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Fresh-Brewed LifeA Stirring Invitation to Wake Up Your Soul
By NICOLE JOHNSON
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Nicole Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSurrender to God
You reach for the brass door handle and pull. As the seal of the door is broken, the vacuum-packed freshness envelops your senses. You step inside to warmth that wraps around your soul like a cashmere scarf. Your whole person is enveloped by the aroma. The familiar sound of hissing steam works on your stress level like a pressure release valve. You've entered a special coffee shop, and you're helpless. You give yourself over. Surrender.
You're staying in the home of a good friend. You have no responsibilities this morning, so you leisurely wake up on your own. You blink to focus and take in the room. Your clothes are lying across the chair. The sunlight is streaming in through the window, playing on the corner of the bedspread. Then from down the stairs and around the corner, the invitation finds you. Your nose has discovered the promise of a good start to the day still ahead, fresh-brewed coffee. It draws you out from under the covers. You pull on clothes as you make your way toward the promise. Surrender.
She's sitting in her chair. She's been awake for hours. From the time you were little, you remember her being up before everyone else. Bible open, coffee cup in her hands, beginnings of breakfast on the counter awaiting her return. Peaceful and calm. Still. The warmth of her spirit is met with the warmth of his love. A sacred, rewarding ritual. Her heavenly Father and a cup of coffee. She knows him, and he knows her. Surrender.
* * *
The fresh-brewed life is a spiritual journey from beginning to end. It is a call to wake up that begins in a relationship with the One in whom we began. God alone can tell us what we most want to know. He alone is the Rock strong enough to anchor our lives in the midst of the storms we encounter. And as we journey, it is God and only God who can go deep enough to rouse our sleepy souls.
I could not rouse my sleepy soul alone. I could not keep the pilot light of faith lit consistently enough to make the kind of difference I longed for. I've tried getting up at four thirty in the morning to have a quiet time with the Lord. Trust me: it was quiet. I have fallen asleep on God on more occasions than I would like to count. I have tried to memorize chapters of Scripture only to conclude that I must have killed off so many brain cells with artificial sweeteners, trying to be thin, that I'll never be able to be holy. Somehow I mistakenly thought that Jesus said, "Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you more to do than anyone else!" My constant struggle to be "godly" left me tired, empty, lonely, and questioning.
I was either going to have to take pretending to a whole new level or choose to stop pretending altogether, and I wasn't sure which I would be able to pull off. I deeply identified with the story "The Emperor's New Clothes," and many days I felt like the king, pretending I "saw" the invisible clothes when there were no clothes. I was afraid to let go of my pretense, to simply confess I didn't see in my faith what other people seemed to see in theirs. In the Hans Christian Andersen story, everyone knew the emperor was naked, but they held on to pretending because they were afraid to tell the truth. They didn't trust themselves amid all the others who said they "saw," so they repeated the lie. It took an honest little boy to wake everyone up. Unfortunately for the king, the timing couldn't have been worse.
This was true for Joan as well, who spent all of the first day of her vacation sunbathing on the roof of her hotel. She wore a bathing suit that first day, but on the second she decided that, since no one could see her in her little roof spot, she would slip out of it to get an overall tan.
She'd hardly begun soaking up the rays when she heard someone running up the metal stairs and opening the door to the rooftop. Joan had been lying on her stomach, so quickly she pulled another towel over her backside to cover up.
"Excuse me, miss," said the flustered assistant manager, out of breath from running up the stairs. "The hotel doesn't mind your sunbathing on the roof, but we'd appreciate your wearing a swimsuit as you did yesterday."
"What difference does it make?" Joan asked calmly. "No one can see me up here, and besides, I'm covered with a towel."
"Not exactly," said the embarrassed gentleman. "You're lying on the dining room skylight."
Talk about exposed! It's terrifying until you realize one thing: when you're naked and everyone knows it, you've got nothing to hide anymore. For Joan or the emperor or me, the higher the level of pretending, the farther there is to fall. But once you've fallen, once you've realized how naked you really are, you're free to start living differently. There is a reason Jesus said the truth would set us free. Until we are honest, we can't have an honest relationship with him, or anyone, for that matter.
I felt a gentle stirring in my soul, like a whisper prompting me to lay it all down. "Jesus came to give you life." Life? What is life if it isn't running all the time? Peace—real peace on the inside, from all this climbing, striving, and worrying. Joy—unabashed delight in life, regardless of the circumstances. Love—foundational, unconditional, never-ending love. I didn't have to work for these; I had to surrender to them. More simply, I had to stop long enough to let them overtake me.
I let it go. I surrendered. I gave up being in charge of my spiritual goodness, because I could freely admit I didn't really have much spiritual goodness. I had worked for God for years and yet withheld my full heart from him. I'd sought to please him, treating him like a father who is hard to please, missing, or ignoring that he was pleased with me. I tried to do so many things for God that I missed being with God. Where was the goodness in that? I was the keeper of the covenant. I was the one making the sacrifice. I thought what Jesus did for me would be repaid by what I was doing for him! God must have grown weary watching me and my spiritual calisthenics. If we just roll up our sleeves and try harder, we are not walking with Jesus at all. If we can do it all ourselves, why do we need God?
This first cup of fresh-brewed life is crucial. A bigger spiritual "to do" list or a calendar full of church activities will not change our lives. When we give ourselves to God—mind, body, soul, and spirit—he changes us. We cannot change ourselves. We don't have enough spiritual stamina to change an entrenched habit, let alone our hearts. But when the walls come down and God is given access to the deepest parts of who we are, His love courses through us in a cleansing, holy, life-changing way. Our souls become stronger, deeper, and more robust. As different as instant coffee is from fresh-brewed, we are transformed.
Discovering in Christ the Whole-Bean Essence of Who We Are
After putting her children to bed, a mother changed into sweats and a droopy T-shirt, took off her makeup, and proceeded to wash her hair. As she heard the children getting more and more rambunctious, her patience grew thin. At last she threw a towel around her head and stormed into their room, putting them back to bed with stern warnings. As she left the room, she heard her three-year-old say with a trembling voice, "Who was that?"
Have you ever lain awake at night, wondering similarly, Who am I? Have you ever felt as though you were faking your life? That you were living someone else's life, and you're not sure whose? Maybe there had been some terrible mix-up and you picked up another person's life by mistake? Maybe you want to give yourself to God, but what self are you going to give?
The work life that doesn't even come close to fully representing who you are? What you look like on the outside, or how you appear to others? Your relationships? Although you may feel differently, your roles as wife, mother, and friend are not the sum total of your identity. So what do we surrender to God? Or more accurately, whom do we surrender?
The answer is: all of the above.
The simile that seems to fit best about our "personhood" is that we are like onions. We can't merely peel away all the layers, because the layers are us too. You don't get to the middle of an onion to find an apple core. The onion begins at the core, and each and every layer builds upon the "onion-ness" inside. An authentic life comes from an authentic self in which the layers on the outside are merely expressions of the core on the inside. So all the roles we play tell us something, but they are not the deepest level of our identity.
So all of it is what we surrender to God. We bring all that we know of ourselves to all that we know of God, and we enter a relationship like none other. Even when we can't figure out if all the pieces even add up to a whole person, we bring them and offer them. Then, in the loving way only God can, he begins to help us make sense of the pieces.
What you do doesn't determine who you are in the core of your being, but it does reflect what you believe (rightly or wrongly) is at the core of your being. People rarely act inconsistently with who they see themselves to be.
Remember Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Ugly Duckling"? The poor little creature was born into the barnyard and never found his place. Among the ducks, he was bitten and made fun of for being so ugly. The duckling tried everything to be a better duck—he just wanted to fit in with the other animals. Nothing he did worked, no matter how hard he tried. He was utterly miserable and ran away from the barnyard.
Rejected and having suffered through the winter alone, he ventured out in the spring to a beautiful lake nearby. He was swimming on the water when the most amazing thing happened. The ugly little ducking saw a new reflection. He wasn't a duck at all; he was a swan. A beautiful, graceful swan.
If only he had known that swans make terrible ducks, and even worse chickens, and still worse, cats—all of which the duckling had tried to be. It wasn't until he recognized who he was and what he was, that the externals began to made sense. His inner identity changed his outer behavior. And more, it moved him from trying to prove his worth to accepting his given value.
The world and even the church is quite a bit like the "barnyard." It is more than happy to define our worth based on all the externals. There are plenty of "experts" around who feel more than confident telling us where we "fit" and who we must be in order to meet certain expectations. But only God can reveal the truth to us. Because only God knows the truth about our deepest identity. In Clinging, Emilie Griffin explains it like this, "He will whisper it to us not in the mad rush and fever of our striving and our fierce determination to be someone, but rather when we are content to rest in Him, to put ourselves into His keeping, into His hands."
Surrendering to God the whole-bean essence of who we are will allow him access to the deepest place of our heart. The place where we hold all the messages we've heard and believed about who we really are. It is only there that God can bring about the deep change that we long for—because until we know the truth in that inner place, we will wander around noisy barnyards, seeking to make our way instead of gliding across the water in the grace of his love and acceptance.
Several years ago, God used a little book called Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen to whisper this truth to me: "'You are the Beloved,' and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—'You are the Beloved.'" I looked down into the pool and saw it for the first time. Not the me that I always saw in the mirrors of the world, but the me that God saw when he created me. A baby, a girl, a youth, a woman deeply loved and valued as a daughter of a King.
This is our deepest identity. We are loved passionately by God.
Now, having written this, I have to tell you, I don't really know why the Creator of the universe allowed his heart to be captured in such a way by his own creation. I can't fully fathom how he can love us in such a powerful and personal way. It is a mystery, and it must remain a mystery. To understand it could make it possible to dismiss it as we are prone to dismiss other loves in our lives. If we discovered that God loved us because we were smart, who wouldn't try to be smarter so God would love us more? When we met someone much smarter than ourselves, we would have to acknowledge that God loved that person more. I suppose it's why we will never know the reason he loves us as passionately as he does. Perhaps there isn't a reason—it just is. Why do we love our children? We can't fully explain it; we just do. Understanding why is less important to me than simply knowing that he does. So I surrender to it. I take him at his word. I just collapse on it and rest in it.
I rest because he has said nothing would take his love from me, or you. I can't say that would be true of any other human kind of love. In fact, it's so different from "regular" love that it's hard to believe that it could be really true. So God pursues us, courts us, and woos us to remind us. As if he wants to keep us mindful that he doesn't get tired of us, he isn't frustrated by our moods or by our irritating habits or put off by uncombed hair or out-of-style clothes. We are free to place the whole weight of our needs on him, to bring him our deepest questions, to look to him for acceptance and validation. And unlike any other relationship, the God who designed us will not lean, crumble, struggle, stagger, or falter in any way.
This is a love that changes everything.
Surrendering to Be Finely Ground
If it's true that the darker the roast of the coffee, the more intense the flavor, then it stands to reason that for a rich, strong life, we are going to have to go through the fire. We are also going to have to trust that this "roasting" can and will deepen our walk. The finer the grind of the beans, the more concentrated the coffee. And who among us hasn't had to endure the daily grind and still even more difficult trials? Trials have come, the Scripture says, "so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine" (1 Peter 1:7). Our faith becomes genuine as we struggle. The easy faith of the "church of happy circumstances" is replaced by fire-roasted, holding-on-to-him-for-dear-life faith. And this faith is worth more than gold.
Many years ago, I was in Phoenix on a business trip. I was listening to my voice mails about work and jotting down the pertinent numbers. I wasn't prepared to hear my sister's voice, and even less prepared for her message, "Dad's had a heart attack, and he's in the hospital ..." I knew she was trying not to frighten me. "He's in stable condition, but they're running tests." My heart was racing. I was thinking how I could cancel what I had scheduled on this trip in order to get to Alabama. "Everything is under control, and there is really nothing you could do here, so don't worry, but please pray." My sister knew me. While I appreciated her control and reassurances, I had to get there.
I canceled my appointments, booked a flight, and got on the plane. When I sat down in 23B, I started to cry. What if something happens to him and I don't make it there in time? When was the last time I told him I loved him? I sat in my seat, weeping. The flight attendant kindly brought me tissues. I told her I was flying home to be with my dad, who had suffered a heart attack. She told me she had just lost her dad two years ago, and then we cried together. She was so sweet to me, and I felt such sadness for her loss in that moment, and while our conversation did not make me feel better, it did open my eyes and heart in a new way. When we are in pain, we look for others who are in pain. I wondered how many others on this plane had loved ones who were ill. I wondered why I'd never had a thought like this before. I'd never gotten on a plane, looking for someone who might be hurting. I kinda shuddered to think how many people I'd probably passed in airports or on planes, never even noticing their tears or pain. Suffering has a way of opening our eyes. C. S. Lewis has been quoted as saying God "shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
I made it to Nashville and drove five hours to the hospital. Despite the length of the trip and how much I'd thought about Dad along the way, nothing could have prepared me to see my strong, military father lying in a hospital bed, pale and still with an oxygen tube in his nose and an IV in his arm. I thought I had cried all my tears before I got there, but I was wrong. I thought I had flown all that way just to hold him, but in that moment, I really needed him to hold me. I was so very afraid. And hold me he did. His embrace alone told me he would be all right.
Excerpted from Fresh-Brewed Life by NICOLE JOHNSON Copyright © 2011 by Nicole Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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