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I just arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania after a long day of travel from Montana. Some minor hiccups along the way (including a sincere PTSD reaction to sitting in the same row of a 757 that I was sitting in back in January when the overhead bin popped open—twice!—and heavy bags dropped on my head both times). But all things considered, it was an uneventful day. Most things went just fine. But one thing was remarkably, beautifully, so precious and good.
It actually started a little scarily for me …
When I picked up a voicemail during my airport sprint in Detroit, I heard a man’s voice introducing himself as the pastor from the church I will be serving this weekend for a women’s retreat. Uh-oh! That is not usually a good sign. My mind raced to thoughts about some big conflict in the women’s ministry or maybe the entire church. Or possibly some tragedy had happened in the church family and the women’s retreat was off?
Then the pastor said, “I’m here with our Session.” (For my non-Presbyterian blog readers, those are the ordained shepherd-overseer church leaders for us.) And then I REALLY thought something was up. Maybe they read my blog from yesterday and thought, “This chick is WAY too unstable! We’re pulling the plug on this retreat!” Or maybe I would be wheels-down into a huge church-related lawsuit or split that really needed a team of Christian mediators, not a women’s retreat speaker.
My catastrophizing thoughts could not have been more wrong.
Here is a paraphrase of what the pastor actually said:
“Tara? I’m pastor so-and-so and I’m here with the Session and we all just wanted to greet you upon your arrival in Pennsylvania. (And then they went around the room introducing themselves by name and giving me a warm, personal greeting.)
We all wanted you to know that we have just spent an extended time in prayer for you and for our women and the retreat this weekend. We are so grateful that you have come all this way to discuss biblical peacemaking with our women and we are excited for how God is going to be glorified through this event and how our women will be encouraged and refreshed and helped by the insights you will share with them.
We will be praying all weekend. Know that we are standing with you and we are so glad you are here.”
I almost could not believe it. In all of the years I’ve been doing women’s events, I have never received a call like that. So much love! So much care. I was bowled over and grateful, yet again, for leaders who lead from a place of service. What a beautiful reflection of Jesus taking the basin and the towel and serving.
It reminded me of something funny Ella said to me last night. She was watching me pack some extra protein and granola bars because this retreat is actually being hosted at a rugged campground (i.e., no wifi!) and since I don’t like to eat big meals right before I teach, and other food is not going to be available through the camp, I like to pack a few provisions so that I can serve well and not inconvenience anyone.
But Ella said:
“Hey Mom! You don’t have to pack those granola bars. Don’t worry! The pastors will come.“
Now that was a stumper for me. “The pastors will come?” What is she talking about in her sweet, albeit slightly obscure, four year-old way? Sophie had to interpret for m:
“Mom? Remember how last night you were telling us stories of various events you have served at over the years and how that one, very small women’s retreat in Texas was out in a beautiful, rugged campground and on the Saturday night of the retreat, the church leaders came out to the campground, set the tables, prepared (and cleaned up) all of the dishes, and grilled us the most delicious steaks I think I have ever eaten. Yum-yum-nummy-num-num! And they wouldn’t let any of the women lift a finger to help clean up because they just wanted to take care of everything and facilitate a relaxed, refreshing time of fellowship, study, and prayer for the women. That’s what Ella is referring to.”
I love it!
The faithful shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
(And who does dishes and leaves encouraging, prayer-filled voicemails from the entire Session too.)
Thank You, Lord, for pastors who watch out over their flocks. Now I’m even MORE excited to be here serving in the beautiful state of Pennsylvania. May God be praised!
There was a time in my life when I was in a dark, dark place.
You can call it depression. Despair. The Black Dog. A valley. A dark night of the soul. Choose your term. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it hurt to live. My chest was crushed. I could not cease from crying. Day after day. I would lie there. Not moving. Incapable of distraction. My thoughts spiraling down and down.
Thankfully, I have real friendships in my life and a few people knew me well enough to rally and intervene. To care.
They asked hard questions and made hard statements like:
- What aspects of this are spiritual?
- Do we need to get you to medical assistance?
- I am going to call you this afternoon and you MUST pick up. You must. If you do not, I will leave work and come to your home. You do not have the option of not picking up.
As I reflect on that time, I remember telling one friend who asked me a specific, wise, question that I didn’t really think my depression (or whatever you choose to call it) was chemical. I am undoubtedly genetically predisposed to chemical imbalances in the brain—I have relatives up both sides of the family tree who have been greatly helped by medicines related to mental illnesses. But my body did not respond well to psychiatric medicines when I tried them. And I could clearly point to a situational cause: hurt. Hurt tied to a relational breach. Temptation to bitterness. An internal screaming of anger and rage in response to betrayal. Shock. Fear. Frustration. Not seeing a way out. Not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel—or if there is a light, it’s a train coming down the tracks to run over you again.
Initially, when I thought about all of this darkness and despair, I was tempted to self-condemnation. (“What kind of Christian are YOU that you get SO hurt and SO upset and go to SUCH a dark place?!?”) But as I have reflected more on my response (and with the blessed gift of time to grieve and think and pray and mourn—and submit and trust, by the way) … I am not kicking myself as much. OK. Sure. I still have a LOT of growing up to do in the Lord. And yes. Absolutely. I think it would be really cool to be one of those emotionally-stable, prone to readily overlook and cover over with grace, super-duper loving and godly people.
But I am being a little more gentle and gracious with myself because I also think that my response revealed something good. Right. Appropriate. And it is this: forgiveness is a death. Bearing with is hard. Choosing to risk and love (which are one in the same) means that sometimes, we will be hurt. Friends will love us, but they will love us imperfectly. And then we have to choose:
- Pull back from all relationships? Stop loving? Stop risking? Keep an emotional barricade around our hearts so we are never hurt again?
- Give in to judgment and bitterness. Stand above the people around us and rejoice that “we are not like them!” Act all godly on the outside, but inside, consider ourselves to be gods. Living in our little kingdoms. Attempting to ascend to the throne of God, while all the while, descending into the bowels of Hell itself.
- Or forgive.
Those are all the choices I see. That’s the realm of our response. And in view of God’s mercy (Romans 12:1)? It seems to me that actually, our only choice is choice #3. This death to self, remembering of God, right view of others and this blink-of-an-eye we call “life”: forgiveness.
Is it easy? Absolutely not. Pleasant? No way. Necessary? Undoubtedly, 100%, with all my heart YES. We cannot claim to love God and hate our brother (1 John 4:20). It is dishonoring to God and destroys our testimony to stand back and say, “OK. Sure. I don’t have a problem with her … I mean, if she has a problem with me, then she can come and talk to me. But from my perspective? We’re good. I’ve done everything I need to do. Yeah. Right. It’s all good.” While everyone who knows the real us knows that we are not truly, deeply, actually reconciled in the “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4).
And so, we forgive. To quote Andree Seu: “Forgiving is the hardest thing you will ever do.” And to paraphrase her brilliant essay that I urge you to read: If we think it’s easy to forgive; if we can piously claim to have forgiven while knowing our hearts are cold and distant and judgmental to the person (or persons) who hurt us? Then we have absolutely NO idea what we are talking about. And there is no way that we have ever forgiven anyone anything.
Today, I pray that we will forgive one another. And if we are stuck and can’t forgive? If we are caught in bitterness? If our anger towards others has turned inward in depression and we’ve gone past the point of caring anymore? That especially then, we will get help.
Know that you are not alone in the battle! The Lord is with you. And if you’re struggling with some big ol’ sin, then I can probably relate too (as can many people in your real, non-virtual, life).
With love from the trenches,
Two of the books that have helped me the most related to this topic:
Titus 3: “It’s like we’re in the middle of a rock wall. Trying! Stretching! Reaching! And then ZWOOP! We fall right onto the holiness of JESUS.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love teaching doctrine to children. It’s actually getting to the point now where I wonder if I really understand any doctrine at all if I haven’t yet had to wrestle through it with people who are ten years old and younger.
Tonight was another case in point …
For our evening reading, the girls and I (Fred is with the diaconate tonight) read from Titus 3:
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when …”
And then I stopped, just as I often do at women’s conferences and retreats, and said nonsense words like:
“But when I started being a GOOD PERSON … then God loved me.“
“But when I STOPPED disobeying my parents and STARTED ALWAYS doing the right thing … then God loved me.“
Of course, my two favorite theologians (ages 4.5 and 10) can’t bear ANY of that heresy so they start jumping up and down and crying out, “No! No! No!” So I continue reading the TRUTH:
(We were foolish, disobedient, led astray … living in malice, envy, hating others …)
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things …”
Ah, yes. The very, very best news in the entire universe. The Good News. Our Only Hope: we are saved not by our works, but according to the mercy and loving kindness of God our Savior through Jesus Christ.
Oh, friends. Have you said that message to a four year old recently? If not, I urge you to DO IT. Do it tonight. Go into your niece’s room or your spiritual grand-daughter’s room or you child’s room and look them smack in the eyes and tell them about The God Who Saves Sinners. Talk about a rush! Talk about real joy. Talk about HOPE bursting into my heart that was so tempted to feel so tired, let down, and hopeless this evening.
My ten year-old responded with some fascinating questions re: the differences between justification and sanctification and why if we are “once and for all forgiven” we still confess our sins to God each day. Good question! Let’s unpack it!
And my four year-old responded with her typical inimitable combination of verbal prowess and energy-infused physicality:
First, she jumped up! And began doing the arm and leg motions of climbing up a rock wall.
Then she told me how it’s like we’re IN THE MIDDLE of the rock wall. Straining. Stretching. Trying so hard. Reaching. Climbing. Working. We’re exhausted! It’s too hard! We can never get to the top.
But then. (BUT. THEN.) Justification is the “ZWOOP!” of life … the ZWOOP that rockets us all the way to the very top because in that moment when we are born again and we pass from darkness to light; from death to life; from being children of the devil to children of God … our sins are put on Jesus and His righteousness is apportioned to us and JESUS TAKES US RIGHT TO THE TOP!
How does this happen? (Just an FYI, this is probably my favorite exegesis of the night.) We PLOP RIGHT DOWN ONTO THE HOLINESS OF JESUS. (These words were, of course, accompanied by a four year-old duly plopping herself down onto a couch cushion with that safe, loved, wanted, secure forever, grin from ear-to-ear. Mmmmmm. Ahhhhhh. Safe and secure in the righteousness of Another.)
Yup. I have to tell ya’ … I read some of my required reading for my RTS class. I’m trying to catch up on sermons I’ve missed while being out of town. I’m reading through a book with my pastor. It’s all good. I’m grateful for it all.
But theology with children?! I’ll take it every day of the week and twice and Sunday—I just love love LOVE to talk about deep stuff with young people. And tonight, I’m listening to these little ones. I’m going to “zwoop!” to the top and then “plop!” right onto the holiness of God Himself.
(From) Psalm 62
Find rest, my soul, in God alone
Amid the world’s temptations;
When evil seeks to take a hold
I’ll cling to my salvation.
Though life is but a fleeting breath,
A sigh too brief to measure,
My King has crushed the curse of death
And I am His forever.
Amen and amen! And g’nite to you all.
I pray that we will find rest in God alone this very evening.
LiveBlog of the PCA Women’s Leadership Conference General Session #5: Melanie Cogdill (A Tale of Two Women), Sarah Ivill (Thinking Biblically and Living Covenantally), and Stephen Estock (Why I Love Women’s Ministry)
LiveBlog of the PCA Women’s Leadership Conference General Session #4: Tara Barthel & Ellen Dykas – Real Friendship for Women Leaders: Loving Each Other Enough to Speak Truth
LiveBlog of the PCA Women’s Leadership Conference General Session #3: Ellen Dykas – Taking God’s Truth to a Hurting and Struggling World
LiveBlog of the PCA Women’s Leadership Conference General Session #2: Nancy Guthrie – Have a Clear Aim
LiveBlog of the PCA Women’s Leadership Conference General Session #1: Nancy Guthrie – Keep a Close Watch
[Re-posted from October 2013]
Today we are getting our family photos taken and a part of me is looking forward to capturing what I hope will be a more feminine and attractive photo than last year. But even as I compare a recent photo of myself to one from our family photo shoot last year (the one on the left is one that I have never shared publicly before because I was ashamed of how I looked—the only ones I shared publicly had me very well hidden behind Fred and the children so that I could pretend I didn’t look the way I looked) … I must admit that I am more and more drawn to that (accurate!) photo of me when my weight was rocketing towards 300 pounds.
I don’t say that to be a glutton for punishment (no pun intended). Nor do I think I look particularly modest, feminine, or attractive in it (of course). But the further I go down this path of (TRYING to!) turn to God and turn away from my besetting sins related to food/gluttony and sloth/laziness and bad stewardship of my health/greed, the more grateful I am that I was FAT for the past ten years or so.
Maybe that sounds crazy to your ears. I know it did to mine at first. I used to HATE being morbidly obese. I hated how hard (frustrating / trying / emotionally exhausting / embarrassing) it was to get dressed in the morning—would anything fit? What over-layer could I put on top of my clothing to try to hide my body even more? Did that cling to all of my bumps and round places too much? It HURT to try to button too-tight pants and even the thought of wearing blouses with buttons? Give me a break! No way could I wear something like that. And I missed being able to wear jeans. I know that some overweight people wear jeans but I just never got to a place where I felt comfortable with how the giant-sized (my largest size was a TIGHT 22W) jeans stayed on (or failed to stay on is more like it); plus I felt sloppy in them.
Beyond the clothing, it was also just HARD physically to get dressed (just as it was hard to do even the most minor of physical activities). I couldn’t hold my balance to bend over and put on pants or tie shoes because my core body strength was too weak; plus, I was balancing an extra 100 lbs of fat! Not an easy thing to do. Just taking a family walk around the neighborhood was exhausting. I was winded. Tired. Grouchy. Even though I tried to hide it by being cheerful and happy as our family was supposedly drinking in the beauty of being outside, my heavy breathing and flushed cheeks revealed what was really going on. Oh. And I was ALWAYS HOT. That’s what happens when you carry around your own blanket. Teaching? Mediating? Sitting in church? Being at a friend’s house? I was always the overheated one and that made things uncomfortable too.
Other little things?
- I couldn’t wear skirts. Before I was obese, I never understood why overweight women didn’t wear skirts—I thought they looked so much more attractive! But then I learned that unhealthy thighs rub together and leave bumpy red rashes (ouch!) and it was totally impossible (at least for me) to put on nylons. So skirts were out for YEARS.
- I was always in pain. Yes. Sure. I have always had chronic pain tied to my birth defects and multiple surgeries and congential back/knee/hip problems. But this pain was worse—it was the constant ache of muscles that weren’t being used and stretched and strengthened. It was acute pain associated with 100+ extra pounds being lugged around and pressed down onto joints that were not created or intended to bear that kind of weight.
And all of those small, relatively unimportant (but impactful in daily life!) things PALE in comparison to the REAL pain I experienced in my inner man. Ah. Yes. Now we’re getting down to the nut of it and why I believe that right now, this very day—when I CAN get dressed without thinking much about it and I CAN wear nylons and skirts and button things up without pain or gaps—right now? When people come up to me and say, “Oh! Tara! You look so good! Jesus is really giving you the VICTORY, isn’t He?!” … I KNOW that I am in a much more precarious position than I was 90 pounds ago because I know that:
- My inner man is BARELY beginning to grow in grace related to all of this (even though my physical body has made some progress towards health).
- If I do not guard my heart, I will WARP 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and rather than turning to GOD from my idols, I will turn to a NEW idol (weighing a certain weight; looking a certain way; wearing a certain size; “being healthy”/losing weight, etc.). This will keep me in the same bondage (or even WORSE bondage!), but if people don’t take the time to know me and draw me out and understand my heart, they will just assume “Jesus is giving me the victory!” based on external signals/cues … but they will not be encouraging me in faith and life and godliness. Unintentionally, of course, they will trying to be loving and edifying, but they will be fueling the fires of the altars of my idols. Scary!
So all of that leads me to the reason I titled this post: It’s a Grace to be Fat.
The truth is, we all struggle with our three enemies: Satan, the world, and our Old Man. For most “mature” Christians, our struggles are pretty well hidden. All too often, we have perfected the art of living one way in front of others (especially at church, in Bible studies, when we have people into our home) and then living sometimes with a complete disconnect when we are alone / in secret / in the “darkness” as it were. This is particularly true when it comes to those habitual sins that have a bodily component: mind-altering drugs (even prescription drugs that were appropriate after that surgery but now we are turning to for a crutch), alcohol (not in moderation but as a drunken escape or “reward”), sex (especially erotic literature that we try to justify as being “not that bad” but which leads us into a fantasy life that can never be described as redemptive or God-honoring), and yes … food (not for nourishment or even for God-honoring pleasure, but for some of us, food enslaves us–we want to be more moderate and healthful, but we keep returning to unhealthy foods at unhealthy portions even after we resolve—AGAIN!—to change).
(As a quick aside: Am I saying that every woman who doesn’t fit the societal ideal of a size zero with cosmetically enhanced breasts or every man who doesn’t have giant chest muscles and rock solid abs is sinning? OF COURSE NOT. Am I saying that being overweight is sinful? NO WAY. There are lots of reasons for being overweight that are not based in sin. But. I am talking about those of us who KNOW we are sinning. We feel trapped/caught by our sin (Gal. 6:1). We do NOT feel we are honoring God and loving neighbor by being good stewards of our health. We do not feel we are strong and fit and able to serve well. This is not true of everyone. If you are the size you are and your conscience is clear and you are full of shalom/peace regarding such things? Hooray! I rejoice with you. But you are not the person I am talking about in this post. The person I am talking about in this post is ME and anyone who is LIKE ME in struggling with internal, heart-issue sins that manifest themselves in how I eat or fail to eat. And whatever size I end up with? Praise God. That’s not my call. I am not trying to fit a societal ideal about physicality. I am trying to repent of my idolatry and worship God rightly.)
And the truth is that sinning (even in secret) regarding food has a HUGE benefit (again, no pun intended) when compared to other “hidden” sins … our FAT finds us out! It does. I wear my sin on my huge granny arms and in my stretchy black pants (the only thing I could wear FOR YEARS). Since I don’t have a thyroid problem or a medical condition that made me gain weight (and that does happen, but not to most of us!) … when you see me SO extremely overweight and you hear me stand up in church (like I have done) and ask for prayer because my heart is disordered regarding food then you KNOW that something is going on with me in my inner man that needs prayer. Counsel. Confrontation. Rescue. HELP. The Savior. (NOT just a “diet plan” or “ten steps to lose weight” or “eat all protein” or “eat no protein,” etc. etc.)
(How to go about actually, truly, LOVING and helping a person who is morbidly obese and who is asking for help? Oh man. That’s a bigger question than I have time for today.)
But as I head into my day, I am praying not only for the grace to think and move and have my being in a HEALTHY (spiritually and physically), new, God-honoring way … I am also thanking God for the grace of being fat. If I could have kept indulging my sin in secret and never had these constraints on me, crushing my bones as in the heat of day (Psalm 32:3)? I really don’t believe that I would have ever repented in this life. Maybe. But I doubt it. I just loved my sin too much. I needed the physical CONSEQUENCES of my sin to help me to repent of my heart issues. I’m not proud of that. But it’s true.
So. For me? Using Berkhof’s definition of grace? It was a grace to be fat (emphasis mine):
The word “grace” is not always used in the same sense in Scripture, but has a variety of meanings. In the Old Testament we have the wordchen (adj. chanun), from the root chanan. The noun may denote gracefulness or beauty, Prov. 22:11; 31:30, but most generally means favour or good-will … This means that grace is not an abstract quality, but is an active, working principle, manifesting itself in beneficent acts, Gen. 6:8; 19:19; 33:15; Ex. 33:12; 34:9; I Sam 1:18; 27:5; Esth. 2:7.
The fundamental idea is, that the blessings graciously bestowed are freely given, and not in consideration of any claim or merit …
Furthermore, the word is expressive of the emotion awakened in the heart of the recipient of such favour, and thus acquires the meaning “gratitude” or “thankfulness,” Luke 4:22; I Cor. 10:30; 15:57; II Cor. 2:14; 8:16; I Tim. 1:12. In most of the passages, however, in which the word charis is used in the New Testament, it signifies the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, affected through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
While we sometimes speak of grace as an inherent quality, it is in reality the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit, out of the fulness of Him who is “full of grace and truth,” Rom. 3:24; 5:2, 15; 17:20; 6:1; I Cor. 1:4; II Cor. 6:1; 8:9; Eph. 1:7; 2:5, 8; 3:7; I Pet. 3:7; 5:12.
I am so grateful for “the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit” and I am praying for the same for you today!
With much love,
I am re-posting this article today (February 2014) because I am already beginning to get questions about weight loss as I serve this week at a women’s leadership conference in Atlanta. I don’t mind people asking and I understand their curiosity. (This picture captures exactly what I looked like and what I wore—what an ILL-CHOSEN color, by the way, eh?!? ! —at this exact same conference last year.)
It’s just that overindulging in food, turning to food for spiritual/emotional reasons, the difficulties associated with ANY kind of self-discipline—but especially exercise and moderate/healthful eating once you have gained more than 100 pounds of excess fat and lived for years in an immobile, inactive state? Well. These are not easy topics to tackle in 30-second conversations in hallways.
So I put this post up again because I wanted to make this article (and all of the other articles in my “Losing 100 Pounds” and “Disordered Affections” categories) as easy as possible for people to find. I hope they are a blessing and encouragement to you. And I hope they give more information and insights than I can manage in these super quick conversations in between workshops and general sessions.
Our family photos from last October turned out pretty good! Here are just a few for you to enjoy. You can always see more on FaceBook if you are interested.
When she found out that I Sophie and I flew on 74 flights together before Sophie turned 1 year old, she asked if I had any advice. (This photo was taken when Sophie and I headed out on our first flight in February 2004.)
The problem was, our kids’ gymnastics class was ending and we were juggling small children and putting shoes and coats on, etc., so I only had like three minutes to think of something to say. So here are the top three suggestions I could think of re: traveling with a baby:
1. The hardest transition points will be TSA and the actual boarding time. If your stroller can’t collapse with one hand, you are going to need to have a plan for what to do with the baby, or else you’ll end up laying him or her down on the jetbridge/airport floor. (Not a good plan!) I always traveled with Soph in my Maya Wrap, so if you have some sort of secure baby carrier, that should cover you. If not, look for a friendly mom-type (whose hands aren’t full!) and ask if she would consider either a) holding your baby for 30 seconds while you collapse your stroller at the end of the jetbridge OR b) collapsing your stroller while you hold your baby (whichever you are most comfortable with). Either way, have a plan.
2. Diapie blow-outs are always a risk. Plan for an entire change of clothes if needed. And pack SCENTED garbage bags all folded down into tiny rectangles in snack-size ziplocks. That way if a diapie and/or diapie blow out happens, you can try to contain all of the icky smell as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the entire plane will pay the cost.
3. In the bottom of my frequent-flyer-momma-diaper-bag, I always had snack size ziplocks with crisp $5 bills and brand new earplugs “at the ready” in case my daughter ever had one of those “babies freak out sometimes” freaking out time. Most people are fairly gracious about such things, especially if they see you working hard to try to soothe your baby. Babies cry! What can you do? But I wanted to be able to say to the people around me, “I’m so sorry. May I buy you a glass of wine or a big pack of M&M’s? And I have these brand-new earplugs you could have …” That usually softened even grouchy people right up.
So those are my top three suggestions. I hope her travel goes well and that these ideas help you if you’re flying with a baby soon.