A Blog by Jennifer Aulthouse

A heart for those who want more of God. A desperate plea for those who don't.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Travelogue of Growth

My intentions were to write a bit more frequently than I have this year, but life being as it is, it just hasn’t happened. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling that pull, that it’s time to get something down. It’s been a year of real growth for me. In the past, however, times of growth have led to greater amounts of writing coming forth. This year it hasn’t. I tossed that around for awhile as to why that might be, and the best answer I can come up with is that I’ve simply been at a loss for words. I’ve never been in such a place where I’ve been so in awe of the Lord; in who He is and what He’s done and His great love for me. I just haven’t known what to say. So instead of trying to force something out, I’m going to share some phrases, quotes, scriptures, things of that nature, that have struck me over the past year and why, and how I have grown. May you be blessed by His presence with you.

“Grace, we must learn, is opposed to earning, not to effort.” – Dallas Willard

This served as a magnifying glass for me in helping me see every day where in my thinking and day-to-day practices I still approach things as if I’m earning God’s favor. It is very subtle, but my eyes have been opened and continue to be opened where this line of thinking is prevalent. Make no mistake, discipleship is hard work. It is hard work to bless people who curse you, to serve others when you’re hurting and exhausted, and to walk with integrity when it may cost you something to do so. But it isn’t to earn salvation. It’s to join in with His call to advance His kingdom and make disciples of all nations. It’s in response to what’s been given, directed at the Giver. There is struggle and suffering, but with Christ’s energy we do these things (Col 1:29 NIV).

“Don’t fail to do something just because you can’t do everything.” – Bob Pierce, quoted in The Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns

My husband and I started reading this book together at the end of last year. The book serves as a wake-up call to the abundance and opportunity we have in this country and ways we can serve the poor and underprivileged. Often I end up quite overwhelmed in imagining how on earth anything I do can really make a difference and this quote helped me realize, once again, that my contribution really is just a drop in the bucket if we’re looking with worldly eyes. It is what God does with the offering that comes from a humble and thankful heart that is the real miracle. I simply have no idea how He might multiply what feels very small to me into a great blessing for someone else. This isn’t a call to dream small or an excuse to not give big. In fact, it shifts my mind from quantity issues instead to gratitude and wonder.

“I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” – Psalm 104:33

I don’t need to be part of a choir to sing praises to Him. I don’t need to be on stage, behind a microphone, in a robe, holding music, or any of these external things. I just need to be in His presence. But should He give me these forums, and He has, I will pour out the songs of my heart to Him that He has filled me with in making me His child.

Whatever your “craft” is, even if you are in a transitional time and have no practical earthly access to it, you can still do these things in your heart to Him. The people around you can become the garden that you nourish and care for. The world outside your door can be your blank canvas as you draw and color meaning into each moment in how you honor the Lord. And as I waited for Him to provide a physical place for me to sing, I learned that celebrating Him in everyday life are truly my songs of praise.

“My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” – Psalm 131

I sin. I still deal with pride and haughtiness. But it is not counted against me because of Jesus’s blood spilling for my sins, and through the long process of sanctification, I am being transformed more and more into Christ’s likeness. I can look back and see that my character has changed and is changing now. So I am learning more and more what it means to live into this reality as to who I am as a child of God. This psalm tells me what it looks like: to have a still and quiet soul before Him, not needing to know and understand everything, trusting in His goodness, trusting in His forgiveness, trusting that He is who He says He is. And more, this psalm also tells me how He sees me.

“For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” – 2 Corinthians 2:15-16(a)

This is a complicated one with me. Largely, I hate conflict and desire to avoid it. I think part of what paralyzes me as a writer is that I’m afraid of being misunderstood. Yet there are a handful of instances which can evoke in me a response that is typically far in the other direction, in which I know I must pray beforehand that I will hold myself back and remind myself of the worth of the person before me, no matter what the particular instance of conflict is about. I once sarcastically told a salesperson peddling at my door that I imagined sitting through one of his presentations would be like traveling through Dante’s Inferno. This is not advancing the Kingdom. There is a funny element to this story in imagining this scenario, but who knows what damage it caused. It wasn’t said in a friendly, joking manner. Our words matter.

This passage of scripture reminds me that some people will find my message of salvation and reconciliation through Jesus alone offensive, and thus I will be found offensive myself simply as the bearer. Further, we must trust in God as our Defender. We are even told to take joy when we are persecuted for such things (James 1:2 NIV; Matt 10:22 NIV). I imagine I’ll be wrestling with this one until my dying day.

But the flip side, as my story shows, we shouldn’t be found offensive because we are dishonest, rude, and self-centered in our actions. We will fail here at times, as none of us will see full perfection until we are before our Lord (Phil 1:6; 2 Cor 3:18), but there’s a tendency to use this passage to excuse our jerky behavior, I think.

“My mission in life is not to mourn over my failings.” – Jen Aulthouse

I’ve spent much time over the past few months working through the idea of mission and what it means for me in everyday life, and as is usually the case, it’s not that a specific task is revealed that I’m meant to do, but more it’s that a need is revealed and I sense God crafting in me the attitude He desires me to respond to this need with, and then I see what gifts I have that can be of use in meeting that need.

I think this is something that is always being refined in us – that is, His mission for us is fluid to varying degrees. Ultimately it always arrives at glorifying God with how we live our lives, but as you examine more deeply into the particularities (when, what, how, where), things will fluctuate. So I’ve been pondering this, and my particularities are still fuzzy. But in spending months reflecting on my thought life and what it truly is I end up thinking about the most and what holds me back from a life of pure giving, it always comes back that I’m caught up in how I failed, how I am presently failing, and how I will fail.

For instance, someone I know may be celebrated and rewarded for some good work he has done. And I am mostly happy for him. But there’s a little stab of jealousy in that I didn’t have the opportunity to do that work and it’s something I would have loved to do. When my mission in life is to mourn over my failings, I feel here in this moment the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and then I become distressed that I have this jealous response still in me even though I am aware of God’s grace and favor towards me and the abundance I’m blessed with, and I fall into a pit of despair, assuming that I can never be fully used by Him because I still am susceptible to such selfish thoughts. And I assume He’s just waiting for me to get my act together. And that one day I will have to give an account for all I failed to do and it will be because I still had to struggle with such selfish thoughts and motives that I never really accomplished anything meaningful. This is the fruit of the mission of mourning over my failures.

But when my mission focus is shifted away from perpetual mourning, what happens instead is that I feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and I then examine what’s going on in me. And then I confess and tell Him I’m sorry, and that I know I’ve been blessed abundantly, and that the good work my friend has done and is being acknowledged for is a blessing for everyone, and that I take joy in this and choose to respond accordingly, and I claim for myself this truth even if I still feel jealousy. And then I move on, because I know that none of this is counted against me. And also because He is a God bigger than anything I can imagine and He works in ways I would never think of to make beautiful things come out of ashes.

So while I wait for further revelation about details and duties and places, etc., the mission becomes clearer through process of elimination. The mission given to me is not of continuous mourning. His grace is enough.

I must add, though, that there is a place, a very important place, for mourning over our failings. It is called confession and repentance. Perhaps for you, if you’re anything like me, the real work then comes in believing that while you know you are forgiven, that there really aren’t any bad feelings from God hovering towards you, where you feel this heaviness that pressures you into godly living as opposed to evoking it out of you as a loving response. That, to me, is living with the mission of mourning. More than ever before in my life, I am aware that He does not want this for me. I was reminded recently of His desire to see my dance in joy in whatever it is I’m doing. Dance in the joy of His forgiveness, restoration, and just plain delight in who He is and in the reconciliation of our relationship: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled to us himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

May the new year bring you a new revelation of the complete hope you have in Him.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shoveling Snow on the Narrow Road

I’m sitting in someone’s living room. The home owner is there also sitting across from me, and lying beside her feet is a lion. He just sits there perfectly content as the woman assures me he is tame and harmless and won’t so much as sniff me. But then she gets up and leaves the room abruptly. I sit there for a moment, a little unsure about being there alone with the unusual pet, so I decide to slowly stand and leave. But it is too late. The lion rises, walks towards me and the next thing I know he leaps and knocks me down from behind, his mammoth teeth sinking into the back of my neck. I can feel blood dripping down, quite certain I am in my last moments of life. I lie curled on the carpet, playing dead, as the lion sort of half lays across my back, so close I can feel his coarse, wiry mane against me; his paws across the back of my arms.

Abandoning hope that I will ever escape from this, my prayer is peaceful, yet with the utmost urgency: “Jesus, in these moments, prepare me to come, help me through with trust that You have me and will guide me through this passage, and that all is well.” For several minutes I stay in this intense prayer, still feeling the blood, the beast, and waiting for the final blows to come. And then suddenly the lion rises and simply walks away. When I finally dare to open my eyes and look around, he is nowhere to be found. I realize I am alive and okay, and I get up and run out of the house, still feeling the blood drip off of the back of my neck.

Then I awoke.

I’ve had two more dreams since like this in recent months, one in which there was a remarkably bad decision made on my part which led to potentially disastrous consequences. The other had a human predator bearing down on me, poised to destroy. In both, some “unexplained force” intervenes and the threat is instantly removed. I am left wounded but not overtaken. In none of the three dreams did I ever see a conclusion, a sign of what happened next. In all three I had been knocked down and at the end of myself.

I share this not to get tangled up in a debate about dream interpretation, for whether a rhinoceros is symbolic of bad breath or any such thing is not of my concern.

But reflecting on these dreams has helped me see something greater I’ve been struggling with.

I have not gone through any traumatic, near-death experiences lately. I’ve gone through annoying, thoroughly superficial, whine-inducing American trials that have messed with my plans and have served to show me how untransformed I remain in attitude. I already didn’t like snow and winter before this particular one ever descended upon us, and as well as 90% of the rest of the northeast, I am tired of all of it. I am tired of how it wreaks havoc with the schedule, of how a storm can instantly force you into more “quality family time” that you could ever possibly desire to have in a three-week time span, of driving in paralyzing fear while freezing rain dances off the windshield, of the damage to one’s property and nuisance to one’s agenda that weighed-down, broken icy trees produce, and the arctic cold and required bundling up and incessant search for mittens that were just worn mere hours beforehand, repeated over and over and over again. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. (Incidentally, I have snow pile roughly the size of an iceberg on my front lawn.)

As I examine my attitudes and choices lately in regards to the stuff of life in both the deep and superficial alike, my heart is broken over how little it takes to reveal the dark residue of the sin nature that remains in me. But, seemingly, not broken enough. After all, wouldn’t I be zealously determined to change? And so another go-around of this cycle begins where I am disappointed in myself over not being disappointed in myself enough. It all has a very unhealthy feel to it, and yet it seems too scary to stop. I mean, if I stop feeling disappointment in myself when I miss the mark, who knows how far I will wander away?

When I stop and reflect, I realize I’ve been trapped in this cycle for a long, long, long time. On one hand, it has kept me on the narrow road. But I’ve been so bent over from the crushing weight of this self-disappointment that it’s a struggle to even notice the beauty surrounding the road at times; so caught up in my own wailing that I do not hear the winds of grace and truth whispering across the road. More and more and more and more and more I believe that this is just as much a tragedy in the Lord’s eyes as never finding the narrow road to begin with.

For some of us, dropping that load is extraordinarily risky. The heavy baggage of self-disappointment reminds us of all we have not become yet and we use that reminder to stop us from celebrating anything too prematurely, for fear that we might blindly dance right off the road and back into darkness and lose what we’ve gained. It’s hard to fit all the puzzle pieces together of grace and hope and mercy and working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling. I guess I think fear and trembling should feel heavy. Shouldn’t they?

But Jesus invites me to trust Him that He’s already carried these things, these failures and self-disappointments, though I may still feel their presence with me. He promises that the yoke is easy and the burden is light, and the more I grow in intimacy with the Savior, the greater I understand what it means to come to Him like a little child, with full wide-eyed belief that this One extending His hand to me is exactly who He says He is, just because He says so. There is only so much of the puzzle that I can envision and understand. Instead, I am drawn to believing in the goodness of the One who designed the puzzle. If He says the burden is light, why do I insist that it should feel otherwise?

Peter failed Jesus. He did everything he claimed he would never do. When the realization hit him as the rooster crowed, just imagine the flattening weight of his self-disappointment. If I were him, I wouldn’t be able to picture the rest of my life any other way than with constantly slogging that load around with me. I think I would be haunted by the deception that self-surety had lead me into. I’d be too afraid to ever let go of whatever I clung to that would anchor me to the narrow road.

But the truth is I have been Peter, and I most likely will be him again. And just as Jesus encounters Peter in John 21 to free him from the heaviness of failure and self-disappointment and to reclaim and redeem all of his moments for good, He does the same for me. However, I see more than simply an opportunity for a second chance; beyond extending hope and forgiveness, I believe Jesus is conveying to Peter that He is committed to seeing him through. Peter won’t be given up on. Jesus can work with and grow whatever little seed of love for Him is in there if we are open to Him. Not only can He, but will He. Not only will He, but joyfully so.

I think fear and trembling are heavy things. I think grace and hope and mercy are, too. Crushingly heavy. But only if carried alone. It is a narrow road, but not so narrow that there isn’t room for Another to walk alongside.

God often shows me His character in real life metaphors, and so I appreciate what He has used this winter to reveal. This week, while shoveling the sidewalks for approximately the 153rd time, I found myself smiling. Gratitude poured through me, and I beamed. I had arms and legs and hands that worked. I had the strength and ability to shovel. I could feel the weight of the snow in my shovel, but it did not keep me from basking in the sun and its light. And it was not crushing me. The lion and the predator did not devour me, and my failures and bad choices are being reclaimed and redeemed for good.