what the sea teaches

An unusually cool breeze drifts across the patio, and I find myself pausing to observe the world around me, Nickel Creek strumming their way through my headphones to provide soundtrack songs for this July morning.

Just a couple of hours ago, an intense feeling of loneliness and discouragement came out of nowhere and seized my heart. I started scrolling through my Instagram feed, just to see what has happened in the past 10 hours (during most of which the world was asleep), and as I put down my phone I felt left out. I suppose people I love are scattered over lots of places right now, and when I am not with them or even just not doing my own exciting thing, I somehow feel like my life is less. Even though just six weeks ago I was the one posting images and statuses from my own adventures.

Cyclists and joggers pass me on the bike trail. Murmurings of business meetings and friends catching up over coffee surround me, and my eyes move from people-watching to the dance of the tree branches above me. Words from Anne Morrow Lindbergh marinade internally, slowly finding their way into my own life.

     And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense–no–but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channelled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.

But it must not be sought for or–heaven forbid!–dug for. No, no dredging of the sea-bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach– waiting for a gift from the sea.

I confess – I like the digging. I like the feeling of tired hands and dirty nails, the things that prove that I worked hard to earn a reward. I am high performance and crave A+ papers and gold stars and pats on the back.

So quickly, though, I find myself exhausted. I am digging for significance, for meaning, for a sense of community in my daily life, and while I like the control of being able to earn my way, it’s not life-giving. I feel like I am digging and proving I am good at digging, but at the end of the day the things I have to show for my efforts are burnout, unmet expectations, never enough.

Being able to receive the gift from the sea requires one to just be present at the shore, to set up a chair or a towel and lather on sunscreen and just watch for what washes up at your feet. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches.

Isn’t that the beauty of a gift, that it is freely given, that you don’t work to earn what someone wants to place in your hands? Isn’t the concept of a gift where we get our understanding of grace? Isn’t there a certain joy in discovering a gift, a joy that cannot be found in the working for it? 

As I processed my digging efforts, I realized I needed to get rid of the spades and buckets I have been using to dig. I temporarily removed Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter apps from my phone. Not because I am super spiritual, as I often feel others are when they make that choice, but because I am not disciplined enough to leave those digging tools just sitting in the sand next to me, and playing on my phone is where it normally starts. I will need them soon when school starts up and college students are back in town, but for the next three weeks, I am going to be present. I am going to sit at the shore and enjoy the salty sting of waves against bare feet, the warmth of rays, the grit of sand. I want to have face to face conversations to hear about friends’ travels, and I want to have phone conversations with those long-distance. I want to spend my evenings reading books, not comparing the activities of my day to others’ own. I want to see my life not through a filtered image with a picture that has been perfectly staged, but through the daily grind of boring and basic but beautiful.

The ever-wise Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “We accept and thank God for what is given, not allowing the not-given to spoil it.” Today, my place to offer thanks is a quiet, uneventful one. But if the trees can dance despite their roots keeping them stuck in one spot, I can too.

So while I write this from the landlocked Ozarks, I am learning what the sea teaches. No dredging of the sea-bottom here. Patience, patience, patience. Patience and faith.

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the breaking and the clean up

Thunder’s growl begins to fade as I settle in against the pillows on my bed. The desire to settle in among blankets and drink a cup of hot tea is rare in Arkansas summers, but our air conditioning has tricked me into thinking this weather is “cozy.” I know I will feel differently tomorrow when all that moisture is hanging around in the air, wrapping me in its unwelcome embrace, but for right now this moment finds me content.

A welcome change from the past couple of days.

With my staff team on Cru’s Summer Missions project in Juneau, AK, we did a staff development lesson on StrengthsFinder, and I was surprised that one of my top five was “responsibility.” Not that I think I mishandle responsibility, but it surprised me that it was so high on the list. However, as I look back at this week, I see how it fits in.

Your Responsibility theme forces you to take psychological ownership for anything you commit to, and whether large or small, you feel emotionally bound to follow it through to completion.

So that explains my tears yesterday afternoon, the overwhelming feelings of anxiousness, the slow deep breaths I am forcing myself to take. I over-committed myself on responsibilities and freaked when I wasn’t accomplishing them all – even though all of the responsibilities were things I promised only to myself. No one else expected me to complete my list of tasks this week, not even Eric, who has been out of town but encouraging me to take things more slowly this summer.

Yet the dishes filled the sink, the laundry taunted me from its dirty pile in our closet, and the stack of things needed to still be hung on the walls kept popping up in my mind. That little red icon on my phone reminded me that I had several unread e-mails, and a desire to write more and read more this week were unfulfilled.

I hung a shelf in our bedroom today – a cheap one from Target, one of those “floating shelves” that looks so easy to hang thanks to brackets and grooves and several screws. I found Eric’s level and carefully measured, double-checking before setting screws in drywall. I went to attach the shelf to the wall, laid the level on, and found that it was still straight! Rejoicing, I sorted through unused decorations and decided on a frame holding our wedding vows and a pretty candle. It seemed like it needed one more object, though, so I grabbed my copy of Gone With The Wind as the final touch… and that’s when the whole thing tumped over. The crash coincided with a clap of thunder as glass from the frame shot everywhere, and I couldn’t help but regret that one last addition.

I think that’s my tendency too often – to want to add one more thing. Maybe not even just want, but to have this crazy urge to have to add one more thing. Then I can’t handle everything, so it’s not just the last task that falls but it’s everything because I can’t bear all of the weight.

I think I have felt like more of a failure working from home than I did when I worked 40 hours a week outside of the home. When I was gone all day, I found myself not caring so much whether the dishes were promptly cleaned and put away. I didn’t expect that dinner would be ready by 6 p.m., and I understood that laundry would most likely only happen on weekends. But now that I create my own schedule and manage myself in a sense, I think I should be able to do it all. I put this enormous sense of pressure on myself to do it all and to “earn” the right to continue to work from home, because I do love the flexibility of my schedule and the opportunities I have been given this summer.

Yet I don’t want to get into a habit of prioritizing efficiency over effectiveness. I don’t want the measure of success to be how much I accomplished in a day so I have to limit my time building relationships with people or investing in my personal walk with the Lord. I want to be present in the day and ready to make changes to my plans when good things come up – or when bad things come up and the Lord is telling me to practice surrender and practice rest in Him because of who He is, not because of how I have earned His rest.

Truth be told, none of us can earn His rest. It’s a gift, and I want to stop looking at my life as something to achieve and conquer. I want to be grateful for the responsibilities He has given me and not see how I can push my limit of what I can balance, each time competing with myself to add more and more to my load.

The shelf was fine with just the two items, and now I have to sweep and start over. Thank goodness the shelf didn’t break.

a goodbye and a blessing for this house

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To the tenants who will occupy our sweet home once we move:

Welcome to a blessed space. 

We prayed for God’s provision when we were looking for somewhere to live once we got married, and this home was the result of those prayers. We then prayed we could use this house to be a blessing to those in our life, that it would be a place of peace and rest and warmth. It has been a refuge for us during harder days, and an oasis for us when the honeysuckle is blooming and it’s hard to not be happy.

I will miss the creaky wood floors in the hallway – and trying to remember which spots to avoid as I tiptoed to the kitchen in the mornings while Eric was still sleeping.

I will miss cooking on that fantastic gas stove – the house may be old, but the stove is new, and I don’t know how I am going to go back to cooking on an electric stove after being spoiled here.

That screened in porch with double french doors is the crowning glory of the house. Please tell me you will refrain from using AC in the spring and fall, keeping the doors wide open to fill the home with fresh air. The twinkle lights are coming with us, but an easy thing to replace. It’s one of the cutest things about this Sycamore house.

The natural light in that living room is everything. Swoon.

This home is where we learned how to do marriage, how to do life together. We moved in exhausted from wedding planning and a late night drive back from the Memphis airport after our honeymoon. To be honest, I woke up the next morning and cried in the kitchen, not feeling like I was “home” yet. Blank walls and rooms full of boxes didn’t help, and it took a couple of months to settle in. Figuring out how to decorate this space actually took a couple of years as I discovered both my style and the house’s style. You may not have realized yet that homes have their own style that you have to compromise with. There is a unique way to combine your preferences with the things you can’t change, dealing with the sense that something isn’t quite right in that spot.

We battled through multiple instances of one income in this home. God always provides.

We hosted lots of parties and dinners here – the small space creates a sense of coziness that larger homes just won’t. Don’t be afraid to fill the home past the capacity you assume it has; rub shoulders with friends and pull out camping chairs and invade personal space. And don’t be too polite to allow guests to help with dishes after all is eaten and enjoyed. Without a dishwasher, you are going to want the help, and it creates a deeper sense of friendship between people when you let them in to the gunk and the grime of your life (both literally and metaphorically).

Speaking of doing dishes, find ways to enjoy that time with your spouse. See it as a chance for quality time and conversation about the day. So often, Eric and I found ourselves complaining when we didn’t maintain the sink and found ourselves with 45 minutes of soapy work to do. Yet there were some sweet moments at the sink, too. Moments when I saw a husband who wanted to serve me despite that service involving a dreadful chore. Unexpected conversations about life and about us. Eric loved me well through dish washing.

{I do suggest investing in a good pair of rubber gloves, though, or your hands will be dry and raw before winter even starts.}

This house was our refuge during seasons of unemployment and seasons of loneliness and seasons of confusion about how to be a 20-something. It was here we curled up on the couch and cried, prayed, fought – together.

We pray this home will bless you the way it blessed us. And don’t mind me if I drive past every so often, just to whisper thanks for the things started here that will continue their story across town.

in-between

Thunder sounds a warning and the skies deepen their gray hue. A panic-stricken pup becomes my shadow as I walk through the house, boxes in hand. I turn on the ceiling light in the bedroom, then turn it off again. Lamplight always feels more appropriate in the approaching of a storm. I pull things from high closet shelves, things I once decided I wouldn’t need, haphazardly threw up there, hoped didn’t tumble back down. “The Stable Song” plays on repeat – it’s the song I find myself subconsciously humming throughout the day. Fabric and clothes with holes I once promised to repair are stacked neatly into boxes, and decorations are taken off the wall to be packed on top, sealed with a layer of packing tape.

We’re moving.

Just across town, to an inviting house with a front porch and oddly enough a front door the same shade of green we painted ours last summer. A neighborhood with good sidewalks and the promise of many summer night walks and talks with Ridley and Eric and friends who live nearby. It’s a starter house, not a dream house, but a starter house carrying the excitement and anticipation of what the next season of our life will look like as homeowners.

And while I expected the sadness that comes with leaving a home that has been woven through the past three and a half years of your life stories, I didn’t expect this in-between emotion. The sense of walking in the front door and not quite feeling at home, but not sure where to go to feel that way. The evenings of staring at empty bookshelves (never have I ever had a problem with not enough books or having to leave shelves empty) and walls with missing pictures. And maybe it is a blessing, to be allowed to slowly detach from this home, but I feel in-between, and I don’t like it.

I could easily take these sentiments and apply them to spiritual things like how this world is not our home and we were meant for another world and all the things that CS Lewis beautifully describes in some famous quotes. But right now, I think my heart just wants to walk through the process of being in-between yet finding rest here. We still have another two weeks in this house, and the amount of boxes stacked along walls and in the basement will continue to increase each day. Then we will move, and once again I expect to feel in-between for a couple of weeks until we get things unpacked and settled again.

Yet there must be rest in-between.

stopping to speak “grace”

After three days of sunshine and sixty to seventy degree weather, this rainy morning feels like a let-down. The temperature has dropped back down to the fifties, and I feel confined to the couch again. My plans to go to a coffee shop with my laptop and my Bible were foiled by an intense downpour just as I was putting on my rain jacket. Our border collie looking at me with sad eyes just begging to snuggle didn’t help, either, so I stripped off the jacket and settled back in to listen to the rain.

This week has been full. More so than normal weeks of work. I normally get gaps in my schedule here and there to get things done around the house or sit at a table on campus and catch up on texts and e-mails while waiting for the next appointment. Each spare moment has been filled with various work-related projects, cramming as much as possible into this week before spring break.

Yesterday, I felt myself at the epitome of desperate and shameless. In my thirty minute break between addressing invitations for our fundraising dinner and helping facilitate a class on how to lead a Bible study, I grabbed Slim’s to-go, arrived to the locked classroom early, and sat on the cold tile floor in the hallway. I crammed potato salad into my mouth and halfway glanced up at the students walking past me trying to hide their grins. It was my first moment since my day had started to simply sit and stare.

My nature is not to be anxious about what’s going on in my life. While I have many other sin-patterns and struggles, anxiety hasn’t been a prevalent one in my story. However, over the past couple of weeks, I have started to experience moments of panic. People have described it to me as a weight sitting on top of their chest, and I understand that metaphor now. When I try to take in all that will happen (or needs to happen) over the next two months or so, I feel that heaviness slowly creeping in and wanting to take over.

And the thing I am tracing it back to is a sense of carrying full responsibility for everything going on in my life — therefore negating God at work. I carry the weight that “if I don’t get this done right now, then xyz won’t happen and everything will fall apart.” As if God’s provision were dependent on my performance. I think that I have to get all of the details of my life together now so that I will survive April. As if God can’t sustain me day by day. I worry that I don’t initiate with friends enough and they will therefore stop being my friend because I forgot to text them to check in on their week.  As if even my friendships are dependent on my personal efforts and not God using people to be tangible examples of His love. As if He isn’t the One Who provided community in the first place.

I have started a new habit of stopping to close my eyes and repeat “grace” to myself in those moments. A verbal reminder that it’s not all up to me. A powerful whisper that cuts down my pride of self-sufficiency. I once heard someone say that maturing in your walk with God does not mean that you mess up less and less, so that you need less grace. Rather, spiritual maturity is consistently growing to recognize your need for grace more and more.

Our salvation is “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Shouldn’t that mean that we live in that same “by grace, through faith” mentality in the everyday pieces of our lives?

In the moments when your schedule feels hectic and you aren’t sure how you will get it all done – grace.
When you are working against a deadline and worry about the results of not meeting it – grace.
As patience wears thin and your shoulder muscles start to tighten – grace.
In loneliness and fear and panic and dread and uncertainty – grace.

When you feel overwhelmed, try stopping to close your eyes and just speak the word grace over yourself and your activities. Take the focus off you and your own abilities, reminding yourself of your place in God’s grand story. He is still God. He is still both the narrator and the hero of the story. He is still the one in control, and in the role He has given to us, we are called to embrace grace.

At the end of each day, even every hour,  I will release everything and trust it to His care. I am not enough, but Christ is more than enough.  Whisper to yourself, “Grace.” 

blessed, not busy

I, along with the rest of Northwest Arkansas, have been hiding away under blankets this morning waiting for this predicted winter storm to attack. Denison Witmer croons in the background as my soundtrack for this rainy, sleet-y morning, frequently accompanied by the tea kettle’s whistle.

My rainy-day-Denison-Witmer tradition started freshman year of college when a friend introduced me to his music. Rainy mornings then actually looked a lot like this one — curled up under blankets with blog posts dribbling off my fingertips. I have always found rain slows my mind and focuses my thoughts. I had the bed next to the window both years I lived in on-campus dorms, and the cold marble windowsill would hold my laptop as I propped myself against pillows and daydreamed words into prose.

The tapping on the windows tells me that the rain has transitioned to pellets of ice. Our neighbors’ roof shows signs of those pellets being knit together into a blanket of white over shingles of gray. Traffic slows to an almost non-existence in front of our home, and I am reminded of the power of weather to slow the world around me.

And not just the world, but me, too. It is the instrument God uses to slow my heart, my time, my plans.

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I find myself constantly restless when things slow down. I fidget like a child getting her hair cut, knowing to sit still but shifting weight and itching her nose after each snip of the scissors across bangs. The only way I could get my nine year old self to stop fidgeting was to tell myself that I wanted to be the best at sitting still for a haircut. But in the world now, I find myself thinking that being the best means being the busiest. And I wonder if it’s not just me, but our culture that feels that way?

We wear our busyness like a badge, bragging about the various things we fill our time with or the major life change we are in. We give ourselves brownie points for managing to have a 10 minute quiet time because, given how busy we are, that sacrifice of time must mean we are super spiritual. We define ourselves and our worth by the quantity of how we invest our time, not the quality. I wonder if we are so afraid of erring in being lazy that we overcompensate to prove to ourselves and to others that we are valuable in one way or another.

On this slow morning, as the sleet falls outside my window and the world halts, I want to embrace not being busy. I want to notice the crackle of winter and the hum of our heater. I want to pour another cup of tea and savor the smell of spicy cinnamon. I want to intentionally thank God for all of the things that make me busy, learning to communicate less that I am “busy” and more that I am “blessed.”

The sleet has transitioned to quietly flurrying snow, and I pray that my heart embraces this mid-week hush.

a letter for a discontented heart

Dear Friend,

I know your discontented and weary heart far too well. You are hoping to find peace in the present, yet also longing to find something new. This tension between the now and the not yet seems to be a constant tug — whether related to romance or friendships or family or merely the concept of “moving forward.” Stagnation is a dreaded state, yet the difference between stagnation and simply staying is hard to decipher.

The definition of stagnant – “showing no activity; dull and sluggish.” Of stagnation -“the state of being still, or not moving, like a sitting puddle of water where stagnation attracts mosquitoes.” Ick. While stay‘s definition “to remain in the same place” may seem similar, there comes with the idea of staying an idea of some purpose behind the staying.

Yet the staying leads to restlessness. Those of us who enjoy variety don’t want to always be looking at the same scenery. There’s a reluctancy I see to remaining in a waiting room. The waiting room exists because you came for something else. You aren’t there to look at outdated copies of People magazine or to watch mothers soothe fidgety children. Yet once your name is called, your shoes are off, and your weight is checked, you always find yourself in waiting in a new room. The cycle doesn’t end; there’s always something else. Even once you leave the office and wait for results. If you aren’t careful, you will always feel like you are waiting, and that’s no way to walk through this one wild and precious life.

You may not yet know the purpose yet behind this season, but that’s where you are. Jim Elliot wrote, “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” Your focus, restless friend, is to be all there. To figure out what it means to “live to the hilt” in your current circumstances, not daydream how to do so when your circumstances change.

Make small changes. Find newness in the now – things like removing the headboard of your bed to let light stream freely from that window. Use Pinterest for ideas to make what you have work, not to look for new things to buy or plan or long for. 

You talk about being content to rent – are you content to live? to be? to wait? We’ve been over this: life is not a waiting room. Adventure is right here. Stop talking so much about the future. Talk more about right now. Wherever you are.

Hold fast.
Hold still.
Hold now.

Because, eventually, things will change. You won’t get these moments back, but will have new moments given to you to savor. Once you get there, be all there. Before you get there, be all here. 

Fondly yet sternly,
Yourself.

new light from a once-blocked window
new light from a once-blocked window