Unexpected Invitations

It has been almost two months that I have been in the dark. I have been there before. It is dark and lonely and void of God’s presence, at least to those of us who live there. 

I have spent the time twisting and turning and writhing to find my place. Saying to myself, this is part of the journey, allowing myself to accept the time in the desert. But this time felt different. In the deserts that I have experienced before it was not God’s presence that was lacking but my own. I wouldn’t say I was alone this time. I would say that the black hole that consumed me was something beyond me. Something I had never experienced.

It wasn’t until a trip to the Blessed Sacrament that I cried out. I could not contain it. I went there specifically to cry and to beg God to come back to me, even though I know that he never left. But this daunting darkness consumed me and I hoped it wasn’t what Mother Teresa had experienced. I am no saint and I knew that I was not ready for all of that. I asked God in one breath to show up. I thought how nice it would be if the lights went dark in that chapel. Then they did. Then Father walked in. 1- God, Melissa-0.

And I left that place full of hope, knowing that in that tiny prayer, I could expect God to answer. That a single visit in the darkness could bring light. That things, they could change.

It was 5:30 am when my eyes opened. I was at peace, different from my emotional outcry the day before. I needed a good meditative piece to read and I thought of Elizabeth Scalia and checked aleteia. There it was staring me in the face- the reason for my darkness.

The piece was entitled, Are all these sexual abuse revelations triggering you? They are Me! I read it quick and with bated breath. That there could be another human on earth who could be sent to decipher my pain. We forget about one another. We don’t take the time to listen to one another. We are wild beasts ravaging around this crazy world. 

It was that sentence, the one that freed me. The one that diagnosed me. The one that let me out of my prison sentence. Two months hard labor in the darkness had been two months too long. But the words, her words, brought that first ray of light.

if you are lately feeling out of sorts — if you are feeling unaccountably sad, moody, unfocused, angry,  ashamed — if you have that cloud hovering over you, consider that perhaps you are being triggered, all subconsciously.

The weight of the Weinsteins and the Matt Lauer’s was all-consuming. The women who were getting justice while I was not. The lingering effects of sexual abuse that seep in like the bite from a poisonous snake as you slowly die without even realizing it. It is a deadly poison and a scary thought to think that you are dying and nobody has noticed. Oh how well we as victims can hide the pain.

So I pass Elizabeth’s message on to you. For those who have been living in a subconscious darkness. For predators. For the empathetic who are effected by the headlines. And for my brothers and sisters who still suffer the vile effects of sexual abuse. Know that God hasn’t left you. He is present, we need only move away the cloud.

Free Christmas Gifts for You

branch-and-bird

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. (John 15:5, The Message)

In the U.S., the Thanksgiving holiday is over. Yet my thankfulness exceeds a five-day weekend feast.

I am incredibly thankful for the peace-filled place I am in, joined with Christ who led me into my Father’s embrace. God’s arms are full of unconditional love, extravagant compassion and outrageous grace and mercy.

My mission as a follower of Jesus is

to bring others back to Him. It is central to our good news that God was in Christ making things right between Himself and the world. This means He does not hold their sins against them. But it also means He charges us to proclaim the message that heals and restores our broken relationships with God and each other. (2 Corinthians 5:19:20)

I subscribe to this mission and to Christ’s directive, from our Father, to love each other, love our neighbors, and yes, love our enemies. I believe this is the only effective and provable way to lead people to our faithful and loving God.

It is one way as a branch of Christ I live out my faith. It is one way I can reach out and offer my gifts, received through God’s Spirit, to you.

After an 8-year journey of writing, editing and re-writing, today I offer to you free, my Branches Devotional Workbooks.

All five. All free. All year.

As a favor, would you please reblog so this gift reaches as many brothers and sisters as possible?

Thank you.

To receive one or all, and read more detail about these devotionals, visit Branches Devotionals.

Silence

 

“Remember, before you speak, it is necessary to listen,” Mother Theresa

Tape Face

Arguments. Gossip. Hostility. Name-calling. Contempt. All this occurs in an atmosphere of wanting to be right, of not listening, of refusing to be slow enough to speak in order that we hear and learn. This kind of talking does nothing but stroke our own ego.

He then called the crowd together and said, “Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.” (Matthew 15:11)

How can we, in a climate of division and mistrust, practice the skill of taking a step back in order to arrive at a willingness to listen? And not just listen to form a reply, but listen with the intent of understanding.

This kind of listening accomplishes several things.

  1. It helps us widen our own narrow perception of reality
  2. It helps us form relationships
  3. It helps us understand the experiences, history and hurts of other people
  4. If we are Christians, it helps unify us with our brothers and sisters in Christ
  5. It allows us to hear the voice of God through the Holy Spirit

Of course, we must desire to step back from anger, practice thinking before speaking, prefer to find common ground, and aspire to approach people with openness and compassion. If we don’t, then we simply choose to reject, condemn and despise.

As we stay silent and think – seriously consider our words before we speak, weigh the consequences of our words on others, take time to evaluate the words of others, and reflect on how words that float on social media have an effect on you and the children you know – we begin to form conclusions driven by more than our momentary and sometimes incendiary reactions to an event.

We are able to respond in a way that includes listening to understand.

So faith comes from hearing the message, and the message heard is what Christ spoke. (Romans 10:17)

We are able and willing to widen our perspective to see another point of view. We are able and willing to have compassion for the experiences of people unlike ourselves. We are able and willing to seek common ground and thus solutions, instead of blame. We are able and willing to find unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And finally, we are able and willing to hear the blessing of God’s voice.

“In silence we will find new energy and true unity. Unity is the fruit of prayer, of humility, of love…We cannot find God in noise or agitation… In silence He listens to us; in silence He speaks to our souls. In silence we are granted the privilege of listening to His voice.” Mother Teresa

 

Mother Teresa quotes from No Greater Love, ©1997, New World Library, MJF Books, NY, NY

Back to Basics, Part 3

“You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears.” (Matthew 13:11-12, The Message)

hand.reaching.out

This series is deeply personal for me.

After I wrote Sunday Afternoon I needed to be lifted out of the hopelessness I felt after the horrible week of killing and chaos. Who better to lift me than Jesus?

I desperately needed to get back to the basics of our Savior’s sweet and redeeming words – back to why we call ourselves Christians in the first place.

The Gospels and Christ’s words are my shelter, my safe place, my refuge when I am confused, when I lose hope, when the world and the enemy become too much for me. This is the whole basis for this series: Back to Basics. The Gospels ground me solidly in the heart and Spirit of Jesus. It’s where I feel most at home.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” So Matthew got up and followed him. And as Jesus sat at the table in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were eating with Jesus and his disciples.

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

But when Jesus heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the pious, but sinners, to repentance.” (Matthew 9:9-13)

There was a lengthy discussion in the comments section of Back to Basics, Part 2 about how we as Christians call people to repentance. Sinners, outcasts, outsiders, even believers who wander from righteousness. I also had the same kind of discussion on another blog about how we treat our Christian brothers and sisters who have fallen into temptation.

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

I don’t perceive this statement of Jesus as abandonment. Matthew places this statement right after the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14). Look back at the way Jesus treated pagans, prostitutes and tax collectors. He ate with them, he offered them grace and compassion, he loved them until they were able to feel his heart, able to feel safe enough to be totally vulnerable, able to willingly surrender to him and repent. He didn’t give up on them or ostracize the outcasts; just the opposite. He met them where they were and invited them into his arms where they saw his heart. (Luke 5:29-32, 7:37-39, 15:1, and 19:7)

Eyes to see and ears to hear come from ready hearts – hearts that have been tucked in safely on a bed of unconditional love and grace, of relationship, of knowing the history and hurts of that heart.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not safe. It says, “Your sin is your face and that is all I see of you or care to know about you.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not safe. This phrase to all who hear it says, “I don’t want to know your history or pain. I already presume to know you globally through what I have condemned as your sin. Your sin is your face and that is all I see of you or care to know about you. Until you change, you are not worthy of my time or God’s time.”

Focusing on sin does not preach the Good News. It does not make disciples. Focusing on sin negates our own state of being when our Father adopted us through Christ. It negates everything Jesus lived and died for. It negates Christ’s resurrection.

When we focus on sin, we immediately place expectations on those we accuse. We establish a hierarchical relationship to them, we elevate their sin to a place of prominence instead of focusing on the Good News – God’s Grace (Romans 2:1-4, 3:24). And we forget that sin is a lifetime struggle.

Our job is to worry about our own sin, to whittle down our own logs, to look at the person in the mirror and begin there to make a change.

We have been left with two missions (commissions):

Reconciliation: Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)

Make disciples: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

So how do we successfully accomplish these missions?

Continued tomorrow in Back to Basics, Part 4.

The Cost

Never look down on someone unless you’re helping them up.
Never look down on someone unless you’re helping them up.

What is the cost to us of being redeemed by Christ?

Have you ever wondered what we owe to God?

Well, the true answer is nothing. There is no debt to repay. No obligation or encumbrance upon us.

Yet the closer we come to God, the more vulnerable and intimate we become in our relationship with Him, the more we surrender to the Holy Spirit, the more we delight in taking up the mission of living our lives for Christ.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

What does this mean exactly?

Eugene Peterson in The Message expresses it this way (emphasis mine):

So here’s what I want you to do [with] God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

So breaking it down even further, what does being a living sacrifice mean to you and me?

The closer we come to God, the more vulnerable and intimate we become in our relationship with Him, the more we surrender to the Holy Spirit, the more we delight in taking up the mission of living our lives for Christ.

And to go back to the question, what is the cost if we choose to pay it? What is it God wants for (not from) us if we allow Him full and complete access to our hearts and minds? The cost is living in continuous renewal and transformation of our hearts and minds. If we allow God full and complete access, we receive the unrestrained love He bestows freely and unequivocally.

For some of us, this extravagant love is difficult to receive,

which is why it is so difficult to give.

Yet this is the Gospel. It is the cost of following Jesus.

I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one; one; one. You get closer to Christ by coming closer to each other. Mother Teresa.

This Great Commission

lines at DMV
lines at DMV

Jesus went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 The Message)

I’ve written before on these specific commands of Jesus which all begin with love.

Knock_pennyDo you have a profound desire to go on a mission trip to another country? Neither do I.

Do you ache to learn apologetics? Neither do I!

Do you have a hunger to walk around strange neighborhoods knocking on doors? Neither do I!

How, then, do we as Christians not reject the Commission of Jesus?

As we live our lives obeying the commands of Jesus we become more like him; we reflect his image. We mature in our faith and embody faith and works. We allow those who cannot see him to know him through us.

“Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Fr. Francis of Assisi

Coffee.buzzfeedWe don’t need to travel to spread the gospel. Our “there” is where ever we are. Our “there” is our home, our car, our friend’s house, our workplace, our school, our neighborhood, our gym, our coffee shop, our restaurant, our grocery store, our hardware store, our nightclub, our jail cell, (the dmv, the airport) our social media hangout. It’s how we speak and act when we are “there.”

“There” is how we treat our family, our friends, and strangers when we are “there.” “There” is the decisions we make when we are “there.” There is no “here” and “there.” There is only “there.” And we are “there” all of the time.

How many times do we extend grace to a friend who has made a mistake, but refuse to extend grace to a stranger who makes a mistake? Couldn’t we expand the gospel by widening our circle of grace?

Please begin to think about the commission God commanded Jesus to pass along to us. Please allow the Spirit to stir your heart. Please allow the words of Jesus to play across your mind. Please open up the possibility that people who don’t know Jesus can see him through you.

I fall to my knees and pray to our Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. May your love be the rich soil where your lives take root; may it be the bedrock where your lives are founded. And may you have the power to understand the love of Christ is infinitely long, wide, high and deep, surpassing everything you have previously experienced. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

I will meet you

20160514_070935The challenges of motherhood are many, but it is who I am. I never asked God to make me famous, rich or powerful. I never asked him for a big house or lots of friends. I grew up with a sense of knowing, what I now know is my vocation, motherhood. There was never anything I wanted more than that. But I had a sense from a young age that would be a struggle. The Holy Spirit was present and alive to me ever before I knew who Jesus Christ was, and even though I was not a believer in Christ, I knew God and saw His hand in my life. So when I struggled to have children I found it a curse, cruel, a God that didn’t hear my shouts for mercy, my Hannah prayers, my desperation.

For those that have not grappled with infertility, I am glad for you. Out of all the things I have contended with in my life, this by far was the greatest fight for my soul. I wanted children like I wanted water, it wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity.

After several opinions, I stumbled across a doctor willing to help me. His name was Dr. Christie, I can’t make this stuff up. I was not a believer in Christ at the time but even I as a Jewish girl recognized the name. It was subtle. God doesn’t bulldoze his way through, He glides gently. It was one of a series of small whispers, God’s call to me. Subtle.

Dr. Christie was my third opinion. I came armed and prepared with my research and data. I had by this time diagnosed myself. I had come from a doctor who told me I’d never have children unless I paid him $25,000. The world of infertility is legalized extortion. I told myself that this time around with this doctor, I would put him to the test.

But he wasn’t like the others. He was quiet, kind… unassuming. At the time he was working in a small infertility office. He had been at the job exactly one week.  The specialist that owned the practice brought him on. That specialist was booked up for six months. But not Dr. Christie- he was available right away.

I hesitated to make the appointment. The words “he’s wide open because he’s new” are not usually a good sign. But something drew me in. I knew it was his name.

I sat down with the good doctor. He was visibly nervous. He had just moved his whole life to Florida and he was a true southern boy, accent and all. But his presence was calming to me. We spoke, and he rattled off his diagnosis- the same one I had come up with. I told him he was hired. He told me he couldn’t guarantee me anything, but that I was a good candidate for an alternative to IVF.  He told me with a smile that he had a good feeling.

We started the process, Shlomi and I. It was a perpetual wave of emotions. We started out with pills, then moved on when I told Dr.Christie that I was ready to go for it, full force. He smiled again. He knew why.

More drugs this time in the form of shots. What an emotional time. Your husband injecting you in the hopes for a baby. He was so gentle. I would cry out of sheer emotional pain. It wasn’t the needle that hurt me, it was the reminder of the needle that hurt me. But Shlomi was there encouraging me, telling me, I was going to be a mother, He was sure of it.  Another subtle reminder. Another subtle reminder of Jesus.

Several months, lots of drugs, emotions high and the blood test that changed my life. A call from Dr. Christie. I was on edge. I had been pregnant twice before and lost those within a couple of weeks. I closed my eyes.

I was pregnant, and he had a suspicion that it was multiples.

I felt the sting of the needle, unsure of God, could He be this cruel? It was my birthday, 2008.

7 weeks in I entered the room. There were three. Shlomi, Dr. Christie and me. Dr. Christie had inadvertently become an inextricable part of my journey. I trusted him. And before I looked up to see the ultrasound, to hope for a baby and not an empty sac or no heartbeat, I looked over at Dr. Christie. He told me he had a good feeling.

And there it was. His good feeling on a screen. His instinct. My pain. The needles. My husband’s confidence in God. And my husband was an atheist at best. Two sacs. Two heartbeats. Two babies in my belly. That is when I knew God had not left me. That is the moment I knew that God had not forgotten me, my destiny, to be a mother. And He didn’t stop there. Three months after I delivered my twins I found out I was pregnant with my third. No drugs or doctors or needles. God filled my belly. Why? The first prayer I ever prayed from my heart that I understood, not in Hebrew.

God I want another baby. Please God give me another baby, and He did. 

Although my third was not the result of any intervention, I only trusted Dr. Christie. With my condition, I knew there was a high chance I’d lose this one too. And I couldn’t, I couldn’t lose this one. And he happily agreed to monitor me for Meadow’s first 12 weeks of life. He was there when I heard her heartbeat too. I knew it was a miracle. Only God could do that…

I believe I was destined for the cross, destined for Christ. I believe God chose me before I ever chose Him. I believe God picked my vocation and filled my belly with three babies. I believe in divine providence and its many and numerous gifts. I believe He dresses me in sacred vestments. I believe His altar is wherever He meets you.

Exodus 30:6, “This altar you are to place in front of the veil that hangs before the ark of the covenant where I will meet you.”