Come Dance With Me

I homeschool my oldest child, an endeavor that brings measures of joy and frustration, but always keeps me busy. We have school 4 days each week from early morning to mid-afternoon. Between teaching my 6-year-old and caring for my 3-year-old, those days are jam packed. As in, I get up early, savor a smidgen of pre-kid atmosphere, wake my 6-year-old, and I’m off–going 90 miles an hour until 2:30 when the little one takes a nap and the big one is done with school. I sit at the dining room table, take a deep breath, and recover.

Today, I had finished teaching a math lesson to my oldest and put her to work on some practice problems. I zipped off to the computer to take care of a task on my “to do” list in the brief break I would get before having to start her spelling lesson. This is how I get things done on school days…5 minutes here, 2 minutes there. Eventually, all the little minutes add up to a whole–a message returned, an order placed, a card written, an appointment made, a meal cooked.

My 3-year-old was contentedly playing just outside the room in which I was working. She was in the middle of her usual creation–a spattering of safari animals, dolls, doctor kits, and play food in a lovely state of chaos. Her presence in the next room barely registered, except for the quiet relief that she was occupied. Sometimes, her neediest moments and my breaks collide in a way that makes me inwardly cringe.

Eyes locked on the computer screen, I was scanning deals for an upcoming ski trip when I faintly realized she was singing. I still might not have looked up, but for the words she was singing. “Come dance with me, come dance with me.” Syrupy emotion slid over me as I watched her move in a slow circle, her back to me, her arms outstretched, “Come dance with me, come dance with me.” I gazed at my sweet siren, the lilting melody of her quiet voice calling to me. She wasn’t even looking at me, had no idea I was listening to her, and yet somewhere in the words was a gentle invitation. I accepted.

IMG_0621

My little dance partner

A smile broke her lovely little face into sweet lines of pleasure as I stepped into her dance.Her eyes flashed delight as I stretched out my hands. She wrapped her little fingers around mine and continued spinning around me in a slow circle, “Come dance with me, come dance with me.” We danced until we collapsed in a dizzy ball of giggles, and I heard her say, “Mama, that was so fun.” I looked into her precious face, and I thought, I almost missed this moment.

In that hush of wonder, His Spirit breathed Yes, whisper soft and yet keenly intense in that way He has of snatching my attention in the unexpected. And I knew He was showing me a bigger truth in this moment with my little one.  He was gently chiding me for the many times I’ve missed the chance to dance with Him. How often have I been too busy or too distracted to hear my Jesus softly calling, “Come dance with Me, come dance with Me”? How many times has He stretched out His hands, offering me the delight of His company, as I passed by on my way to someone or something else? What moments in His Presence have I missed because I simply didn’t slow down enough to hear His invitation?

We say we want to know God more. We say we want to see more of His power at work in our lives. We say we want to discern His will and follow it. But over and over, we don’t do the one thing that must happen if any of this is to be realized in our relationship with God–come away and just be in His Presence. We are most effective as Christ-followers when we understand that time spent with God is of greater value to the Kingdom than time spent doing things for God. Transformation happens in His Presence, not in our doing.

In the last few weeks, I’ve tried to replicate that moment with my daughter again. I’ve sung her little tune, held out my hands as I cajoled her with a grin, all to no avail. She’s not having any of it. She just giggles and tells me, “No, mama.” Thank goodness, God’s desire to dance with me is not that fickle. He’s the Partner who’s always on His toes, the music playing, His arms stretched out, His voice beckoning with tender persistence. And somewhere in the sound, Eden echoes, Eternity whispers, I take His Hand, and we dance.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”
— Psalm 139:7

Advertisements

Consumed

Earlier this year, I was stunned to hear that an acquaintance of ours had been diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. We didn’t know Jeff Stables really well. Our paths had only crossed for a brief time while we worked as youth ministers at a local church and he served as the area director for Young Life. But I remember Jeff having an insanely crazy amount of energy and an incredibly deep love for teenagers. At the time of his diagnosis, Jeff was serving with his family in Scotland, still working with Young Life, loving on people in Jesus’ name.

As we followed the updates on Jeff’s condition and his health worsened, my heart broke over and over for Jeff, his wife Becca, and their three young boys. I wanted them to have more time together. I wanted Becca and the boys to be spared the pain of parting from the man they loved as husband and dad. Following their story drove me to my knees in tears at times, lifting them up to the God who sees, the One who knows the end from the beginning. And I was deeply convicted watching the beautiful grace with which this family met their “hard.” I saw faith that hurt and doubted but ultimately hoped in the goodness of God. Faith that blossomed in the crucible.

On December 7, 2015, Jeff realized the end of his faith as Jesus hugged him home. And my mind and heart have spun for the last week, alternating between grief for his wife and sons and wondering over the mystery of why this parting had to happen right now. My Facebook News Feed has blown up all week with tributes to Jeff. Many made me cry. A few made me laugh out loud. Most were from people I’ve never met. Every few hours, new posts would show up, waves of Jeff’s influence rolling in and crashing over the shores of our collective grief.

Jeff was only 37. That seems far too young to die. A wife is without her love, and three young boys are without their dad. The inevitable, excruciating “why?” wells up. And then there’s all those posts piling up on Facebook, each one a life changed by Jeff’s love for Jesus and his desire to share that love with people. Why take one who was so passionately pursuing God’s purpose?

Seeking answers to those questions is like chasing the wind. Pursuit of the “why” is futile. It is God who we are to chase, Him who we are to seek. If we chase the “why,” we find only more questions. If we chase God, we find the One who “does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), but who lovingly acts in accordance with His eternal purposes. We find the One who “is good to those whose hope is in him” (Lamentations 3:25). “Though He brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:32). God is gracious with our questions and generous with His compassionate love, even as He requires that we rest in His sovereignty.

As I pondered Jeff’s passing, something that Jim Elliot wrote kept coming to mind.

“‘He makes His ministers a flame of fire.’ Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul–short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. ‘Make me Thy Fuel, Flame of God.'”

Jeff was consumed by a zeal for sharing God’s love and salvation. He offered himself as fuel for God’s Great Cause–“reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19). The number of Jeff’s years was short, but the impact of his years is eternally long. Yesterday, I sat in a packed church peopled with hundreds whose lives were influenced by Jeff’s short-lived flame. As Christ-followers, can there be any greater testimony at the end of our days than to say we were consumed by the God who created us, fully expended for His eternal purposes even to our last breath?

In John 12:24, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” In the last week, the fruit of Jeff’s life has been so overwhelmingly evident. And though Jeff’s death is heart-wrenchingly sad, I can’t help but think that he died well because he lived well.

This morning, I was sitting in church, thoughts of Jeff and his family still weighing on my heart. As the service came to a close, a quote from C.S. Lewis appeared on the screen:

“Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”

I know this quote is about the birth of Christ, but my mind immediately snatched on a play on these words: “Once in our world, a Stables [Jeff] had something in it [Jesus] that was bigger than our whole world.” How blessed we have been to see Christ in Jeff. My prayers to Becca, Luke, Levi, and Ian–may God be husband and daddy, sweetly present in all the empty places.

Anything But Mundane

I saw the title Letter to my readers upon my death, and I was undone. I huddled in the corner of my sofa, sobs rolling over me. I had missed Kara’s “voice” the last few weeks–that special gift she had for piercing the heart with truth in such a sweetly compelling way. I hadn’t expected to hear it again this side of heaven. And yet, here it was, a final post reaching back from eternity in a bittersweet goodbye. Tears blurring the words, I stared at my Facebook page and exhaled a deep, shuddering breath. It was like looking at the last gift under the Christmas tree. You want to open it so badly, and yet you wish you could just leave it there because you know when you open it, that’s it. There’s no more.

You see, Jesus took home a treasure on March 22. A treasure named Kara Tippetts. I never had the privilege of meeting her or talking with her. And yet when my 5-year-old daughter asked me why I was crying, I stumbled through an explanation about who Kara was until she simply asked, “Is Kara your friend, Mom?” “Yes, sweetheart, yes.” And in all the ways that count, it is the best word to describe how I feel about her.

I stumbled onto Kara Tippetts’ blog Mundane Faithfulness last fall and was instantly hooked. She was a Christ-follower, a young mom, a pastor’s wife facing terminal cancer. She wrote with utter heart, words that tore into my soul, convicting and encouraging all in the same breath. And always, her posts pointed to Christ. Christ. Christ. Christ.

I don’t think I have ever afforded to a virtual stranger such a tender place in my heart. As her health worsened and death drew near, I struggled to articulate to family and friends just why exactly I was feeling such a deep sense of connection to Kara and her family.

Certainly, Kara embraced suffering. She embodied the idea of suffering well, struggling for a tender, transformed heart even as God wrote a story with her life that she didn’t want. Kara wrote with raw transparency and poignant honesty. Her painful submission to God’s plan and her sharp sorrow over leaving her “loves” simmered in her words. Pondering the sweet photos of Kara with her family and friends that appeared on her blog often built a knot of sadness in my throat. But as I really considered just what made me sit up and notice Kara, what made me take her so to heart, it’s that Kara made me sit up and notice Jesus.

Because I only started following Kara’s blog a few months ago, I’d only ever seen photos of her while she was ill until recently. I read a story about her and came across a photo of Kara and her husband taken before she was sick. In it, she has a long, glorious mane of blond hair and a megawatt smile. It was a vision of Kara I’d never seen. And yet, when I look at the cancer-ravaged pictures of Kara, those are the ones that most take my breath away. There is this deeply serene God-light in her eyes, a beauty not of this world that radiates, outshining the grief and pain. It is the light of one whose eyes are fixed on Jesus. It is the light of one whose love is fixed on Jesus. It is the light of the Spirit shining where He is abundantly welcomed. You couldn’t read Kara’s words without knowing that she absolutely adored Jesus and fought to trust Him fully in all the hard places He led her. She painfully chronicled her doubts and fears, and yet she always ended with this testimony–that Jesus would be there with the grace she needed. Kara’s honest admission of need always met with a resolute declaration of faith.

One of the many beautiful things about the Gospel accounts of the time leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is His prayer for the disciples and those who would believe in Him in generations to come. What selfless love that Christ’s thoughts were directed toward His followers even as the climax of His own suffering approached. In this too, Kara showed me Jesus. Reading her blog, I was always blown away by her overwhelmingly other-centered perspective. You would expect someone dying from cancer to be somewhat focused on their own sense of pain and loss. But Kara always seemed eminently concerned with how her illness and death affected others–her husband, children, family, and friends. As I read her final post, this letter she had composed to be published after her death, I was overcome by her tender expression of gratitude toward her community of blog followers and her passionate plea to pray for her family. Even in her last words, she was gently comforting us “strangers” who mourn her passing and sweetly directing our hearts toward her precious family. All I could think was, There you go again, Kara. Only a heart filled with Jesus can bleed love so abundantly to others.

I don’t know if Kara’s family will ever read this, but no tribute to Kara would be complete without addressing her dearest loves. Jason, Ella, Harper, Lake, and Story Jane–you are the ones for whom my heart is broken. The hard just keeps crashing down, and the empty places must seem huge. But God has you. Oh, how He has you. I pray God’s Presence will be so sweetly near and real to each of you. And may the legacy of faith that your wife and mama left bloom in you until that sweet moment when you all come together again in Jesus.

For a woman whose blog was named Mundane Faithfulness, Kara’s faith was anything but mundane. It was epic and beautiful and convicting. When I first heard of Kara’s death, I thought, Man, I’d love to see what Kara would write about that moment when her eyes locked with Jesus. On second thought though, I’m guessing Kara had no words, just consuming joy as Jesus hugged her home. I couldn’t wish anything better for a friend.

 

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.

DSCN7348

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