Stuck: 10 Things Paul and John NEVER Said From Prison

Lately I’ve been talking and writing about this idea of being in prison. Sometimes God takes us through seasons where he makes our worlds very small, and it doesn’t make sense to us. It got me thinking about Paul, John and others who wrote most of the New Testament while sitting in prison.  I thought about the excuses I often gave and the things I complained about in my metaphorical prison sentence.  They are things I say that discount my calling as a writer/ speaker/ teacher and discourage my heart.  Here are 10 things we never heard Paul and John say in prison:

  1. I’m too tired to write.
  2. Only 20 people are going to read this, so why bother.
  3. I should be “out there.”
  4. God must be done using me if I’m here.
  5. Doesn’t God know I’m more effective as a speaker than a writer?
  6. Why?
  7. I thought I was called to preach the gospel, but since I’m stuck here, I guess I was wrong.
  8. I’m not doing enough for the kingdom; I should be doing more.
  9. I’m just not happy.
  10. I’m wasting my gifts.

When I read this list, I have to say “ouch” because such things have often come from my heart.  They reveal what I truly believe about God and about myself.  I’m not saying that Paul and John never had down moments or moments where they thought these things.  However they never had the audacity to put them on paper.  In fact, they put quite the opposite on paper.  What they wrote were words of deep faith and deep hope in spite of their dire circumstances.  We know that they continued to preach the gospel and advance the kingdom no matter where they were.

The challenge for you and for me is to replace the faithless statements above with faith-full truths from scripture.  I know what’s on my new list, what’s on yours?

Stuck: Letters from Prison

letter-writing-picLately I’ve been thinking about and having conversations with other people about the idea of being imprisoned in a metaphorical, spiritual sense.  It’s a season when you just don’t feel like you have what you need to do what God has called you to do.  I have been through the wasteland and discovered who I am and who God is and who God says I am.  But now, I just feel stuck.  I don’t lack the vision, but I do lack the resources…the time, the money, the magical networking connections and coincidences that make a project go. It’s a time that feels like God is intentionally keeping my world small.  I dug the ditches, but he has to make it rain.  I set the sails, but he has to make the wind blow.  There is no rain, and there is no wind.

Maybe it’s a career that you want to have, but just can’t get the right opportunities.  In fact, you land exactly where you don’t want to be.  Maybe you are a full-time working mom that would rather be a stay-at-home mom, but the money just isn’t there or you feel like you’re working alone.  Maybe you dream of adopting a child, but your life circumstances make that impossible.  Maybe you want to serve more at church, but the real job in the real world takes everything you have.  Maybe you have big plans for what you would like to do, maybe even kingdom work, but you deal with a chronic illness that robs you of energy and keeps your world small.  Maybe it’s been a series of unfortunate events that has taken away people or events, and you feel like you are starting over.  Maybe, like me, God gave you a dream, but the dream doesn’t put money in the bank, at least not as much as your family needs.

Almost a years ago, the walls had closed in so much that something needed to change.  I had publishers that were interested in my book, but none that actually pulled the trigger.  I was booked to speak for a women’s retreat, and then I was unbooked.  I was told there was a teaching spot for me at church, and then there wasn’t.  So I did an online Bible study that was very successful, and then I tried another one that didn’t work so well.  The entire year felt like a series of “yes’s” followed by “no’s.”  The walls were closing in, and the money was tight too.  We had cut everything I was willing to cut out of the budget, so it was time to make a change.

Reluctantly, angrily, I started looking for a job, a very depressing process when you haven’t held a full-time job in 13 years and haven’t even had a part-time job for three.  I sent my resume off into cyber space with no response.  It didn’t stand a chance next to people who had actually been getting real experience while I was at home with preschoolers.  I made excuses about how I could never find something that would fit my schedule or pay enough to cover childcare expenses.

But when I told some friends I was looking for a job, I got a part-time job as a personal assistant that could work around my schedule.  This job got me working again.  I remembered how good it felt to be paid for the work you do, something full-time motherhood doesn’t grant.  I also realized that my purpose in life was very simple: to love and serve people no matter where I was.

Then at the end of the summer, we decided I really needed to be working full-time, another Facebook post got me a another part-time job as a PR assistant.  This prompted me to find a full-time childcare solution for my 4-year-old.  I worked in the morning in Nolensville and then drove to downtown Nashville in the afternoon.  I was still loving and serving people, and my work was appreciated.  That felt good, but I began to realize that I really missed teaching.  I was made to teach.

Then I found out about a long-term substitute teacher position at my son’s middle school.  I was offered the job, even though it meant having my own son in class.  But the benefit was that I got to know his friends and teachers.  When the teacher I was subbing for came back, I started subbing every day.  I remembered that I loved teaching.  One day when I was subbing, I met the principal and told her that “Any day I’m teaching is a good day.”

The depression and the anger slowly lifted, but the uncertainty remained.  But God had a plan, a plan that he unfolded right in front of my eyes.  I interviewed for a high school English teaching position that was opening mid-year.  The principal offered me the job at the end of the interview.  What??  So here I am, loving and serving people, teaching senior English, Film as Literature and Creative Writing at a school that “does things differently” with a different kind of students.  It’s a perfect fit for me.

I was talking to a fellow teacher this week.  He asked if I still felt like I was still in prison.  I smiled and said, “I’ve been moved out of the maximum security part and now I’m on a work relief program.”  I don’t know when this sentence will end.  I don’t know if the walls will magically fall down, and I’ll discover this is my new dream.  I do know that I really love my job.  I am grateful for God’s provision for our family and for group health insurance.  Any day I’m teaching is a god day.  Anywhere that I can love and serve people is a good thing.

That’s the trick of prison: learning how to be who you were made to be, to be fully alive and not give up hope.  Joseph modeled that for us in his prison experience.  He was still a leader.  He still used his gifts.  He still interpreted dreams, and he never lost hope.  At least not in the parts that we see.  He ultimately trusted God with his dream, and that’s what I must do as well.

Saying Good-Bye to Camelot


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Today is my youngest daughter’s fifth birthday.   It has been five years since I was pregnant.  Four years since I have nursed a baby.  Five years since I have held a sleeping infant of my own on my chest, which is the best feeling in the world.  It signifies the end of an era.  No more kids to potty train.  No more Mother’s Day Out programs.  No more play dates.

Last fall things  changed in our family.  I was working full-time for the first time in 13 years.  I had a conversation with my close friend.  Her youngest was going to kindergarten, and she was looking at having her days open and free, wondering how she was going to fill them.  We were both lamenting the fact that it had been weeks since we had seen each other, since we

have sat down and talked while the kids played.  “Who knew the preschool years were Camelot?”  I commented.

In the preschool days, I carpooled to Mother’s Day Out with friends.  And during the drop off, we would sit and chat for an hour or two depending on the day.  We would have play dates or swap childcare.  We were constantly in and out of each other’s homes.  During the preschool years, I went to Bible studies and enjoyed two hours of kid-free adult conversation.  I even taught Bible studies.  I remember climbing the stairs one morning, very pregnant, asking God to give me the strength and the words for the study I was leading at the time.  It wasn’t easy, but I don’t regret it.  Looking back, I’m grateful that I took advantage of the opportunities that I had then.

The other day I was driving to work, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for those years.  A gratitude I don’t think I felt most days of those years.  But that day, I was grateful for my Camelot.  For the friendships formed.  For the foundation in God’s Word.  Because now, in the real world, I need those friendships and that foundation more than ever.  I don’t have time for two hour chats over tea and weekly Bible studies at church.

I’m not in Camelot any more.  Most week days my only goal is to make it to the end of my day, and the weekends are about getting the house set up for the busy week ahead.   My youngest daughter will grow up with a working mom and not a stay-at-home mom like my oldest son knew.  This is where God has me now.  This is his provision for me and for my family.  It is good.  It is just as much God’s provision as it was for me to be at home during the early years.  We are all still adjusting, but things are going well.  I’m sure that when I say good-bye to this era, I will be even more grateful for it than I am today.  

So if you are in Camelot today, enjoy it.  Take every advantage to know your kids, to know your friends and to know God’s Word.  You won’t regret it.  

Lessons from the Wasteland: Prison is Not the Same as the Wilderness

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Being in prison is not the same as wandering in the wilderness.  In Scripture, we see different characters deal with these two different challenges.  The Israelites and Elijah experienced the wilderness.  Joseph and Paul were familiar with prison.  Lately I’ve been identifying with Joseph more than the Israelites.  Unjustly accused, misunderstood, thrown away, discarded, locked up, prevented from going where I would choose to go.  I used to think that the wilderness was difficult, but prison is a whole different story.

In the wilderness, you still feel like you are moving forward.  Sure it’s slow and the steps are difficult and painful, but at least you are moving.  In prison, you don’t go anywhere.  You don’t feel like you are making any progress at all.

In the wilderness, you see the sky.  You are in a vast, expanding place.  In prison, it’s small and confusing.  There is no freedom; no illusion of freedom.  Everything you see, everywhere you turn you are reminded that you are not free.

In the wilderness, you are moving away from something bad, something that enslaved you.  Even though you dream of going back and long for the comfort of Egypt, you know that the wilderness will ultimately bring you to the promised land, a better place.  Each painful step is filled with the hope of a land flowing with milk and honey.

In prison, the good thing you had was taken away.  Joseph was taken out of a prestigious position.  Paul was taken out of his traveling ministry.  Both good things; both things given by God.  In prison, the good things were taken away without just cause, and there is no hope of a promised land.  Your only hope is early release, and years of working your way back to a good reputation.  But you have no control over when the locked door will open.  For Joseph, it opened and led to his ultimate dream.  For Paul, it opened and ended with a death sentence, which he joyfully received to enter the ultimate, eternal promised land.

You don’t really get new promises in prison.  You generally harken back to what God promised before prison. This is why it’s called faith; it’s difficult to see the promised land sitting in a dungeon cell.

In the wasteland, you know there is a purpose, a point you will eventually get to.  In prison, waiting is the point.  You feel stuck.  It’s like the progress is so slow and so small, you wonder if you are getting anywhere.

The lesson of the wilderness is to follow.  Step after painful step completely dependent on someone else to guide you.  The lesson of prison is to suffer.  To suffer joyfully.  To suffer and not lose faith.  To suffer and remain hopeful.

The wilderness and prison are both places of testing.  Testing of faith.  Prison is a test of character; you find out who you are and what you really believe when you are sitting alone in the dark.  Both test endurance and patience.

Prison makes you question what you thought you knew about yourself.  Joseph emerged from prison broken and humbled.  He was no longer the cocky kid brother boasting of his greatness.  He left a mature man who understood his fate rested solely in the hands of the sovereign God.  Paul was in prison so that he could write the words that impacted not only his generation, but many that followed.  I wonder if he would have taken time off from traveling if it hadn’t been for house arrest.  Prison is not without purpose.  Prison is not outside the presence of God.  He is still with me, and that is the hope that remains in this cold, confined space.

The Princess and the Audition

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L’Audition by Himitsuhana

“I’m not going to audition for the musical.”  My young friend looked me in the eye and said it.  I asked a few follow up questions, but all her answers made sense.  She didn’t want to deal with the drama of the drama people.  She didn’t want all the stress because she knew she had a good chance of getting a major role.  She wanted to get a job and make some money, so she could go out and have fun with her friends her senior year.  She knew she wasn’t going to pursue anything with theater after she graduated, so she just didn’t see the point.

A few days later my young friend and her mom showed up at my door.  “We need you to give us some advice.”  Even though I was reluctant to give advice (said with false humility and sarcasm), I agreed to listen.  “Mom wants me to audition, and I don’t want to.”  Once again I listened to her well-thought out reasons and justifications.  Then I turned and heard her mom’s sadness as she thought of her daughter’s high school experience ending without the lead role in the spring musical.  Her mother had watched her light up on stage for years.  She watched her daughter soar in many shows, and she quietly beamed inside with pride.  Her mom had a hard time imagining watching the spring production without her daughter on stage, and yet my young friend insisted she was at peace with not auditioning.

After I encouraged my good friend to let her daughter make her own decisions and bear the burden of the potential regret, I turned and asked a few questions to my young friend, a struggling Ice Queen like myself.  How much of this decision is based on your desire for control?   To control your destiny and not do what everyone expects you to do?  How much is based on your desire for shock value?  The fact that everyone would be shocked that she didn’t audition because they all knew the part was hers.  Trust me, I get shock value.  I get the rush of the Ice Queen when people are surprised.  Which choice requires more faith?  She knew the cost of time and energy of having a major part in a musical.  It would cost a lot, and she was afraid that it would cost too much with little return.  She preferred the more predictable choice of the job at the local chocolate shop where she got a paycheck at the end of the week and predictable hours.

The Ice Queen does what she wants, but the Princess does what the Father wants.  The Ice Queen won’t go anywhere she doesn’t want to go, especially when she can’t see the end.  The Princess goes where the Father asks her to go, even if she doesn’t see the point.  The Ice Queen carefully measures her own time and energy, but the Princess trusts the King to give her the time and energy to do what he has called her to do.  The Ice Queen has to make her own provisions.  The Princess trusts the Father to provide for all her needs.  The Ice Queen seeks her own glory and carefully strategizes her placement.  The Princess trusts the Father to place her where she needs to be to glorify him.   

When they left, I didn’t know what my young friend would decide.  A few days later she told me that she had auditioned.   “It was the best audition I had ever given.  I usually walk away not liking what I did, but this time, I knew it went really well.”  That’s what happens when a Princess walks into a room trusting God to be at work.  The pressure isn’t on her because she is just doing what God made her to do.  The Ice Queen only trusts herself and her own ability, which makes her incredibly nervous because she knows her weaknesses.

After the audition, my young friend got a call back to audition again for the lead roles.  At one point, she decided not to participate in another reading for a different part that she didn’t want.  However she heard God tell her that she needed to go do everything that was asked of her.  Like a true Princess, she went back into the audition on the arm of the King, entrusting herself to him.  Providentially she was able to read again for the part she really wanted, an opportunity she wouldn’t have had if she had left.

A few days later the cast list was posted.  She had the female lead, the part everyone knew she would get.  But more importantly she learned what it felt like to completely trust the Father.  To walk into a situation, knowing that it was all up to him.  To set aside what she wanted and to do what he wanted her to do.  Now that she knows what that feels like, she will also know what it feels like when the Ice Queen is pushing, driving and not trusting the King to be in charge.

“… but [Jesus] continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (I Peter 2:23)

Maybe you don’t have an audition, but maybe he’s asking you to go into a job interview or on a date with that guy who keeps asking you. Maybe he’s asking you to make a phone call or write a letter, but you just don’t see the point.  No matter what the situation is, the question for the Princess still remains:  Will you entrust yourself to him?

Glorious Impossible 2013

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The term “glorious impossible” refers to the impossible things that God does for his glory.  The Christmas story has so many “glorious impossibles” in it, and Carl Cartee wrote one of my favorite songs about it that our church often sings at Christmas.  You can read my first blog about it here to get the whole picture.  But this year God gave our family its own glorious impossible.

It was a few weeks before Christmas and our Christmas cash envelope was completely empty.  The money was tight this year, and in this last month of the year, we felt it more than we had before.  Because my husband is self-employed, a paycheck is never guaranteed, and even when we were able to pay ourselves, it wasn’t enough to make it all the way down the list.  By the time the other budget items had their say, there was no cash left for the Christmas envelope.

We had made it through the year working hard and being open to every opportunity God put in front of us.  We both picked up part-time jobs.  Andrew worked as an umpire during baseball season.  I took part-time jobs catering for weddings, being a personal assistant, working as a PR assistant for a marketing firm, substitute teaching and writing and editing on the side.  God even sent a wedding cake client to help make ends meet.  All the while, we knew I needed a full time job.  My resumes evaporated into cyber space, and I never even got called for an interview.  After being out of the work force for 13 years, I began to doubt my chances of getting back in.  The closest I came was a long-term substitute teaching position, which God used in interesting ways, that lasted for two months.

In the last year, we cut and slashed our budget too.  We got ride of cable and satellite TV.  We used coupons and menu planning to cut the grocery budget.  We were even down to one car for awhile because we didn’t want to get a car loan.  But finding extra cash for a car was as impossible as finding cash for Christmas.  The next thing on the budget chopping block were the kids’ extracurriculars, and that one we wanted to put off as long as we could.  Not to mention, the house repairs that needed immediate attention and sucked up whatever cash was left.

But then December was coming, and it looked like it was going to be impossible to pay for Christmas with cash this year.   Life with one car was impossible as we tried to figure out how to get six people where they needed to be every day.  My husband was ready to go get a car loan, and I was ready to buy a jalopy just to make it back and forth to school.  But then we compromised and moved some money around that was held for our salary to buy a car.  It seemed impossible to find a car in our price range that my husband wasn’t embarrassed to drive.  And yet once again God made a way for the impossible to happen.  We found a Lincoln “Alligator” in great shape, which Faith called the “Crock”.  After taxes, title and new tires, we had $400 left.  And this was the extent of our Christmas cash.

One night we sat down with our cash and made our Christmas budget.  We decided not to get gifts for each other, but to instead fix the fireplace that had been unused for six years.  We also wanted to give the kids money so they could buy gifts for each other.  That meant their “big” gift budget was $50 each.  Sadly no gifts for extended family, friends and teachers.  And no money to send Christmas cards either.  I sighed as I put down my pen.  I tried to make myself content with what we had.  My husband tried to tell me it would be fine.  We told ourselves the kids would be fine and having a small Christmas could actually be good for them.

On December 23, I was walking home with Connor from his pet sitting job.  He was telling me how hard it was for him to be “poor.”  To not have what other kids in his school had.  I tried to explain that we choose to live like this because we don’t borrow money and that everything comes with a trade-off.  I reminded him that his dad and I both grew up the same way.  We were always the “poor” kids in rich neighborhoods.  That night Andrew and I both agreed that we needed to get our kids around some people who really were poor.

I also found myself complaining to God.  I hated that our year had been so hard financially.  That we were both working our tails off and getting nowhere.  I remembered thinking that we weren’t poor enough to be on anyone’s radar.  That no one even knew we had nothing in our Christmas cash envelope.  That my kids would have a crappy Christmas, and it made me mad.

Then on Christmas Eve morning a strange car pulled up across from our house.  As three men pulled packages out of their trunk, we thought the new neighbors were trying to celebrate Christmas in their new house.  But then they crossed the street and came to our front door with six large gift bags labeled “teen boy,” “tween boy,” “older girl” and “younger girl.”  Andrew was puzzled and asked who it was from.  They simply said they were asked to deliver it to the Pattons and didn’t know where the gifts came from.

I was hiding around the corner still dressed in my pajamas.  Tears filled my eyes as I remembered complaining to God.  I heard his small whisper in my heart, “I know how hard it is.  I see you.  I see how hard you have been working.  I love you.”  I told him I was sorry for complaining.  We did not deserve this.  We didn’t even know how anyone knew.  We knew that there were other families much poorer than ours, much more deserving of this gift.  We honestly didn’t know how to feel in that moment.  The shame of the reality of our small Christmas threatened to steal our joy and our gratitude.

Very early on Christmas morning, Kyle stood by our bed and whispered that he couldn’t sleep.  I think he was imagining what lived in those mysterious boxes delivered to our door.  Soon enough everyone was awake and Christmas morning went on with our traditional breakfast and reading the Christmas story.  We opened the Christmas presents we had bought, and then it was time for the “bonus” Christmas.  Andrew and I looked at each other, not knowing what to expect.  We opened the envelope to the “Parents” hoping for a clue to the identity of our benefactor.  Instead we found a generous gift card for ourselves.  Kyle opened his smallest present first.  When he saw the $50 iTunes gift card, Andrew looked at me and said, “That was our whole budget for him.”

And the gifts kept coming.  Name brand clothes for the kids with names they couldn’t pronounce and stores we had never been inside.   Hope squealed with delight as she opened her “American Girl” doll from Target.  As we looked at the carnage of boxes and wrapping paper left behind, Andrew and I agreed it was the biggest, most expensive Christmas we had ever seen in our lives.  We couldn’t imagine who would have given this kind of Christmas to us.

This was our glorious impossible.  God gave my children a Christmas they would never forget, and something we could hope to do for someone else someday.  He reminded us that he sees and he knows and he cares.  His lavish grace is upon us even when we don’t ask for it and don’t deserve it.  And once again God in his mysterious way made the impossible possible.

Easter: A Reason to Rejoice

Easter LilyHave you ever had one of those seasons in life where  “the hits keep coming?”  It feels like lately every time we turn around, it’s something else.  A kid that needs eye therapy or an expensive car repair.  Employees that leave and clients who decide not to be clients any more.  Rejections from publishers or, even worse, being rejected by friends.  Having to decide whether to pay your taxes or pay your mortgage.  Days when you don’t feel good at any of your jobs, and you feel like a failure.  Sometimes the hits just keep on coming.

But even when everything falls apart, I am reminded that my greatest affliction, my biggest problem, has already been taken care of.  All of the other problems are small compared to my biggest problem.  Sure, those other issues make life difficult and very uncomfortable, but because my greatest affliction has been removed, I have hope that it won’t always be like this.  I can know for sure that things will change; I will experience peace and rest.  My greatest affliction, the problem I can not solve on my own, is my sin.

When I approach God with my list of all the things that I think I need…better health, more money, more time with friends, more wisdom in parenting…I am reminded that my greatest need, the thing I need the most to make it through this life, has already been provided for.  My greatest need, the deepest ache of my soul, is peace with God.

This Easter I remember that my greatest affliction has been removed…permanently.  That my greatest need has been fulfilled…once and for all.  Because of the work of Christ on the cross, my sins can be forgiven.  I don’t have to be good enough to be in a right relationship with God.  Because Jesus chose to be the sacrifice that would atone for the sins of the world, I can be at peace with God.  He loved us so much that He made a way for us to be with Him forever.

So when I stand in worship, singing of his love, I will look at all of this week’s “hits” from a different perspective.  I will remember that my greatest affliction and my greatest need have been provided for.  If He is big enough and loving enough to take care of those great problems, then surely He is able to take care of all the “hits” that come my way.  I will be grateful for his love; I will rejoice in his provision; I will know that he is with me; I will trust Him more.