Saturday, November 16, 2013

the beauty of the wasteland

Wherever your treasure is, 
there the desires of your heart will also be.

Sometimes, God gives us a glimpse at what life might have been like if He had allowed something to change our course. He has been giving me those glimpses lately, to shake me from months of moaning discontentment. And my world has been rocked.

My husband and I used to be pretty materialistic. Ok, really materialistic. We loved Jesus, but we found our joy and hope and pride in what we had, how much we had, how much it cost, and where we could go to enjoy it. We were the perfect yuppies - loved the city, the nightlife, good food, travel, and shopping. Trouble was, we were yuppies who were not yet professionals. Ben was in dental school, I worked odd jobs until I launched a short-lived and shockingly low-paying career in teaching. But, they told us, don't worry. Don't sweat those mounting student loans and the soaring credit card debt you need to live on. You're going to make so. much. money. Three years out, you'll be out of debt and ready to live large. You'll be the elite. And we bought all of it, ate up those promises like Gospel truth. Rarely did we stop to consider what we would do if the pot at the end of the rainbow turned out to be fool's gold. We were just so excited to be living on a trajectory towards being wildly successful and wealthy, having everything we thought we'd always wanted. 

We were foolish. Unwise. Immature. Unanchored in Christ. We neglected the maturity of our walk with Jesus but expected His favor to pour out on us the moment Ben graduated.

Instead, the bottom fell out. In the blink of an eye, we found ourselves with nothing. Drowning in debt, barely making ends meet. Dreams of shopping sprees and fancy boots and exotic vacations and our kids in all the best clothes and all the best sports teams and and and... all began to shrivel up. Our expectations were violently upended. Ben's career did not take off. He started his career in a poorly run company in a recession market, and his income was nothing like the dream. Month after month, year after year, we have waited for Ben's job to turn around. For doors to open. For God's hand to move. But, six years later, we are still waiting. 

But I have to let you in on a little secret. A surprise from God. 

This season of our lives, this season of interminable waiting, of dead ends, of burdens so heavy they threaten to crush, of discouragement and discontentment and depression...

This season is the best thing that ever happened to us.


Don't get me wrong, it often sucks. It's painful to be broke. Painful to have to downgrade and downsize and pick between gas or groceries. It hurts to hear of others' trips to Disneyland and giant homes and weekly massages and to tuck those dreams away further and further until it feels pointless to even bring them up. It is humbling and sometimes humiliating.

But, in the midst of the struggle and stress and heartache, God has been doing the most amazing thing. 

He is rewriting our story.

See, somewhere along the line, Ben and I got off course. We saw something shiny down the trail, and without pausing to ask the Master if we should follow it, we barreled forward. And that became our pattern of living. And seeing that we were destined for destruction, God oh-so-lovingly let us crash. He allowed us to walk into this desert land. Wooing us, speaking to us, staying close to us until we finally began to get it. He brought us to a church family where wise men and women came alongside us to help us see what His Word had for our journey. These saints poured into us with so much love and compassion and grace and truth, and through them, God began to transform us.

To renew our minds to think like He does. To reshape our values to fall in line with His heart. To reconsider our treasures. To learn what it means to surrender, to die to self, to become satisfied in Him.

This is not to say that we don't still struggle with want. We do love things. We love nice things. My husband's brand-new BMW can attest to that. We still struggle to live within our means. Our week-long journey through Europe can attest to that. Certainly, we make mistakes.

But we get it now. Stuff is just stuff. Period. It doesn't last. Success and wealth are lovely, and I still ask God for a measure of both. But they don't produce joy. They don't produce perserverance and its sisters, maturity and completion. Not to mention that little matter of the crown of life at the end of the road. Only trials bring these qualities to life in a person. Desert places. Wastelands. Those are the places where God is doing the new things.

The past few months I found myself back in a familiar cycle of discontentment. Questioning all that He has taught me through this season, I grumbled and complained about all of the things I still don't have. May never have. That everybody else has. Resentment and bitterness became my companions. And you know they are never up to any good. 

Then one week, I had three glimpses at the "could have beens." I sat with a few people who are my version of "have it all together." Beautiful, immaculate houses. Every room furnished to the tiniest detail. Perfect nails. Perfect highlights. High-end clothes not necessarily purchased at The Rack. Makeup from Sephora. I can sniff those things out because, remember, I used to have those things too.

I sat through these conversations that week, and for awhile all I could hear was my own insecurities echoing back at me:

"You've really slimmed down!" sounded like, "Man, you were chubby before. You had really let yourself go. Too bad you don't have my freakish lack of body fat and rock hard abs, but I just have SO MUCH MONEY and a million nannies so I can work out all day long and anyway calories don't count once you reach certain tax bracket."

"I love your boots, where'd you get them?" sounded like, "Clearly, those are the boots you had to have a garage sale to pay for and still agonized over whether to buy them... at a discount store."

"Yeah, we're excited for our trip to Disneyland, but airfare is just so expensive!" sounded like, "Totally kidding, the tickets were absolutely no big. A week in a four-star resort and six Disney parks is a little tough on the wallet, but you can't skimp on Disney - it's the ultimate dream trip for little kids and yours are almost too old to enjoy it and hurryhurrytimesrunningoutohnevermindit'llneverhappensendthemtotherapy."

You get the point. But here's where God got all God-like on me again, and turned my worldview completely upside down. The more I listened, the more I began to see the cracks in the facade. Underneath these picture perfect women were stories of brokenness and baggage, heartache and hopelessness. Families that were splintering. Women who felt so much pressure to keep that perfect image that you could see the weight of the burden in their eyes. Women who would trade it all to see their husbands finally come to Jesus.

God used those women, who had stirred in me such burning envy and resentment at my life, to open my eyes to the beauty of my story. My story has a husband who chases after the Father's heart, who is passionate and intentional in raising up our children to know and love Jesus, and who is crazy about me after all these years. My story has a woman who is utterly flawed but gifted in ways that He can use, who is able to encourage and lighten hearts with words and wit, who gets on her knees in powerful prayer, who has a soft Mama's heart and a deep, intimate love for her Savior. My story has three beautiful, healthy, smart, hilarious children who love their lives and their mommy and daddy and couldn't care less if soccer and gymnastics just aren't in the budget. My story has family and friends who are a rich heritage of faith, who come alongside us to encourage and equip us in every moment of our walk.

My story is gorgeous. My story is perfect. My story, is His story for me.

My story is not better than theirs. They are also beautiful women on the inside, who love Jesus and love people and pour out their lives in generosity to others. But our stories were never meant to compete. They were always meant to complement. To build up the body. To usher in the Kingdom.

And had we not fallen from our ivory tower, I would never have seen the amazing grace of His story for me.

Monday, August 12, 2013

child. CHILD.

Well. I sit typing this after telling my children through very clenched teeth that if either of them so much as coughs from their beds again tonight they will spend the rest of tomorrow in their room, alone, without Leap Pads or toys or books or food or water. I just had my bathroom time interrupted, twice. My shower interrupted, twice. My pajama-clad body dragged out to the car to pull out the stroller where my oldest child was CERTAIN he had left his stuffed monkey and searched the entire car only to find him sitting in plain sight on the counter where I JUST TOLD HIM TO LOOK.

My day began with the sweetest, most fruitful time in the Word and in prayer. I woke up extra early - by accident - and decided to just stay up and spend some extra time sitting at the feet of Jesus. The Holy Spirit must have been speaking to my heart while I slept. He knew how much I would need the wisdom and presence and power of those quiet moments together. 

Because let me tell you, this day went off the rails. And it ended in a train wreck of seething frustration, angry words, and tears on both sides of my boys' bedroom door. 

Lucas was impossible today. There's just no nice way to say it. He was thoroughly unpleasant from the minute he woke up. Whining and grumbling and dragging his feet as I tried to sweetly and gently coax him to get dressed, brush his teeth, eat his breakfast, let's help Mommy today dear boy, it's barely 9:00 and I already don't like you. Eli put on the charming Crankypants McAttitude persona that's he's recently adopted - so darling - and my reliably sweet, easy-going baby was not. having. it. today. None of it. But we had to run a couple of errands, as much as I just wanted to stay home. Had to. So I promised them: One stop at the cleaners. Just a drop off, I'll park right in front, you can wait in the car. One stop at Safeway, and we're getting three things. Not "three things that are really ten things I forgot we needed" but an actual three items. 

So no, we're not going to ride in a cart. Not the delightful too-small-but-you-still-insist-on-squeezing-in-and-then-wrestling-and-fighting-the-whole-time kiddie cart. Not even a regular cart so that you can ride on the sides no matter how many times I tell you to GET DOWN. No cart. Luke, do you hear me? No cart. Luke? Luuuuke?? Say, "Yes, mommy, I will not ask for a cart." Ok? We're agreed? We're agreed. No cart. 

We got five feet into Safeway before Lucas gave me his first, "I want a little cart, Mama." I gently reminded him that no, today we are not going to get a little cart. We only need three things.

He shrugged, and said, "Oh, okay," and proceeded to help me find and carry our three items to the checkout and out of the store in under five minutes. The man stocking produce smiled at my cute kids and the woman in the bread aisle commented on their good behavior, and the cashier gave them extra stickers because they were so sweet and helpful to mommy.

In my mind, I mean. In my mind, that's what happened when I calmly suggested that we didn't need a cart for our three actual items.

In reality, I was Nazi Germany, and Lucas proceeded to yell, sobbing, at the top of his lungs, "I WANT A LITTLE CAAAAARRRRT!!" at least seventy-five times in the fifteen minutes it took me to drag him - yes, clinging to my leg - around the store, yell at Eli (in my best "Nothing to see here, folks!" voice) to get-two-lemons-not-limes-for-the-fifteenth-time, ignore the produce man's aghast face, the disapproving glare of the woman in the bread aisle, and the audible "Wow" of the cashier who scurried away from us as quickly as she could, and get out to the car to just about throw him into his seat and shut the door in his pitiful face. 

And then he cried for twenty-five minutes straight. Over a little cart.

The entire way home, I prayed. Out loud. For him, for me, over our car, over the kids, over the cashier, over the whole mess. I practiced speaking the name of Jesus out loud, again and again. I turned the worship music up and sang praises when I wanted to yell expletives to the back seat. And God rewarded my faithfulness with the sweetest time of making up and cuddling and with Lucas taking a much-needed two hour nap.

In my mind, I mean. :)

In reality, he didn't take well to his spanking and he snotted all over me during the cuddling and then he WOULD NOT NAP no matter what I did. And the day just went downhill from there. Eli wouldn't stop whining and arguing and breaking little rules right and left. Maddie teethed and fussed and cried and fell and apparently broke her neck because she cried like a person who has broken their neck. This week is insanely busy, with a family wedding and a trip to Idaho coming up, and I just had so much to do today. I knew I needed to stop and give them the attention they both needed, and I really tried. I set them up with the hose and popsicles and Eli sprayed the hose directly through the screen door and all over the dining room. I took a break when I couldn't really afford to and hauled them down to ride their bikes in their favorite neighborhood spot. Where Luke's tire immediately went flat and his chain fell off and I could not fix it. By the time Ben got home, I got everybody fed, and finally got out the door for my run at 7:30 with Lucas, again, wailing after me... I felt cheated. 

I had started my day the way I was supposed to. I had responded to my son's insane tantrum with calm and gentle grace. I was doing diligent work and pouring everything I had into my children and family and home from dawn. I went running when I just wanted to crash because I need to stay disciplined in my training. I did it all right today. And it went so, so wrong.

Here's the truth, girls - some days just suck. Yeah, yeah, in even the worst days we can find little moments of joy and beauty and things to put in our "ten thousand gifts" journals. But some days are just overwhelming rotten. Everyone is working against us, and no matter what we do, we end up feeling like colossal failures.

I think on those days, like this day, it is more important than ever to press in. Get alone with God. Get on your knees, on your face, in the Word, and seek Him. Be diligent when you're too exhausted to be. Be obedient when it is the absolute hardest thing to obey. Be thankful and sing praises when every fiber of your being just wants to scream and curse and run away. And I know, it can be so, so hard. Staying faithful when everything goes wrong and is unfair, when your hormones and emotions and relationships and chaos are just too much to bear. Following Jesus is no guarantee of easy days with fairy-tale endings. His work in us and through us is bigger and better than just good feelings for the here-and-now. "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor 4:17)."  

As I set off on my run tonight, I turned up some worship music (although really I just wanted some, like, death metal or something, to express my simmering rage). I charged up my killer neighborhood hill and spouted off my righteous indignation that I had done everything right today and wasn't He supposed to honor that? Where was the reward for being such a good and faithful servant (and a humble one, obviously)? As I crested the hill, an incredible sunset took my breath away (it may have been asthma, but go with me), and I heard the climax of a favorite song - "At the top of my lungs I will sing Hallelujah" - and heard Him so clearly. "Stop. See this? This kind of indescribable glory of pinks and oranges and blues and puffy clouds and just downright Heaven? Here's your reward for today: You get to live, and breathe, and run, and witness some of my best work. Great job today, really. Now go home and be nice to your children."

So I did. And I was. Until the bathroom thing. :)

Monday, June 10, 2013

and end and a beginning

It's been a long, crazy Monday, and frankly, I'm exhausted and ready to crash. But I feel the Spirit tugging, urging me to share my heart. Maybe there is someone who just needs to hear this piece of my story tonight.

I haven't written in so many months, it's impossible to record every struggle, every victory, every defeat, and every encounter with the living God that have colored my days. But it's been a tough season. I have struggled with a season of depression for the past several months, and there have been some very low moments. Through it, even as I withdrew and grumbled and doubted and wondered, God was there. Steady. Gentle. Constant. And speaking. He has spoken so much truth over my life in this dark season, so much about contentment, humility, strength. About the importance of His word. Of communion. Of hiding myself in Him. So many lessons that I can't wait to pour onto these pages. This is one of those lessons.

The past couple of weeks have been better. So much better. God is, as he always does, leading me out of the wilderness again. I've opened up to some dear friends about my struggles, and found His love reaching back to me with human arms (and wondered why I ever feel the need to retreat when I really need to press in). As I have begun to share these deep places in my soul, a long, quiet battle has come to the forefront. 

I've kept this one a very closely guarded secret. Because there is nothing Godly about a growing addiction to pain pills. It's embarrassing to confess that something that started out as solely a necessity had grown into something a little bit different. It feels like one of those "dirty" sins that a real woman of God would never experience. And it has been easy to justify keeping this secret. I listen to a special report on the news about pain pill addiction in America, and I can honestly say that my "problem" is nothing like what I hear. 

But it has become a problem. These headaches of mine get out of control very quickly, and I end up in bed for two days, or worse, in the hospital. I have three small people completely dependent on me. I have play dates and Bible studies and school events and family dinners. I have a husband who has seen more last-minute date-night cancellations and "not tonight, dear"s than any man should have to see. There is always something that makes taking one little half of one little pill the lesser of two evils. But my body, which has experienced pain in one way or another most every day of my adult life, has become dependent on these little white pills. I find myself running out of them a few days earlier each month. I avoid eye contact with the pharmacist because, dude, I know. I take very little each day, but, I take a little each day. 

So that's where I've been. I hope you don't judge. I hope there is someone who can identify themselves here, in some way, clinging to something that isn't good for them because they are afraid to let go and see what God will do. And if you just can't see yourself here, that's ok. Because ultimately, this is not a story of brokenness. This is a story of redemption.

Two days ago, I went to church for an ordinary service. Now, I love our church, and I think we have some of the most gifted Bible teachers in the world. I am constantly challenged and changed by the teaching I sit under. But on this Sunday, I had a most unexpected encounter with God. An amazing guest speaker was preaching, a man from South Africa with a delightful accent and an incredible gift for exhortation. He taught out of Mark 2, where Jesus heals the paralytic man. He explained to us that when Jesus saw the man, he looked directly into his soul and knew that this man's sickness was the result of sin. Instead of merely healing the man's body, he offered him living water - his forgiveness. And then he healed the man's body, because, why not? 

I've read this passage of scripture dozens of times before, and never has this idea grabbed so hold of my heart. When you get to that low, dark, ugly, sorrowful place - wherever it is that you finally cry out in confession - He responds with forgiveness. Immediately. And then - oh my friends, that you would get this part - then, He forgets it. I've always had this idea that God sort of pretends to "forget" my sin but really, He is keeping it in his back pocket to bring back out the next time I stumble. After all, I hear those accusations so often in my mind. But hear is the Truth of his word - "For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more (Heb 8:12)." Do you know that really means? It really mean that he will forgive our wickedness and remember our sins no more! He does not remember it!

This means, whenever I hear this voice:

Why am I not surprised that you failed again? You've done this a million times.

Don't even bother trying. You'll never live up to my expectations.

I don't want to hear it again.

That is the voice of the Accuser. The enemy of our souls. The one who wants nothing more than to steal the joy of our salvation and destroy our intimacy with God.

This is the voice of the Lover of My Soul, the One who sees my sin, washes it clean, and remembers it no more: 

My child, I am compassionate and merciful.

I am slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

I will not constantly accuse you, nor remain angry forever.

I will not punish you for all your sins.

I will not deal harshly with you, as you deserve.

My unfailing love toward you is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

I have removed your sins as far as the east is from the west.

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
                                                                                                                    (Psalm 103:8-12, Jer 31:3)

In the next few days I will share more about how God is redeeming this part of my story. About the people He has brought alongside to love on me and encourage me as I navigate this season. And all about how I stepped out in obedient, faith to ask for healing one more time - and how I finally heard His "Yes." I can't wait to share some of what God has been teaching me through my fight with depression and anxiety, and the ways I am learning to walk in step with his Spirit even when my feet feel like lead. For now, just remember that He will never love you any more or any less than He does at this moment.

Thanks to @chriswienand for opening the Word for me. Listen to his incredible teaching here: