Behind the Scenes – Three Years Later

It’s that time of the year when everyone starts posting their family photos and sending out Christmas cards. I followed suit and posted some family photos that were taken of me and my boys this fall.  The comments flew in quickly about how precious and beautiful the pictures were. The mix of gorgeous fall colors and smiling adorable children were enough to make anyone swoon. Our photographer Erin did an amazing job. She was able to make the love that we share shine through the camera. The photos turned out to be frame worthy and will be displayed for years to come in all their glory. However, there is a story behind these perfect pictures. A story that is not so beautiful or perfect. 

The story behind these beautiful pictures goes as follows : The hour leading up to our photo shoot was chaos in all senses of the word. We had guests at our house up to the very minute we left.  My three year old was exhausted and refused to wear the carefully coordinated outfit I had chosen for him weeks before. My 5 year old had grown overnight and his jeans no longer fit. My stress level started rising. As we were running late to the shoot, my toddler fell asleep and got precisely a ten minute nap. He was forced to wake up and needless to say he was not camera ready. He protested hard enough and  long enough for it to become clear we were not going to be able to make this happen. The tears starting welling up as I had really counted on getting these pictures done. I had given up all hope and was feeling quite humiliated. As I tried to make our escape, I learned that my van’s battery was dead and I couldn’t go anywhere for awhile. Another family had come and gone and we were still sitting in the parking lot an hour later crying and cold. Then in a moment, things began to turn around. After those 2 hours of struggle, the light broke through!  Our photographer seized the moment and the results are what you can see today on my social media pages and in this post. She was able to take a very messy day and produce something beautiful and lasting. It didn’t take long for me to follow this metaphor into my real life. 

 Today I have a beautiful family, 2 jobs that I love, great friendships and community. I am provided and cared for. I live with strong hope and faith. You may catch me at the gym or at Starbucks moving forward with life and pursuing future goals. I laugh a lot and can find joy in the simple things. I am raising two healthy, happy, little boys.  I have tasted amazing grace and have learned the power of God’s presence. I can speak with confidence in the faith I hold on to. What you see today is not the full story.  The beauty you see has risen out of three very long hard years. Often people say things like “ Don’t look back” or “The past is in the past” as a way of pushing forward in life and staying positive. I agree that looking in the rearview mirror all the time won’t get you to where you need to go. But I would also argue that one cannot fully appreciate the beauty of where they are now unless they acknowledge and remember from whence they came.  

As I sit here in 2019 and flip through my journaled pages from December 2016 and beyond and I read a more complete and accurate story. I read through the dark times and see my cries out to God asking him why he allowed all this pain in my life. I can see literal tear stains on the pages and  I can feel the anguish flowing out of them. The hope is small, and at times missing completely. Anger and anxiety run all through these pages. Depression seeps out. At the same time, I can start to piece the puzzle together page by page seeing glimpses of God’s grace and healing as time moves on. I can read about joy and the presence of God I experience often. Three years ago, I couldn’t begin to imagine that I would survive this intense of heartbreak, let alone be able to move forward in it. I couldn’t imagine creating something beautiful from my hopeless and disastrous situation. However, my God is bigger than my pain and He knows the whole story. He can turn things around and redeem the awful. He is the God who makes beauty from ashes. He is always at work.  I can look at these beautiful pictures of my family framed on my wall today and remember that in the middle of that photo shoot I had given up all hope. In the middle of that shoot, I could not imagine anything beautiful coming out of it. Yet here it is hanging on my wall on display for all to see.  The same could be said about the life I am living today

It’s good to know the difficult story behind the camera because it increases the gratitude for the beautiful photo results that show up in front of the camera. It makes it all that more appreciated. In the same way we appreciate a movie so much more when we see the behind the scenes footage and learn all that goes into making a film. Or a house you live in if you were the one swinging the hammers and painting the walls. When we understand the challenges and difficulties that are behind someone’s story and see where God has brought them now, how much more can we give glory to our great God? When we think back to our own stories and see how God has carried us through to today, gratefulness will not be manufactured but authentically reciprocated.  Today marks three years exactly from a confession that shook my earth and altered the course of my life. Last night I knelt on my living room floor and fell face down in worship as I replayed the last few years out. I have spent countless sleepless nights on this floor pouring my heart out and desperately clinging to hope. I haven’t figured out how to do this single mom life well, but I have figured out how much I need Jesus. His strength, grace and love have always and will always be there. I can look back to the hardest moments of loneliness and loss and be grateful as they have shaped and grown my faith in ways I never could have imagined. Don’t forget or reduce the suffering and the heartbreak that has happened in the past, for they are teachers that lead us into worship. Acknowledging the difficult past is a valuable ingredient for appreciating the present. Today I give praise to God for walking through the last 3 years with me. I thank all those who also walked with me and encouraged me in this journey. Each kind word or thoughtful gift did not go unnoticed. I am very blessed to be surrounded by so much support and love. Looking back has helped me move forward.

Psalm 94:18-19 – When I thought, “my foot slips,” your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up

The Lost Ornaments

It’s mid-November and the coffee cups have turned red, snow is on the ground, and the aisles of pumpkin spice are far gone being replaced by the aromas of evergreen and peppermint.  My amazon wish lists are filling up with ideas and the pressure to find the right gift is already being felt. The Christmas trees are up and the holly is hung in each store I wander into. Although Thanksgiving is still over a week away, it is safe to say that it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. With all the seasonal joy in the air, I decided I might as well join in! This weekend my boys and I pulled out the decorations from storage. Our time had come.  Decorating the Christmas tree is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.  Growing up I was given an ornament each year that was just for me. Each year the ornament collection would grow, and I would delight in hanging my special ones up on our freshly picked real live tree. They each had special meaning and related to something important in my life that year. That tradition grew as I started my own family. Each year I added a new ornament to our collection. Christmas ornaments make me feel nostalgic and remind me of the memories I have created over the years.  

Three years ago, I put up our Christmas tree with all the special ornaments of Christmas past and looked with great expectation to the holiday season that I love so dearly. Within the week, I was on a plane leaving behind all my unfulfilled Christmas plans and the ornaments that would have gone along with them. That Christmas season turned out to be the hardest one of my life. A friend shipped me a box with a few of my most important Christmas items such as our stockings and my favorite nativity set so we could have them in Illinois.  However, when I flew back to Texas eight weeks later to pack up my stuff, I discovered by some mix-up the box packed with all my Christmas ornaments was accidentally donated to a local Goodwill. I was devastated. All these memories dropped off to be either sold for a meaningless price or possibly just disposed of all together. Among the lost ornaments were all my childhood ornaments, a beautiful glass ornament bought in the festive markets of Venice, Italy, my sons’ first Christmas ornaments plus so many more.  Each reminded me of family memories and a beautiful life I have lived.  However, it was obvious I would never get these treasures back. I had lost so much that Christmas already, I just added these holiday mementos to the list.  

Each year as the holiday season comes around, I am confronted with the loss that has occurred in my life. Christmas was a season when I lost so much. However, at the same time I find so much joy and hope during this time of year. I often feel the tug of war going on in my head and heart with both emotions.  When I decorate my tree each year, I notice the ornaments that are missing. I remember the ones that should be there for my kids to see and hold. Those ornaments represented so much more than just keepsakes. Then again, they are just keepsakes. The items themselves are honestly not all that important in the scheme of things.  Regardless, I have done my best to add new memories to that tree. Today, I can look at my Christmas tree and choose to see the new additions we have added over the last couple years. I can see the homemade preschool ornaments that were made with love by my precious toddlers. I can choose to see the picture ornaments of my kids and see how they have grown in such a short time. I can choose to see the “Merry Christmas Mom” ornament the boys handpicked for me last year with such excitement.  I can look at our tree and choose to grieve the pain and loss that I have gone through, or I can look at my tree and choose to see God’s faithful hand over me and my family over the years and be grateful. Which one is more biblical? Which one is more true? BOTH. Both are true and both can be held at the same time.  

Some of the new homemade ornaments that have been added since 2016

I have been on path of learning to hold grief and joy at the same time and not feel guilty about either. There is a true and biblical place to grieve the losses in our lives. We see this all throughout scripture and even with our Lord Jesus. Jesus grieves over sin and death. We live in a broken world. This is not as it should be. As Christians we are not immune to suffering and in fact are promised it all the more. Many of us have experienced unimaginable pain. It does us a disservice to push past it and claim victory in Christ without processing the grief and hurt and allowing ourselves to feel it. We should lament. We should be broken for the brokenness of the world and in our story in particular. However, if we only see that part of our story, we will lose all hope.  We will stay in the dark.  The hope that Jesus offers us is the ability to be hurting so intensely, yet at the same time to be full of unexplainable joy. This joy that comes is not temporary and fleeting.  It comes from an anchored faith in the gospel. When we know that this world is not all there is;  When we know that God is compassionate and kind; When we know God has already shown himself faithful by sending Emmanuel to rescue us from the brokenness of sin and death;  When we know all this, we can experience true and lasting JOY. This is true of me as I have  come into the Christmas season the last few years. Yes, it can feel as if my heart is breaking over again each year, but I can also fall on my knees and delight in the truth of the holiday season. Emmanuel has come! God is with us! If the holidays are hard for you, I urge you to let yourself hold joy and grief at the same time. Remember the loss but focus on the lasting hope you have in Jesus.  

Seasons of Change

Last weekend, I basked in the glory of the beauty of the fall colors around me. Today as I look out the window there is snow covering those multicolored trees and an icy chill is all around me. Living in the Midwest during the fall I should not be surprised by the sudden weather change, but as much as they predicted this dramatic climate transformation I was just as much thrown into confusion. Yesterday I woke up to snow blowing in every direction and my van frozen solid. I employed the help of my five year old to dethaw our vehicle which in turn wasn’t the most efficient workforce. I am sure my neighbors could hear my grunts and groans while I questioned my judgement of choosing Illinois as my home state. I frantically scrambled to get me and both boys to school and work while navigating through the unfortunate icy October conditions. You would think I have never done this before, but I certainly have of course. The first snow of the season always feels so new, yet so familiarly awful each year. It is as though I have completely forgotten what winter feels and looks like. As much as I knew winter was coming and a seasonal change was inevitable, I felt completely unprepared and overwhelmed by it all the same.

The colliding of two seasons

The weather can be a precise metaphor for life in general. We see it all throughout the scriptures. There are multitudes of verses discussing the changing of the seasons. It is such a simplistic yet profound imagery for us to understand especially if we live in a place where we experience 4 complete seasons. We know the seasons will change. We know that the season we are experiencing now won’t last forever. Yet, we often live like it will.  At the end of the summer, I do everything I can to be outside every chance we can get. I want it to last forever, and sometimes stay in denial that those colder temps will ever arrive. During the wintertime, the opposite tends to happen. I often get so lost in the despair of the cold weather and wonder if it will ever end. I have the complete knowledge to know that every season has an end and a beginning but tend to have a hard time living my life that way.  

The same can be true about my spiritual life. Whether in a season of grief or a season of rejoicing, I often get stuck in it and don’t live in the awareness that change is coming. Sometimes these seasons last a lot longer than the three months that make up the physical seasons, yet the metaphor is still the same. Life seasons change, yet we are overwhelmed and often surprised when they do. Sometimes the change is gradual, and we can slowly feel it coming. We might be given a warning. For example, this fall brought changes for my family’s schedule. My older son started Kindergarten, my younger son started daily preschool and I switched my teaching hours. I knew all of this was coming. This summer I did what I could to prepare us for the new season, yet when it finally came it was still difficult. These were good changes, but they were changes all the same. Sometimes the change is drastic, sudden and unexpected. Like a snowstorm swooping through an October day or a tornado that drops in the middle of a summer afternoon. Many of us understand that one phone call or one moment can alter the rest of our lives. I have walked through those days. One moment I am making plans for my day with a long to do list and busy weekend up ahead and the next I am in an ambulance happy to be just be alive.  One day I am planning what clothes my family of 4 will wear for family photos being taken this weekend, and the next day I am on a plane flying 1000 miles away as a family of 3. These times when change charges in unannounced and uninvited flip our world upside down.

Whether it is gradual or sudden, change is hard no matter what. There is a process of adjusting to new things. Some people adapt better than others, but all in all we each struggle in some way when our lives move into new seasons. The word “new” is scary to a lot of people. My children can struggle with new things even if they are good things. This week my son started a new school and he is taking the school bus for the first time. These are good new things, but he is resisting and wrestling against it. Like my son, I like to feel comfortable and familiar with the situations in my life. It is scary when I am forced get out of that comfort zone and move into something new or different. So how do we handle change as followers of Jesus?  Dr David Jeremiah said “ we can embrace change, knowing we serve an unchanging God”.  The world is ever changing around us. There is very little in our lives that stay the same for a great length of time. Jobs change, schools change, relationships change, economies change, politicians change, seasons change, culture changes, technology changes, attitudes change, but our King is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  I find great stability and confidence in this truth. My adult life has been full of change and uncertainty. I am learning to live life openhandedly knowing that no matter what my plans might be, I must acknowledge that God is sovereignly in control. I know I can turn to Him in any circumstance and trust that His character hasn’t moved one iota.  

A new preschool for my son Lucas. He was so anxious about this big change.

So as the autumn leaves fall to the ground and winter winds come to steal them off their branches, I know that in every season there is joy and hope to be found. Even in the darkest season, we can find the light if we look to our unchanging Savior.  I also know that this season will not last forever. For better or for worse, change will come. There is no need to fear it, if we put our trust in Jesus. He walks with us guiding us through each step. His love is steady and sure.

Psalm 106:1 Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!

Facing My Fears

Carving a jack-o-lantern with my boys this year for Halloween

I have always been a fan of Halloween. I like the candy, the costumes, and the parties. Its takes place during my most favorite season. As a parent there are countless activities I love doing with my sons. We visit pumpkin patches,apple orchards, carve jack o lanterns and participate in trick or treating events. Nowadays I usually stay away from all the creepy things that come along with the holiday, but if we would rewind nearly 20 years ago you could easily find my middle school self in the basement of friends’ houses watching horror movies during a Friday night sleepover.   The Scream franchise had our full attention and devotion. My friends and I loved the thrill of sleuthing out the serial killer’s identity, while hiding under blankets and peeking out just in time for the final scare. Those same friends and I could be found at the local haunted house standing in long lines and paying money to be scared out of our minds by some ghastly horror scene being acted out. We would link arms and hold tightly to each other the entire way through. After we had taken our tour through the house of horrors, we came out laughing and ready for more. This became a tradition each Halloween. Fear was equal to fun and entertainment for us. 

As I have grown into an adult, I no longer find fear to be fun or amusing. I stay as far away from horror movies or violent television as I can. A once avid roller coaster fan, I now find myself struggling to embrace the idea of being flipped and turned upside down with the trust that just this one harness will keep me from falling to my death. Instead of me pursuing fear, fear is now pursuing me. Something transforms in us as we mature. Many of us who loved scary movies or riding thrill rides as a kid, now struggle with true anxiety. I believe anxiety could be considered a fancy word for fear that takes control.   As a person who struggles with anxiety, fear is not something I go looking for. Instead it finds me and paralyzes me from living a life of freedom. For so many fear isn’t something just played with on Halloween, but it is the last thing we deal with before bed and the first thing that greets us in the morning. I have had a lot of experience living a life full of anxiety over the last decade. I am no expert on anxiety but I have observed a few things regarding it. For example: Fear rages most when we feel alone. Therefore, the power of fear can be lifted and often released by the presence of community.  

Like most households I have nightly bedtime routine with my two children. I tuck my boys into their beds each night, read a bible story, pray together, and sing a quick song. I turn off the lights, close the door, and approximately 5 minutes after that I will hear the sound of my five year old son calling my name. I go to check on him and he tells me he is afraid. Nearly every night for the last couple weeks, he tells me he cannot sleep and fears someone or something coming into our home to get him.  He doesn’t have this fear in the middle day. He doesn’t stop in the middle of playing a board game with me and worry about intruders. He doesn’t call my name in his classroom at school fearful of being harmed. See fear always comes when we feel the most alone. My son is fine until the lights go off, his little brother has fallen asleep and he is lying there wide awake in the dark feeling alone. What brings him comfort is one more hug and reassurance that I am right there in the room next door. I haven’t left him alone in his fears.  

I can completely relate to my 5-year-old. I have experienced a lot of trauma in my life and faced some of my worst fears. How have I been able to walk through them and come out on the other side? Knowing that I wasn’t left alone in my fears. This came through having a community around me. Friends and family have gathered around me encouraging me and supporting me in my darkest hours. Even if the words weren’t always the right ones, their physical presence gave me the courage to know I don’t have to do this all alone. The night that I survived a brutal attack, my sisters drove down to be with me. I woke up in the middle of the night and there they were sitting at my bedside all night ready to serve and help me.  There was an actual guest room that they could have used, but they chose proximity and that mattered. I wasn’t alone and I could fall back asleep knowing they were there.I have countless examples of people showing up for me in hard moments that in turn gave me courage to keep going. I walked into a courtroom to finalize a divorce with my mom by my side and friends on call praying for me fervently. I have sat in an emergency room with my child while friends and family held my hand and cared for me. I have spoken vulnerably in front of a crowd with a prayer warrior mentor standing in my corner. I have walked through depression and anxiety with close friends listening and willing to sit in the hard moments.  It is in community when fear loses its power over us. Good community takes fear and sucks all the lies out of it.  When we have someone holding our hand in that courtroom, doctor’s office, or a funeral home,  fear can be pushed backwards. Something we thought impossible to face all of sudden becomes possible.   

So when does fear take over and mostly consume me? Like my kindergartner, it’s when I am laying wide awake in the dark feeling alone. When I feel alone, fear attacks me like an enemy charging the front lines ready to capture my mind and my heart. Sometimes it succeeds and other times I am prepared for battle. I know that as much as friends and family attempt to support and rally around me, they will never fully satisfy my lonely heart. They cannot be available 24/7 to give me the courage I desire. As humans we like to be able to rely on other humans to get us out of our trouble and rescue us. I often put too much weight on my relationships  to become my saving grace in a storm, but that always ends in disaster. People will fail us. It’s inevitable. The expectation for them not to do so is setting yourself up for disappointment. In those darkest hours of the night, when there is no one to text and no one to turn to for assurance and safety I realize I can turn to the very one who speaks light into darkness. He is always there ready for me to come running to him for my peace of mind.  As a child I memorized Hebrews 13:5- 6 which says  For he has said, “ I will never leave you nor forsake you. So we can confidently say, the Lord is my helper, I will not fear; what can man do to me?”  I wish that I could take the truths of this verse I have quoted for decades and rest in them, but honestly I find myself doubting the validity of what God is saying here all too often. I do feel alone. I do fear man and the capability of evil that is in them. Those feelings can often overshadow the truth, but it doesn’t change it.  

All through scripture you can find the command “Do not fear” usually followed with an immediate reassurance of his loving character and presence.  The Lord knows we fall into fear as soon as the unexpected comes our way.  God tells Abraham “Fear not, for I am your shield and great reward” (Gen 15:1). God tells Isaiah “fear not, for I have redeemed you and called you by name.” (Isaiah 43:1) The angel Gabriel tells Mary “Don’t be afraid, for you have found favor with God”. ( Luke 1:30). Notice that in none of these passages it says “Fear not because nothing bad will happen to you.”  In fact, Abraham still was childless for many years. Isaiah is believed to have been martyred. Mary still lived through being pregnant out of wedlock in a Jewish culture, a refugee in Egypt and watched her son die a gruesome death (and she was found favored!) I think in our American culture Christians will all too often say things like “Don’t be afraid, just trust in God” in a way that’s taken out of biblical context. What they often are implying is that if we trust in him then our fears probably won’t come true. But there are times when our fears actually do come true. I have lived through facing three of my biggest fears : Assault, miscarriage and infidelity/divorce. What brought me strength in all of these situations wasn’t some false hope that my circumstances would change somehow, but clinging to the promises of our King that he will never leave me or forsake me. He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus is Emmanuel, which literally means God with us. He came down to earth to prove his love for us. We can look to Jesus to see that God makes good on his promises and desires to be with his people especially in those hardest most terrifying moments.  

            If you are the one feeling alone today in your fears, tell someone. Don’t walk it alone. You were meant for community. Reach out to someone and let them into your fears. Just like most of us wouldn’t dare walk through a haunted house all by ourselves or sit alone in basement watching a horror movie, neither should we think we could walk through our biggest fears without someone next to us.  If you have already have a community supporting you then be grateful for that, but don’t forget to look to Jesus first of all.. He makes us brave. He calms the storms and raises the dead. He heals our diseases. He understands our sorrow. He never fails us. He is drawing near to you. Draw near to him and know that you are not alone.  

The Purpose in Perseverance

       I had this brilliant idea to sign up me and my five-year-old son to run an obstacle race challenge challenge together. He has a new enthusiasm for the American Ninja Warrior television show.  So I thought this would be a fun way to fuel that fire, get us active and make a sweet memory together. Let’s call it a mother son bonding experience. As the race got closer, I started having more doubts. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. My son had cried walking the two blocks home from school because it was too strenuous just a couple weeks ago. There were tears of exhaustion on a casual, fun family bike ride one recent evening. This is the same kid that after going hiking, ingeniously came up with his plan of “drive thru hiking” as an alternative so he wouldn’t have to walk any further. Needless to say, he doesn’t have the reputation of being my most resilient child. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.  

After crossing the finish line!

      The day of the race came, and he was never more excited! He was ecstatic and told everyone at church that morning that he was running a real obstacle race! Doubts swirled around in my head, but I didn’t falter and let them show. I gave him the very enthusiastic mom thumbs up and high fives needed. I tried to mentally prepare myself not to be that annoying mother that shames her child but uses words of encouragement and praise. Although I knew with my competitive nature that might be a challenge. As we stood on the starting line covered in bubbles and foam (because every good race should start that way), my son grabbed my hand and told me not to let it go. I could feel his anxious excitement. We counted down and the siren went off and off we went. We ran through the fire hoses and around the fields to the first wall climbing obstacle. We got through it together, although my son did get mad at me for “helping others win” when I gave a hand to some young girls beside us. That competitive nature must be genetic or something. It wasn’t but just a few minutes later when the exhaustion settled in.  My precious five-year-old was tired and not sure if he could finish. We had 10 more obstacles to go.  He so badly wanted to win the race, I could see it, but boy was he tired already. Being one of the youngest competitors, nearly all the other runners had passed us up and were out of sight. I looked at him and said, “Do you want to win?” A resounding yes was his reply! “This is how we do it”, I said. “We win if we don’t give up!” We win if we cross that finish line.” We win if you just keep going”. This little motivational speech was all he needed to hear to endure the heat and long distances for his short little legs. We carried heavy weights, belly crawled under wire, crossed muddy creeks, ran through tires, and climbed up and down large walls.  Although we didn’t finish first, we “slip and slided” through that finish line second to last with big smiles on our faces and a great pride in our hearts. I saw my son beaming with pride as they draped his medal across his chest. All those challenges laced with sweat and exhaustion had been worth it now. He looked up at me with bright eyes and a wide smile “We won mom! We didn’t give up!”.  

For the past seven years, the month of September always hits me hard. September 8 is the anniversary of a brutal attack that I survived. Each year around Labor Day, my body starts to feel the tension and anxiety. I find it harder to get out of bed and do normal every day things such as prepare breakfast or take a shower. It usually takes me a few days to realize this is PTSD at its finest. My counselors have told me multiple times that the body remembers trauma even if we are not consciously remembering it ourselves. Even though this phenomenon takes over my body every September I am always surprised by it. I want to be okay. I want to be past all of it and be able to move forward. Maybe this year will be different I think, and when it’s not, depression slithers in and I am caught as the unsuspecting victim once again. Seven years of fighting through all these emotions. This month I have tried to write to commemorate the anniversary, but a blank screen glared back at me for weeks.  I wanted to be able to write a post about the gratitude I feel, I could not get my fingers to type anything without feeling like a complete phony. My desire is always to do my best in being authentic. I aim to be raw and genuine not withholding the hard stuff, but I always desire to land my writing in a place of hope. As I sat down to write over the last few weeks, hope escaped me. I was nowhere near that landing zone. I was landing in despair, defeat, and discouragement. How can I encourage others when I’m not even finding it for myself?  

My view of Lake Michigan from a bluff in St Joseph Michigan.

As I have struggled and inched my way through September I may not have landed in a river of hope and joy, but I have learned a few things while sitting and listening for God’s voice to break through. A few weeks ago, I sat on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in the early morning hours. The lake seemed to go on without end and was majestic in nature. My eyes were taking in a glorious view, but all I could feel was my heavy heart beating in my chest and sadness overwhelming my soul around it. As I sat above the beauty of creation and the tears flowed freely, I asked God when this pain was going to stop. I begged for the healing to come once and for all. I beseeched him for purpose in all this pain. Truth be told, I often don’t see an end to the suffering. I know that Jesus brings hope and joy. I sing about that all the time. I can cite a plethora of verses telling me that Jesus is better.  However all that was just knowledge in my head and was not seeping into my heart like it often does at other times of the year. You might be in the same boat as me. You may have heard someone tell you “this too shall pass” , but often as a fellow writer KJ Ramsey says sometimes it feels more like “this too shall last.” We are not guaranteed that our pain will end here on earth. In fact, we are guaranteed that trials will continue to come our way until our dying day. As believers, we may be able to find the joy and hope that is in Jesus on most days, but what about those days, weeks or months where his love isn’t always penetrating our hearts and filling us up. What about when those hard things seem just too hard and impossible to overcome? What do we do then? Friends, I will tell you the same thing I told my son a couple weeks ago, we persevere!  

My son learned an important life lesson during that obstacle race. He learned that when things are hard, the key to success is perseverance.  I have already used this on him multiple times this week when he tells me something is too hard for him. I remind him the difficulties of the race, but that he crossed that finish line. He seems to understand perseverance a bit more because he has experienced the benefits of it. Truth be told, this is a lesson I am constantly learning and struggle with daily. Perseverance is defined as “the steady persistence in a course of action, or a purpose, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement”.  Perseverance takes effort, sweat and tears. It is not passive. You cannot sit by while the challenges of life come at you and overcome them. Perseverance is active and intentional. It’s a decision to stay in the race and fight through the adversity that stands in front of you. When those walls look too high to climb, it’s setting our eyes in the knowledge that there is a finish line ahead and prize that is worthy to be attained. Then we get through each obstacle as it comes. We cannot worry about what is up ahead and around the corner. We focus on what is in front of us now that God is giving us the grace to do overcome today. And when that exhaustion comes at us full force and we are ready to take a seat or throw in the towel, we remember that unlike a physical race we are not operating out of our own strength. We remember that our ability to spiritually overcome does not come from within us, but from Christ himself. I do not need to pull myself up from my bootstraps and bolster my own faith to get to the finish line. In fact, that would cause me to fall on my face in failure all the more. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us in this- “Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and the perfecter of our faith” (CSB). It is Jesus who is our source of energy and strength in this spiritual race we are running. As my son was competing in his obstacles, I didn’t run ahead or lag behind, I stayed by his side with a helping hand and an encouraging word. How much more so is our heavenly Father doing this for us? Even when it’s too dark to see through the fog and it doesn’t seem like his presence is a reality, He promises that he never leaves us. He is there with a strong helping hand reaching out for us. We just need to reah back and take it.  

We must call to mind the truth that behind every trial, we have a God who is working it for our good and his glory. He is for us, not against us. Romans 5: 3-5 goes as far to say this “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given us”. (NIV).  Even in those darker days, I cling to this verse and trust the process that God has laid out for me. My feelings want to say that this suffering is meaningless and the pain is pointless. My feelings want to believe that God isn’t listening to me or redeeming my story. However, I know that my feelings lie. I have decidedly chosen to believe in my heart the truths of God’s word. I believe that he is using every single tear drop and redeeming every part of the pain for a greater purpose. Nothing is in vain. I know that if I persevere long enough that the hope eventually comes back. It always does. I trust in Romans 5, that in my perseverance I can know that God is growing my character. And as my character is growing, hope begins to blossom in my heart once again. And as hope begins to blossom, I am now able to fully recognize that it was worth it all because God’s amazing love is overflowing from the depths of my heart. What a beautiful outcome and reward we have for us if we just hold on and endure.  

  I can understand perseverance a bit more because, like my son, I have experienced the benefits of it. Each October comes like a breath of fresh air. I may call it new month mercies (totally made that up, but I’ll go with it).  Because I live in a broken world and I am a human being, I will repeat this cycle over again and again in my lifetime. One day my faith will become my sight and I won’t have to persevere anymore. Until that day, I keep on fighting through and grasping on to hope. I want to encourage you today if you are in a dark season that feels never-ending, don’t give up. Keep going. Trust the process that your perseverance is building character, and that character brings about hope, and this hope does not disappoint! Our heavenly father is telling us “Persevere, keep going! You win if you don’t give up! You win because I have already won the race for you!”  

The Struggle of a Sunday

Sunday morning I walk into church at 9am and I’m already exhausted. It’s felt like I’ve run a marathon to actually get through the front door. The last two hours were a fight both physically and spiritually. My kids are always slower and grumpier on a Sunday, as am I. We can’t find shoes, kids are fighting, lots of coffee is poured, juice is spilled and tears are flowing. We are supposed to be there in 10 minutes yet nobody has brushed their teeth, breakfast is still slowly being consumed and church is a twenty minute drive away. Everything seems to go wrong and is preventing us from going. This doesn’t happen Monday through Friday for school. Mostly (not always) we are waiting at the door with backpacks on, matching shoes, and bright cheery faces for those days. But today is Sunday and that’s not how this day tends to go. I often whisper under my breath “is this even worth it?” as I am strapping down the toddler in the car seat. I put some worship music on for our drive, wipe my tears, try to calm myself and prepare my heart for what’s ahead.

The before church struggle is real, but let me tell you about the during church struggle. Once we are in the doors, I would think things would improve, but its an all new struggle that takes place and it’s predominantly all inside my heart. I check in my kids for their classes and all around me I see families gathered together. Everyone looks put together and happy. No one else looks like they’ve cried the whole way to church. During a a fellowship time when asked the question “Good morning, How are you?, everyone answers with a polite reply of “just fine, thanks!” What I want to say is, “Good morning, no I am not okay. My heart aches and I am not sure I am gonna make it through this day. How are you?” However I am sure that response would create an uncomfortable feeling for everyone involved, so I say my not so genuine calculated response of “just fine, thanks” and go take my seat. I sit in my pew and new emotions start to flood me. I see dads holding their kids in their arms with their arms wrapped around their wives. Church is great place for families. I flash back to just a few years ago, when I was in my home church in Texas. My husband on stage giving announcements or doing baptisms, teenagers all around us, and both babies of mine fully taken care of. I feel a place of belonging there. Now back to my present reality and I sit alone, unsure of how I fit in in this new community. So much has changed. I start to hear the whisper in my ear that I am too broken and messed up to be here. I hear the whisper that I am the only one struggling this way. I want to turn and walk out that door, but I don’t.

What keeps me walking through the door of church each Sunday? See, I know those whispers are actually lies and I know where they come from. Oh how the enemy would love for me to believe them. Now when I hear those whispers I look around and see the community of people around me, but I don’t see perfection anymore. I have to look a little harder and then things become clearer. I see other single moms wiping their tears with kids straggling behind them. I see widows and widowers pressing on. I see friends who are also fighting through depression or anxiety and choosing faith over fear. I see couples who are struggling through infertility and loss holding on to hope. I see cancer survivors and those with chronic illness. I see other exhausted parents at a loss with strong willed children. I see the behind the scenes stories of great faith that display the goodness of our Savior. As I see all those people lifting their hands up in worship, those whispers in my ear are drowned out by the congregation of God’s hurting people singing with one voice. There is nothing more beautiful and inspiring to me than to see those who are suffering through great trials continue to choose to fight for faith and choose to worship anyway. This is what draws tears to my eyes and brings me to my knees. It renews my faith and encourages me to keep going. It is a reminder that God is continually at work and redeeming the lives of his people. I believe the suffering church brings great glory to our Savior as we look to him together as a community of broken hurting people and declare with one voice that He is still glorious and good. It puts on display to the world where our hope lies, and it’s not in our circumstances, but in Jesus alone.

We all have different stories, but we all live in the same broken world. We all experience pain, loss and disappointment as we walk our faith journeys. Unfortunately in the world of social media we can only see a glimpse of others’ lives and what they choose to share with the digital world. It can still seem like a person has everything going right for them and free of hardship and pain, yet the reality is they are walking through the same depression just as you are. I once heard someone say we are comparing our insides to everyone else’s outsides. This is why authentic community is so very important especially to the Christian. How vital it is for all of us to know the suffering of those around us if just for the reason that we know that we are not alone?

So how do we know and learn the stories of those sitting across the aisle from us each Sunday? From my experience it often takes someone to be brave enough to go first. Brene Brown, who has spent decades studying vulnerability, says the “vulnerability breeds vulnerability”. She obviously knows what she is talking about. The church could use some help in this area. We often want to be viewed as godly and strong. We don’t anyone to know about the unbelief and doubt that keeps creeping in. We don’t want to appear needy or weak. We want to be able to just say glory to God and keep moving forward without facing the heartache right in front of us, but that’s not the way we were created. We were created to be in community and encourage each other. In order to encourage one another we must be willing to share the struggles we are facing. We must be willing to change our answer from, “I am just fine” to” I am having a hard time and need prayer”. From my personal experience, when I have shared both privately and publicly about sexual assault, anxiety, divorce, or doubts , I will receive a resounding reply of “me too”. Others realize they are not alone. Just this month a few different friends of mine have opened up with me about their battles with depression and thoughts of harming themselves ( some presently and some in the past), and made it safe for me to say “I have been there too!” It’s definitely scary to expose the parts of our story that are hard, but it can lead to the deepest of friendships. Unfortunately other times it can drive away friends that just aren’t ready to handle the hard stuff. If that happens then maybe they aren’t the people you need in your life during a difficult season anyway.

Some of you may not be in a present season of suffering, but have had times of heartbreak in your pasts that you haven’t talked about in years. The people you are crossing paths with in this season of life may have no idea about the seasons that are behind you, but they need to. That young mom needs to hear the empty nester she looks up to tell the story about the many battles she had with her strong willed child or how her now wonderfully grown up son once set fire to a field for fun in his youth. (this may or may not have been a story that encouraged me this week.) That young couple may need to hear of your many years of loss before you had the children who they see in church running around today. The woman taking chemo treatments could use your story of beating the odds so many years ago. TEven if the story isn’t the same scenario, it is still valuable to those walking through a trial. Someone may need to hear about your story of suffering in the past just so they know that someone else has gone through unfathomable circumstances and survived. They can find hope in our great God because you were willing to share your story. I have found great hope in the stories of those in my very own church who have walked or are walking a similar path of being divorced and a single parent.

I once learned that the word Testimony can be translated “To do again’ and my life has never been the same. When we share our testimony of how God has intersected with our story, we are literally proclaiming ” He did it for me, and He can do it again for you too!” Of course every story doesn’t play out the same, but in some way God always enters the story, no matter how tragic, and redeems and makes good from it. In Revelation 12:11 we can see the power of the testimony as its says ” And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”. It is through the declaration of our stories and God’s faithfulness in them, that we defeat the enemy not just in the end times but right now! Our stories are weapons against a powerful foe who desires to keep us silent. We see all throughout Psalms the command to declare the glory of God to all people and to make his works known. Our voices matter.

He is at work in each of our stories. Some of us, me included, are still trying to put the pieces together and understand what He is doing. However, I still know that He keeps providing and caring for me in dark and difficult seasons. So even though walking in the church door on Sundays is often still a spiritual battle , I am always strengthened in my faith as I walk out the door. The church is a messy messy place with messy messy people. Growing up I often heard the quote “Church isn’t a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. I never quite understood that until this season of my life. So this bloodied and bruised up girl is going to keep on walking through those doors each Sunday and find hope in Jesus and in the marvelous deeds He is doing among the people in the pews next to me.

My Biggest Fear

My biggest fear used to be losing my husband. I felt like losing him just might be the end of me. I remember someone asking me the totally unfair question ” Which would be harder? Losing your spouse or losing your child?”. I thought about that dreaded question and came up with an answer pretty quickly. Of course losing a child was and is devastating to imagine, but I chose losing a spouse as being the more difficult path for me to walk. I think most moms would come up with another answer, but I didn’t. Here was my reasoning. I could not imagine walking through such great and devastating loss without the support and care of a husband by my side. See I had walked through tragedy before. In fact another one of my fears had transpired within 15 months of our marriage. I experienced a brutal sexual assault that left me needing both physical and emotional help for years. Although I had help and support from both friends and family, it was my husband who had walked most intimately with me in the grief and the healing. Family and friends were amazing, but it was my husband who witnessed the real anguish that came in the dead of night. It was my husband who would anchor me in the midst of an anxiety attack with the coping techniques we had learned in counseling. It was my husband who I could call at any moment of the day when I was hit with extreme fear as someone knocked on my front door or I had to walk by myself in the dark. It was my husband who sat with me awake all through the night praying scriptures over me and wiping my tears. How could I ever lose this kind of a support system? If I lost him, I felt like I would be completely and utterly alone in the times that grief was at its worst. Being alone, that was the root of my greatest fear. Yet it was my husband who told me the night of my assault that when we allow our biggest fears to consume us, we are not trusting that God’s grace is sufficient to carry us through whatever that fear is.  

At the end of 2016, my greatest fear became a reality and I lost my husband. Although I had played out this fear in my mind a million times, never once did I imagine that I would lose my husband to his own sin at his own choosing. I would lose him, but I could still hear his voice on the other end of a phone call. He was still in this world, but he was gone from my grasp. The guy who carried me through so much heartache was now the cause of so much more. My grief was overwhelming, rushing around me like roaring rapids that just wouldn’t quiet down or let me take a deep breath. Friends and family swarmed in to lend their love and support, but as predicted I found myself in the dead of the night utterly alone with an anguish that felt like it would swallow me whole. I felt justified in my fears of being alone. However, to my surprise as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, I realized that I was surviving my greatest fear.  

Many people called me strong and commended me for pushing through hard times. I knew they meant well, and I truly appreciated it. However, I knew there was no strength in me. Those people couldn’t see my 1am self, completely exhausted from a day of single parenting, still up with a sick crying baby who hadn’t slept, all the while trying to sort through pain that kept resurfacing. A once stranger called anger was now an uninvited guest in my home who wouldn’t leave. I wasn’t strong, I was a complete mess. Weakness oozed out of me in every direction. I would lay awake crying out to God in desperation for him to help me. I was all alone in the night walking through great grief. Why had he allowed this to happen?  God most generously showed me that I certainly wasn’t utterly alone in the dark. Although I didn’t have a physical presence to hold my hand, I had scriptures such as Isaiah 41: 10- Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  I had scriptures such as Hebrews 13:5 “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Every night for months I reached out for Jesus to show himself to me and carry me through and he did. I often felt as though it was a miracle that I made it through the day and wasn’t sure how I would get through without God’s grace in my life. As I now understand suffering in a broader way, I think that is the whole point. No matter our situation, whether we are in abundance or need, we cannot get through the day without God’s grace in our lives. It’s is just more obvious in those real times of struggle how much more so we need it. That is one of the reasons that those who have been through seasons of suffering can look back on that time and can actually miss it. We know it’s during these seasons, where we experience an intimacy with Jesus like never before.  We appreciate the goodness of God and his heart for the hurting. We remember that when everyone else seems to disappoint us, he never does.  

When I think back to the night of my assault in the Fall of 2012. I remember laying on a trampoline gazing at the stars while holding hands with my husband and him whispering those words of encouragement about fear. “Fear is deception”, he said. Fear is not trusting in God’s grace to help us overcome any situation. It is basically saying that God is not big enough to get me through that. I lay there amazed at the truth of that.  Of course like most women I had held a genuine fear of being attacked. What I experienced was awful and tragic and has come with great consequences, but I also know that God was big enough to take me through it and still give me a song in my heart. It’s ironic to think about these words coming from my ex-husband’s mouth so many years ago have still encouraged me today as I do this life without him.  We can spend our todays worrying about all our greatest fears coming true tomorrow and completely miss the mark of how grace works in our lives. God hasn’t given us the grace for a hypothetical situation that could happen one day. He gives us grace to face what is in front of us now.  If you had told me on November 2, 2016 that I would become a single mother and lose my husband in just one month, I would have completely and totally fallen apart. I would have never believed that I could survive such immense sorrow and weight of responsibility, but here I am surviving and finding joy in each day. This is not at all a testament to my strength and grit, but to how God’s grace is sustaining me each day. The first thing I see when I wake up each morning and as I lay down to sleep each night is a frame with the verse 2 Corinthians 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” When I attempt to lean on my own strength, I fall hard and can’t get back up. Yet when I breathe this verse in and recognize the weakness in me, I find great strength.  If anyone sees strength in me that’s where it comes from!

We all experience fear no matter what stage of life we are in. We fear a bad diagnosis. We fear financial burdens.  We fear losing a child. We fear evil coming into our homes. We fear failure. We fear infidelity in our marriage. The list could go on and on. Think about what keeps you awake at night. I would never tell you that those are irrational fears or that God wouldn’t allow those things to happen. My story and the stories of so many of those around us show us that’s not true. We don’t need to look very far to understand that “bad things happen to good people”. However, if we let the truths of 2 Corinthians 12:9 sink into our hearts, we can put those fears back on the shelf and trust that the sufficient amount of grace will be there when we need it. God knows we can’t handle the anxious thoughts that swirl in our brains about the future. That is why he tells us not to worry about tomorrow and to cast our cares on him. He is big enough to handle all of those, not us. We need to focus on today and rest in the grace that he is offering right in front of us.  Thomas Merton said “I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone”. Our greatest fears need not consume us when we have a God who is so much bigger than them and promises to place his power upon us.