The Foolish Things

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(Image credit fox.com)

When I was about 16, I spent a weekend playing an extra in our church’s Easter musical. Along with several of my friends, I donned a rayon-silk stola and several serpentine arm-bracelets (because evidently Ancient Israel = Ancient Egypt), swiped on about a pound of kohl, and attempted to look as louche as possible (quite a challenge for a very sheltered teenage pastor’s kid) while lounging about in an onstage recreation of Jesus’ trial at the court of Herod. At the time it was pretty much the highlight of my entire existence, and I reveled in giving what I thought was a very convincing performance. Looking back at pictures of the drama from the perspective of an adult it’s easy to see that I was just a slightly terrified-looking kid in a rather flattering dress; the spell of that moment has passed in the many years that have followed.

Yet while my perspective on my own glamorous turn as an actress has changed, there’s a facet of that moment in my life that I’ll never forget. During each performance, I would sit on stage watching “Jesus” interact with “Herod”, going through the dialogue first documented by the writers of the gospels, and no matter how aware I was that the men playing those roles were my parents’ friends–no matter how conscious I was of my own role as an actor–there was always a moment in each performance when my heart began to break. I was reminded again and again of the enormity of what Jesus’ sacrificial love accomplished on my behalf. Each time that realization hit me, I experienced a wave of sorrow and longing and joy so deep that it made staying in character nearly impossible. One moment I would be noticing how hot the stage lighting was; the next, I would be fighting back tears of profound gratitude as sadness and joy flooded through me in overwhelming measure.

If you’ve been a part of a Bible-believing church for any reasonable length of time, it’s likely you’ve seen at least one attempt to re-create or dramatize the Passion of Jesus Christ; that is, the week leading up to His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Depending on the size, budget limit, and artistic gifts of  your church, these productions can range from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. As a pastor’s kid, and particularly as the daughter of the music pastor tasked with making sure the Easter weekend productions were done well, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Easter pageants. At our church, we have done versions of the story ranging from a musical about a time-traveling modern man who finds himself transported into the role of a centurion to simple dramatizations of the Last Supper to first-person dramatic monologues by strategic characters. One thing is certain; these productions are nothing if not indicative of the limits of human ability to portray the divine. But over the years I have learned something that never ceases to amaze me:

Every time the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ is boldly and truthfully told, the whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. 

Which brings me to Fox’s recent presentation of “The Passion”, a live musical event staged on Palm Sunday 2016 in the streets of New Orleans and hosted by Tyler Perry. Fox, and all the actors and musicians who promoted “The Passion”, billed this as a kind of “not-your-mama’s-Easter-pageant” presentation of the Easter story. This was truly a spectacle event; the budget was over $10 million, the cast was made up of singers and actors who are well known in the entertainment world (Trisha Yearwood as Mary, Seal as Pontius Pilate, Jencarlos Canela as Jesus). Even among the disciples, familiar faces abounded: Prince Royce took on the role of Peter, Chris Daughtry was Judas, and Michael W. Smith was another one of the 12. The music in the production was all secular, other than the moment when Yolanda Adams capped off the night by leading everyone in “When the Saints Go Marching In”. There was a massive lighted performance stage, a 20-foot cross was paraded through the heart of the city…and there were frequent commercial breaks.

It is one thing to experience the story of the Passion from a pew in a church; it’s entirely different when you’re watching at home on your sofa as Jesus buys the Last Supper from a food truck. If you haven’t yet seen the production, let me say first that it truly is a singularly strange and sometimes confusing experience. And yet…

As with most people of my generation, my personal expectations for “Christian media” are low. Very low. Think Mariana Trench low. For decades, the bar for music, film, and other types of media intended to evangelize has been well below the industry standard. Even though recent efforts have shown improvement, the projects which have been most successful and well-received are those aimed squarely at inspiring or encouraging the Christian community (Think “War Room”, “Courageous”, “God’s Not Dead”, etc.). I won’t say these don’t have a purpose, nor will I say I don’t think God can use them, but without fail the marketing is intended to draw the already-believing audience. In contrast to this, the people who brought everything together to make The Passion possible intentionally did not market the event to a Christian audience. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this purely Biblical experience was marketed directly to the secular audience–the same audience that tuned in for live productions such as the recent “Grease” broadcast. In interviews and statements released before the production, Tyler Perry and the cast members repeatedly said that this event was intended to show “the power of love” and that it was not meant for the “religious community”. Billboard.com posted multiple video interviews for it; Entertainment Tonight did as well. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and SnapChat were used to broadcast rehearsals and cast experiences via Fox’s official accounts. Trisha Yearwood vlogged about her time sightseeing in New Orleans via Periscope, and Jencarlos Canela and Prince Royce gave interviews to secular music outlets about their experience recording the soundtrack. Nothing about this felt like your standard Christian production. But still, as I sat down to watch The Passion a day after it had aired live, my first instinct was to be apprehensive. Somehow, despite the budget and the big names, I was still very convinced this was going to land in the list of other cheesy, badly-crafted Christian productions I’d left behind in years past.

And…it was a little cheesy at first. It can’t really be denied that it is a supremely weird thing to hear Tyler Perry joking about taking selfies with Jesus; nor is it particularly easy to adjust to Jesus asking His disciples “Who do men say I am?” as the whole group sips lattes in a hipster coffee shop. I didn’t have a problem with the modernization, but it did in fact at times look a bit as if Jesus was the lead singer of a very large version of One Direction or The Backstreet Boys. The pacing wasn’t perfect, the commercial breaks were oddly placed, and there were several too many shots of the live crowd looking extremely cold and more than a little confused. If I’m honest, I’d already begun to give up on the production…and then we got to the Last Supper. And suddenly I realized that the shift I’d experienced as a teenager onstage in my church’s Easter pageant was happening again.

Two weeks ago, if you’d told me that I would have a deep spiritual reaction to a former telenovela star belting a Christianized version of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” in a New Orleans park surrounded by other pop stars who were nibbling bread from a food truck, I’d have said you’d lost your mind. But that’s exactly what happened. And as the production continued, and scripture after scripture was quoted in dialogue, I could feel myself drawn more and more strongly toward the truth of Jesus’ inconceivable, unfathomable love and sacrifice. The parts themselves ceased to be important; as with a puzzle, together they created a picture more effective than any one piece on its own ever could. And by the time that Jesus appeared after His resurrection, singing Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” from the top of a hotel building, my eyes were filling with tears. Four days later, my mind keeps returning to the production and I still find myself compelled and challenged by what I saw.

The truth is, the Passion of Jesus Christ was the most pivotal event in the history of humanity. It was the apex of God’s plan to redeem the world to Himself and show us beyond all question how great was His unconditional love for us; without it, our faith is utterly meaningless. God’s plan and His design were perfect as He is perfect. All our plans and our designs are imperfect…because that is what we are. We are human, we are flawed, and no amount of budget or planning is ever going to create something that can accurately replicate what originates in the heart of God. But there is a thing that happens when we make the attempt and, laying aside our fears of imperfection and awkwardness and failure, we do our best to present publicly the greatest story of Love that has ever been given to humankind. As we step forward with our intention of sharing His love with others, God steps into our work and makes it more. He blesses it. He moves through it. And by His hand intervening, our imperfection becomes something that transcends logic. The story of Jesus’ sacrifice becomes relentlessly compelling however it is told.

I won’t argue that The Passion was a perfect production. It wasn’t. But the question of whether or not it was perfect does not matter at all. What does matter is that the story of Jesus’ loving sacrifice was told publicly by people who were unashamed of it. What does matter is that the word of God was spoken, clear and unfiltered. The creators of The Passion did one thing very, very right: they determined that whatever else happened, they would boast in the Love and redemptive work of Jesus. And that determination and singularity of purpose created a whole much, much larger than the sum of its parts. In 1 Corinthians chapter 1, Paul addresses the way this interchange between the divine and the human happens:

18 For to those who are perishing, the preaching of the cross is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of this world foolish? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

(1 Corinthians 1:18-31 MEV)

No portrayal of the Passion that is crafted by human hands and minds will ever be perfect. Yet as we make the choice to boast in the inconceivable gift of Love that we have been given, we are participating in God’s work. We are choosing to allow God to develop in and through us the foolish things that shame and confound the “wise”.

Every believer knows the truth of our own humanity: We are the weak and lowly, we are the worst of sinners, we are the despised and the rejected…but we are the Redeemed. And our redemption is not only for ourselves but, once received, it moves us forward inexorably to a place where that same Love we have been given pours freely and unabashedly from within us. As Paul said in his second letter to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).

This, I believe, is why The Passion was effective. It was imperfect, it was strange, it was occasionally confusing…but it conveyed the truth in Love. It provided a platform for God’s word to be clearly heard by 6.6 million viewers as believers with full hearts attempted to share the treasure they have received. We may not know the full impact of its message on each one of those viewers, but I have faith that when God’s word and His love are presented, that message never fails to change lives.

This Easter weekend, as you participate in remembering Jesus’ incredible sacrifice and love for you, I encourage you to take time to watch The Passion. It’s available now on Netflix worldwide, on Hulu, and on the Fox.com website. And as you watch, pray that God will continue to touch hearts and minds through the message it presents. Pray that every person who is alone or hurting or confused and sees the production pop up as they’re browsing these video services will be led to press play. Pray that they will hear and see and understand the transcending Love of God for them, extended to them by these broken vessels and imperfect arms held wide open.

8 For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there but water the earth and make it bring forth and bud that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.12 For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 55:8-13

 

 

 

 

Choosing Hope

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This is going to be unpopular with some, I know. If you unfollow me after this post, I will understand that you are doing so because somewhere along the line you have allowed someone to convince you that murder = hope.

And that, my friends, is a lie.

I believe in the beautiful potential and intrinsic value of every human life, from conception to adulthood.

I believe that every life has a purpose, and no life is accidental or unnecessary.

Contrary to what the majority voice is telling you, valuing the life and agency of an unborn infant does not devalue the life and agency of the mother.

I personally support and work alongside several other non-profit agencies which daily reach out to women who are facing the immense pain and challenge of unwanted pregnancy with medical, emotional and financial support…without resorting to convincing them it’s an acceptable choice to murder the child they are carrying.

Despite what the loudest voices want you to believe, there is hope even in the most difficult situation, and there are agencies available to assist women who are trying to find help that does not require killing a baby.

Planned Parenthood’s willingness to obliterate lives for any and all reasons is beyond defense, even without taking into consideration the fact that they are selling human body parts.

Why is it that the only version of hope our society can offer requires murder?

Don’t you think a reasonable society should be able to find a better solution to their problems than infanticide?

If you are pregnant and considering abortion I beg you to please, please think more than twice before you allow someone to kill the child you carry. There are agencies and individuals who can help you find a way to hope, no matter how difficult your situation. Call 1-800-662-2678 to find out what resources are available to you in your area.

Believe that hope can be found in something other than murder.

Believe that life can triumph over death.

Because it can, and it does.

34

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Last Thursday was my birthday. I turned 34, which means I’m now at an age where high school and college students think I’m old-ish and ignore me when I’m present in a room unless required to interact with me, children have started looking at me as the peer of their parents, and older friends constantly remind me that I am, in fact, still an infant.

I’m not generally an incredibly introspective person. Most of the time I would say I’m “practical”, a term which I use to indicate that on the majority of days I stay in the present world of action and motion rather than dwelling in the world of thought, or of the future, or of the past. But recently I’ve been discovering something new in my journey of faith, and so I’ve been analyzing my own thoughts more than usual and I’m sharing them here on the chance that they might encourage or benefit someone else.

Sometimes a birthday is a celebration of what is in the future years, and sometimes a birthday is a celebration of having made it through the past years. And those two celebrations are very different things.

So many of my birthdays have been about the future. 13 was terrifying because who knows what being a teenager is like, and who wouldn’t be a little scared to find out? 16 was filled with excitement because in high school pretty much anything that isn’t an outright tragedy is exciting. 18 was marked by a trip to my first year of college and all the wonder and terror that went with that transition. 21 was filled with laughter and the knowledge that the official drinking age is a bit less significant for those of us who don’t drink, but it still seemed like a pretty good year to look forward to. 28 was my mental entry into the “late 20s” – a world which was scary but somehow filled with promise of more maturity and less self-esteem issues. 30 was an entry into a new decade, and I found myself welcoming it with open arms despite the strangeness of leaving the 20s behind.

But this 34 is a birthday marked not by looking forward, but by looking back and allowing gratitude to build until it infuses my outlook for what is ahead. Because this past year of life – these past few years of my life – have not been easy, but they have been marked by the faithfulness of God and some very uncomfortable but healthy growth.

I have been a believer in Christ since I was 4 years old. I mean that sincerely, not as a cute thing or as a joke. I was a child who was aware of the world around me even at that young age, and when I heard my pastor ask if I wanted to give my heart to Jesus, the One who loved me and had died for me, I knew even as a 4-year-old that I absolutely did want to make that choice. I wanted to be His, and that decision marked my life in a way that was significant and true.

And when I was 26, and life had happened, and I had made the bad choices that pepper all of our lives, and found myself ashamed and guilty and longing to return to a place of joy and holiness, I came back to Him and chose that Walk again, and Jesus welcomed me with the open arms that were always there for me, even when I’d chosen not to see Him there with His love spilling out. It’s true that I have spent more years of my life trying my best to follow God’s will for me than I have spent ignoring His voice. But this life is not about a checklist, and development isn’t measured in years or months or days. My spiritual maturity is not measured by a pro and con list.

In recent years, I have gone through what I can only describe as accelerated adulthood. I chalk this up to the fact that I have experienced an intense round of life experiences that has felt as if about 10 years of life were compressed into only a few. Over the past few years I have moved from one state to another. I have experienced a major and unexpected career shift. I have been a bridesmaid for three of my best friends as they got married. I have watched my father go through severe back pain and surgery, only to suffer with ongoing chronic pain again post-surgery. I have watched my sister face a cancer diagnosis, major life-altering surgery, incredibly difficult months of chemo, and the unbelievably frustrating and debilitating after-effects of chemo in the months that have followed. I watched my grandmother experience the impact of severe dementia leading up to her death. I watched my grandmother’s husband suffer the grief of losing his wife, followed by his own cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. And I have, myself, faced the reality of a chronic illness which has developed over the last few years and is now requiring me to have various medical procedures and take daily medication.

I wish I could say that I think I’ve handled all of this well. If the criteria for handling it “well” is “continuing to function and stay upright” then yes, I’m there. But, basic functionality aside, it has been so, so difficult. I am not a person who likes to live in the land of extreme emotion – again, that essential practicality usually wins out and I find myself pressing on no matter what is happening. But when life gets this intense, I don’t think anyone can really move forward without being moved.

One of the worst downsides of this practicality I have is my tendency not to process emotion when I’m having it. Over the years I’ve come to realize that this is unhealthy for several reasons, not least of which is that it can lead to emotional explosions if bottled up for too long. In college I once shut down an entire class period because I started sobbing loudly and uncontrollably over a story the professor was telling that just happened to parallel a situation I’d experienced the year before. Too much emotion held back for too long. This was my pattern for a long time: Maintain composure, ignore emotion, keep moving forward in seeming strength…and then completely combust at some point.

But now, I am learning to live within emotion and still live. I’m finding, in fact, that this is the only way to live. It can be painful, or wonderful, or terrifying, or delightful, but what it really does is help me to be more sensitive and more aware. Because that bottling up of emotion that I tend to do in the name of practicality creates distance, and a wall, and a barrier between myself and whatever the situation is. It’s the thing between me and anything that might hurt me. And it makes me incapable of reaching out with an open heart to anyone else for fear that their pain might burst the bubble I have formed around myself.

Here is what I’ve been learning in these years: This thing that we talk about in church all the time, that we talk about as believers, this “doing life together”; it is a painful thing. It is a complex thing. And it is a beautiful and a joyous thing. But at no point is it an easy thing. It requires an open heart that is willing to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, not after the fact or at a safe distance, but in the moment and in the middle of the storm and the tumult and the chaos and at the times when everything is the ugliest. It requires actively choosing to participate in the deep emotions of others. But we cannot be heart-open to others if we are not first willing to experience our own jumbled and often overwhelming emotions fully and allow God to show Himself faithful within all of it.

Although self-protective function can seem like the most useful route to take through the most troubling times we face, it is not. I am learning that the way through these times is not to deny my emotion, but to allow myself to admit that I am angry or sad or afraid, and in those moments of my helplessness to cling fiercely to the promises of my faithful God. Because God is love, and His love is perfect, and perfect love casts out fear. We are only capable of living out this necessary open-heartedness when we are able to accept that love moment by moment, experience by experience, day by day. These years of change and fear and grief and pain have reminded me that in myself I have no resources to handle this kind of emotional tsunami. If I try to survive in myself I end up retreating from life rather than advancing. But God’s love for me is fierce, and He is not threatened by anyone or anything, and He is not put off by my feelings or my deepest emotions. I can choose to be vulnerable because He is strong, and I can be afraid because He is that perfect Love that casts out my fear. This is a daily walk. Faced with chaos, life becomes a matter of small moments that feel enormous. And the discipline of living this open-heart life is in learning to hand every one of those tiny/huge moments over to God’s care. This isn’t a one-time decision I made a couple of years ago. It is a choice I am making over and over in the immediate present. And every single time, God is there.

The years leading up to this 34 have been a fight. And I have not walked through them unscathed or unchanged. I have had moments of panic and doubt and deep fear. But I look back at these years and I am so wildly grateful because through them I have learned and am still now learning that feeling deeply does not ultimately have to lead me to a place of hurt, but can instead become a place of healing when I enter into it with a full reliance on the love of my Creator God. 34 is not an ending, but it is for me a signpost marking a place of gratitude, a place along the timeline of my life where my faith developed in a new direction.

And now…on to 35.

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On Friendship, Travel, and Prince Edward Island

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Sixteen years ago this August, I stepped out of my childhood spent in this place of palm trees, blanketing humidity, and wandering alligators into the relative adulthood of college. I was sick of Florida, having grown up here, and at the ripe old age of 18 I’d decided I never wanted to see another palm tree as long as I lived. Naturally, this led to choosing a university in a place of mountains and forests and chilly autumn winds; in my case, the location was Lee University in tiny, sleepy Cleveland, Tennessee. Within the first few months of my time at Lee U., I’d already met a group of friends who kept me from losing my sanity through college, and with whom I’m still in contact now. It took a couple of years for those friendships to gel and become strong, but once they’d developed they never ended. I’m fortunate to still be in contact with almost all of the people I spent the majority of my time with in college! And some of these people – the ones who lived with me in our apartment and daily walked with me through the ups and downs of life – are still my best friends to this day. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me had I not found these friends; or, rather, had God not placed them in my life. They have been a blessing to me that is inexpressible and profound, and I’m so grateful that we’re still able to enjoy life together. (Oh, and after the first two years in Tennessee, I began to understand why people would voluntarily choose to live in Florida – palm trees and heat seem far more attractive when you’re wearing 10 layers of clothing to ward off the winter chill!)

Two of these friends – Leah and Mariesha – have somehow become even closer friends of mine over the years than when we were in college, and I think I know why. One of the first and most strategic choices we’ve made as friends that has allowed us to remain close through the years has been our decision to attempt to reunite for at least one trip each year. Perhaps it’s because we all come from coastlines (Florida, Long Island and Hawaii) that always kept us looking out toward the rest of the world, but we have a shared love of travel and of adventure that has continued to grow as we’ve matured and found our own place in the world. We can’t seem to get enough of traveling, and we enjoy traveling together – a thing which, if you’ve ever attempted to travel with a group, you know is priceless. Over the years we’ve traveled back to Tennessee, Colorado, New York, Texas, and even to Europe, and have spent more than one Thanksgiving celebrating together in single-girl solidarity. We’ve only missed out on this a few times – once, because Mariesha was serving a year in Afghanistan, and once or twice because of conflicting schedules or financial challenges – but for the most part we’ve managed to keep the tradition going. And when bigger life changes have come, we’ve just used those as our excuse to get together, as with the two weddings over the last two years (yes, now I’m the single-girl extra, but it hasn’t made a difference!). It was such a joy last year to celebrate our 15th anniversary of friendship on the weekend that Leah got married. I’m not sure how rare it is for women to maintain friendships this way, but I would definitely suggest it to anyone attempting to preserve a good thing – traveling together provides time to reconnect deeply, time to recreate the shared experience of being together that fades over the years, and inevitably produces new inside jokes and funny stories of adventure which sustain you through the coming years.

This year was one of the exceptions to our tradition. Mariesha and her husband were moving into a new house, and right at the only time when Leah and I could both travel, they were in the most insane part of that process. So Leah and I were left to choose a destination on our own, and while we’d originally looked at going to the UK (far too expensive this year) we ended up choosing Prince Edward Island instead. You might wonder why we chose such a tiny, remote island as our destination; although, if you’re a woman between the age of 20 and 100 who enjoys reading, you can probably guess why! PEI was the home of L. M. Montgomery, author of the wonderful Anne of Green Gables series, which is also set on the island. I read the full series of 8 books for the first time when I was 8 years old, and have re-read it nearly every year since. Leah had read the first book, and we’d both grown up watching the incredible film version of the story which came out in the mid-80s. Anne’s life was as familiar to us as our own life, and her love/hate/love relationship with Gilbert was one of the first romances that really drew us in. In fact, Gilbert became the prototype “perfect guy” for our generation in much the same way that Jake Ryan from the movie Sixteen Candles was for those just a few years older than we were! Needless to say, then, that the thought of roaming the same beaches and woodlands that Anne roamed was more than a little intoxicating for us both.

Prince Edward Island is known as the “Gentle Island” by Canadians, and it’s a well-deserved name. We were fortunate enough to be able to spend 10 days there, and explored the coastal drives in the central and eastern portions of the island very thoroughly. PEI is a place of wide, sandy beaches and brilliantly red clay cliffs, of jagged jutting coastlines and sandbars that reach far into the sea. Look at an overhead view of PEI, and you will see lighthouses dotting the edges of the island like Christmas lights on a wreath. The history of PEI is a combination of agriculture, fishing and shipping; at one point there were shipyards all over the island’s coastline, where the giant seagoing ships were constructed. Now that ships are made of metal rather than wood, those dockyards are gone and have left behind dozens of tiny coastal communities whose people still make their living farming blue PEI mussels or going out to deeper waters seeking lobsters and fish. Inland, farms overwhelmingly dominate the landscape, and if you go before the crops have all come up (as we did), the whole interior of the island looks like a quilt done up in brightly vibrant patches of red and green, with an occasional happy black-and-white cow wandering across the landscape in lieu of decoration.

When we were planning our trip to PEI, Leah and I kept mentioning to each other how idyllic everything seemed to be on the island, and wondering if it could possibly live up to that appearance upon closer examination. To our amazement, the island only seemed even more lovely and picturesque once we arrived! We began our journey by flying into Halifax, Nova Scotia, and driving on to Prince Edward Island, connecting to the island via the Confederation Bridge and then traveling up to the far coastline of the island to Rusticoville. Our cottage was very close to North Rustico Harbour, just about a five minute drive away, and it was a delightful location with a panoramic view that allowed us to see both the sunset and the ocean at all times. Just beautiful.

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The nature of Prince Edward Island is such that almost as soon as you drive onto the island you can feel your city-life-stress begin to drain away and leave behind it a sense of peace and calm. As Leah and I spent the first four days of our trip roaming around the loveliness of the North/Central PEI, we were struck by just how unspoiled it seems. Even the thousands of tourists like ourselves who travel to PEI each year in search of Anne’s Land or a golfing destination, or even a fishing trip, haven’t managed to ruin this place. It’s not that the island is untamed or untouched – with so much of the island being dedicated to farming you can’t go too far without seeing a farmhouse, and the shoreline is full of fishing villages, but the overall feeling is that somehow you’ve stepped back in time to a land where technology hasn’t quite made the impact it has on the rest of the world.021-IMG_4762 022-IMG_4764 023-IMG_4766 024-IMG_4773 025-IMG_4775

PEI is known for its red clay, and particularly for the red cliffs which create stunning visuals along its coast. PEI National Park and the surrounding area was a wonderful place to see the red cliffs, and because we were visiting during the “shoulder season” we were able to see everything nearly without seeing any other tourists! There were definitely times when we felt like we had the whole island to ourselves, which we loved! Coming from Southwest Florida, I’m used to seeing beaches filled with colorful shells, so this world of red clay and blackly-blue mussels and gnarled, weathered driftwood was a visual shift that was really striking.

Within the first four days of our trip, we had visited most of the major L. M. Montgomery-related tourism sites. With only a couple of minor exceptions, both the places and the people were beyond wonderful. The islanders who work at each site are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and they don’t mind being asked questions about either their island or their island’s most famous literary resident. I don’t know that I’ve ever visited any place where the locals seemed happier about their homeland; universally, when we asked how people liked living on PEI, they gave the island rave reviews and many claimed it was the best place in the world to live. I won’t go into much detail regarding the tourist locations, but I’ll include a few pictures below so that you can see how gorgeous it all is – and for true Anne of Green Gables fanatics, let me tell you from experience that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing Green Gables for the first time. Leah and I both teared up when we first visited; there is just something about visiting a place that has played such a large part of your childhood understanding of life!

After our initial four days roaming in “Anne’s Land” and visiting the PEI National Park area there, we drove up to Point East Lighthouse. The one thing I’d warn anyone about who was considering a visit to PEI is that there is a lot of driving involved if you want to explore. Roads, both paved and unpaved, criss-cross the whole island like so many tiny veins, and in order to get from point A to point B, it’s quite frequently necessary to spend an enormous amount of time listening to the voice of your GPS ordering you around. Not that I’m complaining about the GPS; if we hadn’t had one, we would’ve been hopelessly lost for the entirety of our trip! For Leah and I, the long stretches of driving provided time to have the hours of conversation we never are able to get when we’re at home and sometimes just to enjoy the beauty of the island in silence, drinking in the views.

The second half of our visit to PEI was spent in the southeastern portion of the island. As we made the transition to our new home base, we took a small side trip to see Orwell Corner Historical Village, a site that has been preserved to showcase the island’s agricultural heritage. The buildings onsite are nearly all original and date back to 1895. Not only was this interesting in a historical sense, but in addition the site was used as a filming location for the Anne of Green Gables films!

After exploring Orwell Corner Historical Village, we traveled to our new home. I’m not exaggerating when I say we ended up in what turned out to be the remotest possible place, a tiny cottage out on Point Prim. Point Prim is a small jut of land, about 11 km long, which sticks out into the Northumberland Strait, and at the very end stands the Point Prim Lighthouse and the Point Prim Chowder House and Oyster Bar, where I had some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten! There were some disadvantages to being out so far; for one, we didn’t have any restaurants apart from the Chowder House nearby and had to drive over 30min to find any sign of civilization. However, the benefits of being in such a remote place were found in the silence and peace of the place, the kindness of our hosts the Murchisons, and in the fact that a little family of seals was hanging out just down the beach! I’m sorry to say I wasn’t able to get any good pictures of the seals, but believe me–they were adorable! During our Point Prim stay, we spent our days roaming up the coastline to Wood Island, to Montague and Murray Harbour, to Souris and Basin Head, before heading back to our cottage in the evening and walking the shore looking for sea glass and seals.

I could say so much more about our trip; could talk about how we spent hours shopping in little stores that had been set up in homes and barns and holes in the wall, about how we watched Anne of Green Gables after we’d gone to see the house because we couldn’t resist the urge to see if it looked anything like PEI really does (the answer is…sort of?). I could say that Charlottetown is a wonderful town with one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I’ve seen outside Europe, and mention that my first experience of poutine changed my life. I could talk about the little happy surprises, like finding an odd, delightful little tea room run by a Japanese lady who was the perfect hostess only minutes after a local had told us there wasn’t a tea room anywhere in the area. There are so many good memories and pleasant moments to recall. But beyond all of that, I’m just so glad I could experience it with one of my best friends. Because while writing about this trip might give you a glimpse into what it was really like, only Leah and I will ever understand it in the same way. And that’s a beautiful thing to have, after 16 years of friendship. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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The Greatest Drama Ever Staged…

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On this Good Friday I’ve been reading through some of what history’s greatest writers and theologians have said about the importance of remembering this day, and of all of them this by Dorothy Sayers is the one that gripped me the most. I hope it inspires you as it has me.

The Greatest Drama Ever Staged Is the Official Creed of Christendom
by Dorothy Sayers

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.

That drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the Church, and if we think it dull it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents or have recited them so often and so mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. The plot pivots upon a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: What think ye of Christ? Before we adopt any of the unofficial solutions (some of which are indeed excessively dull)—before we dismiss Christ as a myth, an idealist, a demagogue, a liar, or a lunatic—it will do no harm to find out what the creeds really say about him. What does the Church think of Christ?

The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: that Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.” His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”—he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.

Christianity is, of course, not the only religion that has found the best explanation of human life in the idea of an incarnate and suffering god. The Egyptian Osiris died and rose again; Aeschylus in his play, The Eumenides, reconciled man to God by the theory of a suffering Zeus. But in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period of prehistory. The Christian story, on the other hand, starts off briskly in St. Matthew’s account with a place and date: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King.” St. Luke, still more practically and prosaically, pins the thing down by a reference to a piece of government finance. God, he says, was made man in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census in connection with a scheme of taxation. Similarly, we might date an event by saying that it took place in the year that Great Britain went off the gold standard. About thirty-three years later (we are informed), God was executed, for being a political nuisance, “under Pontius Pilate”—much as we might say, “when Mr. Johnson-Hicks was Home Secretary.” It is as definite and concrete as all that.

Possibly we might prefer not to take this tale too seriously—there are disquieting points about it. Here we had a man of divine character walking and talking among us—and what did we find to do with him? The common people, indeed, “heard him gladly”; but our leading authorities in Church and State considered that he talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we bribed one of his friends to hand him over quietly to the police, and we tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, and had him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows, “thanking God we were rid of a knave.” All this was not very creditable to us, even if he was (as many people thought and think) only a harmless, crazy preacher. But if the Church is right about him, it was more discreditable still, for the man we hanged was God Almighty.

So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.

To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.

He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.

“And the third day he rose again.” What are we to make of this? One thing is certain: if he were God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if he really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person.

The Church binds us to no theory about the exact composition of Christ’s Resurrection Body. A body of some kind there had to be since man cannot perceive the Infinite otherwise than in terms of space and time. It may have been made from the same elements as the body that disappeared so strangely from the guarded tomb, but it was not that old, limited mortal body, though it was recognizably like it. In any case, those who saw the risen Christ remained persuaded that life was worth living and death a triviality—an attitude curiously unlike that of the modern defeatist, who is firmly persuaded that life is a disaster and death (rather inconsistently) a major catastrophe.

Now, nobody is compelled to believe a single word of this remarkable story. God (says the Church) has created us perfectly free to disbelieve in him as much as we choose. If we do disbelieve, then he and we must take the consequences in a world ruled by cause and effect. The Church says further that man did, in fact, disbelieve, and that God did, in fact, take the consequences. All the same, if we are going to disbelieve a thing, it seems on the whole to be desirable that we should first find out what, exactly, we are disbelieving. Very well, then: “The right Faith is, that we believe that Jesus Christ is God and man, Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Who although he be God and man yet is he not two, but one Christ.” There is the essential doctrine, of which the whole elaborate structure of Christian faith and morals is only the logical consequences.

Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating, or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed. Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as news; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it news, and good news at that; though we are likely to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.

Perhaps the drama is played out now, and Jesus is safely dead and buried. Perhaps. It is ironical and entertaining to consider that at least once in the world’s history those words might have been spoken with complete conviction, and that was upon the eve of the Resurrection.

How to Pray for the Persecuted Church

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How to Pray for the Persecuted Church

With new reports coming in daily of the atrocities being committed against our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, it’s more important than ever that we set aside time to pray for the persecuted church. The guide below will help to focus our prayers and assist us in understanding the full ramifications of persecution. This was crafted by a pastor who wished to remain anonymous, and I’m grateful for their good work!

For their physical protection and deliverance.

Matthew 26:39 “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”

Acts 12:5 “So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.”

Philippians 1:19 “For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance (from jail) through your prayers.”

Philemon 22 “I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you (from jail)”

Romans 15:30-31 “Now I urge you, brethren… to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea”.

God predicted persecution:
Acts 20:23-24 “the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course”

And the suffering came:
Acts 21:30-31 “And all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together; and taking hold of Paul, they dragged him out of the temple; and… were seeking to kill him.”

That God would give them the right words and that they would fearlessly make Christ known

Here Paul tells how to pray for him when he was suffering for Christ in jail—notice his prayer was not for release.

Ephesians 6:19-20 “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

Colossians 4:2-4 “Devote yourselves to prayer… praying at the same time for us as well, that God may open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; in order that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.”

That they will see God’s grace as sufficient and God’s power perfected in their weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

That they would love Christ’s appearing all the more

2 Timothy 4:5-8 “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”

Hebrews 11:35 “…others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection”.

That they will rejoice in sharing the sufferings of Jesus so that they will rejoice even more when Christ is revealed

Hebrews 10:34 “…accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one.”

Matthew 5:12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

I Peter 4:13 “but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation.”

That they will endure

Hebrews 10:36 “For you have need of endurance.”
That they will choose ill-treatment and the reproach of Christ, not pleasures of sin

Hebrews 11:24-26 “Moses… (chose) rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.”
That they will arm themselves with this purpose: to suffer so as to eradicate sin

1 Peter 4:1 “arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in flesh has ceased from sin.”

Hebrews 5:8 “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”

That they will love Christ far more than life itself

Revelation 12:10-11 “they overcame (Satan) because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death.”

Philippians 1:21 “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Acts 20:24 “I (Paul) do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course.”

That they will love their enemies

Luke 6:27-31 “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
That they not enter into temptation—an easy possibility under the stress of persecution (Luke 22:39-45 – Jesus in the garden)

That they will rejoice that they are considered worthy to suffer for HIS name

Acts 5:41 “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.”
That they will remember they were made for such persecution

Acts 14:22 “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Philippians 1:29 “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”

That they will live the joy of the Lord before their persecutors

Acts 16:25 “But about midnight Paul and Silas (in jail) were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”

Philippians 1:28 “…in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.”

That they will remember their unbelievable future glory

Romans 8:18 “For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
That they would learn to more completely trust in God

2 Corinthians 1:8-9 “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead”
That they would rejoice that they bear in their bodies the “brand marks of Christ”

Galations 6:17 “From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.”

That they would rejoice in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s sufferings

Colossians 1:24 “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”

Note: Our sufferings do not add to the atoning worth of Jesus’ sufferings. Rather, His sufferings are not known to the world, and so we suffer to bring that news to those His sufferings were meant to save.

(This information was taken from an anonymous post submitted here by a pastor.)

We Are the 21

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This weekend during our Women’s Ministries Retreat out on Sanibel Island, I stood on the beach at sunrise looking at an endless, colorful line on the sand made up of thousands of Fighting Conch shells. Recently the tides out on Sanibel have been some of the lowest ever seen and the result has been an overwhelming amount of sea life delivered onto the beaches and left there. I’ve seen large numbers of shells out on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Islands before; this is one of the top shelling locations in the world so it’s not an unusual thing. But I’ve rarely ever seen so many living bright orange Fighting Conchs strewn in lines down the beach. As I walked the sand early on Sunday morning, picking up empty shells to bring home, I turned over living shell after living shell, their sinewy bodies straining toward the possibility of continued life.

It was an oddly distressing thing, in a way, to see that many lives wasted along a beach, stranded without hope of returning to the water unless I actually picked them up and threw them back. But that wasn’t a realistic hope at all, given the sheer number of living conchs. I realized as I was standing there that I could have thrown them back until my arm was weary and never have made a dent.

In her message this weekend, Pastor Connie actually took note of this phenomenon. She talked about seeing the conchs and the sheer magnitude of the living shells there. But, as a seasoned shell collector, she was able to see it in a way I could not. Those conchs, she pointed out, were almost without exception very mature. They had lived their lives in the sea successfully, growing to full maturation and completing the life cycle designed for them from the moment of their creation. That last dying moment on the beach was, for them, a culmination.

As I listened to her, it suddenly struck me that I had seen another row of lives, immeasurably more precious, lost on a beach this week. The world itself stopped to stare as 21 Coptic Christian brothers, wearing orange jumpsuits, were marched down onto the sand by black-clad members of ISIS and beheaded, their lives sacrificed because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Labeled the “People of the Cross” by their captors, these men were chosen to prove the power of ISIS and show the weakness of those who call themselves Christians. 21 bodies stopped breathing that day. 21 families lost their loved ones.

Looked at from a natural perspective, this was a tragic event of incomprehensible proportions. The human mind does not want to even accept the reality of such a thing. Our every sense runs in the other direction when presented with this kind of horror. We mourn the loss of these lives, and beyond our sorrow for these men and their families, we mourn something greater. The taking of one human life by another human is wrong in ways our hearts cannot fully articulate but can only feel deeply and at our very core. And, in the end, our broken world chooses to forget that these things happen, because they do not know how to accept them.

There is, however, another perspective on the death of these martyrs, born in the hearts of those of us who count ourselves the brothers and sisters of these 21 killed. We who share their faith know that from the perspective of their Creator these men, these believers, these People of the Cross did not die in vain. They finished the race that was set before them, ending their lives with the name of Christ on their lips and in their hearts. We read in scripture that the death of His saints is precious in the sight of God (Psalm 116:15), and know that the deaths of these brothers is held dear to the One who formed them in their mothers’ wombs.

There is a strange thing that occurred when the men of ISIS chose to film the death of those 21 captives. They meant, we must assume from their words, to intimidate and create fear in the hearts of all who watched. The video was supposed to indicate their unstoppable power, to convey a threat toward those who would seek to stop them. But somehow what they achieved was the opposite. By labeling these men the People of the Cross, they gave their faith an unintentional validity which couldn’t have been clearer or stronger. It has always been the case that the followers of Christ, when faced with persecution, come together in unity and strength of faith greater than at any other time. Against the dark, the light becomes more noticeable.

Even in the visuals of the film, it is striking that what you notice first is not the black-clad executioners—it is the bright orange jumpsuits of the 21 men. The eye is drawn to their faces, uncovered and astonishingly, blindingly, uniquely human. We see them and our minds recognize immediately that they are fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. The voice of the ISIS captors is heard, but what we are drawn to is the moving mouths of the 21 as they speak the name of their Savior. And despite what might seem logical, they are not silenced until the final blow comes. We are allowed to see what ISIS would have done well to hide. These 21 did not die denying their faith but declaring it. What ISIS intended as a ghastly proof of their own superiority instead stands as proof of their inability to quench the spirit of those who are destined to inherit the Kingdom of God.

The reaction to this event by the followers of Christ – those who would gladly call themselves People of the Cross – around the world has been like nothing I’ve ever seen. The images from that day on the beach have become symbols of our faith like none my generation has ever had. We have lived a long time in a world where our faith has been made fun of as weak, as incompetent, as ridiculous. But there is nothing ridiculous in the stark reality of the deaths of those 21 men, and finally we have seen it with our own eyes. Faith cannot remain trivial when we have grasped the undeniable fact that it is a matter of life and death. We are waking up to truth, recognizing that whatever the culture may think about our faith, it is no joke. It is a way of life and, if it becomes necessary, it is a way of death.

On the list of those slaughtered there is one entry which draws my eye again and again: “Worker from Awr village.” He is the unnamed one of those killed, and the thought reaches out to me as I stare at that line that somehow his anonymity has given all believers a place in this story. We are all of us workers in the Kingdom of God. If we have chosen to follow Christ, to take up His cross and follow His leading into the unknown, then like this man, this “worker from Awr village,” our lives are on a path that is not of our own design. Our days, our moments, our deaths are all in the hands of God. And we must work, together and with unshakeable courage, to be that bright, undeniable line in the sand and declare His name until the end comes.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
Revelation 12:10-12

Release. Be filled.

Little Ms Adventure

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I have been so tightly wound. Circumstances and chaos have spun me around and around. The horizon is lost and so I hold fast to whatever I can. But, unaware, I’m holding on to the things that hold me back. Tonight, I thought I would write out some things that have been pressing on my soul…but the list kept growing. And I realized how much I have been trying to control, how much I have been trying to regulate, how much I’ve been trying to find my horizon.  It is time to release.

Release all the self-expectation. Release all the perfection. Release all the striving.

Release the inadequacies. Release the deficiencies. Release the insufficiencies.

Release the emotional chaos. Release the career chaos. Release timelines.

Release the half finished home projects. Release budget imperfections. Release retirement plans.

Release dress size. Release missed workouts. Release failed meal planning.

Release missed opportunities. Release…

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Be Still and Know

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This song, ‘Be Still and Know’ by Steven Curtis Chapman, has been a favorite of mine for years. Its quietly contemplative mood is basically the opposite of the chaos we usually associate with Monday mornings. This morning as I was gearing up for what promises to be another busy week, I found myself wishing for something to help me re-focus on what is really essential and I went looking for this song again. I was rushing too much, and I could tell – it was time to remember why I do what I do…and that I don’t do it alone.

It’s too easy for us to launch ourselves headlong into a schedule of meetings and deadlines and responsibilities without ever taking the time to be still in the presence of God. As people who are trying to live out a daily faith, we need to learn to live intentionally. The feelings of hollowness and meaninglessness that sometimes creep into our lives around the edges of our faith when we are overwhelmed by our schedule and our responsibilities are not a result of the lack of the Holy Spirit’s presence, but of our own inattention to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Everyone knows their own weaknesses and the areas where they tend to blow through time without actually consciously recognizing its passing or its source. For me, as someone who hates mornings and avoids getting up until the last possible minute, it’s actually quite difficult to get my brain into gear so that I begin the day with a God-centered focus. So I personally find it really helpful to take a few moments at the beginning of every workday, when I’m finally sitting at my desk and ready to begin working, to specifically dedicate the day to the Lord. Even setting aside time for a two-minute prayer can help my attitude toward the day’s work change significantly. Taking the time to focus on the Lord not only helps to reorient our perspective on the events of the day, but also reminds us that we are never walking through this helpless or alone. No matter what is scheduled for this week, no matter what difficulties are coming our way, our faithful God loves us, is with us and will equip us for every challenge.

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)

Reflections on Holiness and Human Sexuality

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Imagine this scenario (If your life is at all like mine, this will sound familiar): You’re having coffee with a close Christian friend, catching up on life, and they hesitate for a moment and then tell you they’re sleeping with their significant other. You’re quiet for a few seconds, because you’re trying to understand why they’ve chosen to take this step since they always seemed to have the same standards you did regarding sexual purity. So after a few awkward seconds have passed, you ask them…why? And their answer sounds something like this: “Well, we’d done other stuff, and then once we’d done IT, it was done, so…you know, it’s no big deal. I mean, we love each other. We’re in a committed relationship. I don’t see why it matters.”

Do you know how many times I’ve had the above conversation? So many times I’ve lost count.

“Once you’ve had sex, you’ve crossed a threshold and there’s no going back…so purity isn’t an option anymore.”

Just think about it for a minute. Does this even sound like something that could possibly be within God’s purpose for our lives?

The huge movement toward sexual purity groups and promise rings that swept through the Christian world in the ‘90s had some positive effects. It got people to actually discuss sexuality as something that is a part of all lives, not just the lives of boys and men. The purity groups that were formed in churches created a place where Christians could discuss these issues with other like-minded people. And it encouraged a new kind of commitment to purity which was not in itself a negative thing at all.

However…

The unhealthy side effect of the “True Love Waits” movement and other purity-based groups was that it too strongly emphasized the act of sexual intercourse as the Big Bad Thing to Be Avoided At All Costs…and in too many cases it completely ignored the fact that humans are sexual beings whose experience with issues of purity and impurity goes far, far beyond a bad decision made late one night. I have talked to so many people who felt alienated from their church’s purity group because the active temptation to have sex wasn’t actually something they even struggled with and the group seemed focused only on that. More than one of my friends has told me of sitting through hours of teachings about dating and “keeping yourself for your husband” in the context of a relationship…while she was trying to figure out what to do with her raging addiction to pornography or masturbation, issues which were never mentioned to young girls at all. And the experience was even worse for both girls and guys who had already been sexually active. With the emphasis placed on the act of sexual intercourse, being a sexually active person in a “True Love Waits” group was equivalent to painting Hester Prynn’s huge red A on your chest. And even beyond that, there was no chance that any Christian kid in a purity group was going to confess to struggling with confused or homosexual desires. You might as well just commit social suicide and be done with it.

Let’s just get this straight now: Purity is not a one-time thing. Sexual holiness is not a ring on your finger. It’s not a single event or something you lose permanently with one decision. And sexual impurity is not a threshold which you cross when you have sex with someone. It’s not even a threshold.

If we’re going to dedicate ourselves to living a life of sexual holiness before God, we have first got to learn to be honest about the fact that He has made us sexual beings. And somehow we have to begin to look our own sexuality square in the face and see it for the beautiful and dangerous and wild and wonderful quality of our humanity that it is.  Because that’s what it is – it’s an essential part of who we are. And ignoring it does not by any means make it go away – it just makes it the enemy, and that’s not in any way a Godly perspective on sexuality. Christians have for a long time acted as though acknowledging that we are essentially sexual beings is a sin, and this is equally a problem to being promiscuous. We are born with reproductive organs already developing and growing, and the desires and longings which develop as we enter adolescence are a normal part of the development process. Being a sexual human being is not, in itself, a sin. And if we’re ever going to develop a theology of holy sexuality which is fully realized, we cannot keep acting as though sexuality has an off switch. It is an integral part of who we are as human beings. Pretending that sexuality isn’t an issue until marriage or a relationship won’t make our struggles disappear. Instead, we have got to begin examining how our sexuality fits into our lives as individuals in community who have been called to live a holy life.

In this journey toward a holy life, the deception of the gradual is one of our greatest enemies. The life-changing bad decisions we find ourselves eventually making are only a result of frequent, seemingly insignificant, compromises along the way. No one dedicated to living a Godly life wakes up one day and says to themselves, “I’m kind of bored, so…I think I’ll develop a life-altering addiction to pornography today!” But many people will choose to go see a movie with more sexual content than they’re really comfortable with, because the “rest of the movie is good” or read a book that has explicit sexual material in it because “it’s written really well.” How many times have we allowed ourselves to listen to music with incredibly sexually explicit lyrics because we like the artist and we just “enjoy the sound”? I am not by any means arguing that we should never go to any movie, or that we should all burn every secular book we own or delete every music file that isn’t a worship song. What I am saying is that we need to very carefully reflect on what we’re allowing into our minds. The fact that you’re single and trying to follow God’s will right now, or that you’re in a God-honoring relationship where you’ve set boundaries on your physical involvement with each other, does not in any way mean that you can behave as though nothing from “the world” has any impact on you. The fact is that we are designed by God to have sexual responses and thoughts…and that aspect of our design isn’t something that is only switched to the “ON” setting when you have finally said, “I do.”

We may not like to recognize it, but all of those little compromises we make when we watch or read or listen to material that is diametrically opposed to a holy life create a mental atmosphere which encourages our thought patterns to follow paths which are also diametrically opposed to a holy life. None of us is immune to temptation if we constantly make decisions to intentionally expose ourselves to greater quantities of it. God has given us the weapons by which we can fend off the temptations which come our way – but if we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit’s conviction and consciously choose to walk down a road leading to temptation it’s another matter entirely.

So what is our alternative? Hiding ourselves in bunkers to avoid temptation isn’t a viable solution. Ignoring our sexuality isn’t a solution, because it makes sexuality the enemy…which it is not. I believe that the key to walking out a life which is characterized by sexual holiness is simply to learn to live a life in which God’s joys are our joys, His loves are our loves, and His ultimate glory is our sole focus and purpose.

I can already hear you arguing with me that this isn’t a practical answer to the issues at hand. But I truly believe it’s our only answer, and I am convinced that God has already given us every tool we need to make it a way of life. It is foolish to think that we can somehow maintain holiness in our understanding and practice of sexuality if holiness is not pervading the rest of our lives as well. The root of all of our struggles is our broken humanity, and it is only when we draw close to God and allow Him to heal us fully that we will be able to live a life of holiness. We are never going to be able to live holy on our own – it’s impossible for us to expend enough effort to drag our own brains kicking and screaming to a place of holiness. This is an over-arching principle that isn’t limited to issues of sexuality, but it does apply directly to our approach to sexuality. The only way that we’re ever going to find our thoughts and actions mirroring God’s perspectives on sexuality is to allow Him to be our source and our fulfillment in every area of our lives. God is holy, and He has offered us the chance through Jesus to be holy as well. This isn’t wishful thinking, it’s an absolute Biblical truth. 2 Timothy 1:7-10 states:

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

A holy life is not a pipe-dream, it’s our calling. And because we know it’s our calling, we also know that God will equip us to live it out. When we choose to move closer to Him, to spend time drawing near to Him, there is no part of our humanity which is not impacted. We are not compartmentalized. Sexuality is as much who we are as any other facet of the human experience, and it is intrinsically linked to every other aspect. Therefore when God begins to revolutionize us and to transform and renew our minds, that transformative work pervades every single aspect of who we are, including our sexuality. We will not win the battle with sexual temptation across the board only by avoiding things or by ignoring the struggle or even by making ourselves accountable to someone. We will win the battle with sexual temptation and begin to live holy when our entire selves are so filled with the spirit of God and our hearts are so turned toward Jesus that there is no room in us for anything else. The closer we are to Jesus, the further we are from every single other thing which would distract us or tempt us or twist our perspective from the truth.

The key to a life of holiness lies in making the choice to pursue a deeper relationship with God. It is not possible to accidentally live a holy life. And it’s certainly not the norm to live out a holy sexuality. It will, in fact, very possibly make you wildly unpopular with a lot of people if you choose to live a life characterized by true sexual holiness. There is no sector of popular culture in our world today which is comfortable with a Godly approach to sexuality, and nearly every voice we hear encourages exactly the opposite. If we make the choice to press in toward a new understanding of who God is and what His best plan for our lives looks like, we have to be willing to live a lifestyle that is truly revolutionary. If we desire to approach our sexuality from a perspective of honesty and freedom, the best decision we can make is to move deeper into our understanding of the nature of God and the intensity of his desire to be in relationship with us. It is through the constant awareness of the love and the grace of God that we find the fulfilment and healing which makes us whole. The ravenous quality of an unredeemed human sexuality is frightening in its ability to devour up whole lives and families. We are in danger when we ignore the little deceits – the small decisions we’re making which should act as signs to us that our sexuality is something we are holding back from complete surrender to Jesus. The deception of the gradual is that creeping series of choices which move us in tiny, damaging increments further and further from the heart of our Father. Sexual sin is not the problem in itself – it is a symptom of a life which does not have Christ at its core.

My own life has been filled with years of struggle in the area of sexual holiness, and I am the last person to claim that I have reached a point of perfection in my attempts to live a Godly life. But I have experienced first-hand the incredible lightness that comes as a result of God’s deliverance from deep-rooted addictions, and I continue to make progress in developing a deeper relationship with the One who has saved me from my own weakness. I absolutely know beyond any doubt that God is capable of redeeming even the darkest and most depraved sexuality to complete healing. And I am convinced that the complex beauty of a life of holiness is worth the discipline of daily choosing to go deeper in relationship with Him. No matter who you are in public or in private, no matter what your addiction or temptation or your past sin, God is more than able to restore you to a place of complete freedom and holiness. You are never, ever so soiled that Christ cannot redeem you. You are never so dirty that His blood can’t wash you clean. If you will simply make the choice to pursue Him, He will be true to His promises.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sinfor us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)