Seeing through the storm

“Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!'” (Matthew 14:29-30)

I have been in a storm.

This is my busiest season in a life that is almost consistently busy. I know that our culture bristles at that word, and I agree that busy should never be for busy’s sake, but also–life is busy. It is full and abundant and I struggle sometimes to understand how I am called to be at rest when I’m also called to so many ministries.

I believe it is, in part, a matter of perspective.

We read the story of Peter and see his faltering faith, but I think of the storm. I imagine the biting coldness of the rain, the bowl-me-over buffeting of the wind. Throw in some hail piercing my skin and thunder rolling above. In that howling darkness, the water quaking under my feet, I feel myself drawing inward, curling against the tempest.

Then I feel myself sink.

Peter’s problem was not the storm, though our earthly bodies tell us opposite. The problem is that we believe our bodies, and our gaze follows.

Yes, if your life is less busy, the storm will be less distracting. But I’m tired of feeling stuck because “less busy” is not an option. Trust me–I’ve asked. So there must be another answer, because God would not lay out the storm-focus-faith scenario if the answer to Peter was “You should have stayed in the boat.”

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Outward, there are storms; inward, God renews us “day by day.” Little bits, long term. We get there by looking upward, lifting our eyes even as the storm rages harder on our upturned faces, and looking past the storm to the Father with His outstretched hands, the Son with His warm embrace, the Holy Spirit with His inward renewal.

Every day.

I know that seems relentless, tiresome, or impossible–day by day, forever?  But you know that phrase, “no pain no gain.” What exactly do you think gains eternal glory? It’s certainly not sitting in a boat.

So my question is, what do you need to look past, and how can you look to the eternal instead? It may not change the storm, but by God’s blessing it will change this day.

Saving Grace

Meet Grace.

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Don’t get attached. Grace only stayed for the weekend.

I’ve missed our cats for a long time, even to the detriment of our garden. The kids have been asking for a pet for almost as long. We went through several options–rat, guinea pig, bunny, bird, dog–before deciding that the pet we could all agree on, the pet who belonged in our lives, was a cat. Even B was willing to put up with allergies for her presence (I married a very good man).

So we adopted Grace. She was, I kid you not, the sweetest cat I’ve ever met. Loved to play, but also loved to cuddle. Adored people–she’d purr as soon as she was picked up.

Trouble was, that love was not quite reciprocal.

The kids admitted she was cute. And sweet. And perfect. But she freaked them out. K could not come through a room if Grace was within ten feet. Neither child would sit on a couch if Grace was out. They’d perch on their barstools and try to read or watch tv, all the while swiveling in place to keep eyes on the monster beneath.

The monster weighed just under three pounds, mind you.

B was allergic, as anticipated. And the kids were downright frightened. Everyone looked to me, the affirmed cat lover, for guidance.

I had nothing.

Sure, Grace was lovely. But from the second we brought this bundle of joy home, I had a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach: this is too much.

I’m so glad Grace wasn’t a person.

Lately, after a season of rest, God has been piling on the commitments, the callings on my heart, the desires to do. Every time I face another opportunity, I pray: Is this what you want for me? Is this too much?

The answer has always been a perplexing no, even when I’m sure it should be too much. God is heaping my plate and I’m still trying to tackle it fully and cheerfully without questioning the how or why.

Until now.

Because I had wanted this for so long. Because I prayed and prayed and prayed about this. Because we spent a gob of money adopting a cat. A picture perfect cat.

I’ll confess, it went through my thoughts more than once: Really, God? Really?

But as I prayed through, I realized the blessing of this experience. For one, I was able to recognize enough. I can trust in my connection to God more completely now, having known immediately when yes was the wrong answer.

I also have closure on my feelings of remorse over losing our first two cats. It’s not a cat I miss. It’s those cats. It’s the life they represented, when we were young and immature and just starting out, B and I. But it’s so wonderful to see that I’m not the same person I was then. I love that I’ve grown and matured. I love that I can say to that young and hurting self: it was too much–we let them go because it had become too much.

And I love that I can say that’s okay. With all eyes on me, I took a deep breath and said what we were all thinking: “I think this is not meant to be.”

So back Grace went, with wild fanfare and final hugs and many shed tears on my part. But I was learning all over again what God’s already tried to teach me: substitution is not healthy, and boundaries are there for a reason. I also know that if we were the wrong family for Grace, it was only right to see her off to the right one. It’s Micah 6:8 in action: acting justly by making the fair decision, loving mercy even when it’s painful, and walking humbly with our Lord no matter how confusing it might be (and for the record, we’re checked on Grace daily until her adoption–and I still pray for her growth and happiness. But in a world of more-is-better, we also discovered that right now, our family is enough. That’s a saving grace that will last a lifetime.

Squirrel School

It started out so innocently.

I still miss having pets. The rest of our family does not. Thankfully, we had a couple of squirrels in the backyard, and I took to feeding them occasionally. Or often. Maybe calling them pets. And generally pretending that they appreciated me for more than my nuts. So we went from one squirrel to a couple of squirrels. Squirrel babies. A couple more squirrels. And then I came out one morning to discover 3 grown squirrels, 7 baby squirrels, and 1 very confused little bunny.

As the rest of you probably guessed already, this does not end well.

It took me awhile to see it, what with all the cute little animals running about. But after noticing that our growing summer green beans are now thoroughly leafless–why yes, squirrels do climb PVC pipe and eat green bean leaves with the greatest of ease, even if they also eat a steady diet of nuts, thank you very much–we committed to the extrication of the squirrels. Humanely, of course. With tears. Did I mention what a pet person I am?

But everything–everything–has a lesson from the Lord. Here’s what He’s teaching me:

1) Identify your needs

Those spaces in our hearts, we fill them with all sorts of things. Food, clothes, legalism, etc. Even squirrels. I might say on the surface that I needed a pet, but I was also lonely, slowly left behind by school-bound children. That hole, I’m never going to be able to fill it without know what shape it is, and that might require opening myself up to find out.

2) Accept no substitute

Once that need is recognized, be very careful to be filling it with the right thing. I might gently argue that most of those right things come from God, but in the very practical sense, I was not going to meet the need for a pet by calling a wild squirrel by the same name. Substituting at this stage may seem like the ideal solution–it certainly did to me–but it ends up causing even more pain when you recognize that you’re just going to have to rip that ill-fitting piece out of the hole. Trust me.

3) Boundaries are there for a reason

God bless boundaries. The limits we set on our time, our space, our values–they are there to keep our hearts safe. It may seem to easy to toe the line, to cross it every now and again, say yes to something that we know we shouldn’t. Just this once, we tell ourselves. But crossing boundaries is a tricky feat, because there often is something else just a little farther begging our attention. And once we’ve crossed that line, it’s hard to see it quite so clearly anymore. So the one squirrel turns into two turns into an extended animal family. Before you know it, it’s not you on their territory but them on yours–your heart, your values, your green beans. What started out as cute, helpful, or gracious ends up hurting things you value. So guard what you value carefully.

4) Right stuff is often hard, and hard stuff is often right

Reestablishing those boundaries, removing substitutions, and taking a long hard look at what you really need are all super big feats. They may be the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with a hefty emotional price tag. Trapping those beloved squirrels, taking them elsewhere, watching them scamper away, returning to an empty backyard–talk about traumatic. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do. Give yourself some time, some space, and a whole lot of grace. It’s okay for it to be hard. Stay the course and rely on your team. Which means–

5) Know your team

These are the people on your side. God, spouse, family, friends. You know, the people who don’t think you’re crazy for befriending a squirrel (or at least try to understand it). Whatever you substituted, that’s probably not on your team. Like the squirrel, who did not seem to care where my boundaries should be or why green beans weren’t included. Know who’s on that team and turn to them for support. In turn, be ready to support them when they struggle–be gentle in helping them see the need, eliminate substitutes, maintain boundaries. And be especially graceful as you walk with them through the hard stuff. Next time it might be your squirrel heading up the block. You want to dole out the kind of grace you’re going to need.

So that’s that. Squirrels and decimated green beans and heavy emotional fallout. God truly does work in mysterious ways, but I take heart that I can trust in their inevitable goodness.

Faith for all

It was nothing, and it was everything.

It was a goofy voice that grated on me in the pre-school rush. It was a sock that wouldn’t fit quite right, and the tears that followed. It was a batch of homemade cinnamon rolls that no one ate because anything else is better than my cinnamon rolls. It was Legos on the floor and books on the table and ponies on the hall.

I know it’s nothing. I know it’s life, a life lived full and abundant. But telling myself that feels like telling a pot of heating water not to boil. Get it hot enough and it will boil no matter how you shout at it that everything is going to be fine.

Then everything’s not fine. I’m snapping and K cries harder as I throw the offending sock in the trash. M looks crestfallen as I remind him for the umpteenth time that I will boil over (too late) upon whiny voice. I’ve scalded everyone in a few seconds time, including myself. How could I hurt them, these sweet precious gifts of God? When I knew it was coming, when I love them and Jesus so much, when I want nothing more to be the very best mother/person I can be?

In the midst of my self-flagellation, the verse comes to me: being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6). Only I don’t feel like a good work. I feel like pieces of crap cobbled together to the burden of my family and the disappointment of my Lord.

I realize that’s not true. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel like that anyway. I repeat the verse in my head, trying to force myself into confidence because I don’t want to add “ignores scriptural truths” to my list of charges. And when it I shove it back at God, angry, He’s so very gentle.

Have a little faith.

And before I can protest–before I can begin the ardent defense of my faith, He continues:

Have a little faith in yourself.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

I don’t see it, not right now. But I am a good work, and God is continuing to do good work in and through me. Believing that’s true, that’s part of my faith.

See, we mostly quantify faith as “believing in God,” in His truths, promises, sacrifice and resurrection. But faith, biblically defined, is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. In God, in others, in ourselves. It is believing, in the face of a most messed up morning, that we are indeed good works, pressing on toward completion. That we are capable of something different, something more. That through God all things are possible.

I have immense faith in God. But in myself? Not so much. Maybe it’s time I spread that faith around.

Accepting the emptiness

When our church announced their annual women’s retreat, I’d only been at the church a few months, but B had already jumped into the sound ministry, leaving me feeling left out and disconnected with a church he was already building a history with. Making friends is really hard for me. Not only am I an introvert by nature, but I’ve also been burned many times by fallen relationships. Add to that a low self-esteem and I’m a recipe for a wallflower.

This time would be different, though. As I felt God’s pull to sign up, I looked forward to the retreat, eager to build the friendships for which I longed. As luck would have it, the week of the retreat found me in one of my darkest places. I’d dropped back into bad habits, and the resulting stress and hunger left me drained, anxious, and short-tempered. I muddled through it, my eyes on the fill-up a weekend spent with God and great women would provide. On Friday I headed out with my best friend, who had graciously come along to support me. Did I mention how hard being social is? Being away from my family is even harder. But we were determined to make the most of it.

It was one of the hardest weekends of my life.

I’m not sure where the disconnect was. From the moment we arrived, I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of meeting people. They seemed distant, unfriendly. This was surely not how they felt, but as time passed I saw more of their coldness, my eyes blinded by my own hurt. By the end of the weekend, my broken spirit had hardened into bitterness, both with the church and with God.

Why ask me to come to this retreat? Why make me suffer through this? How, when I’m so empty, can you not just fill me up?

Where are you, God?

But just as I had reached my breaking point, the tears that wouldn’t stop nearly driving me from the final worship service, God spoke.

I am right here.

But I’m empty, I protested. You can’t be here because if you were I’d be full again.

I am right here, with you in the emptiness.

And He was. He was embracing me, lonely and miserable. He was comforting me, hurt and bitter. He was with me, but I was still empty.

I know I’m filled to be empty again, the seed I’ve received I will sow.

This was the last line from the song we were singing at that very moment. But in my rush to be filled, I assumed we were not meant to be empty, that empty was a state away from God, and that filled was a state full of God. Instead, what God pressed on me was the fact that sometimes we need to be empty. Maybe even really empty, maybe even for what feels like an eternity. Like plants, maybe we need to dry out sometimes to really force our roots further down. Maybe our vessel needs to bake in the sun so that it doesn’t mildew the fresh water. Whatever analogy works for you, the point for me was that God may need me to be empty in this moment.

And not just empty in seed, in the energy to give, but also in friendship. One retreat was not going to build the history with my church that I am sorely missing right now. I did meet some really sweet people, but standing on the outside, their friendships seemed so hard to penetrate. And why shouldn’t they? They had a strong fabric of countless retreats, events, life stories shared together. Our stories are just beginning, and yeah, that feels kind of empty. But empty is also a starting place. All strong fabrics start with a single thread.

I’d like to say that I am relishing the emptiness, but honestly, it still sucks. I’m thankful, though, because it’s driven me to understand how very much God loves me, how very present He always is, even in the emptiness. And I’m working on being empty, doing things that I know are restorative, understanding that it may take longer than I want for their effects to take hold. That’s okay with me. I’m just reserving the right not to like it.

The way, via the truth and the light

“There is a way that appears to be right,
    but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

In our school district, the kids get a week-long break in February knowns as “Ski Week.” We don’t ski, so for us it’s a blissful week without alarm clocks and lunch boxes and homework. I’m much more okay with this than snow and ice and fast approaching trees.

But I still look forward to any break with the kids, mostly because I miss them a lot when they’re not at home. I make plans, the center of which is our annual two-day trip to Disneyland. Except this year, B’s work schedule narrowed it to one day, and then an unexpected fever for the boy stole it completely. We returned home and I settled in for a very different vacation than I’d expected. And yes, I was bummed. Really bummed. Like on my knees in tears bummed.

God drew me to my bible study, where I read a really insightful quote from author Jen Hatmaker on the function of humility: “Humility is looking toward heaven through tears, through bone weariness, and thanking Him for the freedom that’s coming… Humility identifies every goodness God was able to work in spite of captivity, maybe because of it” (Tune In, pg. 134). It sounded like what I was feeling, but humility? What did this have to do with humility?

Except that I’m often making plans, sticking to plans, loathing changes to plans, and at the heart of the issue, I’m wanting my plans more than God’s. I want our trip to Disneyland. I don’t want to admit that there might be something better. And hence my problem with humility.

So I got on my knees, surrendered my pride and took up a cloak of humility, and then set to finding the goodness of our “captivity.” We played Upwords and Life and War. We discovered the music channels and danced. The kids took bubble baths in the middle of the afternoon and spent all day in their pajamas. All day. Canceled playdates led to a tent becoming a rocket ship and soda/mentos fountains and a post-dentist lunch made of ice cream. I am deliberately thankful for each of these things, because I know God asked me to trade them for a reason.

There is a way that seems right to us, but that’s only because we see about three inches ahead. Sometimes God calls us into the woods, in a direction away from the sunlight or the flowers or whatever it is that we see in those three inches, and we need to follow Him, because He can see the big picture (which could mean, for example, a sheer cliff on the other side of those flowers). Not only that, but we need to follow with humility, because blinded by pride fail to see the goodness He has waiting for us. There is always goodness, whether we choose to see it or not.

Hey Jealousy

I recently picked K up from a friend’s house, practically had to drag her from the premises.

“Her house is so fun. I wish I lived at her house,” announced K.

“I know,” I said evenly. It’s not the first time she’s said something like this, and I don’t blame her. Other people’s houses always seem like more fun: new toys, new snacks, no clean up, no homework. I bet even I’m fun like that to their friends–I know, maybe sadly, that I’m on my best no cranky, no temper behavior when their friends are over.

But then she continued: “I wish she was my mom.”

My heart ripped in two, and despite all those logical reasons listed above, a jealousy rose in the gap. How could she want someone else? Hadn’t I given up everything to be there for her and her brother? Hadn’t I offered them all that they needed, and most of what they wanted? Hadn’t it been I who took her over there in the first place?

I spent the rest of the night in a miserable depression, unsure of where I’d gone wrong. Slowly the pain passed. I accepted her feelings, and she made a remarkable effort to understand mine. I also considered the other mom (of course, it had to be that mom) and how present she was for her kids, and it spurred me to be extra present for my kids. Good things rose from the incident.

But several weeks later, I’m finally understanding the best thing about it: in that moment, I had a glimpse of God.

“Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14)

God has given us everything–including grace, the Holy Spirit, and His only son–and yet how often are we enticed by the world? How often do we wonder what it would be like to live another’s life? When I think of how my heart broke, I understand in a very small sense, what God must feel when we put other things before Him. The jealous nature of God suddenly doesn’t seem so menacing, but rather so full of love for us, as I am for my daughter. No matter the excuses for her feelings and my reactions, at the very base of them lies a love so unspeakably strong that anything in the middle of it feels like a rending of my soul.

This is the love of Christ for us.