Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Return to Me

My daughter snapped this picture for me on the drive home from a special overnight trip that we Harrison ladies enjoyed last year. We had gone to an inn that we adore and had invited a good number of people to join us. We were overjoyed when a few actually decided to take us up on our offer. In the end, though, all had to cancel for one reason or another. Bummer! To make matters worse, we were greeted with very wintery weather for the drive down and our pre-paid Visa card would not work once we arrived. While a great time was had by each of us, that unwelcome guest, Stress, seemed determined to accompany us on that trip. Thankfully, we didn't pay him much mind.

The drive home provided some truly beautiful sights, but this is the one that we chose to capture. I wanted to share it for two reasons, the first of which is that darkness was moving in. The sun was dropping toward the horizon and a storm was on the way.

This week kicks off the holiday season and, for many, it will not usher in happiness. To them, it feels a whole lot as if there is a dimmer switch on every aspect of their lives. Since things have a way of feeling magnified for those who are hurting, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year can be nightmarish. Financial pressures abound, loved ones are missing, families have unresolved squabbles, and Pain decides to not only visit, but unpack its bags and stay a while. Darkness spreads, storm clouds threaten, and some find themselves fervently wishing that they could hit the fast forward button.

I know as well as anyone what it feels like when Darkness elbows its way in on me. Though intensely personal, I can't shake the feeling that sharing about one such time period in my own life may help someone feel a bit less alone in their pain. Having said that, let the story begin...

Last week I received a few e-mails about participating in a Scripture exchange. I was to write down the first verse that popped into my mind and mail it to the person with the number one next to their name. I was then supposed to move the number two person into the number one position and forward the request to twenty of my friends. It was to be a go-to verse that had been a source of strength to me during a challenging time.

Oh, I had such a verse, but I just could not follow through on the forwarding part. Over the years, my motto has largely become, "If it causes stress, eliminate it!" I wasn't about to invite the stress that would accompany my participation. However, I did want to share my verse (and the story that accompanies it) with someone. Consequently, I decided to send it on to the four names that were listed in my e-mails and leave it at that. I guess I kind of made up my own stress-free rules.

Here is what I shared with them:

Sorry guys, but I'm gonna sit this out due to not wanting to send on to 20 people.

For the record, the first verse that popped into my head was the first part of Psalm 4:7 in the NKJV: "You have put gladness in my heart..."
God gave it to me during a very depressed time in my life when I turned my back on Him. Did not open my Bible, pray, or say "amen" to any prayer John prayed over me every morning in a panic. Did not sing at church and cried through nearly every sermon. In the midst of my initial clumsy attempts to come back to Him, He brought this verse to my attention. I was anything but glad at the time. Nothing could have been further from the truth. But I knew I had heard it from Him and so clung to that Word as if my life depended on it, repeating it over and over (sometimes screaming it or sobbing it) when the darkness hounded me. He is faithful. Bit by bit, those seven words did help dispel those things that would torment. It's hard to give words to the depth of it, but hopefully you get the gist.

And this brings us to the second reason I wanted to use this picture. I look at it and remember that special time. The things that were so very stressful then seem so much less now. I remember all of the wonderful moments and want to make another visit to the place where they occurred. I want to return.

I failed to share the details of my coming back to the Lord with the ladies I sent the above e-mail, but I'll do that here. It was probably a decade or so ago and the weight of life circumstances had become unbearable. I was in a true crisis of faith. Everything I had believed up to then all of a sudden seemed like a big fat lie. I was propelled to a place of extreme anger and bitterness towards the Lord and my situation. Finally, I decided that I'd had enough. Enough! If this was what being His carried with it - what it would cost me... well, then the price was just too much to pay. Unforgiveness wormed its way deep into my heart and I suddenly understood David's Psalms about sleepless nights and feeling God's hand weighing heavily on me. There would be no relief for quite some time.

After months of this, I unwillingly found myself in a ladies Bible study. It was one of those where the sincerity of many of the participants might be questioned because material goods were involved. Women were able to use vouchers to buy diapers or other necessities after first attending the Bible study. As is often the case, many of the women would endure the study to get something free at its completion. So there I sat in my rebellion wishing to be somewhere else. I, who once had a thriving relationship with the Lord, was nothing more than an empty shell. I don't know if the leader sensed that she needed to depart from that day's material or what, but she decided to open the floor and allow women to share a verse that God had meaningfully used in their lives.

The room was pretty silent. It was fairly safe to assume that few of the women took much time to read their Bibles in order to hear what God had for them. And there sat me at the end of a three-month long period where I had refused to give Him any chance to speak to me. Three entire months without opening my Bible! Three entire months of stubbornly refusing to allow God to penetrate my heart during worship. Three entire months of being unmoved by any desperate prayer offered on my behalf. Three entire months of vengeful thinking. Three entire months of darkness like I'd never known before.

It became apparent in the lengthening silence that somebody was going to have to share something. I searched the recesses of my mind for something, anything, that I could offer just to end the awkward silence. Timidly, the woman next to me spoke up: "I'm not so good with verses as far as knowing exactly what's in the Bible and I can't remember a specific verse from any particular time in my life. But there have been times when I needed God's help for a decision that I had to make and I opened the Bible to some random spot and placed my finger somewhere on the page without looking. I can't explain it, but it has always worked! The verse has always gone along with whatever it was that I needed help with."

Because my heart was in such a hardened state, I felt contempt towards this simple woman rising in me. I did not have time for such nonsense! I allowed the enemy to egg my thought processes on concerning the utter stupidity of this woman's reasoning. As my mind continued to rail against her she went on to share what her random finger pointing had produced at that precise moment: "Return to me, and I will return to you,' says the LORD Almighty." You can be assured that I was stopped dead in my tracks.

I knew it was for me. I couldn't have been more sure if He had been sitting right there beside me speaking directly to me. Suddenly the floodgates were opened and three months of pent up anger and frustration came spilling forth in a flood of tears. It was something! I shared with the ladies and so began the slow and painful climb up and out of the depths.

It was just after this life-changing occurrence in my life that I needed something specifically from God to endure. You see, none of my circumstances had changed when I walked out of Bible study that afternoon. On the contrary, I was left with knowing that the God of the universe had spoken to me and that He was expecting me to do something with it. Which meant that I needed to find a way to survive each day until the day arrived when it would begin to feel a little less like survival and more like normal life. And so He had given me the Scripture, "You have put gladness in my heart..." What a love gift it was from His heart to mine.

That's my story and I'm sticking with it!

Father, thank You that we are not alone when darkness envelops us. Because You are light and in You there is no darkness at all, we who know You can be assured that we will never be in total darkness. Let the light of Your presence flood us, Lord! How glad I am that You ever so graciously speak to us in our times of need, drawing us closer to Your heart. Where would I, or any of us, be without You? How grateful I am to be Your dearly loved daughter. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Holding On

 Last weekend ushered in beautiful weather. Since some of the guys in our household were behind in the Fall Hiking Spree, we took the opportunity to tuck two more trails under our belts. While driving along, this leaf hit our antenna in such a way that its curled edge enabled it to cling in place. Amused, I watched other leaves swirling here and there while this one stayed put.

I was fascinated with this simple scene! I've shared what a whirling mess my life has felt the last several months. Watching this leaf, I knew well that feeling of being blown to and fro. And I definitely could relate to that feeling of holding on for dear life.

A slight smile spread across my face as I sensed God's voice. "Take a picture. I'm about to show you something here." Sliding the iPod from my purse, I noticed that I didn't have much time to capture the shot. I spied a stop sign nearby and realized what was about to happen. Without the driving wind supporting the leaf, I knew that it would slide down the antenna... and fall away. Oh.

Wow! Isn't that so like life? Overwhelmed, we are tossed here and there. Choices are made for us that we just don't have much control over. It gets rough... and we tend to cling to God during these times. Speaking for myself, I often wonder how desperately I would hold on to Him without the winds of adversity battering me. How easily might I fall away?

Lord, I stand amazed at your wisdom. You know just what I need. Though I grow weary from the tossing, I acknowledge that it is the very thing that has kept me fastened to You. You are good and anything that draws me nearer to You cannot ultimately be looked at as bad. Help me to recognize this more readily. Strengthen me to joyfully cooperate with whatever it is You're doing in me and through me. I don't want to fall away! Thank You for keeping me close to You. May my soul cling to You always. In the name of Jesus I pray, amen.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Life in a Puddle

This picture ended up being a highlight from my 41st birthday celebration. The girls and I took off and spent that early July day tackling a ten-mile extreme hike. After leaving our first three miles behind us we came upon this shallow mud puddle brimming with tadpoles right on our trail. We nearly walked by without noticing, but I was fortunate enough to glance down just in time to discover them. What a sight! We delighted in them, happily sharing the picture with others later that night.
I've thought of those tadpoles many times in the past four months. Like it or not, there is much for me to hear from the Lord from this picture. You see, the more I thought of these tadpoles the more I realized that they could very well be doomed. After the initial wonder of finding them in such an unusual place had worn off, it occurred to me that a stretch of warm days could very well dry up their watery home. What would become of them then?
It seemed pretty obvious to me that this was far from being an ideal habitat for them. Amphibians lay their eggs in vernal pools all of the time, but this mud puddle hardly seemed to qualify as one. I've seen substantial vernal pools during Metro Parks programs, and this puddle is nowhere near the same. Looking back, I cannot remember if that stretch of mud-puddle-drying, hot temperature days ever arrived. Or if they had, if the tadpoles had already fully developed and moved on beforehand. What I do know is that they were deposited in this place through no fault of their own when their mother laid her eggs there. Even though danger may have been lurking just days away they were doing what they were made to do: swimming around, eating, and developing. They were doing life the same way they would have had they gotten their start in a more favorable place.
How I can relate! The waters of my life sure seem pretty muddy these days. Things can start looking a bit grim whenever I forget that I'm not supposed to "worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:54). During times of weakness I glance around and it seems to me that the scorching winds of adversity sure seem to be shrinking this mud puddle that I've been placed in. And what would become of me then? 
These past few months and weeks have been really tough. I've shared with some that this summer was particularly brutal. Overwhelming circumstances and bouts with illness kept me in bed for a few months. During those days I got up to do what I had to do, but always with a return to bed as quick as possible. I did enjoy a respite from time to time, but those moments were always short-lived. I stayed in the Word and put on my prayer warrior cap once again. And I just kept doing the next thing. Swimming around in my little mud puddle if you will.
If I don't get in my head too much, the mud puddle really isn't that bad. The tadpoles need water to survive and the puddle fits that bill just fine. Sure, it may be evaporating away minute by minute, but it gets the job done for a time... hopefully the time the tadpoles need to fully develop. And there is the advantage of not having any fish swimming around snatching them up for a meal.
So what of my little mud puddle? Several things come to mind when I think on this. My puddle feels a little messy right now. It also seems a precarious place to dwell at times. It requires me to focus on today - on this day when I do have just enough water to survive. I can be thankful even though my mud puddle is nothing like the thriving ponds that some of my friends have been deposited in. God knows what He is doing! Acts 17:26 reminds me that "He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live." How very comforting! He has not haphazardly placed me here. I can trust that He has positioned me here and will use it to prepare me for the next place He has for me.
I can sometimes zero in on a certain piece of the puzzle and totally miss the bigger picture that is forming. In this instance, I have come to realize that the enemy has effectively used my fear of what might happen to blind me to what is happening and what will happen. If I am like one of those tadpoles, I need to realize that they don't stay tadpoles forever! They swim and eat and grow legs. Eventually they drop their little tails and move on when they reach maturity. And that's what I'm doing, too.
It doesn't matter that I'm in a mud puddle. The important thing is that I do those things that this stage of life calls for. I can swim through my days caring for my family, homeschooling, and loving others. I can stay in the Word and grow my spiritual legs. One blessed day I will have done all the growing that accompanies this stage and I will drop my tail, leaving behind that thing which I no longer have need of. I will walk out of this puddle and move on to the next place that God has for me. And you can bet that I'll be giving Him all of the praise as I go on my way. What a thing to look forward to.
Precious Father, it's so good to hear from You again! Soften my heart and sharpen my ears that I may hear You more and more. Thank You for the reminder that this stage in my life is temporary. I was in need of a bit of reassurance and You provided it in a way that You knew would enable me to "get it." You are so good to me! As I swim about my days in this place that You presently have me, I ask that You help me focus on the here and now, doing all of those things that today requires of me. Unlike the tadpoles, I can be sure that this puddle You have me in will not dry up until it has fulfulled everything You want it to. You are growing me here and I'm most grateful. I love You.