The Long Journey to My Masters

On May 13, I walked across a stage full of confidence, joy and accomplishment and received my masters degree in TESOL(Teaching English to speakers of other languages) while my two sons jumped up and down with excitement cheering their mama on! If you saw me that day, you would have never known the stories and the moments that went into making that day possible for me. On my graduation day, I felt the pride and success that I absolutely should have felt. However, I also needed to reflect and appreciate the struggles and challenges that brought me to that long awaited moment.

15 years ago, I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in communication studies and Spanish, not knowing what was next for me. Through a series of God ordained events, I ended up in Mexico living as a missionary and teaching English. The passion for teaching English to speakers of other languages quickly kindled in me and it took me on the best ride. I moved to Houston and found myself teaching ESL in refugee resettlement agencies, literacy councils, a private institute and even starting a couple programs from scratch in my neighborhood and local church.

In 2012, I was living in a refugee community and leading a resource center and a ESL program on site. The classes were full of beautiful people from around the world who had stories of tragedy, escaping atrocious violence and persecution. Many were women with young children trying to start their lives over and provide opportunities for their next generations to thrive, despite all the challenges they faced. Even though I was a teacher, I learned so much about resilience and strength in the face of tragedy from these dear women. That helped carry me when I was brutally attacked in that same ESL classroom and nearly escaped with my life. It was a miracle that I survived. Despite that trauma changing so much in my life, it never changed my love and passion for immigrants, refugees and ESL education. It only amplified it more as I was given a glimpse of what its like to overcome adversity and keep going, just as my friends and students did everyday.

My kids were both born in Houston and I was thrilled that they would know the diversity that I didn’t at such a young age. Working as a part time ESL teacher, doing church ministry and raising my kids was truly an ideal scenario for my life and I was so grateful. Then at the end of 2016, my world turned upside down and every plan I had for our future was shattered (or so I thought). I found myself as a single mom of two small children, back in my rural hometown of Illinois, without much hope of a future for us at all. However, within 2 weeks of that trauma, I had secured a position at the community college teaching ESL at nights. Teaching those evening ESL classes were some of the brightest moments in the darkest of days. I would spend all day alone with my kids grieving our loss, sometimes feeling like I couldn’t function or go on, and then I would walk into a classroom and it was like flipping a switch. I could put all the sadness away and pour myself into my students and teaching. Those students in those days had no idea the darkness that was plaguing my life, but they were a light that gave me purpose to keep going.

As my boys grew and got older, I knew I needed to find myself a way to properly provide for them with more than a part time teaching role. Despite all my experience teaching ESL I had never studied education and desired to go back to school. I wrote in my journal many times how much I wanted to get my masters degree, but it just didn’t seem possible as a single mom in this stage of life to do so. Yet, with Covid-19 I started to realize the value of online education, especially for people like me. After hours of agonizing over decisions and calling schools, I finally chose an online program at a school in Arizona that told me that I was the perfect fit for their program! I started in January 2021 with so much excitement. I went through two classes and quickly realized that no one in this program had any experience with Adult ESL and everything was geared towards K-12. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me and I was the only person in my actual field in this program. I was frustrated and completely shocked when they told me that I couldn’t use my Adult ESL hours as an internship and I needed to be in a K-12 ESL classroom. I felt gullible to believe enrollment advisors and had been deceived into something that wasn’t right for me at all. I felt like a failure for not inquiring more beforehand and had no idea what I was going to do. One morning, I broke down in tears with a group of friends at a local diner over our pancakes feeling so defeated and lost, yet I felt so supported and loved on as well. They helped give me the courage to pursue something else, despite losing a good amount of money and having to start fresh again.

So after some more searching and help from a colleague of mine, I restarted grad school in the fall of 2021 at Hamline University, a school that I found to be full of professors who absolutely understood me and my passions for adult ESL and had all the expertise to back it up! That setback of mine turned out to be a life lesson of not giving up at the first sign of failure and not to accept defeat. I decided to keep pursuing and try again, when it wasn’t the easiest decision. Oh the pride I had to swallow not to allow the embarrassment of making the wrong decision to overtake me!

The last two years of graduate school have been the busiest years of my life. I wrote and read thousands of pages, I studied countless hours at all times of the day and nights, hung out in so many booths at the local Panera trying to focus, and squeezed in Zoom meetings with my teachers and classmates between all my other life commitments. Through that, I taught several ESL classes, tutored a student from China at a ridiculously early hour in the morning every Friday, took on a second part time position at the college, coached kids baseball and basketball, led an international student ministry and women’s ministry, taught kids Sunday school, volunteered at my kids school, met with college students, attempted dating, poured into my friendships, took multiple trips and vacations, all while single parenting. Just in case someone mistakes me as superwoman, to keep it real, I also yelled at my boys more than I care to admit, forgot a lot of important appointments, left a lot of texts and emails unread, got overwhelmed and anxious, had a few panic attacks, procrastinated on projects, had to cancel on friends, and overall struggled managing a good life balance between all the things!

It has been quite the journey to be able to accomplish this goal of a masters degree. The phrase “it takes a village” has been my mantra. Multiple times, I had family and friends show up to take my kids for an afternoon or evening so I could finish an assignment or get some reading done. My parents did so much these past two years to make this possible. Even my own students often encouraged me and even helped me with homework at times!

As I walked across that stage in St. Paul Minnesota a couple weeks ago, I could feel the presence of God with me. Right before they called my name, I looked out into the crowd and saw my parents, a good friend (an international student), and my two boys cheering me on. It was as if I could hear a voice within me say with clear confidence ” You were left alone and abandoned 6 and half years ago, and you thought you had no future. You thought you couldn’t live or make anything of yourself without your husband. Look at where you are now. You did it. Be proud of yourself and be grateful”. I am so very grateful that girl in 2012 or 2016 didn’t throw in the towel and that God made a way for me to move forward and overcome challenges despite adversity.

In order to graduate I completed a Capstone Project. This is my dedication that came at the beginning: To all my ESL students throughout the years for inspiring me with their stories of bravery, triumph and success as they overcome significant challenges. I have learned far more from you  than I have ever taught you. To my boys, Judah and Lucas who inspire me to be brave, kind, wise and constantly curious everyday. To my parents, who without your support, I wouldn’t have come close to finishing this project. Thanks for always being there for me.  

Getting More Than What I Came For: 10 years later

This past September, I boarded a plane heading for a city I once called home, a city that held my most painful memories. As my dad dropped me off, he asked me the obvious question of “whats the point of this trip to Houston exactly?” Days before that I had sat in my counselor’s office looking for language on how to answer a question like this, for myself and others. I knew deep in my spirit that I needed to return to the places that held the most pain for me, but I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that to those closest to me confused and asking me why I would want to go back. My counselor offered the words ” to honor my healing journey”. They were good and true words for me. I have spent 10 years processing the trauma I experienced there and putting in all the work I needed to heal my heart and my mind. It has been anything but easy. Yet the words still lacked so much more of the purpose that God had put in my heart. Truth be told, I am not sure I knew the exact reasons for my return, except that God had placed the longing in my heart and soul to face the past and declare that it didn’t have a hold on my present.

September 8th marked the 10 year anniversary of the assault that changed my life. One afternoon, I came face to face with darkness and evil attempting to destroy me. I have spoken about this experience multiple times, yet it feels sometimes like a surreal nightmare that I still cannot explain. The best way to put it is that although it was a physical attack on my body, it felt even more like a spiritual attack on my soul. In the fight of my life, I felt like evil was throwing all it could at me, draining any light or any hope that I had inside. Often times when I looked back on this day, I saw myself lying on the ground defeated, bruised and broken. A young girl, who ran out of fight and succumbed to the darkness which has now infiltrated and consumed me for the next decade of my life. The effects of that day have rippled to every corner and crevice of my life. I was going back to Houston to face that trauma head on. I couldn’t help but wonder, would I find healing or more hurt?

I had no plan or strategy of how I was going to approach visiting the apartment complex. As I pulled in, I realized that there would probably be no one there who knew me and wasn’t even sure I would be allowed in. I started second guessing the wisdom in this idea. Would I look suspicious walking around where I didn’t belong as an American in a predominantly international neighborhood? It was Friday, the Muslim day of worship so the complex was busy with men coming and going from the mosque and women and children out on their balconies. I got a few stares as I waved hello but pushed forward. As we walked to the front of the apartment, I quickly noticed that the front window was smashed out. This was the exact window that I broke through and escaped from that day. My first thought was had no-one fixed this in 10 years? I could not believe the coincidence. The awe kept coming as we turned the front door handle and found it to be unlocked and completely empty. As the door swung open, I was hit immediately with a wave of grief that made my knees buckle. 10 years washed over me and brought me back to that September day. I walked inside and like a movie in my head, I could hear the screams, see the violence, and nearly feel the pain I experienced that day. This might be too much for me, I thought. I was with a dear friend who had spent many days in that apartment/classroom with me serving and teaching. She started talking about the sweet memories that this apartment held. A packed out room of refugee women from around the world learning and laughing together over a feast of delicious food. Meeting beautiful people sharing their stories of loss and triumph, and learning so much about the world that I had never known. That apartment held so much more than just that one tragic September day. So much light flowed out of there. So much joy and laughter shared among friends. So much redemption in the making over impossibly hard stories.

As I moved through the apartment I felt God’s presence and his prompting that he needed me to see something different. He wanted me there to remind me of what else happened that day. Although, I have shared my testimony many times and spoken of how God met me in that place supernaturally, I felt it once again. It had almost become a distant memory, one that I have second guessed over recent years. I stood there in that room, remembering vividly of how Jesus showed up for me, rescuing me and giving me another chance at life. He spoke directly to my heart what I needed to hear “I have been with you the whole time. I never left you. Not then and not now.” It felt like a sacred moment as my friend prayed a blessing over me and I declared that as much as the enemy tried to destroy me that day and crush my spirit, I would not allow it. The light always wins over the darkness. This has been a hope I keep holding on to with everything I am!

Throughout that weekend this theme kept coming up. God gently reminding me of who He has been in my life and that evil doesn’t have the last laugh.When I told the testimony of my assault in the first few years afterwards, I often spoke of my husband as my rescuer, my protector, and the one who cared for me unconditionally through it all. Those words have come back to me as painful stabbing reminders of all I have lost. What I heard that weekend was the still small voice whispering to me ” It was always me. I am your rescuer. I am your provider. I am the only one who can see all your pain and love you unconditionally and perfectly”. God was patiently and kindly showing me his love and care that has always been greater than anyone else could ever give.

I faced even more difficult places that I never expected to go that weekend. I had come to get healing and closure from the first trauma in my life, but God wanted more than that for me. He wanted me to face another. On that Sunday morning, I walked into my home church, a place that I never imagined being able to go again. As I walked in the front doors, the same scene unfolded that happened in the apartment. My mind may have been ready, but my body was not. I did everything I could to prepare myself to walk in, yet when I did, my body remembered and it was sent into a strong physical reaction of being in place that held such painful memories. Yet the beauty that came as instantaneously I was surrounded by people who cared for me and was covered in prayer. A circle formed around me holding me upright and giving me strength. This was one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced. Because of this support, I was able to walk in the sanctuary and worshipped while tears ran down my face the entire service. In the closing prayer, my pastor prayed ” go forward, be healed and glorify God”. It wasn’t just for me, but it sure felt like it.

My pastor and his wife who have supported and prayed for me every day for years. So thankful for them.

I came to Houston looking for healing, hope, closure, and redemption. I came to honor my journey over the last 10 years and all the work I have put it to overcome it all. As I got on my plane heading towards Chicago, I felt a deep peace that I got what I came for and more. I came face to face with God’s love for me and the validation that he always sees me. I was reminded that I am stronger than I knew and have overcome life circumstances I would have never thought possible. I give that glory to God’s grace in my life. This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, and that PTSD is behind me. In fact, December was full of anxiety and obstacles, this is just another step on the healing journey that continues.

Also, as much as I wanted this to be a trip about my own independence and strength, I realized that I haven’t done this healing journey alone and would be lost without my community. Every step of that weekend I was covered in prayer, and someone walked with me. Dear friends and family traveled to spend the time to be near. I was showered with undeserved and overwhelming hospitality. The pictures shown here are just half of the people who loved me and were there for me that weekend. I am forever thankful for those who continue to pray, love and support me over all these years.

Gretchen was with me on day 1 and was the perfect person to be by my side
Quick day trip to Galveston with My sister Nicole and friend Sarah B
Sarah drove me to Chicago and prayed with me before I left. Her friendship has been one of my biggest blessings.

Getting Our Hopes Up

I listened to my friend on the other side of the phone say “ I don’t want to get my hopes up”. The following day, I was repeating those same words back to her about a situation in my life. We often use this phrase “ I don’t want to get my hopes up” when we are waiting expectantly for something, yet worry about being too enthusiastic in case it doesn’t deliver and give us the desired outcome. Honestly, there is risk involved with hoping for something.  Hope is all about expectations and desires that are most often out of our control. As humans, we choose to put our hopes in many earthly things.We put our hope in a job to provide for our families. We put our hope in leaders to guide us with integrity. We put our hope in a spouse to be faithful. We put our hope in our children to make good choices. We put our hope in friendships to meet our needs. We put our hopes in doctors and medical treatments to heal and cure disease. Yet none of these things are guaranteed and what happens when that hope disappoints us?  We are often left weighing if it is better to hope and be disappointed or to have never hoped at all. 

When we look to scripture we see a different type of hope, an eternal and steadfast hope. Since the fall in the Garden of Eden to the covenant promise to Abram and on throughout the entire old testament, God instills hope in his people. I He promises a savior, a messiah who will be a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.   

When we reach  the Christmas story, we are told that it has been 400 years of silence for Israel. 400 hundred years without a word from the Lord. Yet still we find ordinary people who have been patiently hoping and trusting in God’s promises. Take a look at Mary, a young  girl born into a humble Jewish home. When the angel delivers the message that she will carry the Messiah, she takes the message with joy and praises God for the son she has been given who will fulfill the covenant promise that was made to Abraham thousands of years earlier. We find shepherds faithfully doing their work in the middle of the night who are delivered the good news that this baby will be a Savior for all people. They immediately believed and went to the manger to worship.They left this experience changed and with a confident hope in that child. Despite that child being a helpless baby born to a poor young couple at the time, they had hope that God would deliver on his promises just he had told them that night. . Lastly, in Luke 2 we are introduced to Simeon. We don’t know much about Simeon except that he is described as righteous and devout and waiting for the consolation of Israel. He spent his entire life hoping and waiting to meet the Messiah, and God in his grace allowed Simeon’s faith to become sight as he held Jesus in his arms. 

Scripture talks about Mary treasuring all these things in her heart. Mary was the only character from the Christmas story that was present at the crucifixion 33 years later. As she stood at the foot of the cross, watching her son and her savior taking his last breaths, she must have been filled with great despair. She had so much hope when he was born, yet the intense darkness and injustice of that day must have overwhelmed her heart and soul causing fear and confusion. Did Mary still find hope at the foot of the cross? We don’t know what she was thinking, but we do know she stayed there by side in the most gruesome of scenes. Through the deepest despair, maybe there was still a small glimmer of hope left in her knowing WHO her God was and what He was capable of. She had seen His miracles, She had heard His promises of a new kingdom. Maybe all that she had treasured in her heart through her son’s life along with her intimate relationship with Him was what she needed to carry her through those next three days. 

Darkness will attempt to steal our hope as well. We may confidently believe in the gospel, yet when true suffering comes our way our hope that we thought was so confident may feel more like sinking sand to us. That hope gets more difficult to hold on to.   I have found myself often on my knees in despair asking God for answers when life doesn’t make sense and the heartbreak feels like it’s just too much to handle.  Henri Nouwen is quoted as saying: “Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world, and success in the business. Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness”. 

How do we overcome the days when hope seems so far away? We trust in the character of our God and who we know Him to be. Hebrews 10: 23 says Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. We will not get our hopes up when we place them in the right place with the right person, and that is with Christ alone.

If hope is slipping through your fingers this Christmas and it’s getting harder to hang on to it, know that you are not alone. Remember WHO you are putting your hope in, and cherish the ways he has been faithful in your life.  Don’t be afraid to hope. Know that our hope in Jesus is the only hope that doesn’t disappoint. Rest in the truth that Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us.  Let’s keep our hopes up this Christmas.

Thoughts for 36

Today I turn 36 and although I haven’t blogged in quite some time, I still consider myself a writer and with that comes a lot of reflection as I head into another year of my life. As is custom I like to flip back through past journals to see what I was saying on birthdays past. When I look at my journals in my 20s, I am filled with fierce hope and enthusiasm at the life I was living, always making the most of it and writing out goals for the new year. On the night before I turned 30, I wrote with great expectation that my 30’s would be the best decade of my life. I was just starting out with my family of four expecting to build a life together with my husband, buy a house, do great things in ministry and change the world. Yet all those dreams came crashing down just a few months later and has left me still trying to pick up the pieces all these years later. 

Emotional. Exhausted. Depressed. Failing. Stuck. Purposeless. Weary. These are the words that have been on repeat in my journals over the last 6 years. For 6 years I have been living a life of a single mom caught in a windstorm of trauma trying to navigate what it looks like to move forward, serve others, love God, hold on to hope, be a caring teacher, parent my kids with grace, succeed in graduate school, lead in ministry and the list goes on. Its a constant juggling act that I am sure everyone who is reading this can relate to. How can we do it all, when at various times grief sweeps through like an unsuspecting thief trying to steal any resemblance of joy and purpose it can? People say time heals, but they don’t always prepare you that actually sometimes the pain lingers. It doesn’t always get better as fast as we plan. Christians love to use a lot of analogies of coming through the valley and getting to the mountain top, like its a final destination for us in this life. It sounds good and can be true for some. As a believer in Christ, I do believe that glory does wait for us in another life with our loving and beautiful savior. I believe that we will get to that place where no more tears are shed and sorrows cease. It is in this, that I can find a deep resonating peace that hope is possible to hold on to no matter what is raging on around me. However, I have found it important to leave space for when our journeys of suffering in this world may not vanish overnight, or even may last over a lifetime.

I learned pretty quickly that people are uncomfortable sitting in someone else’s pain, especially if there isn’t a way to fix it. Growing up I can remember so many Christians talking about the Christian life as one of success and happiness. Any sort of emotions that showed you were struggling were not always welcomed and often came with judgment or shame. There was godliness put on your outward behavior and how you showed yourself a person who never questioned God and his ways. If only I had heard more sermons on the godliness of sorrow and grief. What if the church had preached more on the doubts and the confusion of David when he felt abandoned by God than on his victories in battle? What if we talked more about the time Elijah was alone in the wilderness begging God to end his life, shortly after he just won an epic fire from heaven battle and raised a child from the dead? What if we stayed a little longer on the part about Jesus weeping at the death of his friend than just always fast forwarding to the miracle that followed that grief? What if we preached more on the intense grief that Mary and the disciples must have been feeling at the feet of Jesus on the cross, than on the empty tomb 3 days later. If I had heard more sermons on lament and heartache and how the Bible is full of people who lived lives of deep suffering, maybe I would have spared myself of the years of shame for still being sad about the way life was going. Maybe I could have felt not so lonely or ashamed when dark thoughts came my way. Maybe I would have felt like I fit right in to the kingdom of God and his people better than I thought. Sorrow is the one thing that often makes me feel like I don’t belong in the American church, yet might just be the one thing that unites me with the saints around the world and throughout church history.

KJ Ramsey writes in her book “This Too Shall Last” this quote. “When the church amplifies stories of healing and overcoming without also elevating stories of sustaining grace, she is not adequately forming souls to hold on to hope. If the majority of stories we hear are tales of triumph, we will question the worth of our stories when healing doesn’t come. God, in his wisdom, in his hidden purposes, allows some of our suffering to linger, and the church unintentionally turns hearts away from the heart of God when she does not hold space for the sacred mystery that weakness reveals God’s strength.

Oh how this quote resonated with me as I am in the middle of my 5th year of being a single mom and coming up to the 10th year of surviving an assault. There have been 10 years of waves of sorrows crashing on many sides and just when I think I have gotten to that mountain top, I am swept back down into the valley once again. Have I questioned the worth of my story over this last decade? Absolutely. Where is the redemption? Where is the pretty bow to wrap up my story and show that God is going to restore everything to me tenfold? It is hard to find on a daily basis when life looks like chaos. Last week I taught in our international student ministry the difference between happiness and joy emphasizing that we won’t always be happy with our circumstances, and it is okay to be sad if life looks different than we expected. Our emotions can go up and down and that’s the way God made us. However, joy is that long lasting, internal act of the will that is found in our heavenly Father, no matter what comes our way. It is deep and resounding in our soul when nothing else makes sense. Fighting for that joy is our goal, not a constant need for pursuing happiness.

I am thankful to have had a few friends who have joined me on the journey of life and can be real with one another when our emotions are out of control and life is pulling us under. There is a beauty to those who allow space for others to not be okay all the time and yet can appreciate the authenticity of a faith that isn’t perfect, but is being perfected through the trials. Pointing people to joy and allowing their tears to flow beside you without judgement is a sacred act.

As I start year 36, I am honestly weary and wonder how much longer I can hold on to the hope I believe in. Yet, when I lean into Jesus I feel at home in that weariness. He promises to give me rest. It doesn’t mean he promises a release from my reality, but a safe place to land. He is the man of sorrows acquainted with grief. He is not going to reprimand me for validating that this world is broken and things are not as they should be. He will walk beside me. Yesterday I sat in a kayak, beholding the beauty around me while tears fell down my face. Struggling to find hope in any circumstances around me, yet acknowledging that God is in control and that He sees me. I don’t want to be fearful of hoping for good things in the future, so I still dream, still make plans and still pray for things to change. I still look for beauty, find the laughter, delight in creation, live with gratitude, and embrace the adventures. I still jump off the diving board, wear silly glasses, dance in the kitchen, play on the trampoline, and sing loudly in the car to embarrass my boys. For now, I rest in JOY that is steadfast through it all and will lead me in the days to come.

Christmas 2021

Christmas Tree Lighting this year

This Christmas song has been on repeat for me over the last two years. Christmas is a time that comes with so much fun and excitement. I have always loved the season and have so enjoyed making memories with my children each year. Baking cookies, going to Christmas parades, and watching all the Home Alone movies are just a few of our favorite things to do. However, as much fun and happiness I can attempt to muster up during the holiday season it will certainly fall short if I don’t land on true hope and true joy. I find that suffering will always win out against a perfectly decorated Christmas tree, however it doesn’t stand a chance to the truth of Emmanuel- God with us. Creator God coming down to dwell among us and bring peace to our weary world is what our hearts are longing to find rest in. The nativity story isn’t just another tradition of the Christmas season, it IS everything to those who are hurting and in despair.

I grew up in the church, went to Christian school and hold a biblical studies associates degree. I have studied theology and doctrines much of my life. 10 years ago, I could debate and argue over many topics. However, once true suffering came into my life and my faith was put to the test, my faith evolved, deconstructed and transformed in so many ways. Nowadays, there are few hills that I would die on. However, if there is anything that I would hold most tightly to it would be the truth of Jesus, being our Emmanuel- God with us.

I have experienced great heartbreak and sorrow over the years. There have been times when the darkness felt so incredibly strong that I couldn’t breathe or find a way out. What has been my steady, my constant, and place where I always land is knowing that God truly doesn’t leave me alone in the darkness, but comes into it and dwells with me. Jesus was called a man of sorrows and experienced the depth of human emotions and experiences while he walked this earth. He understands pain and injustice more than anyone.

A few weeks before Christmas in 2014, I got on a stage and spoke for the first time about how God had been with me every second of a brutal assault. The theme of the sermon series was “Emmanuel- God With Us”. However as I began to speak I was overcome with emotions and could barely speak through the tears. The service was put on pause and leaders and members of the congregation laid hands on me and prayed for the Holy Spirit to calm my anxious heart. I was able to continue on and testify that even on my darkest day, I knew the presence of Jesus was real and he had not abandoned me.

On Christmas Day 2016, I posted on social media a picture of me and my two babies claiming that I was holding on to Emmanuel even though there wasn’t much light to see that year. There I was, alone with two children to raise and my entire future upended and thrown on it’s head. Would God truly be with me as I began this new chapter of my life that I had never wanted or asked for?

Christmas Day 2016- First posted picture of our family of 3.

Well here I am 5 years later, and I am a bit more bruised, scarred and worn, yet the truth of God with us hasn’t shifted. I have spent many a lonely night crying out to the Lord. He continues to meet me and show Himself near. He meets me through scriptures that declare his everlasting love and presence over me. He meets me through the love of His people, who faithfully show their kindness to me and let me know I am cared for. He meets me through the peace of the Spirit in my life despite the chaos that threatens to overwhelm. He meets me through miraculous provision that doesn’t even make sense. He meets me through healing over my children. He meets me by pouring out wisdom to me right when I need it. He meets me by bestowing gifts upon me that bring purpose and meaning into my life.

Jesus being Emmanuel to me is so deeply personal, yet it is something I continually need to be reminded of. I have spent many years believing this over my life and praying for it to sink in but that doesn’t mean I lose sight of it sometimes. In fact, just last night I needed to believe it for my own child when his pain was so deep. I could feel the spirit nudging me, asking me to believe for him just as much as I believe it for myself.

Getting my star of Bethlehem tattoo

I just recently got the Star of Bethlehem tattoo as a way to daily remind myself of the Christmas story no matter the time of year. This star on my arm means so much than what it appears. It will forever be a reminder of how God chose to be with me and that he has never left me alone. In the Christmas story, the star guided the wise men exactly to where they needed to go to meet their savior and worship Him. This star represented years of waiting for God to rescue his people. This star shows us the grand gesture that God did to show the extent of his great love. He delivered on all of his promises. So the next time, I am lonely or feeling the weight of the brokenness of my story, I’ll look to the star of Bethlehem and remember that God sent us a sign to point us towards him.

“Emmanuel, glory in the highest
Emmanuel, heaven here beside us
God Himself, with us now to dwell
Emmanuel!” ( Emmanuel- Glory in the Highest by Sovereign Grace Music.)

Oh Star of wonder star of night.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Have you ever read the children’s book series ” A Series of Unfortunate Events” ? If not, let me familiarize you with them. A narrator named Lemony Snicket tells the story of 3 orphan siblings. These are unique novels because unlike most children’s stories, there is rarely any circumstances that turn their unfortunate circumstances around. In fact, Snicket explains that very few positive things happen to the children. We are not even given any hope that things will get better for them as the series continues. There are thirteen books in this series and do you know how many of these novels I have read? Approximately 2.5 because they are struggle for me to push through the dark humor that is cleverly authored and embrace the despair. I cannot bear to keep reading as things seem to go from bad to worse for these poor children. As human beings with empathy even for fictional character, you want there to be a quota on their suffering and for them to reach it quickly.

Just like the Baudelaire children in this series, I recently had a week that some might call a ” series of unfortunate events” as well. The week started with good intentions to take my family on a beach vacation to the beautiful destination of St. Joseph Michigan. On the first day, there were a few hotel hiccups that caused frustration, so much so I had to keep telling myself to “Name what matters”. Now I know that a swimming pool and a complimentary breakfast that was promised to me and wasn’t delivered were not what mattered in the long run. We could push past these minor inconveniences and still enjoy ourselves. We spent the next two days soaking up the sun on the beach with friends. By the time our vacation was over, I was completely exhausted and ready to go home. Vacationing on the beach as a single mom comes with all sorts of challenges I wasn’t prepared for. I had a child with an ear infection and packing and unpacking the van with my lack of raw physical strength were some to name a few. Once again, minor frustrations and inconveniences that put some stress on me were not going to steal my joy. I was so blessed to have been able to get away in the first place.

Michigan beach vacation

When it was time to begin our 3 hour drive, I put on a favorite podcast and was ready for a uneventful trip. That hope was dashed in less than 30 minutes, when my back driver side tire blew in the middle of the interstate. It was not as dramatic as I had pictured or seen on TV, but it was still not exactly smooth sailing. I didn’t panic as I knew what to do and who to call. I pulled out my trusty AAA card and gave these dear people a call while my 5 year old kept asking to get out and play on the side of the highway. Luckily we were flagged as a high risk case, so help arrived in less than an hour. Of course the sun was already setting and there were not any tire shops open at that time of night, so we were forced to head back to Michigan on a spare tire and wait until morning. My boys were not all that sad to have another day at the beach with friends! I spent the day waiting for 4 new tires to put on my van and by mid-afternoon I was ready to attempt another try at getting us back home. As I hugged my friend goodbye, she says” at least nothing else can go wrong for you”. And that is how my best friend restored my belief in the validity and superstition of “jinxing someone”.

This time our van with four bright shiny new tires made it over an hour down the road before the shaking began. My son told me he thought we were in an earthquake. I had to explain that the car was having problems once again. This time I was in a high traffic area near Chicago and knew that I did not want to be stuck on the side of the road again. This time I prayed with all that is in me that God would allow me to get to the next exit. As he answered my prayer I noticed that the next exit just so happened to be in the city of Gary, Indiana which according to Business Insider is “the most miserable city in America”. That wasn’t exactly awesome news, but at least I was able to find a mechanic willing to take a look at my van immediately. This same mechanic flashed me his gun from under his counter and told me not to wander too far in the area. By the grace of our great God, a Denny’s just so happened to be across the street. Unlimited pancakes and coffee saved the day as we waited, and I held it together feeling overwhelmed yet grateful. Several hours and thousands of dollars later, we were back on the road again. We pulled into home at 9pm that night turning what should have been a 3 hour drive into a 28 hour drive home.

Two days later, I was attempting to move forward and put the rough week behind me, and was at a birthday party, when I got a call from neighbor. My neighbor only really calls when it flooding at her house so I answered it and sure enough, it was flooding at her house. She asked me if our basement was flooding also and I assured her that doesn’t happen and that we were probably fine. Then I made the call to my parents just in case. Turns out water was pouring rapidly up through the drains of the floor and much of my apartment was indeed under water. I raced home and found about 6 inches of water throughout my bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom. The unfortunate events were relentless.

Floating carpet

Sometimes we have weeks like this where it feels like it is one thing after the other. Life doesn’t always feel very fair. I look back on that week which was now months ago, and none of those unfortunate events changed my life forever. That week was hard and stressful, but did it reign trauma into my life for years to come? No, it did not. I have had those kind of weeks too, believe me. I have written plenty of earlier blog posts on those kind of weeks. That’s not the kind of week this post is for. We dig deep in our souls for those kind. However, these weeks of disappointment still require a response out of us. How can we respond during a time like that?

  1. Don’t be shocked. Cars break down. Kids get sick. Houses get wrecked. Conflict arises. Jobs demand too much. It shouldn’t be news to us that we will have trouble in this life. Some will be life shattering and some will be inconveniences, but all kinds of trouble will come our way no matter what. Stress comes at us from all sides so brace yourself and have a plan. Although you can never truly be ready for unpredictable circumstances, you can ready your mind and your heart. You can live in a way where unmet expectations don’t ruin you. Where your heart is softened for you to accept that you don’t deserve an easy life. Entitlement to comfort and ease should not be our mantra, but let us live in humility that our problems may be small compared to what others are facing around us. When we walk out our days this way, we live openhandedly and with empathy for others. When traffic slows us down, we get the call from our child’s principal, or when the job offer never comes we are allowed to be frustrated, but we don’t have to be thrown into an avalanche of emotions. We can be okay.
  2. Name what matters. Kendra Adachi, aka the Lazy Genius, taught this to me and it saved me during my week of unfortunate events. In every circumstance of frustration, we can name what actually matters. Does it matter if we don’t have the perfect outfit for family photos? Does it matter that we didn’t get the laundry done or the house still isn’t perfectly clean? Maybe it does to you, but maybe you can recognize something else just might matter more. What matters to me, might not be what matters to you. A value in our household is loving God and loving others. This matters to us in all situations. So whatever is happening, we can evaluate if our response is loving God and loving others well? When I was stuck on the side of the road in a rough neighborhood, all of sudden expenses didn’t matter as much as safety did. My family mattered more than the cost of a new engine. As I sat in that Denny’s booth, I said this over and over again in my head to keep things in perspective. Put things into perspective for what situation you are currently facing. Does it really matter in the scheme of life? If something doesn’t matter and it is causing you stress, eliminate it. Name what matters to you.
  3. Live by faith not explanations. I once heard this said in a podcast and it stuck with me. Oh how so often we beg God to explain why he has allowed something to come into our lives. We seek answers and understanding. There is nothing wrong with pleading to God for a reason for our suffering or continued stress. If it were, the entire book of Psalms would have to be ripped out of the Bible. However, sometimes we must accept that God doesn’t promise us a detailed explanation of what He is doing or allowing in your life, and live by faith. Living by faith looks like trusting in God’s character of steadfast love and holding on to the promise that he is truly for you and your good. We take a breath and acknowledge that although we don’t understand his ways, He has guaranteed that he cares for us and will never leave our side.
  4. Find the joy. This can super hard. I am not always a “see the silver lining” person and honestly I don’t love giving that advice because it has often been weaponized by Christians. I am not talking about faking happiness when hurt is real. There are times when the pain is unimaginable and we don’t have to be a ray of sunshine. However, in some situations where stress levels are high and things keep going wrong, it can be a very helpful gift to be able to search out a bit light in the situation. As I was helping with cleaning up my basement on the night of the flood, I looked at friends and said ‘you just got to keep smiling even when your carpet is floating”. There was literally nothing I could do to make it any better or reverse the damage that had been done to my house. What I could do was look around at all the friends who dropped everything and raced over with sump pumps and fans and willing hearts. I saw the beauty of having a community who loved and cared for me. Do I always feel that way? Absolutely not. Maybe that flood was a gift to remind me that community exists in my life and I am really am cared for. Looking for joy and genuinely smiling when things are crumbling around you does not just happen by sheer willpower. It comes from a wellspring in your soul that flows out of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It comes from a firm understanding and belief that life is bigger than my current situation.

Just like with the Baudelaire children there is not quota for our suffering. Those children had a relentless villain who had it out for them wherever they went. He was cruel and gained pleasure from their pain. Sometimes if we are honest, we might unrightfully place God as that villain in our lives. We would never dare say that out loud, but when push comes to shove, and life isn’t getting any easier, often we turn and point the finger at God himself. American Christianity likes things to be easy, comfortable and free of any suffering. That is not how this works. We live in a fallen world as fallen people and most assuredly difficulty is coming our way at some point. Decide with intentionality how you will live out your faith, not just in the fortunate times, but in the unfortunate as well.

I’m a Published Writer!

This is my article that was published the Joyful Life magazine for their Summer Rest Issue 2021

TITLE | Learning to Be Content in the Story that God is Writing for You

AUTHOR | Ashley Carrel

Four years ago I stood in the living room of my house, took a big deep breath, and felt the presence of God near to my broken heart as my life crumbled down around me. Everything I owned had now either been boxed up into a moving truck or dropped off at the local Goodwill. Hours earlier, the house had been buzzing with women who had shown up with rubber gloves and buckets, ready to lend a hand to their friend who desperately needed it.

Now the house was quiet and still, and I stood alone, my mind filled with the memories that lived in each nook and cranny of this house. In one room, I heard the giggles of my two young boys and imagined the messes that followed behind them. In the kitchen, I imagined my husband and I making coffee each morning and stealing kisses before the kids woke up. So many memories of the beautiful life we were making together. Yet in this same house, trauma had reigned down and left the stains of its memories as well. It was here that my husband confessed to sins I never would have imagined him capable of—sins that would bring devastation and consequences to our family forever. Those confessions were just six weeks prior, and I was still reeling from how much life had changed in such a short amount of time. Overnight, I had gone from being the wife of a beloved pastor to the wife of an accused inmate—one big identity shift I was not prepared for. With one final glance at the barren space, I walked out the door, turned the key in the lock for the last time, and realized that was the end of life as I had known it.

That weekend I got on an airplane and flew back to my small hometown and a new life I never signed up for: I was now a single parent with hardly a dime to my name. Just a few months before my move, I was serving the caretakers of children whose fathers were in prison as part of one of the ministries of our church. I had spent several hours with these women without ever thinking for a second I would become one of them. In a twist of what seemed like cruel irony, their tragic story had become mine as well. I went from being the one serving to the one served. I had spoken to them of the amazing grace of Jesus in any and every circumstance—now I was forced to live it. I wanted to argue that Paul’s call to contentment in Philippians 4:11-13 did not apply to my circumstances. His grace may be sufficient for others, but I was not sure it could cover the darkness I was walking through.

As I’ve navigated this new season, there have been so many days where I have been guilty of arguing with God, telling Him the best way for Him to get glory. I was convinced I was a much better minister of the gospel when I was a pastor’s wife or a missionary. I struggled with feeling completely disqualified from serving and was frustrated I could no longer function in the church in the ways I wanted to. I was now living in real poverty, fully dependent on Jesus to meet my daily needs. I often found myself in counseling, crying and pouring my heart out, wishing my life was different so I could do all the things I used to do or had dreamed of doing. I wished for the family I once had to be repaired. I wished for the reality I was living to be fiction. I was never supposed to be a single mother.


My therapist gave me a great illustration for how I was living my life. She compared me to someone sitting in a canoe in the middle of a lake saying on repeat “if only I had a paddle, then I could get somewhere.” Yet there was no paddle available and wishing for those circumstances to change was doing absolutely nothing to help me. It was only when I accepted the reality I was in that I could begin to make the necessary choices to move forward. The ideal choice, such as a paddle, was not available, so I was going to need to think of alternative solutions for getting where I needed to go. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I was stuck looking at how it should be or how it used to be instead of what it really was. This mindset was holding me back from experiencing peace and contentment in my life.

We all have areas in our life that we wish were different—circumstances we never would have chosen for ourselves, yet God has allowed them to be written into our story. Maybe you’ve dreamed of filling your home with children, yet you still do not have any of your own. Maybe you are grieving the loss of a loved one who you always thought would be there. Maybe you have received a diagnosis that leaves you weak and in bed. Whether it is a failed marriage, infertility, the death of dreams, or the loss of loved ones, many of us find ourselves questioning God and denying the reality of what our life looks like now. We sit there wishing for things to change, but nothing ever does. How can we be content when life goes the opposite of what we hoped for?

The beautiful article in print


One of the first things I had to learn was to not walk in my own strength, rather go straight to the Source of all strength. Countless nights awake, caring for a sick child by myself while still caring for a toddler during the day and working at night, left me exhausted and struggling with anxiety. There was not much I could do about the situation I was in, but I could change my response to it all. I did not need to put all my time, energy, and resources into changing my circumstances—that only bred more exhaustion. I needed to bring all of myself to God—to give Him my disappointment, weariness, and heartache, so I could find rest in the truth that His power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I also learned to be faithful and obedient in whatever season I am in. I have a tendency to reminisce over the past and daydream about the future, neglecting the present. Instead of dreaming and wishing, I have learned to look for opportunities to love those God has put right in front of me. Even though I may not be leading ministries anymore or serving on a mission field, I can love and serve my own children at home. I can strike up a conversation with a mom at the local park who looks lonely. I can teach Sunday school classes at my local church. I can bring a meal to someone going through chemotherapy. There is something extremely healing in looking outside of our own circumstances and serving others, even when we don’t feel like it. There is a reason Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Giving brings joy even into the darkest places and joy brings sweet, godly peace and rest.

Lastly, I have learned to take God at His promise that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I do not always understand why God allows suffering to come our way, but I can be certain He always uses it for our good and His glory. He will always take our pain and put purpose to it if we will allow Him to do so. I have watched God use my very messy story to minister to others walking through similar hurts and brokenness. I have sat with women in my living room and been able to look into their eyes and say, “me too.” I have seen how my children ask deep questions of God in their prayers and connect the dots from their story to the gospel more than they might have done in our traditional life before. We often cannot see God working and are left confused when He doesn’t intervene to stop this chapter of our story from continuing. However, we must trust in His character, knowing that He is good and kind and is always at work in our lives. We must speak the truth over ourselves—especially when we do not feel it. Truth does not waiver, it sets us free.

Scripture gives us many examples of being content in dire circumstances. Paul tells us that he learned to be content whatever his circumstances, even when those circumstances included beatings, imprisonment, and shipwrecks (Philippians 4:11-13). We see Joseph, a victim of human trafficking, using his talents for God’s glory and saving nations from famine. We see Jesus, condemned to die a gruesome death on a cross, yet praying “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Let us learn from their examples. Contentment in a difficult season can only come from a life centered on Christ.

My eyes still fill with tears when I think about the heavy weight of heartache that was upon me as I walked out my front door and closed that chapter of my life. Grief is still very much present in my life today. I spend many nights drying my tears and those of my children, and there are still days that feel like the darkness is overcoming the light. Yet today, when I look around my new home that we have filled with new memories, I cannot help but be filled with gratitude. Family photos of my boys and me laughing together hang on the wall. Preschool artwork and first grade book reports are proudly displayed. Memories of wrestling matches, dance parties, and Friday family movie nights are frequently being made. I am daily fighting for joy and by His grace, I am learning to love the life I never wanted.

Mother’s Day Lessons from a Single Mom

“I could never be a single mom”. I said that after my husband was gone for 10 days to West Africa while I took care of an 18 month old and was 7 months pregnant. Those 10 days were so hard and long. I am sure I repeated these words again when my husband was gone at summer camp for a week and I was taking care of a 2 year old and a 3 month old. I drove 5 hours by myself to get some help from family because I just didn’t think I could manage a week by myself with two little ones. Being a ‘single parent” for a week at a time was exhausting and pushed me to my limits. I knew other single moms could handle it, but that was something I could just never do and was hopeful I would never have to do.  

My first Mother’s Day as a single mother, I remember being in my grandmother’s bathroom during the early hours of the morning with a crying baby covered in poop feeling completely exhausted and alone. There were no gifts, no flowers, and no cute photos taken, I sat on the bathroom floor, tears streaming down my cheeks wishing things looked differently. The images of the previous Mother’s Day were still vivid in my mind. The year before I was on the beach with my boys, one peacefully sleeping in the baby carrier and one splashing through the waves with his daddy in hand. That day felt like a lifetime away instead of just a year. I longed for that to still be my reality. Yet here I was living that single mom life I always feared.

My last non single Mother’s Day spent at my favorite place.

I am a four years into this single mom life now and I have learned a few things since that first Mother’s Day.  

  1. Never say never. The phrase “ I could never do ___________” is something we often say when it comes to our worst fears. Obviously we never want to walk through hard things. And we would never wish tragedy to befall our own families. However, what I am learning is when you say you could never walk a certain path, you are discounting the grace of God that is promised to you. I may have never thought I could survive single motherhood, but here I am crushing it. Ha, okay that was a joke. I am not crushing it by any means, but I am doing it. I never took into consideration how His grace is sufficient in every situation and no matter how dark and scary life looks, He is always there offering us more grace to walk through that moment and come out the other side. THere have been many days of this journey when I am down to my last straw and not sure I can get through the rest of the day, but that’s when I lean into the truth that God is actually with me and hasn’t forgotten me. Do I still have fears for the future? Yes, of course I could list off a tragedies that I can’t imagine having to bear. Sometimes I do feel like I am waiting for the next heartbreak to be just around the corner. I can be anxious about more fears playing out in my life. However the truth is the more I experience suffering, the more I have experienced supernatural grace poured out on my life. Because of this I know that whatever would come my way, God would be faithful in it and never let me walk alone.
  1. I can’t do this on my own, I need a village. I do not like asking for help, because I hate feeling like a burden for other people. When I became a single mother, I was in pretty fragile state and knew that I would need some help taking care of my two babies.  In the months to come, people showed up for me with clothes, diapers, and money. As much as I appreciated it, it was such a strange feeling to become the needy family so I often rejected that idea. However, the truth is we were created to be dependent on each other no matter our situation. God blesses community and desires for his people to support and care for one another. Over the last few years, I have had many times that I  needed help, but I refused to ask out of a sense of pride and wanting to be independent.  What I learned is to build a team of people around me who are in my corner, ready and willing to show up when I need them. When my divorce went through, they showed up with pedicures and a night out. When my child was in the hospital, they showed up in the emergency room with coffee, gifts and prayers. When I go through hard dates on the calendar, they showed up with a weekend getaway. When I had Covid-19, they showed up bringing meals and caring for my children. When I started grad school, they showed up to take care of my boys so I could get some study time in. When I was depressed after a hard weekend of parenting, they showed up by sending food to my door. When I want to serve in church ministry, they showed up to watch my kids so I can use my gifts.  I am blessed with a village of people. I could try to do this alone, but I would lose out on so many opportunities to see the beauty of community and interdependence that God created me for.  (I know that I am very privileged, and many single moms do not have this option)
  1. I learned that I really need God, and in that need His power is displayed. When I was pregnant with my first child, my brother-in-law dropped some wisdom on me that I will never forget. He said that parenting goes like this. One moment in parenting you will think you are crushing it and the next you will have no idea what you are doing so he encouraged me not to get too confident or too discouraged. That was the truest statement of parenting I have ever heard. It is unbelievable how quickly these moments change. I can’t tell you how many days I have gone back and forth between these two sentiments. I try to start each day before my children wake up in prayer asking God for his grace over me to parent my children with wisdom and patience. Honestly, it does not take too long after my kids wake up and cannot find their shoes or are fighting over the cereal box at breakfast when I realize I already need renewed. Parenting, whether single or not, takes a moment by moment approach of leaning into the spirit of God for help. I cannot pray just once a day for help and expect that is going to take me through. I have never taken the verse “ pray without ceasing”  as seriously except in this season of life.  I have so many days where I am at the end of myself not sure how I will ever pick myself up off the floor and carry on. Yet in these weakest moments is when I am reassured that God doesn’t need to be try to be better or stronger, He just wants me to lean into Him.  

I say have learned a lot and want to offer wisdom, but the truth is very simply that I am a mess that’s doing her best…..sometimes.  These lessons I have learned, I am still learning. I have in no way mastered these lessons. I still say “I could never do ______________” or have fearful moments of what the future might hold. I still get anxious asking for help when I need it. I still feel utterly alone some days even with the village I have been blessed with. I still try to do everything in my own strength and fail miserably. I still give my kids too much screen time. I still long for the days of having a partner to share responsibilities with.  I still scream and yell at my kids when they aren’t listening. All of these things lead me to my last and only piece of wisdom that I have learned and try desperately to adhere to. 

I have learned that in all my faults and failures, that Jesus shows up for me everytime and that is all that I need my kids to know. I may get everything else wrong in this motherhood role, but if I can keep turning back to Jesus and modeling to my children His grace, love and forgiveness, I think we are going to make it.  

So this Mother’s Day as I eat the beautiful breakfast that I made for myself (that my kids threw in the trash) I am thankful for the gift of motherhood, yes even single motherhood. I am thankful for the messy life I am living with these two crazy boys. I am even more thankful for my God who continues to give me all the help I can get. If this is a hard Mother’s Day for you today, know that He sees you and cares. Whatever the reason its hard, your first single mothers day, you first Mothers Day without your own mom, or you are in a season of wishing to be a mom and aren’t yet, you are not alone. His grace will hold you through all of the tears and heartache. You can do this!

Christmas Eve Service – Anna the Prophetess

Do you feel weary this Christmas? Has this year given you new heartbreak and uncertainty that you did not see coming? The holiday season is centered around the themes of hope and joy, yet often in our own hearts those themes are nowhere to be found. When our hearts are breaking, it can be easy to turn away from the holiday cheer and give room for the thoughts that tell us that God is not near. However, when we look at the true Christmas story, we see characters that live hard lives of loneliness and sorrow, and yet they were drawn into God’s great story of redemption and given a place in history. Let’s take a closer look at the prophetess Anna.

Anna is introduced as an elderly widow woman of deep faith, who spends her days fasting and praying at the temple with eager expectation for the arrival of the Messiah. She has now come to the end of her life and she knows her days are numbered. Yet one day, just like any other day, as she is lifting her hands in prayer, she overhears the voice of Simeon, a friend and fellow prophet. He is presenting another baby boy to the Lord, a ceremony he has performed hundreds of times before. Yet, his voice sounds stronger and livelier than she has heard him in years. Something sounds different about this family. She races into the room in order to catch the end of the blessing that Simeon is proclaiming. Her heart begins to race as she listens and she is speechless for just a moment. Could this be true? Could this child in front of her be the one Israel has been waiting for? The one she has been waiting for?  She looks at Simeon for the confirmation that she can already feel is true within her heart. This is it! Her faith was becoming her sight. Tears of jubilation flowed down her withered cheeks as she takes the little boy into her arms and look upward in praise. How did she get to this place? What had led her to this incredible moment?  

I imagine Anna on her wedding day, a young beautiful bride full of hope and expectation as she looks toward her future. As she walks towards her groom surrounded by the love of family and friends, I imagine her to be dreaming of all that is to come for her. She has found a provider, someone to care for her through her lifetime. She doesn’t expect to be anyone worthy of great significance, yet she is anxious to begin the life that she has witnessed so many of her relatives have before her. She longs for the pitter patter of little feet to fill their humble home. She looks forward to a simple life as a faithful Jewish wife and mother. As the feast and celebrations continue, laughter and joy rings out, you can feel the excitement as this new life together begins.  

However, it doesn’t take long for the laughter to fade as the years go by. Friend after friend announces joyfully that she is expecting a child as Anna looks down at her barren womb and begins to feel incomplete. Tears well in her eyes each time she must endure another invite to a baby dedication in the temple. I imagine Anna and her husband celebrating their 7th year of marriage in silence and separation, the spark of joy has diminished, and they mourn the life they wanted. Why would God choose to withhold the greatest blessing of all from them? They had always been faithful and served the Lord. Anna although filled with sadness, still clings to the knowledge that God is good and loves his people. She continues to hope in a beautiful future. At least she has her husband, who is still kind and good to her. They would have each other to care for. She doesn’t lose hope.  

Then without warning a few months later, Anna loses her beloved husband, and she is thrown into a new wave of grief and uncertainty. It feels like everything is against her at this point. She is left broken-hearted and without much to her name. This young widow is at a crossroads of what to do next. Without a husband or children, she does not seem to fit into Jewish society well. Others encourage her to seek out another potential husband to redeem her situation and give her a second chance at the life she wanted. Whether unwillingly or by choice, this is not the story that unfolds for her. So where will she go now? Anna must be full of heartbreak, shame and hurt. She is desperate for her pain to be seen and to be known. She recognizes that what she is looking for can only be found in one place. Anna arrives at the temple with the few belongings that she might own and never leaves. She recognizes that the only thing to satisfy her heart completely isn’t in a husband or a child of her own but is in her great God. She comes with only herself to offer, and she is received in. She spends decades here in the temple establishing a routine of fasting, prayer and worship. Her circumstances have nothing to do with her joy and hope. She dedicates her entire life to knowing the heart of God and praying for the fulfillment of the promise that one day God would send a rescuer for her and her people. She experiences great intimacy with the Lord and becomes known as a righteous prophet, a title rarely given to a woman in her day. She keeps her eyes on the promise, trusting God in his character to be faithful and good.

When Anna looked down at the infant boy in her arms that fateful day in the temple, she wasn’t thinking about how she never got to hold a child of her own. She wasn’t sorrowful that she lived the majority of her life without a husband to provide and care for her. No, she wasn’t thinking about all she had missed out on. She was completely satisfied knowing full well that Gods love and care over her lifetime was better than any husband could have given her. She knew that this child in her arms was the ultimate blessing for not just her, but the entire world. She knew that she had lived a life worthy of the calling God had so graciously given her. If she had lived the life that she dreamed of as a young bride on her wedding day, a life of comfort and normalcy, she would have never been in this glorious moment and we would never have known her name. It was her heartache and suffering that had brought her closer to her Savior.

Anna’s story doesn’t end there. Scripture tells us that she immediately begins to tell everyone what she has seen and heard. She cannot keep this blessing to herself. She ends her life proclaiming God’s faithfulness in the fulfillment of his promise. Anna leaves a legacy that ua remembered from generation to generation, a legacy of hopeful expectation, of humble servitude, and immense gratitude. Anna chose a life of praise after tragedy. We too know what heartbreak feels like, yet often times we allow those trials to define us and push us farther from our Savior instead of closer. As we celebrate the hope and joy of this Christmas season, let us take our sorrow and pain straight to the Lord and watch him transform it into a life of praise and purpose.  Like Anna, let us express our praise by telling everyone how good our God is to send us Jesus, and let us wait with expectant and eager hearts for his return.  

Christmas Memories

Christmas is just around the corner! Many people have sweet nostalgic memories of cookie decorating, ice skating, or gingerbread house making during this season. It can be a time of joy surrounded by the warmth of your family. For many others, Christmas can be a reminder of all you have lost. It may bring back memories that activate past trauma and you’d rather stay in bed and not face all the holiday cheer. My guess is that I am not alone when I say that I fall right in the middle of those two sides. I absolutely love the Christmas season and all the fun activities and food that come along with it. I love the holiday traditions I have started with my boys over the years and look forward to much of the merrymaking. However, Christmas has begun to come with a mirage of memories I would rather not have and no matter what holiday fun comes up, I still can’t shake the feelings of sadness that come along with the season.

I have written over the years much of my story and the heartache that I have experienced. In 2016 just a few short weeks before Christmas, my world was flipped upside down. I had already decorated my christmas tree, hung the stockings and wrapped presents. I had made my Christmas bucket list for our little family and was in full holiday swing, when I got news that changed everything. The following days and weeks that led to Christmas were filled with great anxiety and uncertainty. I walked around in a fog as packages kept arriving at our doorstep. All of sudden, we were the sad story of the season and as much as I was grateful for all the generosity, I truly wanted to just hide from it all.

Last year in 2019 just a week before Christmas, I was caught up in all the holiday hustle and bustle. We had a full schedule with Christmas parties and school concerts. Then my three year old son got sick and all the festivities came to a screeching halt. He was sick enough to miss out on an entire weekend full of fun Christmas hoopla and traditions. The doctors told me is was just a common cold and he would be fine, but his health kept getting worse as he became extremely lethargic and constantly fought a high fever over several days. I finally took him back into a doctors office to check on him. This time the doctor looked me straight in the eyes and told me to get him to an emergency room immediately. The 40 minute drive to the closest children’s hospital was awful. I had no idea what to expect when we got there. This was the last thing I wanted to be doing especially a week before Christmas.

I have been through hard things. I have walked through extreme trauma more than once that totally upended my life. On the outside this experience was not that. Ultimately my Lucas only spent 4 nights in the hospital and recovered. It has been a year since then, and I can now summarize his story well because it had a good ending. All turned out okay, and looking back it may not feel like that big of story to most people. To me however it impacted me in a way I never expected. The uncertainty of those 5 days and 4 nights felt like all time had stood still. As much as I want to tell you that I trusted God in it all and clung to his goodness, honestly that just wasn’t the case. My faith was shaken and fear ran wild in my heart and mind during that time. I could not capture my thoughts no matter how much scripture I spoke over myself and prayed for peace. In the middle of that week, I came home to grab some essential items and take a quick shower, and I completely broke down. I can remember sobbing from inside that shower doubting in God’s goodness and expecting the very worst. I gave into the feelings that God really has it out for me and I was destined to a life of heartache. My fears went to the very worst scenario, and I even imagined planning and attending my son’s funeral on Christmas day. I haven’t written much about this because I have felt ashamed at how quickly it felt like my faith was crumbling all around me in such a short time. Honestly I think I was surprised at how hard it was to calm my anxious heart. I figured I was an expert at this by now. I have a lot of experience in seeing through heartache and grasping for joy. This time felt different.

Watching the Polar Express together one night

I now can see God’s gentleness and kindness through that entire time. I learned again that God’s love for me isn’t dependent on how much faith I can muster up in a hard time. Despite my doubts and fears, God still was there comforting me and guiding me. I don’t have to have it all together and be this picture of strength that I think people want me to be. Those doubts and fears may have been consuming me then, but I wasn’t alone in them. I found that when exhaustion just got the best of me and I just couldn’t be strong anymore, God sent a team of people to care and love for me. Both physical and spiritual family loved me through that week bringing coffee and gifts and most importantly prayers. I felt so loved, yet once again despite being extremely grateful from all the generosity, I wanted to hide from it all as well.

When I look back at Christmas last year, I first think of the hospital and the fear of losing my son.I remember all the questions with very little answers the doctors had for me. I remember going almost a full week without much more than an hour or so of sleep at a time. I remember feeling so alone and weak. When Lucas looks back at Christmas last year, he remembers all the toys and gifts that people brought him in the hospital. He remembers Santa coming to his room and dropping off all kinds of wonderful presents. He remembers all his fun visitors. There is no sadness in his voice as he recounts that time. We need each other’s perspective. We can look back at this hard time, and see both the sadness and difficulty of the situation, yet rejoice in the joy that came out of it. It would not be a full picture without both sides of this story.

Church Nativity play

I truly believe you can always find God at work in your story, even in the messiest parts. I would even say especially in your messiest parts. Often times, it’s not until after the story has unfolded when you can see it better. I have lots of difficult stories that God has allowed in my life. This story of Lucas’ illness is one of the few where the chapter is closed and it is fully in the past. For this story, it took me reflecting back on it after the fact and seeing how God was moving and loving me through it all. Once I was out of shock and survival mode, I could see the truth more clearly. Now that it is over, I can see the joy of watching the polar express together. I can see the blessing of the many gifts that were given that brought a smile to my little boy’s face. I can see the friends and family that gave their time and money to encourage me. I can remember that in the midst of great sorrow, joy was there. I can remember that just a few short days after my son was hooked up to oxygen in a hospital he was playing a shepherd in the church nativity back to full health, a true miracle! I can also see how this week at the end of 2019 was preparing me for a long and uncertain 2020 of trusting in God’s faithfulness.

Wearing masks before masks were cool.

Most of the difficult parts of my stories are not wrapped up and over. I am still navigating the pain from them on a daily basis. God has not given me that clear vision of what he has done or is doing yet like he did with Lucas. He has asked me to walk steadily and dependently trusting on Him and his character. This Christmas we wrap up a year that was certainly filled with lots of uncertainty! There will be sadness as past memories of the way things used to be are remembered. There will be heartache over the loss that was experienced this year. Many of us may just want to hide from it all! I encourage you to take that pain and hold it one hand, while grasping for the joy of Christmas with the other. Truthfully Christmas is the perfect time of the year to find hope if you need it. Remember, Jesus came through the darkness and showed himself to be Emmanuel, God with us. Remember, he was a man of sorrow that came so we may have abundant life in Him.