I love presents!

Presents

A few months ago, I got the opportunity to work for New York Times bestselling author, Mark Tabb. He was working on writing the story of Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who spent 18 months in a North American prison because of the Gospel. My job was to transcribe recordings of Ken telling his story.

I spent maybe 40 hours listening to Ken speak. As my fingers struggled to keep up with his quick speech, I grew to respect and love this stranger who is my brother in Christ. I rejoiced in Ken’s victories. I cried when he suffered. Many times I was forced to stop the tape so I could take time to really ponder what Ken was teaching me about Jesus. Because of Ken, I fell in love with the North Korean people, agonized in prayer for their salvation, and begged God to cause a swift and mighty fall of their current evil regime. In short, my faith was strengthened by Ken’s harrowing story. (The book is now out for purchase at Amazon, and it is aptly titled Not Forgotten.)

A few weeks after my transcription was complete, I got a check in the mail for my work. I expected the check to come from Mark Tabb. However, when I opened the envelope, I was shocked to see that Ken had written me a check in his personal handwriting from his own checking account.

Maybe it’s silly, but I was completely star struck. I experienced what I think others might feel meeting the Queen of England or Brad Pitt. I, Julie, held in my hand a check written by someone who was truly a hero of the faith. Ken had endured great persecution for Christ’s cause and had survived to tell about it. It was unbelievable that I should be paid to help tell Ken’s story. I almost felt guilty cashing his check (you better believe I tithed that sucker!).

Only Jesus could be so good to me. He is the giver of the best gifts.

If I had to pick just one book of the Bible to take with me on a deserted island, admittedly it would be difficult to choose just one. However, if you pinned me down, I’d take Ephesians. I simply love this powerful letter penned by Paul. The Apostle begins Ephesians with a greeting full of truth and joy, and then says this in verse 3:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”

Here Paul introduces the reader to the ecstatic theme of his letter: we who are Christian have been blessed with every heavenly blessing. Then the Apostle gives a little history lesson to swiftly and soundly prove his bold declaration. That lesson goes something like this (Julie’s paraphrased version):

  1. All people are born rebellious and selfish. This is a big problem because God, being holy and good, cannot allow law breakers into His presence. We deserve punishment for our rebellion. Death, sin, suffering, and decay abound because of men’s poor choices.
  2. The Lord could have justly done away mankind because we are all sinners and law breakers, but instead He chose to patiently endure men’s rebellion. Why? Because He inexplicably and irrevocably loves us. He also had a plan for men’s redemption.
  3. Eventually God chose and then set apart for Himself a special people called Israel. The Jews became the people of the Covenant Promise. They received the Law and the promise of a Messiah Who would save them from their sins. God’s faithful heart was on display when He said to Israel, “You will be my people, and I will be Your God.” (Exodus 6:7)
  4. What the Jews did not know was that God’s plan was bigger than they could have possibly imagined. When the Messiah came in the Person of Jesus Christ, salvation would not just be for the circumcised Jew, but also for any uncircumcised Gentile who would believe. Through the Holy Spirit, our hearts are circumcised, or set apart, to God. People from all over the world are brought together in unity in One Body of Believers Whose Head is Jesus Christ.
  5. God didn’t stop giving with the gift of His One and only Son Jesus. He continued to give us every spiritual blessing. We have been given the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit indwells us, we are given gifts to testify of our betrothal to our King. The gift of the Spirit acts as a seal until the consummation of all things on the Last Day.
  6. We have access to God the Father through the blood of Jesus. We can take our request and petitions to God whenever- no more sacrifice is necessary.
  7. We have peace. We have joy. We have power. We have life everlasting. We are co-heirs with Christ, brothers and sisters of Jesus, adopted into God’s family forever!
  8. Finally, and most staggering, we have been given the power through the Spirit to understand the height, depth, and width of God’s limitless reckless love.

Paul says we have been given every spiritual gift through Christ in Ephesians 1:3, and then proves it for the rest of chapter 1 and then in chapter 2 by naming those blessings listed above. Isn’t Paul’s list staggering? It is absolutely mind blowing!

Paul ends Ephesians chapter three with this declaration in verses 20-21:

“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Uh… yeah amen, Paul! Context is everything, right? God is able to do more than we can ask or think. While Israel was thinking that God’s plan was for them only, the Lord revealed that His salvation was for everyone. When we thought that we would be mere servants in God’s household, Papa God calls us sons and daughters. When we feel powerless, the Spirit shows us that we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus.

A-MA-ZING. Amazing. The only way to comprehend such staggering blessings is to know the One from Whom the blessings come. I hope you know Him! 

So… back to that check I got. Given that I’m Abba’s daughter, I guess I should not have been so surprised to be given such an abundant blessing through the gift of a wonderful job. Only my generous Papa could have orchestrated such a task for me. I was and am His awed daughter.

God is so big. Jesus is the giver of the very best presents, and His plans for me and you are just that good.

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Just Keep Swimming

Just-Keep-Swimming
You know those weird people that laugh at funerals? Yeah- that’s me. I have inappropriate reactions to stress. It gets worse than laughing at a funerals though. For example, several years ago, I was selected to serve as a juror in a murder trial. After two days of testimony, arguments, and deliberation, we, the jurors, entered the courtroom to deliver a verdict. As I walked towards my seat in the jury box, I could feel the stares from the friends and families of both the victim and the accused on both sides of the aisle. The tension was palpable. Suddenly, my eyes locked with those of the lead defense attorney. I could tell he was trying to “feel” me out- trying to gauge what decision the jury had reached based on my observable body language. Quickly I turned my gaze away and bit the inside of my cheeks to quell the nervous laughter trying to bubble out. I could actually hear Perry Mason music inside my head, and the whole thing seemed too utterly ridiculous to be real. But it was real.

Although my thoughts were jumbled that day, if I could have verbalized them, they would have gone something like this: “How can this be real? I live in world where lovers actually kill each other?! Someone wake me up from this nightmare, please!”

Often I’ve wondered why I am like this- why I laugh when I should be somber. I guess it’s easier to smile than it is to cry.

When I was four and living in a foster home, I used to stand at the top of the stairs each morning shivering in fear at the prospect of facing another day. Some days my teeth would chatter in terror as I gazed down at the stairway. I used to stand at the top of the stairs for many minutes most days silently willing my right foot to take the first step down. I don’t know how this happened in my four-year-old creative mind, but somehow the stairs became representative of the real enemy that was my loveless, hopeless life. I knew that if I descended the stairs to join the world below, I had to face another day. Thus, going down the stairs became a battle- a daily valley to be traversed. Sometimes, I would take two or three steps downward toward the reality awaiting me, but then I would chicken out and run back to my bunk bed to hide away under the covers for a few more minutes. One time I hid so long upstairs that it was after lunch before I was finally brave enough to come down. Nobody checked on me to see if I was okay in all that time. Such was the nature of my life.

To cope, I built invisible walls inside. Mostly, I detached entirely.

Later on after I was adopted, most who observed me would have called me a happy child. They would have been mostly right. I smiled easily and did well in school. However, the hurts inside were always there lying dormant, just waiting for the right set circumstances to make their appearance.

And appear they did. During my senior year in high school, I finally let someone in- a boy. I loved him so. He made me feel wild and beautiful. But also scared and vulnerable. I clung to him with all I had. When he suddenly moved mid-way through my senior year, my worst fears were realized. I lost him and then most of my mind for a few months. The pain and grief I experienced is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. I still carry the scars.

My mother took me to a therapist around this time. A middle aged professional doggedly asked me questions for an entire hour in a feeble attempt to get me to open up. I smiled mutely, brushed him off, or redirected the conversation throughout the appointment because I refused to let him see who I really was. I walked out of his office towards the elevators feeling smug. Julie 1, Counselor 0. Mom never took me back to that poor guy again.

Why am I writing all this depressed stuff? I hate doing it. I prefer the happy stuff, right? Walls are my MO.

Recently, I got an email from a friend. She is an extremely private person, so I’ll just call her Ann. Ann wrote to let me know that she has cancer and does not have long to live. When I read the news, every cell inside my body ceased moving. I stopped breathing. Then the walls that I work so hard to hold up crumbled. I laid down, hugged my pillow, and cried. Ann is one of the very few people I’ve managed to let in. She is a beautiful Christian lady, so I know I’ll see her in eternity. I also rejoice for her because she is going to meet our King Jesus soon. But… she’s my friend. She’s a guide and mentor. Ann is my lovely, beautiful, wise, quirky, insightful friend. Oh I’m going to miss her.

Grief. How could anyone put good in front of that word? It scrapes at your outsides. It rots your stomach. Brokenhearted isn’t the right word for grief, is it? How can the heart be broken when it is the organ that keeps you alive. Instead, acute grief feels like a vice grip around your heart. When grief is at its maximum intensity, a broken heart would be a mercy over the pain of a very real and pumping restricted heart. Grief is manic panic and sluggish sadness wrapped up into one ball of hell. I have worked my whole life to avoid it.

God won’t let me get away with that anymore. Grief is a part of the human experience. My Savior can attest to that.

I edit sermons for radio at home. Predictably, I began editing a sermon series in the book of Job after hearing Ann’s news. Job is not exactly joyous reading. Poor Job. When I read and heard the pastor describe just how much Job went through, I really had no idea how he was able to continue and remain faithful. He did though. I suppose that’s why we keep telling his story. 🙂

I am a good student of the Bible because of my memory. I can retain information fairly well. However, the Lord usually speaks directly to me with quick, simple bursts of truth. It only takes one or two sentences from an entire message to stick to my insides and change my life. I’ve been directed to travel great distances to hear one sentence in an entire message. One sentence is all it takes though. That is the power of the Word.

Do you what sentence changed me in this latest sermon series based in Job? (It is a little embarrassing because it is so cliche´.) It is this: Just keep going.

I’ve learned through Job’s story that grief is something that is universally experienced. Even when we feel alone in our pain, we are not. We live in a fallen world, and as such, we must grieve. We must cope.

What do we do when a wave of unrelenting grief comes crashing down on us? In those moments, we can only cry out to the Lord. This is a recent conversation I had with Jesus just two days ago when one such wave of grief threatened to drown me:

Me: “Lord, I just want to be where You are. I am tired of this pain. I want to be with You!”
Jesus: “I am with you.”
Me: “I know, but You are not right here WITH me. I miss You. How can I miss Someone I’ve never met in Person? But I do!”
Jesus: “I missed my Father too (when I was on earth).”
Me: Silent sobs.

Jesus was gently reminding me that there is no pain that I could ever experience that He has not already walked through. In fact, Christ willingly drank my grief just so He could hold my hand today.

“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3)

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

“The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:8)

Jesus is with me.

What I haven’t told you about Ann that I want to tell you now is that God gave me a gentle heads up about her health last summer. One day as I was writing her, the Lord gently whispered that the time with my friend was coming to an end soon. Immediately understanding what the Spirit was saying, I swallowed past the lump in my throat and continued to write. I never mentioned a word of what I heard to anyone, but tucked it away.

When I got Ann’s news, I was immediately comforted. The Lord had told me this was coming. He was with me. He would walk me through it. And somehow, because God is God, I knew I would look more like His Son when I made it past the wave. That’s the only way grief can be good.

I have no choice but to keep going. To descend the stairs and join the real world. To silence the Perry Mason music and face harsh reality. If brother Job could do it, I can do it. I can do it because Christ is with me.

Just keep swimming. Seems like Dory was on to something.