planted. He also reminded us that Church Planting was not the end goal--God's Kingdom coming on earth is the end goal. Church Planting is just one of the means we can use to achieve that goal. In fact, Jesus spoke very little about the Church, and a great deal about the Kingdom of God. Which  one are we pursuing?

Finally, Fountain pointed out that we, the church, tend to prepare people to work in the church and not in the world. Those who are celebrated and considered faithful are the ones building up the church--when really the church is called to be serving the the world, not itself. We train pastors to tend their flocks rather than send their flocks. And we create churches that are ends in themselves. This needs to change.

I'll be reading Fountain's book, Living as People of Hope, over the Christmas break. This man has important things to say to the Church today, particularly to the Church in Europe.