Today I Saw God

The Shack: Is Seeing Believing?

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Did you see the movie, The Shack?

The book just blew me away. Reading it a few years back, I marveled at the creative expression its author, William Young, used to tease out the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and their unique rolls in ministering to one of their beloved when tragedy strikes. The thing is, for me, reading is rarely believing. It may inspire me, but that doesn't last long. But if you engage my other senses with sights, sounds, camera and action, things get real-er.

That's what I was hoping for when I shelled out the small fortune to see The Shack on the big screen. And man, that scene at the lake didn't disappoint. Even though I know what is coming, I am praying it won't happen. And when it does, I feel it in every fiber of my body.

It's amazing how this happens when we empathize with characters on the screen. Our bodies react physically as if it were happening to us. The tragic scenes evoke this for me; then I'm hooked. I'm right there with Mack Phillips in his rage, his pain, his depression, and his plight. This is no longer simply a story or a performance by an actor, it feels real.

Now, the tone is set for God, in three Persons, to do what only God can do. The novel did this magnificently. I'm expecting big things from the movie. I'm pulling for Mack and the transformation I know he has coming to him. With him, I sit at the crossroads of perhaps the #1 question we all have for God: why? Why, do you let terrible things happen? With everyone else in that theater, I'm waiting to be convinced by a good answer.

But honestly, I am not.It seems to me (and I'm no film critic) that main character, Mack Phillips, has reverted to human husband and father, actor Sam Worthington. And Sam, asked to forgive the unforgivable, just can't. Who could? He delivers dialogue asking the right questions, demanding answers and explanations, and confronting God for the truth, all as I surely would. I believe him. But, in the pivotal moment, he tosses down his backpack (apparently symbolic for giving up the burden he is carrying) and complies. I just don't believe him. His facial expression and his body language are just acting, way more like a teen tantrum than a surrender to God.

I'm so disappointed. I had hoped this movie which had drawn accolades in pre-screening for Christian crowds could reach would-be believers with the sure message that a compassionate and just God dearly loves them and can be trusted, even in the face of terrible injustice. I had hoped people on a spiritual quest for God would leave affirmed on their journey. Instead, it felt like the main character was still doubtful.

Thank you for the important reminder, Papa God, that we can't just pretend to have faith and expect people to believe us.

"If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." ~ Romans 10: 9-10

And I guess we shouldn't be relying on Hollywood to do the job we're meant to do. If we don't believe in our hearts before we profess with our mouths, we're just actors, and all the world's a stage.

Funny thing, when I googled Mr. Worthington, I found a brief interview he did about The Shack and his preparation for this role. He has a young family, and it is clear that the story cut him deeply. He also has a wicked-strong Australian accent. I felt a bit foolish falling for his portrayal as Mack Phillips, All-American dad. But that's his job; actors are trained to trick us into believing in them.

God's not like that, thank goodness. He/she/they are in the truth business.

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Not the Plan

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This is not how it was supposed to go. This was not the plan, at least not my plan. She was supposed to graduate and come home, find a job in D.C. and live here for a few years while she saved money. Then she was supposed to move into a house in Ballston with a few friends. I mean, isn't that what young people do? They come back home for few years, right?

But in truth that was my plan, not hers and certainly not God's. Instead she completed a drive "across the Deep South and Southwest," as she called it, to begin a ten-month Border Fellows program in El Paso.

When she showed me the link last fall I cried. I cried not because it wasn't my plan but because it was so clearly God's plan for her. She has a heart for the under-resourced, the underrepresented and the forgotten. She's fluent in Spanish, and she is wise enough to answer God's call.

Last time we talked, my heart filled with joy as I realized that she had followed God's call all the way to El Paso. My daughter Emily (Em) isn't down the hall. She won't be coming home from work to have dinner with us every night. I cannot protect and provide for her, but I can pray for her. And pray I will!

I'm reading a book, "The Circle Maker," that encourages bold prayers. The author, Mark Batterson, makes the statement, "The greatest tragedy in life is the prayers that go unanswered because they go unasked." He also challenges us to pray bold prayers. That's exactly what I plan to do (because it is pretty much the only thing I can do for her). I will pray for her safety and that God will use her to bring God's kingdom to Earth. I will pray that God puts a passion in her heart for a God-size vision that can only be accomplished if she taps into the power of the Holy Spirit.

Lately a phrase pops into my head about once a day: "You have not because you ask not." I searched BibleGateway.comI wasn't even sure it was scriptureand found that it is actually the last part of James 4:2. So, I am going to pray and pray boldly for Em and for all the other young people who graduated in May 2016. May God bless them as they seek God's will for their lives. I wait with eager expectation because I know God wants this millennial generation to change the world and make God's kingdom visible here on earth.

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Let's Talk About Sex

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At the ripe old age of twenty-two, I found myself pulled out of my shiny new classroom for a day of Family Life Education (FLE) training with dozens of other new hires in Fairfax County. I have to admit that when I chose a career in elementary education it never occurred to me that along with stem-and-leaf plots, I'd also be tasked with guiding tomorrow's youth through the treacherous week known as FLE. This training included reciting body parts out loud until we stopped giggling, fielding obscene and downright confusing questions that might be posed and perusing the lovely script (that included lines like, "They whip their tiny tails and swim up to the egg.") from which we would be forced to read for five days out of the year. They then directed us to the very long and extensive "Do Not Discuss" list. Due to differing beliefs, we were forced to avoid some seriously important conversations in the school system, including birth control, abortion, homosexuality, rape and the list goes on and on. After a whopping six hours of training, I was pushed out the door with a binder filled with the script, a list of VHS tapes to find in the library (yes, you read this correctlyVHS tapes in 2007), and a CD preloaded with a PowerPoint presentation.

As the dreaded week approached, I obsessively read through the "Do Not Discuss" list, printed HIV handouts and practiced saying anatomy parts in a mirror with a straight face. Day one was easy: puberty. Day two: the opposite gender. Mm…okay. Day three: reproduction. Here we go. After watching a crackly VHS tape starring a teen with an original 90210 shirt (Did I mention this was in 2007?), we read our script and collected the index cards on which students wrote their questions. I gathered them all and began sorting. "What is sexual intercourse?" Wait, I thought we just covered that. I looked through the script and realized that beyond the cartoon dog birth video, there was actually only half of a sentence that explained the whole "sex" thing. It was so vague that a grown adult might get confused. Great, I guess I will have to read that sentence again tomorrow and hope they get it since the script is golden. However, as I continued through the pile, I started to come across many of the "Do Not Discuss" questions.

"Wait, so what do we do with these?" I asked my teammate.

"At the end of class, we tell students that any questions that were not answered are topics they should talk to their parents about." Interesting.

I survived my first year of FLE unscathed. Surprisingly, over time I even found myself looking forward to this week. Was it because of the sheer unpredictability it brought? Maybe. But mostly I enjoyed it because it was just so real. Never have I been able to figure out when anyone uses that beloved stem-and-leaf plot, but puberty, reproduction, refusal skills, STDs? These topics would be very relevant to these kids, and very soon.

However, I was starting to feel conflicted due to how binding the script was proving to be. Also, the yearly budget crisis left no money for updating materials, which meant our curriculum was not keeping up with the digital world that was creeping its way into our culture. The index cards started to include some disturbing content that we couldn't even address, and it became apparent that with no adult to talk to, kids were searching the all-knowing Google for answers.

It might sound as though I am bashing sex education programs, but that is not the point of this post. Do I believe you should opt your kids out of FLE in public school? Absolutely not. But parents, please understand that if you are relying on the school system to educate your children about sex, you are doing them a disservice. Truly I tell you, I intercepted a conversation between two boys who thought using two condoms was a good idea. When you leave children with no adult for guidance, they will ask someone else, and it is like the blind leading the blind. Furthermore, the abstinence-only education approach has led students to "sexual activities" that won't get you pregnant but can lead kids down a road toward STDs or situations they are in no way emotionally ready to handle.

Also, teachers cannot teach sexual ethics in public schools, and our strictly biological approach doesn't prepare students for the devastation that can come when a photo that was meant for a "forever" boyfriend ends up being distributed to half the school. Parents, our children are growing up in a hyper-sexualized world that has perverted something God intended to be beautiful and sacred. They are in a space where impulsive acts can haunt them forever. A world in which sexual assault is so prevalent on college campuses that some studies suggest as many as one in four women will be victims.

How can we as Christians navigate these treacherous waters? You might be tempted to shelter your kids, opt them out of sex education and cut off all internet connections in your house, but the reality is, this is not the life Christ has called us to live. We have to teach our children how to be in the world, but not of the world, yet also do so in such a way that will not scare them from having a healthy view of sex as an adult. This is no small task.

The secret is thisyou have to talk to them. A lot. Talk to your kids about sex when they are young so that when things start to get real, they feel as though you will be okay with the topic. I knowit's awkward. As silly as it sounds, practice with your spouse or a friend so that you don't actually register undesirable emotion on your face when little Johnny asks you something absurd in the pet food aisle of Target (seriously, I don't understand a kid's train of thought either). Kids will watch your reaction to gauge whether this is something they can trust you with, and any glimmer of a negative reaction might shut them down.

Designate a time or space that is safe for child, or children, to ask difficult questions. Try the car. It's amazing how much more they will open up to you when you aren't face to face. Alternatively, you could try something a dear colleague of mine did, in which she and her teen children had "Sexual Ethics Sunday." If you are truly terrified, try the school approach and have them write down any questions they have. That gives you a chance to giggle in a closet before you compose yourself and figure out how to answer them. (Plus as an added bonus, you can whip that card out at family dinner when they are adults as retribution for how annoying they were as teenagers.) For the non-verbose, you could even start a journal with your child. We set this up between parents and their fifth graders, and it was amazing to see the conversations that unfolded in writing. Also, try not to worry too much about whether dad is talking to the boys and mom is talking to the girls. I taught FLE to fifth and sixth grade boys for years, and everyone survived. In fact, one could argue they might even benefit from the cross gender perspective.

Please, teach your daughters a firm and steady "no," and let them practice setting healthy boundaries at home. Help boys understand how to stand up to herd mentality that can take over and influence seemingly reasonable humans into making terrible decisions that hurt others. Teach your children that pornography is not realistic, nor is it emulating a respectful and caring sexual relationship.

You might consider enlisting some trusted friends or relatives that can also engage in appropriate discussions with your children, because, as hard as it is to believe when they are small and cuddly, there will come a day when you might not be the person they want to talk to about their dark spaces. You could even try looking to the Bible for some guidance. Song of Solomonam I right?

Talking about sex is important. Year after year I watched kids struggle with questions that I could not answer for them, and several said they just didn't know how to ask their parents. Help bridge that gap. We live in a broken world with little to no sexual ethics, so it is up to us as a Christian community to help shed a little light on this confusing and complicated topic for our children.

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When Heaven Touches Earth

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Over the holidays, our home was brimming with joy and laughter, a continuously messy kitchen sink and the rustle of wrappings. All of the chicks were back in the coop as I like to say, and it was heaven on earth! We had some family game nights, competitive family card games and even an adventure to an escape room in D.C. where we were forced to work together to unlock the clues (and the door) to our room.

Butlast week, my youngest adult child packed up his car and drove off to head back to college. My husband and I cried, as we have done as each child takes flight from the nest, even for a short while. It is always bittersweet when someone leaves you, regardless of the circumstances. The time you just spent together makes you miss them even more as they head out the door; you are keenly aware of the unique and wonderful person that loved one is, and you feel the emptiness of their absence even as you are still in their presence. It's an emotionally charged moment.

Having recently studied the apostle Paul and learned more about his life and his travels, I imagine the pain and loss he must have felt when Jesus was no longer with him. He not only knew Jesus was the Son of God, the Truth, the Life, but Paul undoubtedly also knew what made Jesus laugh or the meaning of a glance his way while sharing a parable. The very God that made the sunrise and the sunset with all of its glorious colors, the God that made such an intricate and sustaining system here on earthtrees that can go barren and blossom with vibrant color over and over with each passing season, and something as small as an mosquito having a role in the circle of lifeyes, that God, walked here, on this earth right next to Paul. And then he died, rose again and ascended into heaven. While I don't mean to compare the infinitely more meaningful and memorable departure of Jesus to my son driving off with a carload of boxes, the point is that both left a hole for those standing back, both were filled with emotion none-the-less.

Paul was able to muster up his courage to go on, leaning into the trust, hope and love that he had not only in the teachings and miracles of Jesus Christ but also in honor of the man, the person that he came to love so deeply. Oh, it wasn't easy for Paul. He encountered hardships of all kinds including beatings, illnesses and imprisonment, but his love for Jesus and the need to spread the good news was all the motivation he needed. The life story of Paul is one I feel a personal connection to, not because I too have had any level of suffering that even begins to compare but because I have met and ministered to people that have.

I worked for a prison ministry for seven years, and in that time, I learned so many valuable lessons. I learned that people go their whole lives struggling against the pressures and realities that come with trying to make a life for yourself that is sustaining and fulfilling, and they have to make choices every day that impact the next step in their journey. Many choices get made without a conscious decision; we just act on the next step on the path we've set ourselves on. And it is not until all choices are taken away from uschoices of when and what to eat, what to wear, where to sleepthat we are forced to realize that every choice that impacts our lives starts with choices of the heart and head. I look at Paul like so many of the men and women who unselfishly volunteer in prisons all over this country every day. They too met Jesus. Some, like C.S. Lewis, met him with their heads as they worked through a very intellectual process to get to him, and others, like many of the prisoners and ex-offenders I knew, met him with their hearts. But each one that did was touched deeply by a love that motivates them to tell others all about it.

When my children are near, I long to hear every detail of their day, their hopes, their concernsusually to the point of making them crazy with all of my questions. But it's because I want to keep a little piece of them with me, to ponder on what I can do to make a difference for them. When they are far away, I peek at their Facebook pages; I hope for a Snapchat or text; and I reminisce over their childhood activities, sayings or antics so I don't forget any part of the wonderful and unique person each of them is. It's the same with my faith. When Jesus is near, I can't get enoughI want to hear more and more, feel his presence and seek ways to put his spirit into all that I am and do. And when I feel he is distant, I remember those times I felt close and work to get back to those moments.

I feel the love of God when I consider my children. The impact each of them have on me and others is not measured by their academic achievements, their net worth or the titles they hold, it is measured by their kind and spirited souls. They are each their own unique person, each beautifully and wonderfully made, and counted by God, the Father Almighty as one of his own.

When Jesus came to earth, it created a kairos moment, a moment when God chose to act and his spirit was and still is palpable. I believe the birth of a child is also a kairos moment, a moment when God acts, when heaven most certainly has touched earth.

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The Tough Part About Parenting

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I overheard the conversation while I was in the middle of doing something else. My son was with a group of boys his age who all happen to be on different swim teams. As they compared their stats, it became obvious that my son was the slowest. One boy couldn't believe my son's time.

"That's so slow!" he said in amazement. He didn't say it to be mean. He didn't say it to make fun of my son, to his credit, I think he was genuinely shocked about my son's time.

My son just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

In that moment, my heart ached for my son. I was torn between letting my son handle the situation himself or stepping in and changing the topic. Most of the time I would probably have opted for option a, trusting that he could handle it, but this time I opted for option b. I walked over to the table and brought up a different sport that my son had more confidence in and then I walked away.

It was hours before I was able to talk to my son about the incident. When I asked him how he felt about the comment he said, "I was kind of sad. But I am slow. I still didn't really like that he said it, I guess."

One characteristic that I have always appreciated in my son is his attitude about sports. In his mind, sports are all about having fun. He loves playing sports for fun. It's not about winning; it's about playing the game. He has played basketball for three years now in a league that doesn't keep score, and he couldn't care less. He loves to play basketball because he loves the game, not because he likes to win. Unlike me, his opinions about whether he likes a sport or not have nothing to do with how successful he is in that sport. If he likes to play it, he likes the sport.

So the fact that he is not a record-breaking swimmer does not really worry him. But being called slow by your friend is never fun. We talked as best as an 8-year-old boy and his mom can about things with the overall message being to remember how he felt in this situation so that he won't call someone else slow if the shoe is ever on the other foot.

These are the moments in parenting that I find the most difficult. I don't want my son to ever feel sad and yet I know that there is no way I can be there at every moment to make sure no one ever says anything to hurt his feelings. I don't want my son to ever feel that he is not as good at something as someone else. But the truth is, there will always be someone better. There will always be someone faster, someone smarter or someone stronger. I want to shelter him from any sort of discomfort that life might throw at him. I want to stand before him and take the fall for him so that he will not feel the blow that life offers him. I want to keep him for myself where he is safe, but I am a million times more boring than what he can experienceoutin the world.

The hard part about sending your kids out into the world is that, while it can offer your children friendships, knowledge and adventure, it can also bring them heartbreak, disappointment and pain. As parents, we can create safeguards for them for a while that might protect them from life's harsh realities, but we are doing them a great disservice if we never allow them to feel discomfort.

The best we can hope for as parents is to raise happy well-rounded kids. Kids who understand that, in the game of life, sometimes you feel like the winner and sometimes you can feel like the loser.Kids who know that they are deeply loved by God regardless of their successes or failures. I think when kids (and adults for that matter) are confident in this love from God, they are able to be bold in their actions and take risks because their self-worth is not tied to their accomplishments. When we focus on teaching kids about their value in God's eyes, they begin to understand it doesn't matter as much how many baskets they score in a game or if they had they highest test score in their class.

My son had a swim meet last night. He swam great. He didn't win any top ribbons, but he beat the goal he set for himself by two seconds. He swam four seconds faster than his last time.

I wish you could have seen the smile on his face when he saw his time. He wasn't smiling because he beat his friends; he's still slower than most of them. He was smiling because he did something he didn't think he could do. He was so proud of himself. I was proud too.

I wouldn't trade that smile for a thousand first-place ribbons.

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