on measuring the distance

I picked up eight stones in the first few steps of my walk this morning. I’ve been walking this street for a week now; it’s my new route in this new chapter of living. Whereas my former neighborhood boasted several streets full of twists and turns and lots of scenery, my current neighborhood includes a single, straight street dotted by a dozen or so homes. On my former route, two laps around the neighborhood meant I had completed my course. Now “completion” requires eight.

Those eight laps should be easily counted … easily remembered. But I am easily distracted and often lose count. A stopwatch marking the minutes comes close to measuring my steps, but my pace isn’t always consistent. My steps don’t always measure out evenly. Sometimes I walk more slowly. Sometimes more briskly.

For me, time isn’t the truest measure for knowing when my course is completed.

Distance is.

And so, this morning I picked up eight stones. I carried them in my left hand, and each time I passed my driveway, I transferred one of them to my pocket. Carrying and counting stones is a tangible way of measuring distance. An empty palm and a full pocket signals completion.

As it was for me this morning, so it was for the Israelites as they made their way across the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land (see Joshua 3-4). Along the way, God instructed twelve men to pick up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan and to carry them over to the other side. Joshua (the new leader of God’s people) then took those twelve stones and built an altar at Gilgal to serve as a memorial to the faithfulness of God. In the future, each time the Israelites looked at that altar … counted those stones … they remembered their mighty God and their mighty walk through the Jordan on dry ground.

Twelve stones counted and carried by the Israelites, measured the distance of how far they’d traveled with their faithful Father. As they walked onto the pages of a new chapter in their history as his people, God made sure they had a memorial to serve as a reminder of the previous steps taken. He didn’t want them to forget that faith walk.

He doesn’t want us to forget ours … the steps we’ve traveled with him.

Time isn’t the truest measure for knowing when our course is completed. Distance is. Our steps won’t always measure out evenly. Somedays we’ll walk more slowly; somedays faster. Somedays (thanks be to God) steady as we go. Time cannot accurately measure the length, width, depth, and breadth of our faith walks with Christ. But a few stones carried in our palms and in our pockets deposited as grace at the end of a life’s laboring?

Well, that’s a pretty good measure of the sacred distance we’ve traveled with God.

And so today, let me encourage you to pick up a stone or two–a faith moment between you and Christ where you have known, seen, and felt the mighty arm of the Lord working on your behalf. Start building an altar unto the Lord so that in the future, when your children ask you or when you ask yourself, “What do these stones mean?”, you’ll remember the day when you walked through your Jordan on dry ground because of the strong arm of the Lord.

That altar … that distance … is the measure that matters eternally.

Step on in faith, friends. I’ll meet you in the riverbed. Together, let’s continue to build a living witness to the faithfulness of our God. As always…

Peace for the journey,

finishing

“When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.” –John 21:9

 

Finish strong.

I used those words repeatedly in the classroom as the fourth nine weeks of the academic school year arrived. Students have a tendency to slack off as they see the finish line approaching. Accordingly, I offered them a push to not give up … to not allow the strong effort of the three, previous nine weeks to be dimmed by a lack luster, weak conclusion. For the most part, as long as my “push” was present, so was theirs.

A strong finish is often accompanied by a strong cheerleader.

But every now and again, despite the encouraging voices along the way, there comes a season when we don’t finish strong. Sometimes, we just finish. Not strong. Not pretty. Nothing to brag about and not a single cheerleader in sight. Instead, we wearily drag our lives, our work and our witness, sloppily to the finish line, hoping for an acceptable conclusion but realizing deep within that it could have been so much more–a better, stronger finish.

It’s not a comfortable fit for me. Still and yet, it’s one I’m wrestling with today as I prepare for the closing of one chapter so that another one may begin. There are some loose ends dangling around the edges of my heart, some regret about the messy steps I’ve taken toward this particular finish line.

How about you? Do you have regrets–things you wish you had said, done … not said, not done?

Regret is a heavy burden to bear, and if I’m not careful, it can quickly overshadow the many positive, strong steps I’ve made along the way. Perhaps you understand. Maybe you, too, are crossing a finish line with no personal fanfare, no pats on the back, and no gold medal in sight. This hasn’t been your strongest finish because you haven’t given your personal best. The outcome is less because the output has been less. Your hands are empty, but (in contrast) your heart is filled with the pangs of would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.

Thankfully, there is a workaround for regret, a way to move past regret and to move forward in hope for the next lines in your story. That workaround?

It’s found in Scripture. It’s found with the Scripture-Writer, the Truth-Teller, the Grace-Giver … Jesus.

On this particular occasion as recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus was also known as the fire-Starter, the fish-Catcher, the fish-Cooker, the fish-Feeder and the bread-Bringer. After a season of sloppy, woeful finishes by his disciples at the Crucifixion, Jesus stands on the other side of that line to offer them a breakfast full of hope. Instead of casting further shame into their hearts, Jesus lays before them a bounty of fresh fish and bread. In doing so, he offers them a fresh start. He didn’t remove their regrets from their minds; instead, he holy and profoundly reframed them against the backdrop of his grace.

Their Cheerleader wasn’t MIA after all. He was waiting for them on the shoreline, calling them in for breakfast, and feeding their hearts with the gift of his presence, his love, and his willingness to entrust his kingdom to their fledgling faith. Shame and regret didn’t get the final word in the disciples’ lives. Jesus did.

He speaks the same over you and me. His is a message of undeserved grace, love, and trust. Jesus Christ stands at all the finish lines we’ll cross on this side of eternity. At times, we’ll finish strong. At other times, we’ll just finish. But in all times, in all finishes, God offers the gift of his grace, the gift of a second race … a third, fourth, tenth, hundredth race. Another opportunity to finish strong … to finish with Him.

Jesus Christ is our workaround, friends. Always. When we fail to finish as beautifully as we would have liked, he never fails to meet us at that point of frustration and to remind us that all has not been lost in the night.

The dawn is approaching. The embers are burning. The fish are frying, and the Master is calling.

Breakfast is served. Won’t you come and taste grace today? I’ll meet you at the table. As always …

Peace for the journey,

the face of an angel

photo courtesy of Dawn Parker Photography

“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD.” (Exodus 34:29)

I want to tell you a story today before time takes it away from me. Only a few have been privy to the details thus far, but you need to know them as well. The moment is now because this is the moment God has ordained for such a telling. It’s a story about the face of an angel.

My angel. His face.

On May 31st, Jadon will graduate from Scotland Christian Academy. Nearly eight months ago, Jadon’s graduation wasn’t even on our radar. His survival was. On September 14, 2018, Jadon suffered a traumatic brain injury when a tree fell on him during Hurricane Florence. His skull was fractured, the crack stretching from the top of one ear, across his head to the top of his other ear. In addition, he had two brain bleeds that, without immediate intervention, would cause him to bleed out within a couple of hours. If you’ve been following along, then you know the rest of the story. Jadon’s survival is nothing short of a miracle. You can read more about it here.

What I’m about to tell you brings additional texture and layers to his miracle. I cannot explain it otherwise except to say that I trust fully in the details, in the way they arrived to my heart, and in the witness of the Holy Spirit to my spirit as they were being spoken to me.

On the night of Jadon’s accident, a group of alumni from Asbury University were meeting at their annual board meeting in Wilmore, KY. I grew up in Wilmore and graduated from Asbury. Both Wilmore and Asbury have a wide stretch across the globe. One of my friends, Sarah, is on the board. On Friday night, she was scrolling through her Facebook feed when she came across my urgent request for prayer. We were on our way to Charlotte through the turbulent storm, and, over the course of that three-hour drive, I would periodically give my readers an update of our progress. I asked them to, “… pray us in to Charlotte.” Sensing the urgency of my request, Sarah asked those gathered at the meeting if they could pray. They did so on a couple of different occasions.

Fast forward to Sunday when I received a Facebook message from a complete stranger, a woman who knew Sarah and who was in attendance at that same alumni meeting. She asked me if I could give her a call at my earliest convenience. At this point, Jadon had made it to Charlotte, made it through surgery, but was currently in a coma. The response we had received from friends, family, and strangers was overwhelming, so much so that I quickly had to install some parameters around my time. Accordingly, I wasn’t able to give everyone access to my heart in the way I would have desired. However, there was something about this particular Facebook message that led me to make that call to a complete stranger on Monday, September 17th.

During our conversation, my new friend comforted me by sharing with me a vision she had during the alumni group’s prayer time on Friday night as Jadon was being transported to Charlotte. She told me that, on occasion, God speaks to her through visions and that he wouldn’t let her rest until she shared this particular one with me. I’m thankful for God’s insistence in the matter. Her witness changed the trajectory of my thinking.

In her vision, she saw Jadon surrounded by a myriad of angels who had completely encircled his body. In particular, one angel stood out; he was cradling Jadon’s head. No one could touch Jadon without going through the angels’ presence. She also could see Billy and me crying over our son. She asked the Lord about the meaning of her vision … about if these angels were coming to take Jadon home to heaven or were they there to escort him to the hospital? After her conversation with me on Monday, she had her answer; she understood the significance of the angel cradling Jadon’s head, and I understood the significance of her sharing her vision with me.

Jadon was being protected and preserved by a heavenly dispatch of angels. My fears were relieved, and I knew that God had his hands all over my son’s body and my son’s future.

One of the most earnest prayers my husband and I prayed over Jadon while he was “asleep” was that God would whisper words of healing comfort to him, that Jadon would know deep in his spirit that he belonged to God and that God was, indeed, his closest and best companion. That in the days to come, Jadon would awaken with a heart bursting forth with a testimony of his Father’s grace and mercy … that the words spoken “in quiet” would become an eventual out loud witness to the world. That, going forward, everyone who spends even a moment with Jadon would see his radiance and know that he has, like Moses, been in the presence of God.

Eight months later, God is answering our prayers. Jadon’s story no longer belongs to just us. It belongs to the world … to you. And while Jadon doesn’t have any memory of those “quiet” days in the hospital, he has been radically changed because of them. His radiance is blinding and his testimony is life-giving to anyone willing to listen.

Jadon has the face of an angel because Jadon has been next to Jesus. Close proximity to the Divine is just that powerful, friends. When we spend time with God, we radiate the witness of his glory. Perhaps this is the closest we’ll come to catching a glimpse of heaven on earth, and who of us couldn’t use a little more of that … a little more of the sacred spilling onto the scenes of our lives?

The face of an angel. Jadon’s. Yours. Mine.

Find the “quiet” this week. Allow God to do what only he can do in that silent space reserved for just you and him. What will emerge is what this world needs.

A radiant people who hold the testimony of a glorious God! Indeed, a little bit of heaven on earth. As always…

Peace for the journey,

a time to keep

Packing while unpacking.

It seems like a contradiction, but it’s really just a delicate consideration about things kept, things discarded, things remembered, and decisions therein. One doesn’t pack up a house … a history … without a little unpacking of the soul alongside.

A time to keep and a time to throw away, as Solomon would say.

Such has been my portion since April 10th, the day I first learned of our impending move to Benson, NC. It almost seems like yesterday when our moving van pulled up to the parsonage in Laurinburg and we began to unpack our lives here.

Six years of living history in this space. Six years of being loved, being sheltered, being known, and being well-cared for. Saint Luke UMC has been a good place to grow and to rest our hearts. Some would call us crazy for leaving this place, this congregation and this community. In fact, on paper, it doesn’t make much sense as far as pastoral moves go.

But every now and again, “what makes sense” gets trumped by something greater, something higher, something more akin to choosing “what’s best for now” over “what’s been best for the past six years.” And that best for us?

Moving closer to home.

“Home?” you might ask.

Yes, home. You see, for me, home is portable.

It’s not a place. It’s a people. It’s not a house. It’s a family.

And my membership in a family began a long time before I married Preacher Billy. Before I was part of the Olsen family, I was part of the Killian family. Before I was a pastor’s wife or Nick, Colton, Jadon, and Amelia’s mom, I was a daughter. I still am. I belong to Chuck and Jane, and they belong to me. We’ve been a family for fifty-three years.

I spent the first twenty-one years of my life living under their roof in Wilmore, KY. Eight years later, I returned home for an additional three years where they continued to parent me as well as their two young grandsons. I moved away from Kentucky a final time in 1998, and four years later in 2002, my folks followed suit, relocating to North Carolina to be closer to their family. Dad left his fruitful career as a professor at Asbury Seminary to pastor two small churches in Mayodan, NC, while mom came along for the ride as his help-mate.

Apparently, “home” was portable for them as well.

Not a place, but a people. Not a house, but a family.

Us. We are that family. We were the reason they uprooted their existence of thirty plus years and said good-bye to their community, their countless friends, and their comfort. If you asked them today, I don’t imagine they’d voice any regrets. Their great sacrifice has been our great gain. The life we’ve shared together because of their being closer to us cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. It can only be measured in the heart, in those deep kinds of ways that shore up a foundation, solidify a history, and fortify a future. My parents brought “home” to us seventeen years ago.

Two months from now, we will have the rich privilege of returning the favor … of bringing “home” to them. For how long, only God knows. But for however long he ordains, we will be able to “do life” more practically with our parents. More time together. More face to face. More memories made because of more access. And that, friends, is what is best for now.

A home delivery to the Killian family from the Olsen family.

Indeed …

A time to keep.

Even so, Lord Jesus, grant us your peace for the journey as we walk these next steps in absolute faith and expectation. Amen.

on the edge of something

It’s 4:00 AM; I can’t sleep. A strained shoulder and a pack of prednisone are to blame. I’ve started and finished a 350-page historical novel that’s been sitting bedside for weeks. I’ve read the book of James. I’ve prayed over my family. I’ve shed a few tears. And now, out of a restless need, I dare to open this blank page wanting to say something, but not completely sure I know what it is.

I’m on the edge of something.

There have been a lot of those edges lately, a lot of tossing and turning, reflecting and remembering, wondering and wishing my way through my nights.

I’m standing in between … teetering precariously on the edge of yesterday, just before the dawn breaks on today, and God pierces my edge with a truth I’m often prone to forget:

I still have a plan for your life, Elaine.

I am undone by the hushed voice that penetrates the darkness, so certain in my spirit that I have heard from his. This is the edge we share, God and me … a moment of teetering between things unseen and things perceived. And it is a very good place to stand, here in this hour …

On the edge of something, even if I cannot see it.

God and I have been on these edges before, all of my life in fact. He’s been with me from the beginning. And while I cannot remember a day when I was unaware of his presence, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I began to really open up my heart and my mind to understand the deeper things of God.

With two young toddlers in tow and a barely used high-school graduation Bible tucked under my arm, I dragged my soul to my first ever, in-depth Bible study in Little Washington, NC. It was Beth Moore’s To Live is Christ, a study on the witness and ministry of the Apostle Paul. Two weeks into the study, I remember lying on my bed in the parsonage on Respess St., Bible and study book wide-open, tears streaming down my face, with the most honest confession I could utter …

I am sorry, God. I have wasted so much time.

That was an edge for us, an exhilarating jump onto the next page of my life with Christ. Fifteen years later, I’ve yet to recover. I have loved standing next to Jesus on that edge of discovery. Every single minute we’ve shared on the pages of his Word has fed me, shaped me, and enlivened me for the road ahead.

Along the way I’ve been so privileged to share that road with countless others through my speaking, leading Bible studies and Sunday Schools, writing books, teaching Bible for four years in a 4th grade classroom, and shaping my own children with the truths I have learned.

It’s been my great joy, and it’s been for God’s good. I know that deep down. Truly.

But just now, right now, before the birds begin their morning chorus, I need to know that there is more. My body is weak and my mind is cluttered. I’m having trouble standing on this particular edge because I so long to see that which remains hidden. And that kind of blind faith sometimes feels just out of reach for me. The edge of something isn’t always as certain as I would like it to be.

How about you?

Where are you standing right now? What edge hosts your in-between? Has the new day brought with it a new hope, a fresh dispensation of daily grace and forward steps? Is your agenda filled with God’s? Has he made it clear to your heart what is dear to his? Is your edge a place of release or has it become, instead, a place of refuge? Is the uncertainty you have about tomorrow shattering your confidence therein?

If so, then might I lend you an old truth on a new day almost arrived?

God still has a plan for your life.

Despite the darkness. Despite what’s happened. Despite your flesh. God still thinks thoughts about you and would like nothing more than to stand on the edge with you as you prepare your heart for your next steps.

Fresh grace. Forward steps. The edge of something … more.

A very good place to stand here in this hour.

Welcome to today! 

As always, I pray for you God’s companioning peace for the journey,

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