A Light Has Come

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Every year I write a Christmas piece. I look forward to this part of the season almost as much as my kids look forward to proving to me that they did in fact guess what all their gifts were by shaking them. (In their defense, they have been under the tree since November.) Topics for my Christmas writing have ranged from various aspects such as the stable or the star to the gift of grace or the perspective of the camel (which was my first and is still arguably my favorite).

This year, as I travel through the Christmas season yet again, I am pulled back repeatedly to one single aspect, one that has never quite caught my attention in this magnitude before. I am surrounded by it but I stop and stare far more frequently.

I am captured by light.

At this moment I am surrounded by lights, many small twinkling Christmas lights that glow brightly enough so that no other light is needed. There’s something that stirs and quiets in me all that same time when I stop and take in a sight of beautiful lights. I can’t seem to get enough of them.

I love how John says it:

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world.” (John 3:19)

I recently watched a depiction of what it must have been like for those receiving visits by angels concerning the coming of the Messiah – Joseph, Zachariah, the shepherds, and so on. While the events following and surrounding the telling of the news were so exciting, the thing that caught my attention and where my mind has stayed is this: the years of silence that preceded these announcements and what that must have been like when it broke.

For hundreds of years, God’s people were walking in silent darkness, wondering if they’d ever hear from God again. I think about the days when I feel like God is silent and the feeling of sorrow that comes over me for just mere days. The world had fallen under this silence for centuries.

Until one day.

It makes me think about the feeling of coming downstairs in the morning and pulling back the blinds to let the light in.

I think about the hungry and searching masses in the world who suddenly were birthed a new hope. I think about that thrill of hope for the weary world – the weary weary world that lost its strength and inspiration. I think about the priests who continued to carry out commands with no response, the prophets whose ears no longer received the words from their Lord, those who continued to look up day after day with no answer.

Until now.

I think back to the time of creation, how there was nothing and God breathed everything – how one of the very first things he did was created light. One of my children asked me tonight if God created darkness. I smiled a little and said, “No, darling, darkness is what exists without light. God created light.”

I like to think what creation must have been like. A light dawns and then several lights, and then billions of them – stars, planets, galaxies, filling the entire universe. I think about our planet spinning in the midst of all of this. I think about what a grand event that must have been, like the grandest fireworks displays and then so much more.

And I picture our earth again, having nearly lost its light, fallen into darkness, with just a few candles of hope flickering in the corners. And suddenly, out of this darkness angels begin to travel across the expanses to appear to weary, ordinary people. They come with lights and songs and promises. And their numbers increase from just single appearances to the great heavenly hosts appearing to the shepherds, just as the stars and galaxies dotted the sky at the dawn of creation. And then, a second dawn appears – the greatest of lights begins to shine in the lowliest of places.

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)

Can you imagine the relief? The refreshment? The excitement? For those whose hope had lingered on, they would finally see the Light they had waited and hoped and prayed for. And for those living in darkness, they would see a Great Light whether they understood it or not. The darkness was being pulled back like a curtain.

Hope had finally been born. A light had dawned. Love had come.

Why God Allows More Than We Can Handle

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I’ve been thinking about this for a while – this concept that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. It seems like I’ve been hearing it more, or maybe I’ve just been noticing it more. The end of every year is a reflective time for me. I started thinking about this last year of our lives, how so many storms came all at once, how so many times I was drowning and felt like everything was slipping out of my reach, and I came to this one conclusion:

I don’t think that God gives us more than we can handle, but he sure does allow it.

Let me break it down for you a bit. You see, by this point I’ve gotten a little past the long-standing belief in my life that God gives us hard and terrible things on purpose just to make us stronger.

I watch my boys and I feel my love for them. I realize that life is hard. Very hard. Bad things happen in life, they just do. I don’t cause those things to happen to my boys and I try to shield them from it at every corner. But eventually I need to just step back and watch them take the test and fail once in a while. And sometimes, letting them fall under more than they can handle brings them back to reality and their need for help, no matter how painful it is for us all to watch and experience.

I would definitely stand in front of you and tell you that God has, at times, allowed me to fall under more than I can handle. I don’t think or believe that he “gave” me those things – I think that God is loving and I believe what Paul tells James about God giving good gifts to his children. But as I look in my life, I see God allowing some storms in my life to push me past the point of my abilities.

I can almost see him watching it all happen. He didn’t step back and take a nap. No. He cried when I cried. And he hurt when I hurt. And he held my hand through each and every step. But he did not stop the bad things – at least not all of them. He knew I needed to get swept under by the current that was far too great for me to “handle” for me to emerge with an understanding of greater things than I’d ever dreamed of.

If it were left to me and my physical capabilities, I would not be sitting here writing to you today.

You see, it’s at the very point where our own strength and ability to handle things runs out where we find something that is hidden and greater, something at the bottom of the barrel, something locked away in a reservoir that we’ve never had to tap into before. And that, my dear, is the purpose beneath all the struggle.

The thing that bothers me most about people saying that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle is the belief that God wants us to be able to handle all the things in life – and the underlying assumption that it will all work out somehow. Some things don’t work out. Some things are just awful… But they can be awful chances to grow.

The moments my faith has been refined the most are not the times when I feel powerful and capable and strengthened whether on my own or even by God. No, it has been the times when I’ve been a sobbing crumpled mess on the floor with no way to go further down than I already was. It’s the times when I’ve been so aware of my humanity and my inability to hold life together and make the necessary decisions to bring stability and take the next breath. It’s the times when my optimism, grace, and bravery have all run out and I’m ready to give up…

These are the times when I unravel something greater. These are the moments when I come to grips with the fact that there’s so much more than just “handling” things. There is a beauty that comes when we’re underwater, with our hands open, where we release our grip and let the pieces just crumble and shatter and realize we don’t want or need to handle it anyway and we simply let go – those are the moments that bring us to a point of rawness and clarity that we’ve never known before.

Crisis has this way of shattering away all the of the excess pieces, the things we’ve been handling and managing and keeping together. And when those all crash and burn, we’re left with empty hands and open eyes. And the only thing in front of us in those moments are the eyes of grace, looking at us in all our nakedness and bruises and distraught cries that have run out of words. Those are the moments when we see what we’re actually made of and it looks completely different that what we’re used to. These are the times when we see that grace doesn’t care if we’re handling things, it only cares that we recognize the gift we’ve been given in being able to be loved even at our worst.

There’s this crazy freeing moment when we are able to sit in our filth and the crumbled pieces of our lives and feel loved. I would dare say that is the most powerful shift of all – to be loved at our absolute worst. And darling, that can’t happen if we’re constantly able to handle everything. What a beautiful thing we miss out on.

I’m not saying that crisis is glamorous. I will never say it. Crisis awful and painful and shreds every piece of our being – but what I am saying (and what I will say until I die) is that I’ve found the most wonderful thing underneath it all when I stopped believing that God would somehow pull through in giving me strength to handle things.

I’ve found grace and I’ve found love and I’ve found that both of these extend much further than whether our lives hold together or not. And that is the most beautiful thing of all.

Why I’ve Stopped Fighting So Hard

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I spent a lot of my life truly petrified by my emotions. I didn’t trust them and I was certain they didn’t trust me. I took very seriously the concept of “taking every thought captive”. Whenever I felt myself slipping even the tiniest bit, I forced all my will to re-correct my path.

This worked for a while, for the smaller battles. But as I got older and fought bigger demons, I’ve learned something about fighting: Not everything can be corrected – not instantly and, sometimes, not ever.

Some storms need only to be weathered.

The small phrase that continually saves my life from destruction is: “Do the next right thing.” I used to think this involved doing something good to counteract the bad. But as I stumble my way down the beaten path of life, I realize that sometimes the next right thing is simply being still – letting the storm pass.

Some storms completely wipe us out. We have no strength on our own. And sometimes, I dare say, God only gives us just enough strength to not be drawn down into the deep void of our addictions, depression, emotions, and insanity.

I wear myself out on the battlefield over and over again. Sometimes, it’s because I’m fighting with my own strength. But often it is because I’m fighting when I simply should be standing. I’ve come to peace with the fact that sometimes the bravest thing I can do is to just stand (or sit or lay down) in the place where I am. If I can’t move forward today, it’s okay.

It releases so much pressure – realizing that every moment doesn’t need to involve taking new ground. In some moments, the real victory is simply guarding the ground that we have.

I’ve found myself curling up on my bed for hours, taking long walks alone while I come to peace with my thoughts, standing by the window watching the world and the hours pass by, hoping I’ll eventually feel okay again. Every day that I’m not swept away by the darkness is a day that I count as a victory.

I think we are so hard on ourselves in these times. We are discouraged that we face battles to begin with. We feel so defeated when we don’t overcome or counteract the dark things in our lives. But maybe it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Maybe the real victory isn’t necessarily that we can over come our darkness, but that it has yet to overcome us.

Some days we fight and we take ground and we wave that victory flag with the help of our Savior. And some days we simply stand as the battle rages in and around our frail existence. I’m finally accepting that these victories are essentially becoming equal in my life.

If all you can do today is stand still, you’re in good company. And you are loved.

Why It Matters that You Realize We All Mess Up

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When you’re in the middle of a mistake in life, it feels like you’re the only one who could possibly make that mistake. You feel so stupid – how could you have done this? Other people help you feel this way, too. They help you find a place on your island where you feel like the rest of the world would never mess up like you did. You’re surrounded by the silence of voices who have never told their stories. You’ve never heard from anyone who has messed up like you have. Most people never admit their biggest mistakes.

We alienate ourselves in the moments when we most need companionship.

We feel alone. We feel like everyone is talking about us, looking at us, thinking about our mistakes. But the truth of the matter is – while some are, most aren’t. Most people spend more time thinking about themselves and what they are doing than about us and our mistakes. But it doesn’t feel that way.

It feels like all eyes are on us.

When we feel that way, it’s easy to adopt it as a new identity. We switch into preventative mode – where we spend most of our energy trying to not make that same mistake again.

It’s a shame because we could have great freedom in just recognizing the mistake and moving on from it.

I took up a couple sports hobbies on the side recently. I’m still in between surgeries and not in my best physical shape ever, so it doesn’t seem like the best time. But I realized that I’m excelling at them more than I have in a very long time – maybe more than ever.

The reason? I let myself mess up and I take risks. And when I fail, I try again like it’s my first time.

When you’re on the court and you make an error, it feels like all eyes are on you – like everyone has drawn their breath collectively and cannot believe that you could make that error. You feel like a failure. If you’re like me, you spend the rest of the game trying to not make that same error again. We don’t admit that everyone around us is messing up. We grow timid and careful. We don’t excel. We mostly just try to play in a way that we go unnoticed.

I don’t want to go unnoticed in life.

With a lot of grace and compassion for myself, I’ve reached a point in my life where I can finally admit to myself that I’m not alone on an island. Other people make the same mistakes that I do. Does it make my mistakes better? No. But it doesn’t disqualify me from the game of life. It shouldn’t stop me from going right back out and crushing the ball as hard as I can the next time.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons in life that I’ve taken with me from these recent years is to have grace for myself even if no one else does. Even if the loudest voices in my life are trying to disqualify me, only I can walk off the court. They are just voices. Voices from a crowd who have all made mistakes, too – whether they’ve admitted it or not.

Keeping getting out there and trying again.

And you know what? There are a lot more of us cheering you on than you’ll ever know.

Follow the Path of Peace

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One of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me, the one I refer to the most when helping others, the one that I would nearly credit for saving my life, came from my dear friend Audrey. It is so simple, yet so profound on so many levels.

Follow the path of peace.

I don’t know about you but my insides do a pretty remarkable job of telling me when I’m not at peace. Unhealthy choices are almost always accompanied with feeling like a sack of rocks just landed in my stomach. Stress and tension set up camp in my back. Confusion and chaos cause whirlwinds in my brain. My hands shake. My vision blurs.

And sometimes I can barely even see the path of peace.

Even though I’m fairly competent at making decisions, I still find myself often torn in two between my spirit and my flesh. Everything in my physical being pulls me one direction while my still small voice cautions against it.

Follow the path of peace.

I found something interesting in this process. No matter where I am in my decision-making process, the path of peace is always only a step away. At any point, I can decide that this turmoil isn’t for me any more.

At any moment I can extend the first olive branch in a strained relationship. At any moment I can turn to start walking away from an addiction. At any moment I can look up from my hurried craze. At any moment I can stop, I can pause, I can shift.

Follow the path of peace.

I’m not perfect, but I’ve come a long way. I’ve begun to listen to the triggers in my body and my head, my still small voice when it cautions me. I’ve decided to spend a lot of time on this path.

The path of peace isn’t always interesting, It’s not always an adventure. It isn’t always exciting. It is almost never fun. It doesn’t seem to meet my demands or feed my cravings. But after just a few steps down the path, something else becomes very apparent.

None of those things matter.

All the excitement and cravings and adventures and risks and intriguing and productive things in life won’t ever meet your needs. We can jump from event to event, relationship to relationship, opportunity to opportunity and still be in turmoil. We can test the waters on possibilities of things we know we should stay away from, but our intrigue will never be fulfilled.

Follow the path of peace.

I’m an opportunist. I love adventure. I love relationships. I love productivity. I love to make the most of every moment. Sometimes those are along the path of peace, sometimes they are not.

When I find myself questioning if something is right or not, it probably isn’t. When I start pushing myself to exhaustion to pull something together, I should probably just stop and rest. When I am grasping at thin air trying to hold a friendship together that is slipping away and isn’t coming back, I should probably just let it go. When I start losing sleep, feeling the rocks in my stomach, the tension in my back, the whirlwind in my head, the tremor in my hands, I should probably reevaluate where my feet are slipping and how I can regain my footing.

Follow the path of peace.

Peace is where we rest, where we listen, where we are rooted. Peace is where we drink deeply, where we sleep deeply, where we love deeply. The path of peace is where we don’t have to wonder if what we’re doing is right or wrong or if we’re missing something that we might enjoy. The path of peace is the best place for our whole being. If it’s not on that path, it’s probably not for you.

Follow the path of peace.

Learning to Just Be: What a year of pain and illness has taught me

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Last year at this time I was the strongest physically that I’d ever been in my life. Following the birth of my second son, I’d gone through a year of intense postpartum depression that led me to finding healthier ways to live. That next year I lost over sixty pounds and was more fit than I’d ever been. I had started a successful home-based business and woke up at six nearly every morning to go running and make my to-do lists for the day. I was enrolled in college and had begun re-making time lines for an eventual career that I’d given up on long ago. My house was almost always clean and I rarely ran out of baked things for the kids to snack on. My meals and budget were well planned. Everything had a tight order. Everything was working.

But on the inside I was slowly dying under the pressure of it all. And I didn’t even know it.

Somehow in my search for wellness (which is a really great thing and I don’t regret making good changes), I’d circled back to performance-based self worth. I’d gotten back to striving, trying to make every day perfect. I shoved God back into the corner of needing him to answer quickly and accurately but also letting me make my own decisions but somehow blessing me in that. I had a warped sense of love and what it meant to give and receive it. I had tainted relationships. I was always searching for something that I didn’t even know I was looking for. I had trouble resting, relaxing, refocusing. I was caught in cycles that seemed to have no way out. I couldn’t loosen my grip – I could loosen the grip that was on me, either.

I prayed for a way out. More like pleaded for one. It was the kind of prayer that was short and messy and mostly crying and yelling.

Two days later, I was picking apples with my son. He threw a sizable rock above my head to knock the apples off the tree. The jagged stone fell down with such a force and precision that the blow gave me a concussion. After two weeks of not being able to read or drive or even walk very well, I finally had gotten back on my feet, barely. I was still struggling with my short term memory and energy levels, but I was registered for a women’s retreat so I went. Twenty-four hours into the retreat I had such a bad pain on my backside that I couldn’t sit through one more session. I spiked a high fever and couldn’t walk by the time I called my husband to come get me. He took me straight to the ER where they ran test after test and eventually sent me home with a few meds that didn’t work and I was back in the next night. I was hospitalized over night and the next day they performed a surgery on my perirectal abscess – a term for something I didn’t even know existed. The doctors were never sure how or why this condition started, other than it was possibly stress related. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the first of at least four surgeries for the same problem – a problem that would resurface repeatedly with more pain than I could ever imagine over the next twelve months and have me laying in solitude for hours with nothing more than my own thoughts.

My way out had come. And it wasn’t at all what I had hoped for.

I’m such a determined person that I literally think nothing else would have slowed me down like this has. I’ve been so angry and desperate at times and have pleaded and pleaded for God to heal me. And he still has not. But what I have learned in the searching, in the quiet, in the devastation, in the pain, is beyond what I already knew.

I already knew that God could heal the sick. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, many times. I’ve been healed. I’ve prayed over people who have been healed by God through those prayers.

God wanted to teach me something further.

I didn’t know that God was still good even when he fell silent, when I barely could find him, when I didn’t feel him at all. I’d heard that he was, but I didn’t know it for myself. I didn’t know that he loved me at my worse – when I cursed and yelled and curled up in a ball and tried to will myself to disappear. I didn’t know that when everything else was stripped away, I’d be more aware of his presence than the very air that I breathed. I didn’t know that he could help me learn to love myself even if I couldn’t work out of weeks or months. I didn’t know that he loved me even when my house was chaotic and my tears never stopped flowing. I didn’t know that he’d hold my hands as I faced my greatest fears. I didn’t know that he’d give me strength when mine was all gone.

But I know this all now. I know it with such certainty that no one can take away from me.

I’ve had many physical limitations, and I still do. As I lay here, recovering from another surgery, I am aware that I can’t pick up toys. I can’t run. I can’t bake. I can’t scrub the shower. I can’t run a business. I can’t lead worship. I can’t be my fittest self yet. I can’t perform at all.

I can only be.

I have been stripped down to the bare bones of who I really am – just me. No pretty clothes, no styled hair, no to-do list. Just me. I’ve had time to ask God what he thinks of me. I’ve had time to read books about his love and grace. I’ve listen to podcasts and sermons. I’ve finally read my Bible. I’ve found a peace that didn’t depend on working out or have my lists done – the peace that just is. The peace that comes because the Spirit is in me.

Every day isn’t perfect right now. Not even close. I don’t even bother making lists any more – sometimes not even grocery lists. Things get left undone constantly. I move at a slower pace. I watch my boys play. I get lost in books in the middle of the morning while they build Legos – a perfect time for productivity. I lay down and stare out the window and just think thoughts, consider life, dream dreams.

I finally feel content with being at rest.

I’ve become friends with my own thoughts. I engage the ugly ones, feel the hurt ones, I speak to the broken ones. I consider the gifts I actually have – not the abilities. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I really want to do with my life, and if having a clean kitchen floor 24/7 is really part of that bigger plan.

Some days I still fight this with a vengeance. It still upsets me. I want my house to be perfectly clean. I want my body to be perfectly fit. I want to be perfectly productive. But then I remember to take deep breaths. I remember to look at myself and know that I’m still okay. I’m still loved. I’m still God’s child. I have value beyond what I do.

I have value just because I’m here.

And that is something no one can take from me.

Why healing hurts and why it matters

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When it comes to healing, you can’t force the process. You can’t will the pieces of your broken heart back together again. No amount of willpower will dull the pain of sorrow. You simply have to be patient in the process.

The process of healing is a long one.

I wish I could tell you that you’ll be able to just “move on” from your pain, but you can’t. Your pain will follow you. It will tear a hole deep into your soul. It will cloud your brain until that is all you think about – constantly reliving the moments that pain entered your life.

You need to live in the pain, through the pain, and eventually past the pain.

Don’t let pain become part of you. Don’t let pain define you. Recognize it, give it a name, ask what it has done to you, and speak to those broken places. Speak to them like pouring water into the cracks of the desert ground. Speak life to them.

Speak softly to them.

The pain isn’t your fault. No matter what reasons people have given you or you’ve given yourself, it is not your fault. Pain is an awful terrible thing. No one deserves it. And yet it comes.

It comes, but it doesn’t need to stay.

Let yourself grieve. Let yourself rage at the injustice. Let yourself mourn the scars that have fallen into your life. Let yourself be angry at the way it tried to break you. But don’t stay there.

Some day, when you are ready, you’ll start to climb out of the gaping hole inside yourself. You’ll realize that pain is just pain. It doesn’t need to break you.

But it’s a long climb, my dear.

You’ll cut yourself open on rocks. You’ll gash your skin and you’ll bleed. You’ll burst open the deep chasms of pain that you swore you’d never open again. But this time, your pain will have a purpose. Your pain will have direction. The pain of healing is a pain that you choose – because it is the only path to wholeness.

This is what healing is like. Like climbing out of a pit. It isn’t easy or clean or beautiful. It is messy and it hurts like hell. But it’s a different kind of hurt. It is a healing hurt.

Healing is the most important kind of pain.

It is the pain you can’t bear to bypass. It strengthens you, it proves what you are made of. It empowers you as you look the ugly hurt straight in the eye and not let it win over, not today.

I wish healing was like walking through an open field and letting the sun melt all your broken pieces back together again. But it isn’t. At least not the beginning of it. But some day, darling, you’ll be out of the pit and you’ll never look back.

Embrace the pain of the journey. Fight for the healing. Let it empower you. And never look back.