Thirty-eight

5 05 2017

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Happy Anniversary to us.

Thirty-eight years ago today, I walked down a long, red-carpeted aisle, holding the strong arm of a loving father who had held me so very well for the twenty-one years leading up to this day.

I walked that aisle in the surrender of a bride — choosing to join my life to this man — to prefer him above myself, to love him with every part of my being, for better or worse, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part.

The strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy filled the sanctuary as the congregation rose to their feet and all eyes turned to watch, but my eyes were fixed on him. The man who waited for me at the end of that aisle.

I felt only peace and deep joy in that moment. I had no idea what lay ahead for us. No idea how hard it would get or how much refining it takes for two stubborn lumps of immovable rock to be melted into one pool of golden grace.

But that’s the thing about God. He doesn’t need my knowing. He is always working out plans formed long ago with perfect faithfulness. His ways are always higher, and His purposes holier.

Thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years of God’s faithfulness. Of laughter and tears. Of sorrow and delight. Of offense and forgiveness and always the choosing — the same holy choosing of surrender.

And today? My eyes are fixed on the man. And I feel only peace and deep joy.

Happy Anniversary, my love. Here’s to thirty-eight more.

When I reached the end of that aisle, George sang the above song to me right before Dad slipped my arm into his. We’ve since sung it in many weddings together and made this recording years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Photo credit: Stephanie Damoff, 1989

 





Listen to the Wind

22 04 2017

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He was born April 22, 1955, the third son of a full-blooded Macedonian father and a blonde, blue-eyed Ohio farm girl with Welsh ancestry. His parents married right out of high school and had six kids before they were thirty.

Their first son was an adventurer, the second a star athlete, but this third boy? He was born with a poet’s soul, and as he grew, the ordinary brokenness of the world lay heavy on his beauty-craving heart. So he ran after comfort as many do, rebelling against conformity, and attempting to assuage the ache with drugs and other empty pursuits. He longed to belong — to be truly seen and truly loved — but the darkness only grew darker and uglier, and it was slowly crushing him.

He was bruised and tormented, but he wasn’t alone. One whose name is Love patiently prepared that wounded soil until one summer day, at the age of eighteen, he sat alone in a barn loft with the ancient splendor of the Appalachian mountains filling his view.

It was time. All his efforts to anesthetize his pain were powerless against the Creator’s magnificent canvas. The mountains burst forth into singing, the trees of the field clapped their hands, and a question rose from the deeps and escaped his lips.

“Who are You?”

The wind whispered soft. The setting sun kissed the tips of the trees and slid into purpling shadows. He heard no answer, but it was coming.

The boy returned home to Florida with the question still burning. Then one evening, he opened a Bible and read the book of John. When he came to chapter 14, verse 6, he had his answer.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

There’s a wonder to God’s ways with His own. He knows the heart’s language and how to make Himself heard. To an eighteen-year-old poet, he awakened the ache with beauty and wrapped truth around it with the Word. How did this young man know John 14:6 was the answer to the question he’d asked in the loft?

He simply knew.

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The wind blew, and the boy understood. And he wrote a song — an eighteen-year-old poet’s song of salvation. Here it is.

Testimony Song

I listened to the wind and I began to see
Through people and my heart and my mind, I saw me
And I saw something beautiful
Oh, I know ‘cause the wind brushed my eyes

We each have something good to give
But it’s often hid by the way that we live
Let Truth and understanding be our guide
Let Truth and understanding be our guide

I want to shine just like the Morning Star
I want to say something beautiful to you

I listen to the wind and I begin to see
Through people and my heart and my mind, I see me
And I see something beautiful
Oh, I know ‘cause the wind brushes my eyes
And I know the Lord Jesus fills my life

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Today that boy turns 62. He’s a devoted husband, father, father-in-law, and grandfather; a poet, musician, and steward of Creation; a servant, provider, and friend; and a man of the Word who still follows hard after Truth and understanding. No, he’s not perfect. Through the years he has stumbled more than once and even fallen hard, but the One who is able to make him stand has never for a moment forsaken him. His testimony of Jesus’ faithfulness remains, and as one who has journeyed by his side for 38 years, I can tell you that — in more ways than I can begin to count — he shines. Just like the Morning Star.

In honor of his birthday, you’re invited to listen to his Testimony Song — recorded decades ago on a little cassette tape player — and to catch some glimpses of the “something beautiful” those of us who love him have been privileged to see.

You’re also invited to follow his example. Listen to the wind. Let it brush your eyes. Perhaps you will begin to see something beautiful, too.

 





Transition

27 01 2017

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Today I realized something for the first time.

Roughly nine months after abortion-on-demand became the law in America, in the autumn of 1973, I was born for the second time.

During those months when many women were embracing their new-found reproductive freedom, God was forming me in the womb of faith, preparing me to become His child.

I could say a lot more about what happened that day, when my sixteen-year-old self first felt the irresistible urgency — unseen forces from without and within pressing me toward my emergence from the dark womb of spiritual sleep into the dazzling radiance of faith.

But the one thought that demands my profound awe in this moment is simply this: God is a redeemer.

Always, in every place and at every time, God is making all things new.

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A few years later, when I was in my early twenties, I was reading Malachi 4 and was inspired to write a song. This morning, when George read the same passage, he reminded me of it and said we should revive it. Maybe so. But meanwhile, I can share the words with you here.

The Day is Coming

The day is coming, burning like a furnace,
And all the wicked will be chaff.
The day is coming when the righteous will rejoice
And leap from the stall like a calf.
The day is coming when the Sun of Righteousness
Will rise with healing in His wings.
And all the holy ones will be before Him
And crown Him King of kings,

Alleluia.

Come, Lord Jesus; come, Lord Jesus,
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
Come and bring us the day of our deliverance
When we will be revealed as sons.
For creation is anxiously longing,
And we ourselves grown within.
But the day is coming, the end of our suffering
Because we’ll be found in Him.

Alleluia
Alleluia
Alleluia
Jesus, Come.

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Romans 8 says God subjected the creation to futility on purpose — that all this groaning we see, hear, and feel is the pains of childbirth, meant to assure us that deliverance will indeed come.

I had the holy and awesome privilege of watching my daughter and my daughter-in-law give birth — one at home, and one at a birthing center — both without the use of any drugs.

I watched and prayed as they entered fully into their labor, breathing into the pain, working with the contractions.

As the hours dragged on, I watched them battle through the dark and awful fear that deliverance would never come — that strength would fail, and life would be swallowed up in death.

And I watched as they entered the phase called transition — that sacred and solemn space, where the world disappears and the whole body, soul, and spirit is consumed with bringing forth life.

Watching was like catching a glimpse into eternal mysteries — the hope that the creation itself  will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. The hope of redemption that contracts the soul of every believer with prayers that are groanings too deep for words.

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When I consider the brokenness of the world today — the desperation of refugees torn from their homes yet feared and rejected by many in the world, the immensity of modern day slavery and human trafficking, the selfish demands of the privileged, and the ignored oppression of the poor, the orphan, and the widow — I feel exhausted and tempted to despair. Perhaps deliverance will never come. Perhaps strength will fail, and life will be swallowed up in death.

But then I remember Who subjected creation to this prolonged ordeal, and hope rises. Perhaps we’re on the edge of transition — that holy and solemn space where the soul gives itself to a higher purpose.

Perhaps the church will shake off her anesthesia, enter fully into her labor, breathe into the pain, and work with the contractions, and perhaps new life will come forth from all this agony.

This is my hope.

And my prayer?

It hasn’t changed.

It’s still the same aching, exquisite cry that belongs to the Spirit and the Bride.

“Jesus, Come.”

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Thirty-six Years and Still Climbing

5 05 2015

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Look at us. That was the summer of 1979, and we were newlyweds. So young. So unaware and unprepared for a journey that would include unimaginable adventures, trials, sorrows, and joys. Today marks 36 years of wedded bliss. And wedded turmoil. And wedded hanging on by our fingernails. But most of all, today marks 36 years of God’s amazing grace and faithfulness. For your viewing pleasure, here’s a little stroll down visual memory lane.

The 70s

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May 5, 1979, leaving the church on our wedding day

The 80s
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The 90s
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The 00s
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The 10s
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After my dad walked me down the aisle on our wedding day, before he officially gave me away, George sang a song to me. The lyrics were an invitation: Let us climb the hill together. That’s a good metaphor for marriage. Much better than a walk in the park or a stroll on the beach. The soundtrack of a marriage is beautiful music, yes. And laughter and weeping. Joyful praises shouted and agonized prayers wrung from a broken heart. Daily choices to give and forgive. And, in the end, it’s all good. All part of a symphony God orchestrates for our growth and His glory.

“I pray God will be with us night and day, guide us on our way. So, let us climb. Let us climb. Let us climb the hill together.”

Invitation accepted. Until death do us part.

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Speaking of soundtracks, here’s a little vintage George and Jeanne singing “Let Us Climb,” because, why not?
Love you, George. Happy Anniversary. xo





Remembering A Long Good-bye

28 04 2014

DSC_0104Patsy Harper Leftwich
July 11, 1932 – April 28, 2013

Shortly after Mom died, one year ago today, I promised I would share in this space some of the beautiful ways God worked during the final weeks of her life. Well, now I’m finally making good on that promise. I had the privilege of speaking at the beginning and the end of Mom’s memorial service. What you’re about to read is mostly copied from the thoughts I shared that day. It blessed me to re-read these memories today, and I hope this glimpse into our journey will bless you as well.

From the introduction:

It was probably twenty or twenty-five years ago that Mom heard about a lady who had planned her own funeral before she died. If you knew my Mom well, you won’t be surprised to hear that she loved the idea of wielding artistic control over her own grand finale. So she started a file. And whenever she heard or remembered something she wanted included at her funeral, she added it to the file.

We’re going to honor her wishes today. All the Bible verses you will hear and the two hymns that will be sung were specifically chosen by Patsy. You will also hear lots of stories and a few other songs that she didn’t choose. We as her family members put those in — partly because she’s not here to stop us, but mostly because we love her and these things remind us of her.

Some of you might listen to these stories and observe the obvious love and closeness of our family — you might consider all the talents Patsy possessed, the tender faithfulness of her devoted husband, and all the many, many blessings that were poured out on her in the course of her beautiful life — and you might go away thinking, “What a lucky lady she was!” And yet. Not one of us would listen to a gorgeous symphony and walk away saying, “How lucky that all those notes came together in such a wonderful way!” No. We would leave the concert hall filled with admiration for the musicians, yes, but with an even greater awe and gratitude toward the composer whose heart first dreamed the music and whose mind crafted such a magnificent work of art. We wouldn’t have to see the composer to know he exists and to recognize his presence in the music.

As you listen to the beautiful music of Patsy’s life, our prayer today is that you will recognize the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows. The Almighty Composer is here, even if we can’t see Him.

And with that thought, I give you the first of Patsy’s chosen Bible verses, Psalm 118:24: “This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Let the celebration begin.

5699_10200257852348983_169056786_nSetting up for the service

1014371_10200257852188979_778986930_nJimmy and Dad

993780_10200257853189004_38159046_nCurtis and Grace singing Corcovado

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(all of the above photos from the memorial provided by my cousin, Patsy Keller)

And from the closing:

During the summer of 2010 two things became inescapably evident. One was that Mom had some form of dementia and it was getting worse. The other was that something was causing extreme pain in her right leg. Soon we had answers on both accounts. Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Today we’re celebrating Patsy and the beautiful gifts, talents, and relationships that enriched and defined her life. But if we chose to ignore the last three difficult years, we would also miss some of the sweetest mercies she and our family ever received. Because the truth is, no life is all parties and laughter, and that’s ultimately a good thing. There are gifts we receive in the hardest seasons of life that can’t be given any other way, and it’s usually in those times that God’s strong hand of love is no longer hidden in the shadows, but rather, is plainly seen — comforting, upholding, and providing what we may not have even known we needed. Mom’s final years were hard on her and on all of us who love her and suffered with her. They were hard, but they were also richly blessed with beautiful gifts, big and small. It would take far too long to detail every mercy, but I want to take a few minutes now to share some of the bigger gifts with you.

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-17With Harper Sparrow in 2010

Throughout Mom’s illness my father was the picture of patience, devotion, and tenderness. One by one he let go of his freedoms to take care of Mom, and he did it without complaint or bitterness. But anyone who has been a primary caregiver knows that after a while, the walls begin to close in. As Mom got worse, Dad became a prisoner in his own home. He was determined to keep her there, but he also knew he needed to protect his health and sanity, for her sake as well as his own. And that’s when the first big gift was given.

DSC_0014Mom, Luke, Sarah, and Dad. Housemates.

I wish I could take the time to unfold the series of events that led to Luke and Sarah moving in with my parents, but I will only say that there was no mistaking God’s strong hand of love in every detail. Not that things suddenly became easy for anyone. Mom still had cancer and Alzheimer’s. She was confused and at times unpleasant, and trying to meet her needs was often very stressful, but now there was community to share the load, and with that community came love, laughter, music, and prayer. Several months after they moved in, Naomi was born, bringing new life and unspeakable joy into the home.

DSC_0314June 5, 2011. Naomi is born.

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It was still very hard. It was also very beautiful. But it couldn’t go on that way forever. Mom finished her cancer treatments and started regaining her strength, but her confusion got worse. Naomi grew and was underfoot, and the time came when Luke and Sarah felt it would be best for everyone if they moved out.

And then the next big gift was given. A house across the street became available, and George, Jacob, and I moved to Dallas. Luke and Sarah bought a house five minutes down the road, and now we had four generations living in close community. Lois also joined us for two months during the summer of 2012, and other family members visited as often as they could.

-8My parents and their four children at our house in Dallas

We settled into workable routines, but new challenges kept arising and many new decisions had to be made. We’d never walked this particular path before. How does one know which home health care provider to choose? And what do we do when Mom is angry and lashes out and refuses to let anyone touch her? As some of you know all too well from your own experience, the constantly changing unknown is an intimidating place to be, and the knowledge that your loved one isn’t going to get better but continually worse and worse makes it even heavier. We tried a few things that didn’t go too well, and I admit we were getting tired and frustrated, and then?

Another big gift was given. A young woman I know heard about our situation and sent me a Facebook message. She told me about her mom, Angela, who lives in Dallas, is an RN certified in elder care, and owns a company that exists specifically for the purpose of helping families like ours make a care-giving plan.

We contacted Angela, and she walked us through figuring out what Mom needed and where to find it. She also educated us on what to expect down the road. She asked good questions and empowered us to make informed decisions, and when Mom started sleeping a lot more and eating a lot less, she suggested that there was probably something other than Alzheimer’s going on. She arranged some tests and then a doctor’s appointment.

That’s when we found out Mom’s cancer was back. Her doctor recommended hospice. And Angela walked us through that process as well.

DSC_0177With Naomi, Easter 2013, less than one month before Mom died

And that brings me to the last two weeks of Mom’s life. We didn’t know it was the last two weeks, but we knew she didn’t have long.

Even before we discovered that Mom’s cancer was back and her prognosis was only a couple of months, Lois had planned to spend her spring break in Dallas. She arrived on April 12th and spent the week helping with Mom’s care. She got to lie down beside her on the bed and hold her hand and say everything she wanted to say to her. While Lois was in town, Sharon, Glen, Nathan, Meghan, Brandon, and Molly also came over, and we all gathered around Mom in the kitchen and sang some of her favorite songs. Knowing this would be her last good-bye, Lois left on April 21st.

On April 22nd, Grace and Curtis and their children arrived, and on the 23rd, Mom sat up in her wheel chair in the living room to listen as they sang some of the Brazilian jazz songs she loves. She commented and clapped after each song, and smiled with delight whenever she looked at baby Malia.

IMG_0535April 23

That was the last day Patsy was able to speak or get out of bed.

Friday, April 26, a bunch of family came to town for Harper’s 3rd birthday party. Jimmy, who had been in Taiwan on business, flew directly into Dallas to attend the party and then spend the weekend with Mom and Dad. Deb drove up from Austin and met him here.

Saturday afternoon, Angela stopped by Mom and Dad’s house because she was in the neighborhood, and after checking on Mom, she sat down with me, Dad, and Jimmy and gently explained that Mom probably had only a few days. She mentioned some specific bodily reactions to watch for, and also told us exactly how things would unfold with hospice once Mom died. Later the same day the three of us were taking care of Mom and noticed some of the symptoms Angela had described.

I’d already begun looking through Mom’s funeral file in preparation for writing her obituary and planning this service. Saturday afternoon I pulled out the typed pages containing the scriptures and hymns you’ve heard today, and that evening, Sharon and I sat on the bed with Mom. We read the verses and sang the hymns. We told her what a good Mom she had been to us, and how much we loved her. She couldn’t speak, but she reached out for our hands. We told her that we knew she was dying and that Dad knew she was dying, and that she didn’t have to hold on for him or for us. We reminded her that Christ had died on the cross to provide her a way to heaven. If she was ready, she could let go.

When I walked across the street to go home that night, I had the strong sense that my father was about to have his last conversation with my mother, and I prayed for him, that he would be able to say everything he wanted to say to her.

The next morning I attended the early service at our church and then drove straight to their house. When I arrived around 10:30, Jim and Deb were there with Dad, and the three of them were having breakfast in the dining room. Before Dad even spoke, I knew what he was going to say. Mom was gone.

And this was another big gift. He hadn’t had to face this moment alone.

While we waited for hospice to arrive, I slipped into their room. Mom had died in her sleep. Her eyes were closed, and the look on her face was relaxed and serene. For the past year and a half, I’d had a front row seat at this final movement in her life’s symphony. I’d walked with her through the valley of the shadow of death, and now she’d reached the other side. I wasn’t sure what to expect in that moment — wasn’t sure what I should be feeling or thinking. What I did feel was the quiet, calming presence of God, and what I found myself thinking was not about my loss or Dad’s loss or all the suffering and pain Mom had endured, but rather the faithfulness, mercies, and goodness of God throughout the past three years, His grace in offering her the free gift of salvation, and His kindness in allowing so many of her loved ones the opportunity to say good-bye.

And in that moment, the natural response was worship. I bowed my head and commended her soul to the Lord. Then I lifted my hands and sang the song you’re about to hear now.

983585_10200257854029025_529560384_nAt this point in the service, all of my mother’s grandchildren and their spouses sang “Restoration” accompanied by me on the piano, Nathan on the guitar, and Luke on the cajon. In the video below, we only had about half the grandchildren, but we tried our best to reproduce the moment.

Mourning into dancing, weeping into laughing, sadness into joy. He really does make all things new.

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

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I realize this is long for a blog post. This one is mostly for posterity
and, of course, for anyone else who wants to join us in remembering Mom.

Thank you for your patience, friends.





Alleluia, Our Father

18 04 2014

10168088_10151956417937352_865719595_nMusic is everywhere. On our phones, in our cars, piped into the grocery store and doctor’s office and elevator. It’s common to every culture, and often one of the first sounds babies produce. And yet, music is far from ordinary. It’s this remarkable, powerful, who-can-find-words-to-describe-it thing.

I don’t pretend to understand all the physics behind sound waves and harmony and why the blending of tones can hit the ear and simultaneously break the heart. I just know that music is more than. It’s mystery.

It’s a gift from God and a foretaste of eternity.

When Jacob nearly drowned he lost a lot, but one thing he didn’t lose was music. He can no longer carry a tune, but the music is inside him and rises up and out of him, a fragrant offering to His creator who hears with ears tuned to our hearts and not our ability to match pitch.

Some mornings, after we read the Bible and pray together, Jacob and I sit at the piano and sing. Today, Good Friday, was one of those mornings. With hearts full of the wonder of redemption and the scandal of a love that lays everything down not only for His friends but for the vilest, most hateful enemy, we lifted our voices to the One whose death is our birth and whose life is our life.

And I decided to do something I’ve never done before. I decided to record one song on my phone and to post it here, not because it’s musically superior in any way, but because it’s true. And anyone who has ever worshiped with Jacob knows that it doesn’t get any more real than the mask-less offering that rises from his brokenness in gratitude for the grace that makes all things beautiful.

So, today you’re invited into our living room, to sit beside the antique upright grand piano, and to enter the courts of the King, simply, humbly, and amazed by His grace.

Alleluia, Our Father

Lyrics:

Alleluia, our Father,
For giving us Your Son
Sending Him into the world
to be given up for man.
Knowing we would bruise Him
and smite Him from the earth
Alleluia, our Father,
in His death is our birth
Alleluia, our Father,
in His life is our life.

Good Friday, my friends. From me and Jacob, with love.





Compost

2 04 2014

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He turned fifteen the year his birthday became Earth Day. Not a bad association for a boy whose name meant “farmer” or “earth worker” — a boy who would go on to become a man, who would go on to earn a doctorate in soil ecology.

But that’s only a subplot in this boy’s story. Or maybe a framework. Because who he is goes much deeper than what he does. The why behind the what makes all the difference.

And the “why” in this case was beauty — a beauty that broke his heart in the deepest, best way, and filled him with longing.

These paths we walk are fashioned paths, no more haphazard than the artistry of the sunrise that broke over the Appalachian mountains one summer morning in 1973 and caused the boy to cry out, “Who are You?” It’s a question with an answer, and following the fashioned path he found himself in the book of John, where words adorned themselves with meaning, and beauty owned its Name.

Jesus. This Beauty had a name, and it was Jesus.

The boy would never be the same.

And so, to this day, he makes things grow. It’s his therapy, his joy, and a very real part of his worship. Because life is parable for those who have ears to hear.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone.

First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

The boy named Farmer believes, and he does what he can.

He makes compost.

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In autumn he rescues bagged leaves from the side of the road and wood chips from the landfill. He feeds kitchen scraps to earthworms. He layers grass clippings and leaves into bins, douses them with water and tosses them like a giant salad, and then come spring — when time has had time to do her thing — He takes the rich black compost from the bottom of the bins, and into this good soil, he plants seeds.

New life from death. It’s the law of the kingdom.

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We live in an age of entitlement and instant gratification. We order our flowers online, and we buy our organically grown, pesticide-free vegetables from tidy displays on the produce aisle. We don’t want to wait, and we don’t want to get our fingernails dirty. We want our food, our entertainment, our comforts, and our spiritual enlightenment served to fit our personal timelines and preferences.

We don’t want to wait. We don’t want to suffer. And we certainly don’t want to die. Why lay down our lives when we can have it our way and have it now?

Well, fact is, we don’t have to. We can skip the process. We can keep our fingernails clean, our self-esteem well polished, and our opinions unchallenged. We can stand up for our rights and pursue our happiness.

Or we can lay it all down and be living sacrifices. Because when Jesus talked about seeds and soils, he was really talking about truth and hearts. And we have a choice. We can be those who trample the path and make it harder, or we can be those who, like the early and late rains, soften the soil with kindness and grace. We can be those who throw stones or those who bow low to remove them, making room for roots to spread and go deep. We can be those who weave a crown of thorns, wounding with harsh and mocking words, or we can be those who weed out the thorns and make room for struggling roots to breathe.

We can let Beauty crush us into purpose, surrendering to the seasons He sends, knowing the pressure and pain promise a harvest. We can be a safe place for tender souls to stretch out tentative shoots toward the Son.

We can be compost.

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It’s counter-intuitive in a culture where most people spend their lives trying to climb higher and achieve more. But in the upside-down kingdom, this is the secret to joy. We decrease that He might increase, and the less we become, the more He shines.

And one day? We’ll look up and gasp with wonder.

Because Beauty will blossom and flourish and fill the whole land with fruit.

 

 

 

 

 








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