Art Journaling: We Will Not Fear

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. . . though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;  Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.  Selah.  There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.  Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.  Psalm 46:1-5, 10-11

Some Trust in Chariots

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As usual, we were running a little behind schedule.  David could not find his shoes, and Mikey did not want to wear a coat.  Finally, I herded the last of the kids out the door and to the van, where we discovered that someone had left on the interior lights.  The van would not start, despite the kids’ pleas to Goldie (the name of our van) to get going so they could go play in the gym.  I looked at my antsy kids.  Hosanna was running in circles on the front lawn, and Gabi was attempting to stand on her toes and do a pirouette in the driveway.  “Let’s get the dog and go for a walk,” I made a snap decision.

Now, we live in a metropolitan area that is not exactly suited for walking with four young kids and a not-so-obedient dog.  There are several businesses on our own street, which means a steady stream of dangerous traffic.  Still, I was determined to exterminate the cabin fever and so we forged ahead.  Despite the dog almost darting out into traffic a few times and Hosanna loudly and mightily resisting her hand being held by her big sister, we managed to traverse the more perilous streets of the neighborhood before coming to the “nature trail” behind our local Wal-mart.  By “nature trail,” I mean a skinny asphalt trail with random trees planted on one side and a stunning view of the backside of Wal-mart on the other.  It didn’t matter – now I didn’t have to be on high alert for traffic and could enjoy our walk a little more.  The kids ran ahead of me, squealing with delight at each new stick find and giggling at the antics of the dog.  The trail looped around to the front entrance of Wal-mart.  The kids begged to go inside and “just look at the toys for one minute, promise.”  I was secretly relieved that we had the dog with us, thus eliminating a long stay in the Lego aisle as the kids examined the newest sets.  Reluctantly, the kids followed as I led them back to the neighborhood behind Wal-mart.

Just as we were starting to climb the ramp to the sidewalks beyond, I became aware of flashing lights and police sirens everywhere.  A police car pulled right up next to us, and the officer driving shouted something at me.  Confused and admittedly a little freaked out, I couldn’t understand what he was saying.  He pulled out a megaphone. “Ma’am, you can’t go back that way!  You ‘re going to have to turn around and go back to the store.”  What?  “But this is the only way we can walk home!” I protested.  ” Ma’am, that way is not safe.  A man shot someone and is somewhere back there with a gun.  Please go back to the store.”  I nodded and directed the kids to turn around.

The kids heard the words man shot someone and gun and panicked.  “Mom, I’m scared!  What if the guy with the gun is right here in the parking lot?  What will we do?  How are we going to get home?”  I heard the fear in their voices and almost automatically said, “It’s okay, I’m here.  Mom will take care of you and keep you safe.”  Because that’s what we moms do, right?  Whether it’s a boogie man in their closet or a very tall slide at the playground, we reassure our kids that we are there to help them and protect them in any way we can.  But if that man with the gun appeared right now in front of us, there would be nothing I could do to protect my kids.  In that moment, I realized that I didn’t want my kids looking to me for safety and protection.  I wanted them to put their trust and their safety in the arms of their Heavenly Father.

I gathered my kids in a circle and wrapped my arms tightly around them. I looked into their frightened faces and spoke the truth.  “I don’t know where the man with the gun is.  I’m not sure how we are going to get home yet.”  I chose my words carefully. “Let’s talk to God, right now.”  There, in the parking lot of the Wal-mart, I began praying for God’s protection on our little family and on the other people around us.  David hesitated and then joined in, asking God to help the police find the bad guy.  Gabi chimed in next, openly sharing that she was scared and that she didn’t want to be scared and would God please help her to stop being afraid?  A sense of calm enveloped us as we hurried back to the Wal-mart entrance.  We were told to go inside, dog and all, and of course the kids immediately headed to the toy section.  While they were occupied with the latest toys and games, I waited.  What was I waiting for – we certainly would not be able to walk home.  That was out of the question.  Maybe Christ could come get us – except the van wasn’t working.  I decided to call my mother-in-law, who within minutes of my call jumped in her van and headed out to rescue us.  When she pulled up to the store, the kids piled in, excitedly telling their grandma all about the man with the gun.  We drove past the neighborhood that we had just been walking in hours earlier and saw dozens of police cars blocking every entrance, red and blue flashing lights illuminating the area.  I thanked God that we had not been there at a different time, a time when perhaps things may not have ended so well.

That night, as I tucked the kids into bed, Gabi stared at me anxiously and asked if the police had caught the bad guy yet.  She kept looking at her bedroom window and admitted that she was afraid that he might come to our house.  I told her that I understood her fear, but that we just had to put our trust in God and in His protection.  Because that’s what it’s all about.  My kids can trust in their mom and dad.  They can trust in their grandparents.  They can trust in locked doors and in the police and in loaded guns.  But all of those things will eventually fail them.  Only God is worthy of complete trust.  When we trust in Him completely, He will direct our paths.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.  Be still and know that I am God.”  Psalm 46:1-3, 10a

Hiding His Word in Your Heart: The Whys and Hows of Scripture Memorization

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David sighed when he looked at the math paper I had given him.  “Do I have to do the whole thing?” he complained.  “It looks too hard.  I can’t do it all!”

“Not ‘I can’t,’ David,” I reminded him.

“I know, I know.  ‘I CAN do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,’ ”  he rattled off quickly.  He was still disgruntled with the amount of work he had to do, but he bent his head purposefully over his paper and began his work.  In that moment, a scripture had come to mind that was encouraging and full of promise.  He had memorized that verse long ago during our family devotion time, and now it had come to his aid when he needed it.

That, fellow Christians, is why we memorize scripture.  Hebrews 4:12 tells us that “the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  Clearly, God’s Word is a powerful spiritual tool that we as Christians can use daily, and we would be foolish to put that weapon aside to rely on our own strength and wisdom.

Every morning, the kids and I work on taking some of God’s Word and putting it in our hearts.  The psalmist talks about “hiding” God’s Word in our hearts in Psalm 119:11.  The ESV translates it as “I have stored up your word in my heart.”  Scripture cannot be treasured in our hearts unless it is memorized.  Here are the reasons I want my kids (and me!) to memorize God’s Word.

1)  It is commanded by God.  In Deuteronomy 6, Moses instructs God’s people to take God’s words and put them in their hearts.  He reminds them to teach God’s words to their children and put those words everywhere they look – on their homes, on their doorposts, and even on their own bodies.  He said they were to talk about God’s words constantly in all their daily activity.

2)  It is encouraging in difficult situations.  King David often found comfort in God’ Word: he states “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.”  (Psalm 119:50)  When I am afraid, I can call upon my memorization of this verse: “The LORD is on my side, I will not fear: what can man do unto me?” (Psalm 118:6)  When my husband is trying to make the right decision for our family, I can encourage him with “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.”  (Proverbs 3:5)  Whatever struggles you may be facing, there is a Bible verse that you can draw upon for reassurance and comfort.

3)  It is useful in fighting off sin and temptation.  It has already been mentioned that God’s Word is a sharp and powerful sword.  Ephesians 6:17 lists the word of God as the sword of the spirit in its description of the armor of God.  Jesus made use of this powerful weapon when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness.  Each time the devil offered up a new temptation, Jesus fired back with a scripture verse.

4)  It is crucial to making good decisions.  Undoubtedly, you have heard the verse “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:105)  Many times when I have found myself wondering what to do next in life, God brings to mind a specific scripture that completely answers my internal questions.  “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pass.” (Psalm 37:5)

5)  It is practical for sharing the gospel.  Peter directs us to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”  When I meet someone that does not know Christ as Savior, I do not have to stumble around in my own weak words and explanations.  I can use the influential words of God Himself.  I can quote “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)  The Word of God is a mighty tool, remember?  Let the Word of God speak for itself as you witness to others.

6)  It is beneficial in praying more effectively.  Sometimes, there is just no better way to pray than to pray the scriptures.  Jesus promises “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” (John 15:7)  Don’t forget – Jesus modeled prayer for us in Matthew 6 and even gave us words to say when our own words fail us.

7)  It is critical for spiritual growth.  David starts off his book of Psalms by describing to us a man who delights in God’s word and meditates in it day and night.  This man is like a tree, growing, flourishing, and firmly rooted in the storms of life.  When you memorize scripture, God’s words are always with you.  Think of it as portable wisdom that will guide you throughout your day and help you mature as a Christian.

It is not difficult to see the importance of memorizing God’s Word, but how do I do it?  There are many methods to accomplish the memorization of Scripture.  I want to share a system that I found  while researching the Charlotte Mason method of schooling.  Here is the link that explains the Scripture Box system very thoroughly, but I will give you a quick overview here.

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I purchased a 3×5 notecard box at Walmart along with two sets of plastic dividers to go inside it.  The dividers were labeled with a permanent black marker in this order: Daily, Odd, Even, Mon., Tues., Wed., Thurs., Fri., Sat., Sun., and the numbers 1 – 31.  I then wrote out on several note cards the scriptures I wanted to start memorizing (I got some inspiration from this verses list) and placed them in the front of the box.

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Then we started using the box.  The first card (Ephesians 2:8-10) went into the slot behind Daily.  Every day, I would simply read the verses on that card out loud to the kids two times with them repeating the reference after me.  After a few days, they started saying some of the words along with me, and by the second week, they could say the verses without any help from me.  When I was satisfied that they knew it, I moved that scripture to the Odd slot and placed Philippians 4:13 in the Daily slot.  Now we practiced the new verse every day as well as the previous verse on odd-numbered days.  When they mastered Philippians 4:13, the Ephesians scripture moved to Even, the Philippians scripture moved to Odd, and Mark 12:30-31 took the Daily slot.  Now I read Mark 12:30-31 every day, and together we recited Ephesians 2:8-10 on even-numbered days and Philippians 4:13 on odd-numbered days.  And the system continued on, with verses in the days of the week slots only being practiced on that specific day and the verses in the numbered slots being practiced on that specific date of the month.  In this way, scripture is learned quite rapidly without much time or stress, and then it is practiced regularly to be sure it is not forgotten.  It is working astonishingly well for us.

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The kids’ minds are like sponges; so they memorize things quickly and easily.  For me (and my crazy brain that is always going in a million directions!), I need a little extra practice.  Consequently, I used an app (PicsArt) on my smart phone to put whatever scripture I am working on at the time on a photo and use it as my lock screen.  I probably look at that screen dozens of times each day; so it definitely helps with memorization practice.

Accordingly, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)

Be Calm and Burble On

DSC_0122A few months ago, we acquired a new resident for our aquarium. I named our little African dwarf frog Sir Hops-a-Lot, and he provided quite a bit more entertainment than the fish that just swam in circles all day.  My daughter and I did a little research and found that African dwarf frogs are very social.  This discovery led to the purchase of another African dwarf frog, Sir Spotty, to be a companion to our first one.

Not long after both frogs joined our household, I noticed a peculiar thing about Sir Spotty that caused me to panic a little.  He was floating near the surface of the water with his arms and legs spread out, totally motionless.  I thought he was dead, but to be sure, I knocked against the glass several times until he shifted slightly, as if startled out of daydreaming.  The next day I caught Sir Hops-a-Lot doing something very similar.  He was closer to the bottom of the tank with one foot rested on a plant and the rest of his body suspended in the water, swaying gently with the current of the tank.  “Please don’t be dead,” I thought to myself.  We had just had several of our fish go belly up in the last few days, and I wanted to think that we were not aquatic animal killers.  Sir Hops-a-Lot stayed in that position for over an hour before darting up to the top of the tank for a little air.

I decided to do a little more research on African dwarf frogs to see if this was a normal occurrence for them.  In doing so, I read that African dwarf frogs in captivity often participate in what is commonly called “burbling.”  A frog in a burbling position is effectively zoning out for a while, giving his body a rest from constant swimming or hiding.  You might say that he is in a meditative state of sorts.  This information was a great relief, although I admit to still knocking on the tank occasionally when they look particularly dead.

One recent morning, I was sitting at the dining room table, reading a bit of Scripture and journaling in my notebook.  I looked up to see that Sir Spotty was burbling again, and I noted how still and peaceful he looked.  It reminded me of a verse in Psalms – “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:10)  Curious, and because the kids somehow were still miraculously asleep in their rooms, I looked up “Bible verses about being still” and was surprised to find so many on that topic.  I was drawn to the passage in Lamentations 3, where Jeremiah famously talks about the Lord’s mercies being new every morning and about the greatness of God’s faithfulness.  A little further down, Jeremiah proclaims: “The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.  It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.”  In the margin of my Bible, some years ago, I had written “I must HOPE~SEEK~WAIT on Him!”

I tried to remember the last time I had truly been still.  When had I I last sought out God with no other distractions and then waited for His answer?  Four noisy kids now demanding breakfast and clean underwear and morning hugs answered that question all too clearly.  Being still and listening for God’s voice had disappeared a long time ago and had been replaced by grocery lists and overflowing laundry baskets and scraped knees.  Even when I got up early enough to meet with God before the kids woke up, my mind was still distracted with to-do lists and the busyness of life.  Too many a prayer was interrupted by a seemingly greater need of one of the kids.  Too many a Scripture reading was halted by the chaos of life.

I realized that I needed to make time again to just be still.  In my Scripture reading just this morning, Moses tells the Hebrew people to stop being afraid of the Egyptian army in hot pursuit.  He encourages them to “stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD.”  He basically tells them to be quiet and let the LORD do the fighting for them.  How often am I missing out on God doing some great things in my life because I won’t be quiet?  Perhaps, to drive the point further home, what peace and contentment could the Lord bring if I would stop checking Facebook/emails/cell phone games/latest TV show so frequently?

It has been quite the challenge to learn to be still, to turn off the constantly humming “mommy thoughts”, and to realize that I do not have to be constantly entertained or busy all the time.  Every day is a struggle.  I ask God to please take away the distracting thoughts and try to focus on one time a day that I can just make like a frog and burble.  It’s usually after the kids go to bed (I mean sleep, because well we all know that “going to bed” doesn’t necessarily mean quiet kids!).

And in the midst of the most chaotic days, I give myself a little grace.  If “being still” doesn’t happen today, it will tomorrow. And I’ve always got my burbling frog friends around to remind me.

My Journey to Freedom: Healing for the Good Girl

(It’s been a while since I posted the previous entries in this series.  If you haven’t read them or need a refresher, here’s the links:

Part One:  Following the Rules

Part Two: Thou Shalt Not Wear Pants

Part Three:  It’s Never Enough )

Do you ever find that it’s easier to draw out a tale than to finish it?  The telling of the event is always more natural than bringing it to a solid and worthy conclusion.  I used to dream of being a writer, once upon a time, as an idealistic junior high student with big hair and even bigger glasses.  I fantasized about a career in children’s literature and wrote dozens of original stories and poems.  Most of them, however, I never finished.  It felt just too difficult to come to a good ending.

For this series “My Journey to Freedom,”  I have felt this exact same way.  It feels like a whole lot has to be crammed somehow into a clear and logical ending, when in truth there is no ending.  It is a journey, after all, and although I live free in Christ, I haven’t arrived.  Not yet. 😉  Still, I will do my best to explain to you just what happened in my life the last year or so that radically altered my thinking and my faith.  Some have questioned why.  Why share this tremendously personal story online?  Won’t people perhaps vehemently disagree with you, or scorn your choices, or even be offended that you have not followed the path of your youth?

Indeed, the reception of the previous posts has not all been good.  I think that it is hard and scary for some people when you start asking questions about the things you were taught all your life.  Believe me, I fully considered that before embarking on the first post of the series last summer.  I balked at doing it at all, knowing it would absolutely cause controversy, but the Holy Spirit kept nudging me to write my story.

In September of 2012, the pot that had been slowly simmering for so long finally burst into a full boil.  I could not handle it any longer – all the rules, the stress of doing everything just right, the frustration at not feeling as if I were ever pleasing God, everything.  So I just quit.  Right then, I talked to Chris, who had been having similar feelings and frustrations of his own, and we agreed together to leave the church we had been attending for eight years.  All at once, everything stopped.  I no longer taught children’s church; there was no more nursery duty to fill more of my church time.  We had no idea of where to go or what to do next.  We attended my in-laws’ church for a brief time on Sunday mornings, but we did not go anywhere else on Sunday evenings or Wednesday nights.  It felt strange to have my entire spiritual world upended, just like that.  I found, to my consternation, that pretty much my entire social life had revolved around church, and now I felt empty and alone.  I worried that we had made the wrong decision and prayed for answers and for peace.

This is when I made a heart-rending discovery.  I prayed, but I didn’t feel connected to God in any way.  I tried to keep reading my Bible, but God still felt distant and aloof.  Without all the rules and the busyness of my former life to masquerade as spirituality, I was left with an empty shell of a Christian life.  My personal relationship with Jesus Christ had suffered dramatically as a result of my focus on outward behavior.  I didn’t know how to fix it, how to draw close to God.  I knew the verse by heart – “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” (James 4:8)  I feared that maybe I wasn’t really saved, that maybe somehow it had all passed me by.  The Bible wasn’t speaking to me, and I was desperate to find out why.  Surely someone else had experienced this exact same dilemma as my own – that of growing up in a Christian home and then becoming disillusioned with it in their adulthood.  I hit the internet and searched for people with stories like mine.  It was difficult to find anything, and the ones I did find had heartbreaking endings of the author turning away from God.  I didn’t want to do that either.

By this time, we had found a new church that we attended once a week.  The pastor there preached through the Bible, verse by verse.  We started attending when he was in the book of James.  After every service, I would go home and search out the things he had said in my Bible, to see if in fact they really were true.  He said then (and has said it many times since, as it’s a favorite statement of his) “Stick to God’s Word.  It has all the answers to life, and it’s the best commentary on itself.”  It was as if the Holy Spirit had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You heard him!  Now get home and get in God’s Word.  He will do the rest.”

And so I began to search the scriptures.(John 5:39)  Through a lot of stilted, uncomfortable prayer and heartfelt journaling, I started to see who the God of the Bible really was.  I realized that I had always had this view of a big scary God who was never quite pleased with me, no matter what I did.  But my Bible revealed a God who is a loving Father, full of mercy and grace.(John 1:14)  He is also all-powerful, and we are admonished to fear Him. (Psalm 111:10)  Being God-fearing does not mean worrying about whether I am doing enough to please Him.  It does not mean ending each day in frustration and defeat because once again, I did not live up to what I thought I should.  No, being God-fearing means a reverence for God and the boundaries He sets in His Word, knowing that there will be consequences when those boundaries are crossed.  And yet, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)  Of course, I’m going to fail – I am a sinner that needs a Savior – but when I seek His forgiveness, he removes my sins “as far as the east is from the west.” (Psalm 103:12)

And when I began to see God in this whole new light, my prayers were not so awkward.  I looked forward to meeting with Him every day.  Bible reading was not a drudgery – some days I only read a verse or two, but God spoke in my heart through them just as much as the days I read chapters.  I realized that it was okay to question things, and I took my Bible and went right down my list.  Bible versions?  Proper music?  Dress?  How often to go to church?  As I prayed and studied, it was evident that a lot of these controversial areas were about personal conviction, not scriptural mandate.  The breath of freedom that this discovery brought me was exactly why I titled this series “My Journey to Freedom.”

The journey is far from over.  I still don’t know all the answers.  But now I am living in this new-found freedom, worshiping and following my Savior, rejoicing in the hope that He gives, not the fear of not enough.  I write this for that person who may be searching, just as I did, for someone with the same experience as their own.  If that’s you, run, run, run to receive His amazing grace and unfailing love.  Be encouraged that there are answers and that there is hope.  Most of all, know this: God will give healing to the good girl who just never could be good enough.

My Journey to Freedom: It’s Never Enough

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(For part one of my story, click here.  For part two of my story, click here.)

I memorized quite a lot of scripture growing up.  After the prerequisite “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” and ” Be ye kind one to another,” two verses that were early ingrained in my mind were Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:  it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.”  It was explained to me that no matter how good I was and no matter how many good things I did, it would never be enough to save me.  I had to accept God’s grace and ask Jesus to save me, knowing that my best efforts here on earth could never measure up to a perfect God.  To a child’s uncluttered, innocent mind, this was wonderful news.  I gladly accepted Christ as my Savior and understood even then how unworthy I was of this precious gift.

After I was saved, I started hearing a lot about “fruit” of salvation.  This teaching explained that you would truly know if someone were saved or not by their fruits, or good works.  I quickly internalized that the more people saw me doing good things, the more they would think of me as a good Christian.  This was reinforced by the adults around me.  I heard things like “Well, you know, Susan only goes to church on Sunday morning so she probably wouldn’t be a good choice to teach Sunday school” or “I’m pretty sure he just keeps his Bible in the car so he won’t forget it for church.  I guess there’s not a whole lot of Bible-reading going on there.”  I still believed that salvation was a gift, but that works were also really, really important.  Maybe salvation didn’t necessarily depend on your works, but if you didn’t have a lot of good works to show for it afterwards, perhaps you weren’t really saved.

Take, for instance, reading your Bible.  I sang “Read your Bible, pray every day” with great fervor in Sunday school class.  I heard quotes like D.L. Moody’s “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”  It quickly became a matter of great anxiety for me.  What if I weren’t reading enough?  What if I missed a day?  It became all about the doing, all about the act.  I read my allotted verses or chapters each day, and that was it.  At college, I made sure that I did my Bible reading in a place where others could see me.  I didn’t want them thinking that I wasn’t spiritual.  Then, I heard a preacher talk about mature Christians.  He said that when it came to Bible reading, you should be reading more and more each year.  He mentioned that he himself was reading ten chapters a day and was hoping to increase that to twenty chapters a day soon.  I felt deflated after hearing that sermon.  Here I was, struggling to read even one chapter a day.  I had babies that were getting up several times during the night and a toddler that certainly wasn’t going to allow her mother to sit and read for even a few minutes unbothered.  I was trying to read through the entire Bible in one year.  If I missed a day, I felt defeated and frustrated and tried desperately to catch up.  It was a losing battle.  At three chapters a day, two days missed meant I was trying to cram nine chapters into one day.  There was no room for the Holy Spirit to speak to me through God’s Word.  I was simply trying to get the work done.

And let’s not forget church attendance!  From the day of my birth (literally!) I attended church for Sunday school, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other special services that might be scheduled during the week.  We were always at church.  The Bible said “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is,” after all.  Pastors interpreted that as “you ought to be at church every time the doors are open.”  I heard my parents and others speak derisively and even condescendingly of those who only attended our church on Sunday mornings.  Worse yet were the folks that went to “that liberal church that only has one service a week.”  There was no good reason to miss church.  If you were sick, you had better be on your deathbed to miss church.  When I became an adult, I was afraid to miss a church service.  What would people think?  If I did not attend a service, almost certainly someone would bring it up at the next service.  In a question masked with “godly concern,” they would inquire “Were you sick?  We sure missed you last week!”  I wondered what they would say if I just blurted out, “Nope.  I didn’t feel like coming last Sunday night.  The Sunday morning service was great, and I just didn’t feel a need to be there again Sunday night.”  But I never had the courage or audacity to say it.

So, if you were reading your Bible faithfully and attending all the church services as much as you could, it would seem that you were a pretty decent Christian.  Sorry, but that was not enough.  Fellow Christians always wanted to know what else you were doing for Christ.  Were you singing lovely Christian songs in the service to bless and encourage others?  Were you serving in the nursery to help some poor, stressed-out mother hear God’s Word that day in church?  Were you witnessing and telling other folks about Jesus every week?  Were you teaching in children’s church, or Sunday school, or VBS, or preferably all three?  Were you tithing and giving at least ten percent of your income to the Lord’s work faithfully?  The Lord really wouldn’t be able to bless you if you weren’t, you know.

It was a truly exhausting way to live.  I did all of the above and still felt like I WAS NOT DOING ENOUGH.  The gospel for me (and a whole host of other Christians around me) had changed from “not by works, lest any man should boast” to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  It would take me a long time to realize that Christ did not suffer death on the cross just for me to continually worry about what I was doing for Him.  Breaking that mindset would be incredibly difficult.  Until then, the frustration and feelings of complete inadequacy while trying to appear to the rest of the world that I was “happy and busy for Christ” would continue to build until I just literally would not be able to take it anymore.

To be continued…

My Journey to Freedom: Thou Shalt Not Wear Pants

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(to read part one of my story, click here)

When I was fourteen years old, I managed to get a paper route to earn some extra money.  It was not uncommon for the neighbors to see my sister and I trudging through the snow each winter, clad in nice modest skirts (with pants underneath, of course) as we made our rounds.  At age sixteen, I secured a job at the local McDonald’s and was the only employee to wear a skirt for “religious reasons.”  I didn’t mind much.  I was used to it.  I knew the rhetoric – dresses and skirts were more modest, more feminine, and they clearly defined us as women, not men.  Still, when fellow employees or curious neighborhood kids asked, I usually answered that my parents made me wear them.  Grand theology there.

It did not change much when I attended college.  There, instead of “my parents make me wear them,” it became “the college makes me wear them.”  That wasn’t so difficult – I mean, all the girls were wearing skirts so I didn’t stand out or anything.  At the local Wal-Mart on any given Saturday, you could easily identify the college girls by the sea of khaki skirts roaming the store.  (Side note: To this day, I refuse to wear a khaki skirt).  I didn’t have a choice in this matter, unless I wanted to rack up some demerits quickly and get myself booted out of college.  The dress code rules were rigidly enforced, but I cannot recall one time when a dean or other authority ever sat us down and explained WHY we had to wear dresses or skirts to our knees all the time.  We did it because we didn’t want to get in trouble.

Not knowing why you do or don’t do something is not solid grounds for a good conviction.  As soon as I graduated college, I ditched the skirts and tried on jeans for the first time in my life.  After having had to wear skirts for so many years, it was strange indeed to put on these “man clothes” (so termed in many fundamentalist circles).  I quickly grew used to the comfort and functionality of pants.  Every so often, I would make the five-hour-drive to my parents’ house over the weekend, showing off my new-found independence in my wardrobe.  They were disappointed in me and made no secret of it.  It shook my confidence a little, but I continued to wear them.  Why?  Well, because I could, of course!

Then I fell in love with a man who could care less whether I wore pants or skirts and was rather confused as to why this would ever be an issue.  We married, and I continued to wear pants for most occasions.  When I got a job teaching at a Christian school, I found out that I would have to wear skirts and dresses for the job.  Not only that, but the school also expected its teachers to dress the same way when out and about so as to represent the school in the best possible manner.  This was no problem – I knew how to play this game.  I had done it my whole life.  I wore my modest knee-length skirts and dresses to school and to anywhere I thought I might run into someone from church.  I wore my pants everywhere else.  It was annoying to have to constantly think about it every day and plan my outfits accordingly.  One of my teaching responsibilities was to help out with “dress check” every day.  The high school girls had to pass by me, one by one, while I checked to be sure their outfits correctly matched the dress code laid out in the guide book. (remember that rule book?) I felt like such a hypocrite writing these girls up for extra ear piercings or skirts slightly too short or shirts slightly too tight.

I was blessed to find out I was pregnant after teaching there just a year.  Our first child surprised us by coming early and by being a girl!  We were flooded with beautiful dresses and adorable pants outfits for her, and I had a blast dressing her up every day.  Our second child arrived just fourteen months after his sister.  At that time, I had an opportunity to go visit my parents so that they would see their new grandchildren.  Chris couldn’t get out of work to go; so I went alone.  It was a great time of staying with my parents and making some memories.  My dad had left a book called Dressing for the Lord on my bed, to read “if I had some spare time.”  Honestly, I was very resentful at first, but curiosity got the better of me and I finished the book in one night.  I thought the Holy Spirit was convicting me through that book that I should once again abstain from wearing pants and instead embrace my femininity by wearing skirts and dresses only.  I tearfully called my husband and told him of my decision.  He was baffled by it but supported me if I felt that was what I really wanted to do.

And so the pendulum swung back.  I got rid of all my pants and filled my closet with long dresses and a collection of denim skirts.  I felt “right with God” after making this decision.  I started dressing my little eighteen-month-old daughter in skirts also and requested that family only buy her appropriate skirts and dresses.  My husband’s family didn’t understand, but I knew it was just because they hadn’t been convicted yet.  That was okay, I reassured myself, they would come to the light sooner or later.

Happily, I continued on in my skirts-wearing life.  If doubts ever whispered in my mind, I quickly pushed them away with the firm thought that this was a conviction from God.  When uncertainty presented itself in questions from new converts or neighbor friends, I rattled off the things I had learned in the book to reassure myself.

And I was happy.  I was happy because I thought I was better than a lot of other people.  It’s shocking even now for me to write that, but it was true.  I felt more spiritual and more pleasing to God in my skirts.  I turned my nose up at the ones who claimed to be Christians but still wore jeans.  I would never have admitted it then, but I rated people’s spirituality on how they dressed.  One day, while waiting to pick up my son from preschool, I chatted with another mom and told her about a fun event that was coming up at our church.  When I extended an invitation to her family to come, she fell silent.  “Oh, are you busy that day?” I asked her.  “No, it’s just that I feel so out of place there, you know, not dressed up or anything.”  I knew exactly what she meant.  She felt judged, looked-down-upon, because she chose to wear pants.  I hurried to tell her that that was not the case, that she could wear anything she wanted, but my words fell flat even on my own ears.  It suddenly hit me that was one of the people she felt judged by!  And, later, when the day settled down and I finally had time to organize and examine my thoughts, I saw it to be true.  My wearing skirts and dresses was not an act of obedience to the Holy Spirit; it was just a way for me to express to the world just how spiritual I thought I was.

Rocked by this realization, I dropped to my knees and begged my heavenly Father’s forgiveness.  Then I faced my dilemma.  What was right?  I had vacillated from skirts to pants and back to skirts again, swayed by the people around me instead of rooted in His Word.  I returned to the Bible and studied what it said regarding how to dress.  I was surprised to see that it didn’t say much on the issue.  The more I studied, the more I realized that it wasn’t an issue at all.  It was not an issue of skirts-versus-pants: it was an issue of the heart.  If my heart was filled with self-righteousness and pride, it didn’t matter what I was wearing on the outside.

I stopped worrying so much about what I was wearing.  I stopped judging others on what they were wearing.  This gave me the freedom to realize that I could be perfectly modest and feminine in pants and in skirts.  When the focus was moved from my CLOTHING to my HEART, it changed everything.

Well, almost everything.  We still went to the church where the majority of women wore skirts and dresses constantly.  If you served in any kind of ministry at the church, you were required to wear them.  Every Sunday, I agonized over what to wear.  Sunday mornings became a unpleasant time of trying to be sure my daughters’ clothes and my clothes were acceptable.  Were they modest enough?  Were they the right style?  At church, it was said that they welcomed everyone, even if they dressed differently.  Of course, as soon as someone accepted Christ as her Savior, church folks worked very hard to show her that changing the way she dressed was an “act of obedience to God.”  Those that refused and continued to wear pants became outsiders, excluded from the inner circle at church.  It was exhausting to try to keep up with it all.

We left that church last year.  Since then, we have found a new church home where the focus is on Christ, not on what you wear.  It took quite a bit of time for me to break the habit of taking a lot of time in choosing my outfit and getting ready for church.  Now, I get to focus on the beautiful worship music and the amazing truths from God’s Word, and I don’t think twice about what I am wearing or what anyone else is wearing, for that matter.

Come to think of it, this was just one of those many rules that bound me to a Pharisaical life of trying to please God.  Once I broke free, I had to focus on my heart.  Following a man-made rule on how to dress was a lot easier than facing the pride and self-righteousness in my heart.  Thank God for grace and mercy and for complete freedom in Him!