Community · spiritual growth

Gathering IFs

A close friend has invited me to attend the IF:Gathering, a Christian women’s conference meeting this February in Austin, Texas. The website for the IF:Gathering defines their organization’s goal: “We exist to gather, equip and unleash the next generation of women to live out their purpose.”

These young women are among the rising voices of the next generation: gifted visionaries, full of fervor. I am inspired by the way they are inspiring. I value the value others glean from the work they are doing.

So, when my friend asked if she could treat me to this event, I found her generous offer to be an act of love. I believe her desire is for inspiration to be rekindled within this weary soul. However, as soon as I accepted the invitation I began dreading the idea of being around these female world changers.

I found myself waking in the dark hours of the night questioning what purpose I might now have to offer the greater Christian community.   Rather than counting sheep or meditating on scripture, I found myself gathering my own IFs.

  • IF I had been a better wife
  • IF I had been honest with my struggles
  • IF I had been truly transparent with just one person
  • IF I had not thrown away the opportunity I had been given
  • IF only I were less _____________ (insert varying negative adjective)

With each IF gathered, I found my self-worth plummeting. The purpose to my life which is obvious and significant became overshadowed by a big bucket of gathered IFs.  God has called me to be the wife my husband desires and deserves: a helpmate. But with all these IFs gathered from past regrets–I wasn’t being much of a helpmate to anyone.

Like Jacob, I wrestled. Through the nights and in the quiet hours in my home, I kept asking, “After all I have done, how am I to find an IF that has significance?

Finally one evening, in the unlikeliest of moments, God spoke. While busy working as a food server in a crowded restaurant, it was as if I heard God say to me very clearly, “You’re looking at it wrong.” 

FullSizeRender(4)I stopped dead cold and stared at the pitcher of Iced Tea in my hand. I glanced at the matching pitcher resting on the counter. It was filled with Ice Water. At first glance, both pitchers appeared the same, but their contents were not just slightly different, but completely different.

In that moment I realized the IFs I had been gathering were possibly focused in the wrong direction. I had been so busy asking God to give me meaning for the future, all the while focusing on the IFs of my past. Gathering IFs from my past is not just slightly different, but completely different.

I thought, “I need to be gathering IFs that are forward focused.

As if having God speak to me while I waited tables at a restaurant wasn’t inspiring enough, God sealed this concept on my heart with something far more lasting than an Iced Tea pitcher. The next morning while working through my Bible study, I came across this passage from 1 John 3: 2-3

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

FullSizeRender(3)My brain nearly exploded from the delight of being led to a verse holding forward focused promises. “What we will be has not yet been made known… When Christ appears, we shall be like him…”

Deep emotions are drawn to the surface at the thought of what this implies. This is a reminder that all we are isn’t even known. All that we are is still being made. And when Christ appears, we will be like him. To be like Him holds a different value than I had previously realized. To be like Christ means we will never disappoint anyone again.

  • How heartbreaking are the tears of full grown men when they recall memories of being a young child who disappointed a parent?
  • How many teenage girls have felt the sting of regret when they have eyed the positive results of a pregnancy test? Pregnant, scared and overwhelmed with grief for having disappointed her parents.
  • Which parent among us cannot recall a time when we failed our own child? Family game-night turned temper flaring war zone. When the opposite of what we hoped happens.
  • How many spouses see the patterns of disappointment in their own marriage, but can’t seem to break “that one habit”?  Disappointing a spouse, leaving them feeling isolated is horrifying, as it is the only family relationship we choose.

Thinking of these things makes it worth repeating: to be like Christ means we will never disappoint anyone again.

I contemplated this verse for a couple of days, and I was reminded again of the two beverage containers. They appear to be very similar, but their difference is extreme.

FullSizeRender(1)The IFs I am gathering are not only supposed to be forward focused, but they aren’t even supposed to be about me.

I found myself remembering that which I thought I had understood the day before–and I rephrased it,I need to be gathering IFs that are God focused without worry or concern for His greater purpose in my life.

By gathering IFs of His character, we begin now to be transformed into that which we will be when Christ is revealed. Does this mean we will never disappoint anyone ever again? Certainly not. We are still children in need of Grace. It’s not about being free from ever hurting or disappointing anyone again, it’s about being free from the hurting/yearning/scheming inside ourselves and thereby never intentionally hurting others again. Searching desperately for purpose can lead us straight down the path where we wander away from the path of understanding.

IF we remain focused on Him, He will reveal each days purpose, thereby relieving us of the drive to find a greater purpose, as it is already complete.

Community · spiritual growth

The Attack of the Jumping Cholla

I sat on the edge of the dirt trail with my hands painfully bound in “cactus handcuffs” and a small tubular cactus embedded in my throbbing thigh. I waited for my hiking partner, my friend and house guest, to return with help. Tears ran down my cheeks, but I couldn’t bring my hand up to my face to wipe them away. If my hands got too close to any part of my body, the spikes from the Jumping Cholla Cactus would attach themselves to yet another part of me. All I could do was stare out at the vast canyon, its overlooking giant red rock mountains, and thank God in advance for the way He was going to use my friend to help me get out of this dire situation.

I couldn’t help but recognize the obvious symbolism in this current crisis we were facing. We had definitely been here before. 

IMG_6547Beauty happens when people hike together. A removal of pretenses and an awareness of the enormity of the Creator opens the door to more intimate conversations. While hiking, people tend to talk from the less accessed areas of their hearts. Dreams, wishes, and regrets are more readily shared. Walking becomes more purposeful, but less rushed. Steps on an incline are small victories. I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my friend.

We began hiking in the later part of the morning, choosing a trail that was not strenuous so we could enjoy our conversation; we began our walk on the easy terrain of a trail near Usery Mountain in Mesa, Arizona. We met other hikers on the path, verified we were heading in the right direction and asked one fellow nature lover to take a photo of us for our social media updates. #hiking

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Neither of us being natives to the Arizona desert, nor having ever hiked the unfamiliar terrain, it wasn’t long before we began to marvel at the variety of plants and the view surrounding us. We would stop to capture photographs of the valley below.

With the sun beating through the spiky cacti which was all around us, we noted how photogenic the cacti looked on this perfect day. The needles transformed in the light of the sun, and the cacti looked fluffy and soft.

Of course, we weren’t naive. We knew it wasn’t fluffy and soft so we wouldn’t intentionally touch it. We knew that touching a cactus was about as foolish as, well, touching a cactus. Why would anyone intentionally do something to themselves that they knew would have a negative impact? It doesn’t require a degree in botany to know that touching a cactus will not end well.

However, had either of us done a little botanical research, we might have had a little more respect for the truest nature of this plant. While we may not have touched it intentionally, it wasn’t long until one of us was inching closer and closer to the bristly bush. And it wasn’t long until the Jumping Cholla Cactus, sensed the predator and made her move.

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In a matter of moments I went from standing “a little close” to a pretty cactus with dainty thorns to being assaulted by one of the most feared and dangerous cacti in the Southwest region of the United States.

It started as I moved one hand too close to the plant, and the first “areole” detached from the base of the plant and attached itself to my hand. Initially, I tried to shake my wrist to free myself from the areole, which resulted in the tube shaped areole detaching from my hand and using its miniature spears to stab into my thigh. I wish I could recall the exact movements I made in defense, but everything happened so quickly. It’s hard to recall which hand moved in which direction and when it went from being a laughable and controlled photo-op memory to a full-blown mini crisis.

The seriousness of the situation came upon both of us at about the same time. Within a few minutes we simultaneously realized that the removal of the cactus wasn’t going to be easy or pain free. The spines (aka thorns) had burrowed deep into my flesh. By the time I had the wherewithal to realize that being still was the first step to freedom, I had circular areoles attached to each hand and one areole lodged deep into my thigh. I looked into the eyes of my friend and with tears I whimpered, “Charlene, help me.”

Each spine is made up of hundreds of microscopic barbs. Imagine you drove your car into a parking garage with tire spikes, and then decided to back up. The spike is there to stop you from backing up. If you continue, you will have a flat tire.  These microscopic barbs are the tire spikes of the cactus plant. The cactus spine goes in easily, but if you try to pull it out–the tiny barb is going to bring down the whole darn parking structure.

After a series of failed attempts to remove the plant from my extremities we were both flustered. There was no way to grab onto the plant and pull it out. Neither of us was in possession of a knife or tweezers, and we couldn’t imagine how I would manage walking back to the car with the plant wedged in my leg.

I heard the voices of other hikers approaching on the trail, so I moved off the trail and behind a bush with my back to them. In my shame for having been so careless, I hid. I didn’t want them to see what I had done. I didn’t want them to see the mess I had created.

My friend suggested we get help. I resisted.

In my pride, I didn’t want anyone to know that I had been so naive to the danger which was likely obvious to others. I sat on the ground and looked out across the valley. I looked down at my hands and saw blood emerging from the entrance points and running down my fingers, and seeing the vibrant red blood streaming down my hand alerted me to the seriousness of the situation.

Pride be gone, shame be real: I needed help. 

Softly I said to my friend, “I think you are going to have to ask someone to help us.”

Not surprisingly the people God provided to help us not only had the tools we needed, but they also had experience with the cacti. They knew the best way to remove it quickly. They offered assistance and pain reliever. They themselves were an offering of grace.

After my friend used their tweezers to free my hands, we stared at the tubular areole that was protruding from my thigh. It was lodged deep and it was not submitting to the tweezers. Finally, the teenage boy in the family who had offered assistance came close and told us how it was going to have to be removed.

It has to be wedged between two rocks and then yanked out quickly.” Then he narrowed his eyes to my own and said, “And you’re not going to be able to do it.” He looked at my friend and continued, “You are probably going to have to do it.”

We both sat silent. Finally he said, “Or, I could do it.”

Twenty seconds later, I was free. With the help of others, I was released from the burden of something that had proved to be far more harmful than I had realized.

And I was aware.

FullSizeRender (1)Aware of the misleading appearance of sin; temptations can be cunning and guile, full of duplicity.

Aware of the danger of walking too close to something dangerous. Straying from the path and wandering into the wasteland is the road to disaster.

Aware of the way sin latches onto and ensnares its victims until they feel completely incapacitated.

Aware of the uselessness of attempting to free oneself from the sin, while remaining hidden and not accepting help; oftentimes our own efforts only further compound the seriousness of the situation and pull us in deeper. Trying to break-away without accountability oftentimes pushes the sin deeper.

Aware of the need for companionship and support that is practical and physical; loving with words alone does no good. We need someone to hold the rocks and yank.

Aware of the lingering pain in places where the sin was deeply embedded. Even days later as I write this story, there are lingering effects of what happened. My body is slowly ejecting microscopic thorns, and each small thorn reminds me of the pain that came when I carelessly left the path. My hand is slightly arthritic, reminding me of the bondage I was in.  My thigh has a deep dark bruise. It’s a private scar, visible only to my husband, but it’s there all the same.

The sin is gone, bruises and scars are fading, and I walk the path grateful, joyful, and hopeful for having survived what was meant to destroy.