Learning to Truly Love Jesus

I used to have a hard time loving Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong, this struggle to love wasn’t an act of rebellion or a side effect of disengagement; I wanted to love Jesus, I really, truly did.

I just didn’t know how.

What I struggled with was the idea of Jesus as fully God and also fully human – it made no sense to me. I understand God – He’s holy and omnicient and perfect. I understand humans – we’re messed up and confused and broken.

What I couldn’t comprehend was how Jesus could be both.

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Dominican Republic, 2007

Because I had no category for Jesus, no precedent, I decided to simply default him into the same category as God. I felt he fit far more appropriately there than in the same category as humans, the same category as me.

The problem with this logic is that, in stripping away Jesus’s humanity, my perception of him became terribly distorted. Once I determined his lack of understanding about what it’s like to really be human, I found it difficult to trust him.

I began to read the stories of his life with cynicism, dismissing his every hardship with the same justification:

How hard could it have been, really? I mean, after all, you were FULLY GOD.

This lack of trust made it impossible for me to truly love him.

But, even as I wrestled, even as I questioned, Jesus drew me to himself relentlessly. Because of my hesitancies, I expected judgment and fury.

He gave me grace.

My heart’s shifting didn’t happen all at once. Over the past several years, I’ve started to notice the acute presence of Jesus in an abundance of moments – every-day, ordinary, human ones:

Sitting on foreign dust with children who can only understand my smile. The fragrance of comfort food steaming from a pot on the stove. My husband’s laughter mixed with my own. New baby snuggles. That song I can’t stop listening to because there’s something deeper there than just the lyrics and the chords. Rain, sunshine, snow.

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Guatemala, 2013

There have been bigger moments too, important moments, if only to me and him:

The painful death of my dreams making way for his. Bare feet on African soil for the very first time. That day in February – the day I knew, once and for all, that he is worthy of all my trust. Healing in the form of an apology I never, ever saw coming.

The more Jesus meets me in my humanity, piling my life with grace and love, the more I know deep within my soul that he must get what this is like, being human. He’s too good at walking this road with me to not understand. He’s too good at knowing what matters.

For the past month I’ve been stuck, coming back again and again to this familiar passage:

 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 
Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Matthew 26:36-39

My fully-God-only version of Jesus doesn’t fit so neatly into his assigned category when I consider the vulnerability of this passage. In this moment, the tables have turned, and all of a sudden I feel beckoned to be the comforter, to comfort him. I know I have nothing to offer, but my heart breaks and I want put my arms around him and tell him that it will all be okay, that the suffering won’t last, that it will all be worth it in the end… the same promises he’s whispered over me time and time again.

This is Jesus: fully human. I’ll never truly grasp it, I’m sure, but when I think of him in the garden – vulnerable, overwhelmed with sorrow, alone and crying out to God – I know it’s true. He was fully God, but, somehow, he was fully human too.

Jesus chose the cross so we could live in freedom. Freedom means it’s okay for me to honestly present him with all of my questions and uncertainties, knowing he’ll gently walk me through them. The same is true for you.

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His whisper, full of grace, says…

I know what it’s like to feel uncertain, for I’ve walked that road before you. But if you’ll say yes when you feel like saying no, if you’ll follow me even when it seems crazy – ESPECIALLY when it seems crazy, if you can trust me just enough to take one step at a time, you’ll be surprised by the unending displays of my love.

 Once he surprises you with his love, it’s impossible not to truly love him back.

 

PS – Here is a beautiful song called “Garden” by Needtobreathe that I’ve listened to an embarrassing amount of times this month. It’s based off of the passage I referenced above.

How I Learned the True Meaning of Advent

Today was supposed to be the day of my knee surgery.

A month and a half ago I dislocated my knee on the dance floor at a dear friend’s wedding, slipping on my long dress and tearing a ligament on the way down. Despite the pain and embarrassment of the ordeal, I take heart in the fact that nobody can say I wasn’t there to celebrate! 🙂

Surgery to repair the ligament was lined up weeks ago, but on Monday the scheduler called to inform me that the procedure had been moved to December 23rd. Because it’s the end of the year, they’re having a hectic time fitting in all of the surgeries they need to. My procedure is short and simple, so it’s easier to move around than many of the others.

This all makes sense and, really, is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of life. Still, I swallowed a lump in my throat when I heard the news.

It’s not the occasional pain in my knee, or the inconvenience of not being able to bend my leg. It’s not that it’s the day before Christmas Eve. Those things matter, but they aren’t the real reasons why I felt hot tears threatening to spill over on Monday morning.

It’s the waiting.

Ironically, I feel like this knee surgery story is simply a microcosm of the larger story I have been living all year. The past 12 months of my life have carried a lot of ambiguity, a lot of trust, and, most of all, a lot of waiting.

At times it has felt frustrating, or confusing at best. But as my personal season of waiting has recently collided with Advent, the season of waiting, I’ve become aware of something really beautiful.

For the first time in my entire life, Advent truly means something to me.

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I’ve sung the carols, carried out the traditions, and counted down the days until Christmas every December for the past 25 years. It should be nothing new, right? But in my twenty-sixth Advent season, everything feels different.

Lost on me previously, the significance of Advent feels monumental now. Before this year, I couldn’t really relate to the need, the hope, and the utter reliance that are the hallmarks of the season. Because I’ve experienced more of what true dependence on God is really like this year, I now appreciate Advent in ways I’ve never been able to.

What a blessing.

Also, because I have fully settled into this Advent season, this time of waiting and hoping and praying, I have begun to truly appreciate the Christmas story for its surprise ending.

Thousands of years ago, all who were waiting for the promised messiah probably felt similar to how I’ve felt many times this year – anxious and expectant.

I’m sure they were anxious for his impending arrival. They must have had expectations for the way their king would arrive – obviously he’d be powerful and prominent, bursting onto the scene fully clad in political power, wealth, and status. In what other way could a mighty savior possibly come?

Of course we know now that they could not have been more wrong.

This misunderstanding is the heart of the Christmas story – that God doesn’t work the way we thought He would. That He is trustworthy in ways we never would have guessed, or maybe even wanted, if we’re honest.

I know I am not the only one currently waiting for God to answer the prayers of my heart. Everyone who reads these words is waiting for something – for a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or maybe for a proposal. You might be waiting for a pregnancy, for a new job, or for a promotion. Maybe you’re waiting for a clean bill of health, for your prodigal son or daughter to come home, or for your marriage to improve.

I don’t know all of our stories or just how they will turn out, but here is what I do know: He is good, and He is faithful. Look no further than the story of Christmas.

The weary world – waiting and hoping for their redeeming king – trusted that God would send someone, but what they never considered is that He would offer Himself.

Emmanuel – God WITH us – arriving as a baby in a dirty, forgotten manger.

He is truly a God of surprises, working in ways we never expect. My heart leaps in my chest when I think of the way He came through for His people with the birth of Jesus. Because I can now appreciate the waiting involved, the miracle seems so much sweeter.

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”
-Frederick Buechner

I’ve learned more than I probably ever cared to as I’ve waited on God this year. Together we’ve wrestled through bitterness, anger, fear, loneliness, insecurity, and doubt. Through it all, His grace has sustained me and has carried me to a place of peace.

Advent is extraordinary, because it means we’re giving God the space to show up. And when we finally hand the pen over to Him, He writes better stories than we could ever dream.

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Thanksgiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving! In honor of this holiday dedicated to thankfulness, I would like to offer a book recommendation.

For those of you who don’t know me well, I am a certified bookworm. I’ve been known to sit and read for hours at a time, or maybe even finish an entire book in one day.  My favorite books are non-fiction – true accounts of grace and triumph. Those are the stories that stay with me the longest.

I started Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts this summer in June and finished it in August. Two months is a long time for me to complete a book, especially one I like. But this was a book I had to read slowly.

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I have to tell you up front that Voskamp’s writing style is quite unique. The entire book feels lyrical, almost like reading poetry. It is beautiful, no doubt, but you have to be committed to finishing because at times it’s not easy reading.

However, it is so worth it.

The book begins with an experiment. In the throws of depression, Voskamp decides to keep a thankfulness journal, hoping to combat her despair with the practice of noticing and acknowledging gifts. Her goal was to record 1,000 every-day gifts – simple things. Here are her first three:

1.  Morning shadows across the old floors.
2.  Jam piled high on toast.
3.  Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce.

What started with a journal leads Voskamp into full-blown research on gratitude. She explores the theme of thanksgiving in the Bible and studies the way Jesus modeled gratitude throughout his life. She begins to witness the profound effect that intentional thankfulness has on her own well-being, while simultaneously discovering how her gratitude affects the people around her, primarily her family. I found it fascinating.

When I think of the impact this book had on me, the two words that come to mind are practice and noticing.

It may seem strange to think that it takes practice to be thankful, but for me sometimes it does. I’m not talking about when things are great. I have no problem being thankful during life’s major ups – a wedding, a new baby, holidays spent with family, special gatherings with friends. Those are the times when gratitude comes naturally.

But what about in the every-day moments of life?

What about when you’re cruising down the same aisle in the grocery story for the fourth time because you can’t find what you need? What about when your toddler son is pitching an ugly fit in public? What about when you get an unexpected bill? What about when your co-worker gets credit for something you put together? What is the role of gratitude then?

During the normal, mundane, sometimes annoying or inconvenient moments of life, I do believe having an attitude of gratitude takes discipline… and practice.

Maybe it’s my background as an athlete, but I was exceptionally encouraged by the idea that I can practice living my life from a place of gratitude. I know what it’s like to practice – sometimes you rock it and sometimes you bomb, but every attempt makes you better and better. Practice isn’t an all or nothing moment – it’s a process.

Ever since reading One Thousand Gifts, I’ve been practicing living a grateful life. I don’t always succeed, but I think I’m making progress. And the more I practice, the more natural and easy it becomes.

Noticing is the other key Voskamp found to living a life of thankfulness. It’s what her gratitude journal was all about – taking the time to notice life’s gifts. As I’ve followed suit and tried to practice gratitude, noticing has been crucial for me as well. When I feel myself getting frustrated or bothered, it helps to slow down and notice the gifts and the beauty already around me.

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Noticing beauty on an afternoon walk with TJ and Finley

Today is the only day of the year dedicated completely to gratitude. It’s my favorite holiday for that reason… well, and for the food and football too!

If you’re interested in keeping an attitude of gratitude on the other 364 days of the year as well, I recommend reading One Thousand Gifts for inspiration. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with lots of love, joy, and relaxation!

 

PS – Since I’m on the Ann Voskamp train right now anyway, she has a new book out called The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas. It’s a 25-day devotional starting December 1 and leading up to Christmas day. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t really make a solid recommendation, but I am anticipating good things! Would anyone like to read it with me? If so, let me know and we can share thoughts in-person or by email! I love a good book study. 🙂

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SIM Training: New Friends, New Community

I am a whole-hearted believer in the power of community.

I don’t mean community in terms of geographic location, like your neighborhood or town. Not to say that sort of community can’t be powerful, because it can be depending on how you interact with those living around you.  However, the type of community I’m referring to is one defined by people. A community defined by people isn’t glued together by mere proximity, but is cemented instead by something a little more meaningful – shared experiences or beliefs.

At the beginning of November I had the delight of joining a new community. For the first two weeks of the month I attended SIM missionary training here in Charlotte, further preparing me for my transition onto the Sports Friends staff.  Accompanying me at training were sixteen other people from around the country, each one also in the process of transitioning into full-time ministry, most planning to live and serve overseas.

The Cliff Notes version of our two weeks together goes like this:

We learned a lot about our organization, cross-cultural service, and support raising. We drank a lot of coffee. And there may or may not have been an epic volleyball match we won played against the SIM staff on the last day.

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Bryan and I sporting some intimidating war paint on the day of the volleyball game. Bryan will also be working with Sports Friends here in Charlotte! She is my new co-worker and office buddy! 🙂

All of that was important, but here is what I really took away from the time at training: being with people who are traveling the same road I am is not only refreshing, it’s critical.

For most of my life, I’ve found myself surrounded by people similar to me. When I was a swimmer, I was surrounded by other swimmers. When I was a teacher, I was surrounded by other teachers. The commonality present in those previous relationships always encouraged me – I’ve found that shared experiences, especially challenging or emotional ones, have a natural tendency to bond people.

These past six months I haven’t had the luxury of being around many other missionaries, and I’ve sorely missed being in constant community with people who deeply understand my position. While this season has certainly drawn me closer to God, at times it’s also been JUST. PLAIN. HARD. For me, this training could not have come at a better time.

For two glorious weeks the seventeen of us shared laughter and tears. We told each other stories of triumph and disappointment, stories of encouragement and confusion, stories of times when God showed up in ways we never expected. Every day we ate lunch and dinner together, swapping seats for meals like a game of musical chairs. We prayed for each other, for the people we’ve yet to serve, and for the people who have yet to impact us.

During our time together I was reminded that God never intended for us to go through life alone. Community was His original design for humanity, and I believe He’s still in the business of using human relationships as a primary way to display who He is to people.

Psalm 27:27 – As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

My beloved new community has disbanded as of last Friday, each of us returning to our respective homes in different parts of the USA. Within a year or so our physical locations will further separate, the miles stretching longer as members of our gang leave to make new homes in countries like Malawi, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, and more.

I’m so thankful that ours is a community founded not on proximity, but on shared experiences and beliefs that can stand the test of any distance.

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All but one member of our group!

Dear God,

 Thank you for Bryan, Michelle, Keesha, Meg, Christina, Dana, Sarah, Shelby, Monte, Andrea, Peter, Ashley, Chris, Holley, Rachel, and Brian. Thank you for two soul-filling weeks of being poured into by our new SIM family. Thank you that you give us one another to reflect your love. Thank you for speaking truth and encouragement into our lives through each other. Thank you for the gift of community.

 For each of my new friends I pray peace on the journey, joy in the serving, comfort in the hardship, and love, brilliant love, every step of the way.

 Amen 

On Busyness, Spinning Plates, and Creating Margin from Madness

I recently read something that really got me thinking. The article is short, but powerful. It’s about busyness, a sneaky adversary I know many of us struggle with, and the importance of intentionally leaving some margin in our lives to make space for the unexpected. If it sounds interesting or relevant, I’d recommend checking it out if you have a second. The rest of this post builds on what I read there first.

http://storylineblog.com/2013/10/18/what-i-learned-about-my-busyness-from-a-man-in-a-maroon-honda/

 

My training period for Sports Friends started in early September and will wrap up in about four weeks. Most of this time has been spent completing development activities, along with beginning the vital work of building a financial support team. I’ve also been taking on some substitute teaching.

All of these things are important and some have been stressful at times, but the season I’m in right now definitely doesn’t compare to the consistent busyness of my former professional life as a teacher. Over the past couple of months, more than once I’ve found myself facing days of wide-open space with nothing concrete on my schedule.

Sounds delightful, right?

Interestingly enough, rather than embracing the margin this season has naturally graced me with, I’ve felt ashamed of it.

I, like so many others, have almost always suffered from chronic over-commitment. Instead of viewing margin as valuable and needed, I tend to approach it with caution, wondering if having extra time in my life somehow makes me a slacker or an underachiever. Sadly, because I’ve always equated busyness with capability and success, non-scheduled time often makes me feel nervous and antsy. Isn’t there something I should be doing?

I don’t think I am alone in this. Our society as a whole applauds plate-spinners. The more plates you manage to spin without dropping, the more valuable you become. This faulty logic rears its ugly head in all areas of life – as a student, as a professional, as a parent (or so I hear), etc. The world’s respect typically goes to those who take on the most; bonus points if you can make it look easy.

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The praise you receive as a plate-spinner is, unfortunately, like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound – great for just a second, but then you desperately need more. It won’t sustain you through the madness. I know this from experience, and, honestly, I’m tired of living this way. When I take on a lot, I may look capable or admirable to outsiders, but on the inside I know the truth: I’ve purchased a one-way ticket to Crazy Town. And it’s non-refundable.

Rather than spinning lots of different plates, what I really want is to do just a few things and do them really well, leaving a sizable amount of margin for rest and unexpected opportunities. In order for that to happen, I know I’ll have to make some intentionally difficult and unpopular choices to forgo the things that make me feel accomplished for the things that make me feel full (there’s a difference).

I know everyone has real-world responsibilities. I’m not suggesting that we all quit our jobs and stop making dinner and doing the laundry just so we can have some margin. I’m simply wondering what it might do for our souls, for my soul, if we changed a few of our yes’s to no’s and planned deliberately for margin the way we plan for everything else.

At the end of the article I mentioned above, the writer states “…efficiency is not God’s highest goal for you. Love is.

I know it sounds cliché, but at the end of our lives it really won’t matter how many plates we spun or how many tasks we were able to accomplish on any given day. What will matter is the love we gave.

Heading into the holiday season, my word is margin. Instead of feeling ashamed of the margin already afforded to me in this season of life, I’m ready to embrace it. I won’t make a mockery of it by over-scheduling it or wishing it away. That way, when unexpected opportunities arise, I’ll be ready to love people well instead of grumbling about having to add one more plate.

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From Fear to Freedom

I’ve been learning a hard but wildly important lesson about trust lately.

In the weeks since we’ve been back from Ethiopia, I’ve been struggling with a mounting sense of fear. This fear has manifested itself in a number of different ways depending on the day – fear over fundraising, fear that I’m a terrible writer, fear of what people think of me because of this or that, fear that I’m not “good enough” to serve in this new position with Sports Friends, and fear that I’m alone because nobody understands the things I’m feeling.

The logical part of my brain acknowledges that this fear is not from God. There are hundreds of scriptures which command us not to be afraid. And yet, my heart is having a hard time catching up with my head and fully believing that I have nothing to be afraid of.

What I’m starting to realize is that this thing I’m struggling with is not really a fear issue at its core. When I dig a little deeper, I find that the real issue is trust. Oh sure, I might say I fully trust God. That sounds nice and churchy, doesn’t it? But real trust in God would produce freedom and peace and joy, not fear. Something is not right here and I know it.

I have been praying some pretty desperate prayers lately. The ones I’ve written down are choppy and disorganized and include a lot of repetition, particularly of the words “please” and “help.” The ones coming straight from my heart sound equally as distressed, and it’s obvious that I’m losing control.

PSALM 69:1-3

Save me, O God!
    The water is up to my neck;
I am sinking in deep mud,
    and there is no solid ground;
I am out in deep water,
    and the waves are about to drown me.
I am worn out from calling for help,
    and my throat is aching.
I have strained my eyes,
    looking for your help.

Like the Psalmist, I know I am in some deep water.

My plans aren’t unfolding exactly how I wanted them to. I can’t control this season of my life and it’s unraveling me. My unmet expectations are slapping me hard, wave after wave.  As surely as this writer felt, I feel like I could drown in the defeat of it all. Because I realize I have no control, I’m operating in panic mode, letting fear driving my actions as I fight to stay above the surface.

It’s in this place, with the water up to my neck, that I have finally realized the only option I have left – to let go and trust. No amount of my own effort to control this season is going to get me to solid ground. I’ve kicked and I’ve flailed and I’m entirely exhausted. It’s time to give it up.

PSALM 69:13-15

But as for me, I will pray to you, Lord;
    answer me, God, at a time you choose.
Answer me because of your great love,
    because you keep your promise to save.
Save me from sinking in the mud;
    keep me safe from my enemies,
    safe from the deep water.
Don’t let the flood come over me;
    don’t let me drown in the depths
    or sink into the grave. 

This is such a hard prayer for me to pray – answer me, God, at a time you choose. It’s so unnatural for me to close my eyes, open my arms, and give up control like this, but I truly have no other choice. He’s brought me to a place where utter dependence is my only option because the way I’ve been doing things just isn’t working.

And yet, paradoxically, relinquishing control in this way feels sacred instead of scary.

The moment I throw my arms open in surrender, some of that fear that I’ve been unintentionally holding onto so tightly escapes. With my arms open wide, I’ve created space for God’s great love to emerge. I’ve created space for Him to show me how He keeps His promises.

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Volcano Pacaya, Guatemala

It won’t be a one-time choice, this surrender. Again and again I will need to choose trust over the need to control, especially when the waters seem choppy and I feel unsure.

I know God will never force me to trust Him. It’s just not who He is and that’s certainly not the kind of relationship He’s after. Sometimes it takes breaking us to get our attention and beckon us back.

PSALM 69:30

I will praise God with a song;
    I will proclaim his greatness by giving him thanks.

Thank you, God, again and again for caring enough not to give up on me.

Is there anything you need to trust God with these days?

Welcome!

Hello, there! 🙂

Welcome to Sullivan Story! If you’ve clicked over here, you likely already know that this is a blog dedicated to telling the story of my husband’s and my adventure with an organization called Sports Friends. If you’ve come to this site randomly or through a friend, you can read about who we are by clicking the “About the Author” page on the top menu bar.

To learn more about who Sports Friends is and to read the story of why I’ve decided to join them in full-time ministry, please click the pages on the top menu bar entitled “Who are SIM and Sports Friends?” and “Why Sports Friends?”.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can join and support TJ and me in this adventure, please visit the “Support Raising” page on the top menu bar.

Thanks for stopping by!