Your life begins with mystery

“It’s a good thing he has an element of mystery to you, otherwise you would try to manipulate him.” My spiritual director said this to me when I was deciding if I should marry Mike. My director’s words were wise. My constant need for more knowledge was actually a dangerous hunger for control. I wanted to know everything about how Mike was wired before I married him, because then there would be no surprises. I would be in control. The problem was, I was marrying a living human being, not a machine.

God brought those same words back to my mind as we’ve been trying to have a child. No matter how much progress we have made in science, there is still so much mystery as to how a child is conceived. When we do the math, the odds tell us we should have a baby by now. I desperately want to know why it is not working. Is that not the story of motherhood? Parents can do everything right, follow the rules perfectly, but there is always mystery. Children are not meant to be controlled. They are to be nurtured. If we knew everything about them, then that temptation to manipulate would be that much stronger.

From the very moment life begins, there is mystery.

The same is true with God. Richard Foster writes that, with God, “we are entering into a living relationship that begins and develops in mutual freedom. God grants us perfect freedom because he desires creatures who freely choose to be in relationship with him. Through (prayer) we are learning to give God the same freedom. Relationships of this kind can never be manipulated or forced.”*

God is not a machine. I will never know why he chooses to answer some prayers and not others. I love that he is safe and good and I can tell him everything. I love that he sometimes changes his mind when I pray.** And I am learning to love his mystery. For it is that mystery that prevents me from trying to control God. It is that mystery that reminds me that God is living, and that the freedom in our relationship goes two-ways.

What are some areas of your life where you are hungering for control? Spend a few minutes pondering the mystery of God. How might that mystery actually be a gift to you?

*Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 19.

**Exodus 32:14

Wishing you could see the future?

Security is not dependent upon the certainty of fulfilled desires. True security is found when we know we are heard. The greatest feeling of safety comes not when we can predict our own future, but in our process of longing.

I remember driving up to Ventura for a day away to pray. I was 30 and single and desiring to be married. I sat on a park bench and pictured Jesus sitting there next to me. I looked out at the children riding their tricycles, and started to tell God how much I wanted to have a family. As I prayed, I sensed Jesus’ ears perking up and his eyes focusing intently on me. I had his full attention. My expression of honest desire drew Jesus in closer, and the closer he got, the more I felt safe.

Jesus did fulfill my desire to be married (and in a way better way than I could ever have imagined), but the knowledge of how and when he would answer was not a prerequisite to my sense of safety. In this new stage of life, I find myself checking my phone, searching for some sort of assurance that my future is secure. My search history is filled with things like “signs you are pregnant” and Redfin house hunts. But even if Google could outline exactly how my future would unfold, there is never safety there. What my soul really needs is responsiveness. I need to know that Jesus hears my deepest longings and is actively responding to me. I need to know I have his full attention.

When I was little, I was silent in public and chatted my mom’s ears off at home. When she would start to lose energy, I would grab her cheeks and say “Mom! Listen to me!” I had a million things that were important enough to talk about, but what mattered the most was that I had my mom’s attention. If my mom, who loved me and took great care of me, was focused on me…then I was safe.

Jesus is focused on you. You have his full attention. Take some time right now to be honest with him about your desires. What’s on your heart and mind? Imagine Jesus looking into your eyes and responding to you. How does his responsiveness to you give you security, even without having all the answers?

“But he went on asking, looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened, knowing she was the one, stepped up in fear and trembling, knelt before him, and gave him the whole story.” – Mark 5:32- 33 (MSG)

Whole: Healing for the Fractured Self

In my last post, I wrote about how God cares about us as whole people, not disembodied souls. God’s plan for humanity is “thriving wholeness” or “shalom.” This thriving wholeness is for all of creation and community, and is dependent on the protection and care for the most vulnerable. In this post, I will zoom in from the big story of Jesus’ shalom, and share more personally how Jesus has been making me whole.

Mike and I have been trying to have a baby for thirty months now. This last cycle of hope and disappointment was the hardest. It was the first time we tried fertility treatment and, after several procedures and lots of side effects from meds, we learned the treatment was unsuccessful.

After we got the news we weren’t pregnant, I went to my spiritual director. She led me through a time of prayer, and I became aware that my body felt detached from itself. The fertility treatment process made me feel like all the parts of my body were in a relay race, sprinting all out, but the last runner (my womb) couldn’t do its part and lost the race for the whole team. I had failed myself.

In Romans 6, Paul describes our bodies as having the potential to be “weapons for justice and goodness.” He also says that the body wages war against itself. One part may want to do one thing and the other wants to do the opposite. Jesus makes us whole by reconciling those parts to each other, starting with the most vulnerable.

I needed Jesus to tend to the most vulnerable part of me — the part that felt like it had failed and was paralyzed to go further. I didn’t need Jesus to fix that part of me or correct me. I just needed Jesus to be with that part of me. So I sat with that part for a while. Like a mom holding her hurting child, I assured that part of me that I wasn’t going to leave it behind and that it was worth suffering for.

As that vulnerable part in me began to feel loved and worthy, its confidence grew. I left that prayer time feeling whole and motivated to go through the treatment process again.

How do you need Jesus to make you whole? What is a vulnerable part within you that feels detached from the rest of you? Take some time with Jesus to be with that part. Maybe put a hand on the part the hurts the most. Resist the urge to fix. Just listen: How does that part need loving affection? Is there anything else it wants to say to you?

Whole: Embodied Salvation

Last week, Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first Black Senator in Georgia, thanks to the tireless efforts of Black women like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown fighting against voter suppression. On the same day, the U.S. Capitol was stormed by white supremacists. I’ve been reflecting on the contrast. Some are building a world where “82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton (can go) to the polls and pick her youngest son to be a United States senator.” Others are waving “Jesus is my Savior” flags alongside nooses while violently trying to hang onto power.* I see in them the fruits of two different gospels. The latter has no idea what Jesus’ salvation really means. This is a strong statement, so let me explain.

One of the Bible’s primary images of salvation is this word “shalom.” Shalom is often translated “peace,” but it means more than what our English word connotes. A better translation is “a thriving whole.” The Bible starts with depictions of shalom in Genesis 1 and 2: the flourishing world that God created where every part of creation lives together in harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships. The prophecies of Jesus proclaim that Jesus will be a “Prince of Peace (shalom).” Jesus elaborates on this with his inaugural address in Luke 4:18-19, quoting a picture of shalom in Isaiah 61, where the poor, prisoners, and oppressed are set free. Peter also paints this picture of salvation, “But we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which justice and righteousness will be at home” and he urges us to live at peace (shalom) with him (2 Peter 3:13-14).

This picture of salvation is different from the Sunday-school version of salvation, where we say the “sinner’s prayer” and try to be nice to each other so that our souls can float to Heaven someday. Jesus is not interested in saving disembodied souls. Jesus is concerned with whole people — people who need to eat and have a home and know their families will be safe. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be nice to each other and get along. He wants a flourishing world where Black people don’t have to worry about dying young, where immigrant families stay together, where the powerful get on their knees and serve with joy.

The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of wholeness, of “shalom,” that actively fights for the well-being of the vulnerable. Anything short of that has dangerous consequences. We cannot preach a gospel that cares about saving souls but has no regard for the beaten down bodies and minds of the oppressed.

How has Jesus been expanding your picture of salvation? How does that picture affect the way you live?

In my next post I will share a personal story of experiencing wholeness from Jesus.

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This post was written in collaboration with Jon Ball, ministry coordinator for theological formation in InterVarsity. See his website at: jonball.net.

*Rev. Raphael Warnock quoted in the Washington Post: Timothy Bella and Tim Elfrink, “Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, honors mother and ‘the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton’”, Washington Post, Jan 6, 2021.

*Gina Ciliberto, “They invaded the capitol saying ‘Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President’“, Sojourners, Jan 6, 2021.

Vision you can Taste

“I pray you can eat chocolate brownies with your husband someday.” My sister said this to me when I was 30, single, and on a strict diet in order to starve four different parasites in my intestines. Her words had power over me. Chocolate brownies and a husband felt so far from my current reality and also summarized my deeper desires so tangibly. My sister’s image became the catalyst to my prayers. When my husband made me chocolate brownies for my 35th birthday last week, I paused in amazement.

God’s vision of liberation for the Israelites was “a land flowing with milk and honey” (found in the Bible twenty times, starting in Exodus 3:8). God gave them a vision that made them salivate. And to an enslaved people, with stability and abundance so far from their line of sight, a stirring of all the senses was required for vision to survive. They needed a vision sticky enough to hold onto through an increase of oppression, forty years of waiting, and several wars with their neighbors.

When I first came on staff with InterVarsity, my leaders were asking God to give us a vision that would make us salivate. We wanted God to revive the lives of students and faculty and all of Los Angeles, but that was not a vision. There was no sign for us as to when revival would have occurred. So we waited on God for many years. And he gave us the vision of the 70: To see a witnessing community on all 70 college campuses in Greater Los Angeles. We will know it when it happens and we are committed to seeking God for it until it does, because the thought of it captivates all of our senses and imaginations.

As you think about the coming new year, what vision is God giving you and your community?

Maybe you want to become a better person. But don’t let your vision stop there. What will be the tangible sign that you’ve taken steps of growth? How will you know when that vision is realized?

Maybe you’re praying for systemic change. What versions of “milk and honey” have you already heard expressed from those who are suffering? What is it that you and your community are longing to see God do that would taste so so good?

Maybe you have a personal desire — for a relationship, a family, a job, or physical healing. What is the vision of hope that God wants to give you to fuel your prayers this year?

If you’re unsure of a vision, don’t be discouraged. Sometimes it takes a while for it to come. But start by asking the questions and don’t settle until you’re salivating.

“I’m Proud of You”

I recently received a score of 100% in a ten-week seminary class, with a really nice note from my professor about my writing. My husband’s proud response to my perfect score was, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.” We chuckled for a moment and then I moved on to the next thing on my to-do list. Don’t get big-headed about this. My prof. must be an easy grader. My “humble” self-talk turned critical quickly: Writing is one thing, but doing is another. I’ll bet you can’t practice what you preach. Some theologian you are…

Christians can have a strange way of interacting with accomplishment. Our attempt to live out the virtue of humility often leads us down a rabbit trail of self-criticism and, ironically, unhelpful self-focus. We don’t want to become prideful so we spend all our energy shaming ourselves instead. We starve ourselves of affirmation and then strive harder to obtain what we will never allow ourselves to receive. A merciless cycle.

But there is a more effective way of quieting that voice that longs so badly for affirmation. That is, to give it what it wants. The need to hear those four powerful words, “I’m proud of you” is not just some temptation to lure us into the trap of becoming prideful. It is an innate desire, given to us by our Creator, to foster intimacy between us and our God who loves to get googly-eyed with delight over his children.

As I found myself trying to shove away my desire to acknowledge my grades, I felt God inviting me to pause. Kelly, I am so proud of you. Celebrate! Be encouraged! Then I texted my mom and a father-like-figure and shared with them the note from my professor. My inner-child smiled real big. That’s all she needed. Content on the inside, my focus shifted back to caring for other people, this time with less striving and more child-like courage.

How do you need to allow yourself to receive words of affirmation? How might God want to tell you he is proud of you? This may be hard, but make a list of thirty ways God is proud of you. Yes, I said thirty. Don’t dwell too hard on whether or not it is from God. God has more thoughts towards you than sand on a seashore so there’s a high chance your tiny list overlaps with his vast delight for you (Psalm 139:18). How did that make you feel to write it down? How can you make that a regular rhythm in your life?

Two Types of Nurture

“Nurture” and “fix” are often synonyms in my dictionary. Something hurts? Go to the doctor. Have a problem? Find a solution. Strategy, responsibility, and practicality are my default ways of expressing care. It is part of what makes me love coaching. I believe people can move forward and make progress and I love helping them get past their hurdles and reach their goals.

But there is another type of nurture. It has nothing to do with fixing. It’s a type of nurture that is not interested in outcome, but is more concerned with presence. It’s the type of nurture a mother gives her child when he skins his knees. A gentle touch. A loving kiss. A cuddle. Sometimes what we need as much as a solution, is acknowledgment of our pain and an assurance of loving presence.

Both types of nurture are necessary in helping someone feel whole. And often, the second type is what catalyzes the first. Being seen and loved is often the pre-requisite for all kinds of creative problem-solving.

I struggle with recurring sinus and throat pain. Recently, my spiritual director asked me how much I have paid attention to the escalating pain from the past couple months. I confessed I had been attempting to ignore it. She told me to gently put my hand on my throat and just stay with the pain for a while. I began to speak to myself as if I were a child, I’m so sorry, Kel. I know it hurts so badly. It’s been hurting for a long time. I know. I am here. And then I just stayed there a while, listening to what else my body might be wanting to tell me.

This whole exercise took all of ten minutes, but I could feel something changing in my soul. I had been craving nurture, as much as, if not more than, I had been craving relief. And I wasn’t even aware of it until I took some space to just be present to myself.

Soon after, I continued my journey of looking for help. I reached out to a few doctors and to friends and am not giving up trying to find solutions. That part of care is crucial as well. But too often I underestimate the healing power of attentiveness and acknowledgment.

Take a few minutes right now and practice being attentive to yourself. What is your body trying to say to you? Are there parts of you that have been craving nurture? Ask Jesus to show you how to speak lovingly to those parts of yourself. Practice just staying there for a bit without needing to fix anything.

For more on this type of prayer, look up BioSpiritual Focusing, a practice that was developed by two Jesuits: www.biospiritual.org.

6 Discernment Questions for Responsible People

In my last post, I shared a parable and made the point that we are not meant to do everything. But how do we discern when to say yes or no to opportunities for doing good? Jesus was frequently surrounded by hurting people, but he had only a few short years of ministry to activate systemic change. In order to focus and be effective, he regularly interacted with the Father to receive clarity of vision and direction (Mark 1:35-38).

We can follow Jesus’ example by discerning with God what responsibilities he is asking us to hold and what we need to release. Here are some questions to aid in that conversation:

  1. What is motivating my need to be responsible?
    Before taking on an added responsibility, ask yourself what is motivating you. Is it a need to feel…in control? secure? loved? worthy? Might there be something lurking underneath what appears honorable? Check those things and bring them to Jesus.
  2. What is God up to and how can I partner with him?
    Young leaders often want to know God’s ten year vision for their lives and how they will become world-changers. That is a lot of pressure! Jesus is the one changing the world. Our job is to partner with him. Ask yourself: What story has Jesus already been writing? Who is the main character?
  3. Who might I be overlooking in my immediate proximity?
    Jesus was aware of where he was headed, but he also was present to who was right in front of him (Mark 5:25-34). My church small group spent a night discerning ways we could serve our city. But it soon became clear that we didn’t need to go searching for service projects because a couple members of our small group were really suffering. Sometimes the people Jesus is calling us to be responsible to are already in our midst.
  4. How can I get some coaching to discern my vocational call?
    In that last couple years I have had a coach who has helped me to succinctly articulate my vocational call: My call is to teach, train, and coach so that young leaders thrive in their lives with Jesus. That vision statement now serves as a filter for everything I do. Is it an opportunity to teach, train, and coach young leaders? Then I will say yes. If not, I need to think twice. If you’ve never had a coach to help you discern your vocational call, I highly recommend it!
  5. What is in my job description?
    Whether or not you’re convinced of your vocational call, get very clear on your current job description. So many young leaders burn out because they feel responsible for things no one is asking them to do. Be on the same page with your supervisor about what is and is not your responsibility and it will save you a lot of pain. If you hate your job description, are their opportunities to change it? Obviously that is not always possible, but it is worth asking the question.
  6. Who can partner with me/ who else can do this?
    Before you commit to every invitation to serve, pause and ask: Would someone else be better at this? Who can share the load with me? As you partner with Jesus, you are partnering with the whole body of Christ! Remember that you are not alone!

Which of these questions is helpful for you? What else helps you in your own discernment?

Too Much to Carry

There’s a funny video of me as a kid on a serious mission to collect all the rocks on a trail in Oregon. I stuffed so many rocks in the pockets of my overalls that I eventually fell over. In my shock, I started to cry and my mom picked me up to comfort me.

In many ways, I am still that same kid. Once I get it in my head that there is something I ought to do, I do it with such intense focus, while pushing the limits of my own capacity, and then I surprise myself when I suddenly collapse. Why couldn’t I pick up every rock off of the trail? Surely I should’ve been able to.

Although I can chuckle at my stubborn determination and my self-imposed sense of responsibility, I am still needing to be discipled to learn that some rocks were not meant for me to carry. With so many people hurting right now, I want to be available to everyone. I want to respond to every request on social media to do what is right and good. I want to be a straight-A student and excel at my work. I want to suffer with those who suffer and hold their pain close to my heart.

But I will never be able to hold all that responsibility in my tiny little pockets. And Jesus has never asked me to. Instead, I hear him saying “Kelly, let’s pick out a few rocks together for you to hold onto, but let me be the one to hold you and this entire mountain.” And like a comforting mother, he reminds me that I am going to be ok. My determination will not be what saves me. I can trust Jesus when he says it is ok to say “no.”

What rocks have you picked up in this season? Which of them has Jesus asked you to carry and which of them have you picked up by your own determination? How do you sense Jesus comforting you when you realize it’s too much to carry by yourself?

In my next post, I will write more about how to discern what invitations and opportunities are from Jesus.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30, NLT

If the worst happens…

A common symptom for people like me with fibromyalgia is something called costochondritis — inflammation between the upper rib cage and breast bone that causes chest pain. I have had this before and know now not to be too alarmed, but, given my family history of heart failure and breast cancer, my doctors take chest pain really seriously.

This week the chest pain came back, and the doctor quickly ordered some tests.** Even though I knew there was a high chance it was just a muscle strain, I still had a moment of panic. What if it is something more serious? What if I catch or spread COVID by going into a medical clinic? All the worst case scenarios began to creep in.

But as Mike looked into my eyes and began to see me spiraling, he said something that I will never forget: “Kelly, even if the worst happens, you know what will happen? I will love you, and I will love you, and I will love you.”

Is this not God’s heart for us?

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 136: “God’s faithful love lasts forever.” And they repeat that line twenty-six times! There is something about those words that we need to hear over and over again.

This season has so many unknowns and many of us are filled with fear. In the U.S., we just had a traumatic moment (the culmination of the last several years) watching the debate when the president refused to condemn white supremacy, and only a few days later we got news that he is in the hospital with COVID, a horrible disease that we still aren’t sure is being taken seriously. For worst-case-scenario thinkers like myself, and especially for the most vulnerable in society, the future does not seem bright.

The Psalmist writes of God’s faithful love in the context of oppression (Psalm 136). God’s faithful love is longer lasting than oppressive rulers and empires. God’s faithful love is longer lasting than economic downfall and starvation. God’s faithful love is longer lasting than earth itself (and pandemics and fires and hurricanes). God’s faithful love — his liberating and holistic healing of humanity — gets the final say.

One of the hardest parts of facing the unknown, is believing that our current circumstances will last forever. But the only thing that is forever is God’s faithful love.

Take a moment and think about your fears. And then imagine Jesus looking into your eyes and telling you, “Even if the worst happens, I will love you, and I will love you, and I will love you.”

Now think about a people group that is especially vulnerable to suffering right now. How might Jesus be inviting you to join him as he speaks — and lives out — those same words for them?

**All my tests results came back normal! 🙂