Big Plans, Small Hoops, & Simple Surrender

One thing I wish I could figure out is how to stop dreaming about “big plans” for my life. I know the trend is to think big and ask God for great things, but when it comes to career choices, my experience has been the opposite: the thing God has consistently asked me to do is to walk humbly and accept the positions that He opens for me.

Last week, I had two annual reviews, one for my teaching job at Duke and the other for the work I do for the Navigators. There was a lot of emotional build up! All my life, I have looked ahead to dramatic changes and big shifts, some new adventure to dive into. But this year, like so many others, God quietly nudged me to more or less keep doing what I’ve been doing (a blend of teaching writing to grad students and traveling for the Navs).

Part of His guidance was the usual kind: as I was reading Ephesians (I’m in a small group and we are studying it), and verse 1:1 jumped out at me: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” I’ve read that verse before, but this time, as I was thinking about my annual reviews, the phrase “by the will of God” just jumped out. In my heart, I knew it was for me. In my mind, I knew Paul’s story and could see how God’s pattern with him applied to me.

Another part of His guidance was a basketball hoop. I often take a walk as part of my quiet times, and I noticed several basketball hoops in people’s driveways. It was an expensive neighborhood I was visiting, and some of the setups were incredible: huge plexiglass backboards, spring-loaded and adjustable rims—in fact, they were too big. They overwhelmed the driveways they were in, and, as I thought about it, they just looked ugly.

But in one yard, there was an older, smaller setup: a simple pole planted in the grass, an old, faded, arched backboard with a slightly bent rim.

But in that small driveway, it looked right. It was the right size for a friendly, family game of basketball. As I was looking, an elderly man came out of the garage, ready to do some yard work. I took a chance and said hello and told him I liked his basketball hoop. He smiled and said, “Oh yea, we’ve about worn that thing out.” In my mind, I imaged just how much love, how many hours he and his now grown family must have spent out there together.

Duke and the Navigators both offered me the opportunity to keep doing what I’ve been doing with a modest amount of added responsibility. There are things that will definitely stretch me, and the jobs are needed. But nobody asked me to be president, nobody appointed me to lead an exciting new taskforce (jobs I would be terrible at!) And I am content with that.

Where does asking God for greatness come in? I think it comes in the impact, not the position. Jesus said it this way:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

If you are offered a great big job, and it fits you and God is leading, awesome! But if the way looks less prestigious and the offer a bit smaller than you had dreamed, but you know that God is leading, you can trust that the door He has picked out for you is just right. In the end, we all must all surrender the results to God.


If you’ve gotten off the track of spending regular time along with God, here is a tool that can help you find your way back: Getting Started (or Re-Started) with God.

If “job fit” is a mystery, you might want to use one of the tools here: Exploring Your Life Purpose.

If you are looking for something to meditate on here-and-now, take a look at Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (ESV)


My 3 “Good Reasons” Not to Rest

For years, my husband, Chris, encouraged me in taking a weekly Sabbath, yet I resisted. How could that even be possible with the constant demands of a young family, a group of women I was investing in, events to plan, and the never-ending, bottomless dirty clothes hamper? A weekly Sabbath just wasn’t possible, at least it didn’t seem like it, so I didn’t give it enough serious thought to even try. In my heart and mind, I just wasn’t willing to consider my Heavenly Father’s invitation into the rest He so desired to provide.

I always considered the work/rest model seen in Genesis 2:2-3 as a suggestion. God had completely finished all His work and could afford a day off. I, on the other hand, had work that was never done. I also gave myself a Sabbath pass by claiming “freedom in Christ” – freedom from condemnation under the law! I used these things as justification of my choice to continue working hard day in and day out, ignoring the voice of the Spirit, Who was offering a better way.

Sadly, many years passed by while I missed out on the incredible gift of rest. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that God finally got my attention and began to lovingly convince me of His good purposes embedded in His design of a work-rest rhythm of living.

Why I Was Resisting

First, He showed me that my refusal to rest was all about my underlying fear of releasing control. If I stopped mid-stride, then all that I was working so hard to obtain would be threatened. He showed me how badly I depended on being needed and, in my pride, having to personally meet the needs of people around me. Keeping my foot on the pedal of life blinded me to the greater value of bringing the needs of those around me to the Father in prayer. He showed me my lack of faith to entrust Him with the “unfinished” and, ultimately, to surrender to His will.

Second, I was doubting that God really had good things in store for me. If there was goodness or success to obtain, it was up to me to secure it. I didn’t want to rest.

And finally, I just didn’t want to buck the cultural norm of a life full of continuous activity. I tended to wear busyness like a badge of honor.

What I Have Learned Since

These hard lessons have helped me to at least try to rest. So far, here are a few things I have learned.

Most importantly, I’ve come to believe that Jesus invites us to rest with Him and to learn from Him.

In Matthew 11:28-30, He extends this incredible invitation: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (MSG)

Learning to rest does take time: it seems what the Bible teaches most about rest is what it is not. Leviticus 23:25 says that rest means “no ordinary work.” Other passages teach that rest does not equal idleness (Proverbs 31:27 – “she does not eat the bread of idleness,” Ezekiel 16, 2 Thess. 3:8, Ecclesiastes 10:18.)

So, practically speaking – rest can include activity. The key to understanding rest is this: is it life-giving? (Which most likely means expending energy.) Does it restore?

What is restful for you (organizing your filing cabinet), might be work for me. And landscaping, which is restful for me, might sound like work for you. Discovering what rest means for you can initially take considerable thought and energy but will result in fullness and joy.

You know you have rested well when your soul is at peace, when your perspective and resourcefulness are fresh, and when you are ready again for the work God has for you. When you have learned to rest, you will feel more energized and ready to return to work.


Here are 3 questions to consider:

  1. Where do you experience resistance when it comes to answering Jesus’ invitation to rest?
  2. Is there something God is asking you to trust Him with in order to enter His rest?
  3. In what ways do you mistake idleness for the life-giving rest God desires for you?

To dig a little deeper, Margaret recommends…

Christ & Culture 101

One of the most recognizable voices of television history is Charlie Brown’s teacher, Mrs. Donovan. You only have to listen to her voice for a few seconds for your mind and body to be jolted back into those hard, plastic middle school chairs.

Often, and unintentionally, Christians who share the gospel with people from different age groups, socioeconomic classes, genders, or racial identifications come across just like Mrs. Donovan. Although the information is both important and shared in a sincere manner, we, as Christians, fail to present the information in a relevant manner for our audience. I learned this lesson the hard way while facilitating Bible studies for the Navigator’s with a non-profit called Urban Hope.

During my first year at Duke Divinity School, I learned incredible information about the Bible, and I tried to pass this knowledge on to my students. Although my lessons were creative, I frequently left our Bible studies realizing that I had failed to connect the Bible with the student’s lives in an impactful and meaningful way. Where did I go wrong?

I found my answer in Christopher Edmin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too. Edmin rightfully points out to teachers that a student’s context and culture are not barriers that must be overcome. Instead, because a student’s perception of the world is primarily informed by his or her culture, culture is an indispensable tool that must be utilized.

The responsibility of the teacher, mentor, or friend sharing the gospel with someone is not to persuade the individual to abandon his or her culture in order to understand the Bible. Instead, Christians must sincerely be both present among and learn from different cultures. Only then can a Christian wholesomely demonstrate how someone’s culture can be cherished and embodied by the teachings and practices of the Bible. This wisdom from Edmin’s book became an important guide for me to follow as I developed Bible studies during this past season of Lent.

On Easter, two weeks after the murder of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot by Sacramento police, Christians around the world proclaimed that “Christ is risen.” Yet, in the wake of Stephon’s death, for many, including myself and my students, this belief felt like a mirage. Christ had come to set the captives free, yet Stephon’s life was still bound to an unjust world and legal system (Luke 4:18). How could I communicate the reality, relevancy, and potency of Christ’s resurrection to students who live in a world in which black people are still held captive? I knew we needed to begin in the students’ culture.

So, we started our Bible study by examining this artwork:

For us, this piece of art illustrated the innate, sacred worth of black bodies and black culture.

Next, the students and I examined Kendrick Lamar’s song “Pray for Me.”This song voiced the despair, pain, and sense of isolation that we felt after hearing the news of Stephon’s death.

“Tell me who’s gon’ save me from this hell

Without you, I’m all alone

Who gon’ pray for me?

Take my pain for me?

Save my soul for me?

’Cause I’m alone, you see . . .”

The song ends with the rhetorical question, “Who need a hero?” The answer, we discovered, is “us.” We desperately needed a hero, but as the police officers opened fire on Stephon Clark, God did not intervene. God was not there.

Before this lesson, neither I nor the students would have considered turning to Psalm 22 to process the loss of Stephon Clark. Yet, when read alongside Kendrick Lamar’s song, Psalm 22 became a powerful way of welcoming God into our space of mourning and loss:

“‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

So far from my cries of anguish?’”(Psalm 22:1)

By communing with one another first through the elements of rap music, our culture became a space where we encountered God. Because the Bible study had demonstrated that the student’s culture was a gift, they were able to experience spiritual insight. And this approach is not unique to Edmin. In fact, Jesus used this method as he taught shepherds and farmers about the love of God being “like a shepherd who will abandon ninety-nine sheep for the sake of the one lost sheep.”

Just as it was for Christ, culture can be a vital tool for Christians to use as we communicate the relevancy of Christ’s life to other people. As we, the Church, continue to “make disciples of all nations,” what are the cultural contexts of our physical and spiritual neighbors that we must consider, listen to, and cherish, in hopes of having the nature of God more fully revealed to ourselves and others?



  • If you haven’t already, listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “Pray for Me” and then read Psalm 22. It is jarring to think about Christ feeling abandoned. How does His experience help you understand the pain expressed in the song?
  • You can find Christopher Edmin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too, plus others he has written here.



What Happens When You Don’t Have Time to Walk with God?

In college, I had things down. I went to all our fellowship meetings. I spent consistent time praying and reading the Bible. I met with a mentor and mentored a couple of younger guys myself.

When people told me things would be different after college, I believed them, but I didn’t really know what they meant. Not until 6 months later.

My first job was working in the fundraising department of Columbia University’s Teachers College. I was also in grad school. To make it all work financially, I worked full-time, so I could qualify for tuition benefits, and went to school full-time, to get reduced-cost housing. (This was New York, and on-campus housing was the only thing I could afford.)

I suddenly went from being “FAT” (faithful, available, teachable) to scrambling to survive. I knew that God was with me, but I just couldn’t do all the things I had learned to stay close to Him.

After crashing more than once just trying to hang on, I learned that for this new life to work, I had to re-organize. It was all trial-and-error at first, but in the end, I had to find an approach that

  • Fit the time I had
  • Gave me good “bang for the buck”
  • Wouldn’t kill me, given my limited mental and emotional energy

For me, that meant less Bible study but much more Bible reading. Reading, it turns out, not only fit my schedule, but it also fit my capacity. Instead of tapping into the same “bucket” I was already drawing on for everything else (I was studying day and night for school and for my job), reading filled me up in a different way. It got me connected to God’s big story.

Another big change was not expecting to have time to do the same things every day (a 30-45 minute quiet time each day, for example) but much more variety: multiple, short “touches” Monday-Friday (for example, writing down a few verses and reading them during spare moments when I could) and longer times to read and reflect on the weekends.

Getting married, having kids, moving overseas, new jobs full of demands and other changes in schedule and pace of life have taught me again and again that the things we call spiritual “disciplines” are much more about heart than technique. You have to do something! But what God wants more than anything else is my devotion, love and trust. In seasons of relative calm, I can take more time. In hectic times, I don’t stop coming to God – God is never not my highest priority – but I do have to find ways that fit. It can be hard to accept both the freedom and the responsibility to adjust and change, but that is exactly what is required if we are going to walk with God for a lifetime.



If you are crushed for time, here are two ideas:

  1. Make a short list the things that have helped you feel close to God. Pick just one thing from this list (for example, setting aside 10 minutes to pray) and make time to do it this week. If it works, try it again and try it more often. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
  2. From the same list, look for things that inspire you that are already part of your everyday life. For me, it can be sports (I love seeing people sacrifice for the team) or looking at the sky or passing by a beautiful tree. The next time you find yourself already doing one of the things on your list, just say a short prayer: “God, you are indeed mighty!”

If you have a little more time and want to explore what works for you, try working through this exercise.

If something like “having a quiet time” is pretty new to you, try 7 Minutes with God or order Getting to Know God through a Daily Quiet Time.


Psalm 16 – My Portion and My Cup

“I can’t do this.” After an hour of struggling to get our toddlers into bed, I sat weeping. I was nine months pregnant with our third child and thinking life was already overwhelming – living in a new city, learning a new job, raising two children, keeping up with the everyday craziness.  And now God was adding more to our plates. Though I had hoped and prayed for these things, I now found myself wishing them away. I was scared and wanted something different.

Just like before.

I’ve lived with anxiety more than once. Seasons of loneliness, overwhelming responsibilities at work, financial uncertainty and wrestling through family pain have led me into spirals of discontent and fear. In these times, God has often met me with Psalm 16:5-6.

Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.

That night as I sat crying, my loving and tender Abba reminded me He is the One who has assigned me “my portion and my cup.” And this is not a haphazard giving: God, in all His infinite wisdom and lovingkindness has meticulously thought through every second of my life. Every moment is secure. His voice gives me peace in the fear, brings strength through my weary tears and helps me see my family’s full life as “delightful and pleasant places.”



The Satisfied Heart. A 31-day devotional by Ruth Myers.

Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts. Jerry Bridges wrote this book, like many of his others, out of his own search for answers. Can we really believe God is sovereign?

It’s a Wonderful Life.

Flourishing or Languishing?

When I got my first job out of college, it certainly didn’t feel like I was flourishing. I lived in New Jersey and worked in New York. I woke up every day at 5:30 AM to catch the train, and if there was a seat, I could spend a little time reading the Bible. The train almost always filled up, though, so every day I was torn: do I give my seat to someone (and lose the opportunity to read?) or do I continue sitting and reading? Either way, I felt guilty, and since I wasn’t sleeping much any way, waking up even earlier didn’t seem right. Then one morning, standing on the train and reading, I came to Psalm 139:1-3 (emphasis added):

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up… You scrutinize my path and my lying down and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.”

Down to the detail of when I was standing and when I was sitting, God was telling me He knew about my struggles and the deep guilt I was feeling. In fact, He even knew the name of the train I was on: the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, i.e., the Path Train. What I learned that day is this: God knows that life after college is different than life in college. He knows we need to make adjustments to fit into the new place where He has called us. “Flourishing” is not simply a reflection of the activities we are involved in. It is also a matter of the heart. During times of transition, sometimes our hearts are fine (though frustrated) as we seek to settle into new patterns.


  • 2 question quiz: If you are feeling stuck/languishing/frustrated about your intimacy with God,
    • Is the problem your activities? (Have you stopped doing what you know works, or is the problem you just haven’t found a pattern that does work in your present circumstances?)
    • Do you have somebody you can talk to about how you are doing?
  • A book Dean recommends for dealing with busyness is Practicing the Presence of God. A modern translation of this 300-year- old collection of letters can be read online here.
  • You can read more about The Navigators Mission, Values and Vison here. (Or watch the vision statement being illustrated here.)


White Space: The Art of Scheduling Nothing

I was going through the motions…you know, the ones I do every day. Making a quick dinner, cleaning it up, preparing for an evening meeting, rushing off to whatever, and then back home to get some sleep, and thinking, “Didn’t we just do this?” In fact, we had, just 24 hours earlier, right?

I “run the house,” am a pastor’s wife and a mom, and work part time for the Nav20s. Every so often, it hits me: my life can be so busy and the routine of it all so demanding that it can crowd out all my time to draw near to Him and take away any space for His direction.

Something that rattles around in my brain quite often is Psalm 90, verse 12: “So, teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”

How is that done? How can we move towards a wiser, better spent life?

I have found two things that help. First, I have to put my priorities into my days. I have to schedule the “God’s things” (time spent focused on the Lord, time spent helping another person do the same, care of self and family) just like I have to schedule the “everyday things” (going to meetings, getting assignments done, getting the house ready for guests).

But in addition to setting aside time for God (like setting aside time for a date), I also want to learn how to live with the routine in an eternally significant way, resting in Him.

If I’m not including my priorities in my schedule, then I have to do what I can to get them there. This is the ongoing fight to “take back the calendar.”

But I also have to find ways to live with enough flexibility (what I call “white space” or “margin”) and with enough time to think (and breathe). I don’t want my life to be blindly driven, and I don’t want it divided between “God time” and “everything else time.” I want God to be more and more a part of all the time.

Think of a textbook jam-packed with 10-point text from corner to corner. Then, visualize a page with 12-point text, a photo here, a chart over to the left, subtitles in different colors…and you have an interesting, easy-to-read page. A tiny bit of empty space, a small bit of “colorful space,” and just a little flexibility in my days allows for the other things to be processed…and for me to more easily “read” where God is already showing up in my life.

To create both these “set-aside times” (to focus on priorities) as well as “white space” (to give me some flexibility), I have found it helpful to block off time for things I value but that don’t qualify as a true “appointment.” For example, I just recently put in a couple of intentions on my calendar for things such as “Exercise” and “Call Mom” because I know those things are valuable to me. I regularly schedule time for God’s Word (and schedule it so that I have time for His words to enter my mind and heart), time with my husband, and planning time.

But I have also found I need time to sit in front of the fire or out on the deck and revel in God’s goodness with worship music or nature or good friends. This is “margin.” (One friend of mine tells me he adds “Go home” to his work calendar whenever there is a little slowdown at his work and he can leave a few minutes early, or at least not too late.)

To be sure, not every day will be a perfect picture of leaning on the Lord and allowing Him to direct my path. The important thing is to “come away” with the Lord for peace for my soul and direction from Him. For me, it means making the margins a little wider on my page of life, and allowing for some white space.

Christmas is a Collision of Worlds

Within a few weeks of throwing my lot in with Jesus, I pledged a sorority. It was a collision of worlds. I was an ignorant freshman, a fledgling Christian and a freshly-minted sorority girl.

I look around at my new sorority sisters. Hmm, we all look the same. Young, white, well-dressed women, from good-enough families, aspiring to great things. It’s not as snobby as it sounds—more like, “intentionally monolithic.”

Simultaneously, I become immersed in Christian groups. Wow. This was the widest mix of people on the planet! What powerful force, I wondered, could draw together the drop-out and the scholar, the penniless and the preppy? I was in awe. I got the message pretty quick: Jesus could shape in people’s hearts a love for that which was not like them. I was hooked. It was an utterly different kind of beauty that drew me. I have come to think of it as the beauty of the gospel.

Last Saturday, my wonderful Virginia cousin gave me the gift of touring homes in Richmond’s “old Victorian” section, all decorated for Christmas. For three hours, I walk through homes with period antiques and crown moldings, gables and front porches, all decked out for Christmas, each house fit for a cover of Southern Living.

A familiar mirage begins to take shape in my head. I feel myself sucked into an old vision of “The Good Life.” Though I’ve known plenty of people in homes like these and know better than most that the lives inside don’t often match the decor (I am a counselor)….still, I can be fooled.

The next morning finds me in my regular church service back home, and once again, I experience that wonderful collision of worlds. It makes my head spin in a needed way.

Here I sit, once again, among the people of God. We are quite the crew. Where else could you find, in the same setting, the Duke professor, a child crawling in the aisle and a woman wearing an elf hat? Preaching and music and sacrament come together in a deeply-cleansing whole. This beautiful gospel of a beautiful God with nail prints in his hand. I am converted all over again. This Christmas, once more, I trade the mirage for the Real.

Perhaps something like this collision is happening for you this Christmas. Perhaps in some way, two different visions of beauty—of reality itself— are colliding.

My hope is that the beauty around us will draw us all to the true Source.

Nails, spears shall pierce Him through.

The cross be borne for me—for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

The babe, the Son of Mary.

(A longer version of this post was originally published here.) 




I get together with a group of men that starts each meeting with updates about our lives and a few prayer requests. I’ve started using the ACTS prayer tool (Adoration – Confession – Thanksgiving – Supplication) as a framework for what I’d like to share.

At some point, I realized that my thanksgiving tends to be about what I think is going well in my life…“I’m thankful I got that job I applied for,” followed by supplication, which is often about what isn’t going quite so well…“Please help my relationship with my co-worker improve.”

But I’ve been challenged lately by 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Romans 5:3 calls us even more specifically to “rejoice in our sufferings,” and James 1:2 exhorts, “Count it all joy…when you meet trials.”

This relationship between thanksgiving, joy, and suffering is profound. Do I really give thanks for suffering? Or do I thank God only for the things that are “going well” and then pray for an end to the things that aren’t? I don’t think these instructions on prayer mean I can’t ask God for hardship to end, but I do think I’m called to be thankful—even when suffering continues.

Incredibly, we’re promised fruit from suffering: endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4), as well as “steadfastness” and the remarkable result of “lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).

Thanksgiving, then, is not a separate step that I check off the list before I start asking God for things in a subsequent step called supplication; rather, they’re integrated and overlapping aspects of one prayer.

Philippians is a book with some pretty radical statements about suffering (see 1:29, 2:10). I think 4:6 sums it up best: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (ESV, emphasis added). Can we trust what God says about trials by giving him thanks even in the midst of them?


Alec’s Book Referrals:
Inside Out – Larry Crabb
Trusting God – Jerry Bridges

“Help, Please!”

Before I graduated, I thought my life was fairly under control, but pretty soon, I found myself struggling with anxiety and depression. After college, I found a job I was excited about, but even so, many days felt like I was living in a dark cloud, scared, confused and disoriented. “What’s wrong with me?” I kept asking myself, trying to drum up enough courage and enthusiasm to make it through the day. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to live like this. I longed to be emotionally healthy again, but found I couldn’t get there myself.

As painful as it was, I started to seek help. I met with a professional counselor and jumped into a local church. It was hard admitting to myself and others I wasn’t perfect, but God slowly brought healing. It was such a relief to see I didn’t have to keep trying to solve all my problems on my own.

Walking through this process, I discovered that my reluctance to accept help was just pride. It took me years to admit my problems were bigger than I could handle. I didn’t like to think of myself (or have other people view me) as weak or dependent. I wanted to solve my own issues, but I was missing out on God’s love.

That first step of moving toward health feels dangerous. God doesn’t promise that asking for or receiving help is easy. In my experience, it’s usually hard, especially if you’re dealing with heart issues. But it’s worth it. There is often more help available than we think. We just have to ask for it.

The Psalms are full of invitation and response. Psalm 120:1 says, “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.” Even so, for me, each day is a struggle to put aside pride and believe that asking for and accepting help is good. Although it’s a struggle, I can’t think of one instance where I regret admitting my need. Isaiah 30:18a says, “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.” Knowing this about God has given me the freedom to call to Him and say, “Help, please!”



Looking for more thoughts on seeking God in the Psalms? Check out these titles:

Oldies but goodies by Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message Bible):