Hills and Valleys

Ever since I heard this song by Tauren Wells, I’ve  listened to it many times.  But I don’t think I really got it until I moved to Tennessee.

We talk about the times in life when we’re in the valleys – when things are tough, when we think we’ll never make it back to the top of the mountain.  You know, those places where it feels like we’re on top of the world and everything is going our way.

What we tend to forget is how much work it takes to make it up the mountain, and how beautiful the valleys can be.

I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed a mountain before – even a marked out trail – but it’s no easy task.  It’s steep and rocky and sometimes a little muddy.  It’s hot and humid and you’re dripping in sweat.  You pause often to take a drink or catch your breath.  Sometimes you lose the path and have to go stomping through the brush to find your way again.  And just as you think it’s not worth it to keep going, just as you want to quit, you get there:

You see it.  That it’s all been worth it.

It’s the same in life.  God brings us to the top of the mountain, but it’s not easy.  It’s a hard climb.  A difficult journey.  But it’s worth it when we get there because it is breathtakingly beautiful.

As much as I love those times on the mountains, I’m learning to love the climb, and even the valleys too.

Because the valleys have their own beauty, their own majesty.  The valleys are the places where we see things like this, that you’d never be able to see from the top of the mountain:

Even though the valleys may be hard, and we may not understand why things are the way they are – a difficult diagnosis, an unexpected loss, a troubled marriage – there is still beauty, purpose.  God is still there.  With us.

I’ve always loved the view from the top of the mountain, but I’m learning to love the valleys, too.  There are still tears, still hurt, still fears.  Still unknowns and unanswered questions.  Still difficult circumstances.  But I’m seeing things in the valleys that I can’t see from the mountaintop.

And it’s beautiful.

Guest Post: Whiplash

I only had the privilege of living with Jen in college for a year, but that year was one of transformation and change and following God’s will for both of us.  After our senior year, Jen went on to Princeton, where she competed seminary and has since been working at a church in North Carolina.  I have always admired Jen’s way of looking at life, and have appreciated the conversations we’ve had since leaving college.  It is a privilege to invite Jen to share on the blog today.  

By Jen Christianson

Sometimes my life as a minister gives me whiplash.

Today, I spent the afternoon in a retreat to close our summer internship program, celebrating a summer of grace and growth, and grieving the end and the necessary goodbyes.

Immediately after, I drove to the nearest hospital to visit with a congregant in his eighties, who’d survived a tricky heart surgery. He has a long road of recovery ahead, but in so many ways it’s a fresh chapter: life snatched back from death.

The end of one chapter. The beginning of another.

There are too many days like this, sometimes. Too many funerals and baptisms in the same week.

At times, I find it easier (but never actually easy) to strike a balance, and then there are days I scarcely know what to do.

I had a lot of those days in Kenya.

I visited earlier this summer with a group from my church, seventeen other travelers on a ten-day trip to reconnect with friends and ministry partners in and around Nairobi.

For fourteen of us, it was our first time there. And so everything was jarring, everything new, everything a revelation.

And I had whiplash all over again.

Except it looked like this: laughing children next to open sewers in the middle of the slum. Students learning in broken down buildings without light, without air.

Joy next to suffering. Light in the darkest places. Abundant hospitality in villages that know only poverty.

How can it be? How does this happen?

I kept remembering the question from John 1, the incredulous tone: Can anything good come from Nazareth?

And the answer: come and see.

Come and see that even in the midst of great hardship, there is blessing. Come and see the people who laugh and sing even when their stomachs are empty. Come and listen to the friends that we met there, young men like Jeff.

Jeff lives in Mathare, Nairobi’s second-largest slum, giving shelter to half a million people in an area about half a square mile. He is an exception to many rules, not a statistic: he has not succumbed to drugs, alcohol, violence or gangs. He spends his time in a ministry that seeks out young people in the slums, to make sure they know the same path is open to them. He spends Friday nights in church.

But to walk the streets where Jeff grew up, to stand in the classroom he spent years in as a student, and to sit and hear him talk about a God who protects and provides for him is to be profoundly confused. At how this kind of faith can grow, well – here.

I felt that way. Until one night, in our group devotions, when a fellow traveler made this observation: “the people we’ve met,” she said, “have so little. But because of their faith, they have so much. We have so much, and yet, because of our faith…we really don’t have much at all.”

And then I realized: I want Jeff’s faith.

I want to cling tightly once more to the idea that God cares about me, and is at work, all the time, doing something good in my life. I want to sleep secure in the conviction that God protects and watches over me. I want to pray with confidence that I will be heard and answered – even if it’s in ways I didn’t ask for or don’t understand.

I want to walk with intention again, the life of a disciple. To be guided by faith. To follow wherever God leads.

And I’m learning that God often leads straight into a whole lot of whiplash, that messy pairing together of things that just don’t go, that don’t make sense.

A savior who comes to a peasant girl in a stable. A Lord who eats with criminals and lepers and prostitutes. Life out of death. Hope out of despair. Light out of darkness.

The life of a disciple, I think, means witnessing to this kind of illogical, confusing, astonishing, grace and power. It means standing in the middle of these contradictions and proclaiming “yes” to all of them. Yes, God is in these both; yes, something good can come out of Nazareth.

It means remembering that the God who made us all will make it all well, bring it all together, in the end.

Thanks be to God.

Here We Go Again

Two weeks ago, I packed up my life in boxes, loaded a truck, and drove south.

If this sounds like deja vu, you’re not wrong.  I did this almost exactly one year ago, too.  And it was just as hard.

Last time I moved to the cornfields, this time I moved to the mountains.  Last time I only crossed one state line, this time I crossed four.  Last time I left behind a group of trusted friends and “adopted” nieces and nephews, this time I left behind all of that and a fiance.  Last time I knew it was a temporary move, this time I hope it’s permanent.

Funny how God calls you outside of your comfort zone, lets you get comfortable and then moves you outside of it again.

In my case, it has literally been moving me across the country.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I can be a little bit like Moses, stuttering that I don’t have what it takes, that I’m not worthy, that God has to have the wrong person.  But God still manages to use me, to change me, to grow me into a woman after His own heart.  All because I choose to follow even though I don’t really know what He’s got in mind.

If I hadn’t gone to Michigan, I wouldn’t have the incredible friends and adopted nieces and nephews that I do.  If I hadn’t gone to Indiana, I never would have met my fiance.  If I hadn’t gone to Tennessee…well, we’ll see what God has in store.

For now, I’ll start by opening my home to people, teaching my students, opening my office door, and getting involved in a church.  And I’ll keep my ears and my eyes open for whatever God has in store, knowing that He has prepared me for anything He calls me to do.

Guest Post: Meno

When I lived in Michigan, God brought me some incredible friends whom I have cherished greatly.  Our group of women (and their respective husbands and children) became a group I loved to get together with for anything – games, Bible study, babysitting, or girl’s night.  No matter what each of us is going through, we are always there for each other.  Last year, one of these friends, Heidi, went through a difficult miscarriage.  There were no words we could say, only hugs and shared tears and shoulders to cry on.  Heidi has written these words for you today, no matter what you are going through.  No matter how hard, God is still faithful.  It is truly an honor to invite Heidi to write for All For Him Life today.  

By Heidi O’Neill

Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes you are rolling along and out of nowhere you get horrible news.  You’re knocked flat on your back and gasping for air, head reeling as you try to come to terms with your new reality.  Maybe for you it was hearing of a sudden death of a family member, a bad diagnosis, your spouse leaving you, or losing your job.  For me it was an ultra sound and a doctor telling me words that my ears would not register – we had lost our daughter to miscarriage.

We had a rocky first trimester but had made it to the second trimester.  My nausea and fatigue had lifted, our doctor felt that we only needed routine care from that point on, and we felt like we were spared.  We felt assured that our fervent prayers and those of our friends and family had been answered.

But then the spotting returned and I set up to go in for a heartbeat check later that day.  I went by myself because we had been told that spotting could just be a part of this pregnancy.  Two nurses couldn’t find the heartbeat.  “Sometimes we just can’t find the heartbeat with the Doppler at this point in the pregnancy,” the nurse told me.  “You are next in line for the ultra sound, we’ll check this out .”  I held out hope while I called my husband and waited for my turn in the ultra sound room.  It had always turned out fine so far.  We prayed together and held our breath.  Nothing could have prepared my heart to hear my doctor explain that although I should I have been 15 weeks pregnant my baby had died around 12 weeks.  We would never get to meet that sweet child here on earth.  Of all the hard things I have been through, nothing had ever rocked my faith like this.

My heart was full of questions.  So many questions.  Why her?  Why my little one?  How could she have died nearly three weeks ago without me knowing anything was wrong?  Why were there no symptoms earlier?  How was I going to tell my 2 year old son who couldn’t wait to be a big brother?  How was I ever going to be ok again?  How was I ever going to trust God again? How can a God who loves let something hurt me like this?  If God really loved me, why did he let this happen?  If God is all powerful, why didn’t he answer these prayers? Why her?  Why us?  Why does this happen to any little ones at all?

Why does a good God allow such awful things to happen to those he loves?

Through the moments, days, and weeks that followed I knew that I should trust God.  I’m a rule-following, people-pleaser by nature and inclined to “do the right thing.”  I told my heart, “trust God, he loves you,” but my mind hurled back more questions, doubts, and plenty of anger.  I knew that in all of the anger and pain I couldn’t make her come back.  I couldn’t fix this, and I couldn’t make it stop hurting.

God turned my mind to one word, meno.  I had fallen in love with this word from a Bible Study of 1 John I did last fall (What Love Is by Kelly Minter).  Meno is greek for remain, abide.  We had studied and looked deeply at this word, specifically in the passage where John calls believers to “remain in the truth.”  It is hard to force yourself to believe something.  I’m strong willed, but even I only have so much will power.  The most precious thing about this word is that it is translated in all of these ways: abide, be held in, wait with expectancy, continue in.

Be held in the truth.

God doesn’t expect us to be faithful to him on our own.  He sent his Spirit to live in us.  The power of God living in us, is helping us to remain in his truth.  He is helping us.  He was and is helping me.  God also warns us that “in this world we will have trouble,” and “Do not be surprised when you face trials of many kinds.”  He knows there would be hard things that will weigh on us and be painful.  When we walk through those things our hearts can feel betrayed.  It is hard to see why a loving God would allow us to walk through such suffering.  Our hearts can be prone to wander and wonder if God even loves us at all.  That is exactly why John calls us to remain in the truth – the truth of the Gospel.

You see, the Gospel is that God created and loves humanity.  He cares for us, provides for us, and in return we have sinned against him over and over and over again.  The Bible tells us that the wages for sin is death and that there is nothing we can do to pay that price.  Yet God, being full of mercy, gave up his own son to pay for our sin.  He sent  Jesus to die a painful, criminal’s death, paying for the sins of the world even though he was sinless.  Jesus died to pay the price for our sin so that through his work we could be forgiven and reconciled to God.  That is the truth.  That is love.  The truth of the Gospel, is that God does love me and gave himself up to be with me.

So in the pain I hold to that truth.  I hold onto it for dear life reminding myself that God is with me, that his promises are true even when it doesn’t feel like it.  It hasn’t been easy and there have been plenty of bad days.   Walking through this suffering I have let this word meno remind me to hold onto the truth of God’s love as well as other truths of scripture.

“I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5)

“I will strengthen you, help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.” (Psalm 56:8)

“in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

“God is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)

As I have clung to these truths and prayed for strength and peace I don’t want you to think that my questions just went away.  I continued to feel angry, hurt, and so, so sad.  This made me think a lot about Job and how he wrestled with God through questions too.

One Sunday our pastor shared a video about Job(Reading Scripture: Job http://bit.ly/2n5ta5a).  Job went through awful things too.  He suffered and questioned why.  I was surprised that the video pointed out thought that the question of why bad things happen to good people is never answered in his book.  When Job questions God and demands his explanations God does not give him an explanation like he wants.  Instead he shows him that Job is not able to fill the position of God of the Universe and that he cannot understand all of God’s ways.  God invites Job to trust him and his wisdom when hard things happen.

Like Job, I am humbled by God’s awesome power.  I could never dream of running the world.  It is impossible for me to see how all of the pieces of life fit together.  So when hard things come I lean hard into God.  I still ask my questions, and beg for peace, but now I also pray for greater trust.  I pray that God will increase my trust in him and in his wisdom and sovereignty.  I feel so sad and upset that Lilly died, but I do acknowledge there must be more going on that God knew about and I did not.  I pray that God will help me continue to lean hard into him and be assured of his love and good plans for my life.

The day after I delivered Lilly I got the word “meno” tattooed on my left wrist.  I am so forgetful of God’s love and promises that I wanted myself to have a constant, visual reminder to remain in his truth.  I wanted to remind myself that I am held there by the power of the Holy Spirit and I don’t need to do it on my own.  When I see it I pick a truth to focus on and pray that God would help me believe it in my heart more than I know it in my head.

He is faithful.  He is walking with me and is answering those prayers.

He wants to walk with you too.  I pray that you will open your heart to him and let him love you and hold you in his truth too.

The Greatest Commandment

By Kristen Entwistle

“How would my life change if I actually thought of each person I came into contact with as Christ – the person driving painfully slow in front of me, the checker at the grocery store who seems more interested in chatting than ringing up my items, the member of my own family with whom I can’t seem to have a conversation and not get annoyed?  If we believe that, as Jesus said, the two greatest commands are to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ then this passage has a lot to teach us.  Basically, Christ is connecting the command to ‘love God’ with the command to ‘love your neighbor.’  By loving ‘the least of these,’ we are loving God himself.”  (Francis Chan, Crazy Love)

Throughout the Gospels, the writers record conversations that Jesus had with teachers of the law.  These teachers thought they had it all figured out.  They had their laws and their ceremonies and their rituals and customs.  They thought that if you followed everything to a T, that you’d be fine.  You’d be delivered from your sin and in right standing with God.

Then Jesus came and turned their world upside down.

Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it.  But He had a different way of doing things than the teachers of the law.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners rather than the kings and priests.  He wasn’t afraid to heal a sick man on the Sabbath.  He walked with sinful people rather than try to prove He was better than them.

I love Jesus’ answer to the teachers of the law in Matthew 22.  The expert in the law is trying to trap Jesus, as they so often did, and asks, “Teacher, what is the greatest Commandment in the law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The teacher of the law knew that there were hundreds of laws in the Old Testament that Jesus could have chosen.  And to the teachers of the law, all commands were important.  You couldn’t be right with God unless you upheld not just one, but all of the commands.  The teacher of the law was probably a little stunned by this answer from Jesus.  It probably didn’t make a whole lot of sense to him because it wasn’t about sacrifices for sins or not working on the Sabbath.

Unless you just love to study Leviticus and Deuteronomy and all of the hundreds of laws that the Israelites were given by God, you’ve probably not cared about the command to not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19) or to not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19).  So why do we care about these two commands that Jesus mentions in Matthew 22?

All of the laws that the Israelites had to follow back in the day hang on these two commands.  All of the laws and customs and seemingly insignificant verses in the first few books of the Bible were to turn the people’s attention to God alone.  To give them parameters to live by so that they would love the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It wasn’t possible for them to do so on their own.  All of those other commands of not stealing, not lying, not coveting what your neighbor has – those fall under the second greatest command – to love your neighbor as yourself.

The laws that the Israelites were given weren’t to make them annoyed by all the little details.  They were to create a framework in which the Israelites could live together as a people and could worship the One true God with everything they had.  Now, I’d be a horrible teacher if I didn’t point out that they failed miserably on many occasions.  But that doesn’t mean that God didn’t still continue to pursue them, his chosen people, and continue to give them chance after chance after chance to turn back to him.

All of the laws and the things that the Prophets said were to fulfill the two commands that Jesus mentions in Matthew 22.  So it makes sense that Jesus would remind the teachers of the law that this was what they were really after.  Not making sure that no one did any work on the Sabbath.  Or inspecting the clothes their people wore to make sure it wasn’t some polyester blend.  But loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving their neighbor as themselves.

But what does that mean for us?  We don’t live in the age when we have to make sacrifices at the temple or worry about what we eat or wear.  Those rules don’t apply to us anymore because Christ came and was the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.  But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the greatest commands.

To many people, these two commands seem disconnected and disjointed.  What does one have to do with the other?

“By loving the least of these, we are loving God himself.”  (Francis Chan)

How would your view of these commandments change if you thought of each person you came into contact with as Jesus?  Each annoying student in your class, each person you pass on the street, each child who cries in the middle of the Sunday service.

My challenge to you (and to me) is to keep the two greatest commandments connected, not separate.  To love God, and to love people as if they were God himself.  To keep these commandments in everything we do.

I never said it was easy.  But it is what we have been commanded to do.

Seasons

The unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having this winter has been making me think about seasons.  Seasons of life, to be exact.

Seasons change.  They don’t last forever.  They always come back around.  And so it is with seasons of life – seasons of difficulty, change, loss, grief, love, joy, peace…

And what’s sometimes frustrating is that we never seem to be in the same season at the same time as those around us.

When our world is falling apart, theirs is perfect.  When our lives are in flux, theirs are stable.  When they are rejoicing, we are grieving.

One grieving an unexpected miscarriage, while three are happily pregnant.

Three married and building families, while one is single and alone.

One struggling financially after having lost their job, while one is in line for a promotion and two are happily stay-at-home moms.

It’s hard to be the odd one out.  The one who really wants to be happy for everyone else, but is silently suffering in our own grief or sickness or pain.

But maybe the reason that we’re not all happy or all grieving or all rejoicing or all going through change at the same time is to remind us that seasons change but God remains the same.

When we can see others around us in different seasons of life, we are reminded that although seasons come and seasons go, while grief lasts for the night, joy comes in the morning.  We are reminded that God does not change when the ground beneath our feet is shaking.  Our Rock does not fail.  Our God does not change.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t still hard to be the only one in a group who is grieving the loss of a child, a friend, a parent.  That doesn’t mean that there won’t be seasons of grief, pain, loss, or hardship.

What it means is that God has given us people who can help share the load.  When others are happy and we are grieving, we are called to share with them our burdens.  Rejoice with them in their triumphs, and they to weep with you in your grief.  As seasons change, your roles will be reversed.  You will be the comforter to the hurting, while you are rejoicing.

So take heart, if you are in a difficult season.  Share your season with those around you, and rejoice with them in their joy.  Your season will change.

If you are in a good season, and someone around you is not, grieve with them, love them, pray with them, be a shoulder for them to cry on.  Your season will change, too.

You both serve a God who will never change.  Take heart, for He has overcome the world.

Faith over Fear

By Kristen Entwistle

We’re all afraid of something.

The dark.  Water.   Falling.  Public speaking.  Looking like a fool.  Spiders.

Disappointing our friends or family.  Fear of what others will think.  Fear of loss.  Fear of failure.

Fear can be a powerful motivator – one that keeps us trapped in awful situations with no escape.  One that keeps us from doing something outside our comfort zone.

Fear can keep us from living life to the fullest.

Fear can keep us from following the will of God.

Fear is a natural human emotion.  “Do not fear”  or “Do not be afraid” appear not once, not twice, but 365 times in Scripture.  It’s something that we need to hear, apparently.  And we need to hear it a lot.

It’s scary to step out of your comfort zone.  It’s scary to move away from everything you know for school or a job.  It’s terrifying to be the only one who will stand up for Who they believe in.  Stepping out in faith usually starts with fear.

Fear can enslave us, keep us from ever moving forward.  Fear can paralyze us, keeping us from spreading God’s love and Truth.  Fear can root itself in our lives and keep us trapped in abusive relationships, dead end jobs, and bad situations.

But faith is bigger than fear.

Our God is bigger than any fear that stands in our way.  Our God is stronger than any wave that threatens to knock us down.

Abram was certainly afraid when God called him to leave everything he knew and pick up and move.  Noah was certainly afraid when God told him to build a boat.  Moses was afraid when God called him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt.  The prophets feared for their lives as they spread the words of the Lord.  Mary was afraid when the angel told her that she would give birth to the Christ.  Paul was certainly afraid on many occasions during his ministry.  John must have been terrified when he received the vision of Revelation.

If these men and women could place their faith in God, a God many of them had never seen, how much more should we, who have seen death defeated by Christ, the curtain torn in two, and Christ raised, put our faith in Him?

He has called us His children, His people, His chosen, His beloved.  He has called us to be free.  We are no longer slaves to fear.  It doesn’t rule our lives.  It doesn’t trap us, consume us, or dictate our actions.  If we place our faith in the One who has conquered death, we have no reason to fear.  He will not let us fall.  He will not fail us.

Fear will always be a part of our lives.  But we are not slave to it anymore.  Praise God.

They Were The First

By Kristen Entwistle

Thirteen weeks ago I taught my first college class.  “Dr. E” they called me – a name I grew up hearing, but it didn’t refer to me.  It was my dad.

Thirteen weeks ago I stood in front of 31 students and told them that we were going to make it through this semester of organic chemistry together.  “Yeah, right,” they told me.  “We’ll never get this.  It’s too hard.”

Thirteen weeks ago, I stood in front of 15 other students and told them that we were going to cover all of biochemistry in one semester, because that’s what the course catalog said.  “You’re kidding,” they said to me.  “You’ve got to be kidding.”

As I look out now over my class, I can see how far they’ve come.  How much more they know now than they did before.  How proud I am of them.  How grateful I am that they were my first.

My first classes, my first students.  The first ones to laugh at me and with me, the first ones to point out the carbon I was missing on the board, or that I had assigned the wrong chapter’s homework.  The first ones to cut their finger in the lab and have to go to the ER.  The first ones to break glassware and try to pick it up with their bare hands.  The first ones to tell me that the instrument is broken or that something I said I put on the course website wasn’t there.  The first ones to roll their eyes at me when I told a bad joke, the first ones to ask for points back on tests and quizzes and papers, the first ones to cry in my office, the first ones to smile when they got something right.

I will always remember these students, the ones who taught me more about myself than I think I taught them.  I may forget their names, and definitely their grades.  But I will never forget them, because they were my first.

students

These students have taught me how to laugh at my own mistakes, and to move on with grace, humility and laughter.  They have taught me how to be a better teacher, a better mentor, a better friend.  They have taught me what it means to be vulnerable and honest, even when it seems impossible and impractical.  They have encouraged me and challenged me every day – and they’ve likely given me a few gray hairs, too.

There will be other classes, more students.  But there will never be another first.  And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

There’s A First Time For Everything

By Kristen Entwistle

Growing up, I always had a thought in the back of my mind that I might not live long enough to do what I envisioned myself doing.  I always wondered if I’d be able to do what everyone told me I could do.

Tomorrow, I get to do just that for the first time.

Tomorrow, I get to walk into that classroom not as student, but as professor.  With as much responsibility as that comes with, I am so excited, and also so grateful.  I can’t imagine a better place to be starting my teaching career, alongside some pretty incredible men and women of God.

I don’t think I ever really let myself imagine that this could be possible, even after I signed the paperwork that said I really was a professor of chemistry.  It didn’t really become real until now – 12 hours before I teach my first class for the first time.

I am so incredibly blessed to be this healthy, to have this job, to be doing and teaching what I love.  I have been given more than I ever could have asked or imagined, just as He has promised.  How amazing that He could use me, a broken, imperfect child of God in His perfect plan, His infinite wisdom.

When I walk into that classroom tomorrow, it will be with an attitude of thankfulness, excitement, and a little bit of apprehension.  Somehow, by the grace of God, I will make it through my first day as a professor, and so will my students.  And I will continue to be ever thankful that God has brought me here, to a place where I never really thought I’d come.

Thanks be to God.

first time