Photo Credit: © 2006 Lynne Holder

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Restoration Year

Happy Resurrection Day! 

Easter morning and the celebration of Jesus' resurrection couldn't be a more perfect day for celebrating the death of the old and the beginning of new life.

Matthew 16:24-25 says:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves 
and take up their cross and follow me.  
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, 
but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

 Thinking of all my attempts to save my life and make something of it, and losing so much, to find that life--abundant life--actually exists in surrendering...what a paradox. I have to smile at realizing the completely counter-intuitive nature of the life of following Christ. 

This year is the year of new beginnings--of breaking out of old patterns. One of the patterns of our lives that Leland and I are breaking out of is our recent shift from attending and serving a mega church for what we believe is the Church as Jesus intended it to be.  

Mega church Sunday goes like this: show up, sit in a row with thousands of strangers we'll probably never connect with, be entertained by highly produced, talented professional musicians, hear a great communicator, get up and leave to fight traffic. It's where the people go who want to be completely anonymous. There was a time for both of us when that was exactly what we wanted, having grown up in the Baptist way and having had many bad church experiences. We wanted nothing to do with anything that looked like church. We served in several capacities as volunteers, opportunities for which we are very grateful, one of which led to our meeting.

But a while back, the messages I heard began to fall flat. We had many questions that we could never ask because the lead communicator who gave those messages is so inaccessible. Something was gnawing at my gut; a desire for something more, and less. We needed small. A pastor who was accessible. I wanted to converse, not just listen. I wanted to grow, not stagnate. Deeper teaching. Less noise. More worshipful experience and less of the highly produced entertainment-heavy environment we were accustomed to; even liturgy and tradition (gasp). 

Leland and I had been on production team as video camera operators for almost 3 years, doing the same thing every time: be technically accurate, follow direction, get the cool shots, and we'd spend at least 30 minutes in a little room analyzing where we could improve. I asked myself, Is this what serving God is, really? How is getting that slow push on the BGV just right, of Kingdom value? It would make me think (often) of our 2 mission trips in 2009 and 2010 to a tiny church in the war-torn country of Bosnia-Herzegovina where jobs were extremely scarce, where people had next to nothing, had lost friends and family in the horror of ethnic cleansing--and they loved and cared for one another, worshiped like nothing we'd ever seen or heard, in a small building, huddled together, with a pastor who prayed over these people. No production, no countdowns to video, no segue to the band or speaker, but good grief, the outpouring of God's spirit on that place.

One day on Facebook, I saw a post about a new startup Church, called The Parish. I began asking questions, and I got answers. I told Leland about it, and we attended our first gathering in January. We attended Parish 101 and learned more about the vision for this new body of believers. The pastor, Eddie Kirkland,  met with us twice over coffee at Starbucks. We had a conversation. As a result, and having attended several gatherings, I think we're great with trading mega for mini, where fellowship, worship, and teaching actually resemble family time. And get this--they meet at homes around North Atlanta for dinner once a month. Just dinner. Like families do, as I recall. 

Relationships, bumping into each other, sharing our messy lives, caring for one another...the big "C" Church! This is what we look for as we prayerfully seek out this type of community.

Update: Since the original post, I've edited it to reflect our decision to continue our search for a smaller church that will be able to provide the resources for growth and service that The Parish is yet to offer. We absolutely support the vision of their leadership to reach out to the millennial generation who are searching for deeper, meaningful teaching, and even liturgy. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Path to Gratitude

Eucharisteo: to be grateful; give thanks

The root word of eucharisteo in Greek is charis, meaning gift or grace. Charis is also the root of the Greek word chara, meaning joy.

 I wish eucharisteo was my default setting. Alas, it is not. Instead, I have to hunt, look for...and see...grace all around me. Historically, my default setting has been fear (darn that human nature). That's why I adopted this Greek word for thanksgiving and made it my mantra for this year, my restoration year.

One Thousand Gifts is a book full of jewels. In the companion devotional I turn page after page, draining the pen dry of ink for all my underlining. There are 60 devotions, each named for a type of grace--anti-anxiety grace, trusting grace, urgent grace, hard grace, joyous grace, comforting grace, to name a few--because all is grace, the author reminds me. 

All? The losses, lamenting, struggling? I say, along with David, "How long, Lord?" (Psalm 13:1). How long before there is no more suffering?

Ann Voskamp tells the heart-breaking story of the deaths of her 2 nephews, 18 months apart, from the same genetic disease. She tells her brother-in-law, "If it were up to me I'd write this story differently." Who wouldn't want to? Ask Candi Pearson-Shelton if she didn't want her brother healed. People known and unknown to her prayed fervently for his healing. For both of these families, the bottom line is, surrender to the Author of these stories.

Ann's brother-in-law, tears in his eyes, told her, "...maybe you don't want to change the story, because you don't know what a different ending holds." 

Candi brings to light the paradox of faith in God when she relates how her surrender "melts into peace and serenity, and...wholeness. Wow. Brokenness bringing about wholeness?"

Surrender isn't meant to mean a "Whatever, I give up!" resignation. I know that first-hand. It was my attitude following my mother's death in 1982 and the premature labor and delivery of my twins in 1983. This excerpt on surrender, from God Calling, helps me understand and re-frame my view:

Resignation to My Will keeps Me barred out from more hearts than does unbelief. Can anything be such a crime against Love as being resigned? My Will should be welcomed with a glad wonder if I am to do My Work in the heart and life. In all true discipleship, and in the true spiritual development of each disciple, there is first the wonder and the joy of first acquaintance, then comes the long plain stretch of lesson-learning and discipline. But the constant experience of Me, the constant persistent recognition of My Work in daily happenings, the numberless instances in which seeming chance or wonderful coincidence can be, must be, traced back to My loving forethought--all these gradually engender a feeling of wonder, certainty, gratitude, followed in time by Joy.

Read Candi's book because I'm not going to give away the ending. You will see God's loving forethought and you will close it with a sense of wonder, certainty, and gratitude.

Devotion 33 of One Thousand Gifts begins by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, which talks about the Israelites wandering the desert.

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, 
which neither you nor your ancestors had known, 
to teach you that man does not live on bread alone 
but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Manna. The name literally means, "What is it?" Ann writes, "More than 14,600 days they take their daily nourishment from that which they don't comprehend. They find soul-filling in the inexplicable.They eat the mystery. They eat the mystery. And the mystery, that which made no sense, is 'like wafers of honey' on the lips. ...all the mysteries I have refused, refused, to let nourish me...I wonder too...if the rent in the canvas of our life's backdrop, the losses that puncture our world, our own emptiness, might actually become places to see. To see through to God."

Now I'm beginning to see the purpose of this humbling journey Leland and I have traveled the last few years. Turning to God's word, seeing grace woven throughout the discipline, letting Him slowly chip away at all the layers of concrete I had slapped over my heart, this strange manna nourishing me. In this process, I learn to give thanks for my thousands of gifts and I pray for joy in the midst of trouble; when life has exhausted me.

"...followed in time by Joy."

I wonder if the prosperity and healing peddlers have ever taken their blinders off to stop and ask what the motivation is behind their demanding health and wealth, ease and comfort. Yes, God can absolutely do anything and everything, but is it for your own glory, or God's? Do you know what story He wants to write? Do you wonder what God's ending holds? Would you eat the "what is it" and wonder in His work in your life? My hunch is, you'd rather control.

In closing, I want to relate a recent encounter with Candi and her husband, Jonathan. I dropped by their house to pick up a copy of Desperate Hope, which Candi had graciously given me. Jonathan and I chatted briefly while Candi was busy in the kitchen. We shared specific needs to pray for, and when he asked me what mine was, the first thought that came to me was relief from this financial roller coaster. I said my goodbyes and as soon as I got in the car, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Haven't I learned yet? Relief is not the answer. I wanted to run back in and tell Jonathan, No, that was wrong! I take it back! You want to know my greatest need? I need to surrender, not resign, to the Author of my story. I need contentment in every situation that stems from love for and trust in God. I need to count it all eucharisteo.

Grace. Thanksgiving. Joy. THIS is abundant life!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Family, Like It or Not

Please allow me to sidetrack for a moment to let you in on some thoughts and feelings that have arisen in recent weeks. 

I talked briefly with Candi after reading her book, Desperate Hope. I told her that I had to read it in bits, going completely quiet to let her words sink in. Honestly? I would go into a funk for a while, thoughts and memories swirling around in my head--about family.

Candi's stories of family touched a nerve. Her family was as flawed as everyone else's, parents divorced when she and her sister and brother were very young, but she and her siblings were close. They played together as children and when they were grown, they stayed close. They loved each other and that deep love was evident in the stories of their childhood and of family time in the hospital, followed by Rick's passing on to "The Party".

My family was as flawed as everyone else's too. My parents loved each other very much, but my siblings and I were anything but close. The fighting was nearly constant, especially between the youngest two, and my brother was the stereotypical mean older brother. I had nothing in common with my 3 sisters, they being girly girls in contrast to my tomboy-ish nature. They played with Barbie dolls while I climbed trees and dreamt of horse riding. Anything to be outside.

As teenagers things hadn't improved much. [Thank God for my horse that carried me up the hills and across the fields for hours at a time. I would escape to my version of paradise.] There was a space of a few years when my brother and I enjoyed eachother's company but that all changed when he began post-graduate studies at Bob Jones University. He got married,  earned a PhD, and settled into the bubble of isolated university life as a professor, the brother I grew up with fading away in the process. None of us measured up to the standard set by the subculture of the graceless, rule-driven version of Christianity in which he was entrenched, and as a result he became the source of much pain in our family. I remember thinking over the years, Who is this guy? 

Legalism is devoid of love and deadly to relationships. It is largely to blame for the slow demise of those among my siblings. What remains now of my parents' family isn't much else but crumbled ruins. I thank God, and take some comfort in the fact that my own kids are a tightly-knit family unit that love and value one another. 

What, I wondered in those quiet moments, book turned upside down on my chest, will it look like when it's my family's turn to get that phone call? Will there even be a phone call? Will anyone rush to a hospital bedside? Will there be prior commitments that prevent attending a funeral for one of us? Will a death be anything more than a legal matter to apply to how Dad's trust fund will eventually be distributed? 

I have no answers. That's how broken we all are. If I'm not the first one to head over to "The Party" then maybe I can break the silence and be the change. 

But then it hits me, that realization--I don't love very well. People in general, or specifically, these people I call my brother and sisters. It's my greatest need, to love well.

Grace where there is none? Bless my adversary? Love where none is deserved? Pretty much like what Jesus did. 

More Jesus, please.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Now?

I've heard it said that when the student is ready, the teacher will come. 

Ready or not....

However humbling I thought our drastic change in lifestyle was in 2012, 2013 held new levels of humble yet to be experienced.

The summer proved to be the best months the business had seen in a long time; most welcome after our court experience. We were busy with work and visits with family, excitedly welcoming our granddaughter, Claire, to the family in June. We were grateful to God for His awesome blessings on our lives, and for breathing room. 

Then came fall and winter, and we fell into a business slump that the summer's abundance couldn't carry us through. The 2014 New Year was not beginning as we had hoped, introducing a deeper level of humble. Our roller coaster lives had beaten us to a pulp.

All these months have turned into years of trying to work out how to be content with what we have, of reading Paul's words in Philippians 4:12, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want,"  and just not grasping it.

And James, who said to do what? Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4). Really not grasping it.

What is abundant life if it isn't health and wealth and prosperity? It surely doesn't mean being in a state of hunger or want or infirmity. I'm really not ok with that.

Question after question asked, psalm after psalm read, I identified with David and was as determined as he was to, despite my lack of understanding and answers, trust God and not walk away from Him. I had to be in this place of being completely emptied of my self; of all the chasing after happiness and self-realization while blind to the fact that my happiness had been dependent on things I could lose. Having lost my car, work, money, and independence in a short period of time, I had fallen right into a very deep pit that looked familiar to where I was following my divorce in 2004, but deeper. Didn't think that was possible, but there I was. 

Nowhere to go, nothing to do, in pain (in more ways than one), feeling isolated, Leland and I alternately clung to each other and hurt each other out of our desperation, confusion, and exhaustion, or we attempted to protect one another by not speaking at all. What else to do but search? I so wanted answers to my questions, and I wanted even more to hear from God Himself. 

Lord, I'm empty, ready and willing to be filled. Please, show me what I need to know.

The answer came in the form of 2 incredible books; the first, One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp. If you haven't read it, please do. It reads like poetry, and the author is refreshingly down-to-earth, honest, and transparent. She speaks to the reader from the humble place of her own personal struggle with pain and loss, witnessing the death of her baby sister, and from her real and messy life as a farmer's wife and home-schooling mother of 6 kids--not the perfectly coiffed, made-up, and designer label-adorned TV personality who speaks from the comfort of her gated, multimillion dollar home. She leads readers to the place of rest and comfort through what she calls a "joy dare." It's the challenge to write 1,000 gifts we see every day but would ordinarily overlook, and in the midst of pain. That's why this thanks offering is called a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15). It can seem so mechanical when tears are welling in your eyes, but seeing God in the ordinary and being grateful really is transforming. The book was such a treasure I bought the devotional.

The second book is Desperate Hope, by Candi Pearson-Shelton.This is Candi's story of her and her friends' and family's journey through the illness and passing of her much-loved brother, Rick, in 2005. Rick was 22, a worship leader, Christ-follower, and engaged to be married when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The book wrecked me for so many reasons, and all for the good. This story, all by itself, should be read by everyone tempted by those false teachers on radio and TV who are making millions by duping people with their lies, claiming God wants everyone to be healed (until they're not, then it's Satan's doing) and financially prosperous, and you will see that God absolutely has a purpose in pain and answers prayer through suffering. Everyone who knew Rick knows how beautifully God answered his fondest prayer, and what a win-win the story is. Read it. And don't ever doubt this truth: God is Sovereign and He is in control.

So many great resources have crossed my path--yea for the internet! Every time, the message points to everything counter-intuitive or counter-culture. No surprise, since that is exactly like Jesus. But how to sort out what I've been hearing in any sort of orderly fashion? That will be my goal for the next post, as well as to let you in on opportunities we've had to move forward in our walk with Jesus. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Change Upon Change

I wrapped up that last post with a neat and tidy "Here's what I learned."  I conveniently left out the parts when all I did was kick and scream and whine about all that's happened. I did plenty of that (still do), and thought this more times than I can count:

Whoever said your 50s are the best time of your life, step forward so I can slap you.

Around the first of the year, 2009, something else was happening along with the collapse of my business and modeling careers that was about to change my life. I began feeling very odd. I was exhausted all. the. time. I slept all night but couldn't drag myself out of bed in the morning. I was not feeling "myself." 

I began to notice weight gain even though I was eating my usual healthy diet and trying to maintain my workouts at the gym, which had become uncharacteristically difficult with the lack of energy and sudden onset of exercise-induced nausea. I felt bad and worried about my health, and then all of a sudden I would get a burst of energy and go for a run down the beach, only to return to exhaustion within a few hours. I knew I needed to see a doctor and that was another motivating factor in my decision to leave Miami. 

Within days of my return to Atlanta I was in an integrative medicine practice, complaining that I was now over 130 pounds (what I wouldn't give to weigh that again!) and describing my other symptoms. Blood tests revealed I was in the post-menopausal-hormones-have-tanked stage of life. Natural source, compounded HRT and supplements helped for a time, but ultimately, the side effects and the cost forced me to discontinue them. Workouts became exercises in negative reinforcement, with the lack of energy and the inevitable waves of nausea forcing me to stop.

Just shoot me, my life is over, was my honest thought. I asked a question at some point in trying to deal with this new reality, Oh God, WHY do you hate women?? I didn't ask it, I screamed it while driving alone in my car one day.

I wondered what I had left of myself that was familiar. HORSES. I needed to be around horses, and horse people, so I decided to visit the polo fields once again. I was kindly offered to ride a couple of polo ponies, which I happily accepted. I rode easily after 2 years of being away from my favorite activity, but it wasn't long before an old back injury came back to haunt me. And each time I rode after that, the injury was worse, the muscle spasms in my back debilitating, and taking longer to recover from. After my last bit of blissful time in the saddle, in October of last year, I knew I would probably never ride again, short of a miracle. I have not been free of pain since.

Oh, there's more. When I returned to Atlanta from Miami I took a job at a small pharmaceutical company. I started out with high hopes, but they were quickly dashed when I realized what sort of business person the company owner was. Besides being a micro-manager (read: tyrant), he was rude, arrogant...the list goes on. Worse than all this was the unethical manner in which he made money. My position came with signature authority in matters of quality assurance and regulatory affairs, and while I could give details of the ways in which I was forced to compromise ethics and integrity to save my job, I will let it suffice to say that I found it to be a moral imperative to leave the company after less than 2 years. Interestingly, the government agency that regulates such businesses shut down the company a couple months later. Good thing no one went to jail. I'm not a fan of orange.

In anticipation of my departure I had begun consulting again--moonlighting in my off hours. I was sure that God was providing for me when I had to stand up for what was right. I had technical writing work from one client and traveled to another local client to assist them in their transition after being acquired by another company. And then, even my work fell apart. Hiring people was more cost effective than paying me and with that, my consulting work was done. Countless job applications-few interviews-no offers later, I gave up job seeking. Full-time partnership with Leland in our photography business was where I landed, but as much as I love photography, the job came without a paycheck.

Enter the waiting room. Pick a chair. Bring a book because it's going to be a while.

The recession hit photography business hard, so when I left the paying job for one that didn't pay, you can guess how finances suffered. We hit a very slippery slope that ended in bankruptcy court last June. We prayed, we told God we would do anything He asked, including giving up our business that we loved. Please, show us what You want us to do, we pleaded, but every door to a paycheck we knocked on remained closed.

It can't get any worse. Surely, it's uphill from here. Let me tell you, it can always get worse. We found ourselves in line at community charities for food and financial assistance to keep eating and living indoors.

Why has all this happened? Who am I? Do I have a purpose anymore? These, and many others, are the questions I asked God every day when, one-by-one, all the parts of my life I was sure were going to go in an endless, positive direction; that I believed I had control over, changed uncontrollably. The "Be, Do, Have Anything You Desire" gospel became a lie. Well, of course. There's no gospel in it at all.

The waiting room became my classroom when I decided to stop kicking and screaming. At the end of a very worn rope, exhausted, I turned to God in search of Him; nothing and no one else. In this classroom, my Instructor taught me, and continues to teach me, the truth.

More on the truth revealed in the coming days.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

About Face

A cascade of events changed the course of my life, 180 degrees.

First was the recession. I was living and working in Miami Beach, running my consulting business and modeling, the latter being my main purpose for being there. I was never happier than when my phone rang with a casting call, a callback, or a booking (the best!). Being "the talent" on set was an experience straight out of a fairy tale and I loved every second of it, so when it came time to decide whether to head back to Atlanta after the high season had wound down, I decided to stay and make the move permanent. I had claimed my dream and it was a reality! 

I worked on movie and TV sets during the off-season and got to share space with some pretty famous people: Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson (a sweetheart, for sure), Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, Jeffrey Donovan, and Gabrielle Anwar. 

Word of Wisdom: Background work is so not glamorous. It was a long off-season and I would not recommend it as a career. Being background is fun for the experience of learning how movies are made, but a couple of gigs are plenty. After that you're just a glutton for punishment.

When the high season began again in the fall of 2008 I was ready, like a sprinter set in the blocks waiting for the sound of the starter gun.  

Print modeling! Yea! I can't wait! 

I waited. And waited. The phone was silent while I watched TV all day long, seeing stories of home foreclosures, their owners out on the street and squatters moving in. Mindless show after mindless show; I don't even remember. I hung out on the beach. I shopped at the mall. I ate at Paul, my favorite French restaurant. And I waited. The few calls I received all season were castings for low-paying, Medicare Part D ads, for which I knew I wouldn't be booked because, despite my gray hair, I was never going to pass for 70 years old (thank God).

I felt so alone. I was so far away from the people and places I loved and Miami felt so dark and hostile. Save for a few visits with my friend and occasional casting partner, I didn't have anyone around me. Consulting had dried up as well. I received a call from my Baltimore client, who had offered me a job in their research lab only a few months earlier, saying the offer was off the table in the face of a downturn in their business and subsequent layoffs. I was running out of money and options, fast.

It was time to leave Miami behind and head back to Atlanta, but before my departure in mid-March, I booked one print job--the 2010 US Census. It shot at the end of February--a great ending--and I left a couple weeks later. 
[The ad could have ended up anywhere in the country, but appeared in Atlanta Magazine in the fall of '09, much to my delight.]

In the many quiet moments I had during the summer of '08, I spent a lot of time with my Bible and a booklet of verses--a collection of promises; time for which I am very grateful. I needed to renew my mind--shift the gears from blaming God for my losses, to trust and gratitude. But I also read books that focused on teaching prosperity gospel, I wrote myself checks from The Bank of The Universe for massive amounts of money, and I continued exploring the realms of mysticism and quantum mechanics. So when the bank somewhere in the ethereal never materialized the huge checks I had written hoping to fatten my very tangible bank account, and when my dreams of success in business and modeling were beginning to crumble.....imagine what a huge letdown it was. 

Here's what I've learned in the years since then: My faith was completely misdirected. God does not promise me or any other Christ follower ease, comfort, wealth, and never-ending health (we're all gonna die, and getting dead probably will involve disease for some). My faith was in my ability to manipulate God by invoking the Law of Attraction and claiming Bible verses out of context, distorting them to give me what I desired and leaving what God planned for me completely out of the equation. Can you see how this sets one up to become their own god, and in a very slick way? Yeah, remember when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-11)?

Please, before you get all bent out of shape, let me say that I do believe God blesses some believers with the responsibility of wealth, and they are probably excellent stewards of it. I do believe that it very well could make their faith life more difficult, however, if one allows the self-sufficiency and self-reliance afforded by wealth to overcome dependence on God. Just look at Matthew 19 and the story of the rich young ruler. He had everything, but when Jesus told him what to do, he walked away because he couldn't part with his wealth. "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24) 

Parting with wealth is hard once you've grown accustomed to it. I know. I've been there, even though the money I had was probably pocket change compared to the affluent community around me. 

Here's a short list of what we as believers are promised:
  • We will have troubles, and we shouldn't be surprised by this. I Peter 4:12
  • Troubles and pain have a purpose. I Peter 4:13 and James 1:2-3
  • A promise that we are never alone, ever, no matter what. Hebrews 13:5
  • And finally, not a promise, but the commandment, "Do not be afraid." That's in the Bible 366 times. Do you think it's because we're inherently fearful beings? And we have short memories?
There was another event that happened concurrently with the financial crises that sent me packing back to Atlanta, bewildered by what was becoming of the dreams I had realized. Check back for that story in the days to come.