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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Fragrance

17 10 2015

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In New Testament times, foot washing was both practical and hospitable. People wore sandals, walked on dry dusty roads, and arrived with grime clinging to their skin. Cool water on hot, dirty feet not only cleansed and refreshed, it expressed a host’s desire to honor and serve his guests.

In our day and culture, we no longer require or expect a foot washing when we enter a friend’s home. But that doesn’t mean we’re clean. We go through our day collecting the “dust” of every influence we encounter, and it clings to us every bit as much as the grime Jesus washed from His disciples’ feet.

We just don’t notice it. Until we have to.

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I first met Diana through email when Liz, a friend and minister at our church, asked if I’d be willing to encourage a sister who is isolated due to illness and craves real community. I was happy to. But once our correspondence began and I glimpsed this dear soul’s heart, I quickly discovered that Diana would be as much a gift to me as I could ever be to her.

Diana suffers from an Environmental Illness that began in 1992 and has progressively worsened since then. Her condition is controversial and misunderstood, forcing its sufferers to endure skepticism from some in the medical community, and leaving them to grope in semi-darkness for answers and help. At one point, unable to tolerate food, she dropped to 88 pounds. And no one knew how to help her. She plunged into deep depression.

Diana believed she was dying.

She and her husband, Mark, heard about available treatment and chemical-free living facilities in Dallas, and packed up to move from Indiana in 2013. Even so, her health continued on a downward spiral and her despair deepened. She took an overdose of sleeping pills, believing it was the only way to protect others from her apparently unsolvable problems. But she woke in the hospital surprised to still be alive. Perhaps God was pouring out His mercy on her? Hope flickered.

Not long after this, Diana came to faith in Christ, and her despair turned to joy. Her illness remained, with all its restrictions, but her spirit was no longer locked in its prison.

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Currently, Diana can tolerate 20 foods and owns half a dozen garments she can wear without reaction. She doesn’t go anywhere except to her doctor’s office, which is kept as “clean” as possible for patients like her. Even so, she often reacts to those visits.

I asked Diana what she experiences when she has a reaction. She said it starts in her head, which feels like her brain is swelling and pressing against her skull. The inflammation then spreads downward until, eventually, her whole body feels like it’s on fire. Her thoughts also become confused, which makes it hard to think, much less to pray and recall God’s promises. These episodes can leave her incapacitated for weeks. It’s no wonder she chooses to remain home.

Since moving to Dallas, there have been two events that motivated Diana to risk an extreme reaction. The first was her daughter’s wedding last June.

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Wedding. Rachel, Dad, Mom

And the second was her baptism.

Diana knew she could be baptized privately, even in her own bathtub if it came down to it. No one compelled her to do otherwise, and pastors from our church offered to do whatever was best to accommodate her. But after months of intense prayer, soul searching, and Bible study, she was convinced. She wanted to make a public testimony — to share with the body of Christ what He has done and is doing for her. She was willing to count a very real cost to declare to the world that she has been buried in the likeness of Christ’s death and raised to walk in newness of life with Him.

Diana knew it would be impossible for the church to detox itself. Every fabric — carpet, upholstery, clothing — is treated with chemicals. Every person is unknowingly tainted. Soap, shampoo, deodorant, lotion, make-up, hair products. They all contain fragrances, and all fragrances are taboo. But Diana had instructed Liz how to wash her clothes multiple times in fragrance-free detergent, how to best cleanse her hair and body of any contaminants, how they could at least make the person who would be entering the baptistery with Diana as clean as possible. And Liz was ready.

But then they realized Liz would be out of the country on the date Diana planned to be baptized.

So three days before the scheduled service, she asked me if I would be willing. And of course, I was delighted to say yes.

I was deeply honored. And humbled. And I was also afraid. I didn’t want to make her sick, and I only had three days to cleanse myself. Three days of purification. Three days of trying to set myself apart.

It was a three-day journey to try to eliminate every clinging aroma, and it became a three-day journey into a deeper understanding of how desperately we need God’s grace.

Because I couldn’t do it.

The aromas in my home were suddenly magnified to me. I noticed them everywhere. The essential oils I diffuse, my favorite soap, candles in almost every room — their scents permeated the furniture, my hair, everything. I capped and put away candles and stopped using oils, but I could still smell them.

I washed the clothes I would be wearing three times in fragrance-free detergent and dried them without fabric softener. But I could still smell my tee shirt. Years of exposure to who-knows-what in the environment had woven itself into the fabric.

And then there was my body. Not only would it be a challenge to eliminate fragrances, I had to battle pride as well. Stand in front of the church, my face magnified on the screen, with no make-up? No hair products to tame the crazy? No lotion or deodorant? This was a true stripping down. A laying bare. And God, as He is so very kind to do, spoke into my struggle.

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We walk through this world — maybe not in sandals gathering physical dust — but we pick up its clinging scents wherever we go. We begin to smell like the world, look like the world, and before we know it, think like the world. We’re called to be an aroma of Christ, but are we? Do we have any idea how saturated we are with the stench of the world? Or how powerless we are to remove it?

Isaiah 64: 6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”

I couldn’t completely rid myself of fragrance. And, no matter how hard I try, I can’t cleanse myself spiritually either.

I’m contaminated, even sickening, and I desperately need Jesus.

As I considered these things, I thought about Diana — how she has trusted God and allowed Him to teach and sanctify her in her illness. She has been reduced to the simplest of existences and still suffers extreme pain, yet her hope remains in Him and her faith is radiant and blazing. The agonizing fire that spreads through her body has refined her to the core, and all her purposes are reduced to a single goal. She lives to give glory to the One whose mercies meet her new every morning.

And her husband, Mark, has willingly entered this world with her.

I met them both in person for the first time outside the church an hour before the baptism, and for that one hour, I had the amazing privilege of witnessing the way Christ loves His bride.

There I was, in all my no-make-up, frizzy-haired glory, but I soon forgot all about myself as I observed and listened to these two.

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Mark’s love for Diana is fierce and protective. It’s sacrificial and tender. It’s a wonder. I watched him take care of her practical needs, and I watched his eyes fill with tears more than once as he witnessed his brave wife’s joy.

We sat outside the building until almost time to enter the waters, and I felt like I’d been invited into a rare space. A sanctuary. A picture of Home. This beautiful, shining woman and the man who literally lays down his life to make her life possible.

When the time came, I stepped into the waters with Diana and listened as she shared her story with the church — a room full of people who will never get the chance to hug her like I did, or physically sit at her feet for an hour, or eye-witness the beauty of this marriage, but who are nevertheless her family — brothers and sisters who will one day see her whole and well. And the glory then? Eye has not seen nor ear heard.

Diana gave her testimony with a depth of joy that only a few present fully understood. Afterward, she plunged into symbolic death with a huge smile on her face, and rose up laughing.

She knew she would react to all the exposure, and by the time she got home, she was exhausted and in so much pain, she could only manage to shower and crawl into bed. But two days later in an email, her confession in the midst of severe suffering was still joy in obedience and gratitude for His sustaining mercies.

2 Corinthians 2:14-16 says, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

The aroma of Christ to God. A fragrance from life to life.

Last Sunday I baptized Diana. And the fragrance is still clinging.





Led forth in peace

4 04 2015

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If we’re allowed to have a favorite chapter in the Bible, I’m pretty sure mine is Isaiah 55. I love the combination of imagery, poetry, and promise — how God is set apart as holy and higher, yet He calls us to come and eat what is good, to seek and find, to forsake our wicked ways and run into His arms of compassion.

I can almost hear the mountains breaking forth into singing, see the trees clapping their hands, and feel the earth stirring with purpose as His word succeeds in all He has planned.

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This has been a profound Holy Week for me, my senses more fully alive, and my heart more deeply moved by the price Jesus paid for our redemption. I think this is true for a variety of reasons, but surely one of them is the fact that, after I gather with the Body of Christ on Easter morning to celebrate how life once and for all conquered death, I’ll get on an airplane and fly across the ocean to the Horn of Africa. Lord willing, I’ll spend the next two weeks visiting friends who work in that region. Two weeks listening to their stories and hearing their hearts. Two weeks meeting the beautiful souls they serve and seeing the image of God in their faces. Two weeks walking among people whose hardships are heavy and whose daily lives bear little resemblance to mine, and yet whose hearts cry out for the same love, hope, peace, and purpose.

I don’t know what these two weeks will hold, but as I think about going, I hear a Voice, urgently calm and fiercely tender:

Come! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

I know that my thoughts are not His thoughts, and my ways are not His ways. I know I’m utterly insufficient in myself to strengthen weak hands or feeble knees, but I also know the word that goes forth from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty. Like the rain and snow that water the earth, it will accomplish His purposes.

And I know that I will go out in joy and be led forth in peace — that no matter what happens, in the realest Real, the mountains will be singing and the trees keeping the beat. That all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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How do I know this? Because Easter happened. Because even though Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to take Him off the cross, He didn’t. He stayed there. And it wasn’t the nails that held him. It was love.

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Friends, will you pray with me over these next two weeks? I’d be so grateful. And have a beautiful, worshipful Easter! Jesus is risen. He really is. May we never lose the wonder.

 





It’s time to play

14 11 2014

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“We can all see God in exceptional things, but it requires the culture of spiritual discipline to see God in every detail. Never allow that the haphazard is anything less than God’s appointed order, and be ready to discover the Divine designs anywhere.” ~ Oswald Chambers

Laura Boggess’ book, Playdates with God, is an invitation to practice God’s presence. To “discover the Diving designs anywhere.” To understand that every moment is sacred, and to joyfully search for God in them all.

Like a gentle caress, it hushes those persistent longings for significance we all have and softly beckons to come and find the beauty in being small.  It’s a call to remember. To become as a child. To skip into the kingdom, masks off — comparisons, competition, and personal agendas laid down.

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I love it when I meet myself on the pages of a book. When entering an author’s experience is like finding a category for my own. When someone else’s words explain me.

I met myself all over this book. It was as though Laura had watched the movie of my life and graciously wrapped her beautiful words around many things God has been patiently and persistently teaching and un-teaching me. Time and again, memories surfaced to be viewed through the lens of God’s sovereign goodness and faithfulness. Time and again, I felt the wonder of it and whispered my grateful awe.

No matter how old we get, play is important, because play is acting out story, and truth is best understood through story. Laura explores this concept in great depth, reminding us to let the gospel lead our internal narrative. When we find ourselves in a season of suffering, we endure and press on, because we trust the end of the story — an ending already written with perfect love. How many times has God proved this to be true in my life? I’ve long ago lost count.

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What Oswald Chambers calls “the culture of spiritual discipline,” Laura calls playdates with God. The more we practice this spiritual discipline of seeing God in every detail, the more time slows down and we truly live. We enter the moments of our own lives, consciously receiving His many gifts, and all of life becomes a delightful adventure with God.

I was a child in the 60s, long before cell phones and the internet and so much paralyzing fear, when little ones traipsed unattended to a neighbor’s house. I was so tiny I had to reach up to ring the doorbell. And then came the breathless wait. Would anyone be home? Would someone want to come out to play?

Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and I knock.”

Tiny once again, I fling the door wide.

Yes, Lord. I’m here. And all my time is yours.

Let’s play.

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You can purchase a copy (or ten) of Laura’s wonderful book here, or anywhere fine literature is sold. Don’t leave Jesus standing at the door, friends. It’s time to play.

 

 





Every Breath is Grace

7 08 2014

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One of the best gifts God can give someone is to take her out of her comfort zone and drop her smack in the middle of moment-by-moment dependence on Him.

It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Daunting and delightful. And humbling in the best way.

There’s something desperately wonderful about knowing that, unless God keeps, we will not be kept. Unless He gives endurance, we will collapse. Unless He guides and empowers our words, they will not be truly heard.

We absolutely know we are not sufficient. Not equal to the task. Not in control.

And we also know that He is all of these things.

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I went to Kazakhstan knowing I would be placed in situations where people who suffer in ways I can’t begin to comprehend would have the opportunity to ask me any question they wanted to ask about God, what I believe, and how I deal with my own suffering.

There was no way I could prepare answers in advance, because I had no idea what the questions would be.

My portion for the duration of the trip was utter, moment-by-moment dependence on God.

And it was amazing.

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God didn’t remove the difficulties and challenges. I battled jet lag. I couldn’t speak the language. Everything from food to currency to local customs was foreign. “Taking a taxi” equaled hitchhiking (and we did this often), and roadway lane markings were more like suggestions than actual boundaries. The heat index soared in a country where many homes, businesses, and cars lack air-conditioning, so I wore the same sweat-dried clothes again and again, living for two weeks out of one small suitcase. I needed a translator to carry on even the simplest conversation, and I never ventured out alone to do anything for fear someone on the street would say something to me and expect a response.

Once we got to camp, my job was to lead morning exercises on the beach, speak four times, teach and perform a dance with the moms, engage with them at meals, and help teach a cooking class using a recipe that was written in Russian.

Rest was not a priority.

But all of these things were gifts to me, because they bowed me low, and that’s exactly where I needed to be. I knew that I knew that I needed God.

And God was there.

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Our team gathered each morning for debrief and prayer. And in the stillness of those moments, as Russian and English words mingled in a chorus of praises and petitions, God’s presence was tangible. Every single day, He filled our meeting place with the sweetest peace, like a tiny foretaste of that great Someday, when every tribe, tongue, and nation will worship around His throne.

I never felt sufficient, but I never felt nervous either. I felt . . . held.

And maybe this is what “become as a little child” means. We know we’re small and weak, but that just lets Him be big and strong. We stand at the edge of opportunity and fling ourselves into space, laughing with utter abandon. It has nothing to do with knowing what’s about to happen and everything to do with the faithfulness of the One who beckons and waits, arms outstretched to catch us.

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As I looked into the eyes of those beautiful moms, I knew without a shadow of doubt that each one of them was made in His image, and all of our stories were written in His book before any of us were born, and here, on this page where a most unlikely cast of characters had assembled, I stood in awe of the glorious promise of God’s goodness and grace. Not one word He has spoken concerning a single one of us will fail. From the American visitor who grew up in suburbia, to the strong Russian woman raised under strict soviet law, to the soft-spoken Uighur wife who rises at 5:30 AM to milk the family cow.

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As different as our life stories may be, here in this place, we are the same. We’re women who love our “broken” children — who see them not for what they lack but for who they are — and we all long for the world to see them and love them the way we do.

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So I let myself be small. Just small and present and aware of this greater grace. Because it wasn’t about me at all, and it never is, and the more I understand this, the more life becomes one grand adventure. We’ve been given this string of days, each one made up of moments, and each of those moments packed with purpose, whether we’re seen or unseen by the world. It doesn’t matter if we’re ministering to millions or washing dishes or wiping noses or waiting long beside a hospital bed.

Now that I’m home again, I want to keep living small and present and aware, constantly leaning into Him. Because life is short, and I don’t want to waste the gift.

Every day is holy.

Every encounter brings me face to face with the Imago Dei.

And every single breath is grace.

 

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* * *

Dear friends, thank you for your patience.
I do have more stories to tell —
glorious stories of God’s redeeming grace —
and I promise I will tell them here. I will.
Meanwhile, I can’t begin to express how much I admire this
amazing ministry to these young people with special needs
and their strong, beautiful moms.

The dear souls behind A Friend at All Times serve with such tireless joy,
but the needs are many, and the resources are few.
Would you consider a small donation to
help them?

You can give online through Orphanos.
Scroll down and select “Partners in Asia”
then, from the list immediately below,
select “Kazakhstan Young Life.”

Thank you. With all my heart.

(all photos by Catherine Burns)








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