Intentionally engaging in an Advent practice has become a crucial part of my spiritual health. This year, I've chosen a prayer practice called Praying in Color. To learn more about it, check out this link.
My friends know my propensity to move on to the next thing. My mother claims I entered the world with a been-there-done-that attitude. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but I have come to acknowledge it is part of who I am.
But, I'm growing. I am learning to stay put, even when the impulse to move begins bubbling up inside me. I'm embracing the tension that sometimes I need to remain and stop looking around and other times, my gifts are best expressed in brief interactions that require no long-term involvement.
Which made a recent open door quite a conundrum. I was sitting at home, minding my own business when, out of nowhere, a door opened up. As I peered through the open door I found nothing of interest so I simply closed the door. But the door did not want to stay closed. I would be busy attending to daily tasks, only to look up and find the door mysteriously ajar.
I began to converse with God about this.
"Is this a door you want me to walk through?"
"What do you want to do?" came the reply.
"I want to do what you want me to do." I said truthfully.
"You know yourself. Stay where you are or walk through the door, but choose what is most true to who you are. What will give you life?"
As I sat with that question over the course of a couple of weeks, the decision became clear. The existence of an open door did not necessitate me walking through it. The available option did not constitute life for me and I definitively slammed the door shut. Immediately, I sensed space opening up inside me. Space for beauty and creativity and new life.
And yet, that stupid door would not stay shut. I began to reconsider. It was quite lovely on the other side of the door. There was new adventure. New people. Perhaps more opportunity, attention, respect...But what to do with the clear affirmation of the decision to stay? On the other hand, how can we really be sure we've heard from God anyway? Couldn't I just as easily say that God wanted me to walk through the door because he kept opening it? I could feel myself spiritualizing a poor decision, but I was beginning to get quite agitated by the open door.
And then my Lent devotion this morning from Philippians 2:4-8.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Then I knew the answer to the open door. The door led me to the place of taking care of my own interests. My own ego. My own security. My devotional encouraged me to walk like Jesus this Holy Week--emptying myself from the need to control and my anxious passion for security. I certainly had been experiencing anxiety and I had been ready to step through the door in hopes that action, any action, would serve to dissipate the discomfort. But Easter freedom is not found in serving my own interests, but in humbly following where Jesus is leading me, listening attentively and choosing the path of self-emptying love.
What I find fascinating about this journey is its uniqueness for each of us. I think I may get to sit in my room and watch someone else walk through the open door--and it will be exactly the door God has for him or her. And, if I'm really growing, I'll be able to smile and encourage as someone walks past me on the way to a new adventure.
As a general rule I don't try to talk about Jesus with intoxicated people. Particularly a groom-to-be at his bachelor party who happens to be wearing a women's dress. But sometimes thats exactly who Jesus wants me to talk to. Jesus often surprises me.
On the last night of a recent conference in Budapest, much of our staff was gathered in the hotel lobby, taking advangtage of every last minute together before we each headed our separate directions in the morning. As I sat down to wait for a colleague, I felt someone tap my shoulder from behind. It was the aforementioned bachelor and he wanted to talk.
I did not. I attempted to put on my don't-even-think-about-talking-to-me face but was reminded again that no matter how hard I try I always look friendly.
"Are you from Colorado?" he asked. (Apparently he was testing his knowledge of U.S. states with every person he met.)
"No. California." I replied shortly.
"I'm Steve," he said as he extended his hand. I reluctantly introduced myself and hoped he would turn around and continue talking with his friends.
"Why are there so many Americans here?" (Actually there were many more Europeans present than Americans.)
"For a conference." (I hoped that would end the conversation.)
"What kind of conference?" (He was not giving up!)
"We catalyze spiritual communities that are committed to the flourishing of cities throughout Europe." (I hoped this would be sufficiently vague and off-putting.)
"So, you're Protestants?" (I wasn't sure where to go with this one, but decided not to explain further.)
"I myself am not religious," he declared.
"No kidding?" is what I wanted to say, but a smile and a nod seemed the better part of wisdom.
I reluctantly acknowledged he was not to be dissuaded by my brief answers and he was definitely going to pursue the spiritual conversation I was trying to avoid.
People Will Talk
Let me clarify my reticence. It wasn't because I didn't know what to say or feared sharing my faith. I enjoy talking about Jesus. I often find myself in spiritual conversations with strangers and sometimes, even, over a glass of wine. But this felt dangerous to me. Not physically, but emotionally. My friendly demeanor has been known to get me into uncomfortable situations and I was afraid I would end up in a conversation I didn't know how to get out of. Perhap more importantly, I didn't want my coworkers watching me have a friendly, animated conversation with a drunk guy. I know what people will say about me. At best, I'd be called naive for thinking a man was talking to me because he actually cared about my thoughts on spirituality. But louder than the fear was the still, small voice of God inviting me to stay.
Religion and Redemption
I prayed silently as I continued. Steve told me he was from Northern Ireland and had grown up in a Protestant neighborhood being bombed by his Catholic neighbors. As an adult he had become a soldier and been deployed to Iraq where he experienced more war associated with religion. Unsurprisingly, he found religion abhorrent.
I couldn't imagine what that must have been like. And as much as I felt angry for what had been done to him in the name of God, I couldn't escape the reality that I had harmed others in the name of God. Maybe not with physical violence, but certainly with the emotional tools of manipulation and guilt. I had no adequate words to express my emotions so I fumbled through an apology for Christendom.
"I hate religion too," I began. "I'm so sorry you've experienced all of that. Religion has hurt me as well--not even close to what you've experienced-- but I'm just trying to follow Jesus. And Jesus has no part in the violence and death you've experienced. I'm so sorry. " I inwardly berated myself for even attempting to relate my experience to his.
"You really believe Jesus is real." He said it more as a suprised statement than a mocking question. "Look me in the eyes and tell me you believe Jesus is real." The change in his demeanor was almost instant, like I was talking to a different person. Chatty, jovial Steve was replaced by uncertain, intense Steve.
I looked directly at him. I was close enough to smell the beer on his breath.
"I know Jesus is real." There was a brief pause as this registered with him.
"And I know he loves you." Even as that last sentence exited my mouth I felt a wave of regret. I hadn't planned to say it and I wasn't sure why I had, but could I possibly say anything more cliche' than Jesus loves you?"
Steve looked up and away from me for a second as he closed his eyes. Then his face contorted into what can only be described as "ugly cry face" as he opened his eyes and yelled, "Don't f*****g tell me Jesus loves me! You don't know what I've done!" He went on to tell me about the men he had killed in battle. The things he had seen and done that made him unredeemable in his own mind.
I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. The despair was so thick and deep and painful and I wondered if it had ever seen light. But I also felt like I had just been asked to bring water to a dying man in the desert. I possessed the very thing he needed in order to live. What joy!
About this time my colleague, Mike, arrived and I motioned for him to join our conversation. I introduced him to Steve and Steve leaned in to ask him the same question. "Do you believe Jesus is real?" Without missing a beat Mike acknowledged that, in fact, he did.
Lessons for Me
Later, as I reflected on this experience and realized the source of my fear, Jesus reminded me again of the woman who washed his feet with perfume and her tears. He was not concerned about how it looked to others, even though her sins were many. In his tenderness he reminded me that I don't need to be afraid of my past or what others think. He sees my heart. He can redeem me even as he redeems Steve.
I will never see Steve again. I don't know if he'll even remember our conversation. But I know it wasn't wasted. I still pray for him and his new bride each week knowing that God cares infinitely more for them than I do. And I never want to forget the peace, exhileration and joy that accompany our yeses to God's crazy invitations. Even when we don't know ultimate outcomes.
Here I sit in the Portland airport on my way home from one of the pivitol days of my life. I’m trying to eat my mezzo platter without crying in public.
Today I preached for the first time.
Well, not really. But it's the first time anyone called it that and years of often repressed desire and pain are threatening to erupt in public. It has been a long journey and one that I don’t feel prepared to unfold at this moment. But today I feel so much like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair. I feel seen and validated and beautiful and no longer objectified or discounted. I see the men and women around me who are suspicious or fearful or even outraged and it simply doesn’t matter because Jesus is looking me straight in the eyes and inviting me to speak words of life. And he’s smiling that penetratingly loving smile that I’ve come to recognize.
And nothing else in the world matters because I am his and he is mine and he has entrusted me with this message.
The Way of Loss
Sometimes when God closes a door, he also boards up all the windows because he's leading you through the desert and he's protecting you from a dust storm. All that's left, then, is to sit quietly inside and wait until the wind and darkness finally subside. I've yet to find a plaque with that sentiment in any bookstore, but it has come to mean more to me than any promise of ease.
I began the year knowing there would be transition--MAJOR transition--but I had no idea how it would all play out. At the beginning of each year I spend time reviewing the previous twelve months and asking God to show me where he is leading in the next twelve. I have a series of questions I usually ask, but this January I recognized my questions would not be helpful. I threw them out and began to list the changes I knew were coming. In every one of my roles something big was shifting in 2015. I was sending another child off to college, I was finishing my graduate program and losing that regular community, my health was declining and open heart surgery was scheduled, my book was being released, friendships were ending painfully, Richard's job was changing, and my regular consulting jobs and travel were suddenly ended. The only role I saw untouched was my role as daughter. Little did I know.
In the middle of September I was reading in Exodus about the wandering of the Israelites in the desert. I've always been struck with the frustrating circling and seeming randomness of God's leading during that time. There was no efficiency or structure to their going or their resting. They simply followed the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They moved when God's presence in the cloud moved and stopped when it stopped. And along the way, there was loss as the older generation died off. It hit me that I felt a little like the Israelites. I was trying to follow God, but I could not discern any progress toward whatever thing he had for me; my "promised land". I began to draw my year on a piece of paper, noting major events and times I had been instructed to move and times I had stayed put for weeks or months. As I reached the date of my drawing, I drew the pillar of cloud. I don't know why, but my heart sank. It felt frightening because I had no idea what was on the other side. Even though I trusted I would eventually be led to a new place full of life and freedom, I had a sense that the wandering and the loss wasn't yet over.
Two weeks later I was standing over my dad's hospital bed as machines and medicine worked overtime to keep him alive. And then he was gone. Loss that I couldn't have imagined.
After the Storm
So much of our imagery of death is around the wilderness and the wandering toward the promised land via the Jordan river. In a beautiful way, my dad and I crossed the metaphorical Jordan together; him to eternity and me to the end of this season of wandering and the beginning of what God has been preparing me for. The storm has passed and I find myself sitting in my house on the other side of the Jordan with all the doors and windows wide open. And, the reminder that this life is not all there is.
I'm looking forward to a new year. A new season of life. And a respite in the wandering and loss. But I am filled with gratitude at the constant presence, provision and protection of Jesus through it all. What an amazing year!
March 11, 1944--September 20, 2015
My dad was a super hero. I grew up believing there was nothing my dad couldn’t do. I was always safe when he was around. He had big broad shoulders, a soothing deep voice and nothing ever seemed to alarm him. And I had other proof. In the snowstorm of 1975 he was part of a brave group of men who escorted a doctor on snowmobiles to a woman’s home who was giving birth. Her house was miles from town and their chances of making it were not good. It was a harrowing night. They couldn’t see a thing and their snowmobiles nearly failed them as they battled the ice, snow and 90 mph winds. The next morning the snowdrifts were up to our roof, but my dad and the other men had defied the odds and were holding a healthy newborn.
There was the time he raced a tornado home in his Chevy El Camino. And the utter lack of fear when he would stand outside, surveying the greenish-black sky during a tornado warning while the rest of us huddled in the basement.
He filled the hearts of my possible male suitors with fear. One young man was foolish enough to pull into our driveway to pick me up for a date and honk his horn signaling me to come out. My dad was not having that. No boy who wouldn’t treat his daughter better than that would have the opportunity to take her out. My dad waited this guy out so he could look him in the eye. Needless to say we never went out again.
My super hero dad also dressed the part. For living in a small town in the Midwest my dad dressed more like a city dweller. And I’m pretty sure none of my friend’s dads blow dried their hair or used multiple hair products to create such stylish locks.
As I grew into a teenager, I discovered that even super heros aren’t invincible. His cancer when I was 16 was the first time I’d seen my dad that physically weak, and yet, he was gracious, kind and positive. I began to see that he didn’t need super strength to be an exceptional human being.
But as an adult, rather than losing my childlike awe, I realized my dad did have a super power. But it wasn’t in his physical strength. It was his ability to make everyone he met feel like they were valued and valuable. Even his lack of complaining, I believe, was primarily due to his love of others. He desired to love others well and for everyone to feel comfortable around him.
I think that was the most amazing thing to me. It was easy to see how much other people enjoyed being with him. How even in his quietness he was a presence in any room. How kind he was to every person, no matter how unimportant they might seem to others. EVERYONE loved my dad.
And he loved me. If it's true that a child's view of God is shaped by their view of their dad, I was profoundly blessed.
His body let him down long before his strong spirit. And in the end, Jesus held out his hand and said, “Come on Jim, are you ready? Let’s fly away.” My dad replied with his usual smile, “I’m ready." And he was free.
My dad is a super hero.
For the next month or so I will have the privilege of relying on the hospitality of others. Many of you know I had open heart surgery on Monday and for the next 8 weeks I am extremely limited in what I can do. The list of things I can't do is quite long...and random. For instance, I can't bat or golf or drive or ride a bike or lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk. The fact that my instructions specifically state that I can't swing a bat suggests that someone who'd just had open heart surgery has tried this. Obviously, the part of the brain that deals with judgement was also removed.
But I digress. While I try to remember not to join any street softball games I also need people to cook for me, pick up things I drop, clean for me and rub lotion on my legs. And because I am completely aware of my dependency, I happily relinquish my pride to allow others to do things for me I cannot do for myself.
Of course, if you're really spiritual you're supposed to say that its just too hard for you to accept people doing things for you. You feel too guilty having people bring over a meal or cleaning your house. If you're interviewing for the job as a servant of Jesus this answer is on par with saying your greatest weakness is that you work too many hours--everyone knows that's what you're supposed to say.
Expect that it didn't seem to bother Jesus to be on the receiving end of things. Maybe we need to rethink this.
Separating the Women from the Girls
I believe this is one of God's basic tests in life--Can you accept the hospitality of others or are you too proud to let others care for you? Lest you think I'm exaggerating, take a look at an interaction Jesus has with one of his disciples in John 13:1-8
Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end. 2 It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist,5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.
This story has been often used as an example of servant leadership, and I believe that point can be made. However, it seems to me, the issue isn't just the radical nature of Jesus' leadership, but even more in what was required of his followers--to be able to receive. Because salvation comes in the receiving.
This is further displayed when Jesus sends out 72 disciples in pairs to share what Jesus is doing. Here are the instructions he gives them in Luke 10:
4 Don’t take any money with you, nor a traveler’s bag, nor an extra pair of sandals. And don’t stop to greet anyone on the road.
These guys are told to completely rely on the hospitality of others. And don't move from house to house to lighten the load. When you find someone who is willing to offer hospitality, stay there. That person is a blessing. All our Western customs are being challenged here.
But, you say, what about that time Jesus says it is more blessed to give than to receive? He did say that, so lets take a look. at Acts 20.
28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Here, Paul is saying a last and tearful goodbye to the Christians at Ephesus. He doesn't know what is ahead for him except that the Holy Spirit informs him regularly that imprisonment and affliction await him. And Paul is reminding the church leaders to care for this young church. To shepherd them well and watch out for those who might deceive and harm them. Basically he's saying--do whatever you have to do to make sure people know about Jesus.
And, what I'm saying is...plenty of times, 'whatever it takes' involves the gracious receiving of hospitality.
Jesus and Hospitality
Just a brief look at the life and ministry of Jesus displays his thoughts on hospitality. He was constantly receiving it. I can't recall one instance where Jesus invited people to his home. But you regularly read that he was invited to this home or that home. In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus invites himself to the house of this hated tax collector. That's right, he invites himself!
I get that there were different cultural norms, but you have to admit that by following the way of Jesus you will not find an unwillingness or any hint of a lack of holiness in the act of receiving hospitality.
So this is a season of grace for me. A season of receiving from others what I can't do for myself. And I truly love it! Not because I'm lazy or selfish (although those characteristics do rear their ugly heads occasionally), or feel I need or deserve to be served more than anyone else. But because it gives me a chance to share in the unique and creative gifts of so many of my friends. To see the best in others. The care some take to wrap a gift or the thoughtfulness in their gift-giving or the healthy meals they send or just the fact that they want to participate in caring for someone else. To experience in-the-flesh God's care for me. And my salvation has come in the receiving.
I believe when Jesus walked the earth he lovingly accepted true hospitality. And, so I am compelled to enjoy the hospitality of others--because it is the way Jesus lived.
Six months ago, Jesus and I were having a little conversation/negotiation. It went something like this:
Me: I'm tired of trying to figure out where I'm going.
Jesus: I know. How about you give me the map and just let me lead you.
Me: How about I keep the map. but I let you drive while I give directions? I'm an excellent navigator. It's not that I don't trust you, its just that I like to have an idea of what's ahead and its a bit unsettling to hand you the map and only get one turn at a time.
Jesus (smiling): Okay, if that's what you'll give me to work with.... but first, some rest.
About that time he pulled off the road at a scenic overlook, unpacked a picnic basket and proceeded to set up for an extended lunch. At least, that's what it felt like. I was going nowhere.
Since then I haven't moved. Well, that's not completely true. I haven't made "forward progress". Since we've been hanging out at the overlook I've had a chance to revisit some places I've been and get some clarification on how those experiences affect the journey ahead. I've taken advantage of the broader perspective afforded me from this location and I've gotten some much needed rest.
Sometimes, as Jesus and I sit and talk, looking out over the valley below, he points to a distant spot and tells me that someday we'll go there. I can't really make out where "there" is, let alone a clear road to take me there, but I don't feel hurried or impatient.
A month ago I noticed our supplies were dwindling and I believed we'd have to move on soon. But at the beginning of this week I received a care package and it looks like I may be able to stay in this place for a while longer. Resting, getting nourished, finding perspective and reconnecting with Jesus.
And when it's time to start moving again, I'm giving back the map.
This last weekend I spoke at a women's retreat in the mountains of Arizona and God clarified the way forward. How appropriate. It was in leaving Arizona during the last week of 2011 that I was invited to let go of the titles and identities that defined me to that point and open myself to whatever was next.
In January of 2012, I sat alone in my California home, aware that Jesus was inviting me to let go of my job--my steady income, my sense of value, my security--and move into an undefined season of preparation for what was next. I was amazed at the opportunities God laid at my feet and I believed I had found my home. I mistook the preparation for the plan.
But in January of 2015, I once again sat alone in my California home with no job, no income, no sense of purpose or what was next. Until Arizona.
It was nearly thirty-five years ago when God first shared his plan for me but I had long since forgotten it. In the summer before I entered high school my family spent a week at Lake Okoboji in my home state of Iowa. We had spent plenty of time in this place and I felt comfortable in this Midwestern campground. At the age of five I had astounded my mother and filled my father with pride as I fearlessly boarded the historic wooden roller coaster at Arnold's Park on the shore of the lake. I had played hours of video games in the arcade and repeatedly reddened my white, Scandinavian skin, basking on the sands of the local beach.
On this particular week I had made some new friends. A few girls my age and an equal number of boys. Young love was in the air and I was intoxicated with the new freedom of being a teenager.
My mother had other plans. "Coincidentally", there was a Bible conference occurring at the Lake. She allowed me to test the boundaries of my freedom throughout the day as long as I would accompany her to hear a speaker each evening. It was excruciating. It seemed all the best fun happened in the two hour block I was gone each night from my friends. But I knew there was no escaping this arrangement.
As the week progressed I grew more and more hostile as I joined my mother each night at the conference. The kind of hostility only a teenage girl can muster. The precarious and confusing mix of hatred, sadness, judgement and self-loathing.
I sat with arms crossed, eyes fixed on the ground as the evening's speaker took the dais. She was a petite, freckle-face woman with long blond hair named Ann Kiemel. I hated her for taking me away from my independence that night. I hated her because she was happy and not concerned about what I was missing. I hated her because I didn't want to be like her when I grew up. I wanted to be more self-assured, less plain, more fun.
I don't remember when I started listening or when I raised my head to look at her, but by the end of her message I was locked in. And when she invited anyone to the front who wanted to say 'yes' to Jesus, I didn't hesitate. I grabbed my mom's arm and dragged her to the front with me. I wasn't saying 'yes' to a relationship with Jesus-that I already had. I was saying 'yes' to whatever plans God had for me.
I knelt on the floor in front of the stage and for quite some time I was alone up there as hundreds of onlookers witnessed my commitment. Eventually, a few others joined me and Ann began to speak a blessing over us. And then she said these words, "Some day you will tell people how much Jesus loves them." My mother looked up as those words were spoken and saw that Ann was pointing directly at me.
And there I was, last weekend, in Arizona telling women how much Jesus loves them. Such a simple message, really. But it's been quite a journey to get here. You can't give a gift you don't possess and accepting God's love for me has been a work in progress.
As I sat in my mom's room after my last talk of the weekend, (she came as prayer support) we reminisced about that weekend in Okoboji. How Ann's blessing was working itself out in my life. Neither of us had given it any thought for the last thirty-five years, but tonight God reminded us of his faithfulness.
And there God revealed my purpose for this next season--tell people of their belovedness in God and how that impacts all of life. On Saturday morning I prayed a blessing over the women who were gathered and many asked for the words so I've printed them below.
May the reality of God's love and your belovedness be as life changing for you as it has been for me.
"You were born at this time in history, in this place, into your family for his purpose. The hurt you’ve experienced and the hurt you’ve caused are all redeemable and able to be used for his glory. He brings beauty for ashes. You have a unique role to play in his kingdom and he looks at you with great affection.
It is Monday morning of Passover week and Jesus clears out the temple for the second day in a row. The distractions have been dealt with. But I imagine it is an eerie calm. On Tuesday he'll begin teaching. But what to do on Monday?
On Sunday Jesus had cleared out the temple for the first time. Finally, some space to breath and think. But we are often uncomfortable with space and quiet (and abrupt disruption of our livelihood) so by Monday the space had once again been filled. But Jesus persists in cleansing. He is so tenacious in pursuing us.
What remains is the residue of former commerce and chaos, but what will now be? On Monday there is space and anticipation without resolution.
Living in Monday
Today I arrived in my own Monday. God has been clearing out space in my life for a few months now. Sometimes abruptly and sometimes gently, but always deliberately. I have tried to accept this cleansing, but at times I've found myself setting up the overturned tables because I feel uncomfortable with the mess. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Stand in the emptiness and do nothing?
But today I know Jesus is serious. I also know there is nothing I can do but remain in this Monday space until he speaks. And even then, I don't know where it will lead. Most likely to death that brings new life. But on Monday I just don't know. On Monday I'm sitting in the unsettling aftermath of the disruption of my life and waiting for Jesus to speak.
Kelli is a writer, speaker and consultant equipping leaders for a deepening intimacy with Christ, greater impact in ministry and more effective intentionality in all of life.
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