Read an Excerpt
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
When I was a little girl in North Carolina dreaming about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I chose the most radical, adventurous, outside-my-box, scare-my-parents-silly thing I could think of. My mom was a nurse and my dad sold produce. I was their firstborn, and I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. Of course no one took me seriously for a while, which made me all the more determined.
Folks would come over for dinner and I'd hear them talking to my parents. Actually, I was eavesdropping. I'd lurk around the grown-ups, careful not to draw too much attention to myself, silently gathering information. For some reason, I thought that I belonged in their conversation more than I belonged outside on the swing set. I'd overhear one of my parents say, "Angela wants to be an astronaut," and then I'd watch as the guest would look over at me, amazed. I assumed they were thinking, That squirrelly little four-eyed kid? She seems kind of nerdy, but she must have spunk. She's got big dreams. I'd puff up on the inside, thinking to myself, One of these days you are going to watch me land on the moon.
I kept talking about being an astronaut and reading books on NASA and lunar landings. In the third grade, I sat riveted to watch all the Apollo coverage on our grainy black-and-white television. While the other girls were doing book reports on cats or manners, I always chose topics such as space and moon rocks and exploration. I wouldstir up a glass of Tang for breakfast and think about what it would be like to drink it through a straw while floating upside down in a space suit. We built model rockets at school once, and I was thrilled to get out of that stupid sewing module and into my life's calling. I knew I'd eventually prove to all the naysayers that I was serious. I didn't know you needed to be a genius to be an astronaut; I though you just had to want to. And if it was about "want to," then I had it.
One Christmas I asked for and received a telescope so that I could keep an eye on things and chart my course through the stars. Never mind that it was the dinkiest little tabletop telescope ever, with three wobbly legs. I took it outside at dusk and stared at the moon. Soon I had convinced all the neighborhood kids that I could see the United States flag Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had planted on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission. I was so sure that I even convinced myself I could see it. I can still remember blurry images of red, white and blue and my big-shot attitude. "If you were astronaut material, you'd be able to see the flag," I'd argue.
I think that this very moment is the first time I am consciously realizing that I probably did not actually see the Stars and Stripes from my front yard. This is a hard revelation. But how could you see a flag on the moon with a couple of scratched-up lenses inside a white plastic tube? I guess you can't. How embarrassing. I haven't thought about this in forever, and its kind of painful to realize I've believed my own hype all these years. A grand imagination dies a bitter, slow death, you know.
I bet you've already guessed where this story is going. One day some know-it-all said, "You can't be an astronaut. Astronauts need perfect vision. Astronauts can't wear glasses when you blast off in a rocket. They don't stay on in zero gravity." I'd never heard of such a thing. Then I checked around, and sure enough, back then, it was true. There were no four-eyed astronauts.
How could my best idea for an awe-inspiring, adventurous life be instantly gone? What was I going to do? The big dream inside this skinny girl was shattered. That dream had made me important. Everybody thought I had courage. How was I going to be somebody with no wild, over-the-top career to aspire to?
It was a very difficult day when my astronaut dream broke.
The Jesus Girl
Fast-forward about ten years, and that same nerdy girl meets Jesus in college. Thankfully there were no vision requirements except spiritual eyes to see. Maybe for the first time since the astronaut dream died, I had a reason to live. But I was still me, and I brought my energetic, wait-till-you-see-what-I-can-do-for-Jesus attitude to our relationship.
I thought it would work out great. Jesus needed me to show everybody how to be a model, happy Christian, and I needed something to do with my life, since I wouldn't be going to the moon.
I really fell in love with God and jumped into my new reason to live with both of my busy feet. It's like I went from place to place, begging anybody to show me what to do. I was a wild woman. Reading the Bible, doing two or three studies at a time. Praying for hours. Going to church every day I could find one open. Asking anyone who stood still long enough, "If you died tonight, do you know where you'd spend eternity?" I was a quick learner. Just give me the instructions, tell me what the rules are, then stand back and watch. I was going to be the best little Christian girl Jesus ever had.
And you know that whole thing kind of worked for a while. I am predisposed toward happy. I like happy people, and I like to make people happy. So my being happy for Jesus was a good fit. It gave me energy. It propelled me through seminary and the first years of my ministry. It was almost as if nothing could hurt me in those days. I'm sure I was oblivious to the hurt I caused with my happy pride about my happy life, but I was just zinging along, from campfire to campfire, singing.
I'll shout it from the mountaintops (Praise God!),
I want my world to know,
the Lord of Love,
has come to me,
I want to pass it on.
Well I kept shouting from the mountaintops, wondering why everyone couldn't just find a spark, get a fire going, pass it on, and we'd all snuggle up together beside the warm glowing.
I had wanted the world to know about Jesus and the happy life they could have in Him. What I didn't realize was that life out there in the real world was eventually going to roll in and teach me a thing or two about happy. Make that roll right over on top of me. No, more like put me under an asphalt paver and squish me flat like a bug, you know, where the guts are everywhere and you can't even tell what it used to be? Yep, that's about how it was somewhere around my early thirties.
I love that God gave me a happy-camper life for a while. Some of my best memories were made over s'mores or passing LifeSavers around a room with a toothpick between your teeth. The best stuff happened at a cabin in the woods, or at a sunrise service on the beach, or while tubing down a river with a bunch of crazy friends. The spiritual foundation that God built in those years is priceless to me now.
But when you're running along being the happy-camper Christian girl and you begin to feel your life come apart, it catches you by surprise. Maybe as the happy Jesus girl, I had all the right motives and exactly the right approach for those years, but I was blissfully ignorant about the pain and disappointment that can come to each of us. Before I really knew what was happening, parts of my life began to crack and little pieces started to break off and smash flat. Back then I did the only thing I knew to do: I sang louder and prayed harder and went to more Bible stuff. And that seemed to be the answer until I began to come apart in big chunks I was singing as loud as I could and the mountaintop was leveled anyway.
It was an even more difficult day when my perfect-Jesus-girl dream broke.
When a Person Breaks
When life is overwhelming and the burdens become more than one human being can bear . . .When your circumstances are unrelenting, or the consequences that have come to you heap higher and higher . . .When tragedy sneaks into your life to ambush you like a stalker, or the world bangs down the door and says, "Let me teach you a few lessons" . . .When there is just too much and you almost can't breathe . . .then people break. Hearts break and the will is broken and dreams shatter and the spirit is crushed.
For some reason I had believed there would be a progression. I'd bring my strengths to Jesus, He'd add more strength, then I'd just get better and better. I used to think that by now I'd probably be a spiritual giant. I guess I thought that after I'd spent most of my life knowing Jesus, I'd outgrow my humanity. I'd outrun the world. I'd rise above and never stumble. I don't' know where all these dumb ideas came from, but I was just wrong and strong-willed and insensitive. Did I say the whole sing-louder-to-drown-out-the-heartache thing was dumb? 'Cause if I didn't, it was.
Brokenness comes to us for so many different reasons. Sometimes it's the way the world comes up to greet us. Sometimes it's the consequences of our sin. Sometimes it's the result of a lifetime of poor choices. And then sometimes we can't even untangle the mess to give it a name. Christians break for all the same reasons anybody breaks, because they are human and fragile and prone to wander.
I have friends who have been broken by sickness, the death of a child or a spouse, bankruptcy, abuse, rape, addictions, abortion, and on and on. They are Christians who've been crushed in one way or another by tragedy or choices or sin. You know sometimes it starts small and then gets bigger. That's how brokenness came to me. I have been broken by circumstances and choices and then, finally, divorce.
Sometimes we have to use words to describe ourselves that were never meant to be in anyone's vocabulary. We suddenly have words attached to our lives such as cancer, divorce, rape, or widow. Sometimes we look around us and know that it's not how we dreamed it, but here it is, and it's all in a million pieces.
It seems like almost every strong believer I know has been broken or remains in broken places. A pastor said to me the other day, "Angela, I don't really trust anyone in ministry who's never been broken." His words were meant as grace to me, and they could not have been more soothing. He gets it. None of us ever went looking for brokenness, but it came to find us anyway, with all its intense lessons on pain and heartache and suffering.
Maybe you've never known anything so painful that it emptied your spirit. Or maybe it seems like you've lived your whole life in pain. Either way, the reality is that it's coming. One way or another, brokenness comes to us all. I'd kind of thought I could skip past it if I kept singing. But Jesus never preached the insulated gospel. That was my own misinterpretation of Him.
Did you ever think the same kinds of things I did? Did you ever believe that being a Christian meant eventually overcoming weakness or reaching a pinnacle of near-perfection on this earth? We can become more mature as believers. We can be made complete for the purposes of Christ on this earth. But until heaven, we cannot escape our humanity and the frailties that come with it. Did you ever think that if you subscribed to a certain set of behaviors, you'd be protected from the effects of living in a fallen world? I don't' know if I consciously ever said those things, but as I look back, those kinds of ideas seemed to fuel my actions and attitudes.
The broken person can pick up one of the little pieces lying around, but can't find another one to match. It becomes obvious that this life isn't going to be put back together like a puzzle. Somebody is going to have to start over. But the person who is broken doesn't have the will anymore. The broken person is emptied of desire and dreams and courage. When life breaks and the pieces are crushed, then the spirit of that person becomes desperate and poor.
Poor in Spirit
During all those happy-camper years, I had read about the poor in spirit, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out who in the world Jesus was talking about - certainly not anyone who knew Him as Savior. And then one day it was me. I knew Him as my Savior and Lord, yet there I was - divorced, broken, and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually flattened. I realized that I needed to hear whatever He had to say about being poor in spirit.
When Jesus climbed the hillside one afternoon to give His followers living instructions, He knew they were a bunch of people just like me and you. Maybe they had been singing and rousing chorus of "Pass It On" around a bonfire, squeezed one another's hand, and with a tear of joy, whispered to their neighbor, "God loves you." Maybe some of the more extroverted followers had shimmied up a tree and led a pep rally for Jesus. All together now.
I am a C.
I am a C-H.
I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.
And I have C-H-R-I-S-T
In my H-E-A-R-T
And I will L-I-V-E, E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y.
Louder and louder their voices rose. Singing and chanting and laughing and loving one another and their Lord. I would have totally loved it.
Jesus had been healing the sick and casting out demons. People had heard about Him and had come from as far away as Syria to have their loved ones healed. There were crowds from Galilee, Jerusalem, Judea and from all across the Jordan region. These people were in the presence of the Son of God. Pain was fleeing. Demons were running. The crippled were walking. If there ever had been a reason to sing and shout and dance over Jesus' power and mercy, this had to be the best.
Build bigger bonfires. Bring in more guitars. Sing louder. Throw the stick of your sin into the fire. Hold hands and raise them to the sky. Jesus is Lord. He is Love. He is a Healer. He is more than amazing.
The crowd just kept building, and I am imagining that they were a bunch of happy campers with all this healing and good news going on. These people had heard about the Son of God, just seen the proof of His power with their own eyes, and now Jesus was going to teach them about the possibility of living a life that would be pleasing to God.
Finally, the Savior was among them, and He was going to speak to them from a hillside so that they could see Him. Maybe Jesus had to get the disciples to settle down the newly healed in the back who had just divided their section into three parts and were singing in rounds about "bubblin' over." Maybe they had to tell the demon un-possessed to hang on a minute, that testimonial time was slated for a little later in the day. Maybe the disciples kept saying to the people, "We know you're excited, but simmer down - Jesus has something to say to us." Maybe in the presence of these miracles, even the brokenhearted forgot about their pain for a while and leaned in a little closer to hear what this Man had to say.
And then the Reason for all the celebration stood and turned to this exuberant crowd and said, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Huh?" one celebrant leans over and whispers to the next. "What did He just say? I've still got 'Kum Ba Ya' going round in my head, and I'm not sure I heard him right."
"He said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.'"
"Oh. Wonder why He said that. Look at us. We're all so happy. There is a party going on everywhere this Man goes. I'll probably be happy for the rest of my life. My pain is gone, and my daughter can walk for the first time. I think I'll sign up to be on the worship team. Who could possibly be poor in spirit after they meet Jesus?"
"Maybe He knows something we don't, and maybe you should stop humming long enough to listen."
Jesus is amazing. If I had been Him, I would have probably stood to take a bow for all the great healing I'd been doing. Maybe I'd have let the people sing a few rousing choruses to celebrate my goodness. I'm sure I would have said, "Thanks for coming. Wait till you see what I can do next." But Jesus did what no one expected; He began to teach about the character He desires for us - how we can return His love with the offering of our lives. His first lesson reveals the depth of His tender heart when He begins with the poverty of our spirit.
Jesus knew everything we couldn't, and from His compassion He said, first thing, that when you are poor in spirit, when you are broken, when you are completely empty and without one resource - especially then you are blessed. At the very beginning of these life instructions, Jesus let us know that our lives don't have to be an over-the-top perfected effort. We won't always be singing, "I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart." How gently He teaches that even in our brokenness, this life can become a beautiful offering to God.
A Beautiful Offering
Did you know that blessed means "happy"? How cool is that? It also means "fortunate" or "favored." Probably everyone who had come to listen to Jesus that day was in a pretty festive mood, and obviously He knew that. Instead of brining them down, He spoke into their celebration. He let them know that life will keep coming with all its heartache and pain. It's not always going to be one big pep rally, but if you are following Christ, if you have become His disciple, then you can still know a happiness that is given by God.
He began His sermon to the healed and free and curious with the When You Are's that we've come to know as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude is taken from the Latin word beatitudo. And our word beautiful is also derived from the same root. I'm going to take a little latitude with the translation here and give you my paraphrase. Maybe it would be all right with Jesus if we said,
Your life is a beautiful offering to God, even when you are poor in spirit, because then you are very close to the kingdom of heaven.
Maybe through the sermon of Jesus, God wants you and me to know that He gets it. He understands humanity, and He's not mad at us about it. He designed the vessel that we reside in. He knows that we get weary. Our muscles fatigue. Emotions fray. Health fails. He wired us to long for the love of one another and without human-being love, He knows there can be desperate loneliness. He completely sees and hears and understands how the spirit can become emptied and broken. And from His understanding comes His compassionate blessing.
If the blessing of being closer to heaven comes through poverty of spirit, then maybe we can come to embrace our brokenness, knowing that we will experience a nearness of heaven that we could not know otherwise. As a woman who longs after God, we can look into our emptiness, trusting that God is drawing us to Himself through life's pain and disappointment.
Very Close to the Kingdom
I am a work-at-home mom. I have four children, two girls and two boys who, at this writing, are ages five to thirteen. They think that I stare at a computer and somehow books appear. Most of the time, I try to write when they are in school because otherwise the rest of our day is just like yours - it can be wild.
Forget the afternoons when everyone has a ball game on a different field at the same time. It's still wacky when we're all at home. I mean, we can be here in the house, even in the same room with five different things going on. I might be braiding AnnaGrace's hair while she is dressing her Bitty Baby. William would usually be in trouble for throwing something or eating Popsicles on the carpet, Grayson might be sorting his baseball cards or memorizing the presidents in order (Good grief, where did he come from?), and Taylor would invariably be on the phone. We'd all be together in our little kingdom. And yet we each would be distracted by our tasks or goals or just the annoying way the person next to us chews gum.
The other day, William had sinus surgery. I expected it to be a breeze because everyone at the hospital was so nice and smiled at us a lot. The surgery went fine, but the recovery room was a different story. When the nurse called me back, my little seven-year-old was trembling with chills, crying, and bleeding all over the place. For the next few hours, they kept managing his pain, and I kept wiping away tears, his and mine. All the other children were in the waiting room, bored and antsy until they heard their brother cry. Then they sat quietly, realizing that someone they didn't know they loved so much was hurting.
That night after we got exhausted William home, I loved watching the others care for him while he lay on the couch. Finally it was time for bed. Everything was done or left undone. Baths were taken. Toys put away, sort of. TV off. The phone unanswered. I carried William up to my bed and held him while the others piled on with us. We just lay there snuggled under a blanket for a while. Worn out from the day. Empty and yet peaceful. No one fussing because somebody's toe accidentally touched their pajamas. We remembered that we were a family. On my bed that night, given-out and tired, we were as close to the kingdom of us as it gets.
All the time, you and I are operating inside the kingdom of God. Every moment we have been held by His gaze. He has forever been as close as the beat of your heart and the inclination of your prayer. But sometimes goals and tasks and the annoying way the world rolls in can keep us from realizing His nearness. We forget that we are in His family. We forget that we belong to His kingdom.
My relationship with Jesus began with my dreaming of becoming a mature, faithful follower. I wanted to shine so brightly that God would really be proud of me. So I set the bar unattainably high and began to structure my life around the dream of being a perfect Jesus girl. I look back now and shake my head. Not in regret, but I do wince at my lack of understanding. I did not understand the heart of God. I didn't realize that forgiveness would be an ongoing process for this earthly pilgrim. I didn't know it was okay to acknowledge emptiness in your spirit. I didn't think that brokenness was acceptable to God. So I learned to pretend for my own sake, and I thought I was pretending to please God.
I know it sounds ridiculous now, but I was truly just doing all I knew. I had no idea about the blessings attached to the When You Are's. I didn't understand that God could look in my imperfection and offer His tender compassion and blessing anyway. It has transformed my entire relationship with God to be able to come to Him as is, completely human, worn out, with hurt feelings, procrastinating or aimless. Through prayer I have learned to lay my empty spirit on His altar.
My brokenness is a beautiful offering to Him, and just the act of giving my poor spirit to the Father ushers me into the inheritance of His kingdom. Do you remember the inheritance that is set aside for us? It contains the gifts we could not buy for ourselves - forgiveness, divine comfort, grace, mercy, healing, restoration - all the riches that belong to God, given to us just because we belong to Him.
I feel as though I say this all the time, but God is truly amazing. There is a kingdom inheritance awaiting you and me, and we don't' have to be perfect Jesus girls to receive it. Maybe most of my life, anxiety has come from not feeling that I am worthy, but I am supposed to get myself worthy before I can receive a blessing from God. It's almost as if Jesus says, " I know about your brokenness and your flaws. I know that you aren't worthy. That's where I come in. What's Mine is yours anyway."
Jesus wants you to know that when you are broken, shivering, alone or afraid, with nothing left and nowhere to go, then you can turn in His direction and lay yourself at the foot of His love. Lay your broken offering on His altar. He will come and carry you into His presence. He will hold you with the warmth of His embrace and cover you with the blanket of His kingdom inheritance.
God wants you to know that when everything else is gone, that makes more room for Him, and every time there is more room for Him, you are blessed. He came for all of us, the demon-possessed of Syria, rule keepers from Jerusalem, little girls with astronaut dreams in the South, and happy campers holding hands around bonfires all over the world. He wants you to know that He doesn't mind broken things or broken hearts or broken people. In fact, He dearly loves them.
It's such amazingly good news that you might want to pass it on.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What assumptions did you bring into your relationship with Jesus and how has He reshaped truth in your life through this journey?
- How has brokenness or disappointment in life affected your relationship with God?
- Have you ever known an extra measure of God's nearness when your spirit was poor or empty? How did it change or sustain you?
- As you take a quick spiritual inventory, are you living like a woman who has been given a spiritual inheritance? Are you operating in forgiveness, grace, mercy, etc?
- Have you been waiting for healing or perfection before you could lay the offering of your life on the altar of God's love? What do you sense God is saying to you in this chapter about broken things and broken lives? Is He giving you a very specific action or attitude to try on?
Leaning Into the Savior
Jesus ' instructions to His followers in the When You Are's were so very insightful. He had to know that from their gratefulness and admiration, many would begin trying to outdo the others. Maybe they'd end up in the I-can-love-Jesus-more-than-you-can competition. He didn't want the craziness going on in His name. He'd had enough of the arrogant I'm-better-than-you Pharisees so He said to them, " I bless the meek."
You are blessed when you learn to be content with who you are and how I made you. Stop scrambling to look like the other guy. Quit imitating your neighbor and instead imitate Me. I put you together. The accent was on purpose. The introverted countenance was My idea. I realize you look at Me and rest in both your strength and your weakness. You are blessed when you can't be more, because I can. Turn in my direction. Be the woman I created. She is a beautiful offering.
I think Jesus was saying that when you are meek then you are well acquainted with your own flaws. The meek realize that they will never be enough and recognize that they will always need a Savior to complete them. Meekness is coming to see that you're not such a big deal after all and knowing when others might be more talented and poised. The meek are uncomfortable with their inadequacy because its very humbling to realize that "its just me." And yet that's the very place where Jesus can step in with His strength and give the blessing.
If we paraphrased this passage, maybe we could say,
When you are sure that you are not enough, in desperate need of the Savior's strength, then your life is a beautiful offering because God comes to the rescue with all the resources of His kingdom here on earth.
I am inclined to forget God's blessing for the ones who rest in their meekness. Sometimes I can work myself into a frenzy, making unfair comparisons about my work or my mothering or the scrapbooks I intend to begin for the children. Before I have to give a message, I'm usually in a room somewhere praying my guts out. That prayer almost always goes like this:
God, You know it's just me.
I am fully devoted. I want all of me to belong to all of You. But if it's just me standing up there, we're in trouble. I need You to get there before me. I need You to push me aside. I need You to speak what I could never think. I will give out these words, but God, You have to show up with the power.
Would You go before us in strength? Come with the might of Your Holy Spirit and do transforming life work that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with You. If You can use just me, then use me for Your glory. I am Your vessel. I want to love You with my life. I will do whatever You ask for Your sake and for Your renown.
In Jesus' name, amen.
Inclined Toward Mercy
You see, we don't get to choose who sits beside our beach umbrella. Nor do we select the person in the cubicle beside us, the uncle we've become related to by marriage, or the neighbor who just moved in next door. We can't control the choices of wayward children or wayward parents or wayward friends.
The gift that God calls pleasing is your mercy toward the ones you haven't chosen and the ones who make decisions you'd never choose. They can be fallen, struggling, disappointing, or down-right embarrassing. Maybe they are people you love or a stranger who rear-ended you in the parking lot. However people come into your life, I can assure you that they are seen and known by God. He calls it beautiful when you give to anyone the mercy He has so freely extended to you.
When your soul is being perfected by the presence of Mercy, then judgment begins to fade, the made-up rules don't' matter so much anymore, and what everyone might think becomes ridiculous. The heart gets tender toward people in sin, the snare of their addictions, the depth of their pain and unspoken suffering.
Life gets messy when you begin to give out mercy, but when you're giving out mercy, you don't care about the mess anymore. Some people won't understand. They didn't understand Jesus either. Some will judge. Bank on it, someone will doubt your motives or your heart or your radical choice to extend mercy. Give on, because blessed are the merciful. I expect that no matter how much you give, you will always receive more than you have given. God's accounting is amazing.
One warning: This blessing probably won't work if you want to hold on to your legalism or if you value rules more than souls. Mercy might make you uncomfortable and blow away the box you've drawn around God. If you begin to give out mercy, things are going to change. You are going to begin to look into the eyes of people and hurt for their pain. You are going to hear yourself offer light into their darkness. You will start to love the unlovely.
Who knows, one day you might just become a mercy fanatic. You could begin to reflect the heart of Jesus to everyone you meet. And you'd watch people huddle in the corner and speak in judgmental whispers about you, "Look over there . . . she's a friend to sinners."