Posted in Living this Life

the e-mail

I could tell by the subject line that I didn’t want to open the e-mail.

Yet, I knew by the subject line that I just had to open the e-mail and read the words I didn’t want to read.

It was true. Another place closing. Another place that I love – gone.

Thing is, this isn’t just another place. I drove by one of my favorite restaurants the other day and saw the for sale sign. That was a bummer. This was different. This hit deep, and I suddenly didn’t know how to process it.

It’s one of those places that I have never been able to get out of my soul. One of the first places I understood the word “home”. In a life of feeling perpetually out of place, this was a place that welcomed misfits like me and gave us a sense of belonging.

It was my sophomore year of college – that summer when I walked through the doors of a The Shelter, a youth hostel in the middle of the city of Amsterdam on the edge of the red light district.

I had no idea God would forever change the trajectory of my life that summer. That He would show me who I was created to be and that I would never be satisfied settling for anything else.

I went back after college and spent a year in those walls – eager to learn, eager to meet people from around the world, eager to share my Jesus with them. God used that place to forever alter my life.

You may say it’s just a building surrounded by a multitude of other buildings. But it was on that rooftop I would pace when I felt my world crumbling around me – I would pace back and forth – praying and pleading with God for His Truth.

It was in that dining room where I would eat with people from around the world – Laughing, singing, talking, doing life together.

It was in that kitchen where I learned to make Moussaka and Boerenkool. But it’s really the place I learned that the simple act of spending a day cutting onions and peeling mounds of potatoes can carve out quiet places to let the Spirit in.

It was in that snack bar where I would discuss the beauty of my Jesus with a Spanish traveler who had just from a Tibetan monastery. Where I would pore over the Scriptures and rest in the peace of the Psalms with my friend Jess, a gay prostitute who was desperately hungry for balm for a hurting soul.

It’s where I learned not to fear the questions – for if you keep looking you will find the Truth. It just takes a lot of courage to face the real questions and a lot of persistence to uncover the answers. It’s where I saw that we aren’t really all that different under the surface – where a smile has the power to transcend all cultural, racial, and political differences. And sometimes when trying to register a group of 20 travelers who don’t speak English, a smile is all you have.

It’s where I learned to love shoarma and frites with mayo. And I learned the value of knowing how to ask for coffee with whipped cream in Dutch (Koffie met slagroom, alstublieft)

So I read the e-mail, and as the truth soaked in that they were having to close their doors due to the current condition of our world, the tears started to fall. Not just for all the faces I saw, the people I had come to love, the memories I cherished… I wept for the loss of a place to return to.

Oh how the heart longs to remember what fades so quickly! How often we long to return to places that matter because they remind us of who we were. More importantly, of who God is and what He has done. And I don’t have many of those places…

Growing up in the jungles of Africa was an unmitigated blessing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But my home no longer exists – the ravages of war destroyed my childhood village many years ago, and I will never be able to take my family to the place I grew up. I can show them the country as it is, but it will forever be a different place than the home I knew.

So all these years, my heart has clung to this special place on the edge of the red light district in Amsterdam. I longed for the day I could show my family the place where God changed the course of my life. Where I learned how real He truly is and discovered that He really will catch us when the world crumbles around us. I have walked through those old hallways with my family so many times in my mind – just waiting for the day it could become reality.

And I wept for the loss of that opportunity.

God has placed eternity in the heart of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11) – and yet we try to fit this small earth around that. We grasp for the ideal of an unchangeable good – a place where our hearts feel safe. But buildings crumble and heroes let us down.. What do we do then? Construct new idols? New mirages of control or illusions of contentment? Or do we reject the stuff of earth and place all our hope firmly and only on heaven?

We’ve all experienced loss this year. And I know my story is light compared to the life changing loss many have endured. But we all share this one thing – longings for something we may not be able to return to. It comes out in grief, sorrow, rage, cynicism, depression… and I wonder – what do we do with all these feelings?

When the longings start and we are torn between what is and our nostalgic memory of what was … we often think we have to choose between the two. Instead of rushing past the callback, why don’t we linger a couple more minutes and let it bloom into something of beauty? What if we’re experiencing a foretaste, a promise, a shadow of what is to come? In His moments of greatest agony on earth, Jesus looked to the “joy set before Him”. (Hebrews 12:2)

Do you see it? Can you smell it? The welcoming notes of the fresh baked bread? The delicate aroma of flowers we have yet to discover? We blush and call it childish nostalgia – but could it be so much more?

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves… These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” CS Lewis

So today i don’t think I’m going to wipe these tears away too quickly. I think instead I’ll try to just rest in the magic of the mystery. To let the ache in my heart intensify my longing for heaven – that great unending good that will never be taken from us. That we will never outgrow, move away from, or lose. This is the gift.

For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14

Posted in Living this Life

Leaves and other stuff…

I had to run out for a couple minutes today, so I grabbed the old car that gets parked under a tree, swept away the mountain of leaves that the weekend had left us, and hit the road.

As I rounded the corner, I gasped a little, because the sun hit my windshield and there, glowing like the most brilliant artwork, were imprints of all the leaves that had piled up on my windshield.

Imprints … stick with me for a minute.

Because then I saw the darker less artistic splotches – you know, those that the friendly neighborhood birds had deposited alongside those beautiful leaves. And it made me ask myself – what sort of imprints am I leaving behind? In the middle of this pandemic and social unrest? The day before a highly contentious election? How about the day after said election?

What do you see when the sun (Son) reflects off my life? We don’t get to choose many of our circumstances – but we do get to choose what we do with them.

We all leave a trails behind us – may ours be filled with beauty and grace and wonder

Posted in Living this Life

Wilderness Wanderings

I pulled the plug this morning. On my pool.

It’s not a great pool – it’s pretty little, just about 36 inches tall and about 10 feet across. Nothing you can cannonball into, and stuck on the end of my patio, it certainly doesn’t do much for curb appeal. Just a big blue blob that has served as a sort of lifeline to my kids on those oppressively hot summer days that wouldn’t seem to end.

I’ve watched that blue blob deflate all morning – and I’m feeling all sorts of conflicted.

It seems to mark an end to something – but to what? The end of summer? I’m really ok with that, since this summer was just plain hard. The end of the challenges of 2020 – I’d like that to be true, but am not that naive. Maybe it marks the beginning of something? A fresh season – I’d gratefully embrace that! But deep in my gut I know that although the weather is fresher and cooler, not much is really changing in my life yet. Still kind of wandering in this desert we call 2020.

Just another day – only today, we pack away the pool. And I find myself reminiscing.

I won’t drag you into all those convoluted places with me. Some bring smiles, some bring tears – so here I sit, trying to find the words. A couple months ago, I asked the Lord where I should read next in my Bible. I don’t often have strong leanings on this – I kind of stumble around in my Bible until I find something that ignites a fire in me. Well, this time I felt very strongly that He wanted me to go through the book of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy? Really? Have you checked your calendar God? I’m thinking I need something a bit more encouraging than Deuteronomy. Funny thing is, as I flipped on over to towards the front of the book, I find myself identifying with what I was reading a whole lot more than I thought I would. We find Moses reminiscing through the first few chapters. And it’s not pretty. There’s been alot of God performing great miraculous acts – and the people of Israel failing Him. Again and again.

I read through this list of failures, and I’m grateful I’m not as bad as they are. You know, with the grumbling and complaining and wanting to go back… Then that familiar nudge hits my spirit – like when the Holy Spirit seems to be squinting His eyes, tilting His head and saying, “really?” Maybe I need to read this again.

How many times have I found myself rolling my eyes at those forgetful Israelites who just wanted to go back to Egypt. Back to slavery? Really?! Don’t you remember how God got you out? Don’t you remember all those tears, the agony of a life lived in oppression?

Then I hear my own voice, bemoaning all the changes 2020 has brought to my life, and I’m saying “how soon can we go back to ‘normal’?” Now, there’s nothing wrong with “normal”, but what if it holds layers of oppression and slavery that God is trying to shake us free from? Maybe “normal” is code for “Egypt” in my life. If I’m really honest with myself, I don’t sound much different than those forgetful Israelites.

Maybe I don’t like the changes to my life in 2020, but the changes He has wrought in me are for good! What lies in the dust of the past that He is trying to move me out of? Sometimes it’s easier to do what we’ve always done rather than take the big steps towards change … but He has parted the Red Sea of our habits and brought us into a new way of living! I think of one of my favorite C.S. Lewis musings: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Do you find yourself longing for the mud pies? Let’s not lose this opportunity by constantly wanting to go back to our “normal”.

Then this verse hit me like a brick wall: “Now, when the last of these fighting men among the people had died, the Lord said to me, “Today you are to pass…” Finally moving on! But why now? Why did the Lord wait until the last one died before calling His people on up? I always thought it was about the lack of obedience that ran through them – and I know that’s a great part of it. But this time, as I read it, I realized that God is bringing the Israelites into a new world to fight new battles with men who have never fought a battle in their lives. They couldn’t depend on the strength or prowess of their army – they could only trust in the power of God.

I say I trust in God. But somedays it seems like I’m leaning on the things of earth a whole lot more. There are so many patterns in my full time ministry life that rely on the power of man – from fundraising to connecting with people around the country. And none of them have happened this year. At least not in the way we’re used to. It would be easy for anxiety to creep in. It would be easy for me to run ahead and try to figure this out. It would be easy to try to “fix this” in my own strength. And yet my God still stands as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night.

Could it be that God is calling us out of our patterns and habits to each day look to see if the pillar is moving? Can you imagine how the Israelites lived for 40 years – peeking out of the tent each morning to see if the pillar has moved yet? Maybe we need a little more of this…

Rather than relying on the month of the year and what we “normally” do to keep life moving, maybe we should start looking to see where He is moving and wait in the shadow of His pillar. I find this altogether terrifying and exceedingly freeing at the same time. Because we’re really good at giving this concept lip service in the church, but how good are we at living it? I construct my to do list, and then I get frustrated with my kids when they interrupt my “progress”. Maybe the Pillar is moving in a different way today. Will I listen to the Holy Spirit’s nudge to simply go there? Without argument. Without complaint. Without my own agenda? Oh, it’s hard to unlearn a lifetime of self-sufficiency – thank you, 2020, for bringing me to this place!

And what about that manna?! My kids think it’s hilarious that the word “manna” simply means “what is it?” . Sometimes when God’s blessings show up in such strange and unexpected ways, you simply look out and say, “now, what would you call that one?” – kind of like a modern day “Whatchamacallit”. It seems this year has brought a daily supply of Whatchamacallits to my doorstep. But every. single. day. God’s provision shows up.

And I must confess – I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to my favorite things. I’m the one who will tuck my goodies away until they go bad rather than indulge in them all at once. I’m not proud of it. I just never want to run out of goodies. How I can relate to the Israelites on this one!

When you live in the daily insecurity of never knowing what the next day will bring, you want to hoard the familiar. The things you can depend on. What little control you have. And here God issues a resounding, “no”. He’s not giving into my whining. And when I overstep and try to take his provision into tomorrow, I find it has lost it’s flavor. Even turned rotten. I need to savor His goodness today, and expect fresh blessings tomorrow. “His mercies are new EVERY morning – Great is Your faithfulness!” Lamentations 3.

So these wilderness wanderings have me brought me right here. To this place of utter dependency. To a place of acceptance. To a place of peace. There is still plenty wilderness ahead of us – and battles to fight with untrained hands. But His pillar – it’s there! It leads us day by day. So let’s stop looking back. Let’s stop complaining about how life is different, here in this wilderness. Let’s start finding our manna.

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11