Living Open-Handed

Last week, the organization I work with had a retreat for all the staff on the island. It was a great few days away – despite the fact I wasn’t terribly excited to be there at the start. 

One of the things I felt I should do to get my attitude right and be able to hear all God wanted to say to me during the time was surrender everything I brought with me. So, Wednesday night, I spent time laying everything down before God – my book, singing, my life in Ireland, ministry opportunities, and other dreams and promises I felt He’d given me. I told Him I only wanted to bring home what He gave me back during the days of the retreat.

During the next two days, I struggled with some of the hopes and dreams I’d placed on the altar of surrender. There were items – like my book – which I expected to be returned and received back fairly quickly. I still don’t know how God will use Live Your Story to impact lives, but I believe He will bring Himself glory through the message. I trust Him with how that will look without specific expectations, so it was easy to accept that item back from God.

Other hopes and dreams were more difficult. One promise in particular kept finding its way back into my hands and heart. Each time I discovered I was holding it again, I would put it right back down on the altar. While I believe the fulfillment of this promise could bring God much glory, it is not so much a “ministry” promise as a personal one. Because of this dynamic, it was much easier to believe that I was picking it up again because of my own desire for it.

By Friday morning, as I spent time listening to God and writing in my journal, I felt God was saying, “Thank you for surrendering your desires and hopes, but you now have to be willing to receive back the gifts I want to give you.” I felt He was saying that He had been trying the whole time to give this promise back to me, but I was refusing to accept it because I was afraid of turning an “I wish” into a “God said.”

I realized once again that surrender really means living open-handed before God. Hands that are open release things, but they also receive. Just as I don’t know what future ministry opportunities will look like or the impact my book will have, I don’t know how the fulfillment of this particular promise will come about or what it will bring. But I have chosen to leave my hands open to receive all that God wants to give and surrender all that isn’t from Him; I have chosen to trust His faithfulness. He is a good Father who delights in giving good gifts to His children. I may not feel worthy of the gift, but He gives based on His character – not mine.

What is God trying to give you today? Sometimes accepting and hoping for the gifts He offers requires courage because hope brings the risk of disappointment, but the hope He gives is always worth the risk. He is trustworthy. Open your hands.

On Faith and Doubt

I’ve shared a couple of times in recent weeks that God has asked me to have faith for some things that seem highly improbable. In a number of verses in the Bible (James 1:6-7, for example), it says to ask in faith, without doubt, and you will have what you ask for. I have been doing my best to live up to those instructions.

However, it seems no matter how hard I try, little questions often sneak into my mind. “Did God really promise…? What if you got it wrong? Do you seriously believe God can/will do THAT? For YOU?” Each time these thoughts come, they bring guilt and condemnation with them. The one thing God has asked me to do is to believe without doubting, and I can’t even get that right!

This past Sunday at church, we had a guest speaker. There were a lot of great points in the sermon, but one thing has been stuck in my mind for the past three days. He made the comment that faith is not the absence of doubts, but confidence in the face of them. He went on to say that uncertainty of the outcome of a given situation is what makes faith possible. If we were completely certain that what we hope for would happen, there would be no need for faith.

What a freeing thought! I am not a failure because questions come to mind on occasion. I only fail to have faith if I entertain those questions and dwell on them. If I give them more room in my mind than I give to the confidence that God “will accomplish what concerns me,” then I give in to doubt.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Confidence and assurance in the face of uncertainty. We don’t see the fulfillment of God’s promises yet, and it is normal that questions will arise. Every person mentioned in Hebrews 11 – the “Hall of Faith” – asked God questions on numerous occasions. Questions don’t equal sin or disqualify us from receiving the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Some teachers might tell you that if you only had enough faith, life would be easy and God would have answered your prayers by now. That is a load of rubbish. God never promised an easy life to anyone who chose to follow Him. In fact, in many cases, it was the opposite. What He did promise was that He would be with us, that He would never stop loving us, and that His words are true no matter what! (There are many other promises in His Word, so go read the Bible to find more.)

Whatever it is you’re hoping and praying for today, have faith. Don’t choose to live with the doubts that try to fill your mind. Acknowledge them, remind them of the awesome power of the God Who loves you, and send them on their way.

When Surrender Means Holding On…

I’ve been thinking lately about surrender. There have been some hopes and dreams on my mind and in my heart for a while now that I felt like God put there, but recently I’ve been feeling the need to surrender those things back to Him again.

It is easy to get discouraged when what I see doesn’t seem to match what I believe He has spoken. Disappointment sets in, and I begin to feel like I must have heard wrong. My eyes and heart and mind tell me to bury the dreams, grieve, and move on. My mind says that this is surrender, letting go of what I’ve been holding onto so tightly and handing it back to the One Who I thought gave it to me in the first place. Surrender even means to give up, yield, or relinquish.

So, last week I decided to surrender some of my dreams and hopes back to God. I held open my hands, hoping that He would take them back and let me move on to other things I’ve been working toward and praying for. Instead of taking them away, He began to close my fingers back around those hopes. He is not ready to let me walk away from them yet. For now, surrendering to Him means continuing to hold tightly to the promises He’s spoken, trusting Him more than I trust my eyes, walking in faith that He is faithful and trustworthy and worth the risk of disappointment.

As I walked to church on Sunday, I was thinking about this topic and asking God to confirm whether He really was asking me to hold onto this hope. Sometimes it can be difficult to discern His voice from my own thoughts. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to give up; perhaps I was convincing myself that God wanted me to keep holding onto something that He really was asking me to give back to Him. Then again, maybe I was trying to give it back because I’m scared of the potential to get hurt and be disappointed if I keep holding on. (Isn’t it amazing how difficult it can be to figure out what’s going on even inside ourselves?)

The sermon at church on Sunday was focused on Abraham, and Romans 4:17-22 was one of the texts used. “In hope he believed against hope… No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’” Abraham believed in the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Sometimes surrender means letting go. I’m learning this week that sometimes it also means holding on – not just to the hope or promises, but to the Giver of them, the only One who can speak things that are not as though they are… and be right. Faith isn’t blind. It sees the difficulties, the ‘impossibilities’ and chooses to still believe in the God with whom all things are possible (Luke 1:37).

Hope in the Saturday…

We talk a lot about the Friday when Jesus died on the cross. We call it “good” Friday, and indeed the outcome was so much more than just good. I guarantee, though, that His followers would not have called it that!

Let’s look for just a moment at Luke 5 where several of the twelve men closest to Jesus met Him for the first time (verses 1-11 & 27-28). It says they “left everything” and followed Him. They and others were with Him for three years of ministry. They had seen many miracles of healing, provision, and even the dead being raised. They believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the One who would come and establish His Kingdom and bring freedom from the oppression they lived under. They walked away from the lives they had known, certain that they had chosen the winning side.

Now three years later, it seemed all that had changed. The one they had given up everything for had been beaten, mocked, humiliated, spit on and crucified. He must have seemed anything but the victorious King they expected.

Usually, when I hear people talk about Good Friday, as soon as Jesus is in the tomb, they fast forward to Sunday, to the part of the story we all like to think about – the resurrection, the VICTORY! Let’s not fast forward though… Let’s spend a few minutes in the shoes of those who couldn’t just read the next chapter in their Bible.

These were the men who would write their stories for us to read and learn from for centuries to come. The scriptures they had available to them talked of a promised Savior whose Kingdom would not end (Is. 9:2-7) But those dream were gone, apparently, and they had nothing left… nothing aside from fear and probably guilt (Matt. 26:56-58). In the time when their master was taken away, the disciples took off, scattering in fear. Peter followed at a distance long enough to deny Jesus and then fled.

There is very little written about the Saturday after Jesus died because it was the Sabbath. Very little could be done on the Sabbath by anyone under the law. All that we’re told happened was a guard being put on the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66).

Next time we see the eleven apostles, they are sitting in a locked room, in fear for their lives because of their association with Jesus. I imagine them sitting there in disbelief – their minds and hearts a tumultuous mixture of sadness, anger, guilt, confusion and despair, wondering how they could have gotten it so wrong. Even when they were told the good news that Jesus had risen, they refused to believe it (John 20:19, Mark 16:7, 10-14).

What I find amazing about their disbelief in His resurrection is that He had told them a number of times recorded in the gospels that He would be killed and rise again on the third day. Their despair was so complete they had given up on His words to them. They had expectations for how the prophecies and promises about the Messiah would look, and this loss did not fit into their plans. When their expectations weren’t met, they gave up on His words altogether.

They had seen Jesus bring life in place of death several times before, but surely the One doing the miracle had to have life in Him in order to speak it into something else, right? They were forgetting His words to Martha when He raised her brother, Lazarus, back to life (John 11:25-26). He didn’t just HAVE resurrection and life to give others. He IS those things! He said in John 10:10 that He came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Are there dreams you’ve had to bury? Have you expected God to do something and experienced despair when your hopes seem to go up in smoke? Do you believe He is who He says He is, and He can bring the abundant life He has promised – even from a place of despair and death?

This week, as we celebrate the incredible event that changed history and eternity, don’t be too quick to skip from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. Think of the disciples in their locked room, filled with fear and despair so completely that they had given up on His words to them. What pieces of your own heart have been locked away in fear or despair? Invite Jesus to show up and bring life and hope in those locked places just as He did for His friends so many years ago. He is still the same today as He was when He appeared to them long ago.

Time to Party?

So, tomorrow is kind of a big deal in my world. When it comes to birthdays, I’m still a kid at heart. I still wait with anticipation as my chance to celebrate a new year in my life comes along. If I’m being perfectly honest, I still love  the cards and gifts, the kind words and feeling special.

Some people seem to have outgrown this childlike fascination with their birthday, or they never really celebrated the day to begin with. Others dread the anniversary of their birth because it means they’re getting older, and aging is seen as the worst thing in the world. Um… I’m guessing they haven’t thought through the alternative to having birthdays and getting older.

The countdown to this birthday has been different. I’m torn between wanting to hope that it will be amazing and being afraid that it will be depressing. I’m living in a new country, and I’ve traveled enough during my time here that I don’t have a lot of close friends yet. Many of the friends I have made are currently out of town. I don’t have a permanent address and most people don’t have the temporary one, and with postage being expensive for overseas stuff, I don’t expect many cards or packages. I may end up taking myself to dinner and to a  show of the Irish National Clown Orchestra.

Another layer in my reasons to be wary of hope is that this day marks the passing of another year in which I didn’t accomplish so many things I had hoped to do. Like many others on the planet, my life hasn’t quite worked out the way I expected. Tomorrow, I enter my mid-30s, and I thought I’d be a wife and mom by now. I thought maybe I would know what I’m meant to be doing in ministry and even actually be doing that by this point. I thought life would be different.

Don’t get me wrong on this. I LOVE my life for the most part. If any of those other things had happened before now, chances are I wouldn’t live in Ireland, and I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Most days, I feel fulfilled and truly happy with where God has brought me in life. It’s just that I know there’s more.

Despite my attempts to be content in every circumstance, and give my desires back to God, and all of those other things that well-meaning people “encourage” me with, I know there is more. Just when I reach the place where I feel the contentment we’re taught is the goal, HE begins to whisper to me that there is more, the best is yet to come.

So, despite any indications to the contrary, there is the potential for this birthday and the coming year to be the best so far! I am on the brink of new and BIG things. Most days, I feel it – the expectancy that something is just around the corner.

On the days when I don’t feel it, He reminds me, challenging me to hope beyond the seen, beyond the risk that disappointment is what awaits around that next corner.

I don’t know what’s waiting. I can’t see around the corner yet, but I know someone whose view is far superior to mine. He has whispered to me of the things that are waiting and I am learning to trust His voice.

I am also learning to hope without demands or score-keeping – because, let’s face it, I lose that count every single time. I discovered earlier this week that I was subconsciously beginning to tell God all that I’ve done, the sacrifices I think I’ve made in my (nearly) 34 years of life. I can almost hear Him chuckle. He must think how cute and silly I am to play that game again when all He has to do is remind me of one moment in time that changed everything.

In the moment when Jesus defeated death, paid my debt to sin, and made abundant life possible, He  won forever and always – not only against Satan, Hell and death, but against my selfish attempts to blackmail Him with my supposed “sacrifices” on His behalf. 🙂

Does God love me and want to give me more than I can even imagine? Yes, without a doubt! Do I believe there are huge things ahead of me, and that this year may hold surprises that I haven’t even dreamed of? Most of the time. 🙂 Does God “owe me” for sacrificing or stepping out of the boat to follow Him on this adventure? Nope, not a darn thing!

I am excited about tomorrow. I think it’s going to be a fun day and the beginning of an exciting year. Will it bring along great friendships, ministry direction/opportunities, a place to call home, and maybe even a bit of romance? Who knows! Whatever it brings, though, it’s going to be full of life, laughter, love, tears, pain, uncertainties, and so much more! It won’t be perfect, but it will be abundant and full of Him!

Expectation or Expectancy?

I have often used these words interchangeably, but I’m learning lately that there is a difference. It may not seem like a big deal to change a few letters, but the truth is, the dissimilarity has affected my emotional and spiritual well-being for years!

The dictionary defines these words as nearly the same thing, but their connotations in my mind affect the very foundations of what I believe about God and His promises.

So, what’s the difference? Hopefully, I can put this into words in a way that makes sense.

Expectation feels demanding. When someone says “I expect” this or that, I often understand it to mean that any less – or different – is not acceptable. If I am given a responsibility, I want to know the expectations that go along with it so that I can be sure to meet them.

There, that is the idea I’m looking for. Expectations are things which exist to be met. They are specific, and it’s difficult to accept anything that doesn’t look the way it’s expected to.

Expectancy, on the other hand, feels open. It is a feeling of anticipation for something. It is HOPE.

I have written a lot in past posts about the things I felt God has promised me. (I was going to say recent weeks, but I’ve not written in weeks. Forgive the absence, please!) These past few years have been a roller coaster of ups and downs – high times filled with expectation for the fulfillment of promises, and then times where I feel I’m falling into some seemingly bottomless chasm of disappointment.

Even in the most recent post, I wrote all about the “broad place” that God has been promising to bring me to during this season.  Yet, here I am 7 weeks after arriving, still crashing in someone’s guestroom.  For a while, I was stressing out about it, frantically looking for a place to call home. I didn’t understand why God wasn’t meeting my expectations and demands for Him to fulfill His promise on my schedule and to my specifications.

The problem is He never promised that I would be all settled and unpacked within a couple of weeks. He never said I would have my own apartment, or even my own room. He didn’t promise internet, or a washing machine, or a kitchen sink for that matter!

God promised me a “place” of rest, of ministry, of growth. My stress and disappointment was acute because I interpreted His words, and then built my expectations on that interpretation. As soon as I lay down my own ideas, stopped stressing, and let go, not only was a weight lifted, but new possibilities suddenly had room to make a home in my mind.

The very morning that I finally gave up my search for the perfect housing solution, I decided to make the most of my season of living out of a suitcase. Within hours of first thinking of the idea, plans were forming and I had talked to my leaders and family… I would go on an epic adventure!

Part of the ministry I have been asked to do here in Ireland requires some travel for research purposes. It had been in the back of my mind to do a couple of short trips in the UK to check out some of the Celtic era monasteries and abbeys in Scotland and England, but I hadn’t given a ton of thought to when. As I thought about my living situation, suddenly it just made sense to do all the travel before I start paying rent and bills here in Sligo.

I realize now that this is an incredibly obvious solution, so feel free to say “Duh!” I have said it to myself several times so far. That is simply an illustration of how my expectations for what I thought God would do clouded my mind and blocked out an obvious benefit to my current circumstances. 🙂

All that to say, I will be leaving my temporary home in Sligo next week for a journey that will take me all around the British Isles. I’ll start by seeing three or four places in Northern Ireland, then a ferry to Scotland and travels to several different parts of Scotland, England and Wales. Finally, I’ll catch a ferry back to Dublin via the Isle of Man to see some sites in other counties of Ireland before returning to Sligo.

I don’t know how long this will take, but I’m guessing I’ll be gone for maybe 6 weeks. I don’t have an itinerary. I am traveling on my own, just me and Jesus, and I am filled with expectancy! I have no expectations for what God will do, but I am filled with a sense of anticipation to see what He will do during the next two months! Divine appointments, incredible provision (I don’t know how, but to travel in the UK for several weeks will require some pretty amazing provision.), fun, and new knowledge of history, Christianity, God and myself.  Those are some pretty basic ideas of what might be a part of this, but I anticipate surprises all along the way!

I am so excited to see what will take place over the next two months. There are so many unknowns – I could end up sleeping in a bus depot somewhere, but I cannot suppress the feeling of hope and expectancy that is building inside me. I don’t know what to expect, and I LOVE that! I am simply going to be obedient, take the steps He shows me, and watch in amazement at the ways He shows up.

I appreciate prayers for wisdom, safety, provision, and anything else you’d like to pray for me. 🙂 I’ll keep you posted and hopefully be able to post some photos along the way.

Now, based on the length of this post, I should probably sign off so you can all go and thank the Lord that I didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone when I was at the castle last week! 🙂

Contentment vs Hope

I got mad at God on Sunday night. He has been challenging me to hope for some specific things recently, and that’s not always easy. A friend of mine was praying for me recently and sent me a text with Romans 15:13 (NIV) “May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

As I prayed into this verse, I discovered that after having my hopes disappointed before, (see “The Carrot Factor”), I still have dreams that are walled off. I have locked them away lest disappointment come again, and digging them out has proven more challenging than I first imagined.

The difficulties of hoping for these things in my life is not the reason for my temper tantrum, however. That came with another text from this same friend. She occasionally sends me devotional readings via text, and this particular reading urged the reader to find his or her completion and fulfillment in Christ alone – not people, possessions or power. Normally, I have no issue with this idea. After all, He is God, and of course, He is more than enough to fulfill every longing in the human heart.

On Sunday evening, though, I had a major problem with this directive. If He is it, all I will ever need to be complete and fulfilled in every longing I experience, WHY is He asking me to hope for other things? It made me angry to be asked in a very short time to do two seemingly mutually exclusive things. How can I be totally fulfilled in Jesus Christ, while longing for things on earth? By the time I was able to get alone with God on Tuesday, I was asking how He could expect a “both/and” response in what seems like an “either/or” scenario.

This is not the first time I have struggled with the idea of “contentment”. I have lost count of how many times I have reached a place in my life where I feel content and fulfilled in my life and relationship with God, only to have Him begin speaking about a new ministry He has for me to be involved in or a man who will “soon” enter the picture. I have accused Him at times of enjoying my misery. Why else would He push me to hope again for people or position or whatever just when I reach a place of contentment and fulfillment in Him?

This is, however, the first time I have had a deep revelation that my understanding of contentment is skewed. I don’t know how many people have told me over the years that I just have to learn to be content in my singleness, my financial state, or my ministry. I can think of times when I have been told that things won’t change until I learn to be content with where I am, as though it’s a test and until I pass it, I can’t move on to the next lesson. Verses like Philippians 4:11 are quoted as a standard to strive for; “…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

The thing I noticed today as I looked for verses that speak of contentment, is that all of them I found (including the one where Jesus Himself is speaking) refer to possessions. They speak of being content with your wages, with only having food and shelter, with having little or much. I didn’t find a single verse that spoke of being content with where you’re at in life, and honestly, I am beginning to think it’s not God’s desire for us to be fully content.

As I prayed and wrote in my journal, I began to realize that while I am complete, perfected through Jesus, I am not yet at my final destination. I was designed for more than this place I’m in right now. Each of us was designed to live with God in heaven, and as long as we’re on earth, we are out of place. It’s no wonder we feel discontented at times! (In fact, I wonder if the real issue isn’t that point when we become so comfortable, so content here on earth that we cease longing for His Kingdom to come in its fullness!)

Another way I’m beginning to see this principle in my own life has far less to do with location, and more to do with purpose. I believe that God has spoken to me that He has designed me to be a wife and mother (one day), a teacher, a writer, and more. Right now, I am one of those things. I am complete in Christ, but until I have fulfilled those things I know I am designed for, there is a divine discontent, a knowledge deep down inside that there is more to come.

So, yes, find completion in God. He truly is the only source of satisfaction. He is the Source of fulfillment for all of our deepest longings and hopes. Sometimes those hopes involve people, possessions or even position/power. The key for those hopes is the focus.  I am learning to hope IN God, FOR ….. (insert desire here). For a time I got this confused and hoped IN people, ministry, etc., and I found that to be a sure path to disappointment.

As you spend time with God, and become more deeply satisfied in Him, allow yourself to feel the divine discontent. It’s likely your heart is screaming there must be more than this. I silenced that voice in my own heart for far too long in the name of contentment. But the truth is, there is far more awaiting us, not only in the Kingdom to come, but in the adventure, romance and beauty that God has designed us to co-create with Him even here on earth! Let’s not become so content that we no longer dream with and hope in Him for more.