California Interstate 5: A Road Trip Watching

24099_1376311454053_6507475_nThere are trees uprooted next to the freeway. Mounds of dirt clod clumps clinging to thick roots sticking up, awkward, misplaced.

I want to get a better look at them, but I am driving on California Interstate 5 to Los Angeles. Husband and kids and bags and I journeying to friends who said, please come. It is overcast, gray sky low, arms stretching out in embrace.

If I were in the passenger seat, I’d take a photo. Or, I’d grab words and try to work out what it is that makes my heart feel so tight in my chest when I look out. Gnarled empty limbs, cement brown, so undignified, these trunks sprawled, broken and exposed, on their sides.

I am familiar with almond trees–as a farmer’s daughter who watched her dad bend low, dirt crusted in lines of tanned skin, watching and listening to the voice of trees. I know the sharp edges of older bark as it breaks off in clumps, and the smooth, knotted roughness of young bark layered on new green. I know the smell of wet earth and the miracle of paper-thin nonpareil shells the dogs crack open and eat from the ground.

These trees were planted once. They were seeds once. They were shoots that laid in dirt brown and hard, softened by drinks of water, aerated by steel spikes pulled by tractors, and visited by furry gray-brown squirrels and jackrabbits that scamper and scurry to limb upon limb or underground.

Hands laid each shoot into the ground. And the shoots grew and limbs stretched, quiet and strong, sprouting green leaves and white blossoms, and then nuts with green velvet shells before the hulls hardened and opened wide. Downy against thumb or cheek as you rub them close.

The day the bulldozers ripped roots straight out, one by one, row after row–violent, sure–was not a decision made quickly. It was not a decision that was easy. It was not a decision that was fun.

But it was necessary, whether due to lack of water, or money. Or maybe the orchard changed hands.

I hope new trees are planted soon. I hope these old trees, their roots so wrongly bent in weird angles outside the land where they belong, are replaced with new, young shoots. I pray their lineage continues, the life of the seeds giving birth to trees, with limbs pruned and the trees growing tall, before being pulled out of the ground.

Death doesn’t look beautiful, from this angle, as I speed by, one of thousands of cars on a January Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t look poetic or kind. It doesn’t look hope-filled or cause for any celebration.

My hands clutch the steering wheel and I memorize the scene, the uprooted orchards, the story of men and of women and of dreams and of life coming so miraculously from hard ground.

I remember my mom’s words to me on the phone the day before. The almonds will be in bloom soon. Just a few more weeks and the blossoms will be on the branches. The trees my father planted.

And here I see only uprooted trees, disaster, disorder, disappointment. And I know the trees my father planted are scheduled to be pulled up soon, too.

The word for almond in Hebrew, is shakeid, the root of the word meaning to watch or to awake. Jeremiah, when he is asked by God what he sees, looks and says “I see an almond branch.” And I think about Jeremiah looking for what God wanted him to see, and how Jeremiah did see, and how what Jeremiah saw was something of so much beauty.

Father, show us what to watch for. Ask us what we see.

Praying God gives me eyes to see what He wants me to see.

How will we answer? What is before us? What is in front of us? How do we see it? What is God asking us to see?

Jeremiah saw an almond branch, a branch of beauty, a branch also decorating the Lamp stand of the Tabernacle, in Exodus.

It is less than a minute and I have driven past the orchard. I am aware, as I look, that it is a memory I want to keep. I knew that I would want to record it.

Aren’t we stirred, both, by beauty and beauty absent?

And in this moment I feel tears fall; I realize I am struggling to see beauty and hope when before me is disorder and chaos and death.

Let us watch with clear eyes, with open hearts. Let us remember there is always newness, always beauty, with God, even when things feel completely bleak.

And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond branch.” Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it (Jeremiah 1: 11-12).

Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, whatever situation we now face, I pray, sister, we ask for help in being watchful, in being observant, in desiring to see with clear, open eyes, what lies before us, yes–the miracle in the death, the life awaiting awakening, the word of God He is asking us to see, live out, believe.

How are you looking? How can I pray for you?

Linking up with the encouraging and beautiful Jennifer, at #TellHisStory.

What To Do When God Feels Far Away

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When you feel far away from God, it can feel like forever until you find your way back. You don’t feel like you’re home.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, darker than loneliness for its emptiness. For you feel hollow, forgotten even. Your head knows you are not forgotten by God, but the ache of your heart tells you something different.

Your heart tells you it is what you can trust, not your head. You are not free to be rational. You are not free to remember who you are–a beloved daughter who is delighted in. You want only to heed your heart, a heart that, actually, feels so untrustworthy now. A heart that may lie and a mind that wants your heart to listen to what must be true–despite it not making logical sense.

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For it tells you, once more: Dear one, you don’t have to keep chasing God. You need only know Him. Walk with Him. Listen for Him.

And you quiet, wanting to believe this could be true: God is close; God is here, despite the state of your heart and its untrustworthy whispers. For God gives away clean hearts. And it’s not because you deserve it, but, rather, because you totally don’t.

So you let your mind relax and your heart open up now–for you are unwilling to stay in the dark, where emptiness feels like death and God is life and hope. It is true: it is God you want, more than anything.

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So, these lies about not being okay have to go. There’s no room for them in a heart washed out bright and new and clean.

No more battle then, please. Instead, let’s choose God’s rescue and our obedience. Let this be a rebel’s determination to choose life rather than death, to choose God and fullness, not hollow, empty space.

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Come now, Father, mend these broken hearts. We are the rescued now, the fearless. We do not dread the quiet with you; we dread life without you, and our full hearts are what inform our minds now: stay here, where there is beauty, where it is safe.

 

How To Make Sure that Fresh Start You Crave Never Gets Old

IMG_8552When you read this now, you should know one thing: you are pursued. It’s a weekday, I know, and there is a lot to do. But what feels the most pressing–even more urgent than tasks to complete–is letting yourself recognize how desperate you are for God.  And you are desperate, you know.

Can you imagine beginning each day acknowledging–and then claiming–your desperation for God? Can you imagine celebrating it. Embracing it. Jumping up and down and yelling out with joy, “I am desperate! For I am desperate for love; I am desperate for surrender; I am desperate for rest; I am desperate for hope; I am desperate for joy! I am desperate for these things because I am made to be desperate for God!”

Desperation is, really, such a good thing.

We can get things twisted up around that definition of the word desperation, especially at this time of year, a new year on the calendar, when we’re invited to get our acts together and enthusiastically embrace resolutions that will usher in a fresh start.

A fresh start, yes. That’s always what we want, isn’t it? How can an attitude of desperation be in any way involved in one’s “fresh start”?

I wonder this, as I realize I cry out for a fresh start daily, as I rise each morning to the chill of the house and leave my warm bed. As I greet my children with hugs and kisses at breakfast. As I look in my husband’s eyes and seek his arms around me before we part ways for the day. Each day I am desperate to recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in me. For, in obedience, when I recognize He is in me, I am more able to claim my desperation for God. And, in effect, I am living in the freedom–the confidence–of believing in who I am, in Him.

Let us not forget what a fresh start, with God, really means.

Let us not forget what a fresh start, with God, really means. And it's more than resolutions scrawled on paper.

For a fresh start is more than hope-filled resolutions scrawled on a piece of paper.

My husband, Justin, is the guy in my life who loves to make things practical. When I share with him my ideas for fresh starts, it is my personality to address the bigger picture–the vague–yet exciting–dreams I hope to realize. And he listens. And then Justin, who knows me so well, encourages me to look at the practical steps for how these dreams can be realized: What steps do I need to implement, what practices do I need to exercise, to experience the dream I have in my heart to live out?

So I talk to God about my desire for a fresh start, particularly in this season, when the New Year rolls around. And as I listen, I am reminded how the realization of any fresh start stems from my obedience to claim whom God has made me to be. One’s depth of relationships with God is tied to our obedience to Him. When we are obedient in living out what God has told us is true about us–that we are loved, that we are complete in Him, that we are perfectly made–we are more able to realize our identity in Christ. And that’s the kind of fresh start I am desperate for; that’s the kind of fresh start that never gets old.

We are each desperate to realize–to live–the reality of our identity in Christ. In community with other believers who know us and who love us, we remember something true about our desire for a fresh start: fresh starts happen each day we exercise faith through obedience. 

Fresh starts happen each moment we claim the truth of who we are, in Christ. Fresh starts happen when we claim the things we know are true but which we cannot yet see. Fresh starts happen through acknowledging the Holy Spirit who lives within us and who fills us with His strength. Fresh starts happen when we claim our desperation for God’s love for us and we listen hard for His whisper to our hearts: you are mine; I am in you; let me show you, through your obedience to me, how you are to live your life specifically, uniquely, desperate for Me.

What will happen, I wonder, if we spend time each day intentionally embracing our desperate need for God? What if we spend time each day practicing obedience, practicing listening to the love song He sings each moment, practicing remembering who, in Him, in I Am, we are?

I bet these moments, piled one of top of the other, will translate to a life of surrender, of freedom, of greater faith. What do you think about this? Want to claim a fresh start, this year, moment by moment, with me? Wouldn’t it be beautiful to do it together? Shall we begin thinking of ways we might, in a practical sense, exercise obedience to God, saying yes to whom He has created us to be?

When We Feel Down the Day After Christmas

When We Feel Down the Day After ChristmasThinking about you today, His girls–and wishing you a heart filled with God’s joy and increased faith in His presence and continual pursuit of you.

These days after Christmas can be days of exhaustion and emotional let-down. We have been working hard and seeking Him and desiring His strength to fill us.  He is here, and we know it. But this moment–let’s surrender again.

Together.

Father, bless us with desire for you, with calm, peaceful hearts, with longings for your presence in us. Empty us of all distractions. Empty us of all temptations to turn away from you, from the goodness you have for us. Fill us with your abundance. Fill us completely with you and help us to overflow onto everyone around us. 

We feel alone and lonely. Wrap us up in you.

We feel small and weak. Remind us you are the one who is strong.

We feel hurt and lost. Touch the places in our heart that are wounded and need your healing.

We are afraid and anxious. Let us breathe in deeply your love for us. Show us your face, your words, your touch. You are what we need now. Remind us. Our hearts open wide. We remember you.

His girls, here is a warm hug from my family to yours, this Christmas season! (Subscribers, click here to watch the video.) Please leave a comment below or send me an email to let me know how I can pray for you. {And please join me over at the Holy Entanglement podcast on Tuesday, when Justin and I share more about the emotional ups-and downs–and what to do about them–during this transition time of the holiday season.}

With much love,

The Vital Component of Any Prayer

The Vital Component of Any PrayerI wish I could write back to each one of you, personally. Almost 100 of you took the time to respond to the survey here, on Wednesday. 100 women gathered together?! You are so awesome. And I am about in tears again in the coffeeshop (where I write with Justin, on Fridays) as I read dozens and dozens of comments on the survey sharing about your dreams, your struggles, your desires, your wise insights about how You Are My Girls can meet you, even more.

You all are an amazing group of women, and it is no mistake how we are all here together, seeking God’s reminders about our identity in Christ (which was, by far, the interest area that scored the highest, in the survey.) But what is most beautiful about you is how you want more of God in your lives. You are hungry for Him. You want more of Him. You want to be encouraged, as you face heavy struggles at work and at home.

What a privilege, what an honor, to be here, gathered up, with you.

I woke this morning, when the house was still dark (which isn’t hard to do in these short December days). I needed to jump in the shower and get the regular morning routine going–today being the last day of school for the kids before Christmas break. But I felt God’s invitation to pause. One of my favorite things to do is to sit in the darkness, before anyone else is up (not counting my crazy dog whose tail is a like an airplane propeller gone berserk). I tiptoe out of the bedroom, close the door, and attempt to quiet my hyper dog, with whispers of “place! place!” I turn on not one light, and tread carefully to the sink to drink a glass of water before sitting down, hands in my lap, wool-sock-feet flat on carpet.

Before this morning, the last two times I prayed were with Justin. We did twice yesterday, when we needed wisdom about a decision regarding Gather, and then, in the morning, when we were worried about one of our sons. And, as I think about those moments praying, I realize how the best part of prayer is less about what question(s) we have for God, or what we listen close for Him to say back. The best thing about prayer is the experience of being with Him.

Both times yesterday, when Justin and I shared our hearts with God and then paused and listened for His voice, I didn’t hear a whisper back from God, yet I felt His answer to the questions we were wondering about. Not only were our questions answered; His presence comforted us about other concerns we didn’t even know how to verbalize.

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God’s presence is the most impactful outcome of any prayer. For, at the root of prayer, is the desire for connection with our Maker.

In prayer with Justin, I intentionally thought about God. I focused on His presence. I let myself visualize Him. And now I realize, when I do this, I am experiencing just one of two scenarios: One, sometimes I am in the presence of God, my Father. I picture Him holding me, reaching for me, letting me kneel before Him or stand near Him, or sing and dance, with so many sisters (like we will one day) around Him (Psalm 150:1-6, John 4:23). Second, sometimes, I am hanging out, doing something cool (and often crazy) with my Savior, Jesus. He likes to grab my hand and walk and climb and jump into rafts down the river. He thinks I dance beautifully, and He loves to lead and let me follow, holding my waist and letting me gaze into his eyes.

But always–always–whether, in prayer, I am with God or I am with Jesus, I am experiencing their presence because something else is happening: I am letting myself be awake to the Holy Spirit, who is with us. He is our Friend, our Guide, the One who stays close and never leaves (John 15:26). He is the Intercessor, the one who translates, for us, our deepest desires (Romans 8:26). He knows the cry of our hearts, how we long for God and what questions we have for God even if we cannot articulate (or yet even recognize) them.

As I sit in the dark this morning, I remember how each time Justin and I prayed yesterday, we gained more than an answer to a question. Rather, we were comforted and guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, as we sought His counsel. So this morning, as I wait in the dark with God, I realize I don’t need words–or even any talent or practice in experiencing His whispers to my heart. What I need, more than anything else, is a heart open to the presence of the Holy Spirit in me. For then I gain more than a simple answer to a problem, the initial reason I thought I was seeking prayer. I gain faith; I gain joy; I gain peace; I gain hope; I gain a deeper reality of the love of God.  

How do we express in words what it means to be awake to the reality of God’s presence? (How would you articulate it?) To start, I can say this: when you are awake to the Holy Spirit’s presence in you, you are flooded with the recognition that your life–this moment–your reality of living, is sacred ground.

Shall we right now, this moment, recognize the Holy spirit living in us? Shall we say yes to experiencing sacred ground?

Stay here. Desire to be here. Believe this is what is most true about you: You are the inhabitance of the Holy spirit, Jesus’s helper walking around.

How do you feel about praying without words–or how one component of prayer might be the experience of recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit?

And here are the two winners of the book giveaway (chosen randomly, by  random.org):  Heather (there were two Heathers–the Heather who won was the Heather who filled out the survey at 10:49 pm on Wednesday night!) and Bree. I only asked for first names–not even email addresses–when you filled out the survey–so please email me (jennifer@gatherministries.com) with your mailing address so I can get your books in the mail to you right away!

Ferguson and Holding Light

Ferguson and holding light

It’s into silence where you are willing to go. It’s into places dark and heavy. It’s where anger lives, injustice an iron vice around one’s neck. It’s where your people are trapped, souls chained like animals to a steel bar where freedom only seems to go so far. We are here, chained, the weight of the metal we forget to feel, see.

Where are the chains, Father? We are blind, forgetting we wear them when we forget you. We forget you walk into darkness, wanting to remove each and every chain.

We are created in God’s image. We bear His image. We walk around, beauty turned evil when we forget we are to bear light, in His name.

Carry us deeper into the darkness where you are, Father. We are in it but we forget. We forget where light is–and when we forget where light is, we are stumbling around in darkness and not even knowing we’re doing it. We think things around us are pretty good, until they’re not. And it’s because we are focused on creating our own light, our own lives, planning our own escape from the chains that we don’t really even see but think we can escape all the same.

Strip us of self-reliance, Father. Strip us of blindness and deafness and selfishness. Plunge us deeper into darkness, where you are and where you bear the light so we can remember you are the only one who is light. And when we forget and walk around holding high candles of our own making we are ignoring it is you who rescues and brings justice to the oppressed.

But we have a part to play.

You are here, and you are not removed from despair. You catch every tear, but you cry tears too big for us to ever catch, tears for the children who ignore injustice. Tears for the children who turn away from pain. Tears for the children who forget their brothers and sisters and are blind to their own chains that lead to indifference and turning away.

We are injustice too, when we don’t follow you into the darkness, when we don’t look to your leading for love and for rescue. We, too, then, are not truly free.

We are not free if we continue to forget who carries the light. We are not free if we forget we reflect God’s light only if we stay close to his light. We forget we can be candles in the window for the people who suffer and know they suffer. But we can’t bear God’s light for the suffering if we refuse to see how our only strength is the light that is His, within us. We falter when we try to create light on our own.

Suffering remains, darkness remains, when we think it is our own light that illuminates our way and not God’s.

For He stands in the darkness, a light created from nothing. God, you are the Word come down, light in darkness. You illuminate corners where pain walks, and injustice screams, and despair lies huddled long in shadows. Show us where you shine and how we can go with you, to shine. Show us how to see, how to hear, how to walk.

You come for us, freeing us in our chains. Help us stand with you, walk with you, in darkness with you–shining light where chains still exist. Help us go with you, removing chains, one by one, your hand in ours. Only in your light. Let us stay and shine in your light.

We continue to watch you shine. We continue to call out your name. We continue to forget ourselves and seek your face, in the darkness.

Oh, God, let there be light.

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