Sunday, January 15, 2017

A gift unopened

552 days. That's how long it has been since I wrote my last blog.

Shortly after we opened our Christmas gifts last month, I made a resolution that I would blog weekly, but before the countdown to January 1 reached zero, I declared that resolution canceled. I couldn't do it. If people ask why I haven't blogged, I say it's because I'm busy. Finally I told someone last week that I couldn't blog because I've had nothing to say - unsure whether it was God humbling my spirit or the enemy attacking a joyful past time, I've felt entirely unable, unworthy and unequipped to write and share my thoughts.

But something shifted this week. Through a number of simple, everyday minor mishaps and pitfalls, I came to the crushing realization that I can never earn or be worthy of God's love.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. That concept is a fairly main tenant of the faith I've professed for the past 12 years and that my husband is a pastor of, so I've course I had mentally realized that. I would correctly mark "true" on a true or false exam. But I've never actually emotionally accepted it.

Somewhere deep, deep down in the very pit of my being, everything I did was still with the aim of being good enough, and I lived in fear of the grace offered so freely.

I'm not a good gift receiver. You can ask almost anyone who loves me. A couple of years ago, my parents got me the most beautiful Michael Kors wool coat for Christmas. Instead of proclaiming my joyful thanks and trying it on, I thanked them weakly... and then cried. Like, a lot. I thought about starving children and people with no coats at all and what a crappy kid I was to my parents when I was a teenager, and 300 other reasons that I didn't deserve that gift. And I hid it in the back of my closet.

In a lot of ways, that's been my experience with God's grace. It's been a gift left unopened. I've put it in the fire extinguisher case, behind glass that says, "Break only in case of emergency." Really appreciate that it's there God, but I'll try to just get through without it when I can.



Most of who I am... the person I identify as... is based on my efforts. I am an achievement junkie, control freak and perfectionist.

How hard I've worked... What I've fought to overcome...What I'm able to provide in my relationships, church or community... that is how I find my worth.

Even my college majors were due to me being hard headed. I chose English because my junior English teacher called my final writing project "uninspired and lacking substance" and told me that "she bet I was surprised" that I got a 34 in English on my ACT. (Frankly I always preferred the STEM fields.) I chose Psychology because in some strange way, it represented a mastery to me of my mental illness. I was an expert in my own undoing, which gave me some semblance of control.

I began working (albeit serving hot dogs from a giant ice cream cone) when I was 14. I actually had to have my guidance counselor sign a work permit for them to be able to legally employ me. But I wanted a job more than anything. I wanted to finally be able to EARN my way.

I measure the success of my relationships by what I can contribute to them... and I assume that others do too. When Nate tells me to relax... take a break... I interpret it as some kind of trick. How will he know I'm a good wife, if I can't show that I've cleaned the house and folded the laundry and sent an encouraging text message and brought home a good paycheck? How will I know I'm a good mom if I haven't read the kids three books each and made sure they can recite the alphabet and count to twenty?

Even my spiritual journey has been some sort of weird holy checklist of obeying God's calling, while simultaneously working upstream against my crippling perfectionism. I told Nate frustratedly a few weeks ago, "I feel like I'm not doing anything for the Kingdom!"

Where is my worth, if I can't measure it?

Last night Blakely asked me a question that I can't stop thinking about. The girls always treat the 28 minute drive to Pekin in my car without a radio like it's the greatest torture known to man, so we sometimes play a game where we ask each other random questions. After asking about favorite foods, favorite colors, and more, Blakely asked me, "Mom... What would you do if you were a Princess?"

"Um, what?" I laughed.

But I can't stop thinking about it. If I truly believe that God is King... why don't I act like a princess? Why do I live out of scarcity and my own efforts? Why do I reject the Kingdom for my own fear of being unworthy without some checklist to "prove my worth"?

This is the part of the blog where I'd usually wrap up my thoughts with a nice bow, maybe a platitude or two. But I can't today. Honestly, I couldn't for the last 552 days. I couldn't write in my blog because God is untying and unraveling all of my bows. But maybe it's His way of telling me to just open up the gift already.




Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Act(s)in' a Fool: Daniel Fast Day One

Each day of the 14 day Daniel fast, Nate and I will be reading two chapters in Acts. I’m going to write a little bit about what three things stood out to me most and post it the following day.

Day 1: Acts 1 & 2

The disciples didn’t know WHAT they were getting or WHEN they were getting the Holy Spirit

Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”
He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
When Jesus told his disciples about their gift of the Holy Spirit, they got it all wrong. Even though Jesus clearly says that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, as soon as they hear “gift,” they’ve tuned out! How many times have I done that? I think I know exactly how God needs to bless me. The disciples ask if their power and stature will be restored. They’re thinking on a much smaller scale than what God can and will provide them.

They also ask if the time is now. Today our culture is even more wrapped up in the NOW and getting instant gratification. I probably would have been the disciple shouting time lines out to Jesus as he floated up on His cloud. “Are we talking Days? Months? Years?”



Turnt up on God

They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other.

But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!”

I am by nature a cynic and a skeptic. For a long time in my Christian journey, I thought “Okay, this Jesus thing is great… But let’s not get carried away.”

Honestly, I often looked to the people who were “sold out for Jesus,” with pity. Giving up your job? Moving your family? What are you – drunk? Well, I think it’s safe to say at this point our family has pretty much all our chips in. There’s probably at least a few people who might accuse us of being drunk or foolish with the way we try to live our lives for God – and I hope there are! My prayer is that our lives make people question us… and try to find answers in God.

They grew daily, without marketing or social media

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity - all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

Man, what an awesome community! I hope and pray that anywhere we go and anything we do, we develop this type of body. But what strikes me most about this passage is how their numbers grew.

Today we have connectivity like never before – at least in theory. Our churches can have websites, social media reach, commercials on TV and radio – but statistically, churches are stagnant. The early church had no crutches to “advertise” Jesus. They created a community that people wanted to be a part of. I imagine that people heard of and experienced their love for others, even before they experienced their love for Christ. These people were truly living the two greatest commandments of loving Christ and each other.


Those are my three biggest thoughts and takeaways from Acts 1 & 2!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Jonah's Performance Review

So next week, I’ll have an interim performance review at work. It’s the mid-year check-in to make sure you’re on track to deliver on your goals. Here’s my sick secret – I kind of love performance reviews. I love them, because I tend to be a bit of a workaholic and perfectionist. For six months, I work and work and work – sacrificing, learning, stretching myself – and then for 30 minutes or so, I get to bask in someone telling me how great I’ve done. And then even if there’s some things to work on, I know in six months, if I work hard enough, we’ll be talking about what great strides I’ve made in those areas. What used to be called “teacher’s pet” is now referred to as “upward potential.” It’s Junior High Academics awards day, only 15 years later.

I know this sounds pretty ugly, and it is. Some kind of weird pride and insecurity hybrid drives my desire to do more and do better every day. And while this has actually been somewhat beneficial in my professional and even personal life, it has been the single greatest struggle of my spiritual life.

Let me tell you about my least favorite performance reviews ever.

In college, I worked at Bath & Body Work in the mall. It was a good experience, in the sense that everyone should work a job where people regularly scream at you because someone 16 levels higher in the organization than you determined that Sun-ripened raspberry needed to be discontinued.

Honestly though, I really liked that job. I didn’t just clock in and clock out – I got to know the products really well. I greeted regular customers by name. I LOVED the sales competitions. And of course, the performance reviews every six months.

The highest raise I could earn for my performance was $0.25/hour, if I got really strong reviews. Additionally, when I worked there, Illinois was in the process of their graduated approach to raising the minimum wage - $0.25 every six months.

Every six months, I would think, “Yes! Great performance! $0.25 raise!” And then you know what would happen? Two weeks later, every person with poor performance who didn’t get a raise would have their pay bumped $0.25 to the new minimum wage level.

And of course, I was the bigger person, glad that we all made a livable wage. Just kidding. I actually cried once in my car on the way home because I was so frustrated. I worked so hard. Melissa sucks at talking to customers and her shelves are never neat and I worked her 4 a.m. shift on Black Friday. And now we are recognized exactly the same.

Embarrassing? Sure. Ugly? Oh yeah. But the implications are much greater and uglier when these tendencies seep into our spiritual lives. It looks a lot like post-whale Jonah.

Blakely is learning about Jonah right now in the church nursery, but mostly the part where a big fish swallows him and then he’s like, “My bad!” and then he gets spit out and does God’s will. But I am always much more fascinated about Jonah post preaching in Nineveh. I’ve read Jonah’s story probably 15 times in the last year. Why? Because I have Jonah tendencies that I’m trying to let God kill. Jonah was a top performer. Jonah saved thousands of MESSY people. And then you what happened?

He went and cried in his car. Melissa sucks at being a nice and Godly person and if it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t even know who God is. And now we are recognized exactly the same.



Grace wrecks all of the artificial structures and ladders and hierarchies that our society builds. Grace says, “Just follow me” and mentions nothing of your failures – or your good works. Grace is the anti-performance review.

I don’t have a neat “moral to this story.” I can’t quite wrap this up in a bow at this point. Why? Because I still struggle. Because when I imagine God saying, “Well done good and faithful servant,” I’m only now beginning to see Him holding my face in his hands and not some sort of spiritual resume. Because The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) still unsettles me a bit at first read. Could I see my greatest worldly enemy in heaven someday and rejoice that they’ve accepted the same gift of grace given to us all?


God has brought me far in this journey of grace, and I still have a great deal to submit… Add that to my performance review goals. ;-)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Recalculating Route...

What do you think of when people say "God has a plan for your life"? Or reference being on "God's path"?

For a long time, I looked at my Christian journey as a specific path - point A to point B, with a specific direction or route. I think a lot of people get hung up on this vision as well.

This vision is the reason that people say they'll come to church or start praying "when they get right with God" or "when they figure some things out." This image of God's path is dangerous, because when you find yourself in the middle of the woods or the desert, you have to first find your way back to the marked path.

There have been several things in my life that have challenged this way of perceiving God's plan and path. When Nate and I invested in our calling to the church plant in Bloomington, at the end we whispered, "Was that what was supposed to happen? Was this the plan?" I struggled because there was growth for many, but pain for many as well. Was that a costly lesson that was part of a point A to point B journey? Did God call us to be a part of a church that was always intended to close its doors in less than a year?

I began to look at God's path differently when I was driving in Bloomington a couple of months ago. I had to go up there to get Emmarie's birth certificate from the McLean County Clerk, so I entered the unfamiliar address in my phone GPS.

As I entered town, I realized that I needed to go to CEFCU to get cash to pay for the certified copy, so as Siri directed, "Turn right on Washington St." I kept going.

"Recalculating route." Siri announced.

"Turn right on Empire St." I continued down Veterans.

"Recalculating route." Siri announced.



This continued to happen as I made my way to the bank, in the opposite direction of Siri's path.

As I mused at how Siri's path was always relative to exactly where I was at that moment, God's "path" suddenly made a lot more sense to me. God's path isn't some golden A to B route, where if you stray, you must find your way back... God is ALWAYS recalculating your route. His directions are from where you are at this very moment.

It doesn't matter how many wrong turns you've made. It doesn't matter how many directions you've missed or intentionally ignored. At every missed opportunity and broken moment, God says, "Recalculating route... You are still loved... You are still on my path." Your path is not a matter of wrong decisions, where you're at, or how far you've headed in the opposite direction - it's a matter of taking the next direction.

Where is God calling you right now?



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Hear me - What the Baltimore riots, Blakely's "questions" and my job in communications taught me about the importance of being heard

Today I had to cascade an “Action Required” communication. The action was simple. It would take employees maybe 10 minutes.

There was a newsletter article. A separate article for leaders. Talking points to include for the leaders. A digital screen sign. A flyer. A targeted email.

And I know that in two weeks, I’ll be calling people who swear they’ve heard nothing about this and want me to send it all to them again.

Short of setting a memo on fire and throwing it onto their desk, it often feels like we’ve exhausted every option for getting information out to people. You know what the trouble is? All of the noise.

Yesterday Blakely kept yelling, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” over the top of Nate and my conversation, so I turned to her and said, “What, Blakely?”

She paused for a split second and then said emphatically, “I have a question.”
“Okay.”
She paused a bit more, and then launched into an explanation of something.

“That’s not a question,” I told her, mid-explanation. She immediately wailed. I sat there for a moment, thinking about how often this is happening lately. For some reason, I was unreasonably irritated that my 2.5 year old, who knows the proper use of “can” and “may,” says that she has questions, even though she knows they’re not questions. As I dug deeper into why she keeps doing this, I thought about when I say “I have a question” to her.

Usually when I say, “I have a question,” I am preparing her to answer. “I have a question” really means, “Listen closely.” Take time… slow down… hear me.

When Blakely says, “I have a question,” she’s really saying, “Please hear me.”



“Riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. said.

Whether it’s the riots in Baltimore, my toddler’s tantrums, politics, a teen’s recklessness, so often the plea is simply, “Hear me.” We don't all say 'hear me' well... The desperation to be heard can often drive ugly means of saying 'hear me' - violence, hatred, yelling, crude or cruel "humor"...

But as I clearly understand from my 10 communication vehicles apparently needed to drive home one point, we live in a world of noise. Lots of voices… lots of competing messages… Why? Because when we hear “hear me,” our response as a society is most often “NO, HEAR ME.”

If we are busy… if we don’t like you (or your kind)… if we think you should say ‘hear me’ in another way… If we *think* we’ve already heard your message… We communicate that you are not worth being heard.

I struggle with depression regularly, and I hate sharing about it, even with the person who is closest in the world to me – my husband. Why? Because the fear of saying, “Hear me” and hearing a response of “NO, HEAR ME” is greater than the fear of never attempting to be heard.

Early in our marriage, when I talked through negative emotions I was experiencing, Nate helped by jumping in with alternative perspectives… thoughts to “dismiss” the negativity… fixes… suggestions. But even when he was saying, “I CAN HELP!”… It sounded a lot like, “NO, HEAR ME.”

The last conversation we had about this, I spoke openly. I finished my thoughts. He hugged me tight and said, “I’m so sorry. Please let me know if I can help.” It sounded a lot like, “I hear you.”

We, as a society, don’t hear each other enough. When someone says, “It’s a struggle to be a young black man in this community,” and the response is “Do you understand the risks and sacrifices police officers make?” (Feel free to switch the order)… We’ve missed an opportunity to hear. We expect to be heard, without expecting to listen.

I have often struggled with this even in my prayer life. How many times have I been yelling “NO, HEAR ME” over what God was really trying to speak into my life?

Don’t get me wrong – you have a valuable message. But so does the person that you’re yelling over.
I used to post a lot of stuff on social media that frankly, I shouldn’t have. Now when I scroll through Facebook and see political rants, propaganda, “Christian truth” that looks a lot like hate, I cringe. Because this is what I know it says:
“NO, HEAR ME!”

How can we, as a society, especially if you a Christian… turn our current practices on their head? Can we say, “I hear you.” Perhaps even, “Tell me more.”

At the end of the day, maybe nothing will be solved. You’ll still think the answer is A, and I’ll still think the answer is B. But I have a Blakely-style “question” for you…


“Maybe that doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be at peace that we’ve been heard.” ;-)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

What are you anticipating?

I want to share a few blogs on some of the questions that I prayed through over the past month as part of my Facebook fast. I hope you’ll join me in praying through these questions in your life as well!

The first question I prayed through is What are you anticipating?

Some things are really easy (and exciting!) to anticipate eagerly. I know right now I’m eagerly anticipating Christmas. I KNOW Christmas will be amazing with my family. That’s something I experience year after year, and I always look forward to celebrating. For me though, anticipating is a struggle. I’m very grounded in my expectations, and I often temper them to avoid disappointment. Nate and I are polar opposites in this way! I really struggle, because I’ve conditioned myself “not to get my hopes up.”

Right now we are in the advent season, which is about anticipating the celebration of Christ’s birth, but also the anticipation of Christ coming back some day. That’s worth getting your hopes up for!

As I look back over my life, there were absolutely moments where I thought “well, this is a terrible, pointless experience.” Not true! Almost all of those moments I can look back to as a moment that God used in a big way. Not getting my “dream job” completely changed our family’s trajectory – for the better. If you would have told me that four years ago when I was sobbing and begging Nate to just let me go work at Taco Bell because I’d never amount to anything professionally (yeah, that really happened), I would have laughed in your face. I actually remember saying the words, “Nothing good will ever come out of this!” I know imagine that moment with God saying after that, “Challenge accepted!” 

As I’ve grown in my faith, I have gotten better at eagerly anticipating God’s work in my heart and in my circumstances, but it’s still a big area of growth for me.

The picture below is one of my favorite pictures, ever taken. I know that probably seems ridiculous, but I’ll explain why. This picture was taken during the hardest month of my life. Right after Emmarie was born, it felt like everything I knew was being ripped from my hands with job changes, house changes, church changes, and more. And my instinct in that moment was to clench my fists and hold as tightly to everything that I could. To mourn losses. To permanently attach chips to my shoulder.

But as we put the For Sale sign up, we thought back to when we bought the house (only a year and half earlier), and I had excitedly posed with the “Sold!” sign. I don’t remember if I suggested it or Nate did, but we agreed we needed the same type of picture as we closed a chapter. I walked up to the sign, and Blakely followed. As Nate got ready to take the picture, he said, “GET EXCITED!”


And we did.

What if in the middle of all of our broken moments, we took a picture? Maybe not literally, but just paused in the moment to soak it in… and to eagerly anticipate how God will work through this, in our lives and the lives of others. A snapshot to say “look at where I was and look where God has brought me.” What if instead of crying and filling out Taco Bell applications, we pause and say,

“God, I know you’re with me in this. I anticipate that you’ll use ALL of my experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly – to bring glory to You, if I allow it.”

So as you and I pray through what we are anticipating and looking ahead towards, I have to quote Nate:

“GET EXCITED!”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Character Development: The problem with straight lines


Liz, one of my best friends, is the complete opposite of me. She’s the type of person who loves an adventure, has never met a stranger, and had seven different colored dresses for her bridesmaids. I hide from people I know in the grocery store, and everything in my wedding was black and white. Liz and I met through competitive cheerleading and I immediately loved her and her craziness. We became fast friends and hung out all the time.

One of the less memorable times hanging out with her (which isn’t hard – she once unknowingly convinced me to go with her to a haunted house with two complete strangers!), she offered to give me a shortcut back to her house. I was a relatively new driver and was unfamiliar with Peoria, so I agreed.
“Just tell me where to go!” I said.

As we wound back through neighborhoods and seemed to backtrack, I finally looked at her and said, “Liz, you realize that this isn’t shorter than the way I usually go, right?”
She said, “Oh, I know. I just like to go this way.”

We had a quick review of the meaning of “shortcut” as I emphasized that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

 
Fast forward to this morning. As I pulled out of my driveway this morning, I flashed to this moment happening before… pulling out of this very driveway, going to a job at Caterpillar, and wearing this same sweater… four years ago. (I should probably at least buy a new sweater.)

A lot has happened in the past four years – a calling to ministry, three new jobs for me, two babies, buying a house, selling a house, a new church, an old church…
But this morning it felt like life had taken me in a circle. Like I was back towards the start of my adult life, circa four years ago. It bothered me for a moment, until I reminded myself that God is in the business of being effective, not efficient. And the Ali pulling out of my driveway this morning, though wearing the same sweater (seriously, why do I still own this sweater?), is not the Ali that pulled out of this driveway four years ago.

I’ll always love connecting dots with straight lines, because I’m me. In college I took a several literature classes, and I still remember a piece of assigned reading that I dragged myself through. When the professor asked me why I disliked it so much, I noted the large sections of the book with no plot advancement.
“Don’t you see?” She said incredulously, “That was where the character development was happening!”

Ah. The character development.
I think as humans, we have an innate tendency to demand plot advancement from God – the new job, the new calling, the new focus, the new location. We like linear – preferably upward trending. We imagine ourselves on the day we meet God with a line graph and a pointer, showing how well we progressed through this life (that’s only me? Okay).

The problem with straight lines, though, is that they are one dimensional. They don’t account for the character development. Every moment I have lived has led me to where I am today. God spares no expense when it comes to character development – he’s not in the straight line business. God’s paths (not to be confused with ‘shortcuts’, Liz) are purposeful and perfect. They give us experience today that we will need tomorrow.
So my reminder for today is focus on the PURPOSE, the PLAN, and the PERSON.

Don’t get hung up on the PATH, the PRESENT, or the PLOT.