Tuesday, August 20, 2013

This is grace.

Be sure that no one misses God’s grace.  Hebrews 12:15 NIRV

Last week God taught me an amazing lesson in, of all places, the dentist’s office.  We had the first appointment of the day.  I am not sure why an 8:00 appointment seemed like a good idea six months ago, but somehow we arrived on time.  The young woman led me, Jake, and Lilly down the hallway, past friendly animals painted on the walls.  This was our third visit to the dentist since they both turned two, so I assumed we had settled into that veteran mode, where tears and fears were no longer as issue.  Why, oh why do I make those assumptions?!

Jake is normally the timid, more cautious one, and since my kids are polar opposites, Lilly claims the title, “Brave One.”  On this particular morning, they decided to swap places, without sending me the memo.  Jake quickly climbed into his chair, excited to get the show on the road.  Lilly did the same, but seconds later she was in tears.  Each time I asked her what was the matter she frowned and slumped further and further down into the chair.  Our last visit went smoothly, so I was not prepared for this uncooperative and very unhappy patient. 

When the X-Ray machine came close, she backed away.  When asked to bite down, she refused.  When asked what was wrong, she cried harder.   Finally, I realized this was going downhill in a hurry, so I asked if we could skip the X-Rays for the time being and try them again later.  (It was the first experience with X-Rays and I thought maybe a quick chit-chat would help get to the bottom of her fears.)  We talked and she calmed down, and eventually she agreed to cooperate.

When the hygienist came in to clean Lilly's teeth, she explained everything she would be doing.  She even showed her how it would feel by pretending Lilly’s fingernails were her teeth.  I could tell Lilly was warming up to her and that she was gaining trust for this sweet, gentle woman who I wanted to take home with me- she was that good.  Lilly was ready to lean back, open her mouth, and be a brave big-girl.  Until the tools made noise.  Within seconds her hands flew up to her mouth and the tears ran down her face for a second time.  Patience abounded in that tiny dental room, I tell you! 

When all else failed, a princess crown was mentioned.  At the sound of getting to pick such a prize after her cleaning, Lilly tried as hard as she could to be brave.  And then she quickly decided otherwise.  That’s when the screaming happened.  Not irritating-unpleasant-sounding wails.  No, these were more like blood-curdling-earsplitting shrieks that could have easily broken every window in the building.  Saying it was a bad visit is a horrible understatement. 

As we walked up to the reception area to check out, Jake was offered a prize.  He had already received numerous praises from the staff and especially from me, as I was relieved to only have one screaming child instead of two.  He took a couple of seconds and then confidently made his decision.  My heart was breaking for Lilly who was clinging to my legs.  She wanted that crown, but she definitely did not cooperate with any of us and she most certainly interrupted everyone’s morning- at least those within a two mile radius- with her shrillness.  That’s when I realized that I hate these kinds of decisions.  I dread the moments when as a Mom I have to decide what to do, knowing my words carry extreme weight. 

When Lilly was asked if she also wanted to pick a prize, my heart sank, remembering the conversation we’d had in the car before the appointment.  I had reminded them about choosing a prize and I went through all the things that I expected from them.  I knew what I would be saying if I let Lilly have the crown.  But looking down at her, I suddenly felt this overwhelming desire to give her exactly that.

I pulled her aside, bent down and looked into her watery eyes and told her that how she acted was not acceptable.  I pointed out how kind and helpful all the ladies had been, and asked her if she thought she deserved the crown.  She shook her head no.  Then I made a deal with her.  She could have the crown as long as she promised to try her best to be brave the next time we came.  She agreed and was soon happily wearing her crown.

I can tell you that there were some folks present who totally disagreed with my parenting.  As a recovering approval addict, I wish I didn’t notice, but I did.  No one told me so, but there is a tension in the air you can just feel when you are a Momma of a kid who misbehaved- let me correct that- a kid who misbehaved badly.  But as her Mom, I knew in my heart that she wanted to be brave and she wanted to do what she was asked to do.   Yet, fear snuck up and stole her courage.

As I sat in the car, drenched in sweat from this early morning fiasco, I regrouped and prayed honestly to Jesus.  I had this feeling I had made a mistake.  I wasn’t even sure why I said what I said and did what I did.  It felt so wrong to give my child a crown when she acted the way she did.  What am I teaching her? I thought.  Did I do the wrong thing? I asked Him. Clearly she did not deserve to be wearing a princess crown.

Tears were flowing and this time they were mine.  Why don’t they tell you parenting is this hard?  They prepare you for the sleep deprivation, they offer classes for breastfeeding, they’ve written books on how to handle temper tantrums, but no one explains this heart-wrenching feeling that inevitably follows every decision you make as a parent.  No one tells you that on a daily basis you will have to choose what is more important- your child’s heart or what other people think of you.  It’s moments like this that make me want to hug my own mom and tell her how much I appreciate her.  With deep breaths we continued our morning errands, and I continued my prayer long past the parking lot.  As I pulled up to a red light, I felt the most precious three words enter the quietness of my heart.  This is grace. 

A princess crown is probably the farthest thing from what Lilly had earned. 

This is grace. 

Her behavior did not measure up like her brother’s, yet she also received a prize. 

This is grace. 

Lilly did not deserve a crown, but still, she was wearing it- with a smile. 

This is grace.  

Grace is a word that gets thrown around a whole lot, and I think we often forget that it is truly amazing.  Grace is what we have all been given- undeserved, unearned, and precious.  I glanced in the rear-view mirror and realized that I don’t deserve to be wearing the princess crown on my head either.  As a daughter of the King, I did not earn an invitation into His kingdom- it was a gift.  I don’t deserve to be called His child because of my track record, yet that’s exactly who I am.  Even when I try to act the way I know I’m supposed to, I still fall short.  Grace is something I can never, ever earn.

Feeling a whole lot better about the situation, I wiped my tears, turned around, and told Jake how incredibly proud I was of him.  I told him how happy it made me that he listened at the dentist and acted like a big boy.  As I shifted my gaze to Lilly, her head was already hung, brows furrowed as if she knew what was coming her way.  When I told her that I was proud of her, too, she looked up confused.   She knew she had not acted in a way that made me proud.  But instead of focusing on her behavior, I focused on her as my child, the way that God looks at me.  “I am so very proud of you, Lilly, because you’re my girl.”  Smiles spread and grace rerouted our morning.  It’s a beautiful thing- this grace.

God looks not at our messes, screw-ups, or failures.  He is not a bit surprised by them.  In fact, He expects them.  He waits for that moment when our heads are hung low, when we’re disappointed that we’re here again, and then He lets us have it.  This is grace. He gives it freely and abundantly not because we deserve it, not because we can ever earn it, but because He loves us, and we are His. 

This is grace.

But he gives us more grace. James 4:6 NIV

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Courage That Clings

Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.   Ruth 1:14

I am reading through the book of Ruth with a dear friend and I was reminded this morning of why this beautiful story is one of my favorites.  It seems as if every time I read this account of a few seemingly ordinary women, God shows me something new; some brand new beautiful picture of His tender and unending love.

Here’s the background:  Elimelek and Naomi, along with their sons, relocate to the foreign land of Moab when famine strikes Bethlehem, their home town.  Though only seeking a temporary refuge, they stay ten years- long enough for life to completely fall apart.  Naomi loses her husband and is left with her two sons, who both marry Moabite women.  Then tragedy strikes a second time and both sons pass away.  Naomi’s sons, in the time they had settled in Moab, had married two Moabite women.  So the story shifts very quickly to these three widows, who find themselves in the most desperate and destitute situation imaginable.

I was drawn this time to the names of the two women whom God brings into Naomi’s life: Orpah and Ruth.  Orpah means ‘gazelle’ and is derived from the root word oreph, which means ‘stiffnecked.’  Ruth means ‘friendship.’ Little did I know that the meaning of their names plays an integral role in how this story unfolds.

When Naomi hears that God has provided for her people back home, she sets out on a ten day journey with both of her daughters-in-law.  Not too far into the journey, though, Naomi urges Orpah and Ruth to go back to their homeland and their families and their gods.  Though it is clear to see that both women loved their mother-in-law dearly, this story shows two totally different courses of action. 

All three women “wept aloud” not once, but twice, as I’m sure it was incredibly painful to part ways after all they had been through together.  Here’s what each woman did next:

                Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. Ruth 1:14

One leaves, the other cleaves.  One turns back, the other turns towards the unknown and unfamiliar choosing to follow.  Oh, how I wish I could only identify with Ruth, but I have stood where sweet Orpah was standing, too!  I have loved Jesus from afar, willing to trust Him when life was easy, when life was good.  But the moment it got tough, the moment my famine struck, I wanted to turn my back on Him and kiss Him goodbye. 

I was angry and felt entitled to the “good life” that surely my “good God” was able to give me.  It would have been easier to say goodbye and turn my back.  It would have been the safe route- to go back to the predictable, the routine, the life that revolved around me.  It would have been far more comfortable to go back to the old life instead of trusting God with the unknowns which were anything but unknown to Him. 

Choosing to cling to Him during my famine, trusting Him through the pain of losing something so precious to me, and believing that He is good even if life is not good completely changed my world.  What Jesus taught me was that His ways are so much higher and so much greater.  Every single ounce of pain I felt was cultivated by His hand into a deeper and stronger faith- one that has absolutely nothing at all to do with what I did but everything to do with what He’s done for me. 

There is no doubt that both women in this story love their mother-in-law deeply and perhaps both even know Naomi’s God.  But only one chooses to follow and say these words:

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 
Ruth 1:16-17

Ruth knows that Naomi’s God was the one true God.  She refers to Him as Jehovah and commits to leave her entire life behind for Him.  The Hebrew word for clung is dabaq, which means “stay close, cleave, follow closely; to be joined together.”  It paints a beautiful picture of relationship- of friendship.  Clinging or cleaving to another often seems weak and even dependent, but reading further shows that it is only in our weakness that God’s strength is truly manifested. 

When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.  Ruth 1:18

This word, determined, is 'amats in the Hebrew language, and it means “to be strong, alert, courageous, brave, bold.”  The New King James Version reads that Ruth was “steadfastly minded.”  Another translation puts it this way:  “she was strong in her purpose.” 

Ruth was not alone; neither was Naomi and neither are we.  Jesus wants us to cling desperately to Him because He knows that He is our only hope for strength and courage.  He wants more than our love; He wants our friendship.  Like Orpah, we are all programmed to be stiffnecked and stubborn, ready to turn our backs at the first sign of trouble.  But there is much to be learned from Ruth’s obedience in the midst of troubling circumstances.  Not only did God provide for her a husband and a son in this new land, but she became the great-grandmother of King David, whose lineage would produce the long awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. 

Clinging to Jesus and depending on Him for everything transforms us into people who are strong and courageous, too.

It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.  Deuteronomy 13:4 

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.   Deuteronomy 31:6

*Hebrew meanings taken from STRONG’s Numbers, blueletterbible.org.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


And anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean.  Numbers 31:23 (NIV)

When they said the cancer was back, all I could think was, This can’t be true!  My aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago.  That summer, my mom and I took a trip up north to have a girls’ week.  Instead of shopping and care-free girl talk, our time was filled with doctor appointments, weighty decisions, wig shopping, and lots of tears.  You have to know this about my aunt:  she is one tough cookie.  Years ago when a man stole her purse, she ran down the streets of New York City in her high heels… and caught him!  But that “c word” came out of the blue and threatened to steal more than her bag.  

After the surgery, the chemo and the radiation, it seemed as if it was a distant struggle; one that God would surely not ask her to walk through again.  Surely not.  New hair grew in beautifully, and that is not all that grew.  Her faith was stretched and strengthened like never before.  So God would surely not ask her to do it all over again.  Surely not.

I’ve learned that God will always answer the questions we take to Him.  Often it’s not the answer we want to hear, but answer He does.  So in the few short weeks it’s been, I’ve asked Him over and over again,  Why the same trial?  It’s not only my aunt that is facing a similar struggle.  All around me, I see this happening- even in my own life. 

After weeks of asking and praying and seeking and a whole lot more listening than I am usually capable of, I think I have some clarity.  Answers, no.  Clarity, yes.  Complete understanding, no.  Peace, yes. 

And it all has to do with fire. 

Numbers 31:23 says, “And anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean.  If God calls us into a fire, it is only because He knows we can endure it.  Three men, whose story of courage and faith is beautifully scripted in the book of Daniel, knew all about being called into a fire. (See Daniel 3)  When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three Jews who worshipped the living God, found themselves tied up and thrown into the flames, they also found God Himself, walking around in the flames with them.   

God is actually referred to as the God who answers by fire, the one true God. (See 1 Kings 18:24)  God used a burning bush, a pillar of fire, and was found in the flame on the altar.  God knows that the fire is not to be feared, because He is in the fire. What God sees that we often cannot is that we do eventually come out of the fire.  And we are changed.

This verse not only speaks of that which can survive the fire, but it also explains what will happen to it as it emerges from the flames: “Then it will be clean.”  Other translations use the word “pure.”  The process of refining gold is one I know nothing about, but upon looking at the meaning of the word “refine,” I get a tiny glimpse of God’s hand at work.  Refine means “to bring to a fine or a pure state; make elegant; to become more fine, elegant, polished; freed from impurity.”(1) 

The only thing the fire burned all those years ago was the rope that bound the three Hebrew men.  The fire worked to free them and remove everything that held them captive.  When they walked out of the flames, nothing was burnt- not their clothes, not their shoes, not even their hair smelled of smoke.  The people who witnessed this did more than scratch their heads and say, “Well, look at that!”  This single courageous act brought an entire people to know the living God.

God only brings us into the flames so that He can refine us and then bring us out more beautiful, able to attract others to Him.  Purity, though, is a process. The refiner is the only one who can tell when the gold is ready to come out of the fire.  He waits and waits until He can look into the hot liquid and see His own reflection.(2) Refining is the process of “converting raw material into products of value.” (3) If God asks us to follow Him into the flames, it’s only because He knows we can endure it with His strength.  If God asks us to walk back into the fire, it’s only because He sees the finished product- shiny, pure, elegant, and reflecting His image.

These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  1 Peter 1:7 (NIV)

For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.  Mark 9:49 (NKJV)

1.“refine.”  Dictionary.com Unabridged.  Random House, Inc.  07 Aug 2013. 
2. Guzik, David. “Study Guide on Numbers 31.”  Enduring Word. Blue Letter Bible. 07 Aug 2013.
3.“refinery.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 07 Aug 2013.