On Things Above

This morning I was cleaning and organizing around my house, burning off nervous energy. I was waiting to hear about a situation that was causing me stress, and so I was praying and taking control of the only thing I really have any control over – the closets. This has always been my go-to when I feel out of control. You would think I have the cleanest, most organized closets in the world. However, I also have 6 people living here, so that is just not true.

As I was cleaning and praying, I was fretting to God and suddenly I very clearly heard him tell me, “The only thing that changes when you take on this anxiety and allow it to rule you is the atmosphere of your home.”

Ouch.

While I know practically that it is true my worried attitude does nothing to help things, it always seemed like it was my “right” to have in the midst of struggles.

Many years ago as I was just getting to know my husband I spent some precious time with his aunt. We went through Colossians 3 and she had me memorize it. At the time I was doing it more to impress her and get in good with the family, if I’m being honest. But now, 28 years later, I find myself often repeating this chapter as I sort through how I’m feeling about things.

“Since then you were raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…you used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.”

Later it goes on to say, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

No where in that (or any other place in the Bible) do I see where God says, “It’s ok. Go ahead – it is your right to be angry, hurt, worried, etc.” Even if it is the natural response, my “rights” are gone as a child of God. They were put to death on the cross. My life is in Christ. And while he did freely express his desires and feelings to God – to the point where “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground,” he circled back around to the peace that came from being in tune and in harmony with his Father. And “for the joy set before him,” he endured the cross.”

Friends, you know I’m not talking about “fake it ’til you make it.” We can earnestly and genuinely come to the Father with our fears, concerns, tears, anxieties, and everything else we experience. However, what I was doing – falling into the pattern of allowing that initial response to govern everything I did and felt for the rest of the day- that falls in to the category of idolatry. I was putting my trust in myself, in my response, in my emotions, and allowing them to rule me rather than in the one who created all of those things. Even more so, I was believing the worst about God in the middle of it. My default was to disparage the very God I professed to worship and serve. That overflowed into my actions and my attitude, and changed the whole atmosphere of my home.

So as I confess this to my Father I am so thankful that he, in return, reminds me of his great and abundant love for me. I started to speak my thanks aloud, and recounted the numerous ways over the years he has provided – sometimes above and beyond and sometimes just enough in just the nick of time, but always completely. And I continue to set my heart and mind and things above.

But God

Often in my life I find myself caught up in the cycle of anxiety and worry. I am constantly asking, “What if…?” What if this doesn’t work, or what if so-and-so thought this, or what if it’s not enough, etc. Recently as I have been navigating a particularly hard emotional issue I have found myself saying these words to my husband. He surprised my by saying two different words – “But God…”

I know those words are part of a popular worship song that constantly plays on Christian radio. Honestly, I tune it out most of the time when I get sick of the same songs over and over again. But when Shawn said those words to me a few different times recently, I realized how much the words we choose to tell ourselves shapes how we think, how we act, and how we respond to the world around us.

Yes, maybe something seems impossible if we are looking at it through the eyes of this world. But we are not citizens of this world if we have a relationship with Jesus. Our destiny is different, but so is our daily living here on Earth – we do not have to wait until Heaven. We are not bound by the laws of physics or the intentions of man – instead we are given access to a storehouse of heavenly resources and we are given the inheritance of those who are children of God. We are not limited by a broken creation because we have been chosen by the Holy Creator, who is making all things new again.

I need to stop wondering if or how or even why and start saying, “But God…” But God is in this. But God promised me. But God is for me so who can be against me? But God sent his son to die for me. But God inclines his ear to me. But God is the author of all of this. But God is good. But God IS enough.

Where are the areas of your life where you need to remember this truth today? Because we may see a limited, murky, confusing scene in front of us, but God is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do. We can’t…but God.

Did God Really Say?

Security: an idol we bow to and work for and dream of.
Security: an illusion we imagine and discuss and plan for.
Security: a gift we find here and now and in memories and in hopes.
O God of ever-present love, help us to embrace true security, fleeing from idols and exposing illusions. All things are passing, God never changes.
Amen.
Let it be so.
(Lina Toth, in Celtic Daily Prayer Book II)

Immediately these words above gripped my heart. I read this passage recently and was struck by how many times I have chased after false security because the true Security didn’t seem logical, or was too hard, or felt obscure. This false security is something that has become an idol to me in recent years. I know that there have been times before when it has overtaken my thoughts – particularly when it comes to finances. But we have made choices in our marriage about how we desired our family culture to look and that has meant we had to trust God rather than our own plans. Sometimes (oftentimes) people didn’t understand, and even those who meant well and loved us fully couldn’t comprehend or agree with the decisions made. Through it all God has been more than faithful and we have had an abundant life.

But when we were making the decision to move back from East Africa a couple of years ago my heart was going one direction only – stability. We needed it. We craved it. We longed for a place to go that would be home forever, where we could dive in and make friendships and know our place and who we are. No more foreign cultures that we loved in so many ways yet made us question every action and motive every day. No more friends that we were just starting to feel comfortable with leaving because their term was up. No more relying on people to give financially so we could do ministry and live. No more terrorist attacks in our city or stressful, dangerous elections where we need to be on lockdown. No more insecurity.

My desire was security and the idol I was relying on to make that happen was America. Ouch. As a former missionary I hate even admitting that!

All of us have seen that idol fail this year. So many of those things that I listed above are still true of our life here. We live in one of the most transient places in the US, and people leave regularly. Because of that those who are the stayers are more hesitant to open up. I get that – we were the stayers for a while. The very thing I love about DC – the international flavor and the ability to see the world in a glance – is the same thing that makes it exhausting as we try to know people and understand their reactions and our relationship with them. Diving in and making friendships has been close to impossible in some ways this year thanks to the Pandemic. And I don’t need to tell you about stressful elections! Yet we know we are suppose to be here – this is home.

Over a year ago I sat on my porch praying to God about my calling here in DC. I have always loved being in ministry with Shawn. I loved being a pastor’s wife – I still do. I feel like it is in my DNA to care for people this way. However, over the last couple of years I have found myself being drawn to be more official in that role. I wanted to see how God used me – Heather. Not Shawn’s wife (or the “preacher’s wife” as someone affectionately called me before.) What did it mean to be called as a woman, as Heather, as a daughter of the Most High? How could my life, my story, my gifts, my passions, and my weaknesses be used for Him?

This was not the first time I had prayed about that (and would definitely NOT be the last time!) But in that moment I knew – in that deep in your soul, no shadow of a doubt, truth in the core of your being way of knowing – that God told me to step into that and he would take care of the rest.

“But God, my family.” “But God, I won’t get paid. I really should find a paying job here.” “But God, I’m not educated enough.” “But God -security!!” But God, but God, but God. Still, I knew.

So I jumped into it. Well, let’s be honest – I trudged into it kicking and screaming at times. I am not a great student, and I knew it meant school, classes, papers, and interviews. But I started – I am doing the classes, doing the training, getting the licenses, and doing what He asks. And you know what? He has been faithful the whole way. He provides financially in ways we couldn’t imagine. He brings friendship and support from people in the unlikeliest of places and ways. He enfolds my children into his arms and helps me trust him with their care rather than thinking it is all me. There have been times of discouragement and what-was-I-thinking-this-makes-no-sense. Those times I hear a whisper of doing something that seems more logical or practical that speaks, “Did God really say…?” These happen when I have grabbed back the control of my life and plans from His grasp instead of letting Him lead. They happen when I demand security on my own terms rather than his.

Many times in scripture we see people falling out of the blessings of God and into a dangerous world of sin and self-reliance when the enemy whispers in their ear, “Did God really say…?” Adam and Eve are the first and most well known examples, but definitely not the last. And while I continue to push on, I am sure that I will hear those words again. Sometimes they come from frustration with people, sometimes from my complete lack of understanding of how to do a task in front of me. This week they came, over and over again, like rolling storm clouds shouting at me that I had no control over anything. In the middle of that storm I saw my orphan-ness come out and I felt myself wanting to fall back into destructive habits – ones that always reared their ugly heads when I was feeling out of control.

Thankfully this time my heart had expected this attack. I was prepared with the armor and battled back. By the end of the week I was weary and limping a bit, but victorious. Because when Satan slithered up and asked, “Did God really say…” I yelled back, “YES!” Not in my strength – we all know that. But by the power of the One living in me.

I want to encourage you, brother and sister. This is a hard time. There are so many voices out there, so many questions, so many things causing fear, instability, and chaos in our hearts. Are you taking time to listen? Are you standing in the presence of the God of ever-present love, asking him to help us embrace the true security that is Him?

Lessons from the Bathroom

“I’ve peed in a lot of weird places.” This was my statement as I came out from behind the tree on to the trail we were hiking. The bathrooms at the foot of the trail were closed due to Covid, and so I had no choice but to find my own privy. It got me thinking about all the places where I have “done my business,” so to speak. In a hole in the ground in Malawi, freshly dug specifically for the Mzungu but with only 3 walls that went as high as my chest and kids standing all around watching. (Talk about performance anxiety!) Underneath an Acacia tree while a silent giraffe snuck up on me and scared me half to death. In front of the Land Cruiser in the middle of the dirt road we were driving on because all around me there were “Caution- Land Mine” signs. On the side of the highway with a couple of interns standing around me keeping curious baboons away while we all laughed nonstop from the awkwardness of it all. One time in South Sudan I was using a stall (again with no door) in the dark. As I was squatting, trying to hold my skirt up and not touch anything (because GROSS) while still getting the job done I saw a man coming towards me quickly. He didn’t hear me speak and kept coming, and I was alone and nervous, so I stood up mid-stream, shined my phone flashlight at him, and yelled loudly. He was startled, I was a wet mess, and we both walked away embarrassed. When you are out and about in other countries you don’t always have public toilets -at least not ones you really want to use! But using the toilet is not something you can avoid for very long in your life, so you quickly learn to adapt to your surroundings.

Ask any missionary and they will tell you they talk about adapting – a lot. (And probably about their toilet trials as well, but I will end that subject now.) We learn that the majority of things around you in a new culture are not necessarily wrong, they are simply different. Learning to pivot, to adapt, to change our original plan (or the second plan, or the fifth plan…) is a way of life when you live in a culture that is not the one you grew up in. You ask a lot of questions, you pray, you train your mind and heart to see it differently and to make it work. It’s a really good trait, but not one that comes naturally to me and can be really hard work.

I grew up in the US but like many of you, I feel like I have been in a foreign culture this last year. We came back from Kenya different than when we left. Our wounds from the previous 5 years were closed and scabbed, but not all completely healed. We had a whirlwind time when we first got back with doctors appointments, job interviews, college graduations, moving, and trying to settle into a city that was brand new to all of us. Just when we started to feel like we were getting our feet under us, the whole world stopped. Transition takes a full two years to go through the cycle of uprooting, moving, starting to feel like you might have a clue, roots beginning to go down, then being firmly planted. Two years of celebrations, traditions, local customs being watched and enjoyed, relationships being formed and tried on. That is what it takes to be familiar and at home. But we were only barely out of the pulling up stage when pandemic hit.

Suddenly we were forced to adapt again. I felt like I was taken out of my nice clean, private house with 2.5 bathrooms and set in the middle of the land mine road again with baboons around and people staring as I tried to do my business. This wasn’t part of the plan.

I had it in my naive head that we might have a reprieve from that type of adapting when we came back “home” despite all the reading I did that told me otherwise. I felt like our first 6 months here were good and we were on track. Then suddenly we were figuring out how to continue to connect with people we didn’t yet know that well, we were navigating counseling sessions with people who were hurting but we didn’t have a “before” baseline for, and we were personally mourning the loss of the avenues that we had been just starting to use to form real friendships. Youth group was cancelled, in-person service was cancelled, no one wanted to chance getting near anyone else because we didn’t yet have any understanding of how this mystery virus worked so there were no big meals and game nights with other people.

Like all the other times I had to adapt, when I finally sat back and allowed the Spirit to work and reveal things to me, I could see some of the good. I could see that God was not caught off guard by this, and while I may still think his timing stinks, I know that the truth is he knows better than I do and his ways really are good. We have gotten to know our neighbors well from sitting out on the porch and talking over the fence because we were all home; we have spent time together as a family – all of us in one house; we’ve cooked together, done puzzles, hiked, gamed, watched tv, celebrated holidays, and laughed a lot. We have also cried a lot. As we slowed down we realized for all of us that we had some grieving to do over the loss of our very full lives in Kenya and South Sudan. We missed friendships, church, the weather, and the teammates. We had not had the time or margin to grieve these things, but all things must be named and acknowledged before they can be healed.

We will continue to adapt as we keep navigating not only this pandemic, but life after it. How do we learn to really listen and love well? How do we help others heal? How do we step away from our own fears and step into the hard stuff with our brothers and sisters? We pray, trust, and adapt our view as needed.

And we do a lot of laughing as we try to avoid the monkeys while peeing.

The blog From a a Year Ago

I was going through my blog in the “drafts” section to see what things I had started and then never finished to try to clean it up.  I came upon this blog that I had started a year ago – the night before Anna was coming back from Kenya unexpectedly early and we were getting ready to go on what we thought would be a singular lock-down just to make sure she wasn’t sick.  By the time I reached the store the news of Europe closing it’s borders was hitting and people were starting to panic, so I walked into a jam-packed store (that was pre-mask and social distance order) and this is what played out:

“It’s real…That knot in your chest.  The lump that you try really hard to swallow.  The short, fast breaths that make you tell yourself to breathe deep and count slowly.

In this time of uncertainty I feel it pressing in constantly.  Last night I was in the store and it was as though I was walking through a movie scene for a dystopian movie.  The lines were all the way to the back.  People’s carts were full of whatever they could put in.  The store had no milk, bread, eggs, toilet paper, flour…the shelves were empty.  I had only gone in to get a few key things, but as I sat and watched others I started to panic and anxiety crept in.  Maybe I should stand in line for the next couple of hours and buy all the cheese, pasta, and peanut butter I could find. Or maybe I really do need all the gatorade I can fit in my cart.  Or maybe I should buy all the medicine I could find because we are bound to get this virus and have fevers and might run out of gatorade but Tylenol would take the fevers down, but RJ can’t swallow a lot of pills so I should buy a bunch of kinds so that I could be sure of having something he could take, but then what if he still can’t and then he’s really sick and we have no food and people have gone crazy…kind of like my mind in that moment.

Last night in the store I came across a few people that reminded me of something important – this life is not all about me.  I stood as I was waiting (patiently, I promise!) for a store employee to move his cart that he was stocking shelves with and I looked around me.  There was a young man about my oldest son’s age.  He looked a little shell shocked, honestly.  He had some pasta, some granola bars, and a box of milk in his hands.  He was looking at Tuna but seemed a bit like he had no clue what he should be doing.  I wanted to tell him to walk alongside me and let me help him figure this out, that he wasn’t alone. I wanted to give him some sort of assurance that he was doing the right thing in buying a little extra, but that he should not give into the fear that was pulsing through the store.  I wanted to – but I didn’t.  Because in the moment I was scared and panicky.  I was thinking of my own son and wondering if someone would help him in this situation, because how does a 22 year old young man on his own for the first time know how to react and prepare when it seems like the world has gone mad?

I also saw an older woman trying to get a few things.  I helped get something off a shelf for her as people rushed by ignoring her because by this point I was starting to get my senses back.  As I prayed against the fear I felt my own panic subsiding.

I think we are going to be facing some new, uncharted things here in the next couple of months.  We are not a country that really knows how to do crisis well. We’ve lived in places where we had to evacuate from war and go on lock down due to election instability, and I never saw the chaos that I saw last night in the grocery store.  May God show us clearly what he wants us to learn from this. “

Did you catch your breath as you read? I know that now, on this side of things, I can see how scared we were as a country. We have seen half a million deaths in the US during this pandemic that were related to the virus. Probably no one reading this was spared knowing someone personally who suffered greatly in some way because of it. Jobs have been lost, houses lost, marriages and families that were already taxed disintegrated during quarantine, and some people who lived on their own spent months never seeing another person or having any sort of human touch.

Yet here we are at what seems to be the end of it. What did we learn? Or better yet, what are we learning?

This weekend I saw my newborn nephew. I had been considering and reconsidering going, worried about if I would bring something to him unknowingly. But my sister really wanted me there, and as I sat and cuddled him and I stroked his fuzzy, perfect little head and breathed in newborn baby, I felt hope again. My niece who had come as well fell in love with him and said he was a powerful baby. I had to agree – there was something almost intoxicating about this new little, extremely miraculous life that we were holding. He reminded me that God was not absent from the events surrounding us this last year, but that even in those he showed himself powerful, merciful, and redemptive.

See, my sister and her husband had tried for over a decade to have kids. Hope sprung up a time or two only to be dashed violently in the pain of miscarriage. Then Lincoln happened. In the middle of trauma and chaos and pandemic and pain, a new life was formed. He was not the “Covid” baby – ones that were birthed from the extra time at home that we are seeing happen all around us (not that those are any less miraculous or full of hope!) But here was a living, breathing, beautiful, seven-and-a-half-pound bundle of life that we had prayed for over and over again for years. God chose to answer that prayer in the middle of one of the darkest times our world has seen in recently.

It makes me think of another baby born into chaos, darkness, and hopelessness. One who came and brought joy, healing, and True Life with His birth. So what have I learned this year? I have learned (and forgotten and relearned many times) that no matter how dark it seems my God has not forsaken me. He leans in and listens. He catches my tears. He hems me in, behind and before. And when it seems darkest, he brings redemption and life that starts to seep into the cracks of the walls I have built up around me and he reminds me of the true victory that is mine through him. I am so thankful for that.

The Other Side

download (1)As I sit here writing this blog I am looking across the room at my daughter who is on her computer catching up with friends.  She’s not supposed to be here – she’s supposed to be in the bush in Kenya on a homestay with a Maasai family practicing her Swahili, eating lots of ugali and drinking Chai, and visiting each night with other members of the community around a campfire.  But she’s not.

Like the rest of us her life has come to an almost screeching halt in the the past week.  I was talking with a friend last night who said that she was grieving and wondering if life will ever look like it did just a week ago. I really related to what she was saying.  I don’t think I am allowing myself to live in a lot of fear from this pandemic, though there are definitely times when I lose myself to panic for a few moments – particularly about my children.  But I am grieving – for my daughter, whose experience was cut short, for all the seniors whose years are coming to an abrupt and unmarked end, for the small business owners whose hard work is spiraling down quickly, and for a future that I know will be changed from what I had envisioned.  I don’t think there are many of us that will come to the other end of this unmarked.

I was having another conversation with a friend about the idea of God redeeming all things.  While we are in the middle of a situation we can admit that it is hard to see how God is going to make beauty from things that, in the moment, feel like destruction.  And let’s just be honest – sometimes it’s not that things just feel hard or destructive, but it’s that they are.  Sometimes we have situations happen where even when we are days, months, or years away from them we still cannot see the good.  We have trouble believing that he really does work all things out for the good good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose, or that he will redeem.  Notice I didn’t say we struggle to believe he can redeem, but rather will he?

I want to believe that redemption means the pain is gone.  I want to believe that it means the situation fixes itself, or something bigger, better, more beautiful comes along in place of what was lost.  I don’t want to believe and live in the truth of being a Christian – that we are called to walk with him in his sufferings.  Sometimes it seems too much to ask us to believe that scars that can be so terribly ugly can be breathtakingly beautiful at the same time.

As I worked through some very real issues in my own past that turned from bleeding wounds into thick scars on my heart I have understood a little better what it means to have God work things out.  I can see a purpose in spite of the pain for most things.  It doesn’t mean that I would choose it again – I am not sadistic.  But I can see his fingerprints on the healing nonetheless.  He doesn’t have to show me anything – any peek into what he is doing is a gift of grace.  So in those places where I still can’t see even a glimmer of beauty I sit and wait.  I may never see it on this earth – I understand this now, even if it does frustrate me.  Redemption will only be whole and perfect in heaven, but sometimes he allows us glimpses of it here.  There will come a day when he makes all things beautiful and right again.  His way, his time.

And that has to be enough. Because it really is more than enough.

So I grieve now, being older and experienced enough to know that no, I will never be the same after this.  The world will not be the same.  We will all carry scars of grief and loss – some much more so than others.  When I came back to the States after our evacuation from South Sudan I didn’t fit anywhere.  I couldn’t fall back into patterns of who I was before I left.  I had to grieve the loss of the comfortable old me and start to be ok with the new scars and bruises that I might never have an answer for.  I wrote then about this concept then, quoting a passage from The Hobbit.  Gandalf is telling Bilbo that he should go on this incredible adventure. Bilbo, being the cautious hobbit that he is says, ” Can you promise I will come back?”  Gandalf responds in his usual honest way by saying, “No.  And if you do, you will not be the same.”

We will not be the same after this – but somehow there is beauty and hope in that.  I still believe that he will take these wounds and heal them, but even if we cannot see it, we can stand in the truth that we have been shaped to be more like him.  Crucifixion hurts.  The fire burns as it shapes the iron.  Dying to oneself is never uneventful or painless.  However, he will shape us to be able to better show him to this world because we have walked in his sufferings with him and know him even more intimately than before.  Our scars from this time or any other area in our lives where we have known pain are real and permanent while we are in these bodies.  But it is about his glory more than our comfort, and  I think he is calling us to remember that again.   When we reach the other side we will be able to say that we have sat with him in a depth of darkness that we had not yet experienced, and we are better for it. Because of that I do not mourn like those who have no hope.

So I leave us with this, because truth is truth no matter how we feel, and praise and thanksgiving are powerful weapons.  “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” (Philippians 4:6-7) (emphasis added by me.)

 

The Wisdom of Anne with an E.

“It’s red, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s red,” she said resignedly. “Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who has red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much–the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness. I can imagine them away. I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose-leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes. But I cannot imagine that red hair away. I do my best. I think to myself, `Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven’s wing.’ But all the time I know it is just plain red and it breaks my heart. It will be my lifelong sorrow.” 

Oh, Anne.  I have loved Anne of Green Gables since I read it the first time.  She’s a firecracker who uses big words, is passionate and loyal about her relationships, verbally processes, and (of course) has red hair.  As a child I use to hate my red hair.  I remember clearly people calling me carrot top among other not-so-nice things, being told I was a redheaded rooster, and hearing a few adults I looked up to saying (when they didn’t think I was listening) that they hoped their children didn’t have red hair. It’s hard not to take that personally.  As Anne says, you can’t wish it away no matter how hard you try.

When I became a teenager and into adulthood I decided having red hair wasn’t so bad.  People remembered me, I stood out.  I’ve never been one to want to blend into the shadows completely, so having something that made me different became a benefit rather than a hinderance.  But then adulthood ran into getting into middle age, and suddenly my bright, copper-red hair started looking a bit less vibrant and a lot more washed out.  I felt like I was losing my identity as my hair changed color so  I started dying it regularly to a coppery color.  But since most of the time it was a cheap box from Walmart I now cringe when I see pictures of me with that harsh hair color!

We are weird people. No matter how old we get or how much we mature, we struggle with how we look and we allow that to define who we think we are and what our worth is.  I’ve noticed recently that I’ve had a lot of anxiety about what I’m eating (or not eating.)  At college I struggled a lot with an eating disorder.  It continued for many years into adulthood, as I would go out at night and binge on what ever I wanted, then throw it up before I went home.  It wasn’t really about losing weight.  I knew that I wasn’t going to get skinny in this pattern.  It certainly wasn’t about being healthy – that was really the last thing on my mind.  I understand now that it was my way of grabbing control of my shame that I felt.

I would feel shame about everything at that time.  Shame that I wasn’t a better parent, a better wife, a better sister and daughter.  Shame that I was continually gaining weight and couldn’t seem to stop.  Shame that I wasn’t where I thought I should be as a Christian or an adult.  Shame about past mistakes and anxiety about future ones.  And shame about the way I looked and how I wished with my whole heart that I was not the way I was.  People around me have been talking about dieting and weight my whole life.  I know very few women who don’t talk about almost every day, so I don’t think I am an oddball about this.

Fast forward to this stage of life.  Last year we started doing keto and I dropped 60 pounds over the course of the year.  But I found out something about myself – I exchanged the idol of food (I can eat whatever I want) for the idol of fear (I don’t dare eat that.  Or – I can’t believe I ate that, what a wretched person I am!)   If I had a bad day where I would eat too many carbs, my whole mood and attitude was affected.  I felt anxiety about every little thing going into my body.  While I was healthier in many ways, emotionally I was still going through a lot of the same cycles.

I found myself sitting on the floor in the bathroom one afternoon weighing in on whether the shame of having just eaten bread would be bigger than the shame I knew would come if I made myself throw up.  Then I broke down and cried, wondering how I had gotten back to this point.

This is not a story I want to share.  I love telling those stories where there is complete victory.  I would love to say that I threw up one day two decades ago, had a revelation about who I am and who I want to be, and stopped right then and there.  But the truth is this temptation has been there much more than I ever imagined it would be.  While it’s been years since I hung my head over the toilet regularly, the idea still creeps in every once in a while.

But there is hope.

Because here’s another truth – I have not spent every day of the last couple decades living in shame and fear.  There are periods of time that these things try to creep in.  And sometimes I forget the truth of who I really am and I let these lies settle in.  Sometimes it’s from conversations happening around me or circumstances that pop up, but other times it’s simply my own insecurities showing their faces when I am not expecting them, so I am not ready to fight.  I have learned some practical things (and I keep learning more and more) about how I cannot be extreme when it comes to food issues.  I know I need to be disciplined and eat in healthy ways, but I keep coming to a better understanding of what that means for me and my family.  I have learned to love walking and pushing myself in exercise and the feeling of pride I get when I make wise choices about these things – but I also know how slippery that slope can be for me with my obsessive tendencies and how fast I give into shame.

However, more than anything, I continue to learn despite the fact I fail often, and no matter how I feel in the moment, none of that really defines me or changes my worth.  As I have fallen deeper and deeper in love with Jesus, I realize better and better the depth of his love for me.  I understand that my salvation is not just about heaven someday, but the ability to live here on this earth in a supernatural freedom from anxiety.  Over the last month we have talked about advent and the different things that we looked at were hope, peace, joy, and love.  I have emphasized as I taught and wrote on it that these things are not things of this world.  We are not talking about a hope in temporal things or peace and joy that comes from everything around us being just as we think it should and we “feel” good.  Love is an overflowing of the Spirit from us that we can have because He first loved us.  These things come from a dying to myself and surrendering my life to Him.

The same is true about these other things.  Even if I have a day where I ate a box of Little Debbies, this doesn’t change my worth.  If I have a day where my parenting is less than stellar and I have have to humbly apologize to my kids, my worth is still the same.  On the flip side, if I eat exactly 20 carbs, walk 10,000 steps, kiss my husband every time I see him, cook a healthy meal at night, and tuck my children into bed without having once lost my temper with them, my worth has not changed.  It can’t.  I have already been purchased at the ultimate cost- so I am now priceless. He loves me me with a perfect love that was so incomprehensible he died for me while I was still a broken, bratty child kicking and screaming insults at him.  Even then my worth was known to him.

As I go into 2020 I have no illusions that this year will be easy.  I am starting a new job, learning how to balance that with still having kids at home who are doing online school, a college student, and a young adult.  I am still in my first year in a new place where I am getting to know people and figuring out who my people are.  We have parents whom we love that we need to be able to care for better.  And I continue to fight my way through this love/hate relationship with food to a better place for me both physically and emotionally.  But I am determined to go into this year with the reminder of who I am and I will dream up big, God-sized dreams that cannot happen without Him – one of those dreams being a healthier me who stands steadfastly in what I know to be true about me and about Jesus.  Because, as Anne says, “When you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.”

Join me?

My Pizza Oven

(Photo credit Scott and Jennifer Myhre)

Today I spent the day doing school with the boys, baking a bunch of cookies for upcoming events, decorating the porch with the boys after school, and raking leaves because they have finally all fallen off the trees.  As I was raking I was daydreaming about what the garden will look like in the spring, since we have not yet experienced that here.  I made plans in my mind about how Shawn could add so much beauty to a yard that needed a little TLC, but still had it’s own beauty.

Suddenly that sneaky little feeling of anxiety crept in.  “This isn’t really your house.  you have a two year lease is all.  Don’t invest too much – you never know when you will need to leave.”

If you read my previous blog you know what a gift this house is to us.  I love everything about it.  But while it is our home right now, it belongs to someone else who will eventually call it home again.  Though we would love to be in DC until we retire, this house will probably not be our home that whole time.  And suddenly that feeling of anxiety about not having a place to claim as mine started to overtake.

I never wanted to buy a house.  I never felt the need.  I liked the idea of being able to pick up and go whenever I needed or wanted to.  We have learned in our crazy life how to make a home pretty quickly.  But I’ll be honest, all of that has changed in me since coming back to the States.  I want roots and home and a place that my kids will know is always there for them even as they all enter into adulthood and make their own homes.

Most of the time I am content with giving that to God and letting him take care of it for me.  But today I felt the stress that happens when I am not consciously doing that, and I started to feel panicky for no real reason.

Suddenly I heard the Spirit say, “Heather, build your pizza oven.”

No, I am not going to literally build a pizza oven – I am not even sure I could legally do that here! But this statement brought me back to solid ground and a trust in God’s plan for us.  A few years back I wrote a blog about how friends of ours and missionaries extraordinaire who had lived around East Africa in some hard places for the last few decades chose to mark their places as home.  No matter where they lived, even if they knew it was not long term, they chose to put roots down and make a life.  One way they did that was to build an outside pizza oven of stone and brick.  They’ve done this at places on the equator as well as in their home in the States.  There are many people who have benefited from this tangible way of saying, “We are home.  This is home.  The Lord has provided.”  Though I knew that an outdoor pizza oven would not be my marker, I also knew I had to figure out what was.  What are those things we do as a family, those things we put in place, no matter where we go?

As God brought things to mind about how we are making this place home for us and our kids (what a blessing to hear Anna say this was like coming home when she was here from college for Thanksgiving break), I knew that no matter what house we live in we will make it home.  We will open it up to friends, family, and strangers  – who usually become friends!  We will always have food and drink for people along with a place on the couch to talk and pray.  We will put up some of the same decorations and do some of the same things at the same time each year.  We will pray together at night on our bed as a family before everyone goes to sleep.  We will try to remember to speak thankfulness at dinner times together in the evenings.

In other words, we have our own pizza ovens.  I am so grateful for these friends who spoke this into our lives.

What are some of your “Pizza ovens?”

The Ram in the Thicket

I admit, I have always hated the story of Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain.  I know that it’s always taught that Abraham believed God would provide, and we know the truth is that he did!  There was a ram in thicket.

But let’s just be honest here.  I am a mom.  I have watched my kids go through some pretty hard things and wondered if I had scarred them for life.  My first thought every time I read about Isaac asking where the lamb was and Abraham saying,”The Lord will provide” is the therapy bill that would be in the future for that child!  Abraham actually binds Isaac up before God intervenes and stops him.  The whole story has always felt so manipulative to me, and most of the time I teach it or read it as fast as I can and move on so I din’t have to think about what I would call the “practical” implications of it.  Does Isaac fight back?  Is there ever a moment of doubt for Abraham?  What is the conversation like going back down the mountain?

I am doing the Ann Voskamp advent devotional “The Greatest Gift,” and when I opened for today this story was there.  My first instinct was to skip the Bible reading part – I know this story.  I don’t like it.  (And isn’t that how we are supposed to read the Bible – only the parts we like? *Note the sarcasm.)

So I started reading only the part that Ann wrote about the story.  And my heart just broke.  She writes, “It is a thing to call a place ‘The Lord Will Provide.’ It is a thing to name where you live as provision, to name the place you call home ‘The Lord Will Provide.'”

My heart.

This house, since the day we first saw it, has been God’s gift to me.  I don’t know if you ever heard my “wish list” when we were first talking about moving back to the States.  As we sat with the boys and talked about what we wanted in whatever our new home would be we made a list.  At first it was practical – enough bedrooms to host people, a dining room big enough for a table to seat many.  Then I felt the Spirit prompting us to name “extras.”  As a family we named things that we really wanted, even if they seemed silly and definitely weren’t necessities.  A front porch, a back yard, a gas stove, lots of windows, off street parking, bright colors, within walking distance of the church, an extra room where I could do art and create without having to always pick everything up midway.

This house checked every single box.  Every. Single. One.  In a place where we should never be able to have a house like this.

I almost cried when they showed it to us.  Everyone was nervous and reiterating that we could change the paint or do what we needed to make it our own home – but it felt like “me” the moment I walked in.  (I later met our landlord, a dear sister from the church, and instantly found a kindred spirit – just an extra blessing!)

I know this house is not ours – we are merely renting and using it while we can.  When the time comes that we need to move, God will provide the next right place for that time of life.  But in the moment, the now, this is HOME and I am so overwhelmed with thankfulness for it.

When I read those words that Ann wrote, I knew I had to go back and read the story of Abraham and Isaac again.  And my gratefulness started to deepen from the physical aspect of providing a home, which is temporary no matter how long we live here, to the spiritual aspect of knowing I have a home in my God, who’s name is Jehova Jireh.

The Lord Will Provide.

He is my provision.  In this advent season he is the hope, the peace. He gave himself as the ram in the thicket, and continues to be my provision as he gives me access to everything in the heavenly storehouses.  I am free because of him.  He gave this prisoner of anxiety and anger the gift of breaking those bonds and letting my heart know freedom and peace.

As I thought through these things and tears freely flowed, I was sitting and looking at my Christmas tree all lit up.  My eyes fell on the ornament with RJ’s name and the year he was born and my heart broke again for my baby.  Born with two holes in his heart, yet is strong and whole today.  I saw my “ugly Santa” ornament from Uganda and remembered the way God provided times of laughter and relief from the hardships of life in South Sudan with teammates that I loved completely.  The beautiful bulb of beads made in Bosnia that represented one of the many church families that have prayed us through the last 10 years of missions prep and work.  One after another I saw physical reminders of God’s provisions – and those were just some of the obvious ones!

This advent I encourage you to take time to notice.  Ann writes, “Worry is belief gone wrong because you don’t believe that God will get it right.  Peace is belief that exhales.  Because you believe that God’s provision is everywhere – like air.”  God always has a ram in the thicket, friends.

Now I’m off to paint a new sign for my home, as I have decided it needs to be announced that this place has a name – “The Lord Will Provide.”

Being Shaped

Several years ago as the we were spending some time in Savannah, GA we went to the beach most evenings.  Our family has discovered that summer sunsets on the beach are when we love to go the most.  Most of the crowds of people have gone to have dinner and do other evening activities, plus many times parking is free after a certain hour.  The weather is still beautiful and the water is nice. 

This time we were walking and looking for shells, and Anna found a whole clam.  It was washed up on shore and a pretty large size, and it was still intact.  The mouth was slightly open, and it obviously wasn’t alive anymore, so she added it to the pile of shells we found and we took it back to dry out.  Later, when we pried the top shell open, we found a surprise – a black pearl!  It was embedded in sand inside and attached to the shell,  We didn’t dare try to get it out for fear of damaging it, so we left it inside.  A few years later for Anna’s birthday we asked Shawn’s parents to take it to the jeweler (they had all our stuff in storage at their house) and see about getting it made into a ring. 

The jeweler was shocked and said they wouldn’t have believed we had actually found it that way if they hadn’t brought in the whole clam!  It is a very rare thing find one like that – especially the dark color.  The pearl was not a perfect shape – it is more oblong than round.  But it makes a very pretty ring and a special reminder of a fun treasure. 

This week as we have beach combed we found some fun shells.  The boys joked about finding a pearl, and we told them how rare it was that we ever found one at all.  As I was walking along the beach spending some time in prayer I thanked God for that gift so long ago that was still reminding me of his goodness. 

The ocean is a place where I find rest and restoration.  It puts my soul at ease.  Yet in the same vein I feel the power and vastness of it as the waves crash in and the tides change the way the beach looks any given moment.  If you’ve ever been caught in an undercurrent, you have probably felt the panic that comes from not knowing which was is up and having to surrender to trusting the water to push you back up as fast as it took you down. 

The ocean took sand and pushed it into the mouth of a very specific clam to make this shiny black pearl over time.  It has to be a certain type of clam to make a pearl, and even more specific to make a black one.  It takes time and the clam uses a defense mechanism to try to get rid of the pearl that gives it the shine.  There is nothing simple or random about any of it, yet over time a rare and beautiful thing (albeit imperfect when we found it) was formed. 

The last several years have been good in many ways, but they have also been some of the hardest as far as growing and changing me.  Many times I felt caught in that undercurrent and wondered if I would ever feel upright again let alone rooted and steadfast.  

However, as I was walking on the beach this week I was marveling at this profound sense of peace and contentment I have right now. I feel so thankful to be this place, but I have not known peace like this before, and I admit that it feels foreign to me.  It is strange, but it is changing my view of and reaction to so many things.  Instead of anxiety and chaos being the filter that I see through, I feel like I am often looking through a filter of peace and hope.  Sometimes I am not sure how to respond to this steadfastness that I feel deep in my soul right now.   I realize that I am being shaped and molded into something beautiful by the maker of the ocean  – both now in peace and before in the time of chaos.  The one who made the waters to churn and shape and move and (and some cases) destroy is the one who has made me and continues to make me more like him.  Sometimes it feels like chaos and is hard – like I can’t catch my breath and I might never breech the surface again, or like sand scratching the edges of a pearl and turning into something valuable.  Other times it is done in slow, steadfast ways where my feet feel firm on solid ground and my roots feel deep.  Both are purposeful and necessary to bring me to a likeness of him, and I am grateful for his great love for me.