The Best Beyond

My family lives in the country, and we love it. It’s how I grew up, and some part of my heart feels plain caged any time I’m in the city or the suburbs for too long.Out here with the mountains winking at me, I can breathe. Something tight releases.

The years after college when I had to live in the suburbs to find a job, something in my spirit always struggled, suffocated by the buzz and hum and alien pace. My husband and I dreamed and schemed about escape, and in God’s grace and timing, He sprung us perfectly.

Our children have never known any other kind of life. Our older daughter frets over waiting at traffic lights and goes deliriously crazy over seeing a Potbelly any time we venture out of the country. For our girls, going for an evening stroll doesn’t involve sidewalks, cookie-cutter houses, and perfectly manicured yards. It’s a romp down a dirt lane to the hardtop, stopping to pull grass for the horses that trot up to greet us, watching to see which calves will spook as they track us with wide-eyed stares, and picking whatever wildflowers happen to be growing along the road.

But every once in a while, we make the 3-hour door-to-door trek to the city, so our girls can experience a museum, ride a train, visit the zoo, or gaze at monuments. It’s a different sort of experience that rounds them out and makes us even more grateful for our quiet life. We tend to do these outings in the winter because we like the cold, and a lot of other people don’t. So that combination makes for less crowds, fewer lines, and a better experience.

Several weeks ago, we took our girls to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Although they both enjoyed the day, our older daughter LOVED it. She got to see animals from the rainforest and polar regions that we had just covered in school, and she was mesmerized by a model of plate tectonics and water currents, two other subjects we had recently studied. And then, there was the highlight of the day–getting to hold a Madagascar hissing cockroach not once, not twice, but three times. She was in heaven! Yes, my little girl hates butterflies, but is a hard-core lover of creepy-crawlies. We’re still working on convincing her that butterflies ARE in fact bugs.

A few weeks later, we returned to the city again, this time to see the National Christmas Tree. We arrived a little early, so we could surprise our girls by taking them for a ride on the carousel. Our girls love carousels, and we don’t see them too often so getting to ride one is always a special treat.

On on our long walk from the Metro stop to the carousel, our older daughter kept asking if we were going to the Natural History Museum. We told her no, and she fussed because she wanted to go there instead of the unknown destination toward which we were walking. We assured her she would love what we had planned, but she remained resistant and resolutely skeptical.

After a while, we came to the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, which looks really cool from the outside but houses the administrative offices of the Smithsonian Institute–hardly kid-worthy entertainment. But our little Frozen fan couldn’t get past the fact it was a castle and begged to go in, certain she would find Elsa and Anna waiting to greet her. We assured her this was no Ice Palace and reminded her again that what we had planned for her was better. But…she wasn’t buying it. The entire walk, she whined and complained because we weren’t going to the museum or the castle. To her child’s mind, we were withholding certain fun for the promise of something better, a promise she didn’t want to trust.

Our oldest daughter AFTER riding the carousel

Our oldest daughter AFTER riding the carousel

Then her eye caught something in the distance. “Is that a carousel?” she asked. And before we could answer, she was begging to please, please, please let her ride the carousel. Of course, that had been our plan all along, and we delivered the parental version of “I told you so,” pointing out that mom and dad really did have a bomber plan going, even though she had doubted us. We rode the carousel with our girls, giggling as the December air snapped at our cheeks, carnival music cranking as we whirled around on our trusty steeds.

But in the midst of all the fun, I couldn’t dismiss God’s whisper. As we had walked, my daughter complaining and resisting, tugging on my hands, wanting her own plans so desperately, I had felt God tap the shoulder of my heart. “Isn’t your daughter just doing to you what you so often do to Me? Haven’t I been the patient parent even as you hesitate to trust My plans and cry for your own?”

Just as my daughter had been to the museum and wanted to revisit the fun of that experience, there are places God has taken me in the past to which I often long to return. Places I treasure in my heart. Places that touch a deep chord in me. Places I wish He would take me again. Places that seem so much better than this endless, wearying walk where all I see is a ribbon of concrete stretching ahead of me. There’s nothing wrong with cherishing the places God has taken you, but sometimes, they are just that–places He has taken you, not places He is still taking you. Our delight should not be so much in the places God takes us. God most wants us to delight in Him, deliriously glad that no matter where He takes us, we are with Him.

And then, there’s the castle. From what my daughter could see, she was certain this was a place she wanted to go full of amazing adventure. But I knew better. That grand exterior cloaked nothing more than dull, ordinary offices. Sometimes on this long walk where God is leading, I see things along the way that I am certain are places I want to go. I tug my Father’s hand and plead to go inside based on what I can see. And when He gently shakes His head and tells me there’s nothing for me in that place, I chafe as He pulls me onward, thinking that just perhaps He’s holding out on me–that my perception is truer than His knowledge. God doesn’t hold our faulty perception against us–He remembers we are only dust (Psalms 103:14). It is we who forget that God makes known the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). Our trust in Him we cannot see must be greater than our trust in what we can see.

Our littlest munchkin--all smiles just enjoying the journey

Our littlest munchkin–all smiles just enjoying the journey

As we left behind the lights of the carousel and walked back on the same stretch of concrete, I watched my daughter play, happily scampering over every obstacle we passed, making a game out of what had been a weary trudge just moments before. The joy she found on the carousel didn’t stay in that place. She took it with her, trusting herself to our plans for the remainder of the evening. But what about the joy she missed on the way to the carousel? Those moments with us and her sister were gone forever, wasted on wanting her own way when the best was just beyond. Beyond her sight? Absolutely. Beyond her imagination? Perhaps. But mostly beyond her faith–the certain hope that wherever we were taking her, it would be good.

God’s best may be beyond our sight, but it is always within the measure of faith He grants when we choose to trust ourselves to His plans. We can give our trust haltingly, resignedly and worry about the destination. Or we can give our trust unreservedly, lavishly and abandon ourselves to the joy of His Presence, anticipating the best beyond.

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Frozen Faith

My oldest daughter turned five recently, and like many young girls her age, she is a Frozen fanatic. Elsa is the coolest chick on the block in our house…correction, make that universe. I’m astounded at the glut of Frozen loot. The deluge of licensed toys is to be expected, but If you can wear it, eat it, smell it, or hear it, there is a Frozen version of the item in existence. From lip gloss and bean bag chairs to jelly beans and alarm clocks to Campbell’s soup and fruit snacks, there’s a blizzard of Frozen products that you can’t escape. My daughter has perfected what I call the Frozen squeal. When we are in a store, and I hear that noise come out of her mouth, I know I’m about to be shown some Frozen item that has caught her fancy and then told “I would love to have a Frozen fill-in-the-blank.” It’s enough to make a parent moan, “Let it go!”

All joking aside, I do think Frozen is a wonderful movie. Sure, it’s beautifully made and who wouldn’t love all those frosty scenes of winter wonder, but what I really like is its message. Romantic love cannot save the day. Sacrificial love comes to the rescue. I see parallels to the Gospel. We are all broken people, and just as Elsa cannot control her innately icy powers, we cannot contain our sinful natures and avoid the devastating consequences of a life apart from God. Elsa thinks that giving her powers free reign will bring her peace and happiness, but doing so only compounds the misery. But Anna loves her and is desperate to reconcile with Elsa and rescue Arendelle from its frozen curse. Like Anna relentlessly pursuing Elsa to her own peril, Jesus comes after us, holding out His love and laying down His life. It is Christ’s sacrifice that calls us to true freedom. It is His love that breaks the curse of sin in us and teaches us to love. If my daughter is going to pick a movie to adore, this one has themes I don’t mind her pondering in her young heart.

Since seeing the movie last year, my daughter has constantly reminded me that she wants a Frozen birthday party, and most importantly, she would like a Frozen cake. Now I like to cook and bake, and thanks to training from my dear mom, I can do both quite handily. My mom was so thorough that she even taught us how to make decorator cakes, and this skill has come in handy many times in life, especially since having children. However, it also comes with a certain sense of expectation and obligation on my part. Because I CAN create a cake my child will enjoy, I feel like I MUST create the most wonderful version of it my amateur skills can handle. This leads to visions of cakes that are often time-consuming and challenging to deliver. Every year, I promise myself that next year, I’ll make something simpler. The next year rolls around, and I find myself upping the ante. And the reason I put myself through this is pretty easy to figure out. While I’m not fond of the mechanics of making decorator cakes, I love the creativity of the process, starting with a nebulous idea in my head and watching it take shape in cake.

My daughter’s only request was that all the major characters except Hans be on the cake. But as I contemplated exactly what type of Frozen cake to make for her, I couldn’t get the picture of that gorgeously frozen precipice, the North Mountain, out of my head. What if I could replicate that in cake–how awesome would that be?!?!

So I figured Frozen being as popular as it is, I would be able to do a quick search on the Internet and find someone else who had already created the North Mountain in cake. That way, I wouldn’t have to think through the nitty-gritty of how to engineer it. Well, I did find several cake photos where someone had created their version of the North Mountain, but no one had posted details of how they did it. So game on, I knew this cake was going to be a doozy.

After considerable pondering, I came up with an idea I thought would work. I baked my cakes–I needed three–and ran into my first obstacle. Two of my cakes erupted like a volcano in the oven. There was chocolate lava everywhere. In all my years of baking cakes, I have never had this happen, and given the gargantuan cleanup effort, I hope I never do again. After baking two more cakes, I finally had the building blocks for the North Mountain. But now came the sketchy part–how to take three perfectly rounded, level cakes and make them look like a steep mountain ridge.

My dining room table was littered with cooled chocolate cakes. My frosting was made and ready to go. But for hours, I walked in and out of my dining room, thinking, measuring, scribbling rough sketches, and nervously glancing at my carving knife. I knew what I wanted the end result to look like, but I couldn’t completely see my way from point A (three perfectly round layers) to point B (the North Mountain). What if I made a wrong cut? I’d have to make more cake, and I was really sick of making chocolate cake by this point. What if I almost finished, and the whole mountain collapsed? Could my daughter live with North Mountain rubble? Could I? I was completely…frozen, unwilling to risk my cakes all because I couldn’t totally see my way through. I wanted to know it would absolutely work before I was willing to plunge my knife into all that chocolatey goodness.

Now cake, even Frozen cake that a 5-year-old is banking on, is really NOT important. But I started thinking about how I’m like that in my faith sometimes. I’m pretty clear that God is calling me to something, but because I can’t see what it is or how to get there, I just stay still. God has been taking my husband and I through a very strange and uncomfortable season for quite a while now. I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncertain about where God wants us or what ministry He has for us. I have no idea what God is making. I want to do His will. I want to take the right steps, make the right cuts. I just have no idea what they are.

I wish things weren’t so veiled. I have prayed for clarity and understanding. I have not prayed for release because if God is training us, I don’t want to cut the lesson short. But over the last few months, I have realized that while I cannot step out ahead of God’s clear direction for the big picture, I also cannot remain frozen, failing to act on His direction in the “little” things. I can minister to the teens God has graciously continued to place in our path. I can care for and encourage the few remaining friends we have in our community. I can share Christ with those God has planted in my life who don’t know Him. I can grieve with those who are suffering because we are walking in its shadow. I can love on the husband and daughters God has blessed me to have. I can hold out the hope of Christ anytime and anywhere that God gives me opportunity. I can spend sweet time with my precious Savior. I can submit to His loving discipline and mysterious sovereignty. By God’s grace and in His power, I can do all these things while still completely, utterly in the dark about His plan and where it’s taking us. I not only can do them, I must. God does not call us to a frozen faith.

My sweet daughter enjoying the finished product

My sweet daughter enjoying the finished product

I stood in my dining room, looking at those cakes, and finally realized I just had to take the plunge. If I waited to cut those cakes until I could see my way clear from rounded layers to the majestic North Mountain, I’d be serving my guests unadorned chocolate cake. So I picked up the knife, and I cut and cut and cut, working my way through it one stroke at a time. Did I get everything exactly right? No. But nothing went too far off track either. And the sweetest surprise was this–cutting my first two layers and realizing that two of the wedges I removed, when turned on end, perfectly formed the silhouette of the upper ridge of the North Mountain. It’s amazing what can happen when you choose stepping out in trust over remaining frozen in fear.

Training Tells

I still remember the morning I found out I was pregnant with our first child. I worked a part-time job that I was mostly able to do remotely from our home, and it happened to be one of my days off. My husband had already gone to work for the day, and I didn’t want to tell him over the phone. I wanted to see his face, and I wanted to tell him in a more creative fashion than just blurting out the words. So my news was going to have to sit and percolate all day long.

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My canine confidant Hitch

A few minutes passed. I raced down the stairs to our kitchen. I talked to myself out loud about the idea that we were going to have a baby. I tried to settle down, but I was a jumpy bundle of energy. I absolutely wanted my husband to be the first to know, but I thought I was going to bust wide open if I didn’t tell someone soon. I looked at the clock and saw I had at least 9 hours to go before my husband would be home from work. So I did what any sensible woman would do. I ran into the garage, barreled into our dog Hitch, wrapped him in a bear hug, and spilled my secret. I remember his furry neck against my cheek, plush and warm against the bite of cold December air that frosted the garage. I remember pulling back and smiling at the quizzical look in Hitch’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what was going on that had induced our manic cuddle, but he knew it was something big. Hitch and I celebrated all day long, and having Hitch’s confidence buoyed me for the long wait until my husband arrived home that evening.

For a while now, I have been feeling this pressing urgency to share about God and His Word and the things He teaches me as we spend time together. In this season He has been leading me through the last 2 years, there has been this constant call to come away with Him and revel in my time with Him. It’s a deepening of our friendship—-marveling at His holiness, enjoying His beauty, pondering His ways, learning to see the world with His heart. It has been both discipline and delight. God tenderly reassures me of His love and encourages me with His precise attention to my struggles and hurts. He also persistently convicts me of my sin and the things I still hold more tightly than Him. I am utterly convinced that nothing is more important than the all-out pursuit of my Savior, and yet, this is only possible with great intention and deliberate focus. My flesh must be trained to respond to the heart God is building in me. Left to itself, my flesh will always take the easy way out.

I want Christ so much, and yet I am a slow learner. Nearly every day, I let the busyness and distractions of life tear me away from the Lover of my soul when I know that my rest, my life, my joy, and my satisfaction are in Him. It’s like eating junk food, skipping the gym, and then wondering why I don’t see a six-pack peeking back at me in my mirror. The pursuit of Christ isn’t possible without strict training.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. — I Corinthians 9:24-27

These verses bring to mind a Memorial Day backpack from several years ago. I was still single at the time, and one of my regular hiking buddies and I decided to do a 2-day backpack over the long weekend. We got a late start, so the first night out, we only had enough time to hike about 4 miles, climb the first big ridge, and pitch our tents. We cooked dinner by flashlight, sweating in the sultry evening heat. We went to bed with about 25 miles ahead of us, but plenty of time to cover them over the next 2 days.

Backpacking doing a very reasonable 13.5 miles in 2 days. I don't have any photos from the epic backpack--you don't stop for pictures when you're doing a 25-mile day!

Backpacking a very reasonable 13.5 miles in 2 days. I don’t have any photos from the epic backpack–you don’t stop for pictures when you’re doing a 25-mile day!

I woke up early the next morning, and I was overcome for some strange reason with this incredible desire to knock off all 25 miles that day and be back in my own bed that night. Now I hiked regularly, but I rarely exceeded 15 miles in a day. But something inside was just pushing me to challenge myself. When my friend woke up, I excitedly pitched my idea, and he agreed to go for it. This particular circuit we were doing was shaped like a figure eight, with lots of lung-busting climbs up ridges and knee-busting descents down them. We were each carrying fully loaded backpacks of probably about 40 pounds. After eating a quick breakfast, we took off down the trail. After about 5 miles, our route actually passed right by the trailhead where we had started and where my Jeep was parked. As we hiked by, I glanced over. There it was just yards away from us, top down, vinyl seats baking in the rapidly building heat.

As we hiked past the lot, it occurred to my friend and me that we could very easily drop off our backpacks at the Jeep and do the remaining 20 miles carrying just a few pounds each in our daypacks. That thought lasted for about 10 seconds before we were both like, “Nah, let’s go for it fully loaded!” You might be thinking at this point that we were both a little off in the head, but if you’re a hiker at heart, there is great satisfaction in pushing yourself to see where your own two feet can take you. And anything you can do to up the ante just makes the whole experience that much sweeter. There is a bit of the masochist in every true hiker. So on we went with our heavy loads.

We climbed very steeply, coming to a burn area just around midday. The grade steepened as we made our way over, around, and through charred trees. I felt like my head was a piece of popcorn that had been nuked in the microwave too long. It throbbed in time with my staccato-beating heart, cooking in the unrelenting sun. I was sure it must be steaming. Any moment, it was going to explode into a blackened, burnt puff. I glared at the damaged forest and wished for just one scraggly sapling to cast the slightest thread of shade. When we reached the top of the ridge, a leafy canopy of unburned trees beckoned us onward.

And that’s how the rest of the day went, climbing and descending ridge after ridge, until finally we found ourselves down low again, walking through the forest on a fairly gentle grade, just a few miles from the Jeep. We came to a stream crossing where there were some large flat boulders. Without really talking much (conversation had long since died out), we each dumped our packs and sprawled on a boulder, relishing the cool draft of the water and the airy lightness of empty backs. We lay there for an hour. My feet slowly stopped throbbing, and I remember thinking that I really could just sleep on that boulder all night. I didn’t need dinner or water or a tent. I just wasn’t going to move until morning.

At this point, we only had about 2 miles left. But the effort it took to push ourselves off those boulders, strap on our packs, and finish was greater than any of the preceding 23 miles–miles that had been much more physically demanding. Those last 2 miles were excruciating. I hiked them by sheer will and discipline. There was no enjoyment. I’m not even sure I had a coherent thought. But all the years of doing long, hard hikes just kicked in and drove my muscles home.

See, I woke up that morning with an incredibly great desire to hike 25 miles with a full backpack. That desire was an important part of actually doing it, but by itself, it wasn’t enough. It took all the training and discipline of years of hiking and the strength and endurance it had built in me to actually finish.

Walking with Christ in an intimate fashion is the same. The Spirit ignites in us a great desire for Christ, but we must let Him train that love into purposeful obedience. Discipline without passion is legalistic bondage. Passion without discipline is spiritual hype.

Pursuing Christ doesn’t mean that we strive harder. Striving harder is not only a guarantee of failure, but it makes you a moving target when what God wants is a still subject whose soul is at rest in Him. God does not want to chase us through a maze of distractions, busyness, and personal pursuits, no matter how well intentioned some of them may seem. He will come after us, but how much better to be found running toward Him than running around in circles, hoping He catches us?

Pursuing Christ means making an intentional choice over and over each day to submit our time, our activities, our relationships, our very selves to living IN Him. We put ourselves in a position of surrender, so He can train us. Only Christ can grow His heart in us, so we want what He desires. Only He can build the muscles of our faith, so we will have the strength and endurance to follow where His desires lead us. All good athletic training involves some degree of pain. The same is true of God’s spiritual training–suffering is a key element. But what was good for Christ is good for us.

Recently, I was reading two very different passages in the Bible, but they so aptly describe what I’ve been feeling inside as God trains me in this difficult season. After the resurrection, two disciples are making their way to Emmaus, and Jesus walks with them. During most of the conversation, they are unaware of who is talking to them until their eyes are opened as He breaks bread with them.

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” — Luke 24:32

Oh, how God has made my heart burn as He has broken bread with me in the stillness of morning before my children awake! How He has opened His Word to me in such intimate, ministering fashion if I come before Him without distraction and care clouding my heart.

In that sweet time of personal training comes the transformation Jeremiah described. As a prophet who suffered greatly for speaking God’s Word to his people, Jeremiah bitterly complained to God about the reproach that had come to him for faithfully proclaiming God’s message. He didn’t want to be the target of his people’s hatred for uttering God’s judgment. He was weary of the scorn it brought him, and yet here was his conclusion:

But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. — Jeremiah 20:9

When our hearts are taken with Christ, we cannot hold Him in. He will come out in our lives not because we are trying to show others Christ, but because we cannot keep our lives from speaking, our mouths from declaring what He has trained into us. Training tells. A heart set on fire by God must burn, and like any good fire, it must spread. And it will not matter what the flames cost us.

But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge. I will tell of all your deeds. — Psalms 73:28