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Glory in the Ground

“I want you to lie down on the floor.”

Sometimes, Jesus picks the most unexpected conversation starters, such as telling me to lie down on my face during a recent Sunday night church service. I responded with some feeble attempts at convincing Him that this extremely charismatic worship service where no one was paying any attention to me whatsoever was no place for me to be distracting everyone by lying down in a corner, but, for some reason, He continued to prompt me to do it.

Reluctantly, I shuffle over to the corner, bend my knees, and decide to ease into it by first assuming the more socially acceptable, meditative kneeling position. You know the one. Open hands in lap, head dropped, angst-y facial expression.

“Do I really need to go any further?” I ask, making one last attempt.

No response.

“Okay,” I whisper as I clumsily stretch my legs out, flop down on my belly, and situate my hands underneath my forehead on the floor.

“Jesus, I feel super awkward.”

“Anna Avery, I want you to learn how to be comfortable on the ground.”

*squirms self-consciously*

After a second of fighting it, I decide to do as He says and try to get comfortable, especially considering the fact that I have no idea how long I will be lying there.  Attempting to make use of the time I have to think, I begin searching my brain for any scripture references of “ground.” The first verse I think of is Exodus 3:5, right in the middle of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, when God says to him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

“Lord, why, in the middle of this incredible, miraculous encounter You had with Moses, as He was hearing the voice of God speak out of a bush that was literally on fire but still somehow not burning up, would You choose to stop and bring Moses’ attention to the ground of all things?”

And this was His response (both from that moment on the ground, as well as from my journaling reflections) :

“Because I wanted him to see the I AM revealed both in the fire and in the ground. Anna Avery, I want you to look down and see the holiness of the ground. Your burning bush is coming, but in looking to the burning bush, I neither want you to neglect to look down and see My holiness in the ground, nor to neglect to remove anything that is hindering you from coming into contact with My holiness. The holiness of humility is close to the ground. The power of encounter is close to the fire. And these two things go hand-in-hand. Your testimony will be empowered by the encounter you have with My voice in the burning bush, and your life will be sanctified by the encounter you have with My holiness in the ground.”

…the ground was feeling more comfortable by the second.

Context: I LOVE the “burning bush” moments of my walk with the Lord—both eagerly looking forward to them and eagerly seeking them out. For example, although I regularly attend a baptist church in Dallas that I love, twice a month I also go to a charismatic church service in the evenings (where the previously mentioned face-on-the-ground moment happened), because those people have had some pretty unbelievable supernatural encounters with God. And, because of those encounters, they are passionate about continually seeking and asking for the Lord to reveal Himself in that way on a regular basis. And He does. And it is glorious. 

But I think the reason why the Lord has not let me solely attend the more charismatic church, and the reason He had that moment with me on the floor, is because He knows my tendency to tip the scales. He knows that, if I could have things my way, I would make my spiritual life all “fire” and no “ground.” He knows that I would ultimately forfeit the fullness of the glory of God by seeking out His presence only in the fire; forgetting to also stop, take off my sandals, and see Him there, where I’m standing, in the dirt.

This past year has been a journey of discovering the “both/and” of the kingdom of God. It’s Spirit and Truth. It’s the meekness of the Lamb and the courage of the Lion. It’s the double-edged sword of scripture and the miraculous signs and wonders. It’s humility and power. They don’t contradict each other—rather, these seemingly opposite extremes are complementary, confirming the validity of the other. Tim Keller puts it this way,

“In Jesus we find infinite majesty yet complete humility, perfect justice yet boundless grace, absolute sovereignty yet utter submission, all sufficiency in himself yet entire trust and dependence on God. Jesus, who unites such apparent extremes of character into such an integrated and balanced whole, demands an extreme response from every one of us. He forces our hand at every turn in the story. This man who can be weakened by a touch in the crowd on His way to bring a little girl back from the dead is a man you dare not tear your eyes from.” (Jesus the King, 169, 177)

It’s not “either/or.” It’s “both/and.”

When we see His holiness as something so magnificent and overwhelming that it permeates even the very ground that we walk on, it changes our entire approach. It forces us to look down, recognize our own inadequacies in His Presence, and remove our sandals so that we can walk a little closer to the ground. And when we experience His power in a miraculous way, hearing His voice and seeing the fire, it changes our entire approach as well. It gives us the confidence to live courageously, empowered by the authority of the I Am, the One Who enables us to lead slaves from captivity into freedom. We walk in the extremes of total humility and complete power, following in the very footsteps of Jesus.

I am seeking to live a little closer to the ground. I am recognizing the things that keep me from coming into contact with holiness. I am asking, like Moses, “Show me Your Glory,” and I am learning to be content with Him revealing that glory both in my pursuit of His holiness and in my pursuit of His power. I am seeing the fullness of the I AM—the fullness of the One Who chooses to reveal Himself both in the fire and in the ground.

“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is His Name?” Then what shall I tell them?’”

“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’” Exodus 3:14-15

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On Freedom

Fact: The first song that appeared in my google search results when I typed in the phrase “Beyonce lyrics to” was her song Freedom.

Disclaimer: I think my computer knows I’ve been obsessively googling/researching freedom for the past several weeks, so the results are probably not accurate whatsoever.

But, regardless, as I have been thinking and praying about what to write for this next blog, the lyrics of that song have been continuously playing in my head; so obviously I’m still taking those search results as a sign.

And yes, I know that the song speaks mainly to freedom in the context of racial injustice and oppression, but I think that the reason why this song is so popular (besides the fact that it’s Beyonce), and why so many different races and creeds identify with it is because, ultimately, the cry for freedom is at the core of who we are.

“‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’” (John 8:31-32, 34-36)

Okay, so here we have two contrasting ideas presented: being set free by truth, and being made a slave by sin. But what do those phrases mean? How do these concepts fit into the framework of a culture that tells us that freedom and being fully yourself looks like acting on every desire that you have, specifically within the context of sexuality?

To break it down, let’s go back to John and look at Jesus’ definition of “truth.” Jesus first says that the truth will set you free, then He says that the Son sets you free. In this passage, Jesus reveals to us the synonymity of truth and the Son. They are both interchangeable and co-existent. If we want to know truth, we have to know Jesus. And if we want to be set free by truth, we must look no further than the cross of Christ and the message of the gospel.

I found this verse as I was reading Jeremiah several months ago and was immediately drawn to it: “For as a belt is bound around the waist, so I have bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me,’ declares the LORD, ‘to be my people for my renown and praise and honor.”

But, as I started thinking about this verse in relationship to the concept of freedom, it began to feel somewhat contradictory. If we are free in Christ, how are we also bound to Christ?

Another compelling passage I had come across recently is in Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness to those that are bound.”

So, in one passage, the Lord is binding us to Himself, and then, in another passage, He is proclaiming release for those that are bound. Wait. WHAT. Time to consult Google…

In Jeremiah, the word “bound” means “to cling, to stick, to stay close to, to cleave, to join with.” It is the same word used in the verse Genesis 2:24, which says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” So, the type of “binding” that is happening in this context is, 1) a choice that is made by two consenting parties (between husband and wife, God and man), and 2) a choice (to stick with, stay close to, to join with) that is motivated by love.

Whoa. How beautiful.

In contrast, the “bound” that is used in Isaiah 61 means literally, “to tie, to bind, to imprison.” This type of “binding” is 1) non-consensual (think of a prisoner—he is in a jail cell regardless of whether or not he wants to be), and 2) no respecter of persons—it makes no allowances and gives no grace to those that it binds.

So, here are the options:

We can be bound and be in prison, or we can be bound and be free.

And I know that this statement could be taken as somewhat controversial, especially in the context of a society that pushes the idea that freedom in sexuality and being “truly yourself” looks like acting on every desire that you have; and truth, as it relates to the moral choices of the individual, is subjective. Freedom looks like having no boundaries.

But where exactly did we get that idea?

Freedom while driving looks like lines that keep us on the correct side of the road. Freedom for a child playing outside looks like running in the yard, but not in the street. Freedom in dancing  looks like creatively making movement choices within the constraints of a specific technique. Freedom in a country looks like expressing opinions and beliefs without fear of oppression, but not breaking the law.

Freedom and boundaries are not contradictory—they actually go hand-in-hand. Freedom is all about submission to an authority—whether that authority is lines on a road, your mom, dance technique, or the government.

But most of us have a difficult relationship with authority. We would much rather be our own authority than choose to submit to someone else’s. We begin testing the waters with our mothers in infancy, stiffening our backs and screaming in our high chairs when we are offered anything that looks even remotely green, and we continue the theme by pushing the limits with God as we age, stiffening our backs and entertaining the question “Did God really say?” when faced with a moral choice.

But what we don’t realize is that in rejecting the authority of God, we are subconsciously choosing to submit ourselves to another authority—sin.

And the tyranny of sin is just as gross of an abuse of power as it sounds. With one wrong choice we invite it to enslave us, bind us with chains that we do not have the power to break, and offer us no mercy when we are begging for a way out.

But the good news is that Jesus came to proclaim the freedom of being bound by love in the prison of those who were bound by sin.

He came so that we could experience true freedom in surrendering to the objective truth of the gospel as the chosen ones who have been bound by love. The Father has graciously established the boundary lines of truth and love through the cross so that we can experience freedom from being bound by the captor of sin.

“Man was made in the image of God to be like Him and to reflect his holiness. Freedom, therefore, is not the right and the ability to do as one pleases, but the ability to move without constraint in the sphere of holiness for which God made us.” (see sources)

“He has sent me to proclaim…freedom for the captives.” (Isaiah 61:1) The word “freedom” in that verse means, “to move rapidly, spontaneity of outflow, pure liberty, free run, a swift bird wheeling in its flight.”

This is our invitation to freedom.

 

Sources:

blueletterbible.org

“Christian Liberty,” in “Report of the Committee on Worldly Amusements,” Agenda: Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, To convene June 13, 1928 at Holland, Mich., p. 22.

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To Whom We Belong

The most recent truth that God has spoken to me came in the form of a quiet rebuke:

“Daughter, you do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

Before I give the context for why Jesus had to give me this gentle reminder, let’s break down the verse a little bit. I promise I’ll circle back around.

According to Hebrews 10:39, in the eyes of God there are only two categories of people: those who shrink back and are destroyed, and those who have faith and are saved.

I want to lay the groundwork with defining the phrase, “shrink back.” According to dictionary.com, shrink back means:

“To pull away from a source of disgust or fear.”

Or, to take it a step further, blueletterbible.com defines it in the Greek as:

“The timidity of one stealthily retreating.”

Let’s pause here for a minute and ask, Where is the inception of this concept of “shrinking back” found?

I want to suggest that its origination goes all the way back to the garden. After eating the fruit in the garden, Adam responded to the Lord’s question, “Where are you?” with “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

Adam shrunk back. When confronted by the reality of sin and brokenness in light of the reality of absolute truth and holiness, he hid. And, as sons of Adam, that same cowardly voice that whispers in shame, telling us to retreat and to try to figure out a way to cover our nakedness, still speaks. But, as sons of God, we have the capacity to fight back, to shut the mouth of that voice that urges us to respond to the tension of the holy and the unholy by shrinking back and running away, and to instead respond by rising up and running towards the cross.

It really shouldn’t surprise us to see how this concept manifests itself in the world. Our nature, because we are born into rebellion and sin, is to shrink back from acknowledging an objective standard of truth that exposes our depravity, lack of faith, and need for a Savior. The pride, idolatry, fear, and hostility that we see in and around us is a result of a people who is desperately trying to cover her nakedness and self-protect by whatever means possible—whether through retreating to the safety blanket of intellectual ability, physical gratification, or materialistic accumulation, just to name a few.

And, as Paul says, “that is what you were.” Meaning, we no longer belong to those who “shrink back.” So, who are those that stand in contrast to those who shrink back?

Those who have faith.

According to Hebrews 11, faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see.” Faith is confidence and assurance, not timidity and doubt.

The reason I wanted to write about faith is because I’ve had a bitter struggle with it the past few weeks. Honestly, I’ve had a bitter struggle with it the past few years.

I’ve already talked about a small part of this story, but in order to give more context for this subject matter, I want to share a little more. About 18 months ago, as I was praying and asking for direction in some very specific areas of my life, God gave me a promise that He was going to miraculously heal my eyes (reference this blog for more details).

And, while that is such an amazing promise to receive from the Lord, that promise has also revealed more doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty than I’ver wrestled with in my life.

Since June of 2016, I’ve prayed hundreds of prayers, fasted for multiple days at a time, wept and pleaded desperately with God, and questioned many things that I thought I knew with absolute certainty. And whereas I’ve been prayed and prophesied over an encouragingly large amount of times, and have gone through incredible seasons of expectancy and hope, I’ve also gone through intense seasons of doubt and questioning. And, honestly, sometimes those seasons are so closely knitted together that I have barely caught a glimpse of the growth and life of spring before I am confronted by the barrenness of winter.

In the past two months, I have heard the Father speak so clearly—giving me great vision for the ways in which He would fulfill His promises to me and placing people in my life that would encourage me tremendously in my journey of faith. I went into the week of thanksgiving so hopeful, so expectant that this was it. My family and I even planned a night of worship while I was home in an attempt to simply set the stage and invite God to “do His thing.”

But, as He had foreordained, His timing for healing had not yet come, which was not at all the answer I wanted.

How could I continue to “get my hopes up” and have a confident, assured faith that believes in the God of the impossible, and yet not get my heart dashed to pieces in disappointment when He whispers “not yet”?

That was the question I had no desire to confront. I was tired of having faith, worn out with waiting, and exasperated with the process of patience. I wanted to self-protect. I wanted to have the reins of control in my hands for once. I wanted to mindlessly scroll through Instagram and Snapchat rather than fight to have faith in the goodness of God. I wanted to distract myself with Netflix over pressing in to perseverance in seeking the will of God.

And so I did. For a solid 5 days I did everything I could to turn off—to shrink back and numb myself to the conflicted, messy emotions I had no desire to process. But, on day 5 of my spiritual/emotional shut down, the Lord whispered to my heart:

“Daughter, You do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

We live in the reality of the “already” and the “not yet” (@MattChandler). And, in order to continue to “get my hopes up” and have a big faith that believes in the God of the impossible and remains steadfast and unshakeable even in the midst of disappointment and uncertainty, I am learning that my faith has to extend beyond what God has said He will do for me to being rooted in the nature of what He has already done in me. I must believe that all of His promises are “yes” and “amen” in Christ, period. I must believe that “It is finished.” In the face of the “not yet,” we get the glorious privilege of planting ourselves in that same soil where the cross of Christ stood, and preaching to ourselves the message of the overwhelming goodness of God displayed in the glory of the promised salvation that is ours by faith.

Because we do not belong to those who shrink back.

 

*The cover photo is of my spiritual grandfather, Bob McCustion, who exemplified most to me the concept of “those who have faith and are saved.” I will forever be marked and inspired by the life of this man who never shrunk back.

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Sacred Movement

IMG_4499“What is the purpose of dancing?”

GREAT question. One I’ve actually been thinking through a lot lately; why do I see so much value and find so much purpose in dancing? And through the mess of pre-conceived ideas about how dance is defined and the purpose that it serves, and the fact that dance as a whole can be a very misunderstood art form, I want to make an attempt at bringing some clarity to the confusion by articulating an answer. And, as I set the stage (HA…), I want to acknowledge that I realize that, for the believer, there is no secular/sacred divide. I can’t compartmentalize my life into the “secular” parts and the “sacred” parts—everything I do must be rooted in obedience to the reality of God. So I want to examine my answer to the question of the purpose of dance through the lens of the sacred—the reality of God. And I’m going to attempt to do that by using words to describe the purpose of an art form that is purposed to communicate in a way that is mostly independent from words. The irony…

Okay, to start, I have to go back to the beginning…no, seriously. THE beginning. In the third verse of the bible, Genesis 1:3, we get introduced to the Holy Spirit, and the very first description we get of the Spirit is that He moves. “The Spirit moved over the surface of the waters.” So, as individuals created in the image of God, we know that we are created for movement. And, when we come into the Kingdom, all of our movement is purposed to be yielded to the authority of the Holy Spirit, The One Who Moves, in order that He might release His power through our obedience to move in the ways that He leads us to move.

All movement serves a purpose. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, every movement that we make is speaking to something about who we are, because God specifically designed us as physical beings. Honestly SO THANKFUL the Father decided to create us with bodies vs creating a bunch of spirits (currently envisioning a world where everyone is Peeves, the ghost from Harry Potter). He intentionally made us in the image of His Son, Jesus—with a physical body. So, even in the ways that we move, we have the power to either represent or misrepresent the person of Christ. Therefore, there is divine power in movement.

Bill Johnson, the Lead Pastor of Bethel Church in California, talks about the fact that, particularly in western culture, so often many areas of our lives get reduced to an inward feeling rather than a physical action. “I feel humble, why bow? I feel faith, why take risk? I feel joy, why dance?” In Exodus 17:11-12, the stipulation for the Israelites gaining victory in their battle was that Moses kept his hands raised. The spiritual release of victory was brought about by a physical action of obedience—not simply an inward feeling. The spiritual discipline of fasting also carries a similar type of significance. In Daniel 10, the Lord granted favor and spiritual breakthrough to Daniel because of his choice to make a physical sacrifice of something desirable (food).

We are tripartite people (soul, body, and spirit), modeled after a tripartite God (Father, Son, and Spirit). And in the same way that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each distinct in their functions but equal in the significance of their roles as a part of the Trinity, so the soul, body, and spirit are distinct in their functions but equal in the significance of their roles as a part of the individual. The power of the soul, body, or spirit can be neglected neither in their relationship to each other, nor in their responsibility to reflect the nature of God.

An element of the power of the body through dance that I’ve experienced is that, as a language, it allows me to have a voice without ever opening my mouth. And though I strongly believe in the value of equipping people with knowledge through providing insight into sorrow, or joy, or bondage, or freedom, or hatred, or love through speech and words, I also believe that for some there is at least equal, if not more, power and value to obtaining knowledge through seeing or expressing the physical embodiment of sorrow, or joy, or bondage, or freedom, or hatred, or love in movement. Dance and movement have the ability to speak when words cannot—to express the emotions and ideas that a person might not have the ability to verbalize. In my experience, dance that has been yielded to the authority of the Holy Spirit as The Ultimate Mover Behind The Movement is supplied with equally as much divine power for breakthrough, healing, and revelation as an inspired word—for both the mover and the observer.

The power of movement is interwoven throughout the pages of scripture. In the Bible, there are a total of seven Hebrew words used for “praise”—and the definition of four of those seven words involve movement. So, when the Lord commands us to praise Him, it is obvious that there is an element of giving Him glory that can only find its completion in expressing itself through movement. And, not only does the gift of movement in worship give Him glory, but it also gives us joy. C.S. Lewis summarizes it in this way: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”

We are commanded to “praise His Name through dancing.” Why? Because there is obviously some aspect of ascribing glory to the Lord that can only be done through the physicality of involving our whole bodies in expressing praise to Him. The art isn’t the glory, but it does describe His glory. It is a visual representation of Jesus. We sing of Him, we hear of Him, we play music of Him, we see pictures of Him, and we express movement of Him. Dancing is another one of many ways for the believer to know and experience the glory of God.

One of my favorite verses that speaks to the beauty of using our bodies as an act of worship is Romans 12:1: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” There is something significant to God about offering our bodies in worship. Something significant about offering to God the great embodied art form of dance in praise of the great God-man embodied in flesh.

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A Fixed Heart and a Free Hand

IMG_4119If you ask any of my close friends to describe me in a few sentences, I can guarantee one of the first things they would say is “She asks a lot of questions.”

I love asking questions. And not just the generic questions like, “What’s your favorite drink at Starbucks?” (it’s an iced almond milk chai latte). I’m talking about those questions that make you dig deep to respond. Questions that make you stop and think for a minute before you answer. And not only do I love asking questions, but I also love being asked a really good question.

A few weeks ago, my roommate, Kirsten, asked me a question that has really stuck with me. She asked, “What character attributes do you most value and appreciate in people?”

And, because I’m a verbal processor (I’M SORRY @everyone), it took me awhile to articulate my answer. But as I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts, I’m going to try to more succinctly (you’re welcome) put my response into writing.

My favorite kind of people are the ones who have learned the balance of being completely genuine in their relationships and consistent in their character as well as being open-minded in their interactions and adaptable in their environments. The ones who have mastered the dance of consistency and adaptability.

And though these characteristics might seem mutually exclusive, I have discovered that, rather than contradicting each other, they are actually dependent on each other.

As I processed through the reasons why I am so attracted to the pairing of these two attributes, I realized that not only is the theme of consistency and adaptability woven throughout scripture, but it is actually woven into the person of Christ. God is both multifaceted in His nature and consistent in His character. And that truth is the greatest source of beauty and comfort. He is multifaceted because He is the Lion of Judah, roaring in power and fighting our battles. And He is also the Lamb that was slain, laying down His will and sacrificing His life for the sins of the world. He is a Righteous Judge. And He is also a Gracious Father. He is consistent because His standard of truth is unchanging, His grace is always sufficient, and His faithfulness is never-failing. In His constancy He gives His love unconditionally and equally to all, but in His multifaceted nature He gives His love uniquely by specifically catering to the needs of the individual.

Another person who beautifully exemplifies the marriage of these qualities is the apostle Paul, a.k.a my favorite biblical/historical figure hands down. I mean, the guy just gets it. He values spiritual knowledge and embodies practical application like none other—and his orientation around the concept of consistency plus adaptability is no exception. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might win some.”

How can Paul make such a bold statement? That he has become “all things to all people?”

G.K. Chesterton says in his book Orthodoxy, “the heart must be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand.” Paul is able to be adaptable and “become all things” because he is uncompromisingly devoted to one thing—the love of God. His fixed heart gives him a free hand.

Fixing his heart exclusively enabled him to love inclusively.

“All” is a strikingly inclusive term. And that inclusive term flatly contradicts some of the excuses I use to justify not engaging different personality types, socio-economic statuses, races, or creeds. Ultimately, the gospel is no distinguisher of persons. And for those of us who claim the gospel as truth, we can not be either.

Truth and love are the foundation. They are the constants that keep us steadfast in our convictions and genuine in our actions. But they are also the enablers that give us the confidence to engage all types of persons and adapt to all kinds of situations for the sake of effectively sharing the gospel.

The more secure I am becoming in my identity as a child of God who has been loved by and created for Him, the more freedom I am experiencing to not only truly express who I am, but also to make others secure to truly express who they are. I am experiencing the beauty of the impact and the richness of the relationship that results from adapting to and affirming personality types and backgrounds that are different from my own. Unconditional love is the anchor. The uncompromising truth of the gospel is the motivation.

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A Study in Love

IMG_4039-1In case you don’t know this about me: I’m cross-eyed. I was born with a condition called isotropic strabismus, which means that my brain only sends a signal to focus to one eye at a time, causing the other eye to turn inward. I had been through three failed surgeries by the age of 5, and, more recently, while researching in preparation to have yet another surgery, my parents and I were disheartened to discover an 11% success rate attached to this type of operation, hence having a fourth procedure would potentially be risking irreversible eye damage.

I prayed about the possibility of having the surgery while I was home from college, but as desperately as I wanted my eyes to be fixed and look normal, I knew that surgery was not the path I was meant to take; I cognitively believed that God was fully capable of healing my eyes, but I doubted that I had enough faith to believe for something as counter-intuitive as a miracle. I asked several family members and close friends to prayerfully support me for a week-long fast as I prayed for divine intervention. The response I got from my best friend, Shauna, however, was by far the most unexpected. She said, “Anna Avery, I want to do more than just pray. I want to fast with you.”

….YEAH. I KNOW.

She is one of about zero people on this planet who would do something like that. Who would voluntarily give up eating for 7 DAYS for a cause that would in no way benefit them. Through her selfless labor of love, she illustrated a beautiful truth to me: love is sacrifice.

1 John 3:18 tells us, “…let us not love with words or deeds, but with actions and in truth.”

The epitome of loving with actions and in truth is sacrifice. And we know this because 1 John 4 not only gives us the glorious statement, “God is love,” but it also details how God showed His love to us by sending His Son as a Savior. Love is perfectly exemplified in the person of Jesus, who sacrificed His life on behalf of a world that did not know Him, and a people who did not love Him.

Given the example of love that Jesus personified, the question becomes, “what are the selfless sacrifices we need to make in order to unconditionally love not only those who offer us love in return, but also those from whom we have nothing to gain?” (geez, what a loaded question)

Considering the way that Jesus loved both in His life and in His death, although I knew it was highly unlikely that I would be required to physically die on behalf of someone else, I realized that there is another kind of death that needs to happen if I am to truly love well— a death to self. Honestly, there are some days I would much rather take a bullet than attempt to kill the selfishness in me that wants to take a passive aggressive jab at a roommate who isn’t quite on my same level of OCD when it comes to washing the dishes (love you).  But as I began to see in people the weaknesses that frustrate me, and the personality types that clash with my own, I started to view those things in the light of the subconscious conditions I had created for love.

I wasn’t willing to die to self. I wasn’t willing to make any sacrifices or allowances for others, but I expected others to sacrifice and make allowances for me. I only wanted to love people in the ways that were comfortable and convenient for me, in the ways that I best received love and most easily expressed it, but I expected others to be considerate of the ways I specifically needed to be loved and to give me unlimited grace when I messed up. But, on the flip side, the moment someone fell short of my standard, my grace would run out and I would immediately get frustrated and become distant.

I know, I know. It’s quite appalling.

As I was discovering this about myself, the verse that I kept coming back to in my attempt to rewire my mindset about love was Hebrews 10:24, which says, “Let us consider how to stir one another to love and good deeds.” In a sermon I listened to on that passage, the speaker (@JohnPiper) said that in the Greek, the word for “consider” actually means “to study.” He made the point that taking the time to observe and study people as it relates to loving them and fulfilling their specific needs is not just a helpful suggestion, but that it’s actually NECESSARY to experiencing healthy relationships.

I realized that some of the brokenness and frustration I was experiencing in relationships was a direct result of the fact that I was trying to love people without studying them, which was a truly revolutionary concept to me.

The more I reflected on it, the more it made sense. I, as well as 100% of people I have ever known, have a way through which we best receive love. For me, that way is when people spend quality time with me (hint, hint). My love language looks like getting into deep, hours-long conversations that last until 2 a.m; asking “250 road-trip questions” during a long car ride; and adventuring for the sake of new memories and shared experiences. But, as I’m beginning to realize, not everyone wants me to ask them 250 questions, because yeah, apparently that can be really freaking annoying. Who knew.

Some people actually feel most loved when you verbally affirm them. Or give them a thoughtful gift. Or perform an act of service. Or simply give them a hug. Love involves the type of sacrifice where one is aware of the other’s deepest needs, and responds to those needs guided by truth and love as exemplified by Jesus.

As I began to recognize these different ways through which others best receive love, I came to a conclusion: love that is solely rooted in my personal comfort isn’t really love. There is no sacrifice in a love like that.

“Dying to self” in love looks like dying to the ways we are most comfortable with expressing love as well as the scenarios that are most convenient to give love, and instead intentionally studying others to love them in the way that they specifically need to be loved.

And, I’m not going to lie, that kind of sacrificial love is mostly really hard, and I often fail pretty miserably at it.

But it’s also incredibly freeing and completely fulfilling.

As I began to surrender my self-focus and sacrifice my comfort in love, the fears that caused me to be possessive of relationships as well as the insecurities that caused me to be selfish in relationships were slowly starting to diminish. I was actually coming to a place of security and confidence in expressing love to others. I was becoming less anxious and fearful because I was sacrificing the familiar, self-centered ways of love that I had been holding on to, but that were ultimately holding me back. Instead of trying to possess love by only giving it or receiving it on my terms, through surrendering my conditions for love, this unconditional, all-encompassing love was now possessing me.

 

*A huge thank you to my contributors, Richard and Shauna, and my editor, Kirsten. Y’all are THE BEST.

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Laying the Foundation

I’m going to go ahead and lay the foundation by being real with you—I’m currently sitting at a window table at Whole Foods, sipping my cold brew coffee, and listening to The Essential Yo-Yo Ma album to try to find the inspiration for how to get this thing started. Honestly, I’ve had some pretty big reservations about writing a blog because I don’t want to simply be another voice adding to the chaos. There is plenty of narcissism and noise as is without my personal contribution. So, that being said, my heart in writing this blog is that you would see the goodness of the Father, recognize the faithfulness of Jesus, and be empowered by the working of the Spirit as you read about what He is doing in my life and how He is teaching me.

Okay, I’m going to try not to ramble, but in order to give some background, here’s the shortened, extremely condensed version: I grew up in a conservative, homeschool family with three brothers and two loving Christian parents, became a believer at age 7, fell in love with the life of a ballerina in middle school, and throughout high school lived a comfortable, predictable life that ensured I was almost always at one of three places—home, church, or my ballet studio. I auditioned for several college dance programs my senior year and ended up going to Belhaven University as a dance major in the fall of 2014; a small, private Christian college in Jackson, Mississippi. Pretty picturesque, amirite? There was not a single cloud to be seen on the horizon.

SCENE TWO—through a series of events I decided to leave Belhaven after the end of my sophomore year and move back in with my parents. All because Jesus told me to (yeah, yeah, I know it sounds crazy). And yes, leaving was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I knew my time there was up. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but when you know your season at a place is over, the longer that you stick around, the more you start to feel like an imposter. And I did; I felt so out of place. I felt restless. I felt conflicted. I knew I didn’t belong at Belhaven anymore, but that fact didn’t negate the deep love I had for the people I had invested in and the place I had called my home for two years. Letting go of that season was heartbreaking. But even more than it was heartbreaking, it was necessary.

So I left. And I now was a 20-year-old college dropout moving in with my PARENTS. Now, to be clear, my parents are incredible people. So living with my parents again wasn’t really the issue. The real issue was that my pride was suffering a blow from which it could potentially never recover. To give you some context: I am a very goal-oriented and achievement-driven person. I REALLY like to be in control of the things that are happening in my life. I like doing things my way because I think that my way is the most efficient and logical. But I had to come to a place of having no affirmative direction, nothing to work towards, and no authority to tell the Lord to give me the option of a more efficient and logical route. I felt so lost. I missed my friends. I missed the routine of knowing what each day was going to look like. I missed being filled with the sense of purpose I had from the demands of being in school.

So basically the only words I could say with absolute certainty at this point in my life were “I don’t know.” Which, can I just say, was pretty terrifying for me to admit. But that phrase slowly turned from a statement of fear into a mantra of freedom as the Lord began to reveal to me the necessity of dependence and the beauty of total surrender. In the spring of 2017, He led me to audition for three different professional ballet companies in New York City, Austin, and Little Rock. And, as it would happen, I got rejected to every single one of them. And with each rejection I experienced, I also experienced a new wave of insecurities, doubts, and fears. I wanted to be obedient to the process. I wanted to trust in His timing, His plan, His goodness, regardless of the outcome. But I was having a hard time choking back the thoughts of inadequacy and the feelings of disappointment every time someone asked me, “How are you doing?”

But can I tell you something?

The Lord has never proved Himself to be more faithful than in that season of my life. While He was gently ridding me of my pride, hard-headedness, and self-sufficiency, He was lovingly replacing those things in me with the most gracious gift He could ever offer—more of Himself.

James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work in you so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

The past year has undoubtedly been one glorious lesson of finding joy in tribulation. I’ve noticed that every time I encounter a trial, whether that be an external circumstance such as the experience of rejection after taking a risk, or an internal circumstance such the struggle to overcome sin in my life, the Lord is always using those trials to break down a little more of my self-sufficiency. To make me a little more yielded to Holy Spirit. To make me a little more like His Son. He is teaching me that my maturity, my wholeness, my completeness—all of it hinges upon my response to trials. I, you, we have to LET perseverance finish the work in us. It is learning to pry open our stubborn jaws and confess, “Father, not my will, but YOUR will.” The beauty is in the surrender. The glory is in the giving up. And what glory, what joy, what gain that truly is! That He might increase. And that I might decrease.

So, to bring the story to present time, post-major life crisis, still feeling pretty dazed and slightly confused, I ended up calling my best friend from Texas to process through some of my thoughts and emotions of the past several months. At that point, I was strongly considering abandoning my dreams of dancing professionally and instead pursuing something else entirely. Being the dear friend that she is, she let me freak out on the phone for half an hour before interrupting me with a simple, but thought-provoking question; “Anna, why are you going to give up what you know the Lord has gifted you in and called you to do?”

And before the question was out of her mouth, I already knew the answer. Honestly, I wanted to give up because it was hard. TRIALS ARE JUST HARD. But, I knew what I had been called to. I knew, looking back, that He had always been faithful. And I knew, looking forward, that He would always continue to be. And so barely above a whisper I prayed, “Father, Your will, not mine.”

So, to make this really long story a little less long, the Lord not only made it clear that I was supposed to continue to pursue a professional career as a dancer, but also that Texas was the place where I needed to be to pursue those dreams. So 17 days ago I packed my car and made the 8 and 1/2 hour drive to move from Tupelo, Mississippi to Dallas, Texas.

And can I tell you something?

The faithfulness of God has already been so evident.