Saturday, July 1, 2017

And Ten Years Later, He's Still the Same

I can remember like it was yesterday—the chaos of twenty all packed into one house. The late night games, laughing til I couldn’t breathe, photos on the beach, dressed in white and khaki that still hang in my room all these years later. The longest and hottest bike ride of my life to Ft. Pickens, where they’d made so many memories in the years prior. I remember sitting between my brothers having a fruity drink at the restaurant they held dear. The swing. Oh the porch swing! It was my favorite place to think and journal and talk late into the night with my sisters.

Ten years later, we’re back here and we drove past that little house on our way into town. Our family has grown over these years. We've walked through the darkness of great loss, as well as celebrated new covenants made, and new lives birthed. Kids have grown into adults and life just keeps on going.

There is something so special about this place. This time with my people. Recalling the miraculous ways God has seen fit to continue His good work in my life over these past ten years has in itself, been life-giving in many ways. And yet I’m reminded today, that even this place itself isn’t lasting. That little house with its swing, fades in color and even the waves come and go. This long-awaited family time is so wonderful, yet imperfect as well.

Life has changed so much, I’ve changed so much. But in the midst of it all, you know what is most amazing? He hasn’t changed!

For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God? (Ps. 18:31)

He is the same God who saw fit to take a 16 year-old little girl with so much pain, fear, and pride and show her that she simply couldn’t live like that any longer, self-sufficient and self-consumed. Ten years ago, He plopped her down in the middle of that beach one evening and she came face to face with Him, recognizing Him as Creator and Father. She looked out over those waves, music in her ears and she understood for the first time in her life that God was actually real and that maybe, just maybe, He had a plan for her life. Maybe there was more than this? 

Over the months prior and in the months to follow, He continued to draw me to Himself through the faithful witness of my siblings. When they had come into my life when I was sixteen, I knew immediately something was different about them. Even in some of my darkest moments, they were there. They were the first tangible picture of the love of Christ in my life. My brother and sis-in-love continued to share the Gospel with me and live it out in front of me. 

Somewhere along the way, my story has become His story. The ways I’ve changed over these years highlight the ways He has NOT. That’s the best news in all of this!

He is still the same, in the ugly and the beautiful. In this season right now, even ten years into this thing, I often find myself so frustrated by this perpetual bent towards sin and myself. These patterns are so deeply knit into me and they continue waging war. The ways in which I grasp on again and again for control and worth, sinking my feet deep into things that just can’t bear up beneath me.

Fitting into a smaller dress size, decorating a house which would far exceed the standards of Chip and JoJo, becoming an expert in my field of work, the hours spent pondering what others thought about that dumb thing I said last week or the way I handled this situation. Even the way I use hospitality or binge-watch yet another show on Netflix can become an idol. The inticing draw of the next thing, the next season. Dare I mention, that Pinterest wedding I’ve already got planned while still awaiting the groom…the list goes on and on, but it’s all just sinking sand. 

Sometimes it’s so hard to watch ourselves battle over and over with those same dang sin patterns, that perpetual bent towards self, whatever that is for you. Some seasons have felt lighter, easier if you will. Many even joy-filled and free. Others have led me to the depths of darkness and seemingly without escape. And sometimes it all sort of just lingers, for a reason unknown. For years I’ve thought that once this pattern is broken, once I stop doing that for a year, or stop thinking those thoughts for a month—well then I’ve arrived. THEN, I’m really a faithful follower of Jesus. At that point, He can finally use me for Kingdom purposes.  

But this week, He’s given such a needed glimpse into how much He has done both in and through my life when I recall where this all began, with that little girl sitting on this beach. When I’m frustrated about giving in yet again to a past sin or thought pattern, I’m reminded of how far He has brought me. I'm reminded to be a little more gracious towards myself, a little more patient. 

“He draws me from the past back to the present with an assurance that sanctification is slowly doing its work TODAY. " (Jen Wilkin) Today is all I can worry about. Tomorrow has enough worry for itself.

And we’re limited, right? From day one, our limitations are by design. Whether we spend the remainder of our lives denying or embracing this basic truth makes all the difference in how we will love God and others. We get the joy of bearing His image as we were intended to, ONLY when we embrace our limits. Our limits teach us to fear Him. To remain dependent. (Jen Wilkin)

A constant reminder, that we cannot do it all—and I don’t know about you, but I’m learning that sometimes, the most “spiritual” thing I can do is take a deep breath and chill out!

Whether He sees fit to deliver me now from certain sin battles or later, the anchor for my ever-wondering heart is simply that He promises He WILL. And I trust that promise because He IS. He was. And He will be. He is limitless and I am His!

"I AM who I am," He says.  Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. "For I the Lord do not change," (Mal. 3:6).

My hope is in the reality that I will see Him face to face and He will redeem and restore FULLY on that day, if not before. This will not last forever. My hope is no longer in how I felt ten years ago or in how I feel today, but in the promises He gives in His Word that are balm to the brokenness we all know far too well on this side of things. He is forever. But our brokenness is not!

Looking back over the past ten years, one thing I know now far more than I ever could have imagined then is Him. These years have changed me, and I’m grateful. But how amazing is it that He has not changed?! The same God who drew that little girl into intimate relationship with Himself all those years ago, has proven true over and over and over again.

He has never left her or forsaken her. He has wounded and bound her up. He has broken bondage in some areas and He has asked her to wait and trust in others. He’s allowed pain and been her only source of healing. He’s used hard things to teach her what it means to depend on Him for strength and value. He’s provided in ways that are nothing less than miraculous. He’s offered grace upon grace. He abounds in steadfast love.

It is His grace alone that has carried me and sustained me through these past ten years. I had no clue then, how much I would love Him now, how different my life be in Him. And He will be the one who continues the good work that HE began. Praise Jesus! 

He is forever. 

And a decade ago, these siblings began to speak of THIS God, this Christ--the one who is my hope today. Ya'll, speak of the hope that you have in Christ--only He can bring a dead heart to life! 




Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Night of Hot Pot & The Body of Christ

The room was full of chatter and laughter, loud enough to force you to get real close to hear the person beside you, language barrier and all aside. Composed of an intriguing blend of unfamiliar spices, the aroma lingered thick in the air as I scooted from table to table, finding a path around the room, and greeting so many friends from neat and far. The spread of food laid across the tables was captivating as well--ranging from all familiar colorful veggies and rice noodles to the unfamiliar  territory of quail eggs and fish balls. The eclectic center pieces consisted of pots atop butane burners, rolling at a slow boil for hours. The faces at the tables in front of me happened to be the most diverse of all, some having traveled from five blocks down the street and others having left everything familiar, just a short five thousand miles away.

This night only comes once a year and let me tell you, it is an experience unlike any other! As I was inviting some friends to come and help me pull of this event and trying to accurately explain it, I often gave up and just summed it up with a quick "I guess you'll just have to be there--then it will all make sense!" At the beginning of every spring semester, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (where I work!) has an incredible opportunity to host this "Hot Pot" night with the University's International Students and Scholars Office. The purpose of this event is to provide a unique meal and fun night of new friends for about eighty international students who just arrived to Fayetteville several days before to begin studying at the University.

A traditional Hot Pot meal is completely designed around relationships. Unlike our typical meals which focus on eating and getting to the next thing, Hot Pot is enjoyed at a much slower pace. Basically students and families gathered around a table with a divided pot in the center, boiling atop a butane burner. There was a wide spread of traditional hot pot ingredients across the table. Since its origins stem from China, part of our preparation required going to an Asian market in order to find some of the more "traditional" hot pot ingredients.

For starters, there was a tray of raw chicken, cut up and some beef meatballs. In another tray we had mushrooms, tomatoes, baby corns, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, sprouts, potatoes, tofu, quail eggs, fish balls, rice balls, and plenty of noodles to name a few of the ingredients. Each pot has a spicy sauce in one side and a medium sauce in the other side, which you just mix into the water, adding more as needed.

When everyone gathers around, you just start throwing ingredients into the pot, let it all cook for a few minutes and then serve it into bowls around the table. The fun part is figuring what to combine and which flavoring you like best. As you're eating and talking, you throw more ingredients into the pot and let them cook. Repeating this process aging and again--for hours (or until you realize you might explode)!

This year, Hot Pot was a particularly special for me. Since I'm only one person and could never intentionally get to know and pursue relationship with 80 new international friends, it only made sense to invite in some other friends who could! Since I had set up ten tables for our event, I figured it would be awesome for each table to have at least one American student or family to help them with Hot Pot, but more then anything just to get to know them. I was blown away by the willingness of so many dear friends, mostly from my church family, who were willing to come (some even with young kiddos who are all over the place!) with excitement and desire to get to know some of these new students.

There was one point, midway through the event, where I found a second to pause and step back. As I looked out across that room, I saw the body of Christ in such a rare and precious way. It took everything in me to hold back the tears of gratitude for this glimpse of God's grace and faithfulness. Even when many had their own various reservations and demanding schedules, over twenty folks prioritized being at Hot Pot simply because they want to meet and know these new friends from all over the world! Watching this scene play out before me, served as a tiny glimpse of what I imagine Heaven will be like one day. My church family is in this with me. They were there, getting to know these students because they are for what God is doing among them!

Recently our pastor has been preaching through the book of Galatains. In chapter 4, Paul talks about how we, as believers, are called to freedom, and we ought to use that freedom not as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, to serve one another. (Gal. 5:13) As I read that, this scene comes to mind--these friends did just that!

The following week I was meeting with two international friends to share the hope that I have with them, and when we sat down at the table they looked at each other, and then at me. One of them said, "Courtney, can we ask you a question? We were just wondering why all those people were so kind and welcoming to us at the Hot Pot event? They were so friendly, we were very surprised." 

To which I was able to tell them that it's simply because those folks know how deeply loved they are by their Heavenly Father, that they get the joy of showing genuine love and hope others they meet. I got to share the Gospel with them, which neither had heard before. They literally asked me why none of the Christians back home had ever told them this Truth.

There weren't songs sung or hands raised that night, but these friends worshipped, offering themselves, their time even, the Truth they have to share, as a sacrifice--and look at how God is already at work as a result!

I'm not biased, but I am--these friends (and others who couldnt be there!) are truly great--simply because they are servants of the Greatest One! (Matt. 23:11)

I encourage you to lean into the body of Christ. Be a faithful member of a healthy church. Serve together and share the Gospel together. Plan a Hot Pot night--seriously, you won't be disappointed!

"Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speak oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies--in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen," (1 Pet. 4:8-11)