Friday, April 12, 2019

Lack {Five-Minute Friday}

Lack and I are no strangers. Most mornings I wake up knowing my lack of strength  and competency to meet the demands of the day. To get out of bed is to count on the manna showing up one more morning.

Yet in my emptiness the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ dwells. The cracks in my earthen vessel are the places His glorious light shines out to the watching world.

The Japanese make precious art from cracked clay pots like me by repairing them, not with Superglue, but with gold. Kintsugi, they call it. This strikes me as gospel imagery. The Lord Jesus Christ enters our brokenness and makes it a beautiful display of His grace. He transforms our lack into something infinitely more beautiful than mere competence. His glory is better displayed in our weakness than our strength. His provision for my lack comes like an arrow pointing back towards Himself.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth likes to say that anything that makes us desperate for God is a blessing. Today, Lord, I praise you for the blessing of lack.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Brainstorming {A Poem}

Moose Tracks, February 2019

A misnomer, perhaps,
For something less like storming a castle,
More like splashing in a puddle,
Finding pictures in the clouds,
Wandering through an unfamiliar garden,
As surprised as anyone
At what lies around the next bend.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Flourish {Book Review}

“Does it spark joy?”

This question seems to be everywhere lately, thanks to organizing maven Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix series. We could perhaps rephrase it, “Does it help me flourish?”

Flourish—The OED defines it this way:
(of a living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment

Lydia Brownback’s new book Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus seeks to help readers grow in Christ in a healthy or vigorous way. She does not look to the state of our junk drawers and closets for this, however. She asserts that the biggest obstacle to our flourishing is self.

We want to see how wrong teaching about God can give us wrong ideas about God and how these wrong ideas keep us from flourishing (12).
Any teaching that sets self-love as the highest good is false teaching, and we are susceptible to it because it appeals to that deep yearning for affirmation we feel at our very core. That’s why it hooks us. It just feels so right. And there is an inescapable link between self-love and self-focus. Self-love and self-focus are really just flipsides of the same coin. They always go together. That’s why self-love, the sort that the apostle was writing about, directs our energies, thoughts, plans, choices—and even our theology—inward, making ourselves the center of all things (13).

This challenging book considers six manifestations of self-focus, and I expect that readers will find that at least one of them resonates (more than one for readers like me). The chapters discuss the traps of self-consciousness, self-improvement, self-analysis, self-indulgence, self-condemnation, and self-victimization. Some of those labels are fairly self-explanatory (see what I did there?), whereas a couple may seem less obvious. A substantial discussion guide appended to the end of the text provides guidance through relevant Bible texts for each subject and invites the reader’s personal application of the ideas.

On self-consciousness, Brownback writes:

Whatever the issue—our appearance, our family, our home, our kids—we quench the joy of our faith and mar our witness of Christ if we live self-conscious lives. It seems counterintuitive, but happiness comes not from being thought well of but by thinking less of ourselves altogether(20). 
It is trust in the Lord that frees us from the snare of self-consciousness. If we shift our gaze away from ourselves and up to the Lord, we find that he is trustworthy and faithful to be all he has promised to be and to do all he has promised to do. 
Something amazing happens as our trust grows: our thoughts are a lot less self-oriented, and there’s new joy in living. We taste the freedom that comes from living under the gaze of One. He loves us, and we have nothing to prove because Christ proved everything for us (25).

She contrasts the bondage of self-improvement with the freedom of true Christian transformation:

The way out of the bondage of self-improvement is to recognize that in Christ, there is none of that old self left to improve. We can simply let go of all that. This is what it means to “die to self.” It’s not about fixing our bad habits; it’s letting go of everything about ourselves—the good, the beautiful, the bad, and the ugly—and cooperating with God’s Spirit as he begins the lifelong process of making us resemble Christ himself.
How about those bad habits we want to change? Frustration will be replaced with peace and joy when we begin to live out of our changed status. We went with Christ into his death, but then we were raised with him from the dead, which gives us a whole new reality from which to frame our goals (39).

Regarding self-analysis, she addresses the compulsion to “take our emotional temperature all the time” and the restlessness of constantly adjusting our circumstances to manipulate our feelings into something like happiness. She writes, “Self-analysis is good and right when we do it under the light of Scripture. It’s destructive and sinful when the aim of all that internal rooting around is merely personal happiness” (51). Again, “A life curved inward, analyzing and evaluating every mood change and desire, is a stunted, joyless life” (55).

The chapter on self-indulgence may be the most counter-cultural for American readers. She tries to trace the fine line between necessary and restorative self-care and pleasant but potentially selfish self-indulgence. She challenges readers to observe their attitudes when a particular treat is denied them, whether that be chocolate or a favorite beverage or “me time” or a vacation. She does not pull punches in tackling the idea that a vacation is a fundamental right or need. (She does not oppose embracing travel opportunities or making family memories through time away from home. The point is whether that truly falls into the need category.) Further, she asserts that love of comfort, expressed through whatever one’s pet indulgence is, can be an idol. Like all idols, in looking to it for life we find captivity or worse, but for the grace of God. She writes, “Our comforts become a prison of our own making…. We need to keep in mind that our particular indulgence isn’t the idol; comfort is. Indulging is merely the way we worship the comfort god” (68-69).

The self-condemnation chapter also resonated with (i.e., convicted), this oldest-child perfectionist. Counterintuitively, perhaps, Brownbeck writes, “Scripture is where we learn that failing to reach personal goals isn’t necessarily sinful, but having a perfectionist spirit that demands it is” (76). Stop a moment and reread that. I’ll wait.

She shines the light of the gospel of Christ on the tendency to obsess over faults and failures, real and imagined:

Whether our struggle concerns real sin or the personal failures we define as sin, self-condemnation inhibits us from finding comfort in the gospel. Instead we berate ourselves and become critical and judgmental, not only toward ourselves but toward others too. Such misery is caused not primarily by anything we are doing or failing to do but by our inward curve.
Past sins can dominate our thoughts as we rehearse over and over what we did or said and the hurt we caused. Allowing such thoughts to dominate inhibits us from comprehending how thoroughly the gospel deals with sin and guilt. If we’d only look away from that—away from ourselves altogether—and direct our gaze to Christ in his Word, we’d see that Christ’s sacrifice trumps our sin in every respect. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for any sin of his. He took on himself our sin—yours and mine—and bore the guilt of it so we don’t have to. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Quite frankly, if God has forgiven us, who are we to condemn ourselves? Christ died for all the sin—past, present, and future—of those who are united to him by faith(75-76).

That chapter also spends some paragraphs on discernment of whether a choice on a debatable matter is sin, looking less at the action than at the motive, and on the popular notion of self-forgiveness.

The final chapter considers ways in which self-victimization can curve a life inward and subtly deny the gospel. Gently, Brownbeck cautions against finding one’s core identity as a victim of past abuse to the neglect of the present/future riches of identity in Christ; using “victim” in place of “sin;” and believing that wounded (traumatized) people can’t live effectively now until dealing exhaustively with their past.

She does not deny the real trauma and profound wounds that too many have experienced in this broken world. She does, however, lift the reader’s eyes toward Jesus as the ultimate victim and our example in how to respond to being victimized ourselves:

Grasping the magnitude of sin—both ours and others’—is vital to getting unstuck from past trauma and flourishing as disciples. One way to strengthen our understanding of sin is to realize that Jesus himself was a victim of sin, and we are the ones who victimized him. All sin deserves death, and Christ experienced this in full on the cross, but the horrendous death he suffered was for our sin, not his own.
If we miss this, we’re likely to become bitter, angry, depressed, discouraged, or downright hopeless. We can flourish instead when we understand that Jesus “did” victimhood for us. When he was scorned, mocked, and rejected by loved ones, he didn’t grow bitter. When he faced the anguish of the cross, he didn’t sink down in despair. When he grew weary from the endless demands on his time and energy, he didn’t insist on personal space. When he saw people he loved suffer from the sins of others he loved, he didn’t lash out. Instead he prayed. He sought his heavenly Father. He forgave. He healed. He loved. And he grieved (97).
Letting go of a victim identity isn’t to deny what’s happened to us. Victimization is very real, and the scars remain. But they can be just that—scars. Scar tissue is present, but it’s no longer a wound that needs constant attention. We learn to live with it, and often we find that it becomes a testimony to God’s faithfulness. The same can be true of our sin scars. And no matter what we’ve suffered, the best is still to come (98).

In summary, Lydia Brownback’s latest book provides a helpful, biblical mirror to show us where we have the spinach of self-focus in our spiritual teeth. As with Ms. Kondo’s work, this is not a book for those who want to walk away unchanged and unchallenged, but it would make a good guide for those who want to get their eyes off themselves and turn them more fully toward Christ. The discussion guide/homework makes it well-suited to use in a small group setting, especially for a group that has been together long enough to share areas of struggle with honesty and trust.

N.B.: My copy of this book is a complimentary PDF provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest and timely(ish) review. Page numbers are from that edition. Also, the product link is an Amazon affiliate link. Purchases made through that will drop a few virtual coins in my tip jar.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Remember {A Poem}

(Response to Psalms 77 & 78)

Remember,  O my soul,  lest you forget: 
Remember God's promises. 
Remember His works.
In the relentless, protracted unanswered prayers, 
Strengthen weak knees
With the memory of answers in your past. 
When pain strikes your soul with amnesia, 
Remember the victories of others.
Read, and remember:
The forty years of manna,
The water from a rock--
Elijah's widow's flour and oil,
Daniel's bed amid the lions, 
His friends' fourth man in the furnace, 
Peter's angelic locksmith,
Lazarus' vacant tomb.
Remember Corrie's vitamin bottle, 
Darlene's ninety-nine bananas,
The thousand unlikely eucatastrophes
You've heard and read and lived. 
Remember, O my soul, lest you forget; 
Lest you forget, remember. 

The active, conscious remembrance of God's past faithfulness
Fuels your perseverance in present faith.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Progress {A Poem}

Progress is a non-linear process, 
Less a beginner's algebra graph
And more an EKG
Or a polygraph.
When i grow frustrated by this, 
Let me remember:
Why expect anything less or other
From the God who knew
The best route from Egypt to Canaan
Was no straight line?
His object is not efficiency
But transformation, 
So i put one foot in front of the other, 
Eyes on my Savior, 
Letting him catch me when the waves catch my eye,

Trusting progress to the nail-pierced hands.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Word {A Poem}

The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.
Isaiah 50:4 ESV

From the ESV Illuminated Bible: Art Journaling Edition

Your Word: morning light, 
Searching shadows of my heart, 
Scouring source of words.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Recovering REST

The Ebony Dog (2006-2018)

My husband can tell you how much i love words: naming things, nicknaming people, digging into etymology, decoding idioms,... I love it all. When we were in SE Asia, my eyes were drawn to words on signs and in windows even though i couldn’t read them. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve prayerfully sought a theme word for the year since at least 2011.

Often those words have turned out to be the central challenge of the year, like 2014, the year of “refuge,” when i had shoulder surgery followed by 6 solid months of physical therapy and then the unexpected death of my grandmother. I needed the reminder of God my unfailing refuge. 

Or 2018, the year of “love,” when i knew the utter heartbreak of losing my shadow dog abruptly to cancer and later celebrated the joy of a milestone birthday and anniversary for my parents. From one extreme to the other and in everything in between, God’s love was real and true and trustworthy, when i could feel it and when i couldn’t. For most of the year i had to take that by faith in His promises.

For 2019, the word is “rest.” Like 2017 and 2018, this year is already continuing the momentum of a full schedule of medical appointments, family, and puppy training. I don’t always have much control over how much physical rest or whitespace a week holds, although i am very ready to leave things undone in order to grab a nap while Moose Tracks is sleeping. That kind of rest, as welcome as it is, was not my objective in this word’s selection.

At one time in my life, thanks to writers like Hudson Taylor, George Mueller, and Andrew Murray, I had learned to grow in spiritual rest even when all around was busy and active. I had begun to learn to roll my burdens onto the Lord’s shoulders sooner rather than later. That carried me through completing a degree while working full-time, through commuting to seminary while tutoring on nights and weekends and delving into prison ministry, through raising support as missionaries, and through relocating to the other side of the globe.

Somewhere along the line, i started dragging my burdens and those of loved ones myself, asking the Lord for help rather than asking Him to carry the weight Himself. That exponentially amplifies the weariness of a full schedule, and I hear Him calling me back to the old way, the way of trust and rest in His sovereign goodness. He is orchestrating all things for my good and His glory and doing a thousand other things into the bargain. My fretting does nothing to expedite or improve the process.

As Hudson Taylor wrote, “Bear not a single care thyself, one is too much for thee; the work is Mine and Mine alone; thy work—to rest in Me.” In Isaiah’s words,
“For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,
‘In returning & rest you shall be saved;
In quietness & trust shall be your strength” (Is. 30:15).

Jesus, I come. Grant me grace to rest in You and trust You with the many heavy burdens on my heart. Amen.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Changing of the Guard Dog: Introducing Moose Tracks

As regular readers know, the late great Ebony Dog passed away June 1 after a brief illness. We initially thought we would take several months just to grieve and recover from the intensity and trauma of his final week. We reconsidered the timing, in part because this time we knew we needed a dog who would be great with the youngest nephews, who live close enough to see us frequently now. They would have more opportunities to get acquainted with Ebony's successor if we adopted before they went back to school, so we started looking in earnest and going to adoption events.

After one failed foster trial that clarified our non-negotiables, we found a dachshund-terrier mix on Petfinder with a happy face that looked a little like Eb’s. In fact, the facial resemblance is strong enough that Google photo assistant mixes them up on a regular basis. Appearance and appetite are where the resemblance ends, however!

He came to us as Diesel, but now he answers (when he feels like it) to the name of Moose Tracks, like the ice cream. His foster family was amazing and loved him dearly but couldn't adopt him permanently. We have stayed in touch with them, and his foster mom remains his biggest fan.

Moose Tracks (AKA Moosey, Moose, Moose Munch, Special Agent Shredder) is smart, social, silly, sassy, stubborn, and as devoted to Amore as Ebony was to me. He is so smart and curious that he gets bored and invents his own activities if we don’t provide enough stimulation. He is so social that Amore takes him to the dog park on weekends whenever the weather permits, and we are planning doggie daycare days into the routine because he needs and loves them. Ebony was a shy, calm, introverted dog, so there has definitely been a learning curve (which we’re still traveling) as we discover the rhythms and routines that work best for all of us.

Moose Tracks loves walks, training, sunbathing, meeting new people, and barking at the neighbors across the street when they come and go. He has 2 speeds: all out and crashed out. At the moment, he is crashed out, allowing me to put together this many-times-delayed post. (He is not a fan of the glowing screen thingies that pull his humans' attention away from him. Priorities, people!!)

He loves to eat almost anything: mulch, cookies, bully sticks, peanut butter inside a bone, “crunchy water” (ice), sticks, wood shavings, throw rugs, old pillows, stuffed animals, carrots,... He doesn’t like plain lettuce, but that may be the only thing he won’t eat. In fact, he has inspired the Moose Tracks Diet:
if it fits in my mouth, it’s food. If it does not fit in my mouth but I can break it into pieces that fit in my mouth, it’s food. If Mommy says, “No, no, Moose Tracks!! Leave it! Leave it!" It’s definitely food and probably really yummy.

He also has his own tongue twister: How much mulch would a Moose Tracks munch if a Moose Tracks could munch mulch? (The answer is “all of it.”)

Moose Tracks also adores his stuffed animals, but love hurts. I have a toy hospital with a revolving door. He tears one up, I sew it back together, he tears it up again, I repair it again, and so forth until there's not enough left to repair. I wouldn't bother, but he's just too cute when he plays with them, especially when he has a case of the zoomies and sprints around the house squeaking one in his mouth.

Moose has learned quite a few commands in our training sessions: sit, down, stay, come, place, leave it, heel, crate, paw, spin around, roll over, play dead, peekaboo, and drop it. We are working on find it, bring it, floor (when he climbs on something he shouldn't) and head down. He learns very quickly with the proper motivation (food). Heel and leave it are Mr. Curiosity's biggest challenges. Also, he is part billy goat and able to climb on anything he wants. We are still working on those boundaries.

As you can see, Moose tolerates the camera well, and the camera loves him. Today he has been in our family for 6 months. He adds a lot of laughter, makes our Fitbits happy, and challenges our creativity and training skills. We love him a lot! If you come to see us, expect kisses and a welcome waggin'.

Now that we're more settled into our new routine, I will endeavor to post here more consistently in 2019, but I make not promises. Also, I do micro-blog pretty regularly on Instagram: @crumbsfromhistable. Moose has his own feed for the dog people among you: @moosetracksmoore. (Do take what he says with a grain of salt. He is not always the most reliable narrator.)