Suddenly

On one of my favorite podcasts this week the host and her guest discussed the look of God’s timing. Specifically, how people respond to miracles, with a, “Wow that was fast!”

That when something great happens, it seems to appear suddenly and is cause for great acclaim. When the truth is, suddenly, especially in God’s time, is never quite so sudden.

This timing reminds me of yesterday, Winter Solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight hours. It is the darkest day of the year and it is also the turning point to the light.

Yet, one morning the sun will be shining brightly at six AM and we will be astonished that it was bright so early. It’s as if the sunlight appeared suddenly. But it wasn’t suddenly at all. Each day, minute by minute, the sun has been shining earlier in the morning until that day it is shining so bright and early.

Isn’t that a bit like God?

~

This week many people will gather in their churches and hear the reading of Luke 2:1-20, the story of the night of Jesus’ birth. This is a story that is foretold so many times throughout the Bible. Over and over again prophets speak about who is to come to rescue Israel from itself.

Yet, twice in the story told in the book of Luke, the word suddenly is used (v. 9&13).

“Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them…

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others…”

Suddenly? Seriously? There was nothing sudden about it. It was thought about, planned out, and happened exactly the way God designed it.

But humans were agape because “suddenly” angels appeared to spread the Good News.

~

“Suddenly” sounds great. Miraculous, wonderful, exciting, joyful, all the things I would love to feel.

But my miracle hasn’t looked that way at all.

Yesterday, I pulled the scraps of paper from my God Can to look at the prayers I’ve placed in there over the years. Half of these prayers are about the same thing. Half of the prayers reflect the anguish I’ve felt and the relief the I’ve sought. Half of the prayers scrawled on those slips of paper reveal that I’ve been praying for the same miracle for the last five years.

That realization sat heavy on my mind and heart as I read each prayer, put the current date on it, and returned it to my God Can. They will stay in that can until the day “suddenly” appears.

If I’m honest I want my suddenly moment right now. Really, I wanted it yesterday. Or better yet, right after I wrote that first prayer on that slip of paper five years ago.

Yet, in my own life, the miracle is coming more like the sun post Winter Solstice. Little by little, minute by minute, the miracle is getting closer. Each day a little more sunlight breaks through the darkness.

~

The truth is God took centuries to fulfill the promise of His Son coming down to earth to save us from ourselves. Centuries! Generations of people heard the stories, the prophecies, and were still astonished when suddenly the miracle was here.

As this year, this decade, rolls into the next, and this season of darkness slowly becomes light, I pray that I may tuck the truth of God’s perfect timing and Him working all things for His good in my heart knowing that suddenly my prayers will be answered and I will marvel agape at the wonders and miracles in my life.

 

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Be Still. And Know.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10a

In 2016 I had two necklaces made. One engraved with the words “Be Still” and the other with the words “And Know.” The “Be Still” necklace is gold and the “And Know” necklace is silver. At the time I thought I would wear these necklaces together one above the other on my chest to reflect the whole meaning of Psalm 46:10. I also intentionally chose to engrave each phrase on the particular metal because somewhere in the recesses of my mind I believed the “Be Still” portion of the verse was the most important portion.

For the last several years, I have worn at least one of these necklaces almost every day. I hardly leave the house without the “Be Still” necklace. While the “And Know” necklace has decorated my dresser, collecting dust and tarnishing a bit. I believe it’s been this way because I really needed the reminder to be still; to stop meddling, martyring, and manipulating situations and people to make me feel more comfortable in life. I also needed to learn how still the swirling thoughts in my head and not let them lead me down the well-worn path to anxiety overload. Wearing the necklace each day provided me a physical reminder to slow down, to step back, and to be still.

Recently, I looked at the tarnishing “And Know” necklace and felt a little sad for it. It sits on my dresser a little neglected, not worn or appreciated as much as its “Be Still” companion. As I looked at it, a thought occurred to me: Until now, it wasn’t time, yet.

“Yet.” Such a small word. Such powerful meaning. Through many Bible studies, I’ve continued to learn the word “yet” is always used when God is flipping the script on someone’s life. A passage can read as a list of worse case scenarios for many verses, then “yet” appears, and the rest of the passage reads only of redemption of those worst cases, and of the power of God.

When my thought, “Until now, it wasn’t time, yet,” occurred to me I immediately realized that as I’ve been praying about and considering what my verse for 2020 should be, it’s been staring me in the face all along. It’s time to revisit Psalm 46:10.

For three years, I’ve worked on learning to be still. Now is the time to know. To trust. To hope. To truly believe that God is who He says He is. That He is good and that He works all things for my good.

I thought being still was the hard part, the important part, the part that I really needed to learn. And it was and I did, to some extent. But the real lesson for me is “And Know.”

~

Recently, I did a “fun” exercise as the trainer called it. At the end of a rather grueling gym class, the trainer had us try handstands with the assistance of our TRX bands and a partner. The partner was supposed to act as a spotter and assist the person doing the handstand by guiding her feet and legs into position. Said spotter was also supposed to catch you when you fall…kind of like one of those trust games big corporations have their employees play when they are trying to build a healthy work climate.

My “fun” exercise ended in a dramatic swinging of the hooked-up leg into the person next to me as I tried desperately and failed to keep myself upright. My partner was not paying attention. Good news, the non-skid caught me.

That’s the thing about non-skid, it’s intended to stop things from moving, and it does its job well. I came to a crashing halt on my left elbow.

I stood up and brushed myself off, mostly checking my pride. The ache in my elbow was nothing compared to the embarrassment I felt about not being able to catch myself.

But that’s the thing. I wasn’t supposed to catch myself, I had a spotter, a partner. And that person failed me.

The thoughts I had in the split second I laid out on the floor was this: I shouldn’t have trusted. I shouldn’t have trusted the TRX strap and I shouldn’t have trusted a person I don’t really know.

And those thoughts made me really sad, mostly because I have a pretty tenuous relationship with trust right now. This was one more confirmation that I shouldn’t trust anyone or anything- except maybe non-skid. The non-skid showed up just like it was supposed to-it caused the max amount of friction possible to keep this body from being in motion any longer. And it hurt.

~

As a human, trust is tricky. Knowing that someone will show up or something will work is darn near impossible, because humans are fallible. Yet, it was just an experience, a circumstance, a worst-case scenario. This one-time thing is not the whole of my existence.

“And Know” is the refrain I hear in my head when an event, or a circumstance, or even a worst-case scenario actually bears itself out in my life. I hear it mostly because I have learned that God’s character is good, and though I am tempted to believe otherwise when life stops me in my tracks like non-skid, there is too much evidence of His goodness to forget for too long.

As this year and decade come to a close I will be shining up my “And Know” necklace, placing it around my neck, and wearing it daily to remind myself I couldn’t have learned the lessons I’m learning now, or flex the faith muscles I built in the stillness, because it wasn’t time, yet.

Be Still. And Know.

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Remembrance and Anticipation

As a child, Advent meant wreaths and lighting candles and saying things about that lighting that I didn’t quite understand. I saw it mostly as a ritual, a thing we did, because we did. For me, there was little connection between the lighting of the candles and the Light of the World.

As an adult, I struggled to figure out how the Advent of my childhood fit into the Christmas season. Honestly, those candles seemed like a one-off. I learned that not everyone, even those who were Christians, had a pretty wreath and fancy candles on their dining room tables each year. Advent was, at best, a mystery. A mystery that was meant to stay that way, unsolvable by mere unordained humans.

A few years ago, I learned why Advent always felt mysterious, unsolvable, and disconnected for me.

Advent literally means “coming” or “arrival.” As a person born in this time and place, I live between two Advents. So, the season of Advent is both a time of remembrance and a time of great anticipation. Remembrance of Christ’s birth and anticipation of Him coming again.

And if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that living in a space of both simultaneously remembering and anticipating is tough. It is hard to sit in the tension of looking back and looking forward. It is in this tension that pain and hope collide.

This space of living between two Advents is why this season always felt hard and disconnected, to me. It is nearly impossible for me to hold space for conflicting feelings, for both pain and hope, for both remembrance and anticipation. I want the hope, the anticipation, the joy that this season promises, but I don’t want the pain, the remembrance, the sorrow that this season also ushers in.

It all feels like too much. How does one sit in both? How can I possibly light candles that promise the Light of the World will brighten all the dark corners, when I’m also remembering how those corners darkened in the first place?

In 2018, my consistent prayer was that my life reflect the following verse:

“If you are filled with light, with no dark corners, then your whole life will be radiant, as though a floodlight is shining on you.” ~Luke 11:36

I wanted to be unburdened, light. Free from the darkness that kept me shackled to past hurts. I wanted my life to reflect that the Light got in.

In a lot of ways it did. My life began to feel lighter and brighter than it had in years.

So, as 2018 drew to a close, I searched for new verse. Something I could pray over my life for 2019. With my soul a little lighter, I really wanted my life to outwardly reflect the growth I felt like only I could see. I wanted the light to start to radiate out, most especially in my marriage and with my boys. These are the relationships where I felt all of my work and lightness fell short. I was ready for the relationships I held most dear to see the results of the Light in my life.

I knew it was a big ask. Though my dark corners had been swept out and brightened, they were quick to darken at any sign of past troubles. I believed that what I needed was a verse on growth.

I didn’t find a verse on growth. I found a verse on tenderness.

“And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their hearts of stone and give them tender hearts instead, so they will obey my laws and regulations.” ~ Ezekiel 11:19

Having that verse reveal itself as THE verse of the year was not what I wanted. What I really wanted was for God to change THEM so that WE could have a good relationship and THEY could see all the growth in ME. I didn’t want God to give me a tender heart. I already cry at USAA commercials, how many more tears did He want from me?

Turns out, He wanted a lot. He wanted more than I ever thought I had to shed.

He’s been chipping away at my heart of stone and giving me a tender heart. One that is receptive to shitty news. One that has an extra ounce of patience for my boys. One that is open to the possibility that it all has to come crashing down, before true rebuilding can begin.

And I don’t want it. I want the lightness of 2018. I want the dark corners to stay lit, permanently. End of story.

But I’m being invited into a personal season of Advent. One that promises something is coming. One that promises hope is on the horizon. And, in order to see what is coming I must remember what was, and grieve it. Things are not as they once were. They will never be that way again.

What I desperately want the answer to is: Is the anticipation of what will be, worth the pain of looking back?

Only time will tell.

But if the candles and wreaths of my childhood were meant to tell the story of remembering Jesus’s birth and anticipating His return, then each Sunday this Advent season I can light a candle to remember that my dark corners have been brightened, that my heart is a little more tender, and that anticipation, hopefulness, is worth the wait. This is the promise of the Advent season.

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Seasons

Seasons represent one thing—change, the change that is vital for new growth. If winter didn’t come, there would no spring. If no spring, there would be no summer. If no summer, there would be no fall. If no fall, there would be no winter. It’s an endless life-giving cycle.

Over the past year, I went through some seasons. Last year around this time, I felt myself hitting that “slump” again. I blamed it on the holidays; the family stress, the expectations, the balancing blended families all while trying to prioritize my own family. During the most joyous time of year, I felt the crippling, choking, overwhelmingness that I now know is depression. It was the old familiar friend that came knocking a few times every year. I simply failed to see how often it visited and how long it stayed.

During its visit, I found myself unable to sleep. I stayed up all night scrolling and watching endless hours of junk TV, afraid to go to sleep or sit in silence because that’s when the old friend’s voice got louder.

An exhausted and overwhelmed version of myself spent my days yelling at my children for the silliest things. I was frustrated that I was frustrated. I was not much of a mom. I was home all day with both my children, yet I was not there with them.  Sure, we homeschooled. Sure, we were together. But I wasn’t really present.

I was unmotivated and unfulfilled. I was alone yet surrounded. I was becoming a lifeless shell of a person.

My husband began to really dislike me. He later admitted that he was trying to figure out if he could live with this version of me the rest of his life.

Yet the whole time I felt this way, I was a leader of a large women’s Bible study. I was serving the Kingdom, speaking life to others, yet the life was draining from me.

As a Christ-follower, the most frustrating thing about it was how much it felt like such a dichotomy—my head knew Truth, my heart knew Truth, but I couldn’t drown out the voice that screamed in the silence. What I knew and how I should feel didn’t match at all how I felt. I couldn’t reconcile the difference.

Christmas morning came. We were up with our two boys gifting them their very first trip to Disney World. We were headed to the most magical place on earth, yet it all felt so empty. I struggled to present. I struggled to really feel anything other than empty. It felt like a cold, dark winter.

My journal from December 27, 2018…

I feel like a hollow shell of a person. Empty on the inside. Sometimes it feels like I am having a total breakdown. Like who am I? What am I doing here? I have all this stuff and people around me, but I still feel this way?!?! It makes me sad to be like this because I know that the people around me are suffering, but I am suffering.  I don’t like myself. How then can anyone else like me? These feelings feel 100% out of control, like a rollercoaster I cannot get off of. I am locked in tight and I must ride it over and over again, against my will. I feel like I am zombie just going through the motions and not one single bit alive. When am I “present” it is a falsehood. It’s all a front and all a great game of pretend. What am I doing here?  Is this my whole life? Why does it feel so empty? I am tired of the fight. Exhausted from the game of it all. Doing, taking care, helping, serving, etc. It all feels pointless at times, and it is so very lonely. No one could know how I truly feel, yet keeping up the game is exhausting. God feels super far away…I am in the winter—the cold, hard winter. Why on earth would He bring me here? Why would this place be necessary? The air feels dry and it hurts to breathe. The sun is hidden by gray clouds. There is no break for sun. The nights are so long. The darkness it brings leaves me frozen in fear and unbelief. Just when I get through the night, the light comes. But it is not a reprieve from the night. It is only a reminder that the darkness will be back soon. God, will I survive this winter? Why did you bring me here? It is cold. It is lonely. There is no warmth.

~

A few days after I wrote that journal entry, I was running errands with my two boys. As I was driving, that terrible, truth-imitating voice grew louder. Only this time it was more serious with its negative messaging….No one will miss you. Your family will be better off without you. What if you ran off the road and hit that tree?

Thankfully, at that moment, I heard God’s voice speak through the voice of depression. His voice told me this wasn’t true. His voice reminded me that no matter how dark I felt, my life had value and He had a purpose for my life.

I later called my best friend and tearfully admitted what had happened. I needed someone to know the depths of my despair. Another dear friend called the next day because she felt the strong urge to pray for me on Christmas morning. She sent me a scripture from Ezekiel 37 about the dry bones coming back to life. Little did she know, I was reading and repeating those verses to myself when the dark thoughts would start and my old friend’s voice would get too loud. I admitted to her the grave thoughts that crossed my mind that day in the car. Later, I tearfully admitted to my husband what had happened.

By mid-January, I found myself in a counselor’s office. She was gracious and kind. She gently led me to understand and admit my struggle with depression.

~

After four months of counseling, I began to take medication for my depression. It was such a huge, yet necessary step in my recovery. I knew without a doubt the Lord had led me there. Taking that first pill was the hardest thing to do, but it literally gave me my life back.

Seeing a counselor and taking medication made me feel alive again. It was a beautiful combination that God used to help me reconcile the overwhelming fight in my mind.

Through my winter, the part I struggled with the most was trying to understand the purpose God had in it. How could He use something like this?

During those six months of literal hell, there was a song I listened to on repeat. It described my “winter” perfectly. It put words to how my heart felt when no words would come. It is appropriately titled Seasons by Hillsong Worship.

~

It’s been almost a year and I now see some purpose in my winter. As I have shared my story with women, it has given them the courage to admit that, they, like me, needed help. It gave them vocabulary to describe to their loved ones how they felt. It also gave them the strength to admit to someone else that they suffer from depression and have to take medication. The shadows of shame that followed us are slowly being destroyed, by hearing someone else say me too.

The winter may be cold, dark, and lonely but it is necessary for spring to come. It is vital for new growth. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t there. Where I am now is God’s gift to me and a brutiful reminder that new seasons of growth come after cold, dark winters.

The winter still comes at times. My old friend tends to clear its throat to let me know it isn’t going down without a fight, but I am reminded of that beautiful promise in Revelation 12:11:

“They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”

 Do not to lose hope in the season you are in. God, through all of these seasons, showed me that He is sovereign and faithful. My story is a beautiful testament to His goodness that He can take my despair, my winter, and restore my life to the fullness of spring.

By guest author, Jennifer Penney

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