Sunday, June 28, 2009

when tragedy strikes.

As I am typing these very words, there is a family at Grace Fellowship Church grieving the tragic loss of their three-month old baby boy. Such tragedies are not things we particularly like to reflect upon, however the reality of this specific story has taught be a valuable lesson I am hoping to never forget.

I remember the evening that I first heard about the loss of Brooke and Rick McDonald's precious little boy, Gavin. Before worship last Wednesday evening, one of the leaders at Grace asked us to break up into small groups to pray for the hearts of those affected by this tragedy. Though I did not know the McDonald family personally, I could tell by the grief-stricken faces of those around me that this was a deep and desperate situation. I bowed my head along with the others and said the only thing I could think of: Lord, do something glorious through this. We know that you will.

Others in my group prayed for this situation and soon-after, we concluded with an "amen." Several other groups around me continued to pray, and though I could not hear the words that they were saying, I could sense their feelings of urgency, the tears in their eyes, and the unwavering hope resonating from their hearts. They were pleading with God with a sweet and genuine belief that this family could somehow be restored in spite of what has rocked their world. They were confident, somehow, that the beauty of Christ would be miraculously displayed through their sorrow and their tears.

As my eyes surveyed the room, I could not help but recognize something about followers of Jesus that I had never seen so clearly before: When tragedy strikes, they lift their eyes towards heaven and their hearts cling to a very real hope that has been promised to them; even if they do not see such hope in the moment, their feet can remain on the path because their know that it is coming. Even in the most impossible of circumstances, they continue believing that reconciliation will come.

I began to reflect upon my life before hope, and while I have not experienced anything close to what the McDonald family has now experienced, one tragic circumstance stands out to me thus far in my life. I first heard the news when I was in Charleston, South Carolina visiting the campus I would soon call my own after my high school graduation in the months that followed. I did not always want to go to the College of Charleston, but the way I was living my life at the time convinced me otherwise. When I got the phone call, I was doing what I knew how to do best: partying, getting drunk, and convincing myself that I was "living the life." That is, until I heard the news: Alex Everhart, one of my best friends from middle school, had been tragically killed in a car accident. Just like that, she was gone, forever.

And then "that feeling" shot throughout my entire body; you know, that feeling you get when you are driving and you nearly hit the car in front of you? Or that feeling you get when someone looks into your eyes and tells you that it's over? Yea, that feeling, that tingly feeling that rushes through every limb in your body and does not go away until you do one of two things: you accept that tragedy has struck you and you begin the process of handling it, or you choose to deny the reality of the situation and fix your eyes elsewhere. In this particular situation, I very intentionally chose the latter.

Screw this, I screamed. Let's drink up, because life is short, I proclaimed. My depression worsened. My desire to control something about this situation poured gasoline on the already lit fire of an eating disorder whose flames had spread all over my life. I intentionally used this tragedy as an excuse to go deeper, to be a little more reckless, and to continue to hide behind the masks of destruction I thought were keeping my heart protected from pain. I continued to "stuff" my life with these things because I didn't want to admit that I was hurting. I didn't want to admit that I had no hope to move forward.

The picture of hope that God painted before my eyes amidst the McDonald tragedy is one that has opened them in a very real way. To see followers of Jesus rise up and believe that God is still good despite what happened to Gavin screams to my heart that hope is a choice that we make. When tragedy strikes in our lives, we are met with a fork in the road. We can choose to cling to hope in Jesus or we can continue to hide behind the things we have somehow made ourselves believe are what can save us. As we live our lives in a world ridden with pain, where does our help come from? We lift our eyes to the Lord, the One who has created us and the very world that we live in [Psalm 121:1-2]. We believe in the steadfast love of a God who never changes; a God who can make all things new, if only we let Him. When our world crashes down around us, we hope in Him. We lift up our eyes and we choose to cling to a promise that God has made to those who believe. These trials cannot consume us; they can only make us stronger. Sometimes we don't feel hopeful, but nethertheless we make the choice to hold on because we trust in the One who is in control of all things. I can't explain it, but we just do.

What about you? When you encounter difficult times in your life, can you truly say that you possess hope to get through them? If your answer to this question is 'no,' I admit to you that I know how it feels to live each day in hopelessness; I have felt the deep, wrenching pain of feeling as if death would be easier than processing through the difficult realities you are facing. I have spent years of my life in search for something to make the pain go away. A drink here. A relationship there. A new wardrobe. Anorexia. Bulimia. Even engulfing my life in my studies. Trust me, you are not alone; you are not alone when after everything you have attempted, you lay your head on your pillow and in the lonely silence of the night realize that your heart is still hurting. The pain is still there, yet you rise up the next morning and do it all over again, because, well, that's just what you know how to do best.

This is the very reality that brought me to Jesus. I didn't want to search anymore. I was tired of coming up short and feeling empty. I was tired of hoping in my own ability to make the pain go away by performing. I wanted hope so desperately, up until the point that I realized that I needed hope to survive. That is when I chose to give my life to the only hope that I have ever been able to truly rely on, the One who promises that there is more to life than the tragedies that attempt to swallow us up here on earth, and the One who has yet to fail me and make me feel as if I have hoped in vain: Jesus Christ.

How about you... when tragedy strikes, what do YOU cling to?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

thunderstorms.

I woke up this morning to a loud and thunderous boom that felt like it shook the entire house. This boom led me to jump out of my bed and pull back the blinds of my second story window. Outside, I saw heavy winds swaying our palm trees in each and every direction. I glanced to the west to see if there were any cars flying in the air like I had seen storms like this do in movies like the Wizard of Oz. No, no cars flying. Even so, I was certain I was standing in the middle of a hurricane, and let me just say that I was terrified.

I ran downstairs to see if anyone else in the house had heard the thunder crack open the sky like I did. I run up to the parents in the house and ask, "What in the world is going on! Is this a hurricane?!?"

They stood silent for a moment and then chuckled amongst themselves. "Really, Shelly? You think this is a hurricane? Sweetie, this is only a thunderstorm!"

How was I supposed to know? I've never lived in Florida before. I've never experienced what a "normal" Florida storm is like, and this one seemed so powerful and reckless. The winds were taking over our outside surroundings, knocking over the plants in our garden and our trash cans left and right. While nothing was being uprooted or flying in the air around me, I was fearful of the storm, for it was like none that I had ever experienced before. My frame of reference limited me to view my present surroundings as much more terrifying than they actually were. What I viewed in my mind as a hurricane, was in reality a mere thunderstorm.

I stood by the screen glass door for a few minutes, reflecting upon the concept of this "storm." I couldn't help but think that my perceptions of this thunderstorm were a lot like our perceptions towards the "storms" we face in this life. We lose a loved one. We get a bad report from the doctor. We are heartbroken over a failed relationship. We lose our jobs. We struggle to find meaning and significance. We experience loneliness, but do not know how to escape it. All of these are "storms" that more often then not break us from the inside out; they indefinitely cause us deep pain and heartache. The inevitable truth, however, is that everyone in this life will experience these storms regardless of who they are or what they believe. The key to finding victory amidst the storms has everything to do with how we react and respond to the impact of their winds.

Do we remain faithful by taking a step back from our heartache to cling to the truth that we have a God who never abandons us? If we do, we are somehow able to find the peace to survive them. When we realize that the winds cannot destroy us and that the very hands that allowed their existence cares about our innermost being, we somehow find victory; we somehow find hope, no matter what faces us. Why, you may ask, would a "good God" bring storms into our lives? Because we all know that we stand much taller and stronger after we have victoriously conquered something that at one point seemed impossible. The storms of this life sharpen us, they change us, they reveal our purpose more clearly, and they make us who we are. More importantly, they bring us closer to God.

Or, perhaps you are like me... you are faced with a storm that seems so big that you are certain you are going to be swallowed by it. The heartache seems unbearable. You just cannot let go of "what was." You have forgotten how to dream. You do not know where to go "next." I'll admit, I often times live my day-to-day life as if the thunderstorms that come my way are hurricanes. I get scared. I get anxious. I run for cover. I forget that there is a God who promises to protect me through them. I forget that there is a purpose for the trials I face; they can only make me stronger. Sometimes, all I can hear are the thunderous booms that crack open the dreams of my heart and the plans I thought would carry me into the future. Sometimes, all I can see are the winds, chaotically pulling the circumstances of my life in each and every direction until they finally fall to the ground in defeat.

I am comforted to know that even followers of Jesus in the New Testament felt like I do today. It is written in Matthew 8:23-27 that they encountered a storm, and when the winds and the waves swamped over their boat, their reaction went a little something like this: "Um, excuse me Jesus? Why are you sleeping? We're about to get swallowed up if you don't do something! Don't you even care about us? Hello?!" Man, have I been caught saying this more times than I'd like to admit!

Stated clearly, it is easy to view the thunderstorms in our lives as hurricanes if we refuse to trust and believe the God behind them. We do have a God who loves us and who will never allow anything to swallow up His children in defeat. Though the winds may sway the circumstances of our lives, we will never fall. Just as Jesus responded to His followers who became fearful in the storm, so He responds to us: "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" We must trust Him as the solid rock we stand upon; a God who never changes. A God who calms the storms, no matter how fierce they may seem.

May we trust Him always, regardless.

-me

Thursday, June 18, 2009

reflections of a servant.

"Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:27-28

First thoughts: this is a revolutionary concept that has the ability to turn our world upside down if we actually applied it to our lives. Think about it. If we learned to place our own desires, thoughts, and satisfaction second to the well-being of others, without demanding a thing in return, I am fully confident that our world would never be the same. More hungry would be fed. Less children would be aborted. Genuine joy would become the norm, rather than the exception. Less hearts would be broken. More lives would be healed. Less suffering people would lose hope and take their own lives. Yes, I am fully convinced that if we placed others before ourselves, not only would those we encounter be transformed, but our very own hearts would be changed for the better as well.

Dare I say that this is an easy thing to do, because it's not. If it were easy, we would do it... but truth be told, we don't. Instead, we talk about serving others, loving others, changing the world, and bringing joy to the hopeless. At least I do. Our hearts melt at photographs of orphans and we find joy in associating ourselves with organizations that are doing something positive to change our world, not because we have done much to truly serve the broken ourselves, but because it makes us look and feel good. We care more about our image than we do people, and that's a pretty frightening reality. We forget that the majority of our world is living in a very REAL state of physical, spiritual, and emotional poverty as we sit comfortably with roofs over our heads and an abundance of food on our plates, complaining about the weather, the new model of the iphone, or the symbolism behind Obama's infamous swatting of a fly. My goodness, are we so incredibly vain.

Truth be told, we have no idea what it's like to give our lives for the sake of other people the way that God asks us to. The more I pen these words, the more I realize I am pointing the finger at myself. I have no idea what it's like to serve others and expect nothing in return. I serve in a "checks and balances" kind of way: I serve you so I can get a thank you, or so I can "feel good" and brag about it to others. When I often times feel let down for getting nothing in return, I grumble in my spirit and serve with a bitter and sometimes demanding attitude, for surely my 'gracious works' should be praised. I bleed with passion over so many things, but I admit that sometimes my passion can be pretty empty and unaccompanied with works to back it up. Empty passion, Donald Miller argues, "is like pouring gasoline into a car without wheels... it isn't going to lead anybody anywhere." In modern slang, it's all talk, no game. A bunch of BS. I don't know about you, but I surely don't want to lead others to a place like that in their own lives. Ever. I fear that too often I do.

So where do we go from here? I believe the answer is pretty simple, yet extremely difficult at the same time. We believe, and in turn, we act upon our belief. If we believe that it is unjust for the world to be dying of hunger when so many are drowning their sorrows in boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and double Whoppers, then we do something about it. We get involved, practically. If we truly believe that a child becomes a living being at conception, then we plead our case, not to win an argument, but to win over the hearts of others. If we believe that those who do not believe in Christ will suffer in hell for eternity, then we share the love that we have experienced with everyone that we can. We love them to Jesus, just as they are. I have heard so many people outside of the Christian world say that their main problem with Christianity is that they don't even know if Christians believe what they are saying... as in, "if those Christians actually thought I was going to burn in hell without their Christ, why wouldn't they try harder, love more passionately, and do what their Jesus tells them to do?" I am so guilty, because I don't live like this. People can tell when we are pleading with empty passion and words because genuine passion is contagious; it touches the heart in a way that even if people do not fully agree with where we stand, they will see that we genuinely believe.They just may get a glimpse of a heart that has learned how to empty itself for the sake of others; a heart that loves, and is willing to own up to the responsibility that true belief demands. This, more than any argument or word that can come from our mouths, will make all the difference in the world around us.

My very own words convict my heart, for I realize that I have no idea what it means to lay down my life for others, nor do I believe that given the opportunity, I truly would. I find myself frustrated, because though I desire to serve selflessly, all too often I find that I cannot take my eyes off of myself and the bubble that I live in. I weep over the reality of poverty and brokenness, yet do nothing to serve the broken around me. I talk the talk, but a lot of times, I don't walk the walk because the walk demands that I own up to what I believe no matter what consequences or sacrifices it brings to my life. Sacrifice is hard, because it demands that I be selfless; it demands that I give of myself even if that means I stand in last place. I forget that Matthew 20:27 says that those who are last will be first, a verse that is easier to read than it is to apply, let's be honest.

This is why I am so thankful for the power of God in my life. I cannot truly love and serve others in my own strength; no one can. No matter how hard we try to do good, we fall incredibly short because we are a broken people, completely and utterly in need of God to be, as so many quote, "the change we wish to see in the world." Can we change the world? Yes. Can we do it in our own strength? No. This is why I strive to follow the example of Christ, because He came not to be served, but to serve to the point of deepest rejection and eventually His own death. I want to love that way; I want to serve others sacrificially. I want to actually care about the issues in our world and be bold enough to do something about them. I want to believe with my whole heart, because as I mentioned before, if we truly believe in the things we say we stand for, we whould be willing to follow such an amazing example like Christ. If not, then we shouldn't say anything at all, my own self-seeking heart included.

-me

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

twenty-something.

It amazes me how much truth can be found in the well-known cliche that twenty-somethings are in the process of "finding themselves." I experienced this first hand tonight as I was enjoying "Shelly time" during a sunset walk around the neighborhood.

Here's a little of how this went... Wow, it's beautiful here. And so quiet. I love the silence. I can't believe I'm here. I wonder how long I'll be here. Man I miss Ecuador. Why did I have a dream about Ecuador last night? I love it overseas. I don't feel like I belong in the States. I wonder where I do belong. I wonder where I will eventually end up. I sure do miss my jeans with the holes in them... Yea, I'm known for being quite the scatter brain lately.

I used to get defensive when people classified me as one of those people who was flighty and didn't know what they were going to do with their lives, even though they had just graduated from college and were supposed to "have it all together." I used to be quite the planner... that is, until God uprooted my blueprint and dreams and told me to start over again. Today, ask me what I want to do with my life and I'll belt out a handful of different things that are spread out across the board. People with Palm Pilots, life plans, and schedules cannot stand this new Shelly. Trust me, I know... I used to be one of them.

I'd pay someone to let me be involved with orphans somewhere in the world. I'd love to get down on my hands and knees and love them with the love of God in a way that changes them and restores their hope. I'd love to be their voice in the world, educating others about what is really happening outside of the American bubble. I'd love to write a book and fill it with photographs that capture the sweetest moments of my journey. I'd love to teach little ones and could absolutely see myself with my own classroom someday. I would love to counsel women who have been battered, abused, neglected, shamed, rejected, or forgotten. Put me in front of a group of teenage girls and I'd share my testimony of God's work in my life until I cannot speak any longer. I'd love to educate people around the world about the effects of eating disorders and the media's detrimental influence in the lives of young girls today. Yes, I guess you could say I'd love to do it all.

The neat thing is that I see a common thread in what makes my heart beat... at the end of the day, I want to know that I am involved in something that truly matters. Don't we all? For me personally, I do not want to simply be known as a "social activist," but rather someone who loves sacrificially in a way that honors God and brings the blessing of "true life" to those I encounter on a daily basis through what I do. I pray that God brings this dream to life wherever I find myself -- both in my present life, and in the future.

I guess it's not so bad to be in the process of "finding yourself." In fact, it seems to be quite a gift. I don't have to have it all figured out and neither do you. Live a little! My life is an open book and I have no agenda, no plan, and no blueprint to follow. I am free to live each day, explore my passions, get involved with what I love, and intentionally explore what that "next step" may be in my life... whenever it may be. Let's just say... for the first time in my life, I am proud to be a twenty-something, and if you are, you should be too!

thirst.

I have been reflecting quite a bit lately on the concept of thirst and what it means to experience thirst in one's soul. It is an aching feeling, really, when we find ourselves so sun-scorched by the rays of life that we feel weak, tired, and unable to function as we are supposed to. Have you ever felt like this? As if the difficulties of life were too much, and that with each beat and blow, you find yourself feeling even more defeated? Better yet, where do we go when we find ourselves in such a place? Who or what can rejuvenate us?

My story begins in Psalm 36:7-9... a passage of Scripture that says that God's children feast in the abundance of the house of God, and are given drink from the river of His delights. It also says that with God is the fountain of life, the place from which all life begins and is said to flow. He is the ultimate source of joy, peace, love, and satisfaction. He is the source we are supposed to run to when we are thirsty.

I read these verses a few mornings ago and found myself feeling a bit "stuck." In fact, what I realized through reading them was that I was experiencing a drought in my heart and really needed a little bit of this rejuvenation I was reading about. You can only go for so long before the reality of disappointments, unfulfilled desires, broken dreams, and failed relationships zap the very soul out of you and leave you feeling dry. I'm sure we've all been there more often than we'd like to admit.

I closed my Bible because I wasn't "feeling anything." Shame on me; no matter how hard I try, it's usually all about me anyhow. What I surprisingly found, however, was that in going about my day, I was reminded quite often of the concept of thirst and more specifically, what it meant that I felt thirsty in my heart. I knew the drought was heavy and that I needed to experience love anew... I just wasn't sure how to let God be that provider in my life who could bring me to life again. At this point, these were just sayings on a page that I couldn't wrap my mind around.

And then it happened... right before my eyes. I had taken our Jack-Russell Terrier out for an afternoon walk and upon my return, found myself face to face with two of the construction workers who had been slaving for the past week to perfect the outside patio where we live. I knew two things about these men: they were immigrants from Cuba and they were very hard workers. When I encountered them outside by the patio, they were lying on the ground with faces a shade of red so deep it looked like it hurt. I could tell they were absolutely drained.

Naturally, I strike up a conversation with them in Spanish. We talk about how miserable the sun is amongst other random, insignificant topics before I make my way towards the air-conditioned, million dollar home that awaits me behind one small door. I glance back to say Adios, and something catches my eye... their water jugs were empty. They were exhausted of thirst.

Shelly... my sweet child, be My hands and feet and fill them. Without saying a word, I grab the workers' water jugs and take them inside. I fill them both with water and supplement the jugs with ice. Cold water. I take them outside and the men glare into my eyes as if I had just completed the entire work on the patio myself. No, solamente agua... just water. I know you must be tired and thirsty, and I'm sure this will help. They could not believe it. Water. Who knows how long they had been sitting on the ground, waiting for the moment in which they could find enough strength to stand up again. They grab the jugs out of my hands and they thank me over and over again. Muchas gracias... de verdad, muchas gracias. I suppose I had no idea how much such a gesture would mean to them.

I cried after this encounter, only because I watched God bring a verse of Scripture to life right before my very eyes. That very morning, I had been awakened to the concept of thirst and to the person of God as the very One who fulfills that necessity in our lives. Even so, I still felt "stuck" because of the condition I was experiencing in my heart and wasn't sure how to approach God as the fountain of life. That same afternoon, God used two construction workers to teach me how simple this truth really is. We need water to survive, so when we find ourselves thirsty, we find the water and we drink it. When the water is not accessible, God brings it to us... often times in the most unexpected and unlikely places. Even when we do not have the strength to ask, God fills our jugs with all we need to get through the tasks He has placed before us. He will never leave us thirsty.

These men thought I was simply filling their water jugs, while simultaneously, God was beginning to fill mine. He was breaking through a season of drought that had taken up residence in my heart for way too long. Splashes and sprinkles brought rejuvenation and a sweetly renewed sense of hope to my soul. God was affirming His promises in my life that He would never leave my soul to dry out. He would never leave me thirsty. He was the fountain of life... the very joy I needed to find satisfaction and passion in my soul once again. If I struggled to find what I needed to replenish my soul in Him, He would bring it to me in His own precious way and timing. He would fill my water jug once again... only this time, I knew with confidence that He would bring it to overflow in a way I had never experienced before.