advent: hope in the darkness

This semester, I have been studying the book of Amos with the college girls I meet with at UCA. I really enjoy the Old Testament, so I was excited when they told me they wanted to pick one of the minor prophets for our discussions, since they were books they didn’t know much about.

I’m going to be honest, though. There were a couple of weeks where I was a little doubtful that this material was helpful for them. I mean, I 100% believe the entire Bible is inspired-by-God. I believe it is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). I believe that God’s Word does not return void – that it will accomplish His purposes for which He sends it (Isaiah 55:11).

But, all that to say, maybe Amos was just a little too far removed from our everyday lives. I mean, Amos is full of accusations of Israel’s sin and God’s impending judgment. The nation of Israel has continually rejected God’s attempts to get their attention, with famines, with droughts, with pestilence… in the midst of all of these devastations, “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6-11). God’s sovereignty is made known, but so is His wrath, and that’s a little uncomfortable (and not to mention depressing).

Things are dark for the nation of Israel in the first 8 and a half chapters… but that last half of chapter 9, the last few verses of the book, is the turning point of redemption and promise.

“Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the group, except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord… “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the Lord your God. (Amos 9:8, 14-15 emphasis mine).

When we sat down to discuss this passage this week, we all excitedly said the word FINALLY!

This promise of hope, which was partially fulfilled when the Israelites returned from exile and which will not fully be fulfilled until Jesus establishes His kingdom here on earth, snatches my breath away.

Hope shines most brightly in the darkness. By that, I mean that promises of coming redemption mean the most when you recognize your need for that redemption, when you have been waiting for something to change, when you need comfort that everything is going to be okay.

Hope is not something people generally talk about when everything in life is going fairly well – no one’s life is perfect, but in the seasons of calm, you can acknowledge that God has brought you to a place of rest; your hope feels fulfilled, and you aren’t looking towards what’s coming.

But when things are difficult, and you are tired of carrying your burdens, you need hope more than ever. You are desperate for the reassurance that God is still in control and God is still at work in your situation. You need something to cling to, a reminder that even if things are about to get darker, they will eventually get lighter again.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:2-3, 6)Version 2

Advent is upon us, and I am reminded not simply that Jesus came, but Jesus came as the fulfillment of a promise. He was the hope that the nation of Israel was clinging to, even if they didn’t know exactly Who or how that hope would be fulfilled. He told them in the beginning that Someone would come to crush the serpent (Genesis 3:15), that there would be victory, and Israel had to cling to the fact that God had not forgotten to be faithful.

The above passage in Isaiah is surrounded by prophecy of a coming invasion and the reasons the nation of Israel is facing judgment. Not even all of chapter 9 is a feel-good passage. But woven in-between the messages of the struggles ahead, God gives His people promise that He is still in control, and He is sending relief.

Hope becomes more valuable as you are immersed in desperate situations, places where your only option is to cling to God.

If you are walking in darkness (literally), you unconsciously strain your eyes in hopes of finding light. And as I walk through season of darkness metaphorically, I find I do the same thing, continually looking for something, anything that shows that there is purpose, or there is hope, or there is a relief ahead. I am eager to find that light.

This Advent season, I am reminded that Jesus is that light.

Not a relief from daily struggles. Not an answer to the uncertainty ahead. Not a change from unmet expectations. But Jesus Himself – He is the light in the midst of the darkness, and the more willing I am to acknowledge my desperate need, the more beautiful it is that He is the answer to that need.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

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finding adventure right here

The best word to describe that summer was adventure. And I feel like, ever since then, I have been chasing that same idea of adventure, aching to seek it out and make it a part of my daily life.

But maybe my original concept of adventure is wrong.

adventure is right here

The summer after my junior year of college, I took a road trip (and a ferry ride) to Juneau, Alaska with a group of college students from Fayetteville and other campuses around the US. After spending 5.5 days on the road together, we obviously became very close friends. I then spent 11 weeks with these friends in Juneau on a Cru Summer Mission trip, learning how to start spiritual conversations and share my faith within a work environment, volunteering within the local community, being developed individually and with the community of women, and of course hiking and camping and fishing and crabbing and kayaking and every other thing you would dream about doing while in Alaska. Every week, we were exploring different trails and learning new things and growing in our friendships. I grew personally and spiritually that summer more than any other period in my life up to that point, so this adventure showed me quick progress and a steep but short climb to a place where I could see the view from above of where I had once been.

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{girls + leaders before our first overnight hike}

 

The very first trail our group hiked in Alaska led up to a rustic cabin and fire pit. By rustic, I mean it was four walls and a roof… and that’s it. We rolled out our sleeping bags on the unfinished wood floor and used a portapotty about 100 yards away. Honestly, I preferred nature itself to that portapotty.

The hike leading up to the cabin was unlike any other hike I had previously been on. As we started the hike, I noticed that the “trail” was made up of flat boards which had been secured just slightly above the ground. I kept expecting them to end, leading us to an actual dirt trail, but the boards went on for a significant portion of the hike. Juneau has a very moist climate, and it rained probably 75% of the summer we were there, so these boards allowed us to hike on the trail without getting stuck in mud. As we got closer to the top, the ground dried out more and the trail continued on solid ground. The view changed from soggy woods to a sunny meadow, and I remember feeling like we were finally making progress.

Not that we weren’t making progress on the boards. It just felt discouraging after awhile, maybe less exciting since we were walking on man-made planks instead of a rural path. Mud and damp is rarely as fun on a hike as sun and grass and wildflowers and space to see the view.

But it made a difference that we knew where we were going and had confidence that the trail would bring us to a place where we could take off our packs, build a fire, and start roasting our hobo dinner packets.

I think I am now seeing that adventure in life often looks more like the time I spent board trail rather than the more daring sections of our other experiences. There have definitely been times when, calves burning and lungs heaving, I find myself crawling uphill, hoping for relief and a chance to take in the view. There are also moments of descent and moments of sliding down on my rear end. Right now, though, I feel like I am walking through the boggy section of a trail. The planks help me stay out of the muck, but the view isn’t too exciting. The destination seems a little uncertain, and I am not sure how adventurous it feels to be walking along boards over mud. I can see glimmers of sunshine and green growing things here and there, but overall this part of the trail is shaded and monotonous.

My friend Kaitlin recently wrote about a journal she received which boasted “Adventure is Right Here” on the cover, and she described how she is trying to live with that in mind. Her words prompted for me the realization that adventure isn’t ahead of us, like the hope of change in scenery or getting off the boards and onto the dirt. It’s not only found in something new happening or in taking a step of faith. Each day is part of the adventure. Instead of living by the phrase “Adventure is out there!” (via Disney’s “Up”), I want to daily soak in that adventure is right here. I want to change my approach to the boggy seasons of life, which to me are a necessary evil to take me to the adventure. I want to see this section as its own great journey.

I am not someone who enjoys consistency and predictability. I have told Eric that I am willing to move if he gets a job elsewhere simply because something new sounds more exciting than a season of monotony. I am finding myself chasing change. But if I live like adventure is right here, right now, then my mindset will be focused on each step of the journey instead of always waiting for the next big thing because each day is the next big thing. Each day, even if it feels very much like the day before, holds its own new discoveries and challenges and details. Maybe it’s only something seemingly small, like a different species of trees shading the path, but there is something new to explore and something else to be grateful for.

Because the journey itself is what makes reaching the destination so much sweeter.

bruised apples

I peeled apples this morning.

Fifteen small McIntosh apples one by one lost their red skin to reveal grainy flesh. Peel fell into the waiting trashcan in short, wide layers; I have yet to master Meg Ryan’s curly-q technique. Though a tedious task, these apples were bound for a purpose that kept me peeling — the promise of apple butter outweighed the monotonous work.

As layers disappeared, they unveiled hidden blemishes beneath shiny red skin. Brown scabs, bruises, and discolorations affected each one. These were not flaws of a bad apple – simply normal, just not noticeable from the outside. If you peeled away the layers of just one and compared it to the other shiny red ones which had not been peeled, you might think the one peeled apple was bad, that it was unhealthy and therefore useless.

Over the past few weeks, we have been focusing on some specific women’s issues with the girls in our ministry. We did an event called “Stand Up For Your Sister” during fall retreat, and just this past week we had a dessert and discussion on authentic community, bringing up topics like forgiveness and conflict resolution which seem to especially plague women’s friendships with each other.

And my hope and prayer through this is that girls stop comparing their flawed flesh with the shiny red skins of others.

Several girls have admitted to lying on their “Stand Up For Your Sister” survey because they thought they would be the only one who struggled with that issue: praise the Lord that they were able to visibly see that they are far from alone!

My hope is the same for you, whoever you are, reading these words. You know your own flaws and struggles and sins more thoroughly than anyone else in your life, so when you compare yourself to others, you normally compare your flaws to the assumed perfection of those around you. I know I so easily get discouraged at how often I fall and how far I still have to go, and I have a tendency to think no one else is experiencing loneliness or body image dissatisfaction or discontentment with their current life stage.

But the truth is, we are each flawed. We all have things we wish we could change or improve or resolve, but those things don’t make you any less valuable or worthy of love. You have been accepted by God, just as you are. He chose to save you when even you didn’t know about your bruises and blemishes. And He offers you a freedom that can only be found in Him.

 

this winter thing is getting old

y’all, it’s cold outside. unusually cold season for arkansas, i think. i am loving the randomly warm days, but it makes it even harder to go back to puffy coats and layers upon layers and the dread of driving while your heater warms up the car.

after christmas, i am always ready for spring. i have already worn my fun coats and hats and sweaters, and the weather is no longer romantic and christmassy. it’s just cold and gray and dead and dark.

i’ve been thinking a lot about longings lately. the way i long for spring at this time each year (today is considered the most depressing day of the year, after all) – for bike rides and picnics in the park and shorts and open porch doors. the way i am longing for consistent community. the way we are longing for financial stability and the ability to put money towards savings and paying more than the minimum amount on student loan payments. the way i am longing for us to be “fully-funded” and working on the college campus full-time with the ministry we are joining.

but the reality is, it’s winter, and cold, and not close to being over. it takes time to build relationships and invest in making those deep. the Lord is meeting our financial as well as our fundraising needs and I have no reason to complain, even if i’m not where i ultimately want to be.

but the longings i have are not inherently bad things.

so i am trying to figure out how to rest in reality while still looking forward to what is next.

paul the apostle dealt with this tension (though his desires might be a little more God-focused than mine) in philippians 1

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (vv 21-24)

maybe part of the solution is found in verse 22 – what does it mean to be in the present? what purpose do i see in the current realities? 

winter is necessary to produce spring.
we are trusting God for our daily bread and not living in an earthly security.
a season of uncertainty about the timing of the future produces more of a dependence on God’s sovereignty and knowledge.

God not only knows that i am here, but He has planned for me to be here. He led me here.  and i want to rest in that.

but longings aren’t bad, as long as they are kept in perspective of submitting to God, right? so where does the balance come in? how do you find contentment now and joy in the longing of what is to come but hasn’t yet?

how do you handle that tension?

it’s the thrill of the {moment before the} fight

there is something exhilarating about the moment you realize you are headed into battle.

like in middle school, when we would play capture the flag – those few seconds right before the whistle blew, when we were each planning our strategies and eyeing the other team and anticipating the yell to “charge!”

like in high school, right before basketball games – we would be standing in a line at the entrance to the gym, and the first notes of “eye of the tiger” would play, signaling us to run out on the court for our warm-up routines. i still can’t hear that song without feeling adrenaline rush through my system.

like in my first year of marriage – i got home from work, found eric on the porch, and heard him say that he had been let go from his job. i still look back and claim that as one of my favorite moments of our first year together.

you know something is about to happen. you are bracing yourself for the worst but hoping for the best. you don’t have clear expectations, but you know there will be both victory and defeat. and – as in the last example – you know that you have no choice but to move forward and trust that God knows what He is doing.

it’s moments like that when i have to surrender to the sovereignty of God. i can clench my fists and grip my planner and say, ‘this isn’t what i had in mind,’ but it won’t change the circumstances. it won’t change the plans God has for my sanctification and for His glory – despite what the enemy says.

because we do have an enemy in the battle.

i never want to give the enemy too much credit, as he is not necessarily the one who has instigated the battle. but i never want to underestimate him, because i know he will use the battle as a catalyst for his plot to destroy the kingdom of God.

satan wants to get in the last word when it comes to who God is and what He is doing. he wants to tell us that ‘God is not loving’ and ‘God is not worth fighting for’ and ‘God is not really on your side.’ he wants to wear us down with lies to exhaust us and remove us from being effective in the fight.

the good news is, our God has already won the battle. we have no need to fear – we are called to press on. to counter the enemy’s attack attempts with truth. to move forward in faith that God is taking care of everything. to hold fast to Him.

i am not afraid of the battles to come. i am not strong on my own, but i serve a victorious God, and i will rejoice in that moment before the battle begins, because it is a new opportunity to see what He can do.

and, especially in marriage, i will rejoice that i am fighting the battle with my husband by my side. there’s something romantic and empowering about being in it together, and it gives me continued confidence that the Lord knew what He was doing when He joined eric and i. not only to fight for each other, but to fight together.

so if you find me dancing around to survivor and practicing punches in the air, don’t be alarmed – i am in that moment before the battle begins, and i am preparing to fight.

the near but not yet

evening dawns earlier each night as cool air moves in and fills the crevices in our doors and windows.

you might not know it when running errands mid-afternoon, sweat dripping along your back and sticking flyaway hair to your forehead, but seasonal change nears. it’s as if the stars still awake in early morning are whispering, “fall is close.”

creation clues us to what is ahead. if only i caught such clues for myself.

sometimes, in the midst of high heat indexes and brittle grass, I wish for change to happen more quickly than the process plans for. I wish for something other than the sweltering summer-

though just a few months prior to that wish, I was shivering, craving the very thing I am now wanting to escape.

never content never made for a rested soul, and i am weary from longing for what is further down this path.

“you have made us for yourself, o lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” -st. augustine

the dreaded question – and the evidence of an intentionally-woven story

If you could do anything – have any job – what would it be?

I used to hate that question. In college, the answer was always, “I want to be on staff with Cru and do college ministry. Forever and ever.” Then, the Lord changed those plans two months before graduation. And for the past 18 months, I have felt burned by that.

I didn’t necessarily have a good reason for declining my acceptance to the internship program. There wasn’t some major dream job I wanted to pursue instead. That was my dream. And I felt like the Lord moved me away from it for no reason.

I was never bitter at God, but I was confused.

And for the past 18 months, I had no clue how to answer the previously stated question. I felt guilty saying that I wanted to do women’s ministry, since I had the chance and gave it up.

 

>>I actually wrote the above back in September – almost eight months ago – and never finished that thought. I was recently cleaning out my drafts, found this partially-written post, and was struck with amazement at God’s sense of irony and His perfect timing. The original motivation for posting this was a conversation Eric and I had while taking a drive one night. I was upset about the job I was working then, but beyond that, I was frustrated that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. We had just decided that seminary was not the right decision for us, and I was feeling completely lost as far as my purpose and my dreams. Eric asked me that dreaded question – if you could do anything, what would be it be – and for the first time, I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. I said something along the lines of wanting to invest in the lives of other women, talking about Jesus and life and challenging them in their spiritual walks. To see baby believers and apathetic Christians come to a place where they are passionate for the Lord and consistently growing to a spiritual maturity.

God’s power in writing a story is just incredible. Two and a half months after that conversation, I started a new job, which also allowed me to see the possibility of change in my life. And as great as my experience has been at this job for five months, the Lord is calling me to something else. And it is to spend the full-time “working hours” of my week investing in women as we talk about Jesus and college and life, and how to catch the vision for what God is doing on their college campus. I am so excited to join staff with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and see what God has prepared for this next phase of life!   Everything has come full-circle, and I am so thankful for the path the Lord laid out.

An e-mail containing my resignation notice was sent out this past week at work, and a lump caught in my throat as I stared at it.

This is really happening.