deck the halls, deck your heart

Decking the halls is one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. We traditionally go the day after Thanksgiving to cut our tree down. We get it home and up in the stand, then take a break because we have usually experienced some thick marital tension build up in the process. (I’m waiting for someone to make an affordable alternative to the tree stands where you slowly screw into all sides of the tree.) Usually I tell Eric to go on a bike ride to release all of the stress that has built up just from trying to get the tree to sit straight, though this year was miraculously the easiest we have ever had it—probably the first year we haven’t argued or encountered some sort of disaster (like the year there was a hole in our tree stand and all the water leaked out for a week before we realized it was more than an unusually thirsty tree…). Later that night, we turn on Christmas music, decorate the tree, then watch a Christmas movie together.

But that’s just the tree decorating. For the next month, I slowly add more and more Christmas into our house. I love scavenging for evergreen branches to make wreaths and garlands. I light candles to enhance the evergreen smell in our home (hello Bath and Body Works’s Fresh Balsam), wrap presents in coordinating papers, string lights throughout the house, and anything else I can think of that will make our space cozy and Christmassy.

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I don’t do it all at once, because that’s part of the fun of December–part of the fun of anticipating the arrival of Christmas. Of course I know that decorations aren’t what Christmas is all about. But I have found that “decking the halls” for Christmas is one step in the direction of “decking my heart” for Christmas.

It’s easy to get caught up in places to go, activities to do, presents to buy, and food to bake during the month of December. And these are all fun things–I would argue, even spiritual things–as we enjoy the gifts of family and community. These sort of things add to the experience of the Christmas season and tune our hearts into the fact that there’s something different about this time of year.

But there is an even deeper way we can prepare our hearts in order to fully engage in the significance of the Advent season. I think of the line in “Joy to the World,” telling us to “let every heart / prepare him room.” It starts with some internal “house cleaning,” first being aware of the things that tend to distract us and draw us away from our longing for Christ. 

It’s been helpful for me each morning to sit quietly in the dark living room lit only by the lights from the tree, breathing deeply in between sips of coffee. I slowly acknowledge the places my heart feels anxious or distracted or tense, confessing these to the Lord and asking him to help me surrender those things to him.

Then throughout my day, I am trying to be aware of the moments when I feel stressed by plans, or perhaps distracted by new things I can put on my Christmas wish list, or obsessions over making something perfect. This continual awareness of my sin tendencies keeps me in a place of confession, because to be honest I am daily encountering the ways that I make the season about myself instead of about Christ. As I do this more and more, I am able to let go of expectations and selfishness, re-centering my heart in the Lord.

It’s not just about clearing things away, though. I’ve found that the second part of “decking my heart” is the anticipation and expectation of his presence. I am motivated to identify and remove my distractions because I believe that God will show up, and in “preparing him room” I find my desire for his presence grows.

You know how, when you are waiting for something, you are suddenly hyper-aware of anything that could indicate that it is coming? I ordered something online the other day, and on its scheduled delivery date, I found myself frequently thinking that I heard the UPS truck drive by, or that there was a thump outside the front door as if a package were being set down.

It’s as I pay attention that I am more likely to catch glimpses of God. Of course he shows himself to the unsuspecting, to those who aren’t looking for him. We can’t narrow down his ways to a pattern or formula. But I also believe that he shows up as we start to change our focus, as we move our eyes toward who he is and as we ask him to show us what he is doing.

And that anticipation, that looking that accompanies longing, is what Advent is all about.

I’m not sure where you are as we enter December, what you are experiencing or saddened by or longing for. I find that those things are all more tender during the holidays. I’m more aware of what’s going on inside me, and while this can mean that I am more quick to cry, I am also more receptive to the comfort of the Lord. Clearing space and paying attention helps me enter into the expectant waiting of the season, and my prayer is that throughout the month my heart would grow closer to his and that I would see him as the object and the fulfillment of all of my longings.

Some personal reflection questions I’ve been considering for myself:

  1. What in your heart’s “house” needs to be cleaned out to prepare him room? What about this next month adds stress or anxiety? What distractions do you find are continually present that prevent you from slowing down to spend time with the Lord? What materialistic tendencies are driving your desires related to Christmas?
  2. What spaces are you creating to look for him during this holiday season? Where can you quiet and still your body and your mind and your heart?
  3. What can you do to cultivate your desire for the Lord and your awareness of this season of Advent, identifying in the wait of Israel for salvation and our wait for the return of Christ? Are there specific passages or books or songs or places that draw your heart more deeply into him?

Previous Advent posts:

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tables in the wilderness

It’s a quiet, rainy morning here, and as I sit at our 8’ dining table sipping my coffee and watching the rain, I feel overwhelmed by God’s care in my life.

During the 7 months we lived in our little apartment, I used to dream about sitting at this table. Eric built it for me two years ago as a birthday/anniversary gift. It’s been scuffed up in its various moves, and there are some new cracks in the reclaimed wood surface, but to me those cracks just tell the story of our transitions and God’s provision, first in an apartment and a storage unit and now in a home where our table fits perfectly (something I was concerned about while we were looking for a house).

The image of a table speaks to me of abundance, of provision, of community and of deep conversation. So when I read Psalm 78, my heart clung to the picture the Psalmist presents of a table being “spread in the wilderness.” And as is usual when reading the Old Testament, while my initial reaction is to criticize the Israelites for their inconsistencies and lack of faith, I have to be careful not to criticize them too harshly–I often learn that I am much more like them than I realize.

In the sign of their fathers he performed wonders in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan. He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?” -Psalm 78:12-20

This question “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” has stuck with me.

When it looks like there is no hope, no source of nourishment, can he show up?
Can he provide, even in this place I don’t want to be?
Will he bless, even though I feel a lack?

The Israelites’ need for food was valid. I’m going to guess that there weren’t great hunting opportunities as the Israelites were in the Sinai desert–especially not enough game to feed that many people. However, we find in Exodus that the Israelites were crying out about water and food merely two chapters after the parting of the Red Sea. God had just miraculously parted a huge body of water, allowing them to pass on dry ground, then destroyed their enemies with that same body of water that crashed back together as soon as the last Israelite had stepped away.

Yet even though the Israelites didn’t believe, and even though they came to God from a position of entitlement and God was angry, he provided.

Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven…. And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved… In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe. -Psalm 78:21-24, 29, 32

This could have been such a gift–an incredible moment of seeing God provide–but the Israelites missed it.

Instead of praising God for how he had shown himself strong, they were consumed with their own selves, their fears and discomforts. They lost sight of what God was doing because they were concentrated on their lack. They set expectations of what they wanted instead of trusting what God was doing.

They were frustrated with the wilderness–but how much more beautiful is the picture of tables in the wilderness, if they would have only readjusted their focus!

To help me consider how I might be missing the gift of God’s hand, I have started by processing this question: What do I think God is withholding from me?

In answering thatwhether it’s a baby or guidance for a difficult decision or material things–I have seen that when I don’t get what I want, I doubt God. I doubt his goodness, his care, his willingness to work in my life, and I despair.

But perhaps I am so focused on getting out of the wilderness that I miss the beautiful things the Lord is doing while I am in the wilderness.

The Israelites had seen God provide in miraculous ways; they should have known that he would continue to take care of them. But instead of focusing on truth, on the reality of what God had done up to that point, they only looked at what was missing in front of them.

To help me see the table he has spread in my own experience of the wilderness, I’ve been asking the Lord to cultivate my heart in three areas.

1. Being aware of the attitude of my heart as I come to God with my requests

I don’t think the Israelites’ problem was asking God for food. I think the problem was the attitude with which they approached him: entitled, doubtful, frustrated.

My “why” can be asked out of curiosity or out of criticism. I regularly apologize to others (especially Eric) after saying something in the wrong tone of voice, unaware of the posture of my heart until I spoke that way. 

I believe we can come to God with our raw, honest requests, but our attitude can be accusatory or it can be humble as we seek understanding and answers. I am learning to talk to God not just about what I want, but to also ask God to readjust my perspective when I come to him, knowing my tendency to be frustrated with him because I think he is withholding from me.

2. Recognizing of who God is, regardless of my circumstances

I don’t want my circumstances to define how I view God. Instead, I want the truth of who God is to guide how I interpret my circumstances.

The Israelites’ perspective was on the wrong thing in the wilderness. They were hungry, so they assumed that God couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide. Later, they felt incapable of conquering enemies, so they thought God would abandon them.

I, too, find myself focusing on the wrong things, which leads to a wrong perspective of God. I can look at my lack and presume that God is not faithful, instead of looking to who God is and allowing the truth of his character to define what might feel like a deficiency but can be trusted to his provision.

Some of the things that steal my attention away from God, specifically as I have walked through infertility:
Uncertainty of the future–Will it always be like this?
Confusion on what God could doing–I’ve been on this path a long time. Has he forgotten me?
Entitlement–Isn’t he going to bless me for what I’ve endured?

There’s even a fear of what will change if he does bless us with a pregnancy. This is the space in which I have related to him for so long. How will our relationship be different? And how would that change the plans that Eric and I have made for ourselves?

But I am looking at the wrong thing. When my eyes shift from my circumstances to my Savior, all of those fears and concerns disappear. In light of who God is, my circumstances lose their preeminence. I want to believe that He is the best thing, not the gifts he gives.

“When I don’t see any physical evidence of being treasured, I remember that the best thing that could ever happen to me is being with Jesus.” -Heather Holleman

3. Expecting him to provide in abundance, but trusting the ways that he chooses to provide

God’s unique provision of water from a rock and manna falling from the sky was tangible proof of his care for them , but the Israelites missed out because they wanted something other than what God had deemed as good. They thought God’s goodness would take care of all of their problems, instead of trusting his sufficiency in the moment and thus his ability to provide in the future as well. 

How do I see this supposed lack as a gift? I feel raw, sensitive, weak, weary, and yet–God is providing. His provision looks different, as he has stripped away all of my plans, my desires, my control; my dependence can only be on him in the desert. But I seen him provide friends to confide in, other women to walk with through their own journeys, and a sweet depth in my marriage. I have seen him provide his presence and his comfort in ways I never would have otherwise needed. 

God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good. God’s refusals are always merciful–“severe mercies” at times but mercies all the same. God never denies us our heart’s desire except to give us something better. –Elisabeth Elliot

I am convinced that there is beauty in this season. I want to keep my eyes there instead of on what I think I am missing. I know there is a table of abundance in the wilderness, and it is at that table where God satisfies me with himself.

when you can’t unpack the boxes

When we moved to Conway a couple of years ago, we hit some snags with our housing. The contract on the house we planned to buy fell through two days before we moved. The owners were gracious enough to allow us to still move into the house and essentially rent it from them while they looked for a new buyer and we looked for a new house. This was a huge blessing, but it also meant that we lived out of boxes for about six weeks until we closed on a different house (which, praise the Lord, was the same weekend that the new buyers needed to move into our temporary house. And the new buyers became dear friends.).

I really struggled with feeling transient during those first weeks in Conway. I was working from home, we were trying to make friends and figure out how to make Conway ours, but it was really lonely, and I felt constantly out of control and unsettled. I didn’t know how to be okay with being in the process, how to accept a lack of permanence instead of trying to fix it.

It’s annoying to constantly be shoving boxes aside to find the one thing you need, knowing that it doesn’t make sense to unpack, but it also makes it more difficult to feel like you can settle into your new life.

If we had known our time in Conway would be as short as it was, I am sure we wouldn’t have bought a house. But, at the time, for me, renting felt like the worst thing in the world. All I wanted was a sense of permanence, stability, home. And buying a house where I could unpack the boxes was, I thought, the solution to that desire.

Nineteen months later, we found ourselves packing up boxes again and loading a Uhaul for our move back to Fayetteville. I still 100% believe that we made the right decision by moving to Conway, and I am so grateful for the opportunities Eric and I had to invest in our jobs and ministries while we were there, but I can also see that God was using that time for a specific purpose and a specific season. And, it’s funny, but while we did have the home ownership and the tangibly-settled state that I thought I was craving, our house seemed to be the only place where we quickly unpacked.

It really took a whole year for us to feel like we had started to figure out community, though there were still lots of relationships where we were in the process of “unpacking the boxes.” In both of our jobs, while we theoretically knew what we were doing, we both struggled to feel like there was a perspective for a long-term “fit.” We found ourselves still having to admit that we were adjusting, even though there was an established rhythm to life.

I discovered that my idea of what it meant to be home was inaccurate. I thought it was related to having a house that we could decorate and update and make our own. I thought that, as we hosted family events and small group Bible studies, we could build emotional and relational security into those 1800 square feet. And yet, with all of the things in place–jobs, people, activities–we still wrestled with the Lord and what he was doing with us in Conway.

The funny thing is, we are currently renting an apartment in Fayetteville. We went from 1800 square feet to less than 800, so more than half of our possessions are in boxes in storage. We literally cannot “unpack the boxes” because we don’t have anywhere to put the contents. I went to our unit the other day looking for the box containing my summer dressy sandals (there’s a pair of wedges I wanted to pull out) and my swimsuits–and the box is no where to be found. Most likely it’s somewhere in the gigantic stacks in the back corner, accessible only if we move a bunch of stuff out and deconstruct the perfectly balanced tower we built.

And yet–I feel at home. I may be slightly frustrated by the few select things I can’t find in our boxes (do we spend a Saturday totally reorganizing our storage unit, or is it worth it to just buy another pair of shoes?), but I’ve found a contentment in this season. I don’t feel the desperate need to find a house and settle in.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the difference is this time around. We do already have friends here, though we don’t have a consistent, go-to group. We’ve both had to adjust to new jobs, so it’s not that work has been carefree. But perhaps, there’s something the Lord worked in me during our time in Conway to prepare me for this season of being transient but stable.

And I think it’s just that–an understanding that there is a stability we can find even when life itself doesn’t feel stable, because our stability is not in our bank account or our schedule or our living situation.

I think I’ve learned to find peace in the process, being okay to not have everything in life sorted out–because, in all reality, we never will, and we often attempt to cling to some false form of control by trying to figure it all out.

One of my favorite worship songs is “Seasons Change” by United Pursuit. It has really simple, basic lyrics, and the repeated chorus states, “Though the seasons change / Your love remains / Your love remains.” And while this may be a really obvious statement, I find that I often need to remind myself of the obvious things, because all common sense tends to disappear when I am freaking out about something. I tend to obsess about how I just need one thing so that I am okay in life. And I have done this with a lot of different one things–whether it was answers to our infertility struggle, or a change in jobs, or being able to unpack the boxes, there have been many prayers where I have begged God to just answer this one request so that I can feel like life is manageable.

But God’s teaching me that there’s a sweetness to being content even when you can’t unpack the boxes. This might be literally, like us–accepting transition or letting go of being totally settled. It might be in relation to having something in life figured out, your career path or parenting or finances. It’s being in a state of having an uncertain future, a letting go of control, an admission to limitations. You know the season is going to be temporary, but you can’t skip it. And it’s in that season we begin to recognize that God’s love is the constant that we need more than anything else.

It will probably be another 9 months or so before we can begin to unpack all of our boxes, but I am developing an attitude of thankfulness for where we are now, even as I pray for God’s provision of where we will be unpacking in the future.

though a desert should surround me

It’s been three years since we made the decision to “just see what happened” in terms of starting a family. Many other things have also happened in our life during those three years–job promotions, house purchases, career changes, and a move, to name a few–but these three years have been most heavily saturated by our journey through infertility, a journey perhaps more obsessive in the beginning and now a more silent (yet constant) presence as time in the wilderness lengthens.

One of the hardest parts has been that there is always something else–always another test, always another procedure, always another option to consider. Then after you do some sort of test, there’s the wait for results, then the potential second test to confirm the first test, then the attempt of trying some sort of medicine, then scheduling a third test, and on and on. And once there are a few potential answers, there are then a plethora of opinions when it comes to natural remedies or supplements or prescriptions or procedures for more next steps.

Y’all, this could go on for years, and for many people it does. I think this is one of the reasons that couples are more reluctant to talk about it. Either because there’s always the hope of more information in a couple of months or the potential for it to change with this one procedure, so they don’t want to talk about it just yet; or they have talked about it and endured this continuous testing cycle and still don’t have a conclusion so they begin to feel like a broken record among their friends. There might be something new to report, but really there’s nothing new to report, because they still aren’t pregnant, so why bring it up?

I really don’t want “infertility” to define my life, but sometimes it’s hard to get away from.

There are many other areas of waiting or grief I am sure are similar–unwanted realities that feel so monumental you don’t know how to stop defining your life by them: The single adult who wants to be married but whose last relationship was so long ago that it doesn’t seem to “count” and who doesn’t even know how to hope. The continual burden of job-searching (combined either with unemployment or unhappiness in a present job) and the feeling of being stuck but unable to control your own motion. The grief in the loss of a loved one and uncertainty of how to manage life without that person, or how to process the loss of a child you never got to hold in your arms.

Even in seemingly-less monumental pain, we can find ourselves creating an identity pattern in our lives that has larger effects on how we view the world: the loneliness in a lack of friendships, or the regret of a wrong decision that you can’t let go of, or the comparison of your skills to everyone around you.

We allow our pain and disappointments to color the lenses through which we view the world. We label ourselves as “inferior” or “to be pitied.” We see these things as an injury that holds us back or a deformity we must learn to live with, and we allow them to taint our perspective (especially related to God).

But if I were to pinpoint one of the major things that I have learned as I have walked through these past few years, it would be the ways I have learned to find joy because of my pain, a perspective of gratitude for this season even though it’s not what I would have chosen. While there have been months where I certainly was not grateful, there have also been months I have considered it a privilege to be entrusted with such circumstances as I reflect on the intimacy I have gained with the Lord and the story I have been given to relate with and encourage others as they walk through their own pain (whether infertility or otherwise).

We are molded by our circumstances but also by our experience of God in those circumstances–for better or for worse. And much of that is our choice, how we will respond to our pain. Especially whether we will cling to the Lord or bitterly reject him for allowing this in our life.

As I encounter God in the wilderness, my perspective changes, impacting the way I will walk in the future.

I recently stumbled across the delightful book Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912), and I couldn’t put it down! It’s a story about an orphan girl whose college education is funded by a mysterious benefactor, to whom she writes letters to report on her college experience. Judy has only seen his back and his distorted shadow, which gave the appearance of long skinny legs and arms, hence her nickname for this guardian. Throughout the book, Judy is wrestling with her upbringing at the orphan asylum as compared to all of the other girls in their traditional homes with loving families. It isn’t until the end of the book–the end of her four years at college­–that she comes to appreciate her own story, even with the sadness of her circumstances:

It gives me a sort of vantage point from which to stand aside and look at life. Emerging full grown, I get a perspective on the world, that other people who have been brought up in the thick of things entirely lack. I know lots of girls (Julia, for instance) who never know that they are happy. They are so accustomed to the feeling that their senses are deadened to it; but as for me—I am perfectly sure every moment of my life that I am happy. And I’m going to keep on being, no matter what unpleasant things turn up. I’m going to regard them (even toothaches) as interesting experiences, and be glad to know what they feel like. ‘Whatever sky’s above me, I’ve a heart for any fate.’

I feel a lot like Judy Abbott. It’s taken me time to appreciate the vantage point I have been given. I may not be “perfectly sure” that I can always be happy, but I do feel confident I have the understanding that contentment–and the happiness we experience as a result–is not based on my circumstances or my possessions. Rather, like Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). My broken, selfish nature may at times keep me from finding strength in Christ, instead attempting to control or perform or succeed to gain what I want. But when I again (and again) lay my own plans down in surrender, I accept his will and find contentment in his purposes.

Not that any of this negates the reality of pain. Even my new friend Judy says that unpleasant things may turn up. But in the understanding of God’s love for us and thus his goodness being played out in our lives, we can face the unexpected and unwanted with a confidence that there’s something sweet to be gained. No longer must our pain define us negatively, but rather we can find the “vantage point” that it will give us going forward, confident that there is goodness below the surface.

At the end of the excerpt, Judy is quoting from Lord Byron’s poem “To Thomas Moore” when she writes, “Whatever sky’s above me, I’ve a heart for any fate.” The stanza following these two lines reads:

Though the ocean roar around me,
Yet it still shall bear me on;
Though a desert should surround me,
It hath springs that may be won.

Byron’s words remind me of what Charles Spurgeon so eloquently wrote: “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

The springs God has shown me in the desert of the last three years have held more refreshing water than any I might experience from a dependable faucet. So while the story of infertility will certainly continue to hold weight in my life, my hope is that my attitude toward my reality is shaped by the vantage point I am climbing toward as I more clearly see God’s presence in the story.

rejoicing while we wait

I didn’t know it was possible to experience such sweetness in the middle of the story, in the places without resolution or certainty. Yet the Christmas season seems to be the perfect place to wrestle with and settle into contentment in the tension.

In high school, I went on a mission trip to the Czech Republic with my youth group. I loved building relationships with friends from a different culture, and we would often talk about the ways we did things in America vs. Europe. A Czech student told me that one thing he had observed about Americans was how we always wanted happy endings. He referenced our Disney movies and talked about how the traditional fairy tales often had different endings, or at least went about in other ways to reach their conclusion.

His example was the ending of The Little Mermaid, as in the traditional story the Prince marries someone else (not Ursula in disguise–that plot twist was created by Disney) and Ariel becomes a spirit in the sky.

In college, as I was doing research for a lit analysis, I discovered that in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Cinderella, one of the stepsisters cuts off her big toe and the other cuts off part of her heel so that the slipper fits, and the trail of blood is what gives both of them away.

Neither of those examples made the Disney cut. And for good reason–children wouldn’t like it. Honestly, I wouldn’t like it. We typically want to see stories wrap up the way we expect, the way we want our own lives to settle up. There’s a happily-ever-after bow that we expect to be tied onto the end of our stories, and until that bow is there, we find ourselves feeling as if something is not right.

In one sense, this longing can remind us that the story is not over. But in another way, it can keep us from appreciating where we are at right now, as if we can’t be okay in the middle of the story if we don’t know the ending (or if the ending doesn’t look to be happy).

I notice this as people talk to us about our infertility. I am so grateful to have friends who are still praying for us to conceive and become parents. That is still the desire of our hearts. But that can sometimes feel like the only option, the thing we are waiting for in order to be happy, and before that happens, we have to be doing everything we can to get that happy ending.

When we are in a place of contentment despite this unfulfilled desire, I feel I have to defend why we aren’t continuing to take steps to try new things. Why we aren’t moving forward with procedures that can attempt to overcome the obstacles in our bodies. Why we aren’t ready to pursue adoption.

Our friends want that happy ending for us. I want that. But I am learning that it’s not as much about happy endings as it is being present in the story. As Americans–and especially as American Christians–we aren’t always good at this. It’s as if our faith adds a new dimension onto this perceived need to be happy, to be able to say “God is good!” no matter what. And he is. But in the familiarity of this, or in using it as a band-aid to hide our disappointment, we can sometimes miss the beauty of the tension found in our longing.

The traditional Christmas hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” captures this tension in a sad yet lovely way.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

This hymn is a realistic reminder that we are caught in a not-yet-fulfilled desire for Messiah’s return, just as the Jews in the Old Testament were waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah. This is what Advent is all about, a recognition of our wait and his promised coming.

And yet, in the middle of the wait, before the promise is fulfilled, the command from these lyrics is to rejoice because he is coming. There is hope in the wait, and the ability to rejoice while we the wait is prompted by a recognition of what’s lacking tied to the hope of its fulfillment.

It’s not an ignorance of what’s lacking, or even a forced decision that the lack really doesn’t matter that much so it shouldn’t keep us from rejoicing–both of which are temptations I have felt to help me cope in my own waiting seasons in life.

Instead, we acknowledge our need for Christ and rejoice as we wait for him because it has been promised that he is coming again. And I am experiencing God’s presence in the wait as I ask for even more of it. That’s what I find myself praying as I sing this hymn–“O come, God with us, and be with me as I wait for you.”

All of our lives we will live in some sort of unresolved tension. Happily ever after won’t fully come until Christ’s return. But that doesn’t mean that the rejoicing is on hold–in fact, that anticipation can make rejoicing now even sweeter.

I don’t know what your lack is right now. I don’t know what you find yourself waiting for or longing for. But I do know that all of our desires are met in Him (Psalm 10:17, Psalm 145:16, Isaiah 58:11), and in the middle of the wait, there is joy to be found because God is here and he is coming again.

“Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14)

understanding the peace that passes understanding

What does the word “peace” bring to mind when you hear it?

I picture a perfect fall day, leaves at the height of their brilliance and strewn across the walking path as I sit on a bench next to a creek, away from my phone and my to-do lists and the dog hair that always seems to pile up in the corners of my kitchen.

Maybe for you it’s a different place, a beach or a spa or a snow day.

Or maybe it’s less of a place and more of a season of life, having everything “figured out” and no problems to solve. One common association of this word (especially among mothers of young children) is a desire for “peace and quiet.”

But often, peace is not accompanied by the quiet. In fact, peace is most clearly found when everything around it is chaos and confusion and clutter.

I once read (I wish I could remember where) a description of a painting that displayed a great storm rolling in above a waterfall. You could imagine the crashing of the water and the shudder of the thunder, lightning flashing to illuminate the woods surrounding the river banks. In one corner of the painting, a small nest was tucked away among some limbs, and a bird was featured, fast asleep. The illustrator had titled the work, “Peace.”

So often, I find myself praying for peace, and what I am actually praying for is an ease in my circumstances. I am asking for God to make clear everything around that is confusing. I am asking for things to slow down, to be happier – to be, honestly, what I want them to be. I want resolution, and I typically think that peace is found within that resolution.

However, right now, I am learning to see my life as “at peace”–even though many of my struggles and prayers are yet unresolved. Over the past four or five months, I have discovered that the things that once felt painful or difficult, while they have not gone away, are no longer dominating my life. I don’t want to deny that life has more of an element of uncertainty than ever right now, because I think that’s the most beautiful part about this peace from God.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

The verses above provide two commands and a resulting promise. Don’t be anxious; instead, bring everything to God in prayer. If you do these things, you will experience this protective peace that passes understanding, which can only happen as you surrender those concerns to God.

The Message version provides a beautiful commentary on these verses:

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

God’s peace is not related to a calm in our circumstances. Peace does not occur when life slows down or eases up, but rather when things are hard and nothing about our circumstances are easy. That’s why it surpasses understanding.

Jesus spoke of this. He told his disciples that he was giving them peace but in the same breath warned them of difficulties ahead.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. –John 16:33

There’s something different about the peace that Jesus offers, something that is unlike what the world might expect.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. –John 14:27

Spurgeon wrote that in this peace, our “faith goes further than understanding, and the peace which the Christian enjoys is one which the worldling can not comprehend, and can not himself attain.” He illustrates the effects of this peace by writing:

When you have once felt it, when you can stand calm amid the bewildering cry, confident of victory, when you can sing in the midst of the storm, when you can smile when surrounded by adversity, and can trust your God, be your way never so rough, never so stormy; when you can always repose confidence in the wisdom and goodness of Jehovah, then it is you will have “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”

In my life, this peace has transformed the way I am walking through those days, as I approach them with surrender and gratitude. I am finding security as I let go of my concerns, looking not for resolution but instead for the presence of Christ. God’s goodness plays out not in prosperity but in his presence and his plans, which I trust are greater than my own.

I truly believe that the peace that God gives is most beautifully portrayed in our dark or difficult days, and in that sense, I am grateful to live in the tension of unresolved yet secure and guarded by Christ.

marriage letters: the fear of becoming bored

Dear Eric,

I went to bed early last night with a regular headache, and I woke up a little before 1 a.m. with the worst sharp headache that I have ever had. I stumbled into the kitchen to take a couple of Tylenol, and by the time I came back to bed, my head was throbbing.

You woke up and asked if everything was okay, and for the next 30-45 minutes you sat straight up in bed, stroked my hairline, and prayed over me as I tried to fall back asleep. Thankfully, the pain began to come and go, then eventually subsided to a normal headache as I fell back asleep. I don’t remember you laying back down, so I know you were awake longer than I was, praying over me and, I’m sure, trying to not worry.

It was one of the most tender moments in our almost six years of marriage, the way you cared for me and prayed for me. Did you know that, in the midst of miserable middle of the night pain, I fell in love with you a little more?

I used to worry that, if infertility lasted too long, we might get bored. Stagnant.

Not that I wouldn’t still love you, or that we wouldn’t be best friends, but that our marriage would not move forward to the next stage. That we would feel stale together. Every other marriage I observed and many of the couples we talked to described how their relationship changed when they had kids. It pushed them to learn so much more about God and themselves, and I guess I began to see that as the only way to learn those things.

In the past 6-8 months, though, I have started to experience the Lord pushing us to grow and changing us, even without the added factor of kids. Not just because we have had a lot going on in our lives, still adjusting to our move last summer and changes in seasons of work, but because I see that God is changing both of us.

If sanctification is a life-long process, I am realizing that means that we will always be changing, if we are individually walking with the Lord and allowing his Spirit to work in our lives. As we both wrestle with sin in our lives, as we continually allow our minds to be renewed and our lives to be transformed, as we take steps of faith and find ourselves in new circumstances–we will each grow. And we are growing even now as we trust God with where he has us today as well as where he will take us tomorrow.

Keeping our marriage healthy takes so much intentionality. It always has–even in the beginning, it required work on our part. But I think the reason it can almost feel harder now is it’s easier to co-exist without thinking about it, since we know each other so well. We aren’t still learning some of those everyday things that we learned our first few years married: what will unconsciously hurt the other person’s feelings, how to handle conflict, the best way to discuss finances, the need to communicate expectations. Not that we perfectly follow those now, but I typically know why what I said upset you or when to wait on bringing up a to-do list.

Yet I know that I don’t know everything about you–or, at least, I know I should never think that I do. I want to be a student of Eric Barnes. I want to see you as someone who is ever-changing and maturing, and it’s my privilege to walk alongside you and affirm you and call out the growth you may not see in yourself.

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The other night, we sat together in front of our fire pit in the backyard watching flames flicker and dance. In the quiet of the night, I prayed that God would help me to know you more deeply, to take the time to ask those intentional questions and to make space for us to engage each others’ hearts.

I’m excited for this season of our marriage as we continue to grow individually and together, no matter what changes (or lack of changes) are prompting that growth.

You’re my favorite.

Love, me.

 

I started writing marriage letters a couple of years ago to participate with a monthly blog series Amber Haines prompted others to join in with her. Writing these letters spoke affirmation into my marriage, and my prayer is that by still writing them and sharing them every so often, I will also encourage others to pursue intentionality and affirmation in their own marriages.