archives

Twenty Seventeen

Bible study

Complain, weep, wonder, and worship.

Summer is an odd duck. School lets out, Instagram becomes a film reel of beach days and vacas, and by July 31st Halloween paraphernalia is holding stores hostage. Between June and August I’m never quite sure if I’m winding down or revving up. These hot months fly fast, so before they’re gone may I ask you a bold question? How are you going to care for your soul this summer? ~ ~ ~ I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love the Psalms. My father read them to me when I was a child, and through repetition many verses were etched in my heart. But it was when depression found me in my late teens and twenties that I clung to the book of Psalms. In it I found “a mirror of divine grace, reflecting the lovely face of our Heavenly Father, and the anatomy of the soul.” Here was raw reality and Godward hope. In these Spirit-breathed poems I understood more of God and more of myself. But a few months ago, inspired by my sister-in-law Shawna, I began experiencing the Psalms in a whole new way. I committed to daily praying through them—complaining, weeping, hoping, praising, singing through them. For 86 days now I’ve given myself over to the full gamut of emotions in the Psalms and I’ve met God afresh. It’s become such a life-giving, joy-starting ritual for me that I’ve been itching to tell you about it. In fact, I’m going to risk sounding presumptuous and challenge you to join me over the next two summer months—to saturate your soul in what Samuel Clarke called “the most useful book of the Bible.” Here’s what I propose: Beginning June 1, pray through one Psalm each day for two months—and challenge a friend to join you. Grab a friend It’s been pure joy for me to read through the Psalms alongside my dear friend Melissa. We read a chapter every weekday (today we were in Psalm 86) and then we text each other our favorite verse. It’s a simple and beautiful form of accountability–and what is sweeter than sharing Scripture with a friend? Who would you enjoy journeying through the Psalms with? Begin to pray Each of us has such a unique relationship with God that my times with Him will look so different from yours. But to give you an idea of how this works for me, here are a few excerpts from three of my “Psalm prayers.” (I usually use my laptop to type these out, but sometimes I pray them aloud, and occasionally I even sit at the piano to sing through them.) from Psalm 61 I am the Rock that is higher than you and your day. I am your Refuge, and under My wings you can find shelter today. I am watching over you with My steadfast love and faithfulness. from Psalm 62 Lord, let my soul wait for You alone, in silence. Let it not fume and fret in the waiting. Let it be still. Quiet. At peace. For from You comes my salvation. My saving! You only are my rock and my salvation, my fortress—the only One who keeps me from being greatly shaken. I shall not be shaken. from Psalm 64 Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint—and boy did I have some complaints in the middle of the night and this morning!!! Preserve my life from the dread of this weekend and next. Hide me from the plots of my flesh and from the effects of others’ sins. Take out these enemies of mine: my pride, selfishness, apathy, anxiety, covetousness, resentment, mismanagement of energy/emotions/time. Bring them to ruin in my heart and mind. For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep! Then others will fear You; they will tell what You have brought about and ponder what You have done. A word for every condition Dear one—this is changing me. I’ve come through a prolonged season of stress, exhaustion, and grief, but my heart is both healing and being emboldened, due in part to these simple prayer sessions. In the psalter there is a word for every human condition, whether you are in the throes of depression or on the heights of bliss. Here you will find permission to “pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord” who sees and knows and cares—and acts powerfully on your behalf. So complain. Weep. Wonder. Worship. Hold nothing back from your God. How ever you choose to get with God this summer, may your heart cry out, “Teach me Your way, O Lord, that I may walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name. I give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify Your name forever. For great is Your steadfast love toward me; You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” P.S. – If you decide to join me in praying the Psalms, I’d love to hear from you so I can pray for you by name. Just drop me a line at becomingchao@gmail.com. (I’m horrible about emailing back, but I will pray! 🙂 ) Also, here’s a fantastic commentary on the Psalms that’s helped me pray with greater understanding: The Treasury of David *First quote by Gerhard. Other Scriptures referenced: Lamentations 2:19; Isaiah 64:4; Psalm 86:11-13.

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man sitting in front of window
anxiety

God is with me in my panic attack

I was 25 years old when I scored my dream job—working as an editor on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. After growing up in California, I fell head-over-heels in love with the East Coast and decided I’d stay put. Until I landed in the ER at 3:00 a.m. one morning with what I thought was a heart attack. I hadn’t slept in three days and my heart was racing, burning, palpitating. Even when I lay motionless in bed, I felt like I was running a marathon. I gasped for breath. I was exhausted. Docs ran multiple tests and X-rays, but in the absence of anything conclusive they sent me on my way: “This can happen to people with long-and-thin frames like yours.” I left the ER that day with no idea how to slow my body long enough to get a few hours of sleep. Soon I had to quit my job and fly home to California. That was a dark season of my life, to be sure. And it was the beginning of a new reality for me. Eventually my “heart-attack–insomnia” bouts were diagnosed as panic attacks, and for the past sixteen years they have dotted the landscape of my life. Panic attacks have been a source of both grief and grace. Grief, because they are terrifying and painful and disorienting and exhausting. Grace, because through them God has humbled my proud heart and taught me to trust less in myself and more in Him. When Asaph says, “My flesh and my heart may fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever,” I get it. Boy, do I get it. I’ve learned a lot along this broken way. I’ve been able to identify the biggest triggers for my panic attacks. I’ve come to understand the great need I have for healthy life habits. I’ve passionately pursued emotional and relational maturity in areas of my life where I’ve long been deficient. And I’ve learned that we are wholistic creatures—God made us both body and soul. Imagine sharing the gospel with a starving person without first meeting their physical needs. It would be unkind and ineffectual, to say the least. In a similar way, if you’re in the midst of panic and I tell you “Don’t be anxious for anything” before I address your physical symptoms—I ultimately fail to care for you. First let’s deal with the panic, then your heart will be calm enough to hear life-giving truth. Perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve learned is that God is happy to be with me, even in the most terrifying moments of anxiety. He is here. He has everything I need for this. Some helpful handles God hasn’t given me a shortcut through panic. He cares more for my long-term growth than for quick-fixes that bring momentary relief but leave me unchanged. Along the way He has graciously equipped me with some very helpful handles—that minimize the frequency and severity of my panic attacks. I want to share some of these with you. I’m not a doctor, so I’ll leave issues of medication, exercise, and diet in the hands of the professionals. But these are simple means of turning to God (physically and emotionally) in order to not just survive anxiety, but to also know and love Him better through it. God is bringing much beauty out of my ashes, and if some of that beauty can spill over onto you, this 16-year journey would be well worth it. Life-giving friends Typically when I’m in the throes of panic there are layers of stressful people and circumstances in my life. Avoiding those circumstances and people may not be possible (nor even wise), but I can counterbalance them by spending extra time with joyful, life-giving friends. These are dear ones who are tender to my weaknesses and love me in all my mess. They lower their expectations. They light up when they see me. Time with them reminds me of who I am, who God is, and that there’s life beyond this panic. I notice that my heart rate slows, my shoulders relax, and my obsessive thoughts lose momentum. God has made us for joyful relationship, and the worst thing I can do when I’m navigating extreme anxiety is to isolate myself from those who love me. A thankful heart One of the greatest helps in dealing with panic has been practicing appreciation in three specific ways. I stole these from two must-read books: Joy Starts Here by Jim Wilder, and Transforming Fellowship by Chris Coursey. Appreciation memories.  When I’m riddled with anxiety, I recall two specific memories of when I experienced amazing peace and joy (I’ve named them “Panera Bread” and “D.C. Trip”) and I relive them in as much detail as I can: where I was; what I smelled, heard, saw, tasted; who I was with, and so on. Doing this reminds me (1) what it feels like to be calm, (2) that God has been so good to me before, and (3) that this momentary panic is not the end of the story. List of 10.  I keep a list of 10 things I’m grateful for. It includes my morning cup of coffee, the beautiful view from my bedroom window, the daily routines I enjoy with my family, and the grace I receive from my husband every day. I rehearse it when my thoughts feel panicky. The goal is to practice gratitude with such frequency (some suggest 5 minutes, 3 times a day) that my brain learns a new normal, and my body can begin to return to an appreciative and calm state more quickly over time, with practice. 3X3X3.  When I’m ramped up and just can’t seem to slow down (and I’m dreading a sleepless, anxious night), just before bed I recall aloud 3 things I’m thankful for about that day, 3 things I’m thankful for about my husband, and 3 things I’m thankful for about God. This sounds ridiculously simple, but it has an immediate effect on me. A relaxed body Sometimes a full-body massage can work wonders in the midst of panic. (On a side note, Chinese reflexology offers much more affordable versions of fancy spa

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person standing in pathway
Stories

“My undoing. (Your beginning.)”

I found it buried in a dusty old box of files, wedged between nondescript folders like “Wells Fargo” and “Car Repairs.” How did something so precious get stuck here? I wondered. Eleven pages of single-spaced type . . . typed on her computer. My grandmother had conquered the basics of the computer in her old age, but that was no surprise. She was a smart, ambitious, classy woman who had survived tuberculosis in the 1940s, breast cancer, a brain tumor, and her eldest grandson’s tragic death, among countless other sorrows. Her life had been a hard one, but she had resilience in spades. She was a fighter. Saying Goodbye Mama was on her deathbed as I celebrated my wedding in August 2010. Due to the festivities and honeymoon, I’d missed my family’s trip up north to say goodbye to her. I was heavy with regret. And then my mom’s words came, “She doesn’t have long,” and I reached for my phone to call Mama for the last time. I will never forget her weak, labored words, “Are you happy?” She knew my wait for marriage had been wearisome, and now on her deathbed she wanted to rejoice with me. “Are you happy?” And this new bride, soaring on the heights of marital bliss, crumpled up on the floor and choked back sobs to tell her how happy I was, how much I loved being married to Eddie. I told her I missed her, wished I could be there, and loved her so much. And then she was too weak to talk anymore. I don’t remember either of us saying goodbye. Mama handed the phone to my aunt. I wept. It was her final phone call. Within hours she was gone. Four Little Words Now, two years later, I held this treasure in my hands: my Mama’s account of her life, told to me in eleven pages. With my son fast asleep, I wasted no time in curling up on the couch to read (and weep) through the precious pages of my grandmother’s story. I was spellbound reading of her early days in Seattle, the friends she lost in World War II, her first job, her first boyfriend. But there were four particular words that made my heart stop and my world spin. She wrote: My undoing. (Your beginning.) Those four little words were Mama’s commentary on her marriage to my biological grandfather, Jack. It was a marriage that had unraveled in abandonment and ended in divorce. But the fact that Mama married “the wrong man” way back in the 1940s meant that I would one day exist. And I sat there—at thirty-six years old, a new wife, an even newer mom—heavy with the gravity of her statement, sobered to hear someone acknowledge that my very existence was wrapped up in their pain and grief. Learning to Let Go I spent a majority of my teens and twenties trying to execute perfect decisions, to avoid making any mistakes. My thought process went a little like this: If I live an exemplary life, I’ll be blessed, respected, and influential. If I wait faithfully to marry the right man, God will give me an amazing model marriage. If I serve others and make them happy, all my relationships will be peaceful and life-giving. People who pursue conceptual holiness and miss pursuing the Holy One start smelling strongly of Pharisee. I know, because I once reeked of it. It took me years to realize that ultimately it’s not about me and my perfection. It’s about living a life wholly surrendered to God. It’s about releasing my white-knuckled grip on my life’s plans. It’s about returning to the cross and the tomb, to remember where my worth and hope and strength are found. My life is His, to do with as He pleases. Taking the Long View When Mama came to know Jesus in her twilight years, He rewrote her chapters of divorce and shame and loss. Mysteriously, gloriously, He worked it all together for good. All was covered by His blood, all was finished on the cross. Death gave way to life. Our brokenness might be big, our scars might run deep, but our God is bigger and deeper still. When all seems lost, God’s plans cannot be frustrated. He thinks and acts on an infinitely perfect scale (while we see only a stone’s throw in front of us). This week my heart is heavy for two dear ones fast losing their battle with cancer. We’re also in the thick of more medical tests and appointments for my son to see if we can get to the bottom of his health issues. We have stomach flu here today, and I’ve got a string of failures I need to deal with from this past week. What’s weighing on you today? Dear one, He stepped into it all, came to be with us, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Let’s take the long view when we look at today’s sorrows or yesterday’s setbacks—for even our greatest undoing, tilled in tears and surrender, may just be the fertile soil where life begins. Scriptures referenced: Romans 8:28, Isaiah 55:8–9, Job 42:2, Luke 18:27, Psalm 119:56, Luke 1:79.

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Singleness

Because you’re 40 today

We met when we were gangly 8- and 9-year-old girls. Our small church and a mutual love for rollerskating were the only bonds we needed to forge a simple friendship. Had you asked us back then if we’d still be friends 32 years later, Karen and I would have giggled in disbelief. In fact, we giggled a lot. Karen was eventually banned from Saturday night sleepovers at my house—something about the all-night laughing fest wasn’t conducive to my dad’s sermon preparations for Sunday morning. We saw each other through the awkward growing-up years, with Christmas pageants and lock-ins and beach trips and potlucks weaving our childhood friendship into something more comfortable and familiar. Then suddenly college came, and there were degrees to be had and new friends to be made and husbands to be found. We ended up with the degrees and the friends, but without the husbands we trekked into the unknown as single working women. Our lives didn’t look like we’d always pictured they would. But we were young and energetic and the world was our oyster, so one day we emailed each other from work: “Let’s move to Washington, D.C.!” And we did. We packed up our belongings and headed east. Karen worked her way to the White House; I had to return home to California. My return meant we were now long-distance friends for the first time in our lives. In the decade that followed, we bridged the gap by flying coast-to-coast to visit each other several times a year. Then the waiting years were upon us. We watched 30 come and go without a boyfriend in sight. Conversations were full of “Where have all the godly men gone?!” and “Is there a man famine?!” We learned to work hard to support ourselves, to make transient homes, to live with a variety of roommates. Karen was Director of White House Personnel and met with heads of state. I was an English teacher and an editor, trying to inspire teenagers and wrangle words into submission. Karen traveled the world and filled up her passport—I lived vicariously through her exciting stories. And oh could she tell stories. (Still can. There isn’t a better storyteller than Karen.) She made me laugh by the hour with her accounts of high-fiving President Bush; walking across Spain on foot, with blisters the size of tennis balls; and that time she accidentally stepped into an unmarked van and ended up at FBI headquarters on lockdown (in her red heels, of course). We both grew social circles the size of small countries, both struggled to find balance and the courage to say “no,” both had an unhealthy obsession with coffee and late nights and Les Mis. Then the changing years came. It had been so sweet to share our single years together, to have someone else “get it,” that we’d prayed marriage would come at the same time for us both. It didn’t. I called Karen the night I got engaged. My heart anguished over it. I knew what it was to feel “left behind,” to wait long and fight for hope while everyone else walked the aisle. But Karen showed me a love so selfless, so freely given at her own expense. She celebrated God’s faithfulness to me, showered me with bridal gifts, and spoke encouragement into my new marriage with Eddie. She celebrated again eleven months later when I gave birth to my son. She continued to rejoice with me even as she continued to wait. It was two years later when Karen casually (or not so casually) mentioned a great guy named Rob. Soon our conversations were filled with talk of this handsome U.S. diplomat who had a personality even bigger than her own. He was kind, intentional, intelligent, and loved God. And he loved my dear friend. It wasn’t long before I was flying back to D.C. to celebrate a long-awaited wedding. Karen Race was now Karen McCutcheon, and her husband whisked her off to Dubai (to provide her with more storytelling material, of course). And now somehow, by some mysterious blinking power, the forties are upon us. A few days ago we admitted again that life looks nothing like we thought it would. It’s been harder than we’d imagined. It’s been richer than we’d dreamed. In the fall of 1985, God gave me one of the sweetest gifts of my life. Because I know Karen, I know what joy and perseverance and transparency look like. I’ve laughed until my sides hurt. I’ve had adventures to last me a lifetime. I’ve loved people better. I’ve loved Jesus harder. Today I celebrate a phenomenal woman on her 40th birthday. And I thank God for the friendship He knew would beautify the many seasons of my life. Happy birthday, Karen. (Photo credits: First wedding pic by Lorelei Conover Photography. Second wedding pic by Marissa Joy Photography.)

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pathway between green grass field
Beauty

Where your soul will grow beautiful

As women, we really don’t ask for much. We’d just like to be healthy. Financially secure. Marry a great guy. See our children grow up into amazing adults. Be successful at work. Get stuff “right” along the way. We want people to love us and respect us and treat us well. Oh, and it would be great if we were beautiful to boot. (Are you snickering yet?) I think we’d all readily admit that our womanly list of wants is a wee bit comical—and real life looks a lot more like Les Miserables than Cinderella. It feels more like summiting Mt. Everest than taking a walk in the park. Christina Rosetti poignantly expresses this reality in her poem Up-Hill: Does the road wind up-hill all the way?    Yes, to the very end. Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?    From morn to night, my friend. Sure footing for the heights True, there are seasons when God will tuck us away into reprieve—to renew our strength for the up-hill climb. We rest our weary feet, He tends to our wounds, we eat and laugh and breathe deeply. But we rest in order to climb again. I’m so thankful for hiding places along the steep mountain path. But after such reprieves my Abba takes my hand and leads me back out onto the precipice. The Old Me looks at the heights and the cost and wants none of it. “Don’t make me walk this, Lord,” I desperately whisper. I want to run back to that safe resting place. But the New Me says, “If this is where You are going, that’s where I want to go too.” Because a resting place without Him is no rest at all. So I ask Him for His peace and joy—the sure footing I need for new rocky heights. My heart “pours out like water in the presence of the Lord” (Lamentations 2:19). And as I seek Him, I find Him. He is there with me. The hardest thing Lilias Trotter once wrote, “Take the very hardest thing in your life—the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot.  Just there He can bring your soul into blossom.” What is the very hardest thing in your life right now, dear one?  What are the circumstances that make your life feel “up-hill all the way”?  That is right where you will go deeper with Jesus. That is where the unsaved will be compelled by your great God. That is where your soul will grow beautiful. But here’s our common problem—the thing that keeps us from those up-hill blessings: We expect life to give us a break at some point. We expend energy asking, “Why me?!” We act shocked when the pressures and the sorrows don’t let up. Despite the apostle Peter’s admonition to not be surprised by “the fiery trial” at hand, we continue to be. Again and again. What do we expect? I recently read Natasha Vins’ captivating autobiography, Children of the Storm. It is the story of the multigenerational persecution of Christians in Soviet Russia—specifically of Natasha’s own family. For their belief in Jesus and for preaching the gospel in a communist land, Grandfather Peter was shot to death in prison; Grandmother Lydia was imprisoned and almost died; Peter and Lydia’s only son Georgi was persecuted and imprisoned; Georgi’s children were publicly ridiculed, beaten, ostracized, and eventually excommunicated. For Soviet believers, persecution was a rite of faith, a way of life, and no one expected anything less. They were not surprised by their fiery trials. They didn’t squirm under the weight of Matthew 10:39 as I so often have: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Lose. Surrender. Open your white-knuckled hands. To those of us who choose to follow Messiah, we are promised nothing less than daily death. He took up His cross, and tells us to do the same. But the way of the cross is the way to life. Let’s be honest: this life can be tough-as-nails, but we have been rescued from the worst fate imaginable: forever death. God loves us and is with us, so each step up-hill brings more life—a growing capacity for joy, peace, hope, endurance, courage, and love. As Paul put it: …we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Name your hardest thing today, dear one, and then watch for God to show up in it. This climb is worth it—the next scary, uncertain step is worth it—for You make known to me the path of life;     in Your presence there is fullness of joy;     at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.   P.S. – Do you have a safe, life-giving friend to whom you can confide your “hardest thing”? Ask them to help you look for Jesus in it. Traveling the heights alone is no good. We experience the presence of God in greater ways when we are with His people! Scriptures referenced: 1 Peter 4:12; Romans 5:3-5; Psalm 18:33; Ecclesiastes 3:11; Psalm 16:11

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Hope

Surprised by Oxford

I just spent an unforgettable week in Oxford, England, whisked away by the articulate pen of Carolyn Weber. It’s no easy task to hold my attention captive for 450 pages, but this book did just that. In her memoir, Surprised by Oxford, Weber invites the reader to journey with her through her conversion story in the mid-1990s among the world’s academic elite. By organizing her book according to Oxford’s three academic terms, and describing the historical town in rich detail (stomping grounds for the likes of Lewis, Tyndale, Latimer and Ridley), Weber creates a portal to the past, making it easy to walk in her footsteps and feel the forcible nature of God’s goodness in her story. She begins by sketching dark portraits of her life before Christ—a broken family, her anxieties and insecurities, her quest for perfection. For a majority of the book she describes the push-and-pull of her spiritual battle, and speaks openly of her longings that were for something more than “the meaningless exchange of bodily fluids, sweating among strangers, maneuvering amid pseudo intimate relationships.” But as the book progresses, its pages feel less and less dark, then less mottled, and by the final chapters there is exhilarating light and joy. One of my favorite aspects of this book is “meeting” and learning from the believers who loved Weber to Christ. The Christians in her life are not perfect by any means, but they are utterly compelling. She describes them as “…deliberate. They were pursuing despite being persecuted. They were deliberate in discerning and knowing their own hearts, confessing their own faults, desiring forgiveness, and being grateful for grace. They were then deliberate in exercising the same forgiveness that had been granted to them…” But despite her friends’ authentic faith, Weber describes her antagonistic spirit towards them. She made it anything but easy for them to pursue her, to continue dialoging about the good news. But underneath her prickles, behind all of her acidic arguments, was a steel-trap heart being undone. “That is the bizarre thing about the good news: who knows how you will really hear it one day, but once you have heard it, I mean really heard it, you can never unhear it. Once you have read it, or spoken it, or thought it, even if it irritates you, even if you hate hearing it or cannot find it feasible, or try to dismiss it, you cannot unread it, or unspeak it, or unthink it.” Try as she might, Weber couldn’t dismiss her Christian friends’ joy (“no one else has it in such abundance”), couldn’t shake their good news, couldn’t stop the rising tide of Grace. Ever wistful and compelling—told as only a literature professor can tell—Weber’s story is a striking reminder that Christ’s message is for our world today in all of its antagonism and plurality and chaos. The message cannot be unheard, so it needs to be told. If you are praying for an unbeliever in your life, if you are asking God for greater courage to share His good news with those around you—this book is for you. If you are agnostic or atheistic or cannot fathom how academia and faith can be inextricably bound up together—this book is for you. If you need to remember the beauty of the good news, need to revisit “the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4)—this book is for you. Of all the incredible books I’ve read in 2017, this one is by far my favorite, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Carolyn Weber for serving as “a bridge spanning poles, [she] crossed over to others and embraced.”

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