Still Life for Christmas

As I sit, still, in the curated Christmas décor of my living room, I see in the imperceptibly shifting sunbeam, the motionless candle-powered nativity carousel. Like me, it is locked in still life. In a week, it will be spinning above the flicker of flame, Mary always flowing backward round the center pillar, with Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men chasing her forward, Jesus sleeping blissfully in the middle. Likewise, I will be flitting around the kitchen trying to turn back time to get all the baking done, while my kids chase each other from activity to activity, my husband blissfully enamored with his game on his first day off of work. 

Christmas Carousel for "Still Life at Christmas" for kimberleymulder.com
Christmas Carousel by Kimberley Mulder

In my still life today I consider the stillness. I revel in it and welcome it, especially after the full weeks preceding.

Still life paintings have always repelled and attracted me. In one sense they seem futile—why capture a bowl of fruit on canvas for ages to come? Was the fruit so special it deserved a legacy beyond its ripe lifetime? What message is there in such common things?

What an oxymoron—“still” “life”! Life is, by definition, not still. It is characterized by growth, activity, and change.

In another sense still life artwork captures, and creates, a beauty otherwise missed. We can enter, at any time, a glad contemplation of these exquisite momentary gifts. Their legacy, born of stillness, is the growth of wonder and gratitude, of seeing the world a different way.

On the wall to my left is another nativity scene, inanimate in its painted composition, but it elicits in me wonder and gratitude, focusing me when I am still enough to look at it—to enter it. Frequently it is in stillness that we can find life.

 “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

Cody F. Miller's "Birth of Jesus" for "Still Life at Christmas" blog at kimberleymulder.com
Picture of Cody F. Miller’s “Birth of Jesus”

The flurry of our efforts can bring us closer to death, to stillness. When we carelessly rush about, trying to make things happen without considering their purpose, their toll, their role in our lives, we will fray. Our physical bodies will tell us in its relentless mental fog, high blood pressure, aching muscles, headaches, anxious sleeplessness, and more. This psalm was written most likely in the midst of war, in the midst of trying to save themselves from attack, and in the middle of that, he says: “Be still.”

Is your December feeling more like a preparation for a battalion to go to war with all the logistics of schedules, provisions, and preparedness? Is your body trying to get your attention? Is God?

“Be still.”

Your life, body and soul, depend on it.

Be still in God. He’s got this. Like in the psalm, it’s his actions that protect us, provide for us. He wants to be with us. And isn’t that what Christmas is about? Emmanuel—God with us, infusing our lives with the rejuvenating stillness of being together, of faith. The legacy of the still life of our fruit bowl of the soul is a rioting, wild world around us slowly taking notice, as the exquisite characteristics of our still lives in the spirit catch their eyes. And then the rest of verse 10 erupts: “I will be exalted in the earth,” as wonder at our solid faith draws people into their own still and solid lives with Emmanuel.

How to Unpack Your Burdens with Jesus

“Come to me, you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your soul. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matt. 11:28-30

It is hard to receive these life-giving words into our hearts, despite our desperate “I want it!” Why?

There may be many reasons, but mine is most often an unwillingness to unpack my dirty underwear. Let me explain.

I am currently facing too many assignments, far more than I can accomplish in a day than is realistic even if I were not tired, and I am weary from weeks of responsibilities, challenges, and new things. I have deep problems to pray about that require time and attention and energy and intentionality—four things I feel I don’t have. But God does have these. And he is the one that called me into all these labors. So, it’s not that I am to ditch my backpack of calling, job, roles, and labors. All I can do at the moment is labor under it into God’s presence.

So I come, Jesus, I come as I am—overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, and dismayed. And before I confess the various sins that are apparent here, I simply sit with you in this morass, my backpack on but in your presence, for to wrest my burdens from me now would be an act of denial and unacceptance. I don’t want to be too quick to separate myself from something I have allowed to define me. I would only succeed in pretending the pack isn’t there. I’d simply be ignoring it like the so-called elephant in the room. So I sit with the weight of it on my back, acknowledging I’m carrying it.

You see me. You see my discomfort, the exhaustion in my posture, the sweat on the sides of my face and sticking in my hair. You see my desire to do what you’ve asked of me, you see that it is love that first moved me up this mountainside with a pack too heavy. You see my self-condemnation that I am worn out, and I am only at the base of the mountain, my disbelief that I will ever climb the entire thing. You see my worry that I will not figure out how to do this. You see my judgment of my insufficiency—and that that is actually a judgment of you. Now, I’m angry. Angry that you have not equipped me better, angry that you should demand so much of me, angry that there is a cost to my family and to my time spent doing things I like. There is fear that all ahead is dogged drudgery instead of the joy that first led me to take all this on. There is fear that the joy you’ve unearthed for me the last few years is now going to suffocate under a massive pile of responsibility and trial.

I’ve come to you and I’m unpacking my bag. I am not confessing or asking forgiveness—yet. That will come after I’ve unpacked the burden of these emotions and thoughts. They tumble helter skelter about me as I audaciously toss each crumpled emotion out of the pack like dirty underwear. You wanted me to come to you and unpack my burden? Well, here you go, the unedited, unpacked me.

And still you are there, unoffended, patient, watching me without incredulity or judgment or bated breath. You knew what I had packed in my bag. You knew I’d be at this point on my journey and you met me here. You aren’t looking away, embarrassed and uncomfortable. Rather, you are relieved, glad, welcoming. You get up from where you’ve been listening, reach for my hand with a smile, and invite me to keep walking.

“But what about my stuff? Aren’t we going to deal with that? Shouldn’t I pick it up?”

“No, leave it there. Let’s walk.”

Two people walking up hill
Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas from Pexels

 

Step Aside A Moment

When life is coming at you full-on force, clarity and intention drain away in the torrent like watercolors bloated with water. The picture we were so carefully painting becomes nondescript, even unrecognizable.

water spray window
Photo by Kimberley Mulder


These weeks tailing our summer feel like this, and I am gasping. At a time when I have emptied my reserves, I find I must rally all strength—not to push through the onslaught necessarily, but to shelter and rest.

Automatically, I push back at force to prove you can’t get me down, and it can seem too vulnerable to go with the flow. It requires strength of spirit, mind, and will to step aside into a quiet space, remember and renew my intentions, and trust I am not losing ground as I catch my breath.
But in these lulls Jesus blots the swollen, running colors until the picture is recognizable again. He is creating my life with me and it is his brushstroke that becomes permanent on my page, not the tearing, striking stormrains motley mess.

So step aside a moment today, take a breath, clear your vision, and let Jesus paint your picture.

Shortly after writing this first part I stopped at the lake nearby to clear my mind. God gave me a speech in the fluid painting of sky, the rush of cloudburst, the whisper of water lapping, the silent wing of swallows, and the flow of colors mutely inscribing awe as it seeped into my heart’s depth with their molten heights. 

sunset over Alum Creek
Photo by Kimberley Mulder

My heart rested in new understanding, in something I didn’t even know I needed to know until God said it through his sunset speech. A sudden intuitive understanding rose within like the glowing gilding of the clouds in relief before me, causing my own cloudburst of relieving tears. And as the sun sank beyond my horizon, I laid some things to rest that had passed away and needed to be let go.

Now the new day can rise without the burden of the old.

I encourage you to turn aside into quiet pockets when life is blasting you with busy-ness or trial to reorient yourself and receive Jesus’s loving strength.

 

I hope and pray you are encouraged by these blog posts, and that your quiet soul is thriving. I want to provide more resources for you, and to do that I have a short questionnaire for you to give me feedback. If you would take a moment to fill it out, it will help me bless you as I build and grow this little ministry. Thank you!

Click here to access the questionnaire.

Also, I am embarking on my Master’s in Ministry at Portland Seminary starting in a week! As I become more equipped to assist you with your spirit thriving, I will need to dial back my blog posts to twice a month rather than weekly. As always, feel free to contact me, comment, share my posts on Facebook, and follow me on Instagram @writerkimberleymulder. I will often write short, in-the-moment, thoughts and observations on Instagram, so it’s a good way to stay in touch.

Jesus is Present to You

It is such a gift when someone really listens to you. You can tell by her uncrossed arms, attentive eyes, and thoughtful questions. She makes you feel welcomed, validated, and loved. Somehow this friend has succeeded in putting aside her preoccupations, her concerns, her agendas, her life, for you!

She asks a question, born of her careful listening, that stuns you with clarity, like sunlight suddenly caught and intensified through a magnifying glass, bearing down on your soul with brilliant accuracy. Maybe her question broke open a festering wound, maybe it sealed an ache with healing, maybe it removed obstacles and shone a way forward, maybe it released you from a prisoning thought, but in some way the Holy Spirit used her attentiveness to bring you closer to Him. She ministered to and served you with her willingness to truly listen.

Two people listening on a park bench
Photo by Kaboompics.com from Pexels

“For even the Son of Man did not come expecting to be served by everyone, but to serve everyone…” Mark 10:45 TPT

Jesus had a way of paying such close attention that he got under people’s walls and defenses. He was so in tune with people’s souls that he frequently asked questions they themselves didn’t realize they needed to be asked. These questions were often so accurate that people felt uncomfortable and vulnerable in his presence. Sometimes they couldn’t stand it and walked away, like the rich young man in Mark 10. Others braved the awkwardness, intrigued by Jesus, and trusted his take on them, which always resulted in a freed and rejoicing person.

The Samaritan woman (John 4) who could have bristled defensively at Jesus’ insight into her adultery is a dramatic example of this. Instead, she responded to Jesus’ insight because he knew her so well, yet didn’t avoid her, even inviting her to know him. Had Jesus been consumed by his own thirst, sore feet, and getting to Galilee rather than being available to listen and speak into this jaded lady’s problems, she would never have known the grace of God.

Very rarely did Jesus command anyone without having listened to them. The majority of his interactions were with people coming to him, coming into his presence and asking him questions, to which he listened and most often answered with another question meant to make them consider their hearts, souls, and wills.

People swarmed him, inundating him with requests for healing, and peppering him with moral tests. He so often asked the simplest of questions, like “What do you want?” or “What do you need?”

He could see that he had to demonstrate how God is present to them, listening and aware of their depths even more than they were aware of themselves, because his agenda was for people to be with him. He made Presence his agenda.

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” John 15:4

He wants nothing more than to be with you, today and forever. He wants to be present to you, and you to be present to him. Being with you is Jesus’ greatest desire! His agenda is to serve you with his presence and you to serve Him with yours.

So, take five minutes to imagine Jesus sitting with arms uncrossed, eyes focused and attentive on you, really listening. Then, what thoughtful (maybe pointed!) question does he ask you? Sometimes you will feel the question before you hear the words. Welcome the feeling (even if it’s uncomfortable) and allow him to clarify into words what is going on inside of you.

As you regularly practice being present with Jesus, you will find that you are less preoccupied with your own things, able to really listen to others and to Jesus at the same time, so that He is able to speak through you and minister to others.

 

Where Can I Find Peace and Quiet?

My soul hungered for quiet with just Jesus. With an unexpected hour of uninterruption before me, I took the opportunity. I rushed to the bench we usually meet at, and hurriedly sat down to commence “The Time of Being Present” (cue soundtrack indicating an important moment!).

Only I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t stop talking. I felt as if tiny flashes of electricity were flowing under the surface threatening to shock me into action any second. I kept flicking my eyes to see who might be coming, ready to look busy. And Jesus wouldn’t say anything! He just sat there. 

In my discomfort I began to realize that Jesus was holding the quiet for me because I couldn’t.

He was guarding our peace, refusing to bow to the busy-ness of my brain. He remained in quiet peace, because it was in him. There is no confusion in him, no conflict, no tug-of-war in his being, like there is in mine.

Awe washed over me, chasing my pesky, distracting thoughts away. 

Take a moment and let that sink in: Jesus holds the quiet for you.

When you are having difficulty quieting yourself, focus on Jesus, knowing He is there holding the quiet for you. Be willing to surrender your thoughts to his. You could say, “I’m here, Jesus, and I want to lay down my thoughts to hear yours. I welcome you.” Then allow Him to be quiet with you, allow Him to speak to you, allow Him to show you something. Whatever He chooses to do with you, He does for you, not against you, with your best interests in mind. 

Sometimes that means saying nothing, just being present.

Why should a Christian practice “being present”?

For some Christians, practicing being present sounds too other religion-y, too “out-there”, too vague. To Christians who love the “go” of the gospel, who find purpose in a mission, and joy in activity, being told to “be present” is too inactive, even a trap of the devil to stop the forward motion of the kingdom. Aren’t we supposed to be looking forward to Jesus’ coming and the full expression of his kingdom? Yes, we are. Aren’t we supposed to turn from our old selves? Yes, we are. But these are not the only aspects of following Jesus. We follow him today, too.

So, why is it important for a Christian to be present? And what does it mean?

First, although God spoke the Bible into being in the past, His word is alive and active today. He has also embedded every “today” with his presence. In Hebrews 4:7, 9-12a, it says:

God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David,…

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish… For the word of God is alive and active.

When you read a certain passage and it strikes you as especially pertaining to you in the moment, that is the Holy Spirit speaking today.

To those who are compelled to go and tell, do and act, it is important to recognize daily that Jesus does not only live in the future of heaven, but in today. Let that future inform the present, but not take its place. In our eager anticipation, let us not gloss over the realities of today.

Second, our creating, life-giving God is making today and gifting it to us who live in it. He has purposes for it and for us. God speaks in Isaiah 55:10-11:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

All time is in his hands, for he made it. In Isaiah 46:10 he says, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.” Yes, he has created us for eternal life and called us into His promises, but He is giving us life today to live that out now.

Third, to be present means three things for a Christian:

1) to be attentive to God in the moment,

2) that we are called to be his disciples today, not living nostalgically for a real or imagined past, or living with disdain for today because we think the future is the only place we will find happiness and fulfillment,

3) that we are able to attend and minister to others without our own thoughts and concerns taking precedent.

The biggest difference between the practice of being present within other spiritual traditions and Christianity is that a Christian is seeking and experiencing God in the moment as His beloved creation. We are listening to God in the moment.

Jesus left heaven with its lack of time, to enter our here and now at a very specific time. He did not live longing for the past, or ignoring the importance of today because of the future. He lived in Mary’s now, and Joseph’s now, and Peter’s now. Then he sent the Holy Spirit to be our present help in the todays that followed in which we now live. In John 14:26 He says, “The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you.”

I will elaborate in another post how practicing being present helps Christians minister to others. For now, may I merely point out that when we are present with God regularly, our worries and preoccupations dim because we are able to leave them in his hands, thus making more compassionate space within ourselves to minister to others.


Now, I am by no means an expert on other religions, but I wanted to make an effort to point out some important lessons we can learn from others who practice presence far more frequently, as well as some fundamental differences.

In yoga, it is an exercise, a practice, meant to waken you to yourself on the way to perfection. While Christians do not share the same belief that self-awareness will make us perfect, there are some lessons we can take from yoga. For example, “Yoga uses the simple clarity of the body as a means to bring the mind into presence. Rather than just dictating actions to the body, the deepest yoga practice teaches the mind how to listen to the body in the pure light of awareness without judgment or expectation.”

This stance of listening without judging or expectation is necessary for Christians too. Jesus listened deeply, and he did not cast judgment, reserving that for the Father when He deems the time right. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” John 3:17.

While Zen Buddhism recognizes that we are limited beings, it denies God, certainly a personal, loving God. But it does recognize that the problem lies within us. Christians go further and name it sinfulness.

“It’s how our mind handles those external forces [like interruptions, conflict, pressure and chaos] that is the problem.”

This is true. We try to solve things on our own, without God. No matter how brilliant we are intellectually, how emotionally intelligent, we are still sinful, including Christians, so our natural bent is toward broken, independent-of-God solutions.

Practicing being present, which really puts us in touch with the experience of being a creation and beloved at the same time, helps us to humbly accept this again, and find God in the here and now.

In Buddhism of a more general nature, practicing being present is a way to be released from suffering, from the attachments we make with our expectations and desires. Ultimately, Buddhists deny any permanent, essential soul and self, so practicing presence is a way of losing those attachments that create the illusion of self. This is very different from why a Christian practices presence!

Christians recognize the permanent eternity of our souls, that God created each and every unique one, and when we are present we are allowing ourselves to be aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence. It is much like paying close attention, so close that we forget our own concerns and preoccupations, to a dear friend.

To those who acknowledge the inspired word of God, the historical humanity of Jesus’ divinity on earth, and base their lives on God’s past actions and the promise of His future actions, it is important to be open to His presence and action in today.

 

 

On Being Present Today (When You’d Rather Be in Yesterday or Tomorrow)

I am currently in a temporal vortex of sorts having just returned from a fantastic, fulfilling mission trip that lingers in my happy memories and draws me back from today, yet driven forward by the hope and plans of the future that require a time investment today. So here I sit in the heart of the year, in the heat of today sandwiched between two mountains gazing at their tantalizingly cold and clear summits. In the hazy swirl of the valley lies my today, the heavy traffic of an eight-member household, a job, hobbies, and responsibilities all bustling about me, confusing me with their incessant demands to decide now, today, on this and that. Like a helium balloon that cannot but rise because of the nature of the gas inside, my spirit rises above the smog and noise of today to those summits behind and before me.

How can I tether my spirit to today? How can I keep my attention on these busy, tiring, immediate moments in this six-week long valley when I just want to escape into the summit of yesterday or run headlong into the trails of tomorrow? How can I even enjoy being present now when I find today taxing, boring, unpleasant, and tedious? I even ask why must I?

The simple reason is that Jesus is in today. He made today; he gave it to me and to you, and he weaves his love and purposes into it, especially into its unwelcome circumstances. He does not flee the difficult, the despairing, the darkest of days. He does not live like a hermit on mountaintops. He lives now in whatever rain or sun, haze or clarity, storm or serenity surrounds us. Jesus holds my ballooning spirit in the here and now.

Jesus grounds me. He keeps me present even as he calls me forward into his promises and plans, even as I remember with nostalgia his bold presence in the past.

If you find it hard to wrest yourself free of a happy past to face the trials in today, or you are looking forward in anticipation to a hopeful tomorrow, entrust those times to God, and look for Jesus today. He is “I am”. He is holding you today. He is speaking today. He is present today. And he wants you to be present, too. As you pay attention to him in the moment you will find that He has grace for you today. He has guidance for you today. He has love for you today. He has purpose for you today.

When I stopped lingering my gaze on the mountaintops, I found Jesus ready to help me navigate an intense conflict, I found him urging me to pray with someone, I found him bringing joy into simple things around me, I found grace for my fatigue, I found wonder in his word.

My present circumstances require grace, focus, lots of decision-making small and large, and they easily tire me because they require my weaker skill sets. Even in this, I can base my day on the promise that in my weakness, he is strong.

In my weakness, I want to escape, float off into the past or the future, but His strong hand holds me here as He walks me through each day, aided and anchored, until I have traversed these busy streets into the quieter mountain trails foreseeable in my future adventures.

So, if you, like me, are finding your present days arduous, are tempted to mentally stay in the pleasant past, or are eagerly anticipating a future that dulls your today, join me this month as we focus on being present in the present to God and to others. Let’s discover the gift of Jesus in our todays together.

Here on the blog each week I’ll be putting up another post on being present, so be sure to look for those. You can also follow me on Instagram for more frequent, shorter encouragements and thoughts at @writerkimberleymulder. I share my posts, thoughts, and those of others on my page on Facebook @kimberleymulderwriter.

Courage Amid Worries

Four a.m. is a sly hour. Sometimes I can slide past it in oblivion, other times it wakes in my sub-conscious as a bright new dawn, a photo-bomber of my picture perfect slumber. Last night, it shed its camouflage, and grinned widely at me, enjoying the time to toy with my mind. This is the hour that is raw; the vulnerable, naked time. It is as if all the swaddling comes off my psyche, and I’m left in the crib flailing and wailing (if awake), or completely at peace (if asleep). Honestly, this hour intimidates me.

Last night was one of those unpleasant rousings where the ugly thoughts come out to haunt and ridicule. At this time of night, I’m not laced into focus, my mind is not nimble, and the shrouding darkness leaves a perfect place for me to be ambushed. Unguarded, unfocused, and vulnerable, I am rather like an infant who cannot control herself, let alone protect herself.

For an hour in the dark, I ricocheted between what I call “worrying prayer” and brainstorming solutions. “Worrying prayer” is babbling all my thoughts, like a litany of desperation, without pause or presence. Essentially, I am bombarding God’s ear with my worry. He is gracious and allows me this, but I have learned that I cannot possibly receive an answer in this state. Have you ever tried to talk reason, or love, into someone wound up like a top in their worried spiraling? It’s like speaking to an infant who doesn’t talk yet. He or she really doesn’t have the capacity to take it in. Likewise, worry occupies all the available circuits to take in these words of comfort or guidance, so nothing can attach to brake the spiral.

I have taught my children to pray in these moments, to bend whatever power of thought they have toward the eternal light of Jesus’ love, to spend their minutes remembering and calling for his help. They have told me of numerous times that Jesus has come and settled them, even within nightmares. This is what I was attempting to do at four o’clock in the morning.

In between ricochets, I kept telling myself to remember that this is a vulnerable time for my spirit, that I have an enemy who wants to distract and dismay, and to recall what the Lord has been speaking to me regarding these things I’m worrying about. Essentially — Be still, Kimberley! Hold your plank! (See last week’s post about holding your plank to develop courage in stillness.)

As I spun around again and again, these internal reminders acted as a visual anchor to my spinning soul, like watching your parent standing patiently at the side of the spinning ride. Even though my mind continued its circuits, I knew peace awaited me. When the mental gyrations slowed enough for me to set foot on the solid ground of truth, I looked intensely for Jesus. I needed my woozy brain to lock into peace.

If you’ve ever gotten off a merry-go-round, a tilt-a-whirl, or any other spinning amusement park ride, you know that finding a focal point for your eyes will ease your head back to stability. As my whirling mind slowed and moved tentatively forward, I asked Jesus for a word, a feeling, something to help ground me and keep me from orbiting back out into anxiety.

Immediately, he gave me a picture. I saw him, not in great detail but definite in presence, stooping low to look me in the eye, motioning with his hand to keep my eyes locked on his. We were entering a narrow passageway in a cave.

I suffer a mild claustrophobia at times. I don’t like narrow caves. Once, in Colorado, I balked at one, almost returning to the surface and waiting for the others. But the guide told me its dimensions, and my husband and he would go before and after me, talking with me to keep me calm. Knowing the length made it manageable; knowing I had help made it possible. I did it, which helped me in future times when I faced a similar challenge.

To add exquisite depth to this story, the reason I was in this precarious state at four in the morning was because we are taking financial risks at the Lord’s leading. I am way outside my comfort zone. Our finances are tight, and likely getting tighter. Cave analogy, anyone?

Not only now for my sleep-addled brain high on adrenaline, but also for the time to come with its consequences regarding our daring choices and the looming “what-ifs”, Jesus gave me exactly what I needed: “Lock your eyes on me. I will lead you through this tight space.”

This is a word that is especially rich personally for the present moment, but its reverberations stretch into eternity. Not only is he speaking peace and courage into my present heart palpitations, but he comforts with the promise that as I follow him through these tight financial places at his bidding, like a camel going through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), my future is secure (Matthew 19:29).

If you, like me, are feeling the pull of a worry spiral, expend your energy on remembering who God is, what He has said to you personally, and focus all your attention on Him. When a moment settles, ask Him to fill it with His presence, a word, a picture, some grace to latch on to.

May you find the ground beneath you,

As you step off the worry-go-round,

Focused amid the trembling,

Sure, maybe not of your steps,

But of His care,

His purpose,

His Love,

Presence,

Peace.

Courage Gains Strength in Stillness

Nascent courage feels much like a sprig of hope, slenderly strong in the cold earth rising to the call of the white light above. Fragile, yet powerful, in its miniscule multiplication, cell upon cell of mitochondrial factories.

Scoff not at the small beginning. Trample not the greening of an idea under the solstice of God. He rises, like the sun, for just such a reason. He bends his power, as the sun sends its rays, to this greening earth to call forth these courageous beginnings.

Sometimes a seed lies long in the dark earth, then someone “happens” to kick a clod away, just enough to make the difference between dormant dream and lifting life. When hope has lain buried for long, in order for courage to rise and respond, our hope needs to be called forth. What draws us out of our sheltered shells is, most often, love.

Without love we will lack courage. So, if you are at a crossroads and struggling to be courageous, pause and consider whether you have lost your sense of belovedness. Consider whether you have been pushing forward out of duty rather than in response to love. Are you being led by love, or pushed by fear? When we push forward because we are afraid, we are reacting, not discerning; we are controlling and manipulating, not receiving and moving in peace. This is not courage; this is fear.

Courage is refusing to react to fearful circumstances with desperate action; instead, it is rooting action to burrow into love, scaring the fear away with tenacious trust.

Suppose that, if it could, the greening tendril sprouting from the mud should react to an onslaught of icy rain by moving, or quickly throwing a shelter over itself? It would die because it was no longer in the ground, nor getting the nourishing water. That onslaught, terrifying as it is, actually feeds it. When we react in fear, we could be refusing the very water our courage needs in order to grow.

Courage is bracing our hopes with Love. It is the action of choosing to be patiently still in the storm, attentively focused on the leading of He who loves us. Uncertainty could be your storm. Attack, need, conflict, or busyness could be your storm. Regardless of the nature of the storm you are in, refuse to be swept up in it, refuse to be tangled. Set your mind and heart on agreement with the Lord – which can only be love. Focus your attention, not on the solution to your particular dismay, but on the Lord’s love for you. Dig into it and stay there. From this courageous place, dug into Love, you will receive strength and understanding of what to do and when.

If you have ever held a plank exercise, you will understand the strengthening action of stillness. In this exercise, you have only your hands and toes on the floor supporting your body stretched as if it were a straight board head to toe over the floor. It requires, and develops, a great deal of active strength to hold this still pose for very long.

So, if you are weathering a storm around your just-sprouted hopes, hold your plank! Brace yourself! Be still, knowing God.

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging…

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:1-3,10 NIV)

For now, you will feel the pain of holding it, you will not notice the growth in your muscle of courage, but afterward, you will not be uprooted, you will be strong, focused, and courageous.

In my own life, I have had to do this repeatedly.

In my twenties, crisis pulled me out of the international ministry life I had just embarked upon. In the stillness of my sickness, I struggled to know God’s love in my experience. He was there, but the strain of spiritual and emotional endurance, like burning muscles, screamed for my attention and often drowned out the soft touches of love. When the assault of illness ended, I wobbled out with a weak, but healed, body, and a battered, but tenacious spirit. 

That was twenty years ago, this August. Two years before that (twenty-two years ago), I had followed Jesus out of my plans to be a musician and into his plans to put me in ministry. At the time, the shape of my ministry was teaching English in Ukraine. But after my illness, it dissolved and I could not see it. The clarity had shattered and melted into the ground where it nourished my life, but remained unseen. For twenty years I’ve known it rests there, but I’ve been unable to draw it to the surface into a solid shape.

Two years ago or so, after many efforts to draw this latent desire into life (out of fear that I had no purpose), Jesus drew me back into stillness – for a year! I dug into him, and held my plank. Unlike other times of waiting, this time was warm with joy, rich with experiences with Jesus, and had a sense of incubating new life. From it new ideas germinated from old loves that had lain buried so deeply that only the Lord knew where to find them.

Just like the plank exercise works on your core muscles, the stillness of this time developed a core courage upon which I am growing new strength. For the last year, I have looked many of my fears in the eye. Fears like, “Who cares if I write?” “I’m going to face critics; I don’t think I can.” “Am I jeopardizing my kids’ futures with the sacrifices my choices are making?” And on and on. Through many interactions, Jesus lead me forward against these fears. At one key point, I realized that I would eternally regret not trying. That was a decisive blow to many of my fears and cleared the path for me.

He is leading me into the impossible, which is another name for miraculous. That ministry which dissolved into the ground of my life twenty-two years ago, He is powerfully inviting forth with his sunshine, his call of love. And it’s not the shape of a singular plant, like I thought it would be. It is an entire field! From it, he is coaxing a writing ministry, a vocation, and one specific international opportunity.

In a month, my family of five will be going with a team from our church to central Asia to minister to ministers. There is a retreat for missionaries in central Asia where we will minister to the kids, while their parents’ spirits are encouraged and empowered in the adults’ sessions. This caring for the spirits of the “frontline” leaders is exactly what Jesus has called into life in my vocational field.

It is also an opportunity that we have prayed for, for twelve years! We adopted our oldest from this country and planned and prayed about taking her back when she was twelve to sixteen. Not only do we get to delve into her ethnic background and culture, but we get to invest in it!

To answer this call, we’ve had to exercise courage financially, by sacrificing, and by asking for help. Again, love leads us into this, and we ask that you listen to Jesus to see if He is asking you to help us with your donation and your prayers.

If so, please donate at gofundme.com using your credit card (this is not tax-deductible) or send checks (this is tax-deductible) to:

Vineyard Columbus

Attn: Jackie Williams, International Ministries

6000 Cooper Road

Westerville, OH 43081

Include a note (but not on the memo line): Mulders, Central Asia Trip.

I will be sharing here, on the blog, during the trip what God is doing, so be sure to check in for pictures and stories! We are so excited to see and be a part of what God is doing there! Thank you for being a part of our little story.

In what areas do you want to “hold your plank”, maintaining a stillness locked into God’s love? How has love called you into something scary and how are you responding? Have you been courageous because of love? Share your stories in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Being Hospitable is Central to Following Jesus

Being hospitable is all about making space, a push to the jumble of our commitments, a pull of invitation for someone to enter despite the topsy-turvy evidence of messy, beautiful lives.

Whether having someone come to my place or meeting someone elsewhere, if you are like me, you have a mental, maybe physical, closet stash of hustled miscellany out of sight. These thoughts tumble into my mental space frequently, like ubiquitous dust bunnies floating about the space. Mental dustpan in hand, I sweep these distractions up again so that I can direct my attention to my friend.

This making space – temporal, mental and physical — is hard. I confess, as an introvert, it is all too easy to not rise to the challenge, choosing instead to let TV and books entertain me. It is easier to anesthetize the bunny thoughts, ignore the mess about me, and not interact.

Sometimes I have approached hospitality as an encroachment on my turf, something to be tolerated out of necessity, or a cost of following Jesus. It’s as if I see myself as a can of soda in God’s vending machine, out of which I am dispensed to be drunk dry in service to others. Can you see how fear-based this is? These are the times my decisions to be hospitable are not led by love, but are pushed by fear.

Usually, I am a decisive person. I get things done. I soldier file my thoughts and march them through my project-filled day like a general issuing complicated drills, so why do they trip over hospitality?

Because I haven’t been committed to it, not like I am other noble things, such as prayer, or making healthy meals, or completing jobs for work, or preparing to lead a meeting. Remember those dust bunny thoughts I have to corral to pay attention to someone else? They are the natural result of a life lived to produce, to find its satisfaction in getting things done. These are the thoughts I am committed to, and, because they rule, they demand to be given precedent. I am afraid to give up time to “shooting the breeze” because there is an internal general barking orders to “get things done. You can be hospitable when the work is done, when you are off duty.” Inherent in this attitude is that hospitality is “just play”, a luxurious activity undertaken only after the work is done.

I only truly notice my lack of commitment to hospitality when I find I am in need of someone else’s. Then, I wonder who to turn to. I consider who has turned to me for a bit of welcome, and the past stretches behind like a savannah with sudden mounds of shrubbery sparsely greening a patch, for my hospitality is, at best, unsteady. It has lacked commitment. Strange for one who takes commitments seriously! But the reason follows.

Tucked succinctly in a litany of best practices, Paul wrote to the Romans to “practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13b NIV) The Greek word for “practice” actually better translates as “pursue”, meaning to press on, strive, or make every effort. Most notable is that hospitality is to be pursued just like righteousness, godliness, faith, gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11), the good (1 Thess. 5:15), love (1 Cor. 14:1 NIV), and peace (1 Peter 3:11 NIV).

Even though I have followed Jesus for thirty years, I did not know this! Until Natasha Red pointed this out in her five-day devotional on hospitality, I had not known the absolute importance practicing hospitality is to following Jesus. I have been wrestling with this conviction ever since! I am going through a mindset reset about being hospitable. 

This is what I’ve understood so far.

Hospitality is not a luxurious activity. It is not a superfluous activity. It is not peripheral or optional. It is essential. It is central. It needs to be woven into the fiber of our characters and exuded in all interactions as we go about our duties and activities. It is an attitude our hearts inhabit. That’s why we are hospitable.

Jesus made space to be with his Father regularly (Luke 5:16 NIV). He made space for everyone, even for the woman with the bleeding problem who was considered untouchable (Mark 5:25-34). He makes space for us, awaiting our approach, our turning, with delight. If ever there was an icon for being hospitable, Jesus was it! Notice it’s his character that is hospitable, his hospitality didn’t depend on a place to carry out his welcome. He did it without home to call his own! Everywhere he went, he ministered as he welcomed.

Ministry of any kind is really practicing hospitality. In ministry we intentionally make space for someone. So, conversely, hospitality is really practicing ministry. And through it, I grow and the kingdom of God grows. My capacity increases. Jesus knew this, he knew the vitality that hospitality gives us.

And that’s just it, as I make space for someone, intentionally sharing a piece of life with her, what I thought would overwhelm instead enlarges me. My experience, my heart, my understanding is enlarged as I make space for another. What is mine is not being chipped away and eroded, leaving an emptiness, rather, that space grows as we receive one another. This is what CAN happen when I stop thinking of MY time, MY quiet, MY space, remembering and actively believing it is Jesus’s. He provides it, He is the author of all best practices, and He teaches me to share it.

Practicing hospitality is no longer about what I have to offer, or how much I can give, or how much it will “cost” me.  Rather, it’s about the grace of God inviting and calling me into something bigger, something eternal, something essential.

As I commit to pursuing hospitality by allowing this attitude into my activities, infusing everything them, and shaping my character in the process, I expect I will find a rich and spacious world of blessing. I will be living in the kingdom of God on earth. It is described as a living, EXPANDING thing (Luke 13:19-21 NIV), not as God purchasing and dispensing with me to whomever needs me. I need not be concerned with running dry, because at the table of hospitality He is providing for me and my guest. Not only the guest eats at the table, but the host as well. We are both nourished. These are the transactions of God. We give, thinking we will be depleted, only to find that there is a filling in the giving, and we come away satiated. At least, that is how it is meant to be, how it can be when we pursue the things of God: righteousness, godliness, faith, gentleness, the good, love, peace and hospitality.