The Value of Seasonal Interests

While searching for an extension cord the other night I stumbled across my old sketchbook that I sometimes took to using during my final year of college. When it comes to the arts, I usually stick to music, but for whatever reason, making oil pastel creations for that period of time in my life filled a particular need for expression during a lonely season. I have zero technique or training and I’m not much of a natural drawer, so while the images themselves would probably seem rudimentary and  lacking in form to just about everyone else, I remember the heart and desire behind them. They are precious to me for that reason alone.

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After finding my sketchbook I sat down the next few nights and attempted a couple of artistic, expressive strokes, energized by my discovery of this past “self” I had long since forgotten. I didn’t get very far. Even though I was motivated to engage in the activity, the attempts themselves seemed forced and I was unable to generate the peaceful process of constructing an image that gave me any sense of personal satisfaction in the same way it had ten years ago. I soon understood this creative outlet to be a seasonal one, perhaps even only sporadically useful. I can’t pinpoint what exactly propelled (propels) me toward this desire to draw. I only know it remains dormant until the moment it doesn’t.

I would venture to say there are interests and hobbies in everyone’s lives that take a similar position. We invest in them for a time, and then find life moving us on to the next thing. Maybe you come back to those pursuits and maybe you don’t. Regardless, they shape a piece of you. Or maybe it’s the motivation behind the activity that is more formative than the actual activity itself. Like I said, I’m not a great drawer. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about my pictures. The images themselves didn’t cause any seismic shift in perspective or life direction. It was the flow of desire to create something that filled a void and inhabited a once-empty space I didn’t know existed, a visual representation of feeling separate from my music and tremendously therapeutic.

Life cracks us in ways we may not even recognize as we are carried along in its swiftly moving current- cracks that can unknowingly leak precious energy and soul fuel out into the wide open spaces while we become increasingly baffled by our slowing pace and darkening horizon. Where did this negativity come from? Why do I feel so afraid? What is this confusion? Why am I so frustrated and overwhelmed? Or whatever type of uncertainty or questions you may start to feel and ask yourself. And as the cracks deepen and widen, a void becomes visible.

I find musical expression to be my most common construct for communication between myself and God. All the sadness, intensity, joy, desire, longing, anger, despair, and hope can often be channeled into melodies and lyrics. The largest cracks during my middle school and high school years, and much of my college years were filled and sealed with the flow of poetic rhyme and the strum of guitar strings. But there were other, less noticeable gaps that required something different. Enter oil pastels. And a marathon. Advocating for the Invisible Children organization. Attempting a meal delivery service venture. And now blogging. These are just a few of the activities that have served (and some that still serve) a very specific purpose as seasons of reconstruction and growth, other methods of connection between my spirit and God’s.

Training for and running in the Chicago Marathon for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, for example, was a deeply personal venture; rooted in my own story as a cancer survivor and my sister’s lost battle to that same cancer. During our childhood struggles with Leukemia we were the “heroes” who other runners ran in honor of and raised money for to give to this organization. The loss of my sister has always been a deep, closed off well of thoughts and feelings. But by accepting and entering into this season of training, then running the actual marathon in her honor with this same organization, joy poured itself into that well, filling in the deep cavernous spaces that had for so many years caused an unspoken grief to take up residence. I don’t think I’ll ever run a marathon again. It was all at once terrible and exhilarating. But the driving intensity that fueled the fire of self-discipline to train has since been satisfied. That season came to a close once I crossed the finish line. That period of reconstruction and healing is finished.

And looking back on that time, God was clearly intentional in the way He steered me in that direction. Because what came about through that experience was not just a necessary heart-healing, but a whole new path to personal education in health, wellness, and nutrition which has since transformed the way I live. Mostly. Except for when I’m pregnant… because chocolate. And sugar in general.

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So these seasonal gifts and experiences that are given to us throughout our lifetime are opportunities for growth, healing, reflection, and teaching- to perhaps be the turning point toward a new direction, teach us a truth we would otherwise miss, or simply be a momentary grace in the midst of difficulty.  Embrace them for the time they are given to you, and if you come to a point when the activity or hobby feels forced or no longer brings the joy it once did, consider the possibility that the season for that interest has come to a close. In those moments reflect on the changes it has produced in you, the soul connection created that allowed a different avenue for the channeling of God’s love, grace, and teaching, and then be willing to look up and around and offer up your heart to whatever may come next. Or perhaps you will return to an original passion with renewed zeal.

Whatever the case may be, embrace these seasonal interests, thank God for them, seek out the divine purpose, and grow.

Peace & Love, Amy

An Honest Wild

Nature has always blended in special harmony with my spirit. The whispering invitation of the trees will forever resonate more intensely in my heart than the chaotic noise of humanity. I love being outside and away from people – walking, hiking, exploring, gazing out over vast expanses of uncultivated land. It reorients my perspective to the larger picture, the grander design. It’s humbling to be a speck on a cliff, peering out into a sea of foliage that spans for miles, knowing that I am just a minute existence of a thing in comparison to all that is. But yet somehow… I still matter.

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My parents took care to help nurture this love, taking family trips to national parks and waterfalls and allowing me the freedom to climb and explore, to lead and navigate, holding my hand when necessary and letting go to permit risk. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them to watch. On trips that were just me and my dad, I would often be warned, “Don’t tell your mom I let you do this!” And I would smile and feel brave, my confidence growing with the conquering of each tiny ledge, large leap, and steep drop-off. I think the mom heart feels the gravity of all the “what-ifs” slightly more and so we are quicker to pump the breaks on testing physical limits. But now that I’m a mom myself and having had those experiences growing up, I do feel a certain amount of anxiety, but also a freedom to allow my kids the same experiences… hopefully WITH my knowledge, though (Hah. Right…).

My dad was a bit of a nomad in his earlier years after his time in the Marine Corp- through college and into his 30’s and before he met my mom. He is a storyteller by nature, so growing up hearing about his motorcycle adventures through the mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico and his photography and van life travels all across the United States settled deep into my bones. Who rides a motorcycle up the side of mountain in the dead of winter during a blizzard? Who crawls into the middle of a herd of bison in order to capture a better image? Who gives up a potential high-income job working with high-end businesses because he’s bored and instead takes off into the sunset with his camera and beat-up van? This guy. And who accepted this same guy’s marriage proposal after one date? My mom. Because of course. They were a divine match.

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I mean it all seems so adventurous, idyllic, and picturesque, right? Straight out of a book. A life of freedom, changing scenery, thrill, and excitement. So when I’m in those wide open spaces of beauty and grandeur, my heart explodes. I feel like Moana finally getting to sail past the reef (cue the Disney soundtrack). It would delight me to no end if instead of choosing traditional sports, my sons would pursue things like rock-climbing, wilderness survival training, mountain biking, etc. I have to be honest when I say I would find way more personal enjoyment in watching them scale cliffs than staring at a baseball diamond or a basketball court. That’s just me, though.

I want to be a family that lives out adventures and makes memories on the open road; that crisscrosses through states and hikes and explores; that breathes in the scent of natural creation through every pore of the skin instead of simply knowing of its existence on a television screen or through other people’s photographs. I have to work hard to reign in my jealousy when I hear about or see images of the travels of other people and families. Sometimes I get depressed that I live in a state filled with corn fields instead of mountains or oceans.

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My parents’ trip to the Tetons

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Every autumn when the air is cooling and leaves are transforming into vibrant shades of fiery color, this particular nostalgia and longing tends to creep in. It is my absolute favorite time of year, but it is often filled with an intense, overwhelming desire to go. I don’t know that I even have the words to adequately describe the depth of meaning in that one, simple verb because it encompasses a profoundly complex, passionate longing in my God-shaped spirit.

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I experience God’s presence most acutely in the midst of uninhabited creation. My spirit connects instantly with the natural landscape. It all just feels so right and pure. No politics, no media culture, no traffic, no to-do lists. The constraints and inhibitions of normal, daily living are suddenly lifted and I feel free to breathe my own air, to walk my own path, to take my time, and just simply be in the present moment.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” -Romans 1:20, NIV

It makes sense that I would feel this way- a created being designed by the same Creator that called the snow-capped mountains into existence with a word. We are connected by the same Hands, the same Voice. It seems obvious that I would marvel at the awesomeness of all that is wild, beautiful, and free- as my own heart is fashioned in similar orientation through the Spirit of God.

There is an uninhibited reality that is displayed throughout nature. Where humans strive to paint lines over truth, cover up what we don’t like, hide the things we deem unworthy, showcase only the best created versions of ourselves- nature manifests its true self consistently and without fail. And still, every bit of it is worthy of notice. Perhaps that’s why as a truth seeker I feel so drawn to it; because the stories of creation are all at once broken, glorious, tragic, and  oh so very real. It doesn’t hide its hard parts. It can only be what it was created to be: an honest wild.

I find the authenticity of nature to be, in part, a representation of God’s own character; unbounded and outside the confines of human ruling. We don’t control the wind and the waves, much as we don’t control the hand of God. Our existence, as seen through the lenses of our human eyes, is far too narrow and adulterated to comprehend the vastness and complexity of God’s total design- yet every piece of the puzzle points to Him. It is for this reason that I experience freedom and joy when I step into the extravagantly majestic spaces of open air and feel the wind turn my face toward the sun. Because it is there in those places that I feel Ultimate Truth permeate to the core of my being- that God is here, among us, with us, inside of us, loving us, offering us this glimpse of immense beauty that is only a drop in the ocean compared to the perfection that awaits us in eternity.

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And what if we as humans were also to live out our own honest wild? To free ourselves from cultural mandates, human perspective, and limited thinking, and instead allow the sweeping winds of the Holy Spirit to drive us toward open, truthful, transparent living in the simplest ways of loving, serving, and giving? To breathe in grace and exhale love? To pursue actual wisdom instead of click-bait articles or the loudest voice? I know I get tired of pretending I’m something other, of withholding when I see a need, and adding my own hot air to a ballooning, self-serving culture. Maybe you do, too.

In the final moments of my life I want to be able to look back and smile on the journey, knowing that I was able to live and love truthfully and transparently- maybe not perfectly or even beautifully at times, but purposefully and honestly- a life that was worth every single God-given breath.

Join me on the cliff’s edge, will you? Let’s jump outside the calculated boundaries of human creation and see what happens in the wildness of God’s.

Peace & Love, Amy

(All photos credits: my dad- no filters, photoshopping, or other editing used.)

The Dark Days of Motherhood

There’s not much thoughtfulness or wisdom in my words today… not that I claim a corner on wisdom even on good days. I guess what I mean is that failure is looming larger than success in these afternoon moments on this cloudy, autumn day. I’m sitting here typing in the semi-darkness of my dining room while my kids watch shows because today has been one for the birds. And I’m tired and frustrated and a crying mess because of all the things I can’t do or say right, and the children I can’t seem to be kind to or love well. Which leads me to how the heck am I going to do this with ANOTHER baby? Cue the overwhelming, joyless glimpses into my future life with two preschoolers and an infant. All I can think about is how I’m preparing them well for a life of expensive therapy.

Why did God choose me to be their mom? That is the question turning circles in my mind. Because clearly I can’t do this right or well. At least that’s the lie I’m allowing my heart to latch onto in my weaknesses amidst today’s hard. Obviously there’s been some sort of supernatural mistake that heaven and I are just over here trying to make the best of because now it’s too late and these precious, innocent, tender-hearted babes are stuck with a controlling, frustrated, cold-hearted, prickly mom.

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I know it’s a lie. But it feels like honest reality in the ugly, heated moments; that surely there’s another woman out there better suited to love these boys properly, the way they deserve, because I continue to fall short. I spent a good amount of time searching for inspirational quotes about motherhood to include in this post- one that would speak me into a state of grace. I didn’t find one. Because the truth is I don’t feel like I wear motherhood very gracefully. I have come to recognize that I maintain unrealistic expectations- like subconsciously expecting my four year old to act and reason like a ten year old and getting upset when he doesn’t. It’s a problem.

But here’s the truth that’s working hard to edge out the despairing lie even as I write these words: God doesn’t make mistakes. And for as long as I am present on this earth, these boys are my gifts- flawlessly designed and paired with me as their mother. God knows that my sons are perfectly suited to sharpen the dull edges of my blade and refine the rough surfaces of my calloused heart to reveal my false securities and character flaws in order to bring about a greater dependency on HIM and strengthening of character. (Also not to mention their own grand life design and purpose here on earth of which I get to bear witness to and take part in.)

I like believing I can do it all by myself. And that right there, I believe, is a large portion of the problem. But that’s how I’ve lived the majority of my life; making sure I don’t have to be dependent on anyone or anything else. I don’t want to be vulnerable. To me, feeling vulnerable is akin to might as well be dead. Not a super healthy perception, I am aware. But having children has thrown all kinds of curve balls and cracked that mentality. I am now extremely vulnerable when it comes to their health and wellbeing. I will lose myself in all the worst case scenarios and weep over situations that have never even happened. Clearly I’m missing the healthy balance.

But this allowance for vulnerability has turned the tables on my false sense of independence. It has been made undoubtedly obvious that I am incapable of walking this journey alone. But that right there is the point. We were never meant to. We cannot do it all or control it all. The grace and strength to face a new tomorrow after a painful today again and again and again can only come from one source- and that source cannot be my own depleted soul.

29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
(Isaiah 40:29-31 NIV)

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In the eye of the tornado is where I usually meet God. It’s often after I’ve slammed the door and lay crying into my pillow, telling myself that I am the worst mother in the world, convinced that it’s hopeless and they are destined to be broken, angry, cold-hearted adults because I’m destroying their tenderness. It’s in those weighted moments of total despair that I speak the lies as questions out loud to God. Am I…? Will they…? How can I…? Don’t they deserve…? And I know the answers already, but they just can’t be right. So I ask them again. And again. And each time the words “grace” and “enough” are burned across my heart. I don’t necessarily feel their heat right away, but the words reverberate in my brain… reminding me, comforting me, stilling me… until I do.

But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIV)

Everything about me feels weak today. And on such dark days of motherhood when the exhaustion is all-consuming, the frenetic energy of my children threatens to do me in, and my frustration peaks, God’s promise to me is grace; that even still, I am enough to make it through one more frustrating meal time, one more botched bed time, one more day that displayed all my ugly stripes. And I am such because my source of life doesn’t depend on me. It’s Christ’s power at work in my spirit that splashes the hope of a beautiful rainbow across my rain-soaked, stormy skies; reminding me that even though I’ve failed, He never will.  And because of that I can look forward to a new morning- a clean slate- another chance to love better than the last. It’s the hope of tomorrow that allows me to forgive myself for today.

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And so I continue on this journey very imperfectly, yet still hopeful.

Peace & Love, Amy

The Way of Brobarians

It can be eerily quiet or obnoxiously loud. A stampede of elephant stomps quickly turns to silent ninja stealth as they creep and crawl their way to the kitchen, hiding behind walls and furniture. Of course I know. Of course I see. But to acknowledge their presence prematurely would result in total devastation and crushed souls. So I wait for it while continuing to wash the dishes.

A loaded nerf gun peaks around the corner. I hear their whispers and giggles. Then the countdown commences. “12345678910, go, and bah bah bah BAH, and ready set GO!” Jumping around the corner they race towards me, armed to the teeth with nerf guns and empty water pistols. “SURPRISE ATTAAAAAAACK!!!” they shout together in boyish delight, melting into puddles of laughter as I turn and scream, feigning a look of total shock, then rush in to tickle them silly.

Aaaaand repeat. Again. And again. And again.

Then there are the bugs. So many bugs. We currently have an entire jar of cicada molts and one dead cicada sitting on our dining room table. My oldest son likes to hold the jar and shake it while we eat. Also on our dining room table is a large container of mud. I don’t even know why. It’s been there so long I can’t remember the reason. And a shell from a local stream, a handful of acorns, a magnifying glass and one stray marble. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the container of sand and construction vehicles sitting next to the squeaky giraffe toy, across from the latest Lego creation. And that’s only half of it. We have a large table. Yay.

I love the term “brobarian.” It comes from the children’s book Brobarians by Lindsay Ward, and is a fitting description of my sons. The dirty hands, muddy shoes, paint splatters, sandy (broken) furniture, every single pair of pants with holes in the knees, marked up walls… it all points to their insatiable desire for adventure and experience. At this very moment, both boys are shirtless. One is outside in the backyard playing in a patch of dirt with monster trucks and the other is sitting at my feet cutting paper into tiny squares (“doors,” as he called them just now), for reasons only he knows. Still, I encourage it- even suggest that he get out a glue stick and create something with the paper pieces. So he does, and he is proud of it- double and triple checking to make sure that I am also proud of it.

Boys need affirmation and lots of it. I deeply value the tenderness of my sons’ hearts and do everything I can to foster it. They need to know I’m watching, that I’m listening, that I think their creations and ninja moves and songs are always spectacular and wonderful. They need to hear my encouragement and know that I care. They receive plenty of correction, too, because these feral children still need boundaries, so of course a balance must exist. But in order to fill their tender hearts, they need my attentive presence and eyes and ears. They need to believe that what they are doing matters. Isn’t that true for all of us?

I’ll tell you that’s not always easy, though. Sometimes I feel like I live in a land of broken records and I lose my mind. Their constant questions and demands for me to watch and listen to every little thing have sent me to the moon a time or two… or thousand. “YES, I will watch you drink your milk while shaking your head AGAIN, just like I do at EVERY SINGLE MEAL.” “YES, I am listening to your rendition of the ABC song for the 8th time in a row!” “YES, you’ve already showed me this picture four times in the last minute, but I will tell you AGAIN how creative it is.” There have been a number of moments when I just can’t take it anymore and flat out say no, I’m not going to watch or listen right now.  And when boy number three makes his appearance in November and my attention becomes much more divided, the competition is only going to escalate. Wheeeee!!

I still wouldn’t trade it for anything, though. These two are a precious combination of sweet hearts and dirty faces, cackling laughter and whispered shenanigans, angry yelling and quiet words of comfort. They care about each other. They fight with each other. They hold hands and they push away. They joyfully share and sneakily snatch. I absolutely love bearing witness to their budding relationship. It is, in all likelihood, my most favorite thing to watch. And I am undeniably grateful for the gift.

But because of the boyish craziness it’s chaos at best around here. Truthfully, I prefer it that way, though. As irritating as it can be to live in a constant state of messiness, it reminds me that my children are exploring, active, taking risks, learning, and living. At four and a half and two and a half years old, they have finally figured out that playing with each other can be especially fun. So they do… to the detriment of our upstairs floor.

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And downstairs.

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And the discoveries! Oh the things I unexpectedly find! I just went looking for the shirt of my youngest shirtless son and found my husband’s closet jam packed with a large dump truck, big wheel bike, and tricycle. If you’re wondering why those things are inside and not outside, well… me too. Other findings have included poop droppings on the floor, circles drawn in permanent marker on the wall, sopping wet towels (Water maybe? Who knows.), large holes in the drywall, a butcher knife in the guest bedroom upstairs (Lord, help me.), arms and faces covered in paint, and rearranged furniture… just to name a few.

Life with children is unpredictable in general. I have had to learn to let go of micromanaging and controlling every little thing in order to keep at least half my sanity. I maintain the basic routine and structure of our day, but everything in between that I used to try and contain, direct, or suppress is now slowly turning into time led by them. I allow them the freedom to roam around and choose what to do. I won’t always participate, but I let activities happen that I used to try and steer clear of. Messiness doesn’t scare me anymore. And goodness, there is so much freedom in that!

Another thing I find amusing is their need to show off all their cuts and scrapes. Put them on display. Highlight them constantly. Remind me they are there every ten minutes or so. Perhaps fake a slight limp, even if the scrape is on their hand. They love my attention. Did I mention that already?   The size of their crocodile tears could fill an ocean. But once the Band-Aids have been applied and a sufficient amount of hugs have been shared, they impatiently slide out of my arms and run off to their next adventure, proudly displaying their battle scars to the other brother.

I won’t pretend to understand why they laugh while hitting each other in the back of the head with soccer balls, and I no longer flinch when the ceiling shakes after an enormous crash from upstairs. The tiny Legos have made their entrance into our home and I have promised to only curse at their existence when my children aren’t listening. Their enjoyment of nature and fascination with all there is to explore delights me to no end. The ridiculous arguing over toys that neither actually want but are just fighting over for the sake of winning causes me to pull my hair out one strand at a time. But I will take it all- all the beautiful, frustrating, heart wrenching, glorious, dirty things about boys- and embrace them because to do so is to release them to fully be themselves and live into God’s intended design for them.

 

I find incredible joy in the wildness of my boys, in allowing them to try and fail (then sometimes succeed, and other times not), giving them the space to test their physical limits, teaching them to respect each other and watching it in action, cultivating compassion and awareness of their actions and words… but guys, it’s so much work. Monotonous, daily, repetitious reminders and conversations, discipline and consequences, praise and encouragement. Every day. Every day. Every day. It’s exhausting. I won’t sit here and try to convince you that we live in eternal sunshine. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know already “perfect” will never be a word that describes me, my family, or my home. We fail a lot, our house bearing many of the telltale signs of those moments.

But I love this prayer penned by General Douglas MacArthur for his son. It is my heart’s cry that the way of my young brobarians will lead down a path devoted to love and service to Jesus and the world around them.

“Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee—and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those who fail.

Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the weakness of true strength.”

Then I, his father [his mother] will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

I don’t petition God for grandiose things to become of my sons. I don’t need a pro athlete or world-renowned doctor. I would be proud of a mechanic or factory worker. What I desire and pray for is simply that they act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him; that they be filled with kindness and compassion, and live honest, transparent, courageous lives so that the light of Christ may shine brilliantly through them and draw others into the grace and forgiveness that Jesus freely offers.

I also pray that God shores up the cracks in my mom heart to prepare it for the road ahead. So far it’s looking to be quite the journey…

Peace & Love, Amy

(If you have a story that you’d like to share about your own brobarians, feel free to leave a comment! I love hearing about other crazy boy-mom experiences!)

Atypical Answers

When you are faced with the wilderness- the wild, uncultivated, uninhabited lands of struggle and hardship- it can be a fight to maintain perspective. To remember truth. To hold on to faith. To lean into the Power that is far greater than your own. After all, there are no rules for illness. There is nothing easy about job loss. No predictability in grief. No polished signs to navigate failed relationships.

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There may have been plenty of trailblazers before you that have experienced the general “wildness” of your situation and can offer a few scattered guideposts here and there, but none that have lived into your particular, unique experience. Therefore you are, essentially, pioneering through unknown terrain. So how do you survive? What about when that struggle is a longing or desire for something or someone in particular? Or maybe a specific outcome? Perhaps you are seeking a change of scenery, or hoping for an alternative route around a circumstance.

Regardless of whether the situation is a tragedy or a longing, there remains a desperate prayer for answers, for God to act– to do or provide the thing we want, the thing we think we need or is best and in the time-frame we expect. The problem is that our sight and understanding of the workings of this world are extremely limited and narrow. God sees it all. We do not. God isn’t bound to our rules of time because His timing is always perfect without fail. And like a child, we don’t always get what we want when we want it because it’s not what’s best for us in that moment. We still have so much to learn.

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I like to draw on examples of the Apostle Paul because he lived an insane existence. Everything about his life journey is mind-blowing if you really take in all of the details. Likely the most vital aspect of his personal story is his dedication to prayer… in all things. In all circumstances. No matter what. I’m going to jump over to Romans 1: 8-13 and highlight one of his repeated petitions to God that seemed to go unanswered for quite some time. It’s in regards to Paul’s desire to visit the Roman church.

“8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.”

Paul had a deeply rooted desire to visit the Christians in Rome- a city very unfriendly and unwelcoming to this blossoming community of Christ-believers. But regardless of the animosity towards them, they continued to flourish, and Paul praised them in his letter to them for the reports he was hearing. He longed to teach and minister to the growing Church and strengthen them in their knowledge and resolve. But his plans to travel there were continually thwarted. I’m sure he felt fairly frustrated at some point. He was human, after all. So then let’s take a look at how God finally answered his persistent prayer. And let me just tell you, it took years, and spans Acts 21-28.

First, he was in Jerusalem at the Temple minding his own business when a group of Jews who didn’t like his teachings and believed that he had defiled the Temple by bringing in Gentiles (he hadn’t) stirred up a crowd and seized him. This aroused the entire city and sent people into a frenzy, intent on killing him. Fortunately, news of what was happening reached the commander of the Roman troops (who controlled Jerusalem at that time), and he immediately came with officers and soldiers and ended up arresting Paul, uncertain of why the people were so intent on killing him. They took him into their barracks and were about to flog and interrogate him until they got some sort of answer as to the madness of the mob when Paul made it known he was a Roman citizen. (It was illegal for them to flog a Roman citizen who had not yet been found guilty.)

So then they took him before the Sanhedrin, which was basically the Jewish Supreme Court on matters of Jewish law. But the Sanhedrin also worked themselves up over Paul to the point of violence, and the soldiers took Paul back to the barracks in fear that he would be ripped apart, still unsure of the accusations against him.

While being held there, a plot to kill Paul was uncovered and reported, so Paul was transported to Caesarea to plead his case before Governor Felix. Those accusing Paul were also called to cite their charges and give evidence. Well, two years later, the case was still undecided, Paul was still being held prisoner there, and Felix was succeeded by the new Governor Festus.

Festus listens to the case against Paul, during which Paul finally expresses his desire to appeal to Caesar (this is an important point). Festus has no concrete information to send to Caesar regarding Paul’s situation because the allegations against him are still unproven at this point, so he consults with King Agrippa, a leader who just happened to be visiting at the time. After hearing Paul’s testimony, they confer and agree that Paul has done nothing deserving of death or imprisonment, but since he appealed to Caesar, they would send him to the imperial court in Rome.

Eventually Paul is put on a ship with other prisoners that sets sail for Italy. Unfortunately, while out at sea they encounter an epic storm that leaves them shipwrecked. God made a promise to Paul that all on the ship would live, and they did. Months later, after being supplied once more by the islanders of Malta, they finally arrive in Rome.

Paul then lives under house arrest in Rome where he is able to welcome any and all visitors, boldly and without hindrance teach about Jesus, and minister to the Christians there for two whole years.

And that’s how God answered his prayer. Ahaaaa…ahhh.

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Yeah… me, too.

So then, back to you and me- to our prayers that don’t seem to get past the ceiling; the ones that never appear to get an answer. Or maybe we get an answer, but it’s not the one we were hoping for. God hears them all. He knows them all. And He also knows the best way, which doesn’t often equate to the easy way. Because “easy” doesn’t cultivate the brilliant flame of faith. “Easy” doesn’t require dependence on God. “Easy” doesn’t necessitate a persevering spirit.

The best way also doesn’t necessarily correspond to our way- the way we think things should go, the pain and grief we want removed, or the longing we believe should be fulfilled. That’s just not how it works, because the truth is… the story is so much bigger than us- yet at the same time needs us. Our world needs the hearts of those equipped with a faith that goes beyond the natural senses. Why did Paul have to go through all of that just to reach Rome? God could’ve made the way so much simpler. And yet if you read all of those chapters, you see the cases in which Paul continues ministering to those he comes in contact with along his years-long journey to Rome. People are healed and restored and encouraged along the way, who in turn then possess the hope of Christ and can continue spreading the love and truth of Jesus’ message to others, even as Paul moves on. Sometimes hindsight is 20/20.

We don’t always know why. We can’t always know why, at least this side of heaven. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. The “why” of it all may continue to burn in the midst of our desperate prayers. Maybe even long after the prayer has ended. But even so the hope for our future can remain. And that’s where pain meets faith- trusting that despite the waiting, the long days or years of silence, the death or loss, the unfulfilled longing- the way ahead is still hopeful. Still beautiful. Still worth fighting for. That God can use it all, restore it all, heal it all, and has never once stopped loving us all- through it all. He carries the weight of it all so we don’t have to.

If your world is burning down around you, don’t run from the inferno. Kneel down in the middle of it. Petition God’s presence in the midst of it- just simply His presence- and see what happens. The walls around you may continue to crumble, but the steadfastness of your spirit will allow you to lean into the peace of a greater truth- that God can and will build new walls. Understand they may not look the way you expect, but they are the strongest kind. The best kind.

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God moves and works outside of our perfectly square boxes, therefore His answers are frequently atypical and unexpected. We often unconsciously assume human rationality will dictate God’s decision-making process because it dictates ours. Fortunately for the whole of the universe and the existence of humanity, that is not the case. He has made clear the promise of our future hope if we just trust and believe, despite the brokenness of the world around us and our hearts within us.

He will make all things new.

Peace & Love, Amy

Trying Something New

I joined something this year. It’s shocking, really. I surprised even myself. Truthfully, I almost backed out at the last minute. “Sorry, I don’t think I can commit this year…” Except all the stars had aligned and I could. There was no reason not to. So I made a deal with myself that I would try it once or twice and if I didn’t like it then I’d ease my way out with some generic excuse. So today I went. And normally it would have been every introvert’s worst nightmare- to enter a large building with hundreds of other unknown women, take part in a small group discussion with unknown women, listen to a lecture that I was sure I would doze through, and yet… I haven’t felt this right about a decision in a while. It was, in fact, so fulfilling in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. But I first had to take the risk in order to know.

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I have entered into the land of BSF (or Bible Study Fellowship), which is a worldwide organization that each year centers on an in-depth study of one book of the Bible. Guys, I don’t do Bible studies, and I was very skeptical of this one. I have a certain distaste for Christianese and westernized Christianity in general these days, and I was sure this was just going to be a bunch of evangelical woman bumping their gums about all the “information” I already know. (Wow, that sounds arrogant, doesn’t it? Yikes.) Having grown up in a Christian home and Christian schooling I speak Christianese fluently and know all the correct responses, but I have felt for so long that I’ve been missing the point even though I know the basic truths in my head. So I joined BSF hoping against hope that I would learn something new; that something would click and I would finally turn the page and begin a new chapter. Because this last one has been extraordinarily long and exhausting and all about me doing it all wrong. It’s time to move on.

Guess what? In just my first week I learned things. Not because anyone told me something new. Not because I read verses in the Bible I hadn’t seen before. And not because I read commentary written by a “Bible scholar.” I learned things because I sat down with a Bible and a set of questions and actually tried to reason through them and give thoughtful responses- not textbook answers. I wasn’t answering them for a grade or for any other reason than for myself. I tried because I’m tired of not trying. And I was surprised to find that I was putting pieces of a puzzle together that I didn’t even know existed, and a story suddenly came into brilliant focus- becoming very relevant to some current difficult situations in my life… and I got excited- for the first time in years and years and years. Kind of like my spirit just took a bite of an enormous piece of chocolate cake with all the frosting, savoring it, but knowing there are endless bites left to enjoy. Man I love chocolate cake.

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Yes. Yes it is.

I will describe my personal discoveries in another post. For now, this brief note is to encourage you to take a risk and try something new if the opportunity presents itself. By all accounts this was completely out of my comfort zone. But this bone-dry and weary place that I’ve been wandering around in for much too long finally offered an opening for escape… and I took it. I almost didn’t because it meant leaving familiar territory. It meant stepping off the well-trodden footpath that circled the same scenery I have spent years memorizing and burning into my brain. I was sure the grass was the exact same on the other side… so why try and end up disappointed?

Well it turns out that no matter where you are, grass only becomes green when it gets fed. And grass doesn’t grow well in the dark or in scorched earth. And when you walk the same path long enough, the grass dies. So if the life in your heart is withering, it’s time to take a risk and try something new; walk a different way; find a different food source. The opportunity may seem odd, unappealing, or unorthodox, but like me, you may end up utterly surprised and amazed.

Peace & Love, Amy

On the High Seas of Marriage

We’ve never made it a secret that our marriage is far from perfect. In fact we quite openly talk about it when opportunities present themselves, especially through our music. (Yes, we create more than just babies. Insert shameless plug: www.wisdomandfollymusic.com , www.soundcloud.com/wisdomandfolly) We know that our struggles have to have purpose, and so we share our truth in hopes that others may find grace amidst their own turmoil.

From day one we were clinging to rocky cliffs, fighting the undertow that threatened to pull us out into the wide open choppy waves. Fast forward nine years later and we are still gasping for air. We’ve had seasons of relative peace while clinging to anchored buoys- friends, financial stability, counseling, family, God- allowing us a chance to recover our senses and regain strength, only to be tossed back into the chaos of swirling madness with the development of yet another storm.

It’s exhausting to feel like you’re always on the verge of drowning, the weight of all of life’s responsibility- your marriage, your children’s wellbeing, finances, the state of humanity and the world, perhaps your own inability to make sense of yourself- constantly pushing you under… when all you want to do is just live, to feel alive and hopeful. And yet the water continues to rise ever higher every time you come close to the surface.

There is no “easy” button in marriage. There is no sprinkling of fairytale magic that suddenly turns your rags into beautiful gowns and pumpkins into carriages. Love isn’t magical. I wish the English language had more options than just the all-encompassing word “love.” We use it for everything, and by doing so have stripped it of its depth of meaning. Love is a complex, layered concept. It’s both feeling and action.

“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” -1 Corinthians 13:4-8

The most perfect love does all of these things consistently without fail. Jesus was the only living human proof of this. And since the rest of humanity is fallible and prone to weakness and imperfections, we are incapable of doing all of these things consistently. And those imperfect parts are where the cracks begin to emerge and the water starts trickling in.

When a relationship falls apart because two people say they have “fallen out of love,” this is the neatly packaged way of saying that one or both were unwilling to put in the work to create a sustainable love. Sustainable love is constructed, not felt, into existence. Some floors and stairs are easily and flawlessly built, but the ones that crack are the ones that require focused attention- and they are often stubborn and resistant to fixing. Because aren’t we, though? And so the water continues to accumulate and rise the longer these places are ignored.

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My husband and I do well in some of these areas and terribly in others. We’ve got the persevering part figured out, no doubt. But when you are exhausted from the hard work of wading through mazes of misunderstandings, miscommunication, and hurt feelings, envisioning the future is nearly impossible. Both people are left staring at each other in silent agony wondering if it’s ever going to get better- or at the very least a little easier. But it never feels easier, even after all these years. We have big cracks- wide, and deep, and stretching long into the very foundation we built for our marriage. But the repair work is costly, and when you are very near bankrupt already, how do you still find a way to fix it all while also treading water?

Every time you choose each other, you make a deposit. Every time you choose to forgive, you make a deposit. Every time you allow grace to cover a mistake, you make a deposit. Every time you speak truth instead of lies, you make a deposit. Every time you strike out against your self-serving pride and ego and choose humility instead, you make a deposit. If you do this often enough, it will very quickly add up.

When you give up choosing the absurd ways of love, ways altogether counterintuitive to our broken human nature, and instead give in to the vengeful ideology of “eye for an eye,” you deplete all possible resources that would aid in patching the cracks and cut ties with any life-saving apparatuses thrown your way.

Two people can very quickly and easily drown each other trying to save themselves. When we choose selfishness over selflessness in marriage we are essentially pushing our spouse under the water in an attempt to keep ourselves above it. But eventually both people will tire from fighting the waves and each other and drown. This is the tragedy of those who have “fallen out of love.”

I don’t want this to be our story. But I keep pushing my husband under the water in desperate attempts to save myself from… myself. And out of fear. Because I still can’t see dry land and I’m feeling desperate. But flailing around is not the answer. Reacting selfishly in fear is not the answer. Using him to try and stay afloat is only killing us both. Our hope for survival cannot be dependent upon each other. We are not each other’s savior. Because we are both very imperfect people with a love for each other that is also very imperfect.

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People put more energy into fearing the potential struggles and running from them than the actual work of fighting through them. We create these false notions of a fairytale love, shaped by a culture that prefers to romanticize the feelings of lust and ignore the sweaty, manual labor required to develop genuine, lasting love. But then we can’t figure out where it all went wrong and become disillusioned by every subsequent relationship because no one is able to fit the Cinderella or Prince Charming mold. Such ugly lies that attempt to cheapen the immeasurable value and worth of true, hard-earned, battle-scarred love.

Love’s authenticity is tested on the sinking ships, the ones set ablaze in furious fire. Do you cut your losses and jump ship alone, fearful of being singed and hopeful that the choppy seas will somehow still themselves and a life boat suddenly appear while you tread in the open water? Or do you instead task yourself with the life and well-being of your other half while holding hands, braving the flames and burning embers together, risking yourselves as one to salvage a few broken bits of wreckage in order that you both can remain afloat until help arrives?

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My husband and I often find ourselves standing at the helm of a sinking ship, fighting against the truth of our situation, ignoring the growing tilt of the bow, believing our gradual slide backwards will be righted with the quick fix of a sail. Most often it isn’t until we feel ourselves flipping over the railing, eyes wide staring down into the water, that we desperately stretch out our hands and grab hold of each other. We can’t seem to stop choosing the hard way. Okay, let me rephrase that: more often than not it is I who am unable to stop choosing the hard way. He’s the one who never fails to find my hand…if I’m being completely honest.

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The open waters of marriage can be endlessly deep and wide and overwhelming. But the love of God is infinitely greater and more powerful than the strongest pull of any undertow. The life line that He offers us is anchored to an empty, blood-stained cross- an unwavering, immovable, unshakable strength of two wooden beams stretching up to the glory of heaven. Our weaknesses are made strong by the hope and grace that Jesus brought to this earth when He sacrificed His life to save ours. It is through His love for us that we are made able to endure, to choose each other when it doesn’t make sense, to know that we are stronger together than apart, and to cling to the wreckage and trust that help is coming.

“18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.” -1 John 4:18-19

Let us release the fear of potential struggle and pain and hardship. There is nothing safe about embracing love, this is true. It makes us so very vulnerable. But what of the other side- the “safe” place of rejecting love in order to remain unbroken?

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” –C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

The price you must pay to safeguard your heart against brokenness is steep. Where there is no love, there is no God, no joy, no compassion, no hope, no life. You risk nothing so you gain nothing. You forfeit the wealth of love’s offering and so become the poorest kind of person, fully missing the point of our grand design and purpose.

On the high seas of marriage, the risks are great: waves are towering, storms seethe, and driving winds blow fiercely.  But if you continue to choose each other, to choose the absurd ways of love despite the potential mess or awkwardness or heartache, you will eventually learn to navigate the tumultuous times using a new kind of sense, honed and refined by learned, skillful use. It’s a unified sense of grace and hope, that together as one you can endure and persevere because you have grabbed hold of the life line anchored to the cross of Christ and refuse to let go.

We can’t save each other, but the love of Jesus can. And sometimes that can look a whole lot like Captain Jack Sparrow stepping off the masthead of his sunken boat onto the dock as it barely glides in under the current.

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Sometimes we barely make it out alive. But we do. And there is so much beautiful, redemptive grace in receiving another chance to try again.

I choose to believe my marriage and my family are worth all the piles of ash and splintered wood. Because a restored vessel is far more respectable and trustworthy than an untested one.

Peace & Love, Amy

Note: This piece is not meant for those in abusive relationships- physical, emotional, or otherwise. If you are in such a relationship, please seek help to remove yourself (and any children) from it immediately. Abuse of any kind is never okay under any circumstances.

The Story of the Weeping Willow

The large crown of low, sweeping branches; enchanted entanglements of delicate green offering shade and home to multitudes of creatures; the mesmerizing sway as a silent breeze filters through – a whispering sound. It’s a tree of the fairy tales, and yet here in the realness of our time. What a gift.

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(Photo Credit: Mike Pratt)

A most beloved tree, it became the reason I accepted buying our older home, despite the home’s much needed renovations. The sole redeeming quality of our kitchen, I was able to gaze out the window into our backyard as the sun hung low, radiant hues of pink, blue, and orange splashed across the sky, melting behind the wispy, undulating arms of the grand willow- the hidden grace amidst an endless flow of dish washing.

 

Until one spring when a heavy wind storm toppled it. I will admit the devastation was so real I cried. A physical image of strength, majesty, peace, and solitude… a constant reminder to me of the beauty that existed despite the darkness threatening my fragile heart. Now gone. The tree itself was technically positioned right at the edge of our neighbor’s backyard, and so they took on the responsibility of finishing the job- removing the downed limbs and sawing off half-broken ones; making piles of firewood to use the following winter. What remained seemed a weak skeleton, the willow’s magnificence reduced to the humblest state of frailty. I wasn’t going to hold my breath for a second chance.

What is incredible about a willow tree, though, is its resiliency and tenacity; the roots that aggressively expand and bury themselves deep underground. So although what the human eye beholds may appear feeble, in truth the roots are gripping and pulling and tearing and stretching. Below the surface, the surge of the roots’ power dominates, often disrupting lines and piping systems if planted near homes or building structures. And even though it develops best in warm, moist climates near water, this tree is able to withstand periods of drought as well.

That entire year I lamented the loss of that tree, often commenting about it to my husband, who did his best to appear sympathetic. As ridiculous as it sounds, it was a tiny cut on my heart that continued to bleed. That willow meant something otherworldly to me- a feeling that transcended the physical. I could gaze out at its soft, fluid, movement and breathe. A divine gift. The following spring, however, I took notice of it with fresh eyes. Although the large, flowing crown was gone, small bents of green were taking shape in its place. And I smiled.

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I would speculate that I adore willow trees not just for their slow, graceful dance and ethereal qualities, but because they remind me in a way of my own bentness. The downward gaze of the branches hints at a melancholy that I myself understand so intimately. Even the name “weeping willow” feels so very apropos to the oft common condition of my spirit- not because I live in a constant state of depressed sadness, but because of the weightiness I feel, birthed out of the lost innocence, revealed ignorance, and shattered naivety of growing up.

 

Bringing children into this world then adds a whole new layer to that weight, being conscious of the realities that will face them as individuals and us as a family unit. And watching how quickly the world is evolving socially, economically, spiritually, emotionally, and physically… it can be overwhelming. Until I begin to consider the roots.

The roots of any plant are critical to its survival. Weak and neglected ones will last no more than a single storm or a day of intense heat. The plant will soon wither without the support of its underground network of veins. The willow tree, however, works quickly and assertively to develop its root system; persisting in acclimatizing itself to its environment, even persevering through drought.

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While the world continues to evolve around me, I must learn to adapt and teach my children to do the same. My heart will split, my physical body may be broken, all the beautiful things I possess could be taken- everything that makes me a complete person to the eyes of the outside world has the potential to be stripped from me. So then, how strong are my roots? Where does my true power lie? If it’s in the above ground picturesque existence, one fell of an axe and that would be the end. But if I nurture the unseen spirit within, the invisible inner chambers of my soul, and develop a root system that drives deep into the heart, the destructive external forces of this life cannot fully destroy me because they cannot touch the roots. And soon I will begin to reconstruct and rebuild, budding new life in the midst of the broken places.  I may bend and sway differently than before, since adversity tends to change the original design of things, but even still all the qualities that make me strong, capable, and resilient will begin to embrace the challenges of a new way of life and grow… and grow.

Nurturing your soul’s root system means recognizing that your inner self is far more precious and valuable than what coats the outside. Because if we live in fear of all the what-ifs that may challenge our physical life in this world, we miss the grace and peace of living with eternal vision. It is the hope of what comes next in the story that will keep us putting one foot in front of the other in the present.

“16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 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.”

 -2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)

The apostle Paul who spoke those words was no stranger to affliction. For the sake of spreading the message and love of Jesus, he endured beatings, torture, imprisonment, exile, ridicule, hunger, homelessness… all the bodily harm we seek to avoid, he accepted and rejoiced in. How can this be? How did he continue to praise God when his body and mind were broken and spent in the worst, most unjust, grievous ways? Because the foundation of his existence was not rooted in the physical realm of his life, but in his soul’s eternal perspective – hope in a future yet to come.

This world is not my home. I repeat that to myself often when I’m in the thick of a difficult moment, reminding myself of a greater purpose and future beyond the present circumstances. So I adjust and adapt, accepting and releasing the things I cannot control. I dig my roots further into the security of Jesus’ promises- that his grace is enough to strengthen me; his truth is enough to guide me; his love is enough to sustain me- no matter what happens to my physical world. My life can be taken from me- perhaps become a mere skeleton to human eyes- but my soul will remain intact- unable to be touched… so long as the roots have been cultivated.

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And come spring time, among the buds and blossoms of new life, small bents of green will begin to grow and take shape- a broken life rebirthed with stronger heart and sight for the grander vision. And a smile as wide as heaven will burn through the dark of winter’s death and give way to the reassuring warmth of sunlight’s  embrace.

Peace & Love, Amy

 

The Fragility of Life Demands More

I’ve been following a story lately about a two year old boy named Logan and his battle to overcome impossible physical odds due to a tragic accident. Normally I will pass by these stories on social media without looking because I find it difficult to engage in stories that involve suffering children- because truthfully I don’t want to feel burdened by the overwhelming emotions that are certain to flood my heart and mind. They will paralyze me. This time, though, a good friend of mine was asking for prayer for this family, so out of love and respect for this friend I chose to enter into the story.

The first picture I saw of Logan brought my heart to a dead stop. My stomach turned to knots and my eyes swelled with tears. He looked to be almost a spitting image of my own two and half year old son. But it was too late to look away. So I let myself follow this family’s story, pray through dripping tears, feel the grief of all the what-ifs, and stare at my own sons, begging God to never let this mother’s heartache become my own. This time I chose to take on the weight of shared sorrow, and even though a stranger to them, still enter into a combined force of prayer with others around the world in asking God for a miracle- however that was supposed to look. I will tell you that miracles are in fact happening through this tragedy, but at great personal cost to his family here on earth, as Logan is now freely and painlessly dancing with the angels. Perhaps he’s already been held in the warm embrace of my own sister. She loved children, so I’d like to think so.

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I would surmise that we find it easier to disengage ourselves from stories like these so we don’t have to bear the weight of empathy. Empathy can be tremendously painful. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to have a better understanding of their suffering forces you, also, to shoulder a particular burden of grief, to take on the responsibility of  genuinely caring about someone else’s story. And that comes at a cost, requiring your heart to sacrifice space and your mind to give up precious physical and emotional energy, usually with lasting effects.

So often, though, in our attempts to keep ourselves safe from these costly, painful expenditures, we cut that human connection as much as possible under the guise of “I have enough to worry about already.” But there is something very dangerous about disconnecting from empathy and consciously choosing to ignore the pain of others. You effectively dissolve the very thing our Creator placed within us that makes life worth living. Empathy is a vital bridge that connects us to other people, to our communities. Since we are relational beings by nature, if we choose not to couple ourselves with the suffering of others and only live into the hard things that directly confront us we will come to find that we are very much alone in our own suffering. Then, in our selfishness, we may ask why no one seems to care. The thing is, if you don’t invest into the hearts and lives of others, you will never receive much in return. A farmer will only reap what he sows and labors over. Scattering a few seeds of sympathetic words and halfhearted promises of prayers does nothing to develop sustainable relationships. Sweat equity is required, but not all are willing to link arms for the marathon (or lifelong) distance.

The fragility of life demands something more meaningful; more than just dropping off a meal, throwing a couple dollars in the outstretched cup, or telling someone to call you if they need anything. While nice, those things are not working to create sutures for the bloody, gaping wounds. They are just convenient, easy ways to offer a shadow of support so we can stop feeling guilty, pat ourselves on the back for “helping”, and move on with life. A meal gets eaten in twenty minutes. Then what? I will be the first to admit I am so very guilty of this.

Creating stitches to help stay the blood flow and bind up the wounds is complex and nuanced, and different for every person. But it always requires concentrated focus, attentiveness, and time. It may involve regular face-to-face interaction, learning how to ask hard questions in gentle ways, being mindful of personal space, being physically and emotionally available to offer support and encouragement, developing an awareness of non-physical needs as well as recognizing the very practical ones, and it’s prayer. All the time prayer.

When you enter into continuous prayer for someone and their suffering, you are opening yourself up to sharing in the burden of their grief. I don’t mean that you feel everything they feel or experience their same level of sorrow. That’s not possible because you aren’t them.  I mean that when you are spending time in prayer on behalf of someone else’s suffering, you begin feeling the deep ache of desperation, agonizing over the seeming impossibilities, perhaps grieving over all the whys, beseeching God for the miracle that satisfies our human desires, but still trusting in a grander design greater than what our human minds can understand. You are investing heart-sweat equity into their lives without conditions or limits. You are looking their sorrow straight in the eye, seeing it, and surrounding it with the love of your heart cry.

It could probably be said that in general, the majority of people try to live their lives in ways to avoid being bothered. We want the easiest road possible (although I will add that seems to be more of the western world’s ideology). How tragic. Empathy complicates things. Being forced to acknowledge the frailty of our existence complicates things. We want to believe we are invincible and often live as if we are. Living out our daily routine as smoothly as possible means avoiding the bumps as much as possible- sidestepping the ruts and the unloveliness and all the things that don’t benefit us personally. What you end up with at the end of the day, though, is a one-dimensional reality. You see only your life, your perspective, your happiness, and your pain. And in that way, you are limited to only what you know, which is probably not a whole heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things.

I am just beginning to come to terms with my own one-dimensional lifescape. It’s disheartening and discouraging to look back over the course of my life and count up all the wasted minutes, all the squandered opportunities. But the joy returns in meeting my present head on and making conscious decisions to do things differently- to grab hands and hearts and hold them; to see a hell-spent person instead of the mental illness or addiction; embracing the grief-stricken and unlovely knowing that their brilliant shine is only hidden by dark clouds – not extinguished- simply waiting for the winds of grace-filled hearts to help push them back and reveal the sun once more.

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Recognizing the whisper that is our life and choosing to walk onto the battleground of others’ pain effectively destroys the façade of “the perfect, happy life.” Because PSA… that isn’t actually a real thing. Wisdom isn’t gained through the lack of suffering, but in the presence of it.

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” – C.S. Lewis

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Every time you step into the darkness of someone else’s night, you begin to learn a new process for navigating the trenches, on account of everyone responds to help differently. As a person you broaden your scope of understanding, discover new methods of connecting to people’s pain, and more effectively embrace and support them while they stumble up and over their mountains. Because if you only exist to “make it through” yourself, what have you actually accomplished? If you only strive to be a decent human being that seeks to avoid pain, are you really even living? Can you actually connect with anyone in a real way? No, and you will end up rotting in your box of self-preservation. And then you will die, just as everyone else will, because that’s what all living things do. Death does not discriminate. So then what? You’ve wasted the precious gift that was your life by offering it only to yourself and withholding it from those who desperately needed what only you could offer.

“I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.” –Anais Nin

I’ll say it again: the fragility of life demands something more meaningful. Don’t waste it away trying to play it safe, avoiding the hard parts and the hard people. Take on the burden of caring and you will come to discover the return on your investment far outweighs the personal sacrifice. It may not come back to you in the ways you might hope for or expect, but whether tangible or intangible you will encounter a level of experiential living far deeper and more meaningful than the empty shallows of a safe life.

“God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” –Saint Augustine

Jesus knew well the path of sorrow. And as He knows it perfectly, since hanging broken on that cross while bearing the weight of the world’s pain and darkness all while fully human, He is able to enter into our grief with us as no other human possibly can. And it is that promise of companionship and absolute understanding that then gives us the ability to throw the weight of our life’s pain at His feet and keep on living. It grants us the strength to walk out of the false safety of a lifestyle of self-preservation and engage in the scarring battles and hard won victories of those around us.

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If we can allow ourselves to recognize and acknowledge the truth that we are all in this together instead of “me vs. everyone else,” the selfish part of our human hearts that seeks to self-preserve will begin to dissolve and compassion and empathy will gain space to develop and expand. This is the grand design of humanity- to live our life and love out loud, to share the hope that Jesus brought through His death and resurrection, to carry each other’s burdens, and to give generously- from our possessions, but even more importantly from the stuff of our hearts, for within the stuff of our hearts is where love resides, which is far more real, lasting, significant, and healing than any dollar bill or casserole dish.

And love is the needle and thread that mends and sews our ripped up tatters into a collective, functioning whole. Without it, nothing else we do matters.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

-1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (NLT)

 

Peace & Love, Amy

Self-Pity is a Choice

That’s a hard thing to read, isn’t it? Self-pity is a choice. We can’t always choose other things. Illness strikes; people turn against you; hatred is spewed at you; life breaks down around you; the system works against you… all the tragic circumstances that aren’t necessarily within your control. And how do we react to these situations? Certainly anger, grief, frustration, and confusion are all justifiable emotions- necessary even. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the resulting emotional forces from life’s inevitable roller-coaster rides, you will turn stone-cold in your boxed-up misery and denial.

There is a 1978 sci-fi thriller called “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Half hilarious, but also half sobering if you know what it feels like to be totally soul-numb and devoid of all feeling in real life. In summary, it depicts humans in San Francisco being replaced with clones bereft of emotion- robots inside human bodies. Their human bodies are invaded by alien plant-like spores while they sleep, and a silent, painless transition from human to clone takes place. The only indication of the change is that the clones’ behavior is completely emotionless, but also violent in their attempt to capture and change others. Please don’t ask me how or why I know this movie exists.

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However, self-pity is a similar monster. It’s a cancer that feeds on the “victim” mentality; that life is unfair and the universe owes us something. In reality, life IS unfair, but the universe owes us nothing. God owes us nothing. He gave us life, souls, the ability to love as He loves, free-will to make our own choices, and the gift of eternal life through Jesus. The rest is up to us. What you choose to make of this life and your circumstances is your responsibility.

But just as those alien plant-like spores took over human bodies, so our misery often loves the company of other’s. If we can’t be happy we don’t want to see other people being happy. And instead of channeling our energy to find solutions to the problems, we use it instead to project our negativity and complain about how unfair life is, hoping to make other people feel sorry for us and rope them into our woeful vortex of self-pity in order to feed the rotation and make it spin faster. It’s such a waste of time. And in the end nothing changes. The problems are still there waiting.

“He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that–it didn’t work.” (Gary Paulsen, Hatchet)

It’s easier to blame our problems on everyone and everything else, though, isn’t it? Instead of doing the hard work of processing through the hardships and pain, we try and make it someone else’s responsibility to make it all better. That’s just not the way of it, though. That’s a hard truth about real life. You alone are responsible for your words, actions, and reactions. “But he/she made me do it!” just isn’t true. If you want things to be different, then you do something different. Otherwise, the misery vortex will continue.

Relationships are a great example of this. There have been more than a few times when my husband and I have experienced break downs in communication; words get thrown around (or the silent treatment ensues), feelings get hurt, and nothing gets resolved until one of us (usually my husband) decides to put on some grown-up pants and start sorting through it. I tend to take the route of self-pity and feel sorry for myself, dwelling on thoughts like, “he just doesn’t understand me!”, “It’s all his fault that I’m so unhappy right now!”, “If he would just…” And on and on it goes. The truth is, it’s easier-and way more self-gratifying- to complain about all the things he’s doing wrong than to take a magnifying glass to my own behavior and figure out what I need to change. Heaven forbid I actually have to do some real work to become a better human being! Because despite what I may think sometimes, no- I am not always right.

Self-pity is also a strong catalyst for soul-numbness. The further you sink into that bitter pit, the less your heart is able to feel and know the wellspring of hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When your focus becomes internal, you lose sight of the external; your vision becomes narrow- like a horse wearing blinders; often resulting in numbness and apathy. If you only focus on your own misery, it becomes impossible to care about others. And if you’ve ever reached that place of total numbness and apathy, you recognize that your ability to “feel” has dissipated. Consider your body snatched, because you are no longer yourself; instead owned by the doom and gloom creature of your own creating.

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I’ll just pause with all the “teaching commentary” for a minute and say this so you can see that I am very much a work in progress when it comes to self-pity: My morning today was rough. And it was rough because I chose to make it so. I had a bad attitude, unjustly casting the blame of my unhappiness on my family and using minor incidents like spilled milk to feed my inner feelings of frustration. Crazy that a four year old would ever spill milk, right? Well, all morning I walked around this house looking for ways to be mad because I wanted everyone to feel my vexation and annoyance at their existence in my space. Meanwhile, I was mentally listing all the reasons I was justified in my misery. The list was not adding up, which only caused to further irritate me because then I became consumed by guilt on top of it all, which then resorted to self-deprecating thoughts of unworthiness and being a terrible mother, etc., etc. You see where this is leading? Down an endless, dark rabbit hole. It doesn’t solve any problems. It doesn’t make me feel any better – quite the opposite, in fact. It only serves to compound the misery by making everyone else around me feel just as unhappy as I do. Not quite the vision I had in mind for my family dynamic, nor is it God’s. Lord, forgive me.

If you live life looking for ways to feel sorry for yourself and things to be angry about, you will undoubtedly find them. It’s not hard, especially when tragedies occur. The truth is, we live in a very broken world full of imperfect people- every one of us. Nobody is out there getting it right all of the time. It’s daily, conscious decision-making to choose a different, better way- and that better way is rarely gratifying to our human nature. If it makes you feel good in the moment, but later on less than good in your spirit, you have chosen wrong.

We can’t necessarily control what emotions charge up to our mind’s doorstep, but we can control what we do with them. We can’t always control the tragedies and obstacles happening around us and to us, but we can control how we react to those experiences and how we choose to build our life-road with those heavy bricks. Do you lay them haphazardly, filling your path with potholes, ruts, and confusing twists so that it’s misleading and frustrating and nearly impossible for anyone to follow? Or do you make conscious decisions in the placement of each one- taking the time to line them up and space them properly, filling in the cracks so that people can use your experiences and reactions as a safe, reliable guide in navigating difficult circumstances?

I know I want my children to follow a better path than the one I’ve been creating so far.  That’s a hard truth to come to terms with, but a very important one if I’m going to continue forward in developing something of more excellent quality- a road actually worth following.

When self-pity attempts to creep in, immediately start asking yourself questions: Is there anything about this situation that is within your control to change? What learning substance can you glean from it? How can you use the experience for positive, personal growth or character strengthening? How could you use this event to effectively lead others through something similar? How can you rearrange your thoughts to center on the positive aspects instead of the negative ones?

Then determine instead to do the hard work of fashioning your piles of ashes into works of exquisite art that create a vivid and vibrant story worth sharing. Your human life and God-given soul are worth the effort. After all, even a homely desert cactus surrounded by dry, rocky soil and covered in prickly skin can bloom a stunning display of blossoms worthy of wonder and admiration.

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“Rebellion against your handicaps gets you nowhere. Self-pity gets you nowhere. One must have the adventurous daring to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities and undertake the most interesting game in the world — making the most of one’s best.” –Harry Emerson Fosdick

Stop choosing self-pity. Look for the bad, and you will find plenty to drown in. Look for the good, and you will encounter the insatiable enjoyment of the infinite wonderful things this life- your life- has to offer.

Peace & Love, Amy