Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Letter to the Exiles

“I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, “plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

exile - /ˈeɡˌzīl,ˈekˌsīl/ noun
1. the state or a period of forced or voluntary absence from one's country or home
2. a person who has been forced to live in a foreign country : a person who is in exile

In my Bible, the chapter heading for Jeremiah 29 is “A Letter to the Exiles.” For most of my life, I have lived in the most powerful and wealthy country in the world. What do I know about living in exile?

Our family moved a lot while I was growing up. By the time I was 21, I had lived in 20 different houses. Some moves were across town to accommodate the needs of my dad’s ministry, to allow more space to hold events. Some moves were across the state to a new job. Some moves were across the country to a new job, a new lifestyle, and a new climate. In most cases, the moves created upheaval that took a while to settle back down. After each major move across the state or country, there was an awkward season of adapting. At first, I felt like a fish out of water, like a stranger among new friends. I didn’t dress like everyone else, I didn’t talk like everyone else, and I did not have the same shared history as everyone else. It was hard. It took time to adjust.

But the experience of exile is deeper. It involves the discomfort of moving, plus more. In most cases, there is the additional burden of having the move forced upon you, then the loss of watching your beloved homeland conquered by your enemies. It means living among a new people who are antagonistic to you and your ways. Exile is the experience of an immigrant who lives in a new land, but with the added oppression of being ruled by your enemy. Exile means you never feel at home and you watch your back.

In ancient Israel, the Babylonians invaded the promised land. The Israelites had been settled there for hundreds of years, from the golden age of King David and King Solomon, through the many kings that followed. They had managed to keep their enemies, such as the Philistines, at bay for all those years. Eventually, the Babylonians rose to power and conquered the people and the land, as God predicted they would when he warned His people to turn back to Him or face these consequences. The Babylonians forced the Israelites into exile, and the city of Jerusalem became a deserted city with broken down walls. Jeremiah lamented what he witnessed. An entire book of the Bible, Lamentations, records how he interacted with God during this tragedy. As they walked away from their ravaged city and encountered the smells and sounds of a new one, what did they think? What did they feel? Did they angrily ask why? Were they ashamed and humiliated? Did they feel guilty, believing they had brought this upon themselves through their sin? Did they wonder how long this exile would last? Were they desperately looking for a sign, a dream, an omen, of better times ahead, of God's favor?

Our covenant-keeping God knows our experience. Not only does he know all things potential and actual, and understand every thought and motivation of our heart (Hebrews 4:12), he himself took on flesh and has actually experienced the world we live in. Jesus Christ sympathizes with every experience and temptation we might encounter, according to Hebrews 4:15. Jesus knows the temptations of the exile.

Jesus chose exile. He chose our experience. He left perfect fellowship with the Father. He came to the world He created, but He entered enemy territory (1 John 5:19). He came to his own people, but, as John 1 says, his own people did not receive him. He was despised and rejected by men, according to Isaiah 53. He was a stranger in a foreign land, with a mission that interfered with the status quo. I wonder if Jesus ever, ever felt comfortable.

God wrote a letter to His people in exile. It is recorded in Jeremiah 29. Stop. Think about that. GOD wrote a letter to people like you and me, scared and hopeless, in exile. What does that act alone tell us about Him? It tells me He cares. He really cares. You might say, “If He really cared, He would deliver them.” Well, sometimes deliverance is how He shows He cares. Just look at the story of the Exodus. What a great deliverance! In this case, immediate deliverance is not part of His plan. As prophesied in Scripture, the Jewish people would be allowed to return to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile. In 537 B.C., that prophecy was fulfilled and the Jews were allowed by King Cyrus of Persia to return to Israel. With Ezra and Nehemiah, they begin rebuilding the city and temple.

He is God. He often has plans that are far more encompassing than what we understand. Instead of immediate deliverance, He intervenes, like a lightning bolt from heaven, with words of hope, instructions, and promises during the long season, in fact, the generation, of waiting.

In short, He says: 1) I know. 2) Bloom where you are planted. In other words, embrace where I have placed you. Settle and prosper where you are. 3) I have a plan already mapped out for your future, and it involves good things. 4) I do not like the religious people who are telling you lies about me and giving you false hope. I will deal harshly with them.

These are words of love from a good Shepherd to myopic, fearful sheep. They are the words to us, the ones who are in the world but not of the world (John 17:16). They are the words to us who live in the kingdom of darkness, although we have been translated to the kingdom of the Son of His love (Colossians 1:13). These words are to us who often feel that we are strangers and pilgrims sojourning through a foreign land, as our forefathers of faith experienced generation after generation before us (Hebrews 11). These words are for you and me, living in a powerful country, but not feeling quite at home here. Perhaps that is the way it is supposed to feel. We are like all who have gone before us in faith. We are like our Lord Jesus. We are not comfortable here. Our heart, our allegiance, is to the King of another Kingdom.

But the letter says even more than that. God spoke to them. He speaks to us. He tells us to live! He tells us to embrace life and get to work! “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). We are not supposed to detach from our culture and surrounding, live ascetically, grit our teeth in joyless endurance, nor oppose our neighbors in rebellion. We are called to live quiet lives and work with our hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11), persevere in prayer (the most powerful tool and weapon we have), and build. We are called to seek peace and prosperity right where we are. How can we do this? By faith. The LORD, our covenant-keeping God, has a plan. This plan involves good things for us. He keeps His promises. He is vision-casting but keeping some of the details to Himself. We are to catch the vision, at least as much as He is willing to reveal. And then, we are simply called to do the next thing, in faith.

God knows the plans He has for you and me. Imagine that, fellow planners. The God of the universe has plans. And He wrote you a letter to tell you about his plans. These are plans to prosper and not harm you. These plans give you a future and a hope. In the same letter He says, “Call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. Seek me … with all your heart… I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:12-14.) To me, this says He wants a relationship with us through every season of our life. He knows He is our strength. He knows we need Him to live. He wants us to keep that connection to Him through prayer and worship. He wants us to believe Him. To me, His letter to us exiles says He loves us.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Her name was Virginia.

I had recently read, "The best way to overcome fear is to do the thing you fear." I agreed to go because I was compelled to do things that got me out of my comfort zone. And this did. I was outside my comfort zone. The place smelled of urine, and the building itself was stark and old. Probably built in the 1960s, it was functional, but not beautiful. We stood around in the open foyer for a while before venturing into the wide hallways that led into shared rooms.

That evening, a group of Bible college students drove from their wooded, mountain campus to the nursing home in the city about an hour away. The goal? To share God's love with strangers. I was a high school student, but they welcomed me along. Nobody told me what to say or what to do. We just piled into cars, drove down, and walked in.

As our group visited the first few rooms, I hung in the background and let others speak. I felt anxious and unsure. What do you say to a senior at death's door whom you have never met? What if he has dementia? What if she gets angry? What if....? Ugh! The smell!

Finally, the group started splitting. As the rest of the group branched out, I walked into the next unvisited room. The woman with the bed closer to the door looked alert but incredibly frail. She was wearing a nightgown, propped up against a pillow. She beckoned me to come closer. Her pale, wrinkled face was open wide. Feathery wisps of white hair hung thinly on her head. She could barely get out intelligible words.

But she was busy. Scraps of white notebook paper lay all over her blanketed lap. A red ball point pen rocked in her frail, boney hand. After scribbling on the paper scrap, she handed it to me. Several scraps, marked in crooked red script, curled on her bedside table. In a shaky voice, with words cutting in and out, she explained how she gave these to everyone who came in her room. I looked at the paper in my palm. Scratched in red ink was a Scripture reference and a partial Bible verse.

We talked a little. I don't remember what we said. Some of it didn't make sense. But she loved God's Word. She had it tucked away in her heart and mind so firmly that when she had nothing left in this world, she still had the Words of Life.

I was there to bless her, but she blessed me. From her hospital bed confinement, she opened my eyes to a life free from the fear of man. From her aged hands, she passed out the Bread of Life to anyone who came close enough to receive it. From her heart filled with Jesus, she poured out all she had left to give. The Kingdom of God advanced that day. She displayed to a 15 year old girl how to finish well.

It was time to go. I said good-bye to my new 5 minute-long friend.

When it was time to go to the nursing home the next week, I looked forward to going. The racing heart and pit in my stomach were gone. I remembered Virginia's room number and immediately walked that direction. The door was open, so I leaned in. Her roommate with the bed by the window looked up. Virginia's bed, by the door, was neatly made and empty.

I couldn't throw it away. Virginia's paper scrap was tucked between the pages of my Bible for a long time.

Monday, November 2, 2015

This Old House

This piece was originally written in March 2012.

I don't know why I did it. It was a long, exhausting day. Nothing went smoothly. All seemed a battle--with kids, with myself. I was tired. The kids were FINALLY sleeping. I thought I would just relax and watch some TV. In an attempt to find a program we both enjoy, my husband switched from basketball to a home improvement show. It was one of those kitchen makeover shows where the couple shows the contractor everything they hate about their current kitchen. Together, they look at plans for a new one, and then--voila--15 minutes later their "outdated, bland, horrible, unbelievable, gotta-go" kitchen is transformed into the kitchen of their dreams. After final clips of the smiling couple sipping coffee over crushed glass counter tops, they live happily ever after.

"Are you kidding me?" I say. "I would love to have their kitchen!" And I am talking about the BEFORE version, not the AFTER. You see, we live in an old house. Not only does the kitchen give me daily cause for sighs of disgruntled angst, the rest of the house does, too. The toilets run and wake us up at night. The hardwood floors have lost their finish, leaving exposed wood that is hard to clean and has provided plenty of splinters in my kids' feet. The paint is chipping all over the place. All. Over. The. Place. Did I mention the mold I found in the back of the closets last year? It's not like we have slumlords, either. There's no one to blame. We have fabulous landlords who have problems fixed promptly when we can't do it, and who keep the rent affordable. They even have our patch of grass mowed each week by their landscapers. But who would want to pour money into a rental property to refinish floors or buy new appliances? I understand that. The house is livable. It's actually really cute and in a fabulous location. But what we don't pay in rent, we pay in energy bills. This 100 year old house has no insolation. The windows, although permanently stuck shut in several places, are as old as the house and leak air. Your jaw would drop if I showed you our winter energy bills--and this is just to keep our house tolerably warm!

But my discontent simmers mostly in the kitchen. The refrigerator hums louder than a fighter jet taking off. I have actually witnessed visitors jump and ask, "What's that noise?" The fridge is so small, it only holds about 4-5 days worth of groceries. I have three hungry, growing boys. I'm afraid I will have to do a supermarket run every 3 days in a year or two! The old tile floor, no matter how much I scrub it, never looks clean. When I set the oven, I can count on it to heat somewhere within 50 degrees of my desired temperature, which makes baking a perpetual experiment. Two burners on the stove don't light without some special tricks (which, I should add, I am pretty darn good at with my magic lighter wand.) The old tile countertops are cracked and chipped. The grout is stained black, although up the backsplash I can see it used to be a pleasant shade of light blue. I kinda wish I didn't know that. Gross.

My husband has skills. Sweet home improvement skills. He even had a small business going for a while when we needed extra money. He never lacked for work because he actually showed up and did the work when he said he would. Everyone told their friends. But sometimes when you have knowledge of what you are really seeing, you can't live in the ignorance-is-bliss state. He sees the need for repair or renovation nearly everywhere he looks in our home, but he admits it is just not worth the time or money to put into a rental. He has already given the bathroom a facelift, painted 2 rooms, fixed countless toilet and sink problems, repaired plaster walls (which is no small task), fixed jammed doorknobs and doors, sealed ductwork to increase efficiency, plugged every possible entry point for mice, nailed down loose floor boards, rewired some electric (which I sincerely think he looses sleep over because it's so old and potentially dangerous), and replaced rotting wood. Yes, he definitely has skills.

During my little episode fuming over DIY network & HGTV, I abruptly decide to go to bed instead of watch the rest of the show. It is not long, somewhere between brushing my teeth and falling asleep, I have to admit the biggest thing in disrepair in our whole house is really my own heart. The TV networks are not to blame. Although my kitchen could use a renovation, my heart needs a make-over first.

In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp tells her story of transformation. From the tragedies and sadness in her youth, she struggles to experience God's goodness and love. All her doubts and questions come from a heart which is alive but not really living. While she exists under this dark cloud, her friend dares her to list 1000 things for which she is thankful. She accepts the dare and begins to jot down, in a notebook, those moments in the day that might otherwise pass her by. Over time, with this practice, she begins to see the beautiful (and even the ugly and hard) are really displays of God's love for her. Her eyes are being trained to see it. She begins to see how she is loved more than she can imagine. She begins to experience the truth that God is always good. I find her poetic, raw, introspective writing captivating.

So, I start my own journal. One thousand gifts. It is easy to notice God in the blooming wonder of spring, the laughter of my children, the food provided in our daily feasts, a sweet hour with a friend. But in my running toilet at 3 am? In my tiny refrigerator? In the chipping paint?

I am learning it starts with gratitude. A thankful heart is the door to joy. It is impossible to have joy with a thankless, complaining heart. The feelings might not be there to start. But I make a decision. Instead of muttering when the toilet begins to run like Niagara Falls, early the next morning, I say, "Thank you, God, that we have a toilet." It is not some grand spiritual moment. It is just simple words. But alongside these words, images begin forming in my mind: homes that don't have toilets. Places in the world that don't have toilets. PEOPLE in the world who don't have toilets. I think about living in the Caribbean during our first year of marriage and daily viewing the windowless shack down the hill from us, swarming with chickens and children. I think about my mission trip to Mexico during high school: the dusty village where, from their poverty, women fed us tortillas cooked over their open fires. Beyond the crumbling adobe church, where we acted out Bible stories to wide-eyed children, was with the neighborhood outhouse. Flies buzzed the dilapidated wooden box. The door hung on but barley closed. A stench overwhelmed. I came back home feeling MOST thankful for two things: showers and toilets. I've seen life without toilets. So I say it again, but I mean it more. "Thank you, God, that we have a toilet, even if it may run loudly and annoy me. I am so thankful we have one."

Another day begins. In the quiet of the morning, I read in the living room, and the refrigerator begins to take off. The inclination, the default of my heart, is to inwardly roll my eyes. "Here we go again." On a good day, I might sarcastically sing, "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...." There may be laughter. But I want joy. "Thank you, God for my refrigerator." And a series of photo-like images dance through my mind: beautiful bronze-toned people who live in a desperately cracked land, thirsty for rain. Their hands hold grain. The man I saw in the city sleeping curled up under the tree, plastic bags and newspapers for warmth. His nutrition is handed to him from strangers. He will find tomorrow's food from garbage cans. The aisles of three grocery stores within two miles of me, overflowing, abundant, full. The refrigerator on the front porch, half-covered with ripped tarp, doors falling off, in the unfamiliar neighborhood we drove through yesterday. Was it the only one they had? And I mean it more, "Thank you, Father, for this refrigerator, old and small as it is. Thank you for filling it. You provide our daily bread. We are never in want. We are satisfied. You have been so good."

Later, in the middle of switching the clothes from the washer to the dryer, I notice the chipping paint. I am in the laundry room where baseboards and windowsills are chipped and speckled, where wood and layers of years show though. Sometimes the complaint becomes comfortable. Do I really want joy? Before I say it, I doubt it. "Thank you, God...for chipping paint?" I feel my insincerity. I say it out loud. "I'm stuck. I'm not really thankful for chipping paint. I don't see any good in it." The dryer door slams shut. I clutch a pile of clean colored clothes and hit a switch to start the hum. He doesn't leave me there. What mercy. He speaks. "Look beyond the paint." I do. And I am undone. Broken. My overactive tears ducts strike again. I lean over the dryer, clutching clothes, crying. "The walls! Thank you, God, for these WALLS!" I really mean it. The memories overwhelm me. The last eight years, the only home my children can remember. In the doorway of the dining room, we have added to the chipping speckles a ladder of pencil marks to show how they've grown. These walls have been our shelter. The place where we have fought, made love, wept over losses and confusion, laughed at surprises, and celebrated the marks of the journey with candles, cupcakes, Christmas trees, and clicking cameras. We have lived out God's gift of life in these walls. Imperfect, but strong, secure, walls. I feel foolish. But He knows all things. "Thank you, God, for these walls. For this home." The circumstances of finding and moving to THIS house were so clearly His doing. "Thank you for picking this home for us. For letting our family grow in this safe place. We are so, SO blessed."

The running toilet, the old refrigerator, and the chipping paint have not changed. But I am changing.

He reminds me that all are shadows of Him. "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God" (Psalm 90:1-3.) I just need eyes to see it. The things of this world are passing away, but I have a home, a God, who endures forever. This old house can lead me to Him. Through the simple act of thanksgiving, I can open the door to dismantle the dissatisfaction. I want joy. More than granite countertops, a guest room, or energy efficient windows, I want joy. And I want Him.

The Lord, He is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endures to all generations.
Psalm 100:3-5

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Year's Eve Reflection

(to the tune of Auld Lang Syne)

We count the seconds on the clock
We shout, the day is done!
A new day dawns
A new year comes
We sing the rising sun.

There is a place, I know not where,
A time, I know not when,
But we will meet
And gladly greet
A world without the sun.

We sing our endless praise to you
We sing our endless praise!
We now begin to never end
The praises of our king!

Timeless, the world will never end
And in this place of light
No sorrows shroud
No pain-filled cloud
No tears shed in the night.

We’ll count the blessings of the Lamb
We’ll shout, for he has won!
Our king will reign
And with the saints
We’ll sing the risen son.

We sing our endless praise to you
We sing our endless praise!
We now begin to never end
The praises of our king!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Poem For the Perfectionist



prepare a table

before me

my cup

runs over

and I

worry about the spill

table manners

you desire

are only

open hands


the poison of perfectionism

has seeped into my feast

but I wean


the poison drink

and instead sip


discovering I am only

the glass

which might reflect

your love, your face

getting it right

trumped by

reflecting your light

(Thank you to Ann Voskamp for the idea of perfectionism being a poison.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I Remember Her Name

She is a freshman, and I am a senior. I have a car, so she asks me to drive her to Planned Parenthood. “I think I might be pregnant.” For half the year, she sits across from me, diagonally, at the huge table in art class. She’s cute—a short, spunky, blonde 14 year old who clearly likes boys and parties. She chews gum and has braces. She talks about the boyfriend, but I never meet him.

“You mean during school?” I ask.

“Yeah. I’ve already talked to the school counselor, and our absences will be excused.”

I’m shocked. I didn’t know that was possible. She doesn’t even seem scared. I agree to take her.

The next day, we meet at the school office at the agreed time. We get passes from a lady who apparently keeps attendance records. I have never seen her before. She doesn’t smile. I can’t tell if she is annoyed or concerned. She tells us that this will not be on record and our parents will not know.
We walk out of the stuffy high school halls into the California sun. It’s 1992, and life still feels safe. We get in my 1986 Nissan and drive down to the city. It’s a quiet 20 minute ride. The only reason I agreed to this, I think to myself, is to try to talk her out of an abortion if she’s pregnant. But I am tongue-tied. I don’t know what to say. The radio buzzes faintly. I am too nervous to turn it up. I ask her what she will do if she is pregnant. She mentions abortion. I ask if she knows how those work. She doesn’t. I tell her what I know about abortion procedures. Maybe knowing will keep her from this choice, I think. Silently, I pray.

We find the building. We agree that I will wait in the car while she goes inside. (I wish I had gone inside. I wish I had been with her the whole time.) She jumps out of the car and walks in. I think about what I might say if she is pregnant, if she’s not. I think about the class I’m missing and watch the clock. I have my own turmoil of life, moving to a new school for my senior year. Few friends. Family troubles. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I think about what her life at home is like—her mom is single and has a boyfriend. I don’t know much more than that. She seems popular. Why did she ask me to take her? Doesn’t she have other friends with cars? Did she not want them to know? The radio still buzzes.

She comes back to the car and bounces in. Not pregnant. She seems relieved, but not really any different than she seemed going in. Has she done this before? I don’t remember our conversation afterward, just the rush to get back to school.

As often happens in the weird culture of high school, our two lives went on. She changed classes, and I didn’t see her in art class again. Occasionally, we would see each other in the hallways. Our eyes would meet, then a smile and hi, and we’d walk on. After graduating, I never saw her again.

Twenty years later, and I think how differently I would respond to her. But I was 17 and she was 14, and maybe it happened just as is it was supposed to happen. Sometimes I still pray.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Home ~ A Song

I wrote the following song as I reflected on what "home" really means last year (March, 2012.) This idea of pilgrimage is a theme in my life, and I would guess for many Christians. Some inspiration for (and allusions in) this song are Psalm 90, Hebrews 11, and one of my mother-in-law's favorite quotes, "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain." At some point, I would like to make a recording of this and post it. In the meantime, it might be meaningful to know that the first half of the song has a slower tempo with a more contemplative tone. In the second half, the tempo increases. As many of the Biblical Psalms, the tone of the song changes in the middle of the song, I and consider God's greater purposes, character, and love. He not only is the destination of our journey, but our refuge and security along the way.

You have been our shelter, LORD,
You have been our home.
You have been our shelter, LORD,
You have been our home.
In every generation
You have always been the same:
A dwelling place secure
And free from harm.

And I wait for you… I wait for you.

We have wandered over all the earth.
Where can we find rest?
Our shelter is the LORD.
He is our home.
We are weary. We are wounded.
Where can we find rest?
Our shelter is the LORD.
He is our home.

And I wait for you… I wait for you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I will not wait to live.
I will fully embrace the life you give!
Thank you, Father, for the journey.
I’m fighting for joy in the midst of pain.
I’m learning how to dance in the middle of the rain.
Thank you, Father, for the journey.

My hope is in the Lord
My hope is in the Lord
My hope is in the Lord
Maker of heaven and earth.

I will not wait to live.
I will fully embrace the life you give!
Thank you, Father, for the journey.
You have a plan that is bigger than me.
Give me the faith and the eyes to see.
Thank you, Father, for the journey

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Saying Goodbye

I wrote this after one of our last visits with my father-in-law, who passed away November 25, 2012.

Visiting Pop 11/10/12

electronic beep
cold silence
of hospital hall
we sit
one on each side
of him

(thank God)
but not alone

“Jesus is with you”
falls awkwardly out
hoping comfort sticks
“all the time”
his reply

“are you afraid?”
“no… no, I’m not afraid. I know
where I’m going…”

electronic beeps
warm room

across the bed
intently watching
old wounds no longer sting
tears fill but do not flood,
“what are you thankful for, Dad?”
“what do you want me to tell the boys?”
“you fought a long time. It’s ok to
stop fighting…”
He lets him go.
Son lets father go.

“Are you worried, Dad?”
“What do I
have to worry about?
With Jesus’
hand in my hand
I‘ve got nothing to worry about.”
And he always wondered what it would be like
and now
he’s here.

hands clasp
a kiss good-bye
I look back
his eyes fix on son--
eyes ask for more--
but he lets him go.
Father lets son go.

cold silence
of hospital hall
rapid pace
choking back
must fall.