I do not remember how the book “These Strange Ashes” first came into my hands, but I will never forget the first time I sat down to read it. In it, Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of her first year as a missionary in Ecuador (before she married Jim) and the trials that occurred (and they were many and significant). I got as far as the end of the introduction, where I read the sentence that has since framed my often overwhelming struggle through disappointment, pain, fear, discouragement and the numerous times I have looked at the road ahead and wondered “Where do I go from here?”
In the moments of desperation, the words on the page are vivid in my memory (right side, just over halfway down in that first copy I read).
“Of one thing I am perfectly sure: God’s story never ends with ‘ashes.'”
Never ends in ashes. How often have I found myself looking around at the tatters of life and seen nothing but ashes. How often wondered if I had reached the end of the story and perhaps there was nothing else good to come. But in one simple sentence, and a life full of faithfulness, even though ashes, Elisabeth Elliot reminds me to keep trusting in a God who always finishes the story with good.
This week, Elisabeth Elliot learned more about the fabulous end to the story than I know now. She discovered that all she had written and believed and helped me to learn was more than true, that God’s story ends in the glory of worship and perfection and the undoing of all the trials of life. She understands the ashes. What incredible joy is now hers!
I am thankful that her work continues to stand as a legacy and signpost to fellow travelers on the road. I am thankful that God used her early trials, the difficulties of that first year overseas, to teach her what to do with the “strange ashes” of life, so that many years later, her little book could teach a struggling seventeen year old. I am thankful that she now joins the great crowd of witnesses, whose example of simple trust in a faithful God encourages me to journey onward.
So I started with my new discipleship group today. Three single gals, all around the same age, all (soon to be) living with family, all pursuing great careers, all sooooo happy to be sharing food, laughter and Jesus over the table this morning. What really should have been an hour and a half proposition turned into three hours of stories — learning each other and bringing the Gospel to bear on our lives. We’re journeying through a little book called The Dangerous Duty of Delight (J. Piper, Multnomah. 2001) and I’m sure it’s going to be a wonderful trip.
We couldn’t be more different – the FSU fan, the UCF fan, and me. We couldn’t be more the same. Here’s what I learned that we share.
– we are all sinners
– we all trust Jesus to rescue us
– we all desperately want to be more like Him
– we all need each other
If that were all, that would be enough. Enough that we see our sin, love our Savior and want to do more of both together.
Buuuuuuut … turns out we also share something else. A love of musicals. Disney musicals. Okay, Newsies. (and okay a lot of other musicals too)
It’s a pretty great mix … musicals and discipleship. And food and discipleship. And friends and discipleship. I can’t wait to get to it together.
This is my garden.
Not much to look at, right? At least not yet. It needs a lot of work.
This garden is my new project as I look forward to spending the next 15 months in Florida, rather than moving to Texas in the fall as I had originally planned. Texas is still in the game, and I am excited about the possibility of continuing my education in 2016, but for the next year – I’m staying planted.
And I’m growing a garden. Because aproximately 450 days is plenty of time to grow stuff (or kill lots of plants, depending on how things go). It’s also plenty of time to spend getting my hands dirty and working hard and taking my time and making something beautiful.
I’m looking forward to it. Looking forward to dirt under my fingernails and sweat and all that I can learn from developing a garden over the next year. It will be an adventure, maybe not quite the one I was planning on a few months ago, but just the adventure I need for now.
I feel like I should say something to the effect of “how is this happening?” and “when did you get so old?” But you and I have spent so much time laughing at tired cliches that it seems ridiculous to include them now.
It does, however, seem like I’ve simply blinked and the time is gone. My memories of the day you were born are still so vivid – seeing you, a squirmy and blood-covered newborn, and feeling overwhelmed at how wonderful you were. How different it was to have a brother! I didn’t quite know what to do with a boy (thus those fantastic blackmail pictures of you in numerous dresses, bows and bonnets) but you helped me learn.
Through the years you’ve taught me so many things – like how to make the best French Toast (and
spaghetti), how to shoot an airsoft pistol, and all about cars (or not). More importantly than that, you’ve taught me to be kind, that it’s okay to just be myself, to look out for those that others might ignore, and that it’s cool to be a jungle gym for toddlers. You’ve shown me how to be a better big sister by loving me through the hard days and taught me forgiveness by modeling it and forgiving my many sins against you. As we’ve grown, you have become one of my dearest friends.
And now, it’s the night before your wedding day. While I am ridiculously excited to see what we have prayed about for so long finally happen, I confess to being a bit wistful as well. Since the moment I witnessed your first breath, I’ve felt that you were specially mine. And over and over you’ve made me feel incredibly loved and particularly blessed to be your sister.
Thanks for the stupid valentines and ridiculous text messages. Thanks for the coffee dates, and movie
dates, and “come meet me in the parking lot because I locked my keys in the car again” dates. Thanks for buying me chocolate, and asking me to edit your papers, and not killing me while we struggled through homeschooling together. Thanks for asking me to be your “plus one,” and noticing when I get my hair cut, and never hesitating to help me out as soon as (or even before) I ask. Thanks for moving my furniture (a lot), and taking me to the airport, and talking theology, history, politics and sci-fi with me. Thanks for asking how you can pray for me, for being my dance partner, for offering to beat up guys who broke my heart. Thanks for being the most wonderful younger brother a girl could ask for.
As you pledge yourself to Kelsi tomorrow and move into a new stage of life, know that I will be praying for you. I’m praying that you would continue to be a mighty man of God, sacrificially leading and loving your wife and seeking to glorify your Heavenly Father in your marriage. I’m praying that you follow God’s leading on this marvelous adventure called life and that He will use you and Kelsi to spread His gospel wherever you are.
So get on with this wedding Dude! Run (or walk, please, because the last thing we need is a limping groom), run you clever boy and remember … your big sister loves you muchly and for always!
True confession time … until last year, I had never actually read straight through JRR Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.
I’ll pause for those of you who are shocked to catch your breath.
You okay? Good.
Yes, although I had read adaptions, as well as large portions of the book (and seen the movie, of course) I’d never gone all the way through the book. (don’t ask me about
when if I actually read the others in the trilogy either) What’s important is that I did read it … and loved it!
Today, as I sit on my cousin’s back porch, looking out over the Rocky Mountains, enjoying the cool weather and the softly falling twilight over the peaks, I can’t help but agree with Bilbo, as he confesses to Gandalf …
“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains, and then find somewhere where I can rest. I want peace …”
There is something about the towering bulk in front of me that makes me calm and still. I don’t know if it’s how small I seem as I’m dwarfed by something so big (though I am slightly taller than a hobbit) or if it is the feeling of protection and seclusion that comes from mountains all around. More likely it has something to do with how the mountains make me think so quickly of God.
King David said, “By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his might established the mountains, being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.”
The mountains, like the oceans, like the night sky, like the sunrise, speak to me of the God who created them. They make me feel small … and I am, because God is so much greater than anything He’s made. They make me feel protected … and I am, because God has claimed me as His own and promised to be with me always. They make me feel calm, peaceful and still … and I should be, because my Savior has promised to keep me all the way home.
I’m so happy to see mountains again.
Remember that time when I blogged something super personal, with a plan to follow it up with other posts about what I’ve learned through the hardest years of my life? Remember how the post sort of attracted a following and suddenly I was getting hits on the blog from all over the world? Remember how women I knew (and those I didn’t know) came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories? Remember how I freaked out a little bit and refused to even look at my blog for awhile?
Remember all that?
I’ll pretend that I don’t remember it either then, and let’s just see if I can take my (refocused and calm) thoughts back to where I left off and start writing again. There is an urgency now that wasn’t there before, spurred on by the stories that have come to me in the last couple months. I’ve stopped counting the emails and Facebook messages that tell me about aunts, mothers, sisters, or daughters whose stories intersect with my own. What I can’t forget are the voices, some whispering or cracking with emotions, as they confess, “I’ve never told anyone this before.” Those faces I can’t get out of my head, all the tears shared and promises remembered together.
So let’s take a couple deep breaths and dive into the hard stuff. Let’s talk about fear, shame, secrets, scars, darkness and the God who radically changed everything when He became one of us. I can’t promise it will be consistent or that I won’t take every opportunity to write about the craziness of my fantastic niece or the amazing kids I teach instead. What I can promise is to keep reading the emails and listening to the stories and writing about the God who rescues, redeems and restores.
“I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.”
She was a widow, a mother who had buried her children, a woman returning with nothing to a homeland that seemed to hold no hope or promise. When she’d left it had been with husband and sons by her side, with hope of a better life and promise of return. Now, despite a tenacious daughter-in-law who refused to leave her, Naomi calls herself Mara, bitter, and her simple statement aches with sorrow.
“I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.”
She was a survivor, a teacher in a country filled with terrorism, a young woman returning with broken dreams and confusion to a homeland that seemed to hold no familiarity or peace. When she’d left it had been with huge dreams and hopes, with excited plans and naive innocence. Now, despite a family enveloping her with love, she feels indelibly soiled by the hurt done to her. Her heart echos Naomi, sick with grief.
Naomi’s story we know, and because we know the ending it’s easy to forget that she didn’t. We read her statement quickly, there in the first chapter of Ruth, eager to move on to the good stuff … after all Boaz is right around the corner. Maybe we pause to wonder at how bitter she sounds and … is she blaming God? Really, Naomi, have some faith!
At least, that’s how I used to read Naomi’s story. Until a night four years ago, when I became a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of a stranger in a plane, thousands of feet above Central Asia. Before my foot even touched the ground in the country where I would spend the better part of the next two years, my world shrunk to a microscopic, introspective level as I wrestled through shattered emotions and the echoing question, ‘God, where were you?’
It’s been a long road since that night. A dark path through the Valley of the Shadow, where the enemy’s whispers seem insidiously to come from your own mind and you can’t see where your foot will land once you pick it up. So many things I tried, from empty distractions or throwing myself into my work to dark thoughts and endless soul-searching – but there was no help for me there.
That’s when Naomi and I became sisters. When my heart understood why she wanted to be called Mara. I wanted to change my name too.
But Naomi’s story doesn’t end with her bitter return to her home. And thankfully, neither did mine. Our empty hearts found refilling from the same well, the Fountain of Living Water. Naomi and I
needed need a Savior, and that is exactly where two sad stories turn amazing.
At the end of the book of Ruth, we find Naomi cradling her grandson as her friends proclaim, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life …” Empty Mara is filled by the hope of a redeemer.
In the four years that I’ve struggled to come to grips with the reality of what happened that night I’ve come to the unshakable conviction that this Redeemer is my only hope as well. I can’t unmake my past or wish away anything that has been done to me. But my awesome Savior takes what is broken and heals. His grace covers my wounds. His love overwhelms my sadness. He fills the empty.
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
If you’d never been struck by lightning, Daddy, I think my life would be different today.
If you’d not gone outside with the police to make sure we were safe. If you’d not grabbed the car door at just that moment, checking that the locks were engaged. If it had been a clear, starry night, rather than a vicious storm.
If you’d never been struck by lightning I wouldn’t have fuzzy memories of a living room filled with paramedics and cops, of Rachel crying in the hallway, of Mom suggesting that maybe going to the hospital wasn’t such a bad idea. If we’d not heard the alarmed voices I never would have jumped out of bed so fast that I caught my foot on a cord and knocked Becca’s computer to the ground.
If you’d never been struck by lightning I would have missed out on a lot of hugs. If it hadn’t been the middle of VBS then I wouldn’t know what it was like to walk down a hallway and be stopped by many arms reaching out to embrace me while voices whispered, “I’m praying for you guys.”
If you’d never been struck by lightning I wouldn’t smile every time I hear you turn off the unused lights left burning in the house. If you’d never been struck I would never have been able to beat you in Boggle (although it was probably wrong of your children to take advantage of their recovering father by insisting we play while you were handicapped). If you’d never been struck would I value our late night chats the same way I do now?
If you’d never been struck by lightning I wouldn’t understand as much about God. If I’d not been so close to leaving the States I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with what it really means to leave everything to follow Christ. If you’d never been struck I wouldn’t have needed to ask myself if I really trusted God as my Father. If you’d never been struck I wouldn’t have learned the lessons I needed before I set foot in a foreign land.
If you’d never been struck by lightning I wouldn’t find myself overwhelmed with thankfulness when I see you step into the pulpit. If you’d never been struck I certainly wouldn’t have cried to hear you preach in Alaska. If you’d never been struck I never would have fully appreciated what it costs for you to get on a plane and travel half-way around the world to see me.
If you’d never been struck by lightning Daddy, would I love the church as much? If you’d never been struck would we be as close as a family? If you’d never been struck would I value your compassionate heart, gentle wisdom and courageous leadership like I do today?
I don’t know. Maybe. After all, it’s not like God needed lightning to teach us, change us, mold us. But that’s what He chose, five years ago today, as the tool of His providence in our lives.
If you’d never been struck by lightning Daddy, I don’t know what life would look like today. But you were, and I’m grateful for God’s protection of you, for the way He’s used and continues to use you, and for the hopeful future ahead of us as the adventure continues.
I love you!
If you have ever worked at or attended a VBS program, you understand exactly what that means.
Child having a meltdown in the middle of an Expedition? It’s Wednesday.
Schedule totally off-track, then on-track, then off-track, and then you forget that cool thing you were going to do at the closing time? It’s Wednesday.
Can’t hear the storytellers well? It’s Wednesday.
Trouble with the Expedition game pieces (that took weeks to create)? It’s Wednesday.
Babies sick? Wednesday.
Teachers sick? Wednesday.
Leadership team about *this* close to snapping at each other??? It. Is. Wednesday.
I really don’t know what it is about Wednesdays during the week of VBS but it seems to always be the day that gets under my skin — way, way under. The first couple days are exciting and fun because everything is new. The last couple days are exciting and fun because we’ve finally figured out how things are going to go and can just relax into the final days. Wednesday … is just Wednesday, and it seems that it’s the day the Enemy tries to successfully hijack as many areas of VBS as possible.
It’s easy for me to look back on this day at The Egypt Incident and be discouraged. I feel like I ran around putting out fires for most of the time, although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reality. But I’m tired, and my throat’s sore and I feel like indulging in a little pity party, so …
Nope. Wait. Can’t give into these Wednesday thoughts.
Welcome to the Wednesday fight. For me, it’s a fight both inward and outward. Inwardly to remember and believe the truth that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” and “He who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all, how will he not with him also graciously give us all things?” To tell myself the truth about the King I serve and ignore the lies that want to crowd in. Outwardly it’s a fight to lead with joy and help direct others (who are living through Wednesday too) to rise above the challenges of the day and go hard for the glory of our awesome Savior.
Actually, this is the fight for every day of VBS … and all of life too, really. It just comes WAY more into focus on Wednesday. So as you think of me and all the other leaders, teachers and volunteers at The Egypt Incident this week, please pray that we would fight hard and through our lives and words direct kids to know more about the God who Rules.
Meet Steven. He doesn’t usually dress like an Egyptian, much less wear eye-makeup and lipstick. In fact, he’d much rather be sporting gym shorts and high-tops than just about anything. You see, if you can’t quite tell from the picture (which is Steven, his mom and older sister, btw) the dude’s rather tall. In fact, though he’s not yet 15, Steven left 6 feet behind awhile ago, and doesn’t seem to have any intention of halting his upward climb.
With that kind of height, it’s not hard to imagine this guy playing basketball,
which, in fact, he does. This last season he played for our homeschool varsity team, and was their freshman starting center. Take a look at this pic of him skying for the tip in his first game. Dude can jump, right?!
But let me tell you something about Steven. There is a lot more to him then an impressive and hard-working athlete, passionate and talented musician, or sharp and thoughtful student – though he is all of those. Steven has a heart for God, a love of kids, and a dedication to serving in his church.
Plans for The Egypt Incident were only hours old the first time Steven’s name came up. As the writing team contemplated the story of Joseph for our next VBS curriculum, we mulled over who could hold down such a big acting role – a guy in the church who had both the time, talent and energy necessary to pull it off. Steven’s name quickly rose to the top of the list, and stayed there. When he agreed a few months later to take on the role (which required five days of acting and came with 20+ pages of memorization) we were thrilled!
Then basketball season ended. Steven was named Most Improved Player. His coach encouraged him to attend a certain basketball camp later in the summer. He was jazzed … until he found out the camp dates.
I’m sure you can guess how this story ends. Obviously Steven’s not attending basketball camp dressed like an Egyptian. Although we scrambled trying to reschedule VBS and free him up to go, in the end I had to tell Steven there was no alternate week that would work. I felt sick. He was clearly disappointed. But I’ll never forget what he said to me. “I already agreed to be Joseph and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
That was the end of it. I never heard another word about basketball camp, nor a single complaint. Instead, I’ve had the privilege to watch over the last two days while Steven shares the truth about how God rules in every area of our lives. As he dresses up and does the whole “makeup thing” as Joseph this week, I’ve realized that there is so much more than great storytelling going on here.
Steven’s getting a front row seat in one of God’s classrooms, learning that sometimes following Him means sacrificing the good for the best. I wish I had known more about that at 14, and I hope Steven will look back on this week and the basketball camp he didn’t attend and find he’s uncovered a bit more about this awesome God he serves.
Of course, Steven’s not the only person who’s sacrificing something to make The Egypt Incident a successful God-honoring, Gospel-proclaiming week. The other men and women on our storytelling team are giving up sleep, working odd shifts in their jobs, taking personal days and expending untold energy to bring Joseph and the other characters so pivotal to his story to life. Without these folks willingness to be “fools for Christ” The Egypt Incident would be much less effective in giving kids the Gospel.
Thanks Jared, Amy, Christina, Brad, Nathan, Chris and Steven! You make this story come alive in amazing ways and I’m excited to see how God will use your efforts!