Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Story of the Bracelets

This morning, shortly after getting up, I put my laundry in basins to soak for a while before washing it by hand. But before I did, I first removed the six handmade bracelets from my right wrist so I could wash them too. Usually, I wear them 24/7 which means I have a “watch tan” on both wrists!

I’ve been meaning to write the story of these bracelets for a while, and for some reason now seems the right time to do it. I tried to look back at old blog posts and see what I had mentioned about them before, but didn’t find much. Maybe it’s been on Facebook that I’ve mentioned a bit about them.
Anyway, here’s the story. I hope it encourages those who read it somehow.

It started almost two years ago in April of 2013.

No, actually it started before that: in September of 2011 (my junior year of college). We had a visiting chapel speaker who was talking about being a slave of Christ, and the Holy Spirit was really challenging me and convicting me through his sessions. That same month, someone was selling handmade beaded jewelry on campus to help raise money for people in Africa. I had bought a simple black and white choker necklace.

As I thought and prayed about what God was reminding me of through the chapel speaker, I wanted to wear some physical reminder of Christ’s call on my life. So I started wearing the necklace each day, and it helped keep the choice to live my life as Christ’s slave in the forefront of my mind. But within a couple months, I had lost the necklace. I would guess it slipped off as I was walking across campus. I was disappointed at the loss, but life went on.

God had been teaching me and reminding me of so many things in college, following the spiritual revival He worked in my life in my third semester. Ever since August of 2011, one of those lessons had been about His love—especially in light of 1 John 4. You can read more about it here.

Fast forward to April 2013, my last semester of college. One of our campus ministries hosted an even featuring ballet dancing and some testimonies to help raise awareness about sexual trafficking. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but it took me back to the lesson of love, and I felt God calling me to live my life post-graduation intentionally loving others. Again, there was jewelry for sale, and so I bought a woven bracelet with pink and yellow flowers on a blue background as a reminder. I prayed that I would be a vessel of God’s love to those around me.

Bracelet #1: LOVE, 1 John 4 (esp. vs. 18) & John 13:34-35 – April 2013

After graduation, I had a couple of weeks at home before heading back up to Arkansas to join a missions trip from JBU to Northern Ireland. While there, we partnered with the local Youth for Christ in a small town running a VBS for the kids and doing other kid-focused ministry. We had a great team, and I still look back on that month as a special time. God knit our hearts together and to the kids in a unique way, and it was a blessing to be a part of that. I could see the seed of love growing and bearing fruit—certainly not perfectly, but it was there.

During our time there, we gals on the team twice invited the girls from the area to come hang out with us. In our preparation ahead of time, we had decided to make friendship bracelets with the girls. Trying to get 10 girls simultaneously set up for that activity was rather trying for my personality, and I ended up allowing it to put me in a bad mood. Later that night as I sat outside praying through some things, God reminded me that the character trait we had been teaching at VBS that morning was humility. The evening had clearly shown me that I needed the Holy Spirit to work the things we were covering with the kids in my life as well.

Later, possibly all the way in September after my summer internship, I took some of the extra threads from one of the girls’ bracelet that I had saved and braided a new bracelet. {Just this year I had to replace it, because it was a small braid and it wore out. But the colors are the same :)}

Bracelet #2: HUMILITY, Philippians 2:3 – June/Sept 2013

Things didn’t go the way I had expected between June and September. The internship I had thought I would love proved a lot more challenging; the job offer I assumed I would want didn’t come through after all. So I found myself back home with no definite prospects….until a door opened to come to Uganda for a short-term opportunity that could turn into something more permanent.

I liked wearing my bracelets as reminders. It made me think of the altars that God instructed the Israelites to build so that they would remember God’s work in their lives. So even before departing, I looked forward to making another bracelet in Uganda.

Within a few weeks, I was at work on one – in the colors and pattern of the Ugandan flag. This time the lesson was service and sacrifice. It has not been an easy lesson at all. I say “has” because I am still learning it. It didn’t take me long to realize that I need these reminders precisely because the lessons keep coming back around in circles. I haven’t “completed” any one of these goals—but I trust God that He is continuing to work these in me.

Bracelet #3: SERVICE/SACRIFICE, John 12:24-26 – Jan/Feb 2014

My time in Uganda was hard in deeper ways that I had thought it would be. By the time my commitment ended in May, I was so ready to return home. But at the same time, I looked forward to the offered opportunity to come back in a different capacity. As I left, I sensed that my next bracelet altar would be joy, that God would give me opportunity to delight in Him.

I made the bracelet during the drive back from Colorado after my brother’s graduation, a pink and purple square knot pattern, with tan thread as the unseen center. I hadn’t planned that, but later on reflection I could see a correlation. Joy does not mean there are no disappointing/challenging/blah times (like the tan threads). But it does mean that we can choose to focus on the joy that we can have in Christ, even in the midst of the hard times.

Unfortunately, this lesson is not one I lived out well in the following months. I tried to stuff the hardships rather than dealing with them. And stuffing doesn’t bring true joy, it just delays the healing. This was a choice I made, to push God away and to try and find “joy” (the fake sort) in the gratification of my more fleshly desires. And it is something I have had to repent of these last couple months. But thanks be to God for His grace & faithfulness in spite of my weakness!

Bracelet #4: JOY, Nehemiah 8:10 and Psalm 51:12 – May/June 2014

A couple months later, as I started getting in gear to return to Uganda, I wrestled some with what I would be giving up in the process. My hungering desire for a “real job,” one in line with what I studied and one which actually provided an income, nearly stumbled me one weekend. But in the process I realized that I knew nothing of sacrifice.

It was also a renewed call to trust in God’s faithfulness. This was, like love, not something new. It has been a recurring theme for me ever since that same summer of 2011. A lot of my blog posts on here have dealt with it in one way or another. But I am learning that it is one thing to agree intellectually that God is faithful and that I can trust Him. It is another thing to live it out in the daily walk of life.

And so, I spent several hours knotting a more complicated bracelet – often praying as I did so. It features orange fish swimming in a river of various blues.

Bracelet #5: TRUST & FAITH, Psalm 73:28 – August 2014

Coming back to this beautiful country was exciting, especially getting to see again the friends I had made before! Of course, it also brought with it a fair share of challenges. The biggest one has been gaining a more God-centered perspective (in contrast to Me-centered) regarding some of the events of my life—especially because that has often meant needing to take responsibility for the me-centered choices I had made at the time.

In the process, it is easy for me to start berating myself mentally for my shortcomings and mistakes. To hold that guilt and failure over my own head. When I turn to Christ in repentance, I found myself met each time with His acceptance and love and grace. I am learning that for Him, the past is the past. He does not impute my iniquities against me (Romans 4:8).

And so, when I have placed my past sins under the blood of Christ, I am FREE from that guilt! Not always immediately freed from the results of them, but there is no condemnation in Christ (Romans 8:1). Because of this, I can have hope for the future rather than being bound by the past.

These things came together into my most recent bracelet, an orange zigzag surrounded by light shades of yellow and green. As I was making it on a car ride down to Kampala, my fellow travelers were discussing the difference between guilt and conviction. I couldn’t help but smile at God’s timing!

Bracelet #6: FREEDOM & HOPE, John 8:34-36 & Romans 5:5
 – Jan/Feb 2015

So that brings my bracelet story up to date! Looking back, I can see that for much of this time (especially June 2013-May 2014) I have been trying to fulfill these lessons in my own strength. Which is rather arrogant and honestly just silly! In the last couple months, God has been reminding me that I am called to be His disciple, and to serve for His glory and His kingdom—not my own. It has been a timely lesson, and I am so thankful to know that He will continue the good work of transformation which He has begun in my life!

And so the journey continues :)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Learning to Live in Freedom

“‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free……Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32, 34-36).

It started a couple months ago when I was at Kobwin. When I was hesitant and unsure, one of the family mothers spoke words that went straight to my heart and embedded deeply there, beyond the surface details of the situation. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Be free.”

Be free.

Such simple words. But so easy to forget. Since that day, that same idea keeps popping up. So much so that my new bracelet became a combination of hope and freedom. (I haven’t posted the story about my bracelets. I’ll have to write that sometime soon.)

The Holy Spirit had been convicting me the past couple weeks (ever since I thought about & shared my testimony with my Institute class) that much of my life I have been bound by fear of one sort or another. Fear of failure/imperfection, fear of rejection, fear of not being in control (fear of misfortunes). And when fear is a major motivating factor in my life, it chases peace and joy.

Of course, I know with my head that I can’t keep myself from making mistakes in my own strength. I know that my identity must not be bound by what other people think of me (what “they say”). And I know that there’s no way I can prevent bad things from happening! But knowing the truth doesn’t always mean I live by it, sadly.

Almost two weeks ago, there was a situation in which I was trying to serve others out of my own strength, and probably for my own honor. But when my strength ran out, I started behaving rudely to the people around me. In those moments, I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t stop. I was exhausted, shattered by the end of it. I’ve been feeling that shattered, exhausted feeling a couple times since then….

Even as I was walking back to my house, I knew that I would need to apologize to some people. I can’t remember if I confessed it to God in prayer that night or the next morning……but as I thought about what had happened the following day, I fell into the old habit of berating myself for falling short of my own expectations. And God’s, right??

“You were behaving like such a brat!” I told myself, among other things. But as my mind thought that last word, it flew to a story in a childhood series I loved to read. At first, I wanted to ignore it as a rabbit trail, away from what I thought was important at the moment. But I felt the Spirit prompting me to remember the story.

{As a very brief explanation, the series is an allegory about God’s Story in three parts: Tales of the Kingdom, the Resistance, and the Restoration. The world is pictured in the first two as the Enchanted City, under the control of an evil emperor. The true King spends the first book living in exile, but he comes back to the city in the second book.}

In this particular chapter, young orphaned children are forced to work underground keeping the city’s massive sewage and power systems working. They are called Sewer Rats and Boiler Brats. And they live their lives bound in fear: fear that the city’s infrastructure will grind to a halt on their watch (as it often did), bringing a dreaded visit from the emperor or at least his evil henchmen. Which always brought punishment for failing what was really an impossible task.

But one night, the exiled King miraculously appears in their dark underground world. He offers them love, acceptance, and freedom—and he leads them out of the prison of fear back to his kingdom outside the borders of the Enchanted City. In his kingdom, there are no orphans. There are adopted sons and daughters.

I don’t know when I had last thought about that series—it had been a while. But God used that story, along with other things He has been reminding me of, to learn something “new” with my heart (of course, it’s not really new. Rather, it’s an old lesson. But it’s something which has often been stuck at a head knowledge level in my life).

So often, I fail. And when I fail, I mentally beat myself up over it. And I feel like God must be so disappointed in me. When I turn to Him and confess, I usually do so in an attitude of trying to humiliate myself before Him like the prodigal son tried to do. And so often, I find myself met with God’s grace and love and forgiveness and acceptance—not the condemnation I know so well I deserve. I know this is because through Christ’s finish work—wonder of wonders—God sees in me the righteousness of Christ.

That morning as I sat here thinking about my mistake, and yet the freedom I have in Christ from guilt and condemnation, God taught my heart in a deeper way than I had known before that the past is the past. It does no good to wallow in guilt and to hold onto that feeling that I have failed. I can never change the past. I can choose the present and hope for the future. But the choice is not one I am required to make in my own strength – and the hope is not an empty, wishful thinking. Both are guided and guarded by Christ. And the past? Its mistakes are wiped clean by Christ.

I don’t by any means wish to cheapen God’s grace. That is, of course, the danger with such a line of thinking. Paul felt the same tension in Romans 5:20-6:1ff. But just yesterday I was part of a conversation in which we were discussing the difference between conviction and guilt. My tendency is definitely to guilt trip myself….and it’s a habit that I can see God calling me out of.

Our Father does not want His beloved children bound by the guilt of the past. Jesus Christ has dealt with the past, IT IS FINISHED (John 19:30). We are FREE from the guilt of the past (though not always all the consequences—BUT GOD will use even them for good) because of HIS completed work.

“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (Psalms 32:1-2, as quoted in Romans 4:8). The truth and beauty of those verses swept over my soul amidst tears just a few days ago. I’ve often been living under a cloud of guilt and fear for months and years. But thanks be to God for His patience with me! He’s never giving up, and the light of His truth and grace and FREEDOM are continuing to break through.

Because He is good, and His mercies are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness.