Live Differently

How do I make sense of it?  How do I accept that life can be cut off so abruptly – by a gun, by a car crash, by cancer, by any number of things?

Doctors likes to assure us that our life expectancies are high, that we’ve got time, that we’ll live to see our grandkids.  That we have time to decide what we really want to be when we grow up.  That we have time to grow up.

Do we?  Do we have time to put things off until tomorrow, or wait to say something until the next time we see that person?  Do we really have time?

Somehow, we’ve been conditioned to live like tomorrow is guaranteed.

But it’s not.  We are not promised tomorrow.

Living like tomorrow is promised means that we don’t always say “I love you.”  We don’t always resolve our disagreements quickly.  We procrastinate. We don’t visit family or friends when we can.  We don’t stop and smell the roses.  We don’t enjoy each moment we have.

Just because we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future, invest smartly, save for retirement, or try to do everything today.  We still have to have a long-term goal in place.  But it does mean that we live differently.

Living differently means taking every chance you get.  It means saying, “I love you” every morning before you leave for work.  It means taking the time to talk to those around you and offer your shoulder to cry on, even when there are tests that need to be graded.  It means giving your kids more time to crawl on top of you and tickle you.  It means living each day as if it was your last.

Tomorrow is not promised.  It’s a gift.  When you unwrap that gift every morning, give thanks.  And then go live it to the glory of God the Father.

Pray For Someone

It was a warm, summer evening many years ago when I first went to a live Casting Crowns concert.  I had been listening to their music for years, but had never seen them live.  I was so excited – but I had no idea what was in store for me, or what this concert would begin.

My family set up our lawn chairs at the outdoor venue and waited expectantly to hear my favorite Christian group perform.  And yet, from the first note they struck, it wasn’t a performance – it was worship.

They were leading worship.

Somehow, the stage wasn’t about them.  It was about pointing the crowd to God.  At one point near the end of their set, Mark Hall began singing the worship song We Fall Down.  He asked that we lay all of our burdens down at the feet of Jesus, and that we lift up someone up in prayer that they would do the same.  At that point, I felt moved to walk around a couple of chairs to my younger brother and to lay my hand on him and pray for him, that he would surrender all of his life to the Lord and His leading.

I didn’t think about that concert again until a few years ago, when my brother and I were at another Casting Crowns concert.  He leaned over to me and asked, “Do you remember our first Casting Crowns concert?”

“Vaguely,” I replied.  “It was at Alive, and our whole family was there.”

“And you prayed for me,” he added.

I hadn’t even remembered that until he brought it up again, but that prayer made an impact on him.  He remembers it.  He remembers that his big sister prayed specifically for him.  He remembers more of what I said than I do.  But my measly little prayer that day did more than I ever could have imagined.  We’ve been to many Casting Crowns concerts together since, but none sticks in his head so much as that one.

Pray for someone with them today.  Not just in private.  In person.  Out loud.  And ask the Spirit to lead you.  You never know what God might do with it.

Picture Perfect

By Kristen Mudrack

I’m not a huge fan of pictures of myself.  I tend to want to be the one holding the camera instead of on the other side of it.

You see, I tend to not like the way I look in pictures.  The picture was too posed, or the light wasn’t right, or I look fat, or I’m not smiling, or any other such excuse I can come up with.  But usually it’s because I don’t like the way I look.

I have this image in my head of what I should look like.  In short, perfect.  I should look put together, happy, and healthy, even if that’s not actually true at that moment.  I think I got this notion from looking at social media – where we all put the best of ourselves out there.  The perfect selfies and the happy status updates – they don’t always reflect real life.  When did we become so good at pretending?

Pretending that everything is okay, even when it’s falling apart.

Pretending that we’re always happy, even when we’re struggling.

Pretending that we’re always healthy and flourishing, even when that is the furthest thing from the truth.

In social media today, we put forward the best of ourselves.  We want people to see the best image of us, not the struggling, frazzled, often overextended person that we actually are.  Now, there are things you shouldn’t share on social media.  For example, that you’re angry with your significant other or a confidential matter that has been shared with you.  But neither should we always be the perfect version of ourselves.

Pictures show that more than anything.  I have pictures from college during times that I was on steroids and sicker than ever before.  I can tell, in those pictures, that I wasn’t feeling like myself.  I have pictures from trips with my family and friends that show beautiful landscapes but also dirty, muddy, sweaty, happy faces.  I have pictures from my wedding that show unbridled happiness as never before.

The more I stand on this side of the camera, the more I realize that I love these pictures.  Even the ones where I look terrible.  Because they show the real me.  The messy, dirty, imperfect, happy, sad, healthy, sick, real me.

What do your pictures show?  Do they show the real you?  Or the you that poses for the camera?

Empty

I’ve been searching for inspiration all day.  Something to write about.  And I’ve come up empty.

Although, I guess that is something.

How often do we search and search and search for something, and even when we think we find it, still feel somehow…lacking?  It’s maddening to many people when they try and try to find fulfillment in movies or in fame, in success or in their kids, in how high they can climb at work or how much money they can save.  But none of those things will satisfy us.  None of that will ultimately fill the void in our lives that only Christ can fill.

We search for that fulfillment in so many ways, every day.  And we search for it in good places.  We want to be fulfilled in our marriages, in our families, in our work.  We are honestly working for good things.  But it’s not enough.

We can strive and strive and strive to be the best wife possible, the best sister imaginable, the best ministry leader that we can – but without God, it is nothing.  Without Christ at the center, it is meaningless.

So I guess that’s my challenge for me and for you today.  Go to God.  Sit at His feet and lay your burdens on Him.  He can handle it, I promise.  Ask Him to fill the void in your life, the places where you feel empty and inadequate, and watch Him work.  And then go do what He’s calling you to do – be a wife, a mom, a friend, a teacher, a sister, a daughter.  Get up and go, having been fulfilled by the only one that can do so.

Two Doors Down

By Kristen Mudrack

Perhaps the hardest thing about moving is making new friends.

And I don’t mean friends you can hang out with and have a good time with.  I mean friends that you can share everything with – the exciting things, but also the hard things – in your marriage, your kids, your eating habits, your exercise (or lack thereof) habits, your fears, and your dreams, your quiet times and your prayers.  Those friends don’t come overnight, and they take time.

When I lived in Michigan, I had that group of friends.  I didn’t have it immediately – it took a couple of years.  But I had a group of women who I could share anything with, and they could too.

Then I moved.  Twice.

I still have those friends, but they aren’t a quick car ride away anymore.  I still can tell them anything.  I still talk to them regularly.  I still count them among the people who know me best. But it’s not the same.

When I moved to TN, God knew that I’d need a friend or two, and he provided.  The day I moved into my new apartment, leaving my fiance back in IN, the other new professor in the department and his family moved in too.  Two doors down from me in the same apartment complex.

In talking to each other that day and in the days to come, we discovered that we had all grown up in the same area, attended similar churches, and so much more.  Their four year old daughter came over to my apartment and “helped” me unpack the day I moved in.  Their two year old now knows me as ‘Tisten’ and runs to hug me every time he sees me.  We started having dinner together once a week.

When Cody would come to visit me, we’d go over and play with the kids and play games with the whole family.  The kids loved Cody because he could do magic tricks with cards.  Now this family is our closest friends here in TN.  We share much together, and they even made the trip out to our wedding.

God provided more than I ever could have imagined in this family – friends who we hope to be near for many years to come.  I love this family, and am privileged to get to live life alongside them.  Two doors down, in fact.

Time

By Cody Mudrack
The other day while at lunch with my wife and a couple of friends, I asked, “What time is it?” I then checked my pocket watch my wife bought me for a wedding present. My wife checked her watch and our friend checked his phone.
“It’s 12:08.” I said.
“It’s 12:23.” my wife said.
“Uhh, it’s 12:15.” our friend with the phone said.
“So which one is it?” I questioned.
“Probably the one with the phone.” my wife replied.
My wife and I checked our phones and sure enough, our friend was correct. Somewhere down the line our various time keeping devices got off. But our friend’s phone wasn’t off at all. His phone was connected to the internet and displayed the official, correct time.
God is much like the internet connected phone in this case. How often do you and I take time to re-calibrate our life by reading the Word and praying so that we may see what God says is correct? How often are we in prayer inviting God into our daily quest? Had my wife and I daily checked the official internet time and set our mechanical devices to it, our watches wouldn’t have been off. I invite you to daily read God’s word and spend time each and every day in prayer.
The pastor of our new church we found in Tennessee invited the church to read the whole Bible in a year. There’s a great app for doing this; it’s called ReadScripture. It has videos and the text for every day. My wife and I have decided to do it and we read together every night before bed. If you think that it’s already too late to start and you’ll just be behind, just remember what our pastor told us, “You’ll just be further behind in the future.”

Behind The Falls

Last summer, I spent a few days at  Niagara Falls with my parents and my then-fiance.  We’re a camping family, so we hooked up our very old pop-top camper to my dad’s new-to-him car (which, by the way, had no air conditioning) and drove our way to the Falls.

I’d been to the Falls once before, on a family trip many years ago.  I don’t remember much about that trip – I’m pretty sure we stopped on the way to visit a college for me to look at.  And it was just a quick, get out of the car, look at the water, and then get back in the car kind of trip.  This time, I fully intended on seeing every aspect of the Falls that I could (from both Canada and the US) and enjoying the time with my family.

When you walk up to the Falls, you can feel the mist on your face.  You can see the mist rising from far away.  But not until you reach the edge do you really get to see the majesty and beauty of this water.  Four of the five great lakes flow into the Falls, but that’s not what makes it impressive.

To me, it’s the roar of the water, the sheer power that falling water has.  It’s loud, and wet, of course.  Water has been revered by many religious groups for centuries.  It’s necessary to keep you alive, and makes up much of your body mass.  But the water from the faucet or the shower pales in comparison the power that water has falling over the rocks at Niagara.

There’s a place on both sides of the Falls that you can go behind the falls, or straight under it.  If you thought it was loud before, think again.  Standing just feet from the curtain of rushing water, you can barely hear yourself think.  There’s a reason most people who go over the Falls don’t survive.  They are powerful.

But what makes them so powerful isn’t the distance that the water falls, or the volume of the water that flows over the side.  It’s what happens before the fall, and underneath the water, that matters. The majesty and beauty of the falls only comes because of what is underneath all of the water rushing down the river before hand.

If you walk back along the water coming to the Falls on the American side, you see rocks causing the water to flow faster and in a different direction.  You see uprooted trees and trees growing sideways to direct the flow of the water.  Years of erosion have made the silt, sand, and mud on the bottom of the lakes jagged in some places and smooth in others – but you can’t see that.  It’s hidden by the water.

The rocks and trees and sand and silt are what make the water flow the way it does, and what makes the Falls so powerful.  It’s all the stuff you can’t see that makes what you can see so beautiful and majestic.

We’re that way too, aren’t we?  God has to work on the stuff that people can’t see on the inside before we can be the glorious and beautiful image of Himself.  Before the waterfall can be powerful and majestic, what’s underneath the surface must be shaped and molded in just the right way.

How is God working on your rocks and trees and sand and silt to make you the waterfall that everyone wants to see and wants to talk about?  His image can only be made perfect in you when you let Him work on the inside, the hard stuff.  The rocks and the trees.

I pray that in this new year, you allow God to work on those things that the world can’t see, so that what the world does see is Him.

Hope in the Lord

Of all of the things that God asks of us – faith, prayer, loving our enemies, community, following his will – I think hope can be the hardest.

Hope is the hardest when there is nothing – and I mean nothing – that you can do.

Hope is hard when a friend or family member hours away is diagnosed with cancer, and you can’t go to doctor’s appointments or chemo treatments with them.  You can’t take over dinner or clean up their house for them or watch their dogs or their kids.  You’re far enough away that you feel pretty much helpless.  All you can do is pray.

Hope is hard when you hear of a friend’s marriage falling apart but you aren’t supposed to know – you found out by accident – so you can’t say anything or help in any way.  You can’t prod or pry because then they’ll know you know.  All you can do is pray.

Hope is hard when a friend loses a baby to miscarriage and you can’t be there in person to comfort her.  You can’t hold her hand and cry with her because you live too far away.  All you can do is pray, and call, and pray some more.

So many times we tie hope to what we can do, what we can accomplish to help make something better.  We’re hopeful that it will turn out alright because we can do something to help.  Even if it’s just cooking or cleaning or calling – we can do something, so it will be alright.

But that’s not how hope works.  Hope is so much more than just believing that everything is going to be okay.

Because sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s not okay.

But even in the midst of it not being okay, we still have hope, because our eyes are fixed not on the temporal, but the eternal.  Or, that’s the way it should be.  We’re supposed to live kingdom-focused lives, lives that honor and glorify God, not man.

Hope is still there in the midst of the funeral.  In the operating room six hours after the surgery was supposed to be over.  In the middle of chemo.  In the middle of an ugly divorce after infidelity.

The world doesn’t understand hope, because our hope is in Christ.  Our hope doesn’t fail, doesn’t end, and doesn’t depend on what happens in this life.

When you feel like your hope is fading, or when you can’t do anything to help, turn to the Lord in prayer.  Prayer isn’t nothing.  It’s everything.  And ask God to focus your life and your eyes on the eternal hope, on His faithfulness, and to live in that faith.

Hope in the Lord.

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.