Refreshing Hearts One Sentence At A Time
“Expect to have hope rekindled. Expect your prayers to be answered in wondrous ways. The dry seasons in life do not last. The spring rains will come again.” ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach
If I can categorize this year so far, it falls under the heading of Seasons of Loss. It’s super exciting to read about people’s seasons of loss, to be sure, which is why I try to avoid writing about it. I don’t want to focus on what’s missing, what’s broken, and how cloudy it is outside, because that is not uplifting or encouraging, and what I need most in my life is to be encouraged. There is very little outright encouragement, and what little I receive I cling to and tuck away for when my toddler pees on me.
Writing becomes a difficult task instead of a creative outlet when I feel pressure around me to do better than I am currently doing. When I feel as if I’m failing, flailing about, or simply falling down, I find it hard to supply anybody else with refreshment when a warm cup of cocoa is what I need the most. But as I was showering this morning, my little girl snacking on Goldfish crackers, watching a cartoon in the living room, my mind rhythmically whirling about with the long List Of Stuff To Do, the thought which appealed most was that today was a day to write; to push open the heavy wooden door and find a way to encourage myself. And maybe in the process someone else can read some much needed words as well.
So what’s this loss I’ve mentioned? Now, I’m going to be honest on here, and people have a hard time with honesty when it steps on toes. But it’s my story and I can’t recolor or diminish the antagonists I’m facing right now.
My sister, who is also a best friend, has moved across the world and I can’t even mail her a letter. I’m publishing my first book; the editorial review came back and I received a big, fat, red F on the grammar. This is quite the shock for me, as I’ve never received negative grammatical feedback before. The church I attend is becoming a difficult place in which to operate.
Another conflicting emotion that doesn’t really fall in the category of Loss, but more of Conflict, is my inner struggle with ministry to others versus making money to help us save for traveling to see family and buy a house. I have committed this year to coordinate a ministry at church, and I am so excited to be able to utilize my organizing skills and make new friends to fill these voids I am experiencing, but it’s quite a time commitment. The opponent on the field is teaching English classes; I can get paid some decent money to help improve students’ writing and take part in educational camaraderie. But this too is a significant time commitment. A third factor is creating designs for my husband’s multimedia business. He works full time and so I design and communicate and rearrange and email during much of my “free time,” aka my toddler’s nap time.
I’ve been kind of a wreck lately.
I don’t know how I get myself in positions like this, where I am overwhelmingly busy. It makes me start to feel like a leaf in the wind, and my brain starts to feel as if it’s in the wave pool at Hurricane Harbor.
I think a very significant additional factor is that almost every solid ground I have right now is being shaken. My parents, also, are moving 1,000 miles away. The process began about three years ago when they first decided they wanted to sell the two-story wonder where they have lived for 23 years. They had put it in the market before and I began saving up how the rooms smelled like fresh air conditioning and a hint of perfume, the feel of the thick, light brown carpet under my toes, and the way the sunlight drifted in through the windows in the sun room. The sound of the cicadas outside the front bedroom in the big tree; the shade patterns in the backyard, the sunny spot where the pool used to be, the rough gray aging of the wood on the tree house my dad made for me when I was in middle school. The mysterious sound of footsteps upstairs when no one was there.
All these sounds, smells, memories, filling the majority of my life; they are my home. It is the neighborhood where I cannot get lost. There is the peach tree that died that one winter and Bonnie pushed it over and we rolled it around the backyard. There’s the spot under the trees in the backyard where the rabbit hutches used to sit; the far back corner where Rachel and I played in the trees, hiding from our parents because they wanted to go home after Pizza Hut Tuesday Night was over. The bedroom that used to be pastel yellow with blue trim where I would dream of what would be and what could be and how cute Devon Sawa was and if I would ever drive my own Mustang.
Now it is three years later and we’ve had our last Christmas here, our last funeral meal. Our last baby shower for a friend. The house is on the market and my parents are moving much, much farther than two hours away.
There will be firsts, beginnings, and new paint smells.
But in the silence that falls between breaths, in the painful thumping within the chest and last looks around, it is easy to feel the spinning earth ready to leave you behind, just like everyone else.
Two weeks ago I helped my parents put away the sentimentality and clean the house from top to bottom. It was a time to paint over 23 years of memories, and clean out the grime that you never notice until you start thinking about a room from someone else’s point of view. One day I used up two whole Mr. Clean Magic Erasers. On the first floor. We installed lighting fixtures and mirrors and cabinets and vacuumed and put away and boxed up and yes, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Wave your hand in a circle as you read that.
As I scrubbed and washed and Lysoled and wiped and scrubbed again, it provided some clarity and time to think through all the sentimental jargon my brain has been feeding me, for I am a sentimental fool. It’s hard to throw things away when you’re a sentimental fool. But hence we work, and aspire to fix our broken natures. What else do we have to do? If this is my purpose, if this is my privilege to care for my person and my family and homes, then I should be present and scrubbing my hardest.
The scrubbing kind of clears out the junk, you know? It strips away some of the grime in your brain that says, “This has to be a certain way,” because it’s always been that way. But what I’ve seen with my two sisters, parents, cousins, in-laws, and distant relatives coming and going to far off places, that what we can see is so limited. What I know is so limited. How I live is so limited.
Do I live up to my potential, do I act in the full power of the One who made me and gave me tasks to accomplish? Do I instead give in to my smallness, to my loss?
I grew up knowing well the Bible verse from Colossians 3:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
As a guideline, this is how I try to work, to do my best in what I commit to doing. I do not always commit to doing housework; let’s be honest. I do commit to leading, organizing, volunteering, helping, serving, and cooking meals when needed. I over-commit, to continue in my honesty. I think I do it to find more purpose, to see some kind of gain in all this loss.
But are we slaves? Are we working for God’s purpose? Are we living in the knowledge that one day we will receive an inheritance? What are our earthly masters? Do we store up change in piggy banks, heap extra sets of sheets, stack cans of tomato sauce, pile up pairs of shoes, and cram tubs full of purses to help us assuage the deficit?
Dust, thou art vile.
For real, I hate dusting. Think about what dust is made up of: Dust in homes, offices, and other human environments contains small amounts of plant pollen, human and animal hairs, textile fibers, paper fibers, minerals from outdoor soil, human skin cells, burnt meteorite particles and many other materials which may be found in the local environment (Thanks, Wikipedia.).
Hence, we are even storing our own dead skin.
What are we doing? Do we continue to serve our stuff? What do we get rid of?
Dust came from the fall of man. “For dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19b). The fact that our bodies disintegrate is part of the consequences of our actions. Right?! We started dying, started falling apart; but one day we won’t be falling apart any more.
Is there dust in heaven? Think of those mansions... if “there’s a big, big house” for me, there best be a big, big cleaning crew.
We work for more than what we can see. Does it matter if there is treasure or reward for what we do? What about the unseen things? I can scrub and scrub and very likely the next person walking in the room won’t give a lick about how it looks or who cleaned it or how much sweat went into it. What matters?
Don’t we look at the rows and rows of books at the library? Does it matter if I ever get a book published; does it matter if I make some kind of mark on humanity? A friend of mine just returned from a trip to Scotland and told us of a church that was built a thousand years ago. Think of that; think how many lifetimes ago when each rock was cut, trimmed, and placed on another. This friend told us that each rock laid was inscribed with the mason’s initial so that at the end of the week the foreman would give to each laborer according to the work he had done. And, a thousand years later, those notations and inscriptions are still there. Do any of us leave such a durable symbol, an irrevocable mark, to leave behind when we can’t speak for ourselves any longer?
I was the kid who earned reward certificates at the school ceremonies. You know, for good attendance, good behavior, good grades. I wanted to be the best and it was usually pretty easy to attain. I did own a deep fear of failure, letting people down, and getting in trouble, which were strong motivators to my educational success and still obligate me today. I’m working on beating those; but one thing at a time, please.
I’ve been going through old tubs full of old stories, old rewards; as I toss them into trash cans now I see that it is the shaped character, the transformed heart, that are the treasure. The gold stickers, trophies, labeled coffee cups, the framed artwork, is all a bit silly if it’s the goal. Who knows the full extent to what we get one day, but is it what drives us? What gets us through those tears, sweat, or painful defeats?
“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word” (Psalm 119:114).
Knowing and acting in God’s power and love are what count. As a child of God, I am more than I think I can be. It is his fullness that facilitates my body when my arms shake in exhaustion. It is his common sense that compels me to find his presence when there is nothing of myself left to give. Life is hard. But God is good.
Sometimes that’s all you can say.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”
~ Helen Lemmel
So as we walk away from home, from the familiar, from what we thought we would hope for, we glance back to the city where dreams play a stark, dissonant chord compared to reality’s song. There, the disposal trucks carry away your baggage and children make new memories far different than yours. This is the place where, beyond a blurry brown hillside, possibility and assumption reside. Maybe what waits is over-commitment and flakiness, but hopefully someone will understand and bring you a Snicker Bar Latte just when you need it most.
“Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed [his promise to Abraham] with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:17-20).
He has claimed his children for his own and doesn’t mind the dust. On our darkest days, within our weary hearts, we have this Hope, this almighty Strength, which will never let us go or leave us behind. He walks with us down the road, suitcase in hand, toward the next season that awaits us.
My husband, daughter, a good friend, and I were eating dinner at the newest Chinese restaurant in town. There was the obligatory fortune cookie at the end of the meal, as we wiped the teriyaki sauce off our lips and broke into those delightful cardboard-esque treats. The friendly server handed my daughter her own cookie and I helped open the package. After cracking it open, I pulled out the paper strip to read what hers said. “Do not fear failure,” it said. The sentence actually made me pause, because I think that is something I definitely want to teach my Little M, and myself as well. I was going to keep it and maybe put it in her baby scrapbook, when she suddenly stuck it in her mouth and then spit it onto the floor. Oh well.
See, I’m at a point where there are a few branches coming up in my pathway, and there’s a quiet, unsettled, and apprehensive voice in the back of my mind who continually cautions, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Whether the choice is picking out which shirt to wear, buying a book, or asking my husband to take out the garbage, the voice is always there. She’s gotten quieter over the years, but sometimes starts to disturb the peace upstairs. And with the ideas of buying a house, changes in our family life, and furthering action on my passions, all beginning to stir into the pot, she’s really started to affect the amount of adrenaline pulsing through my veins at any given time.
“What if --,” she begins to say.
“Hush,” I reply.
“What about --,” she falters, her hands waving about in the air.
“We have already thought about that, and I don’t want to worry right now,” I answer, shaking my head.
“But what will people think?!” she asks, slapping her cheek, her eyes widening.
“I don’t have time for you right now, I need to figure out what’s for dinner,” I say, turning my back on her, and turning up the television.
“Fine,” she yells, stomping into the bedroom. “But I’ll be back in eight minutes to discuss this with you then!”
I’m someone who you can say errs on the side of caution. I’m clumsy enough, I’m self-conscious enough, I’ve had enough real-life-tv-sitcom moments to have learned a lesson or two.
1) Don’t talk about your waiter at the restaurant, especially when he could be standing right behind you as you insult his order-taking techniques.
2) Maybe don’t let two guys argue about you at midnight in front of an apartment complex? Go inside first.
3) Watch your steps in unfamiliar territory. And familiar territory.
Along with that cautionary, somewhat slow-moving persona you can imagine, add to it a certain obsessive compulsiveness and introversion that, if it weren’t for my lack of impeccable housekeeping skills, could easily become a light case of agoraphobia. Fortunately, I’m terrible at dusting and love to go outdoors for the fresh air. I do realize this post makes me seem a little bit crazy. Nonstandard. Anomalous. Peculiar.
And so it goes.
I was sitting at church the other day I saw a tiny spider on the floor by my feet. I thought, “I didn’t see that spider when I sat down or I wouldn’t have sat here.” Then that made me think about all the things I CANNOT see around me, like bitten-off fingernails or dust mites or skin flakes. Yeah. Gross. But then it also kind of made me think, you know, there’s really a lot more that all of us cannot see. There is a spiritual world around us we don’t usually notice. If we could actually see those life-sized spiders before they were next to us, some anger, frustrations, and trip-ups would just be so much easier to avoid.
Next, the thought came that, honestly, our dim eyes see so very little. We have our own insufficient perspectives, our own petty fears and emasculations. We accept feeble attempts and shaky knees, and to have any fear at all almost seems to fear everything. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world… We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
1 John 4:4; 13-18
A quick search on BibleGateway brings up 83 verses for the search, “do not be afraid.” That’s crazy, those.
Sometimes, fearing creepy spiders is the easier reaction. Sometimes, when the bombs begin dropping around you, forgetting that you’ve won the battle seems more believable. When the mortar bursts and shrapnel scrapes across your heart, it’s easier to give in to the darkness. But we aren’t supposed to let the shadows win. The children of God have overcome, are complete, and we discard fear.
And failure, well, it seems that God cares about our acts, our hearts, and that we dwell in him; that we obey his commands, that we seek purity in him. I don’t touch on the category of “purity” very often; that might have something to do with my aversion to chores. But what seems to be the majority of what is considered success for a Christ-follower is to be joyful, loving, kind, gentle, and good. It doesn’t matter what kind of shelter you reside in, if you have three perfect children, or thousands of followers on Twitter. Although it would be rad to have a booth dedicated to my art at Comic Con. But no, that’s not really the goal. That’s not what keeps you going when the storm begins to whirl.
We seek God and his presence, seek our dreams, seek our desires. We test our desires against his Word and look for guidance. But when it comes to wisdom with finances, wondering when the spark plugs should be changed, replacing carpets, or recovering from surgery, and when we can get to the store to buy groceries….
I wish all of this wasn’t so hard. I wish that families stayed in the same places, rejection wasn’t an issue, and that we could more easily hold on to an eternal perspective. But our humanity gets in the way… our mold, our dust, and that gripping tightness in the chest. We walk, as with feet slugging through thick, deep mud. We can’t always see the sun. We have the promises that shield our faces and pull us up out of the mire, declaring a hope and a future, and that we will walk in high places with a shield and salvation.
“I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
We cling to this, brushing off the falling ashes, walking through the thunder, and seeking shelter. If our God is with us, we do not fail. When God completes us, we are closer to his heart; and we cannot be in any better place.
It’s very likely that along the way we will be idiotic, silly, and forgetful. We will literally fall, twist our ankles, club ourselves in the head with the car door because the carport is rusted and there’s a waterfall right outside the passenger side... we will cry out when our children refuse to obey, and hoard chocolate bars in a hidden cupboard. We will fail to maintain perfection on this earth, to be on time, to budget correctly, and to find the good in others. And what do we do then?
“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.”
“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”
We have to stick with Him, because he’s got this. We have to trust him to forgive our inner failures, we have to give up our stubbornness, and we have to choose to leave behind My Way Of Doing It. And he will work out the kinks, even if it hurts a little, even if we thought they were okay to have around.
There are many ways to tell a story, and there are many types of stories to be told. Legend and autobiography, tragedy, comedy, and the popular hero tale are an industry that encompass literature, art, film, and our children’s toy shelves. In the hero plot, the protagonist must face a challenge or series of obstacles in order to change his destiny. The hero usually starts off as a character forced into making a decision. Then the stakes are raised. Quite often there is a great loss for the hero; Spider Man was only Peter Parker until his Uncle Ben was killed; Batman watched his parents suffer and die at the hands of a thief; Elizabeth Bennet didn’t give a rip for Darcy until her sister ran off; Katniss took her sister’s place in a battle to the death. Even Jesus, in a real-life example, had to allow his work to be completed: “Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’”
So what do we expect?
Personally I do not consider myself a hero. I was proud of myself for being able to do 35 girlie pushups the other day; I got one basket away from being caught up on the laundry. Hoo haa. This is not really exciting. But my story, and your story, are important. You are your own protagonist. What is your challenge, your series of obstacles?
What will you lose?
And can you overcome?
The reward is much greater when the loss has a noble purpose.
On this blue planet we are drifting closer to eternity every moment, so don’t let the moments go to waste.
“In You, O Lord, I have taken refuge;
Let me never be ashamed;
In Your righteousness deliver me.
Incline Your ear to me, rescue me quickly;
Be to me a rock of strength,
A stronghold to save me.
For You are my rock and my fortress;
For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me…
For You are my strength.
Into Your hand I commit my spirit;
You have ransomed me, O Lord, God of truth...
I trust in the Lord.
I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness,
Because You have seen my affliction;
You have known the troubles of my soul,
And You have not given me over into the hand of the enemy;
You have set my feet in a large place.”
I battle with myself over a lot of shortcomings. I contemplate contentment and consider the falling stars and I see my incapacity to react in the right way so often. My toddler gets so frustrated at the littlest upset when she attempts to try something -- linking together toy trains, putting on her shoes, eating broccoli with her fork; she screams, her face turns red, she sometimes throws her fork or knocks over the project at hand. And am I like that? When I don’t get my way, when my schedule is disrupted, when I feel like I’m failing? Sometimes yes.
But we don’t look back. We don’t throw ourselves onto our beds and give up. Not today, anyway. Into his hands we commit; we commit to letting ourselves be molded, letting our stories be shaped, letting our pathways be wrought as they may. Maybe the pathway is financial success or new houses or shiny cars or full cupboards or smiling hugs from friends. Maybe there is loss or upset expectations, but we don’t fear it, and we kick the spiders out of the way. Maybe this is read in a small room or on a small screen, but He has set your feet in a large place. It’s wide open, soft green grasses, with large, leafy trees in the distance; small yellow flowers flutter around your feet in the soft breeze, while two birds soar overhead, the sunshine beaming down on your shoulders. You are chosen; you are strong; you are in the hands of a very capable Author.
But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (1 Corinthians 1:9)
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