A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

A Note for the Day You’re Feeling Powerless

I woke up the other day feeling—well. Feeling needlessly angry. (It wasn’t the first time, lately.)

I drilled down a bit in my surly little soul. Anger, I recall, is secondary; it stems from something: disappointment, fear, hurt, sadness. For me, there were slices of sadness—but also a big hunk of fear. More specifically, I felt powerless.

As I was scrawling thoughts for this post, I felt rather sheepish for even labeling that. The reasons I feel powerless are nothing like some of you reading this, huddling (or scramming) when an abusive spouse comes home. Or perhaps you’ve got a boss who makes you feel about an inch high, or even threatened—but you’ve gotta pay the rent. Or maybe you’re a person of color, feeling terrified and estranged after the last election. Or you have a dark diagnosis and a couple of small kids.

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Then I thought of some of the women we’ve been making baskets with in the slums. They would give everything they owned to possess the level of choice, justice, and love I’ve been surrounded by for the entirety of my life.

So there’s that.

Novelist Elizabeth Berg, though reminds me, The person with the bleeding finger doesn’t hurt less for the person next to him with the bleeding arm. There’s still value in honesty alongside perspective and gratitude. Powerlessness still may leave you feeling fearful. Disregarded. Dominated. Anxious. Without resources or an advocate.

Personally, I felt powerless because of a decision I felt I had to make; there’s a level of obedience involved to God, because it’s not the way I’d choose for myself.

I guess there’s a guy weeping in a garden a long time ago who can sympathize with that.

And He’s the one, really, who tipped me off that I wasn’t as powerless as I thought I was. After all, He chose (chose!) to shrink Himself small enough to don diapers and be held by a previously-unwed teenage mother while Herod the Great was on the prowl, wielding infanticide. I thought of that teenage mother, all grown up, watching her boy die in capital punishment, bloodied beyond recognition. That’d certainly feel powerless.

Those two joined a slumped line of people who felt powerless: John the Baptist in a stinking, infested cell. A pursued David, living in caves, like Elijah later would running from a king and his soldiers. Childless, disdained Hannah, or Sarah, or Rachel. A widow waiting to die with her son from famine. An abandoned Hagar in the desert.

Ultimately, all would witness the God Hagar did: The God seeking them. Or as she named Him, The God Who Sees.

All of them, I think, come to realize some version of this:

1. My destiny is not in the hands of a boss, a disease, a husband, a king (including Mr. Trump), someone else’s destructive cycles, or even poverty. It is not even in my own hands, though God gives me choices. I am never alone. I am never forgotten. God transforms me from a victim to a victor, and He has unspeakable promises for me.

I am never powerless in His hands.

2. What the world says is not completely true. Power is not necessarily found in control, independence, superiority, or even my internal resources and strength. Power is committing myself to God, and having the power source of the universe behind me.

3. God utterly redefines failure and weakness. His undeserved favor is enough for me; His power is made perfect in my weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

I like how Dave Harvey puts it: Failure is ambition refused (one way or another) for a better plan. I may not get the life I want. But nothing can stop me from His intimate, my-name-carved-on-His-palms care and the mind-blowing purposes God has for me.

Some of the most remarkable women and men I know are simply people of quiet courage, conquering in small encounters every day of their lives. They are people who have discovered the reality of David’s words: He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

It’s Christmas, so my mind is chewing on the image of that young teenaged mother-to-be, and the faith that bested even her elder and uncle, Zechariah. Her quiet, pleasant life was about to go permanently off-roading. And these are the words I love: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as You have said.

I am not passive; I am not powerless. I am hidden in the hands of God.

 

 

We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!

…So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.

There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

2 Corinthians 4:8-11, 16-18, MSG

Encouraged by this post? You might like
Reflections on a Christmas Robbery

Cry: The Hidden Art of Christian Grieving

Memos to Myself: On the Embarrassment of Failure 

God as a Good-luck Charm (Or, Where Was God When I Totally Failed?)

Love Says No: How Boundaries Express True Care

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Deeper: 12 (Printable) Journaling Ideas for a Christmas of the Soul

One thing I picked up from my Christmases in Uganda: All the glitter and hype of Christmas does have a purpose beyond the secular.

God created seven feasts for the Old Testament Hebrews, which clues me in; these occurred in the same seasons. Maybe the Israelites knew Hadassah made the best matzoh, or Great-Aunt Hephzibah made the best lamb broth, or that the air was filled with chaff after harvest. Heck, Jesus’ big debut was making wine from water for a wedding. The Bible ends with His own wedding. God’s the pinnacle of our joy, of our feasts and revelry. And I think He uses our senses—the whiff of evergreen; the clam dip (it’s a Breitenstein thing); the twinkle lights; Jack Frost nipping at your nose—to cement our minds to what we can’t see.

On the Equator, where it’s a balmy 80 degrees right now, Christmas can be a little…weird for bazungu like me. There are no light displays (even obnoxious ones), yuletide carols being sung by a choir, no parties (um, at least to which I was invited!?), no Necco wafers scalloping gingerbread roofs, or corn syrup, or Gingerbread Lattes, or Salvation Army bell-ringers. It’s kind of a DIY holiday.

All the Christmas pizzazz forms a little fiesta for the senses so we know and remember, This is the good stuff. Think Psych 101: positive association. We remember, This is what’s worth pulling out all the stops.

Still. Maybe it’s just me–but with all the Christmas hoopla…sometimes I’m not actually drawn into deeper worship and appreciation of God. Sometimes I get so hyped up with creating the magic, the party–I miss the Birthday Boy.

So here’s a list for reflecting and journaling in those quiet moments after the kids have gone to bed, maybe with a cup of wassail and the lights all aglow, to center in on the real Christmas.

And where we’d be without it.

(I’ve made it printable for you to stuff in the cover of your journal, or to distribute in small groups and churches. And because I obviously have a thing for free printables.)

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  1. Meditate on one name of God from the Christmas story or prophecies, writing and praying about why it’s meaningful to you right now: God with us. Savior. Desire of Nations. Messiah. Jesus (literally, The Lord Saves). Branch; Root of Jesse. King. Wonderful Counselor.

 

  1. Do I identify more with Mary’s faith, or Zechariah’s doubt right now? Why?

 

  1. Which character in the Christmas story do I most identify with this year? Why?

 

  1. A people walking in darkness have seen a great light. How am I most witnessing God’s illuminating light in my life, or how have I seen it this year? Where do I crave it right now?

 

  1. And the government shall be upon His shoulders. What do I need to entrust to God’s government right now? What about His future government do I look forward to? (Read more in Isaiah 9:1-7.)

 

  1. And He shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

 

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,     the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,     the Spirit of counsel and might,     the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2)

 

How do I sense—and sense my need for—God in these identities of His right now? (Pick one or two of these names, asking God to show Himself in this way in situations that are sticking in your brain right now.)

 

  1. Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38) What emotions do these words of Mary stir in me right now? What situation does it bring to mind in my own life? Do I need God to create this response in me right now?

 

  1. Acts 10:38: God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. What areas of my life hunger for God’s goodness, healing, and freedom right now? Who do I know that needs those this Christmas? (Spend time praying for them, and for what it would look like to love them well right now.)

 

 

  1. Micah 5:2: But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. God seems to love repeating this theme in Scripture over and over—surprising us with the significant emerging from the insignificant, wisdom from what is foolish, strength out of weakness, beauty from ashes, life from death.
  • Where do I see this in the Bible?
  • What does this look like in my life?
  • How does it give me hope?

 

  1. Check out Isaiah 61:1-4.
  • Copy or underline phrases that stick out to you; make a list of characteristics of Jesus you find in this passage.
  • Reflect on how those resonate with you, and what they radiate about God.
  • How do you see these themes in the life of Jesus—and elsewhere in the Bible?
  • How can you live out these elements of God’s character?

 

  1. Create a running list of gifts from God to you and those you love this year; of ways He’s reminded you you’re written on His hands. (This is a great way to reflect in preparation for the New Year, too.)

 

  1. What characteristic do you admire in the characters of the Christmas story? Examples:
  • I love Mary’s courage and singularity of heart, bravely choosing God’s will despite that it would likely “ruin” her idea of a peaceful marriage and existence in her community, and alter the rest of her life.
  • I love Joseph’s quiet perseverance in doing the right thing.
  • I love the Magi’s willingness to pursue God over great lengths and extravagant cost, presumably based only on faith in prophecy and a supernatural star.

 

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From the Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families series–easy ways to teach

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Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: 10 Practical Ways to Teach Simplicity (…and just in time for your crazy holiday!)

One of my favorite aspects of my African lifestyle is a lean muscularity of simplicity. Forget keeping up with the Joneses. You are the Joneses, when your kids are going to play with kids whose families (who may or may not be literate or have lost a child) live in one room, which may or may not have electricity and running water.

So people expect my light fixtures to, say, look like I swiped them from my church in the eighties. They anticipate that when I serve lemonade, it will cascade from an ugly plastic pitcher.

Perspective is everything.

Randy Alcorn explains in his (highly-recommended) The Treasure Principle, “The more things we own—the greater their total mass, the more they grip us, setting us in orbit around them.”

We sense this, I think. We sense that where our treasure is, there our hearts will also be. That the holes in our lives are never filled by more stuff, more food, more activity.

(I want to admit freely at this point that sometimes my inner “Martha” sometimes cleans the clock of my inner Mary, leaving poor Mary bruised and dazed.)

simple-is-beautiful

Richard Foster observes,

To attempt to arrange an outward lifestyle of simplicity without the inward reality leads to deadly legalism.

Simplicity begins in inward focus and unity …. Experiencing the inward reality liberates us outwardly. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. Our goods become available to others. We join the experience that Richard E. Byrd, after months alone in the barren Arctic, recorded in his journal, “I am learning … that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.”

 

Between my sister’s shoulder blades is tattooed a single word in Hebrew: satisfied. How many of us could choose that word to describe our souls?

Simplicity is a form of fasting; a way of cutting out the “McNuggets” portion of our belongings, our schedule, our talk, and our preoccupations that connive us into thinking we’re nourished, full, and happy.

 

THE KEY: Finding the freedom, joy, undivided heart, and gut-level satisfaction from lives untethered by excess. We can train our minds and hearts away from our constant appetites and the idea that more equals happiness, comfort, and convenience.

 

Especially in this season, how can we make intentional decisions away from the glut of the temporary, and seek a singularity of heart…without offending, say, your mother-in-law and your boss?

It’s not going to happen in nine steps. But let’s get some ideas going toward true satisfaction, and the kingdom nothing destroys, shall we?

  1. Rather than opting for quantity or expense—trinkets from the dollar aisle, or a pricey gift basket that serves as a nod to tradition—exchange number or price of gifts for intentionality. Opt for gifts that scream, I see you, and I get you. I love that my closest Ugandan friend gives her delighted grandma a chicken and a bag of sugar for Christmas. Though I will not be getting my mom that for Christmas—what can we give that expresses careful (not gluttonous) love? (Parents, imagine your kid tearing through presents and tossing each one aside in that Christmas-morning marathon. What’s that gift that would hit the spot and be the one that simply means something?)
  2. Give an experience; a memory. Maybe it’s a train ride (locally, or to a cool destination); a trip to a relative or friend; passes to the zoo, museum, or theater; a class (pottery! Drama!); a camping trip; a coupon book of outings for time together in the upcoming year; a trip to a place they’ve read about, or to one of their interests (a play, musical, concert, sporting event, a far-away friend).
  3. Plan a PR announcement. Talk to your kids. Explain things may be a little different this year; that they might get a few more meaningful gifts, and perhaps less on the gifts they don’t care about. As much as you can, explain your heart–perhaps that as a family, you want to find the freedom and generosity that comes with paring down our excess. Best case scenario? Get them brainstorming about ways they could “give away this Christmas”—turning Christmas into a chance to give rather than receive. Get relatives on board, when possible. Without shoveling your values on them, try to convey your heart and understand their interests, too. Could you collaborate on a gift or experience? Rather than the gift exchange, could the adults choose a charity or family to which you want to give—or take turns each year?
  4. Revamp everything you know about need vs. want. Tim Keller points out that when we compare our financial state, we nearly always compare ourselves to those who have more.

Reality? Approximately 80% of the world is living below the poverty line. I love the words of my friend Kristen, in her (yes-yes-yes this is great stuff!) book, Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life’s Biggest Yes. When her daughter grumbled, “Everyone has one, Mom,” Kristen countered gently,

 

“Well, do you think Ephantus [one of the children we’ve sponsored for years through Compassion International] has one?” She thought quietly. “No, his house isn’t even as big as my room.”

 

Kristen remarks, “Nothing makes us more grateful than perspective. Nothing. I think it’s the key to loosening the chains of entitlement in our culture.” (Her book is chock-full of ways to alter kids’ perspective and get them excited about serving.)

5. Stop competing with Martha Stewart. Dinner with my impoverished, luminous friend, Monica drove home what makes hospitality sparkle: It wasn’t her serving dishes, her perfectly-tuned recipe, or the (absent) centerpiece that made our time quality. It was simply her desire to honor us, to give generously, to connect with us and enjoy a relationship.

Toward simplicity on any day of the week, Peter Scazzero recommends creating simpler meals with fewer dishes and less prep. And at the holidays–don’t forget kids can pitch in with the extra demands of loving on others.

6. Set a capacity, and then clean your closet. Though creating beauty in our homes and appearance is natural and can be God-glorifying—as When Helping Hurts points out, we are among the wealthiest people who ever walked the planet…in all of history. Author Tony Campolo chose to restrain himself to only five changes of clothes!

Another mom’s remarkable rule: If her kids acquire new clothing, they must give an equal amount away. So consider setting a firm capacity on your possessions. Then, set a target percentage of your stuff to give away—and then up your number by 5%. For kids, in preparation for the holidays, ask them to clean out x number of clothes and x number of toys from their rooms, to give away.

7. Relentlessly streamline chaos. Create less noise by turning off the TV or music in the car, during meals, or while you’re milling around the house; plan the shows you will watch, and turn it off during the rest. Get a firm rein on kid’s screen time. Plan your grocery list, and “fast” from buying little tempting extras (Do we need five kinds of salad dressing?). Ask, what areas of my life feel harried? Do those express our values? What systems could we put in place to keep our schedule serving us and promoting peace–and not the opposite?

8. Fast from your constant “yes.” Start journaling—and eventually having family conversations about—your values as a family. Use those to determine your family’s schedule, and not the other way around! Say no to one thing that you could have said yes to, simply to create margin, emotional energy, and a culture of rest and peace in your home. As it has been said, Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

9. Avoid “cagey” speech, and speak the truth. Opt for simplicity and genuine concern in your speech by steering clear of flattery, white lies, gossip, and overindulgence about stuff that doesn’t matter (like an entire dinner conversation about a TV show). Obviously, small talk is polite and necessary. But choose speech that nourishes, and minimize “Cheetos”-type conversation (read: full of a lot of air and fake stuff that sticks to you).

10. Get kids geared up about giving. Together, choose one project to get geared up about for serving this year. What are your kids’ hearts beating for? Surround it with fun memories that help them associate serving with rewards and satisfaction. Maybe you have a family game night of tournaments—and the winner gets to choose a cause for a slice of your year-end giving.

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In the Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families series:

 

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10 Prayer Tools and Printables for Families

In light of the series on Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families, I’m hoping this easy, often printable tools (some old, some new!) will help weave prayer into the fabric of your family.

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Throwbackpost: Thanksgiving memos from a bunch of refugees

Author’s note: This post, originally posted around last year’s American Thanksgiving, is not at all intended to be a political statement regarding the recent controversy over refugees (see this article for a Christian point of view on the tension between security and compassion). It’s simply a memo to myself as I look at Thanksgiving any time of year, in light of what I’ve learned from the crazy-fun group of refugees I teach on a weekly basis in Uganda.

Sometimes I’m as much a student of them as they are of me, as they sprawl in their chairs there in the sticky heat or the lazy afternoon sun.

refugees 1Sometimes when they stand next to me, I have nothing to do but laugh out loud at the picture we must make: me with my German build and American clothing, my skin that best stay out of the sun after fifteen minutes, sky-colored eyes—and them, some even built like ebony marionettes, towering above me at six feet-two or –four, their toothy ivory grins and an arm around my shoulder, their tribal language to a friend resounding like African drums.

 

And so I think of them this year, even as I look online for the best recipes for our feast with family. Thanksgiving is a bit of a personal journal on the year for me. It seems like a good occasion to contemplate the year stretching behind me: What has God done? How do I remember Him being faithful? What must I be vigilant not to miss?

 

So my friends who have fled here from all over East Africa have reminded me, just from their own stories, the journal of their own lives. Don’t forget. Count every single one of your blessings.

 

Count, they would tell me, your ability to speak fluid English—the doors it opens for you, the jobs it gets, the ease it provides you in so many places around the world.

Teacher, count that you have been born in a time of relative peace in your country, not war. That justice is often done when you go to the police or in your courts; that people do not have to take the law into their own hands. Justice in your country also means most of your friends and/or relatives are still living; thriving, even.

And that because of all this, you have received an education—and not just any education. You went to a school that has books and lunch and can make photocopies and has less than thirty students per class!

Count that your basic education means you know basic first aid, means you have a certain degree of reasoning and logic skills. That you have a mass of essential knowledge that, even finding yourself in a place of sudden poverty (the developing-world kind), would not leave you there for long.

You can be thankful, Teacher, that your life expectancy is beyond 49.[1] That in your country, if someone steals, they keep both of their hands.[2]

My friend, count that your home has a floor, that you have a car and know how to drive it, that you have been to a dentist in your lifetime. Remember you can easily find doctors who know what they are doing; the money to pay them and not draw it from something else you need, like your child’s school fees.

Thank God, Teacher, that you got to choose your husband! And he is a good man, with a job, who has never laid an angry hand on you. That you got to choose your job. That you have driven on smooth, safe roads. That you don’t worry much about your children dying; that malaria is no longer in your country, or typhoid, or cholera, or ebola. You have clean water—in your own house, right from your own tap!

You might think these are simple things, Teacher. But to me, they are not. Thank your God for these things on Thursday. They are sweet things, Teacher. So sweet.

 

[1] This is life expectancy in the Congo. South Sudan is 54; Somalia is 55.

[2] See Sharia law.

 

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Guest Post: Is Insecurity Robbing Your Family?

I guess you could say that because of my story, which I shared last week–I’m pretty passionate about giving insecurity the boot. Maybe it’s much more so in parenting because I watch how my kids Xerox my values.

And I know how much it’s robbed from me.

I told you how insecurity—for far too long—was a giant, life-sucking Hoover in my marriage. It was as if I’d wrapped a leash around my neck, panting to be led by someone’s opinions. …Even complete strangers.

If you’re asking, “What’s the big deal about a little insecurity?”–maybe I can only tell you what I’ve seen it control.

I’m guest-posting today on my friend Kristen’s site, weareTHATfamily.com. Hope it encourages you parents swimming upstream today!

because-of-a-generous-grace-janel

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Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: 10 Simple Ways to Teach Solitude

There’s a bit of irony in this post for me. Currently my family and I—yes, all four children—are residing at my in-laws’ during our stint in the States. I’m still schooling them during the day. Yes, that’s just about as “alone” as it sounds.

Some of you with kids wrapped around your kneecaps might be thinking, Solitude. I think this could be my favorite discipline yet.

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Out of Insecurity: My Story

 

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He’s loved me through a lot, you know.

When we married 16 years ago—I at 19, he at 20—I was cripplingly insecure. It was as if I’d wrapped a leash around my neck, panting to be led by someone’s opinions.

The quick-and-dirty version of my downward spiral: I’d always been an achiever, loved appreciation; admiration. I was good at it. (Most of us are good at hunting what we crave.) My opinion of God, even, became tightly braided with what others saw and praised.

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Election 2016: How can I talk with my kids about all this?

america-wonderingMaybe your chest is as chock-full of emotion as mine over the results of November 8, 2016. As my friend Kristen Welch wrote in her excellent post, America is Stunned. God is Not: 5 Things We Can Teach Our Kids in the Wake of Change: I don’t even know what to say, but just between us: I wasn’t with her and I wasn’t for him.

From the moment we got off the plane, my kids have marveled slack-jawed (with the rest of us) over the news shows and internet headlines of the rabbit hole that is the 2016 elections. Perhaps like I’ll never forget the Challenger exploding at liftoff or where I was on 9/11, they will never forget these last few months.

Some of my kids have dealt with no negligible amount of fear. They’re rife with questions, and looking to a lot of places for hints on how to make sense of this brouhaha. And, as my mom used to say, I can assume they’re even smarter than I think they are. They’ve picked up on a lot. (Though I had to grin yesterday, when during a wrestling session I heard, “Can’t Dad just run for president?”)

What can we say today?

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Questions to Know Thy [Stressed] Self

Remember that moment when Bruce Banner suddenly morphs into the Incredible Hulk? His pupils start glowing; pretty soon his shoes are splitting off his expanding green feet.

Perhaps if my favorite blouse was ripping at the shoulder seams, my own stress identification would be a bit more astute. As it is, sometimes my husband sees my inner Hulk-ette beefing up a lot sooner than I do. (Irritating.) Can you hear me growl, “I’M…..NOT…..STRESSED!”

When I’m under stress, as much as I hate to admit it—people get a completely different me.

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