Verse of Encouragement: Hope

The sermon I heard today was about pouring our hearts out to God. Several years ago, when I was reading David’s story, I remember thinking, “I can’t believe he just said that to God.” But God called David “a man after his own heart.” “His” being “God’s.” David had an intimate relationship with God, in part because David knew he could be honest in his feelings toward God. Why do we think God is going to be offended by how we feel? Why do we think God is going to strike us down with a bolt of lightning if we admit to him, “God, I am angry at you!”

Our God is a big God, and, as my pastor made clear this morning, “God already knows your heart.” Why hide out of a sense of reverence, respect, or fear? He already knows, and he can handle us at our rawest, ugliest, sobbiest moments, because those moments are often when we are the most honest and unguarded.

He came to bind up the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1), so why do we try to hide our hearts from him? The author of Lamentations hurt so bad that there was no holding back how he felt:

He [God] pierced my heart
with arrows from his quiver.
I became the laughingstock of all my people;
they mock me in song all day long.
He has filled me with bitter herbs
and given me gall to drink.
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

Lamentations 3:13-18, NIV

Wow, says I, that is a lot of blaming God for one’s circumstances. Is the author exaggerating? Is he being literal? Or is he finding the strongest metaphors possible to express his pain in the most raw, honest way he can? There is so little hope to be found in these verses, how could I possibly post them under the heading “Verse of Encouragement”?

Because the suffering is not the whole story, nor the end of the story. The author pours out his heart, then as my pastor phrased it, “pushed through the pain to find the praise.”

I remember my affliction and my wandering, (“suffering and homelessness,” NLT),
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:19-23, NIV

Who was it who pointed out to me that the verse doesn’t say, “Nothing bad will happen to you”? It says “we are not consumed.” Life throws some dirty punches, no mistake. We might not be spared the loss, the betrayal, the illness. No matter what happens, God has got our back. Without the tragedies, the set-backs, the horrible mistakes, who would I be today? Have I let bitterness dictate who I am, or hope? Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell. Would my character be on the road to refinement? Would I ever learn compassion for others? Would I grow in my faith? Would I learn to listen to that still, small voice and be able to tell the difference between God speaking and my own imagination or desires?

I hate pain. I hate having to be patient one more day and one more day. I hate it when I screw up again and hurt someone I love. I hate it when loved ones die. But because God loves me, I am not consumed. If I let him, he sustains, he strengthens, he shapes. He has endless compassion for me, even when I mess up big time. He wants this independent loner to need him, to seek him, to include him, to grow confident in him, and I’m pretty sure he finds it utterly precious when I finally break and cry out to him.

When I have unburdened myself to him, only then I can remember what he has done for me and those I love, what he promises still to do on our behalf. Then hope pours in to replace the pain.

What is burdening you? Tell him. He doesn’t need fancy language, formal reserve, or grand gestures of reverence. He wants to hear your heart poured out, honest and true and raw. He can handle it. He’s that big. He loves you that much.

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Theme Song: “You Make Me Brave”

All my life I’ve dealt with fear. I doubt I’m alone in that. Sometimes the fear is a whisper I can ignore. Sometimes it’s a little more loud and insistent. Those are the times I might make excuses to not do something that I should, or I can pray through the feeling and take the step I need to. Other times, the fear becomes paralyzing. To the point that it has shaped certain parts of my life, sad as it is to admit it.

Example:  Deep down, I crave exploration and adventure, but I’m terrified of driving unknown roads. I frequently have nightmares of becoming lost in traffic, on strange twisting overpasses as night. I’m always the one driving, and I have no idea how to get to my destination. There are probably all kinds of psychoanalyses that can be gleaned from that, but it translates into a real terror in the waking world. It has prevented me from embarking on so many explorations of writing groups, art gatherings, and other things that might enrich my life. But more importantly, how am I to broaden my mission-field from behind a closed door?

This fearfulness has come up many times during my adult life, mainly because it doesn’t just affect me. And last week it reared its head again. Not in any dramatic fashion, but in a way that caused me to feel inadequate, even in the most basic, practical things of living life. That’s when I realized how silent and pervasive and evil this spirit of fear is. At the heart of it, this spirit of fear shows me where my faith is weakest.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7

So, while I hate the fear living inside me, it also drives me to rely on God. Sometimes the fear is so near the surface that I cannot leave my house without first giving that fear to him and fiercely claiming this promise for myself. Then I climb into my car, turn on the radio, and hear songs like “You Make Me Brave” by Bethel Music:

Verse of Encouragement: Healthy Thoughts

My thought-life can get me down. It can cause me to despair over humanity. It can induce terror that has no foundation except in the rare possibility that disaster will strike. I mean, I’m a writer. I have an outstanding imagination. I can see the disaster in minute detail and feel the pain, fear, and loss involved in whatever that disaster might be. Example: I have to fly in an airplane this weekend. My imagination wants to go down the terrifying path of explosions and nose-dives and all the other horribleness of that potential reality. Another example: I read the headlines and conclude the humanity is largely short-sighted, violent, and perverse–and I know it’s going to get worse, because God said it will.

God gave human beings their amazing capacity to imagine, to empathize, to look ahead beyond the now. And he who knows my every thought, knows that this amazing capacity can be dangerous to my health, my attitude, and my outlook. I think that’s part of the reason why we are called to lead a different sort of thought-life.

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

2 Corinthians 10:5

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Philippians 4:6-8

Does this mean we are to hide our heads in the sand, wear blinders, turn a blind eye, and all the other cliched phrases for hiding from the facts? Not at all. We are called also to lift a hand when we see injustice, abuse, pain, suffering, sorrow. See it, act on it, but do not lose focus. Facts are facts, things are bad, that’s undeniable, but what is true is that God has everything in hand. We are to keep our focus on him for that very reason. He is the only lifeline that keeps me from sinking into panic and utter despair. And it’s so much easier to despair than to maintain the faith again and again and again. Having faith is hard. Questions still rise. “Why is this happening? How can you let this happen? Where is your hand in this?”

cloud-silverliningWhen I feel the terror, the anger, the despair rise, I am learning that it is better to face the future with a prayer in my mouth than to try to handle it by myself. “Every cloud has a silver lining.” I disagree. Some storms don’t have pretty edges. Some stories don’t have hopeful endings. Not that my feeble human mind can perceive, anyway. That’s when my thoughts have to turn to God. In every situation, pray and give thanks. Every situation. Not easy. But possible.

“Jesus, you are what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. I have peace only when my mind is settled on you. Thank you for blessing me more abundantly that I can ever think or imagine. You have given me friends and family who I can turn to in a crisis. You have given me a mission to keep me breathing. My body is healthy, my mind is sound, my heart can be light amid all this tragedy. And I can be your hands when a friend is hurting. Thank you for loving me, so I can love in return.”

 

Theme Song: “Need You Now”

I’ll probably be posting lots more personal “theme songs” as I adopt them, but I’ll start with this one, because it was one of the first, if not the first, I claimed for myself.

Plumb has been one of my favorite bands for a couple years now, ever since I heard that this Christian singer suffers from panic attacks. It’s easy to listen to Christian artists and think, “These people must have it all together, because I mean, how in tune with God do you have to be to write and sing and tour like that?” Reality check. These people are just people, too. They’re susceptible to all the flaws, mistakes, and fears that I suffer.

I watched the interview in which Plumb discusses the story behind this song and it’s so moving to hear how this lovely woman is sometimes paralyzed socially and when in High School would hide in the bathroom stall and cry out to God for help. I find it very important to hear her say that crying out “…didn’t magically make the pain go away,” but “there was a sense of hope” and that God “never grows tired of our need for him. He always shows up.” He’s always with us, wanting to give us peace, strength, courage to keep going.

That’s why this song, this desperate prayer, means so much to me.

 

Thoughts: Becoming Myself, chapter 9

Chapter 9 of Becoming Myself, “Beauty Forged in Suffering,” is so full of good stuff, that I found myself underlining and underlining.

And do I know something about beauty forged in suffering. Behold, my little sister. This is sacred ground to me, and I’m sure I won’t get through this post without sobbing.

My sister was one of those fiery, go-get-em kids who wanted the corporate job and six kids. Full of attitude, bullheaded, nothing would stand in her way once she’d made up her mind (we at least have that in common). The goal of corporate stardom dwindled as she matured, but the desire for an army of kids remained. Once she married, she was impatient to have them. As soon as her husband was in accord, she went after it. And something went wrong. The bleeding wouldn’t stop. My little sister just had  miscarriage. What? No! This didn’t happen to women in our family. We are a huge family. We are always surrounded by tons of healthy babies. What is this?

sad girlI made the stupid statement or believed foolishly (I hope I didn’t say it aloud) that the worst was behind her. For a while this seemed true. She soon gave birth to a healthy, gorgeous baby boy. Then came another miscarriage. Then–six years ago in October–came Baby Vaune. I remember when my sister was picking out girl names for this baby. She wanted a name with dignity, a name that would “grow up with her.” To settle on a name, she had to be able to envision a woman in a suit introducing herself with that name. So “Vaune” it was.

Vaune was born the day before Halloween; she was going to be “our little black cat.” We were astonished to hear that she weighed only a little over 5 pounds. Whoa, what? We finally get to have a small baby? Other women have small babies; women in our family have babies between 7 and 10 pounds. We were astonished at first, but not yet alarmed. Then the doctor came in and told us that all was not well, and Vaune needed to be flown to a bigger hospital for tests.

I cannot describe the physical pain that descended throughout my body. I had never felt that kind of pain before. I can only imagine what my sister felt, still in her bed robe and hooked up to monitors, or our mother who was sitting beside me and could not protect her own baby from this. I’m not sure how Mom and I ended up in that room alone; all I know is that as soon as we were alone, she grabbed me and started praying. “God, we trust you. We don’t know what this is, but we trust you.”

A few days later, we learned that Vaune had Edward’s Syndrome or Trisomy 18. We did our research and discovered that, unlike Downs’ Sydrome, Edward’s is 100% fatal by the age of 2 and that 1 in 3000 miscarriages is caused by this particular syndrome. We started counting the days. Mercifully, my sister was allowed to bring Vaune home and bring in hospice care. She and her husband and our mother learned how the feeding tube worked, along with the other monitors needed to keep tabs on what was happening inside Vaune’s little body. I tell you, I held that baby every chance I got. I held her so I could see her face and talk to her because I knew our time was short, and I wanted to memorize her sweet little face.

I won’t go into the details, but Jesus came for Vaune on December 7th.

I remember being afraid that this would make my sister a hard, unhappy, bitter person, who resented God and became untouchable to her husband and her family. The opposite is what happened. Through that process of pain and healing and surrendering to the care and sovereignty of God, my sister became the most beautiful person I have the privilege of knowing. I sit back and watch her, in her service to others, with her kids, in her relationship with her husband, in her trust in her God, and I am in awe. This is my little sister(?!), and she is stunning. Yes, she still can be bullheaded, and still has that fiery temperament that has earned us the nickname “the dragon sisters,” but her loss instilled in her a sense of right priorities and unshakable faith.

yellow-angelDid God cause Vaune to have Trisomy 18? I doubt it. But God used that time of unimaginable pain to create something exquisite inside my sister, to strengthen our faith, and in my case, for sure, to prove that I had it at all. I learned that during life’s worst moments, I do know where to turn, I won’t resort to blind anger, we won’t fall apart. And I can tell you that during those few weeks while Vaune was with us, I have never felt more strongly the presence of God. The peace that surrounded us was so palpable I could almost reach out and grab a fistful of it.

I can look back on that time and know absolutely that God is with us, that he does care about the intimate details of our lives – and if we let him, he can take that horrible, undesirable situation and with those hands that flung out the stars, forge something stronger and lovelier inside us than we ever expected.

Favorite Quotes

“In this world you will have trouble.” John 16:33

“Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange is happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12

“Christianity is not a promise to enjoy a life without pain…. It is a promise that pain, sorrow, sin—ours and others’—will not swallow us, destroy us, define us, or have the final word.”

(Becoming Myself, 146)

“The very first thing painful trials try to do is separate us from God. But being separated from God is the worst thing that can happen, much worse than the most excruciating of trials.”

(Becoming Myself, 147)

“God created a world where the choices of angels and human beings matter. We are not puppets on a string. When someone sins, it is not God causing them to sin. That sexual abuse was not arranged by God; he did not cause your brother to be raped any more than he caused those terrorists to bomb the train station.

It is crucial for us to be careful with our interpretation of events. We must ask God’s help in making sense of it all. But for heaven’s sake, don’t blame the sin of the world on God. …

Your interpretation of events will shape everything that follows. It will shape your emotions, your perspective, and your decisions. What if you are wrong?”

(Becoming Myself, 148)

“… though God doesn’t cause all the trials in our lives, he does use them. He does work all things for our good. (Romans 8:28) He will use pain to expose our false beliefs about our hearts and about his heart … to reveal our brokenness so that God can heal it. …

There is more going on here than meets the eye. There is a battle raging over the human heart. Will we love God and choose to trust the goodness of his heart in the face of the immense brokenness of the world? Will we stand in our belief that God is worthy of our worship in the face of immense brokenness…?”

(Becoming Myself, 150)

“How do you find peace in the midst of difficult, painful circumstances? … [Jesus is] right where you are, right smack dab in the middle of your life.”

(Becoming Myself, 151)

This last quote brings to mind something Staci mentioned a couple chapters ago in which she described the circumstances of Jeremiah’s  tortured life and rescue.  She quotes a promise God made, saying, “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you.” (Jer. 1:19)

“But,” Stasi writes, “Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern, and opposed by a false prophet.

“Ummmm. When did God rescue him exactly? After he was beaten. After he was imprisoned. After he was threatened.”

(Becoming Myself, 116)

And lastly, back to Chapter 9:

“We need to be honest about what we have done with our suffering. What have we allowed it to do to our hearts? Have we become more fearful? Controlling? Has resentment toward God or others entered in? … bring that to Jesus, for this is cancer of the soul, and it ravages what God means to make lovely.”

(Becoming Myself, 154)

For Jesus came to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Have I let him do this for me? Have you?

When_My_Sadness_Born_by_j3ff3rson-800

“When My Sadness Born” by j3ff3rson, 2009

 

Thoughts: Becoming Myself, chapter 8

“The Company of Women.” The chapter title itself provides a challenge for me.

Ironically, it was while I was reading this chapter that a friend texted me and invited me to lunch. Not my husband and me, not a group of friends and me, just me. Cheryl doesn’t know this, but that was the very first time I have “done lunch” with a person, one on one, who is not family. I was able to bounce some internal struggles off her, and she provided much needed encouragement.

I had to shake my head in wonderment at the timing. God was speaking, and I replied, “Thank you for what you’ve done.”

As I mentioned in a previous “Thoughts” post , making friends and holding onto them has been difficult for me, because in my earliest years “friends” were temporary. They were the kids I could get along with easiest in class for the couple of years that we lived in that particular town. But it wasn’t worth the effort—and the pain—to really open my heart and care about someone.

This carried over into my adulthood. Case in point, even though I had just graduated college, I had only a sister and two cousins for bridesmaids at my wedding. Family sticks. “Friends” don’t. In four years at the same college, I made not one single friend. During the first seven or eight years of our marriage, my husband befriended a couple of co-workers who he hung out with. They brought their wives around, and then they got divorced, proving that “friends” are one of those temporary things one endures, like head colds.

women talking

When we started going to LifeChurch, I had no idea the blessings God was waiting to pour over us. We decided we would get the most out of the experience if we joined a small group. I was so skeptical, so hesitant. “They’ll be shallow,” I said. “They’ll be straight and boring and shallow, and all we’ll talk about is petty junk.” Wow, was I wrong. They were weird! They were quirky! They let all their issues hang out in the most honest ways, and during only our second meeting, I was confessing the darkness in my soul. There was something so genuine and loving about this group of people that we felt invited to be real, knowing we would find acceptance anyway. I say “we” because I wasn’t the only one. Others drifted into the group later, and I watched the same closed-off self-protection mode dissipate. Bonds grew. Activities outside our small group were held so we could get together and share life.

One of these couples moved away. I tried, in my time-honored way, to let them go, let the relationship end. But they refused to let this happen, and I’m so glad they were persistent. “Distance” doesn’t necessarily translate to “over.”

But the blessings don’t stop there. In addition to the small group, we started volunteering to serve at our church campus by making coffee, counting offerings, and typing up prayer cards on Sundays. Three years later, I looked around and said, “Whoa! I have friends! Lots of them. How did this happen?” We serve with the same bunch of women (and a few men) every weekend. We started sharing life and prayer needs, and before I knew it I came to love these women. They are so sweet in their uniqueness, their brokenness, their faith, their growth. And I’m speechlessly grateful that they actually like me. Me? Quirky, introvertive, awkward me? But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s their quirkiness that make them special to me in return.

Sorta proves that God loves quirky people. And a lot of quirky people in the same room loving each other? It’s a riot, let me tell you, and God is right in the middle of it, adoring us and the friendship we are willing to risk sharing.

Favorite Quotes

“Women are awesome. Yet sometimes getting near them is like approaching a cactus, hugging a porcupine, or taming a skunk. …

“A true friend loves you when you are being kind and when you are PMS-ing all over the place. They may not love what you are doing, or the dragon you are manifesting, but they love you. …

“A friend sees who you are meant to be and beckons you to rise to the higher version of yourself.”

(Becoming Myself, 125)

“[Jesus] is the source of our true identity. He is the one we must look to first to fill us with truth, acceptance, and love. Then we can bring our hearts … to our friends without demanding that they fill us. We can offer ourselves, open to receive good gifts from them but vigilant to stay close to our God and screening every experience, every word, through him. He has promised to never leave you or forsake you. ”

(Becoming Myself, 127)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

Thoughts: Becoming Myself, Chapter 6

treasure box

“A Treasure Chest” by LifeIsPixels, 2012

“From Accepting to Embracing” has been the hardest chapter for me so far. The most challenging, I should say. Because it encourages me to dream. Immediately I withdraw, shake my head, flee the building. Dreaming is too risky. There’s too much disappointment involved. Loss, heartache, pain, self-blame, accusations of failure. Like so many other people, I’ve stuff my beautiful box of dreams deep down inside. It’s okay to peek on occasion, then quickly stuff it away again. Gazing at the contents too long is dangerous. Because it shows me (or appears to be showing me) how far along I expected I’d be by now. Compare that with the reality, and things look a little bleak and very discouraging.

When I become frustrated with how my writing is going, my husband will often say something that doesn’t exactly help. “Well, at least you’re getting to write.” It’s only been in the last week that I’ve been able to articulate why this statement is like tearing a band-aid off an amputation. In order to articulate this pain, I had to remember why I chose to write in the first place. My motive had become lost in the act of actually pressing on word after word, day after day. The end goal, surprise, surprise, goes beyond having a book or ten published. I don’t shoot for the stars or anything, sheesh.

Now, to discuss this causes me to approach a precipice of panic, because the box is hanging wide open. My lifelong dream was not to write. Gasp! It wasn’t. That came later. It was to travel. My childhood vision of my adult myself was of me making a living so that I could travel the world. I loved National Geographic magazine, not for the articles, but for the visions of faraway places and people living in mysterious and wonderful ways. When I was little, I thought this dream was a simple one, attainable, black and white. I get cash, I buy a ticket, I travel to this place, then a while later, to that place.

In my complete ignorance, I chose writing to pay my way. Yeah, I know, you other writers out there are probably laughing. And you’re right. Most writers can barely pay bills by selling stories, much less afford the luxury of travel. Did I know this when I was sixteen? Pft.

Here’s something else. I gave up having children in order to achieve this goal. Writing in quiet, traveling during the school year, didn’t jive with the conventional life with kids. So here I am, almost 37 (dear God, keep away the panic) with neither a traditionally published novel nor travel nor children. What was the sacrifice for? Doubt floods in. Terror quickly follows. I chose a path. But that path, it seems, ends in a stone wall. Stuff it away, hit the keyboard again, don’t expect much. Then I can’t be disappointed.

So Chapter 6 leaves me with more questions than answers.

Unsettling Quotes

“God dreams big. And he invites us to dream big with him. God has planted dreams and desires in each one of our hearts, and they are unique to us. Opening up our spirits, our minds, our hearts, our imaginations to what we would really like—to even the possibility of wanting—allows the Holy Spirit to awaken parts of ourselves that are in such a deep sleep no dreams are happening.

When we dream with God, we don’t want to run to thinking, How can I make this happen? Dreaming with God isn’t about how. It’s about what.”

(Becoming Myself, p. 100)

To which I asked, “And the point of this dreaming is…?”

On the very next page, Stasi goes on to say,

“The point … is to allow God to access the places in our hearts where dreams and desires are planted. God speaks to us there. About himself. About ourselves.” (p. 101)

girl dreaming To which I asked, “But why?” I’m a “why” person. I ask ‘why’ as often as a toddler. If “why” isn’t answered, the concept has no meaning for me and does not reach the heart of the issue. Why should I dream if it only causes regret and pain? Is it not better to suck it up as a loss and move on? My life hasn’t turned out as I worked my tail off for it to be. Period. There is no going back. What good does it do to hold on to the same ol’ dream?

“Awakening and owning the dreams that God has placed in our hearts isn’t about getting stuff or attaining something. It’s about embracing who we are and who he has created us to be.” (p. 102)

Okaaay? And that is …? Someone who dreams of world travel but gets to sit at home? What is the point of that?

“There is a reason you have the desires you do. … Let God use your dreams to guide you into the fuller expression of your unfolding glorious self!” (p. 103)

Aaaaaargh! What is this even saying? I know what I want it to mean, but that leads me down the dangerous slope that I’ve utterly failed, that I chose the wrong life. This chapter is supposed to be comforting, encouraging women to be butterflies emerging from cocoons. But this is my pressure point, okay? So how is this implication not supposed to scare the crap out of me?

“By dreaming and writing them down, we aren’t demanding they come true. We are just owning the reality that they are a part of us. And since they are a part of us, we embrace them.” (p. 103)

… So Icheerfully wave as world travel passes me by. Yeah, no, this isn’t very comforting either. I embrace my dreams all right, and since I centered my entire life around this particular dream, the not-attaining it is kind of a problem. All I have is the brittle comfort that I’m still young. It could still happen, but don’t look at the vision in full color, just glance at it on occasion, from the corner of my eye. Otherwise, hope creeps in, and all those negative clichés about spinning wheels in a muddy rut and bashing against that stone wall.

Just get back to the keyboard. Head down, press on. My life is great. I am blessed beyond deserving. Really! I know this. But in this most vital area of my blessed life, I’m aiming at a target and haven’t hit the mark yet. One of my biggest fears is that I’ve been aiming at the wrong target all along.