Anything*

    Have you ever been in the same place as me?  Where you’ve offered all you have to God…. but there’s one shadowy place protected deep in your heart…. and you secretly hope that God will leave that place alone…. you can’t see how him probing that particular area would enhance your life…. or (what you perceive to be) your calling.  So you say to Him, “Yes, Lord… anything!”  And mostly you mean it… and yet…. mentally, you’ve tacked an asterisk onto the word.  We don’t know our God very well when we think this will be acceptable to Him.  In my experience, when we offer all, yet hope that He’ll leave this one thing (whatever your personal  ‘one thing’ may be) alone, He blows past all you want to offer Him, puts his finger on this one guarded place and says, “What about this?”  This is my story of how I learned what it means to surrender.  I wish I could say I learned gracefully, but the only grace in this story came from God… as for me… I went kicking and screaming.

*****

As 2011 began, I was content with life.  I was in my early thirties, married with two dogs and working at a well-paying job with a promising future.  My husband and I didn’t have kids and planned to remain childless.  For the past few years I’d been growing closer to God, regularly attending church and my small group as well as serving in different ministries as my schedule allowed.  I told myself that I could serve God better with no children, but the issue began haunting me.

Around the time my inner turmoil reached a fever pitch, Vicki, my small group leader, shared our next focus.  We would be studying The Prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:10) for four weeks, and were to spend this month prayerfully considering whether we wanted to partake in an oil anointing. “I did this years ago, and my life changed,” Vicki explained. Elaborating, she added, “If you do this, you may be asked to let go of things you aren’t comfortable letting go of.  Everyone likes their comfort zone, and this anointing is all about leaving that behind to serve God from a place of purity… to obtain a new level of intimacy in your relationship with Him.”

I craved answers. I wanted specifics.   “What changed?” I asked.

Vicki watched me for a few beats before answering.  I could see it in her eyes.  Her soul understood what I was asking, but she didn’t have a way to explain it that would help me understand. That’s just part of the mystery of how God works.  And honestly, I really don’t think she would have explained even if she could.  Some things are best left between a person and God, and my question was intrusive.  She was kind, though.  Finally, she answered.  “I can’t explain it.  But my life changed.”

I was scared to do this.  I spent the next weeks pondering the implications.  I liked my life the way I liked it, and I liked feeling like I had some control over my destiny.  This would mean surrender.  Giving up control.  I didn’t feel ready, but reasoned that if I waited until I did, it may never happen.  Gradually, I talked my head around to what my heart understood right away.  I needed this.  I was doing this.

*****

The day I was anointed with oil stands out as one of the most important of my life.  It was February, 2011, and our group met in a small classroom usually used for children’s ministry.  The room was overwarm, and I stood holding hands with the other ladies in my group.  We prayed for each other, then each took a turn being anointed with a simple cross drawn in oil on our foreheads.

I’m not sure if it was the heated room, or the influence of the Holy Spirit, but I was lightheaded; shaky with expectation. The odd sensation was so strong that I had to sit in my car and gather myself before I was capable of driving home.  Something was going to happen, something that would change my life forever.  I just didn’t know what that ‘something’ was.  I didn’t know what blessing lay just out of reach.  Nor did I anticipate the fear or the pain that was coming.  I didn’t know that this blessing would far out-value what it would cost me.  I’d stepped out in faith, offered God all that I had.  And he accepted the offering.  As I said, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I expected something.  And so I waited.

*****

The weeks following the oil anointing were among some of the best of my life.  Anxiety had been a lifelong habit with me, but that morning when I offered my all to God, it was simply gone.  I was on fire and ready to do whatever huge thing God wanted me to do.  The problem was, He wasn’t asking me to do anything huge.  He kept whispering to me about my childless state, but I tried my best to ignore Him.  I thought I knew the best path for my life…. it seemed I’d not truly surrendered at all…. I just wanted God to go ahead and bless the plans I’d made for myself; to accept what I wanted to offer and let me live the life I desired.  But that’s the funny thing about God…. When you offer your all, you’d better mean it.  He doesn’t accept half-hearted offerings.

As I continued to argue with God about what I felt He was asking of me, the fire and assurance I’d felt after the anointing began to fade.  The baby issue was constantly on my mind, and I couldn’t stop myself from talking about it.  For more than five years I’d faithfully taken birth control pills, and for four of those years I’d suffered periodically from vision-altering migraines.  After switching to a different pill a few years before, I’d only had one such headache.  One evening while in the midst of this inner-argument with God I happened to discuss this problem with a friend.  I finished up by saying, “I think they are related to my birth control pills.  If I have another headache, I’m going to stop taking them.”

Those words turned out to be prophetic.  That same night, I was struck with a vision-altering migraine.  True to the words I’d spoken, the next day I stopped taking the pill.  Barely a month later, I learned I was pregnant, and was suddenly filled with a juxtaposition of emotions.  I became depressed.  I was like a spoiled child shaking my fist at God because He wasn’t allowing me to live out my plans.  Though I more or less allowed free reign to this selfish side, there was something else at play; something basic and elemental.  Though I tried to shove away the emotion, I loved the child within me.  I just tried not to think about it; I was too busy with my temper tantrum.

As I continued to keep God’s blessing at arm’s length, I became more and more distant from Him.  Then came the day that changed everything.  I was due at work that morning before dawn, and as I left my neighborhood, I couldn’t fail to notice the glory of the full moon, glowing orange and looking low enough to touch.  As my soul rose up to worship, my mind shut it down.  I was still mad at God for changing my life.  I didn’t feel like praising Him for His wonder.  And so I willfully chose otherwise.

My heart would be forever altered by the time the moon rose again.

*****

That day, April 19th, 2011, while still less than two months pregnant, I experienced an expectant mother’s worst fear.  Blood….. lots of blood.  After being advised by my doctor’s office to go to the hospital, I got my husband home from work and we set out for the emergency room.  I was hysterical; raw with emotional pain, fear and guilt.  I believed I’d been ungrateful for God’s blessing, and now my baby would be taken from me.  I was ashamed of myself and chastised myself for not being the mother my baby deserved.

We arrived at the hospital and rushed through the check-in process only to begin a hellish night of waiting.  After hours passed, a cute young girl came to get us for an ultrasound.  Finally the moment I’d dreaded since first seeing the blood was upon me.  I tried to prepare myself to see the lifeless ultrasound screen, but there’s no preparing for that.  I tried to keep my mind in neutral as the tech prepped the machines for the procedure.  All too soon she was moving the wand while squinting at the screen.  Seeing what she was searching for, she pointed to a spot and said, “OK, there’s your baby.”

Her words shook me, though I dared not hope.  It didn’t sound like the baby was gone.  Could it possibly be?  With all the courage I could gather I asked, “So the baby isn’t dead?”

She didn’t answer.  Instead she flipped a switch on the machine, and suddenly, the room was filled with the sound of a fast and strong heartbeat.  Realizing what this must mean, I reached for my husband’s hand as tears filled my eyes.  Together we looked in wonder at our 7- weeks-old baby.  At the time there were no arms or legs, just nubs in place of hands and feet.  He or she was floating around, oblivious to all the turmoil outside of the safety of the womb.  As I watched my baby, everything changed.  All of the trivial things I’d been so consumed with, such as what in the world we would do for childcare no longer mattered.  This little person was meant to be, and I was his momma.  Finally, nothing else mattered.

Screenshot_2015-06-13-10-24-15-1

*****

The doctors could not give a definitive answer as to what caused the bleeding, but the fetus was strong and healthy, so we were satisfied.  After seeing our baby on the screen I felt tranquil.  I lay on the ultrasound table for a long time as the tech snapped photo after photo of my uterus…. the baby was no longer on the screen, so her work didn’t interest me.  I didn’t know enough about what was happening to find this questionable.  After, when I spoke to the doctor, she insisted I follow up in my office right away, but I wasn’t concerned.  The baby was fine, I figured this was all routine.  I would find out in a couple of days that I was very wrong.

Two days later I arrived for my follow-up appointment believing it was simply a formality.  As I reclined on the bed, I was not at all prepared for the doctor’s arrival.  My practice has many doctors and I’d not seen this one before.  He burst into the room, shook my hand, and without further ado asked me how long I’d had the tumors.

“What?”  I asked him, not understanding his words.

“The ultrasound taken in the ER shows that your uterus is filled with fibroid tumors.  How long have you had them?”

This wasn’t making sense.  My mother had suffered from fibroid tumors, experiencing intense physical symptoms, so I knew what they were, but as far as I knew, I didn’t have any.  For a mad second, I wondered if they’d somehow gotten my mom’s chart.  But that didn’t make any sense.

“If I have fibroid tumors, this is the first I’ve heard about it,” I explained.  “This isn’t a big deal for the baby, is it?” I asked as my hand shot protectively to my stomach.

The doctor expressed his surprise that I didn’t know that I had the tumors and that I’d never experienced any symptoms associated with their presence.  Finally answering my question he replied, “We don’t know yet what this could mean for the baby.  If there were a few, I would say it probably wouldn’t be a big deal, but your uterus is filled with them, and some are quite large.  There are some cases where the tumors divert the blood flow away from the baby and stop the fetus from growing.  We can’t yet know what this means.”

His words were stark and brought no comfort.  Since I’d believed this would be a routine visit, I’d come alone and had no one to help me process what he was saying.  He scheduled me for an appointment with a high-risk doctor and told me I would need to get frequent ultrasounds to check on the baby’s development and the growth of the tumors.  In a fog, I left the office and drove home, calling my husband and parents along the way.

I think that was the day I allowed the fear to begin taking hold of my heart.  Without realizing what I was doing, I began shutting everyone out as much as I could, and this included God.  For years I’d done daily Bible reading and journaled my prayers.  I stopped writing my prayers.  I didn’t want to open myself up that far.  I became afraid to feel.  I was terrified, and instead of letting God comfort me, I closed up.

As the pregnancy progressed the tumors grew, but they didn’t impede the baby’s progress.  Towards the end of the summer, I learned that one of the largest tumors was completely blocking my cervix and I would most likely be scheduled for a Caesarean, though they were hesitant to commit, just yet.

The best ultrasound picture ever... in my (biased) opinion.
The best ultrasound picture ever… in my (biased) opinion.

With each new doctor reviewing my chart, most were shocked that I’d become pregnant in the first place.  While thumbing through my paperwork, one doctor looked at the photos of my insides and said, “Wow, congratulations!  Just out of curiosity, how long were you trying before you managed to get pregnant?”

She was incredulous when I explained that not only were we not trying, I got pregnant two weeks after ceasing the birth control pill after more than 5 years of consistent use.  With each new thing I learned, I became even more convinced, though I’d not planned this child, clearly God had.

The stress I carried with me began eating me alive.  Just as my third trimester began, I started suffering from high blood pressure.  Though I was checked for preeclampsia many times and was once hospitalized for fetal monitoring, there was no trace of preeclampsia and I managed to work right until the end of my pregnancy.

About a month before my due date, I was at the doctor’s office for my regular appointment.  I’d come alone, and as I sat waiting for the doctor to join me, I was startled when she burst into the room.  Without greeting me she asked, “Did you get the results of your last ultrasound?”

My mind and heart began racing.  “No, what’s wrong?” I asked.  I’d seen this doctor before, it was odd for her to rush in and get right down to business.

“Nothing’s wrong.  But the time has come.  That lower tumor isn’t moving out of the way.  By law I have to allow you to push if you choose to do so, but I’m telling you that there’s no way the baby will make it to the birth canal.  I suggest we schedule you for a caesarean.”

I was relieved.  Though they’d hesitated to formally decide, in my gut I always knew it would go down this way.  My relief was a bit premature, however.  As the doctor began studying a calendar, and factoring in my due date she informed me that she would be the one delivering my son.  While squinting at dates, she was mumbling to herself and I heard “We usually don’t like to go more than a week out so the baby can fully develop, but we also don’t want to cut it too close so that labor doesn’t start…. that would put us on Sunday, but I don’t want to do it on Sunday when there is only a skeleton crew, so we’ll do it on Monday.”

Her words rocked me, and I didn’t want to ask, but I asked anyways:  “Why don’t you want to do the surgery with only a skeleton crew?”

Misunderstanding the reason behind my question she said, “Oh, if you want to have the baby on Sunday, we can do that, it’s not a problem…”

I cut her off.  “No, I don’t care about that.  Why don’t you feel comfortable performing the surgery on a lightly-staffed day?”

She paused, carefully choosing her words.  “Your uterus is filled with countless blood-filled tumors.  I will be very careful, but with this many tumors, there’s always the chance that one may get nicked.  If that happens, I’ll have to make some very fast decisions to stop you from hemorrhaging.  I may have to do a hysterectomy and if something like this happens, I would feel better doing it with ‘all hands on deck’.”

I nodded, scheduled the surgery and numbly headed for the car.  Over the last several months I’d become adept at not feeling my feelings.  I held it together as I drove home, but then I went upstairs to the nursery we’d decorated for our baby.  I wound the mobile, allowing the sounds of “Rock-a-bye Baby” to fill the room.  I sat down in the rocking chair where I’d planned to nurse my son, looked down at my belly; slowly caressing it, and finally allowed the doctor’s words to wash over me.  I might bleed to death.  I may never get the chance to come home, sit in this chair and hold my son.  I was so scared, but I wasn’t mad at God.  I was mad at myself.  I felt this was no less than I deserved for being so bratty when I learned I was pregnant.

I shared these feelings with no one, not even my husband.  I falsely believed that saying them out loud would make them more real; more scary.  And so the pressure inside me continued to build, just as my blood pressure continued to climb.

All too soon, the morning of the delivery arrived.  I’m not sure how I made it through getting ready and leaving for the hospital, filling out paperwork and making my way to the pre-op area.  Finally I was clothed in my hospital gown, lying on a bed, and there was nothing left for me to do.

When I was wheeled into the operating room, my husband had to wait outside while I was prepped.  I was quickly numbed from the waist down and pushed into a horizontal position as a tent was hoisted into place, blocking any view of what was happening.  Suddenly my husband was back, and a man appeared from the other side of the tent asking me if I was ready for them to open me up.  I said, “Yes, I’m ready.”

Laughing, he said, “That’s good, because she’s already got you wide open.”

Moments later, my son was safely out and being carried across the room.  I gazed at the tiny, red, crying boy, unable to comprehend that this was the child that I’d spent the last 7 months worried out of my mind about.  And he was out!  He was fine!  In a matter of minutes, I was all stitched up….no drama.  The doctor who’d been so concerned about the operation happily said, “I can’t believe how smoothly this went!”  And I was wheeled to recovery.  But my problems were only beginning.

My first up close look... It would be a few more hours before I could hold him in my arms.
My first up close look… It would be a few more hours before I could hold him in my arms.

Everyone, myself included, believed that once my son was delivered that my blood pressure would return to normal.  But it didn’t.  As time went on, my numbers continued to climb.  I spent an extra day in the hospital because of the problem, and was only discharged after being medicated and scheduling a time to come to my doctor’s office to have the reading checked.

CAM04697

Finally... we made it home!
Finally… we made it home!

The next several weeks were difficult.  In addition to taking care of a newborn and recovering from surgery, I also had to deal with the blood pressure issue.  The medicine made me feel so strange and once I nearly fainted.  I was still barely talking to God.  But then one day I had to get up before dawn to take some medicine, and suddenly I could no longer ignore the scorched bareness in my soul.  I did the only thing I could think to do.  I sat down and read a chapter of the Bible.  It was my first step I’d taken towards obedience in a very long time.

Eventually I recovered physically, though fears about my blood pressure continued to stalk me.  By the time my maternity leave ended, I was just a wounded ball of a person.  My heart was shattered into tiny bits, but with each and every piece of my broken heart, I loved my little boy.  But I was broken.  Before I’d gotten pregnant, I’d believed I was surrendered to God.  The experience of my pregnancy showed me the truth: I didn’t know the first thing about surrender.  I felt like I’d messed everything up and I didn’t see how I would ever be right again.

: )
: )

After spending only three months as a working mother, I felt that God was calling me to be home for a season, so when my son was five months old, I quit.  After years of planning my career and building towards a high-paying future, I walked away.  I was obedient, but I felt like a damaged person, like there wasn’t much substance to me anymore.  I believed that staying home for a time would give me the opportunity to allow God to take me to the root of my issues and heal me.  Though I believe that is what happened, (is happening) it looked nothing like I expected.  I quickly learned that staying home with an infant is much harder than going to work.  I also learned that the wounds I wanted God to heal went much deeper and much farther back than I ever imagined.  What I’d assumed would be a few weeks of soul searching stretched into months… and then….more than a year.

December, 2013
December, 2013

The best thing I can say for myself during this period is that I never gave up.  Because I’d deliberately shut God out, I knew what it felt like to willfully reject His presence, and I knew I couldn’t do that again.  I held on.  I was faithful in my Bible reading and prayer life, but things were still off on the inside.  Somewhere I’d stumbled across the words, “Once you take a good look at Jesus, you’ll never be the same.”  These words plagued my mind.  I felt that I couldn’t have taken a good look at Jesus because I was still so very broken.  As I sat pondering this question in my prayer journal one morning, right before Christmas in 2013, in a flash, I understood things that had previously remained shrouded in mystery.  This is what I wrote on that morning:  (grammar doesn’t count in a journal)

“….Lord, show me who you really are.  Let me take the look at Christ that will – I was going to say ‘that will leave me never the same.’ But before I could write the words – you showed me the truth.  25 months ago today – the bright lights of the delivery room.  My first peak of my baby as he was taken from my imperfect womb – a perfectly healthy baby – to be cleaned.  I’d done literally everything wrong:  I’d tried not to get pregnant, lamented being pregnant, learned in a flash how much I loved my baby, felt guilty for not wanting him in the first place… when I learned about the tumors I felt you were punishing me for not wanting him, I generated a blood pressure problem – worried about that – made it worse – shut you out – blamed you deep in my heart – worried, worried, worried – I thought I was going to die, I hated myself, I was racked with guilt because I knew my mind was responsible for all of my misery, but I couldn’t shut it down.  I messed up.  I did everything wrong.  But then came the moment when I saw him for the first time – absolutely beautiful and healthy.  An easy C-Section – good thing since his cord was wrapped around his face.  Maybe that’s why I had the tumors.  But you brought him through perfectly – in spite of my gaping imperfections.  That was my first hard look at Jesus – it’s just taken us 25 months of untangling the knots for me to see that.

“As I sit here, tears running down my face, in the darkness of the living room by the light of the Christmas tree – the symbol of the cross – I am starting to get it.  We are a mess.  And this is what you do…..

*****

It wasn’t until my son was a couple of months old that I learned just how concerned the doctor had been about my delivery.  I got a bill in the mail that made no sense, and when I probed the origin, I learned a shocking truth.  The bill was for an extra medical team she’d requested to be on-hand for the surgery.  They weren’t assigned to a specific hospital, but were called for when trouble was expected with a delivery.  Having never had a baby before, I didn’t know it was unusual to have so many people in the room during a C-Section.  While looking at the imperfect state of my body, she’d felt they were necessary.  But in one final act of showing me who was in control, God rendered their services unnecessary.

After the delivery, I knew I was a mess.  But I believed that I was so raw on the inside because of the terror of my pregnancy.  After I’ve had time to live with this, I know it’s not true.  The way I handled the ‘what ifs’ of my pregnancy; the way I refused to see the ‘what is’ of it; that God was in charge and had a plan, was merely forcing into the open what was true of my soul:  my lifestyle was not one of faith or surrender.  That December morning marked the next leg of my journey, the morning I gained a perspective that previously alluded me.  That was the morning that I knew without a doubt that I’d seen Jesus, and that I would never be the same.  It’s not been easy since then, in many ways, it’s been harder… but each act of obedience shows me a little more of Christ, and a little more of my old and faithless character dies away.  So…. what’s next for me and my family?  Only God knows… and for the first time in my life… I’m OK with that.

June, 2015
June, 2015

Seeds, Stumps and Branches

“Later God’s angel spoke to Phillip:  “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.”  He got up and went.  He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road.  The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.  He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit told Phillip, “Climb into the chariot.”  Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’

“He answered, ‘How can I without some help?’ and invited Philip into the chariot with him.  The passage he was reading was this:

As a sheep led to slaughter,

And quiet as a lamb being sheared,

He was silent, saying nothing.

He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.

But who now can count his kin

Since he’s been taken from the earth?

The eunuch said, ‘Tell me, who is the prophet talking about:  himself or some other?’ Phillip grabbed his chance.  Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.

As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water.  The eunuch said, ‘Here’s water.  Why can’t I be baptized?’  He ordered the chariot to stop.  They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot.  When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him.  But he didn’t mind.  He had what he’d come for and went down the road as happy as he could be.

Philip showed up in Azotus and continued north, preaching the Message in all the villages along that route until he arrived at Caesarea.  “

Acts 8: 26-40 MSG

*****

There’s no easy way to tell this story.  It’s long and complicated. I know there’s a story here, and yet I’ve spent years asking myself:  ‘What would be the best way for all of this to make sense?’  This single story is the most complicated example of what I do:  I look for God’s story in threads of details.  This one has threads coming from all directions, and anytime I tried to record it, it seemed confusing, even to me… a person who lived a portion of this story.   It has many elements that seem totally unrelated until the end.  That is life.  God doesn’t always work out our life stories in a linear pattern, and why would we want Him to?  What’s interesting about that?

Towards the end of 2012 I was having my devotional time one morning; the subject of which is the opening scripture.  This story has always stood out to me, though I could never quite put my finger on why. On this particular morning, my attention was caught on the fact that Philip was led to a place by the Holy Spirit, and he literally ran to comply.  This convicted me of an issue in my own life.  I am fortunate in that I feel the Holy Spirit leading me, but it’s not always crystal clear, and unlike Philip, I can’t say I’d ever ran to obey.  When I began to think over the implications, I became alarmed.  Why wouldn’t I run?  Who was I to shuffle along when God makes known his wishes?  I reflected on how I feel when I pray and believe that God is slow in answering.  It doesn’t feel good.  Why did I believe it felt any better to God?

                *****

One evening during May 2013 I was browsing my Facebook newsfeed before putting Carter to bed.  I came across a post from a Kay, a former co-worker (not her real name) that grabbed my attention.  This is copied directly from the original post:

“Can somebody please read Isaiah chapter 11:1-10 and explain this to me? The questions is: How are the Branch of 11:1 and the Root of 11:10 related? AND In what way is the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy equally paradoxical? I’m having a difficult time with this question. Thanks.”

Something stirred within me, and I knew I had to respond.  I replied explaining that I was getting ready to put Carter down for the night, but when I had some time later I would try to help.  As I settled Carter for the evening, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about her request that got my blood humming.  Then it hit me…. Her seeking words reminded me of the pleading tone of the Ethiopian, this scripture that kept popping up in my life.

With Carter to sleep I headed straight downstairs, grabbed my Bible and turned to the reference she’d indicated.  After spending a few moments with the words, I sent her the following response:

“Ok.. Here’s the way my Bible translates it.  I’ll also share my Bible’s commentary on the scripture, plus a hint of my opinion:

“’A green shoot will sprout from Jesse’s stump, from his roots a budding branch.  (This is Jesus.  Jesse was the father of David… David is included in Jesus’ family tree)  The life-giving spirit of God will hover over him, the spirit that brings wisdom and understanding, the spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the spirit that instills knowledge and fear of God.  Fear of God will be all his joy and delight.  He won’t judge by appearances, won’t decide on the basis of hearsay.  He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on the earth’s poor with justice.  His words will bring everyone to awed attention, A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked.  Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.  The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them.  Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like an ox.  The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.  Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain.  The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God, ocean-deep, ocean wide.  On that day, Jesse’s root will be raised high, posted as a rallying banner for the peoples.  The nations will all come to him.  His headquarters will be glorious.  Also on that day, the master for the second time will reach out and bring back what’s left of his scattered people.  He’ll bring them back from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Ethiopia, Elaam, Sinar, Hamath, and the ocean islands.’

“(Commentary:  ‘ Isaiah came up with a surprising metaphor in chapter 11 – a stump.  Imagine a flourishing tree, tall, leafy, and shade producing.  Then imagine a dead stump, barren, ugly, and useless.  We look at the stump, and all we can think of is what a magnificent tree it once was.  What a loss, we think. And while we’re looking at the stump, a green shoot grows out of it.  Then the shoot grows into a branch.  There’s life in that root system still; and it’s God’s life.  Foliage begins to develop. God’s spirit is making its appearance in the growth. Isaiah described the new growth that comes out of the experience of judgment:  “wisdom and understanding, direction and strength, knowledge and fear of God”.  He was describing what every person of faith experiences.  God clears away the dead wood in our lives, the consequences of sin, so that we can take ourselves seriously again, take him seriously again, and flourish.)

“Here’s my own 2 cents on the paradox.  This may or may not answer your question… perhaps I don’t understand your perspective… but I think this is regarded as a paradoxical fulfillment of the prophecy because when you look at the earthly life of Jesus, there is no denying that he fulfilled the prophecy.  Though verses 8 – 11 will not be fulfilled until He comes back, those of us who follow him have no doubt he will fulfill the rest of the prophecy in due time.  Before Jesus was born, this is not what the Jews expected.  They thought their Messiah would arrive on Earth with great fanfare… crush their enemies and set up the heavenly kingdom on Earth immediately.  They did not separate the prophecy to be fulfilled at different times, and since Jesus did not do those last things while he was on Earth, they did not believe him to be the Messiah.  Does any of that address what you wanted to discuss?”

Kay responded with,“ Nicole!  Yes!  That is it!  I have spent most of the day trying to wrap my head around this and your explanation did it.  Thank you for taking the time to do this for me.  We are reading through Isaiah (my husband, myself and a friend of ours) and breaking it down into chunks while we study it.  I would love to share this explanation with them as long as you don’t mind.  Thank you so much.

I assured her I didn’t mind at all.

*****

For days I stewed over this conversation.  I could see this simple request for an explanation of scripture as part of a larger story that God had been building for some time.  I felt the tug to share the context with Kay, but wondered if, when all the pieces were placed together, she wouldn’t see the  connection, and would think I was nuts.  Nearly a week later, I decided to go for it.  I shared with her some of what happened in my life leading up to the evening she made her request:

“Kay, I have a long story to tell you.  It isn’t all going to make sense… it doesn’t all make sense to me… but there are threads that tie together all that I’m about to tell you.  There are going to be a lot of seemingly random facts coming at you, and as I said… when I’m done, it won’t all make sense, but I think you’ll be able to see where it all ties together…..

“Every morning I read my Bible and copy and pray through scripture in a prayer journal. One morning last December, one of the passages I was studying struck me very powerfully; the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, which is found in the 8th chapter of Acts.  If you aren’t familiar with the passage, I think you would find it interesting.  I was convicted by the portion that describes Phillip’s interaction with the Holy Spirit.  It says that the Spirit told him to do something and he RAN.  When I looked at my own life, I am fortunate to say that I’ve felt the Holy Spirit’s promptings many times, but if I’m being honest, I don’t RUN to follow.  I take my sweet time; or say ‘no’ by ignoring it. I’ve carried this in the back of my mind for months, trying to be different, but with limited success.

“For years I’ve felt powerful pangs that I was meant to be writing.  I always shoved it away because I didn’t know what to write, and what I should do with the work it if I did.  Last Autumn I wrote a short story about my pregnancy and Carter’s birth.  I submitted it to a magazine, and never received a response of any kind.  I’d sent the story to several people I knew; people from church, and some friends and family.  From those I knew, at least, I received a very warm response.

“This year, late winter / early spring, I decided to start a blog.  I put the word out there to people I know, again, mainly people from church, but no one was able to find it.  A sparse handful of strangers have found it and read it, but people I actually know can’t find it. I began e-mailing the entries to people that indicated interest in my writing.  It’s been a bittersweet experience.  First and foremost, I feel it’s what I’m led to do, so that is a good thing.  But when I tell my story, and it’s all true… there’s no denying the fact that I just don’t come off very well.  All of my ugly, vulnerable places are laid bare for everyone to read.  There are things that could make me seem nuts, there are supernatural things that I can’t explain, but it’s all true.  It’s been hard but good.  People have opened up to me about the messiness in their lives because I’ve put my messiness out there.  I believe that’s how we help each other heal.

“About a month ago I was shopping in a store where I used to work, and  I was talking to a former co-worker who’d remained my friend.  Last year when I sent out the story about Carter, I sent it to this lady and her husband.  As I was preparing to leave, she mentioned how she’d recently gotten my story out and read through it again, and how much she’d enjoyed it.  Without thinking I blurted that I’d been writing some new stuff and that I would send it to them as well if she would like.  She said she would enjoy reading it.

“Driving home, I considered the ramifications of sending them my writing, and I got a little shy.  I love this couple, and believe they are beautiful and loving people, but they appear turned off by the discussion of anything spiritual.  There was no denying that they would probably find my material off-putting.  Even so, I sent them my first entry, which is not very spiritual, but mainly discusses how my current journey began nearly 6 years ago.

“After receiving my first entry, they both responded… very positive comments, ‘can’t wait to hear what happened next’, etc.  So, knowing what the next entry is when things get sticky, I sent it.  Then I heard nothing.  Days stretched and stretched. One Sunday morning I was sitting in church, talking this over with a friend.  Her advice was to keep sending stuff unless they asked me to stop. She pointed out that whether or not they responded, God could my story to speak to them.

“We finished our conversation just as the offering collection ended and our assistant pastor took the stage and began preaching.  Glancing at my bulletin, I was intrigued to see that he was preaching on Philip and the Ethiopian.  Very early in the sermon, he said something that sounded as though he was adding his response to the conversation I had right before he came to the stage.  He said ‘God cares more about expanding his kingdom than he does about our comfort.  Sometimes he leads us to do things that make us uncomfortable to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be reached.’

“I went home and sent the next entry.  A few days later, I got an e-mail from the husband.  He said that he was nearly speechless; that he could never imagine sharing such personal information, and he felt it was very brave.  I never heard back from his wife.  I’ve sent them more entries, but I’ve never heard anything back from either of them.

“I was thinking about all of this one day and my conscious prompted me to send this story to the assistant pastor.  He’s a young guy, and his insights are wonderful, but he seems to struggle with understanding how much his words affect people.  My immediate response was to avoid sharing this with him.  I didn’t want to have to talk to him about it… I can’t explain why, I’m just awkward sometimes.  Then, again, my conscious prompted me:  “What was he preaching on the morning that this happened?”  He was preaching about Phillip and the Ethiopian.  There was my answer…. I should send it to him, and do it right away, not when I felt like it.  So with great reluctance, that’s what I did.

“Unlike my friends who’d left me hanging, I heard back from him right away, and the following Sunday, he tracked me down to talk about it.  For me at least, it was a pretty awkward moment.  He approached me as I was picking Carter up from class, and he was trying to explain a diagram to me from something he’d drawn on a piece of paper, all the while I was struggling with my 18 month-old climbing all over me.  I tried to listen, but really couldn’t.  I accepted the drawing he gave me, telling myself that I would take it home and look at it when I had Carter settled down, and then it would all make sense.  (The only problem was that when that moment came when I could take my time looking at it, without his verbal explanation, it made no sense.  Nevertheless I kept it in my Bible and two years later he preached a series on the concept, and finally I understood what it all meant.  I suppose that if I weren’t such an awkward person I could have just asked him to explain it again at some point over the last two years… but life is tough when you’re awkward.)

The enigmatic diagram... Now that I actually understand this, it's a really cool tool that takes some of the stress out of sharing your faith.  (I can actually explain this now if anyone is interested.)
The enigmatic diagram… Now that I actually understand this, it’s a really cool tool that takes some of the stress out of sharing your faith. (I can actually explain this now if anyone is interested.)

“Now I need to change gears for a bit and explain something else.  The connection may not be clear for a while…. but please bear with me.

“The year after my husband and I got married, we bought two evergreen trees and planted them in our backyard.  Last summer was very hot and dry, one of the trees turned mostly brown.  There’s a Christmas tree farm near our house, and I’d noticed many brown trees in their fields, and they hadn’t cut them down.  I figured that a tree farm would know more than me, and if there was no hope for those trees, I guessed they would cut them down and use the space to grow new trees.  But they didn’t, and whenever Steve and I discussed our brown tree, I emphasized that point.

“The following winter was very wet and I would gaze at the trees in the backyard, imagining all that snow sinking down to the thirsty roots and revitalizing our tree.  (I’m not a great gardener.  I’m not sure if this is really how it works, but in my mind at least, this was what should be happening.)  That’s not what happened.  Winter turned into spring; and while the tree on the left was growing considerably, it was obvious that the tree on the right was stunted.

“As June approached, one night right after my talk with the assistant pastor, I was outside with Carter and Steve when I had a flash of insight.  ‘We need to cut out all of the brown places.  I don’t’ think it will start to grow until we get rid of what is already dead…. What’s brown won’t magically become green.’   Nodding his agreement, Steve grabbed a saw and went right to work.

The day after trimming the tree.  (A storm blew all of the branches back from the wheel barrow.)
The day after trimming the tree. (A storm blew all of the branches back from the wheel barrow.)

“Kay, the very next night was when you put the request on FB about that passage in Isaiah.  As soon as I read it, it struck a chord with me.  The way you phrased it reminded me so much of the way the Ethiopian spoke to Phillip.  This scripture kept popping up all around me! I felt it must mean something.  (And Phillip and the Ethiopian were also discussing Isaiah!)  When I looked up the scripture, I was bowled over!  There was the tree metaphor, and the commentary discussing cutting out dead places… the day after we cut the dead places out of our tree!  And this happened right after we’d left our tree to sit there lifeless for nearly a year!

“When God is speaks, I don’t believe there are coincidences.  There’s something here that I… maybe all of us… are meant to learn.  Like I said… it seems like a bunch of random facts, but they all have enough in common to fit together.  Does this make sense, or does it seem totally out there?”

Her response was quick considering how much she’d had to read.  “Yes it makes sense and thank you for sharing this with me.  It was strange that I couldn’t move on from that passage without making sure I understood it.  It stayed with me the entire day and I really couldn’t think about anything else.  After your explanation I had such a sense of calm and peace as well as excitement.  I agree there are no coincidences when God speaks to us.  I agree with what you said.  The tree perhaps symbolizes a situation in my life as well and I would love to share it with you. WOW!  Nicole – thank you for sharing this with me. “

“I’m glad to hear that you feel a connection to what happened as well.  God is clearly at work here!” I responded.

After a short wait, Kay began sharing her story with me.  We’d never been close friends, just friendly co-workers, so this story was news to me.  I’m going to tell the story from Kay’s perspective… but blur out much of the personal details while preserving the spirit of her journey.  Also, all of these names have been changed to preserve the privacy of her family.

“When I was born, my biological mother gave me up for adoption and I spent the first three months of my life in a foster home.  At three months old, I was adopted by my parents, and was raised as an only child in a good home.

“When I was 9 years old we lived out in the country, and winters were usually snowy. On a snow day home from school, my mom was with me and my dad was at work.  Out of the blue my mom mentioned that she wasn’t feeling well and said she was going to go lay down for a bit.  I took advantage of this time on my own to bring my kitten, Pebbles, up from where my parents insisted she stay in the basement.  Not understanding a cat’s abilities, I built a barrier out of an upturned chair to keep her confined to the kitchen.  It didn’t take her long to jump the barrier and head towards my parents’ bedroom, (and waterbed.)  Not wanting Pebbles to destroy anything, and also wanting to avoid getting trouble, I ran after her.

“By the time I caught up to my cat, she was already on the waterbed next to my mom.  But something was wrong.  Mom’s eyes were closed, but her whole body was shaking and she was foaming at the mouth!  At first I just stared at her, then I screamed every cuss word I had ever heard just so she would sit up and say “you’re grounded!” But she didn’t snap out of it; only continued shaking violently.

“Back then there was no 911, and our neighbors weren’t close.  There was an old phone next to her on the bedside table, but in my panic, I ran out to the kitchen to call for help.  I didn’t know any phone numbers for our neighbors but somehow dialed the closest ones.  I have always said GOD dialed that phone for me because I didn’t know their number.  They called for an ambulance, and the EMTs arrived and took my mom away.

“Long story short, my mom was in a coma for a while.  I can’t tell you just how long because after they took her away I lost a lot of my memories.   However, I can tell you that she had a major stroke and multiple seizures.  The doctors told my dad she was brain dead, and she was kept alive on machines until he decided what to do.

“Eventually mom was transferred from the local hospital to the Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.  At the time there was a new procedure, and the doctors explained this was her only chance.  They suggested running a tube from her groin all the way up to her brain.  They prepared my dad that it was doubtful she would survive this procedure.  Seeing no other option, my dad gave the OK to proceed. On the morning she was supposed to have this surgery, literally right before they were coming to get her, SHE WOKE UP!  Needless to say, they did not do the surgery.

“Mom was in the hospital for a very long time.  The stroke had done so much damage.  She had to learn how to walk, talk and basically, learn how to live.  She was very much like a child, and so, our roles became reversed.  By the age of ten I was caring for my mom and trying to teach her things.  I became a very bitter and angry child.

“My dad couldn’t handle how different she was.  This caused their marriage to deteriorate and within five years they were divorced.  Though eventually my mom was able to regain much of her former abilities, she suffered some permanent damage from the stroke.

“I have what is called amnesia from trauma.  I can remember everything leading up to the day I found my mom but I can’t remember much after they took her to the hospital and I can’t remember what my mom was like before the stroke.  : (  I have tried all sorts of things to remember but without success.  I have looked at old pictures and they seem familiar, but probably because I have looked at them so many times.

“Growing up, I’d always known that I was adopted.  As a child, I prayed for a sister or brother because I very much wanted a sibling.  One day when I was about 12 years old my mom introduced me to a much older girl named Cheryl, who I would later learn was my half-sister.  Cheryl was a product of a high school romance between our father and her mother, and at the time, my father had not been told of her existence.  It was not until Cheryl was grown and happened upon one of my dad’s relatives by chance; a relative who remarked on the resemblance and gave Cheryl a name.  When she confronted her mother, she learned that she was, in fact, this man’s daughter!

“After a few years, Cheryl decided to look for her father, and she found him.  The resemblance between the two is uncanny.

“As I got older I started spending a lot of time with Cheryl. She was always very bitter towards my dad specifically, and his family in general.   I always worried that she resented me because I was adopted by her dad and she was not raised by him.  I’ve always had a hard time with rejection and this has resulted in some social awkwardness.  At one point I told Cheryl I would understand if she hated me, but she always claimed that she didn’t and that she was happy to have me in her life.  However, she was always putting my dad down and saying really hateful things about him, my grandma and the rest of the family.  After years of listening to this and worrying that, secretly, she harbored these feelings toward me, I decided I was going to take her at her word, and trust that she really loved me.  I craved her acceptance so badly, that even though it caused me great pain every time she spoke negatively about my dad, I tried to ignore it.  By the time I reached my mid-twenties, however, I couldn’t take it anymore, and asked her to stop.

“I was angry at the world because my mom had gotten sick, and angry that my parents had divorced.  When you add that to my natural insecurities and need for acceptance, it’s probably not a surprise to learn that I made a lot of very bad decisions.  My quest for acceptance left me pregnant at a young age.  My daughter’s father and I did not stay together and so I raised her on my own with the help of my mom (in whatever way she was able to). My dad was disappointed with me for having a child so young.  I dropped out of high school, though I later got my GED.  I don’t really share that with too many people because I am not proud of it.  There are a lot of things in my past I am not proud of BUT I have come to terms with it and learned that I did the best I could do with the tools I had at the time.

“After obtaining my GED, I went on to college, but never finished my degree in nursing.  I became pregnant once again, this time by the man I was living with.  Can you see I was living in the depths of the mud?  I never fell into drugs or alcohol, I just made some really bad decisions and put myself in the bad positions because I just wanted acceptance and I was so lost at that time in my life.

“Around the time my second child, a son this time, was 7 or 8 months old, I met my future husband.  Randall was a friend of one of my cousins and when we met, I believed he was too good for me.  At the time he was nearing completion of an undergraduate degree, with plans to move into the Masters program.   What could he possibly want with me? I was a high school dropout, with two kids… a lost girl struggling with life.

“Randall didn’t seem to mind that I had children and so we began dating, though we lived a couple states apart.  We took turns traveling on the weekends to see each other and we were married a year later.

“During this time, Cheryl was in and out of my life.  We would be close for a while, and then she would disappear with no warning.  Her behavior fed my insecurity.  I have always feared losing her.  For years I would talk to my husband about my fears but I would continue to allow her to step in and out of my life as she chose.  When she was around, I laid everything out for her.  I hid nothing from her – she was my older sister so I kept trying to convince myself that she must really love me.

“For the most part, when Cheryl was around, she respected my wishes and did not talk badly about my father.  She even started spending time with him.  Before I knew it, we were spending every holiday as a family – my husband, our children, my mom, my dad, Cheryl, and when she was married,(she was married numerous times)  her husband.  I believed we were growing closer.  If I needed something, I knew I could count on her, and vice versa.  We even had family pictures taken together with my dad.

“Last year my husband’s company decided to cut nursing staff, and he lost his job.  I was staying home to care for our son as well as our girls, so when we lost our only income, you can imagine the financial stress we were under.

“Shortly after Randall lost his job, my mom fell sick and it became apparent that she could not safely live by herself.  She was 64.  So while she was in the hospital Randall and I decided we would move her in with us and take care of her.  She moved in last June.  Our hopes would become temporarily raised when she would seem to be recovering, only to be dashed when she would, once again, fall ill.  This happened many times.  Seeing no real chance for recovery, in October, her doctor suggested Hospice, and they came in to help care for her.  She passed away at home with us that November at the age of 65.

“During the time Mom was here with us I started having memories… memories from my childhood.  After years of being blocked, I was finally able to remember what she was like before her stroke.  What a blessing this was for me!  I had wanted to remember so badly, and for some reason, I was getting my memories back!  This began about a month before she passed away.  In remembering, I began healing.  It meant the world to me to remember my mom before her stroke.

“The day my mom died, my dad and sister came to my house.  Cheryl helped me bury my mom.  I saw her a month later for Christmas, and that was the last I saw from her.  Until two weeks ago.  During the time between Christmas and now, I’d felt really hurt that she’d never called me or came by to help ease my grieving.  I told myself I was being selfish.  I’d been praying and journaling.  My relationship with God was growing, and I really wanted some guidance from him regarding the future of my relationship with Cheryl.

“Cheryl’s son had just finished boot camp and she was throwing a party to celebrate.  She invited my family, including my oldest daughter’s boyfriend, Phil, though he’d never met Cheryl or her husband.

“When we arrived at the party, I saw my dad, and went to kiss him ‘hello’.  Then I approached my brother-in-law, and attempted to give him a hug.    Instead of accepting my embrace, he literally got about two inches from my face and started yelling at me.  In front of everyone! He was angry that we brought Phil, though I assured him that he’d been expressly included on the invitation.  Shocked and humiliated, I turned away to find my sister.

“In the meantime, Phil tried to introduce himself, and shake hands with my brother-in-law, only to be rejected.  He wouldn’t even speak to Phil; only cast dirty looks in his direction.  My youngest daughter tried to give him a hug and he pushed her away.

“Bewildered, I walked down the hall in search of Cheryl, but her husband found her first.  As I rounded the corner I realized they were talking about me!  I was so embarrassed, Nicole, I just wanted to cry.

“My husband and dad and all of the party guests witnessed this rudeness.   My husband confronted our brother-in-law and demanded an apology.  Instead of apologizing, he got in  Randall’s face and yelled at him as well.  My husband came to me and said we should leave.   I refused.  I maintained that we were there to support my nephew – and I was sure that at any moment, Cheryl would step in and make everything right.

“She didn’t.  The next moment, in addition to my husband, my dad was also demanding that we leave.  He said it was painfully obvious that I was not welcome, and if that was the case, he wasn’t staying.  We left.

“I spent the next two days unable to fend off a severe attack of anxiety.  I turned to scripture to help me sort through this.  This was around the time my small group was studying Isaiah.  As I was trying to get a handle on what happened, I received a text message from Cheryl, confirming the fears I’d always held deep inside:  She said she never wanted to see me again, that she wished we’d never met, and that she’d only met my mother.  My worst nightmare was coming true.  I was being rejected by the sibling I’d so desperately wanted.

“Here is where all of this ties together:  For the past few weeks my husband and I have been talking about the evergreen trees in front of our mobile home community and how some of the trees have brown places and some of the trees are all brown.  I was studying Isaiah and was blocked from understanding these passages from scripture.    Usually when this happens, I will keep reading and come back to the difficult part, or wait for my group to gain some perspective.  Not this time… I just could not leave it be! I had such a feeling that I can’t describe.  I felt it was absolutely vital that I understand that passage and the feeling wouldn’t leave me alone.  I posted on FB, and then talked to my older cousin in West Virginia who is a pastor.   His explanation brought no clarity.  When you responded and I read what you wrote it made sense!  I still didn’t see how all this tied together until you sent that message today.

“As I was reading your message, when I got to the part about the trees and the dead places needing to be removed, I suddenly saw a flash of the trees in front of our community and thought of everything that had happened with Cheryl.  I looked at my husband and read your message to him and before I could share my thoughts, he said he felt like this was perhaps confirmation that God was removing the dead spots from my life so I could continue to grow.  Does this make any sense?

“I now have a sense of peace about the situation with Cheryl.  I have no idea what God has planned but I trust he will guide me in all of this. For me to feel ‘okay’ about what Cheryl said to me is just not usual.  My normal reaction would be to be an anxious mess.  What’s worse, yesterday marked the six month anniversary of when I lost my mom, and it would have made the rejection from my sister much harder to bear.  Reading your message today gave me hope and peace.

“It’s okay if this made no sense to you, and I know there was a lot of rambling about my life, but I felt that you needed to see the big picture in order to understand.”

Needless to say, Kay’s story left me stunned.  After processing it for a bit, I crafted a response, beginning with surprise over all I’d not known from her past and sympathy over the loss of her mother.  I went on to say:

“That story about your sister was very sad.  I am sorry that you spent so much time trying to win her approval.  It sounds like she is very broken inside herself.  The story about her husband was mortifying.  I would have been embarrassed too, but I’m sure you must know that none of that was your fault.

“I was very surprised when I got towards the end and you were talking about evergreens by your house.  Something has clicked into place for me.  I have spent a lot of time looking hard at my own healing, and I’d already come to the conclusion that I was doing the wrong thing by “looking hard”.  This is proof.  It’s clear to me that God has woven his way all through your story and mine, and at this point, he wove them together.  There was no way that last year when our tree started to die… and my conclusions based on looking at the Christmas tree farm, and even the decision last week that we needed to cut it… there was no way that I in any way thought any of that would point me to in the direction to see God’s fingerprints in my own life… let alone anyone else’s… It’s not something I could have anticipated or planned for.  Just the opposite.  If I had tried to anticipate it or plan for it, it wouldn’t have happened.  But he wove that together and has shown himself in this situation in a very real way.  I agree with your husband.  And if it gave you peace, I’d say that it was the right thing.  This is very good.  Praise God!”

Kay came back with one last detail:  “There’s another interesting aspect that I forgot to mention.   My husband’s unemployment ran out the week my mom died!  She needed 24 hour nursing care, and there’s no way I could have taken care of her by myself.  God was all over that one for sure.  It’s amazing when our GOD shows up in our lives and reveals himself to us – making it known HE is in control.  It reminds me of the footprints in the sand poem.”

“I agree.  Has your husband found another job?”

“Yes, and that was another blessing!  We ended up going down to one car to save money, and when my mom passed away, I was able to pay for her funeral, even having a bit leftover.  This past month we were unable to pay our mortgage but a good friend sent us $1,000!  That paid our mortgage and left enough for us to get by.  Randall was driving all over the place passing out his resume and the next day he got a call for an interview.  They hired him on the spot and his pay is about $12,000 per year more!!!  Now we are paying off all of our debts, and in a few years, we will be debt free!”

 *****

                Many times I’ve found that as I write a story, it is still unfolding…. the process of getting the words onto the screen occasionally becomes part of the tapestry of what is being said.  Since this story has been unfolding in bits and pieces over the course of nearly 3 years, I suppose it’s only natural that this would be the case this time.

Initially I was intimidated by telling the story because of the sheer volume of information.  “Will anyone who didn’t live it be able to follow it?”  I’ve wondered.  So I’ve cut as much as I could.  Believe it or not, I’ve cut 5 pages from the original text.  I seriously considered cutting out the entire section that dealt with the beginning journey of sharing my writing; the perfect words at the perfect time from my pastor and the eventual loss of my friends.  The only thread connecting that section to the rest of the story is the scripture.  Even so, I had a difficult time just slashing the section out.  I decided to find the notes I took in church on the day I mentioned in the story; resolving that if I found something relevant in my notes I would leave it, but if I couldn’t; it would go.  These are the last words I noted down on that day:

“Phillip was willing to listen and obey God.  When we obey God, who knows what seeds we’re planting.”

Church notes from May 2013.
Church notes from May 2013.

And there it was again…. a tree metaphor.  I haven’t looked at these words in nearly two years…. It was with a lot of effort that I located the correct notes…. and there it was again?  So, whether foolish or wise, I decided to leave all of that in.

This was taken about 10 months after the tree was trimmed.  I love this picture as it features the trees and three of my loves.  (One is under the tree : )   )
This was taken about 10 months after the tree was trimmed. I love this picture as it features the trees and three of my loves. (One is under the tree : ) )

*****

                I don’t think I’m totally unusual in that if something seems difficult, I tend to procrastinate.  As I’ve said, this story has been cooking for some time, but I’ve just been hesitant to put the time into figuring out how to tell it in such a way that does it justice.  I’ve recorded bits and pieces over the years, and last September I went so far as to put a first draft together.  Then…. nothing.  Last month I shared a story about how I got involved with a group of women from another church.  In that story I reference my guilt over not tackling this project with gusto.  (And even that feeling of guilt is now over a year old.)  With renewed resolve, I printed out the seventeen page draft and went to work slashing away at it.  I quickly became overwhelmed and cast it aside.

A few days into my renewed procrastination, Carter and I were out for a walk.  It wasn’t our usual route, yet it was a way I’ve taken at least a hundred times over the last several years.  On that day I noticed something I’ve never noticed before:  A dead tree with another tree growing up through the middle.  Delighted, I pulled out my phone and snapped some pictures of the barren branches.  I thought over my story and wondered if this was another connection.  I asked myself what was different about this walk…why, after all these years was I noticing this only now?  I love taking walks and am always looking around for new and interesting glimpses of nature.  How had I missed this?  And the answer is, I don’t know.  I suppose it is simply because I wasn’t meant to see it until that day.

Life from barren places.
Life from barren places.

Days passed and all of this swirled in my mind.  I even got the story back out and began slogging through it.  There was one thing that bothered me about the tree growing through the tree.  Since it is early spring, it was too soon to say for sure, but it seemed that there was no life in the new branches.  With this detail niggling at me, Carter and I went for another look five days after the first glimpse.  This time?

Undeniable signs of life.

Today.  Full of life and promise.
Today. Full of life and promise.

Thursday Night Girls – Part 2

Disclaimer:  I have been putting off sharing this story for the simple reason that I have almost no pictures to go with it.  I’ve been ‘meaning to’ take pictures of the girls in the group, and myself with them since January, but almost every time, either I forget, or I’m doing something crazy like wearing sweat pants (It was a rough winter.  Don’t judge me, lol),and decide to put it off.  I’ll re-post when I get more pictures of the rest of the ladies.

I tend to feel a little awkward when getting to know new people…..Couple that with feeling anxious about driving in unfamiliar places, (will I have to make a left-hand turn onto a main road with no light?  I HATE making left-hand turns onto main roads without a traffic light!), and it’s probably clear that I was a little nervous while driving to my first meeting with Angie’s Bible study group.  Not to be braggy, but I have to say…. When I found the restaurant, I did so on the first try….I didn’t have to turn around and double back.  It was a true moment of triumph!  I parked my car and headed inside to meet the group.

I’d gotten a text from Angie letting me know that she’d been seated, so when I stepped through the door, I scanned the faces of the dining room searching for her.  When I spotted her sitting with a woman I didn’t know, I wasn’t surprised.  The moment I slouched into the booth, however, I learned that this lady, Lynn, wasn’t part of the group.  When Angie arrived, she’d been seated across from her and realizing that she was dining alone, invited her to join us.  I marveled at Angie’s confidence in inviting a total stranger over for dinner.  As I said, I can get pretty awkward around strangers, and couldn’t imagine getting up the nerve to do the same.

Soon we were joined by Amy, the group leader.  Her contagious smile flashed across her face as Angie introduced Lynn and me.  That night we were simply eating dinner at the Texas Roadhouse, as opposed to eating and working through a study at Panera, as is usual.  Since Lynn wasn’t planning to join our group Amy didn’t get into the specifics until Lynn had gone.

Though we’ll most likely never see Lynn again, that dinner we had with her was memorable.  We learned She was a recent widow, and still not used to going out to dinner without her husband.  She’d only recently moved to the area, and when she shared her memories of happier times; of sitting on the balcony of the condo they’d shared near Kings Island, and watching the nightly fireworks during the summer; I felt that, for a moment, I was there too.

Lynn, it seemed, was a spunky lady.  In a much-grieved tone, she explained how she’d chosen to observe Lent this year:  Instead of giving something up, she’d decided to add something.  She’d committed herself to being nice to everyone, and went on to share some stories of how that was working for her.

“Are you going to keep it up when Lent is over?” I asked, intrigued.

“No!” she exploded, horror infusing the single syllable.  Her expression contorted; seemingly in revulsion at the very idea.  “It’s exhausting!”

How can you argue with that?

We laughed, and soon she’d paid her check and said “goodbye”.  What a character!

When Lynn had gone Amy explained how the group worked.  They met for dinner every other Thursday and worked through book studies.  This evening was meant to be a celebration marking the end of the last study, and now they were set to begin a new one.  We would be watching a series of DVDs and doing homework out of a workbook.  I’d never heard of Jennie Allen, (the author / speaker), but Amy was familiar with her other works and was enthusiastic.  After explaining that she was getting ready to order the books for the group she offered to include one for me, which would be sent to my house.  I agreed, thanking her.

With the business finished I decided to tell them my side of the story of how I’d come to find myself there with them.   When they’d heard how everything came together, they seemed to agree with me; God’s fingerprints were so clearly over all of it.  With a chuckle, Angie admitted she’d been surprised when I’d agreed so quickly to join the group…. But now it was made sense.

A few days before we were set to meet again, my workbook arrived in the mail.  The strange part was that I barely looked at it before shoving it into my bag.  This is odd because generally, I devour reading material.  Looking back, it was pretty strange that I didn’t at least scan the cover to learn what we’d be studying.

On Thursday night, I found myself seated around a table packed with ladies at a Panera more than 20 miles from my home.  We talked as we ate, and when everything but the cookies had been consumed, Amy began unpacking and arranging the study materials.  Placing a laptop on the table, she set the program to begin, but asked a question before hitting ‘Play’.  Looking around at each of us, she asked what we hoped to get out of the study.

As I awaited my turn I realized that I didn’t know what the study was about, so I didn’t have an answer.  Not wanting to blow it on my first night, I nonchalantly flipped the book over in my hands, searching for my answer.  When I read the subject of the study, I was stunned.  This is what it said:

“DO YOU FEEL RESTLESS?

What if this feeling weren’t a bad thing?

This feeling could be a longing, a restlessness for more of God.  It could push us to move forward, to live epic lives that were designed before the foundations of the earth were laid.

But a lot of us, if we’re honest, are afraid.  We hold close to our chest new and scary dreams that may just be from God to play a small part in something bigger.  God wants to take the seemingly mundane messy threads of your life and weave them into something beautiful….”

The text went on a bit, but I’d stopped reading.  I’d gotten what I needed.  Here was yet another reason God put me with this group.

For years I’d been writing, but I had no direction or ambition for the words.  And what this author described, “taking the seemingly mundane messy threads of your life” described my work EXACTLY.  Since I’d quit my job, I’d begun searching for God.  EVERYWHERE.  And when I found Him, I wrote it down.  I’d discovered so many stories where He clearly wove His way into each detail, but if I’d not paid attention, I’d never have seen him there.  Guiltily, I thought of the evergreen story.  God had so clearly shown himself there, but though I’d left it cooking in my mind, I’d not yet taken the time, nearly a year later, to get it all down.  All the threads just seemed so random and confusing that the project felt overwhelming.  I’d rationalized my way into pursuing less difficult tasks.  All of the sudden, that decision felt like a major ‘whoops!’

As my turn came closer and closer, my heart pounded in my chest. I confessed that I’d only just then read what the study was about.  I went on to explain that I did some writing; that I wrote about  tracing threads, and how odd it was that I should find myself in this group, almost by random chance, only to learn that we would be studying a concept that I’d been living out for the past two years!

Had to be a God-thing.

Everyone finished answering the question, and then Amy cued up the video.  When the author began speaking, I found I related very closely to her words.  She spoke of having a baby and not knowing what was next for her; how before becoming a mother, she’d run her race for God, but after her child she felt as though she were on the sidelines.  I got that.  I even understood exactly when she described how, not knowing what else to do with her child and herself, she would find herself randomly wandering through the aisles at Target.  Been there, done that.  (And sometimes at Meijer as well.)

The circumstances of my own life had primed to be part of this group; for this study.  I was there not by chance, but by God’s loving hand.    It would have been so easy for me to have missed out.  I could have declined to be part of the group; I had any number of plausible excuses.  I didn’t really know Angie that well, and we hadn’t worked together for years, I was leading my own group, it was too far away, I wasn’t part of this church.  But with one act of toddler craziness, God set this entire chain of events into motion, and though I’ve been slow to learn my God-lessons, by this time, I’d learned enough to sense that this was from him.  And I don’t believe I was wrong.

Over the last year I’ve gotten to know the group regulars.  Though I love being a mom, it’s nice to have dinner occasionally where I don’t have to keep track of a little person; to talk and to laugh; to learn and grow closer to God in the process.  I’ve even found that some of my threads have interwoven with those of some of the ladies I’ve met in this group…. For instance, Amy, the group leader is the Amy I mention in the goose rescue story.( https://faithoverunderstanding.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/the-final-installment-the-not-so-great-goose-rescue-adventure-an-unlikely-tale-of-Christmas/)

Had I not sensed God’s hand and taken a leap of faith, all of this I would have lost.

Here I got caught trying to take a candid photo of Amy the group leader (in blue) and Tiffany (in pink).
Here I got caught trying to take a candid photo of Amy the group leader (in blue) and Tiffany (in pink).
After I explained what I was trying to do, here they are humoring me and playing along.  To be fair, Tiffany nailed it both times.  : )
After I explained what I was trying to do, here they are humoring me and playing along. To be fair, Tiffany nailed it both times. : )

Thursday Night Girls – Part 1

I met Angie at work in 2008.  I’d just been transferred out of a very comfortable situation into a store that had a horrible reputation, and I was really deflated by the move.  At my new location, Angie, like me, was one of the managers.  During the time we worked together, we enjoyed talking to each other and got along well enough.  A year or so later, Angie was promoted during a corporate restructuring, and left the store.  After the transfer, I didn’t really expect to see her again unless our paths crossed for work.  But yet, during our time together, two things happened that made me know I’d never forget her.  First, by our combined efforts we made a discovery and managed to prevent a truck driver from stealing a semi loaded with furniture.  (Charlie’s Angels, eat your hearts out!)   And second, she is the person who recommended I read “The Shack”.

Not many months after Angie was promoted, I, too was transferred.  A couple of years later, as a new mother, I quit the company altogether.  Somewhere along the way, she sent me a friend request on Facebook.  Though I accepted, it didn’t spark a lot of new conversation or connection between us.  Though we’d been friendly, we just didn’t have a whole lot in common.

Over time, I couldn’t help but notice a change in the tone of Angie’s posts.  At first it was subtle, but once I tuned in, the more obvious the differences appeared.  One day on a whim (a God-whim) in December 2013, I messaged her and commented on how very content she seemed.   She replied that she had recently become a Christian, and she was happy that I’d noticed the difference it made in her life.  I was so happy for her!  As I said, she was the one who got me to read “The Shack”, which was a perspective-changer for me, so she’d obviously been searching for a while.  This was wonderful news!

*************************************************************************************

Near the start of 2010 I joined the Women’s Group at my church.  I loved having a connection with these Christian women!  We talked about life and God and our struggles to live it all out, and at times we also read and discussed books.  In spring 2013, I was asked to temporarily lead the women’s group while the permanent leader, my friend Vicki, led another study.  Reluctantly, I agreed.

Me with my friend Vicki.  I thin my favorite part of this picture is the little disembodied hand reaching for me from below : )
Me with my friend Vicki. I think my favorite part of this picture is the little disembodied hand reaching for me from below : )

At the time I was asked to step up and lead, it was a bit of a surprise.  Because of my stay-at-home mom status, my attendance had been spotty for a while.  Carter was nearly 18 months old and I didn’t have a babysitter but since it was temporary, I made arrangements for my husband to take some half-days, and for my mom or sisters to come down and watch him for the couple of hours I would be at church.

To be honest, I’d avoided assuming any type of responsibility at church.  My entire career had involved management, so my natural inclination is to step into a new situation and assume a leadership role.  I marked this down to a prideful nature, and resolved to never step forward to lead at church.  Looking back, I can see a lot of immaturity in my ‘all or nothing’ approach.  Though obviously it wouldn’t have made sense to lead anything when I was new, it was foolish to believe that God had equipped me to lead and assume it would never be asked of me, spiritually.  So, through Vicki’s request, I found myself stepping up…. if only temporarily .

In the fall, Vicki returned from her temporary group study.  We were halfway through a book, so she merely attended the group while I finished it up.  One day Vicki announced that she was leaving the group and that I would be taking over as leader permanently.   Surprised she was stepping aside, one of the ladies leaned over and asked me how long I’d known about this.  I told her the truth.  I hadn’t known.  I was learning at the same time as everyone else that I was to be taking over permanently, and this created some challenges.  I didn’t know what I would do with Carter.  I couldn’t keep asking Steve to take time off work, or my family to travel that far each week indefinitely.  Vicki seemed so sure that this was the path for our group, so I agreed.   I prayed that God would sort out an arrangement to make this work, if leading this group was truly his will for me.  But no babysitter presented herself.  Steve and I had planned to enroll Carter in a daycare for a few days a week when he got a bit older, and I decided that until that time, Carter would just have to be part of the women’s group.

Carter getting ready for group - early spring 2014.
Carter in our meeting room, 2014

Including a toddler as part of the women’s group turned out to be less than an ideal solution.  To make it work, I decided to hold group in one of the children’s ministry classrooms; we could sit around the table and hold our meeting while Carter played with the toys.  It worked well for a while, but eventually he got bored staying in the room for two hours and it became increasingly difficult to keep him content and quiet.  Eventually he became quite disruptive and I knew we couldn’t continue this way.

The table in our classroom was actually two tables shoved together with a large hole in the middle.  (It is designed that way.)  One day in March, Carter was being particularly loud and cranky.   He grabbed some toys, pulled himself onto the table, marched to the middle, and began shouting and chucking his toys down through the open middle.  Flustered and embarrassed, I called him down and told him to get off the table.

CAM03844
Needing more pictures for this story, I took Carter back to the scene of the crime’ and asked him to recreate the inciting incident. He was naturally suspicious. : )

No sooner were the words out of my mouth that the other women in the room began squawking at me to leave him alone.  Exasperated, I scanned their faces and with a jolt realized something I’d never noticed before:  With only one exception, every woman that surrounded the table was a grandmother!  And even the exception was not exactly a peer; she’d had her kids young, and I’d had my child old, so her kids were grown and gone.  This sudden revelation led to another… I had no Christian friends in the same season of life as me…. no mothers of young children.  There had been some younger women involved in the group before, but they’d slowly drifted away and left me with a group of grandmas.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved these grandmas, and still do, but when I realized this, I suddenly felt very lonely.  They’d raised their kids.  They weren’t currently facing the same challenges as me.  Their grandma instincts told them it was OK for a boy to stand on a table during a group meeting and shout and throw things, and I, as the mother trying to get him to behave was considered the enemy.  I was now very conscious that something was missing.

Every time I try to impose my expectations on the way I believe God will answer my prayers, I’m always surprised.  That night I prayed that God would send me some friends who were in the same season of life as me and committed to raising Christian kids.  I thought, perhaps, in answering my prayer, he would put me in the path of other young mothers at my own church.  Though he answered my prayer right away, he chose to go another way.

The next day (yes, the next day) I got a message from Angie, my former co-worker.  She explained that she was part of a small group from her church, and that they met bi-weekly at a restaurant to hang out and discuss books.  Remembering that we’d had similar tastes in reading, she thought I might like to join them.  A chill shot up my spine.  The day before I had noticed an empty space in my life and I prayed that God would fill it.  Then the next day…. this!  Sensing God’s fingerprints all over this, I answered right away.

“Yes, when and where do we meet?”

To be continued…..

The Crushed Pumpkin

As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved the fall.  Years ago while at a craft store with my friend Tammy, she unearthed a banner decrying, “Yay, Fall!”, and suggested I fly it from my car.  (I was tempted.)  As someone who has always loved all things autumnal, it was only natural that one day I would finally try something I’d always longed to do…. Grow my own pumpkin.  So last year, when my husband Steve and I decided to try our hand at vegetable gardening, (which was ambitious considering we’d never managed to keep flowers alive), we allocated what we believed to be enough space to plant two pumpkin vines.

Because we’d never grown vegetables before, we bought plants that were already started, choosing not to begin with seeds; all except with the pumpkins.  I found a packet of seeds with a photo of a large jack-o-lantern-style pumpkin on the front; and after reading the instructions for optimal growth, we planted two seeds about two feet apart.  We marked the planted area with sticks, and each night we watered there.  One day the plants broke through the soil; tiny green and oh-so-delicate leaves reaching for the sun.  I couldn’t believe we’d done it!  We’d planted a seed in the ground, and even with our inept gardening, we had a sprout!**

**Steve takes issue with being lumped in with me as an inept gardener.  Out of respect for him, I am sharing his opinion.  Out of respect for myself, I must stand by my original assessment:  We are both inept gardeners.**

In the end, only one of the pumpkin vines survived.  Though I’m not exactly sure what happened, I suspect foul play.  The disappearance of the second vine occurred while my 2 year old son was in the garden, and I was preoccupied with untangling the hose.   And in that moment, somehow, one of the vines vanished without a trace.  Though I was disappointed at the time, it turned out to be a blessing.  Reading about pumpkin growth hadn’t really prepared me for what it would be like when they really got going.  Soon the single vine consumed all the area we’d allotted for two plants, and it began climbing the chicken wire; poking out into the yard in many places.  We simply hadn’t left enough room to grow two vines.

The prime suspect in the pumpkin vine disappearance. Here he can be seen at work with his gardening tools.   : )
The prime suspect in the pumpkin vine disappearance. Here he can be seen at work with his gardening tools. : )

Early in the summer, flowers began blooming on the vine, but each died quickly.  I didn’t understand.  I’d assumed that each bloom represented a pumpkin that would grow, and it seemed to be a bad sign that each flower died the day after blooming.  Troubled, I did some research.  It seems that I’d been wrong to assume that each bloom would morph into a pumpkin.  I learned that there are two types of blooms, male and female.  The male blooms were the most numerous, and could be distinguished by the presence of a single elongated prong within the flower.  The female blooms, on the other hand, showed three prongs while in bloom, but could be distinguished beforehand by the presence of a swollen knob beneath the flower… this knob, if properly pollenated would eventually become the pumpkin.

The first open flower on the vine.
The first open flower on the vine.

Though the vine was large and full of male blooms, there were only a few female flowers.  I became discouraged when I learned that I would be relying on the whim of bees; that it would be their function to pollenate the flower on the one day the bloom would be open before withering.  After bemoaning this fact on my Facebook page, someone commented, “you could always hand pollenate.”

Female pumpkin bud.  (The only one that survived.)
Female pumpkin bud. (The only one that survived.)
One pumpkin vine taking up all of the room we believed we'd need for two.
One pumpkin vine taking up all of the room we believed we’d need for two.

Unfamiliar with the term “hand pollinate”, I turned to the internet for help.  I found a video, revealing that hand pollination is, in fact, a shockingly intimate process by which you wait for the female bloom to open, cut an open male bloom from the vine, and (insert your memories from middle school health class here).

Somewhat embarrassed by the idea, yet determined to hand pollinate, each morning I walked to the garden hoping to catch a female flower in bloom.  When the morning finally came, knowing I didn’t have much time, I didn’t hesitate.  I picked a beautiful male flower, cut it from the vine, and recreated what I’d seen in the video.

The next day I was giddy with success.  The swollen knob under the flower was nearly doubled in size.  I would have a homegrown pumpkin after all!

Shortly after the successful hand pollination.
Shortly after the successful hand pollination.

Over the next few weeks, I kept a careful eye on the other female blooms, but each died before ever blossoming.  It became clear that this vine would produce only one pumpkin, and that was fine.  I was fascinated by the process.  At first the growth was rapid.  Many mornings I would bring my camera to the garden to document the progress.  Having never grown a pumpkin before, I was surprised that the gourd remained green.  More research revealed that the color wouldn’t develop into an orange until it was cut free, or until the vine began to die.

Growth
Growth
Growth (one week after previous picture.)
Growth (one week after previous picture.)

As the pumpkin continued to grow, so did the vine.  It seemed it wanted to grow everywhere!  Steve and I had a conversation about cutting the vine back, and I turned to a gardening site for advice.  According to what I found, it would increase the health of the pumpkin to trim the vine…. But several feet behind the last pumpkin.  I picked a spot and made the cut.

Quickly I learned that I must have made a mistake; cut the vine too close.  The pumpkin stopped growing and began turning orange.  Though I was disappointed that I’d stunted its growth, all was not lost.  By this time, we were nearly done with August, so I believed the pumpkin would survive long enough to sit on my porch throughout the fall, and would perhaps even get the chance to serve as a teeny-tiny carved jack-o-lantern.

The first week of September, I cut the pumpkin from the dead vine, and moved it to pride-of-place on my front porch, surrounding it with seasonal gourds.  Also, I bought three large and beautiful pumpkins, perfect for carving, and arranged them with the shrubs in front of our house.

CAM02812
Pumpkin on the porch
In memory of the
In memory of the “Yay, Fall” flag that I let slip away. Though it says “hello” instead of “yay”, it is clearly more awesome because it features a beagle. : )

When I compared my pumpkin with the ones I’d bought, I had to laugh.  I’d already known it was puny in size, but until I saw it in the presence of other pumpkins, I’d not realized that the color was off.  Instead of a deep, burnt orange, it had more of a yellowish hue.  It didn’t matter though.  I had grown it from a seed, hand pollinated it, watched it grow every single day, watered it every night, weeded around it, trimmed it’s dead leaves, and it was special to me.  I didn’t care that it didn’t compare favorably to pumpkins grown by experts.

CAM02914
Carter playing with the pumpkins.

CAM02912

                One morning after my husband had gone to work, I got a text message asking me to call him.  Curious, I punched in his number and waited for him to answer.  His first words were, “well, I guess you noticed the pumpkins…”  I’d only been awake for a little while, and I had no idea what he was talking about.  With a growing dread, I walked to the front door, peeking through the window to the side of the door.  I saw nothing…. That is to say…. I saw no pumpkins.

“Oh no, they’re gone!” I said.  I craned my neck trying to see the place the little homegrown pumpkin had sat on the porch.  The gourds remained, but like the large store-bought pumpkins, it too was gone.  With a thought of how much I’d invested in that one pumpkin, and how much I’d learned and enjoyed the months’ long process, I felt an intense stab of pain.  And loss.

Steve continued on, “There’s something in the road a few doors down, it doesn’t look like much, I couldn’t tell what it was… but it was something.”  (It was still dark outside when Steve had left for work.)

Squinting in the direction he’d mentioned I could see that he was right.  There was definitely something in the road.  I resolved to investigate later, when Carter was awake.  Feeling deflated, I said goodbye to my husband, and got on with my day.

As I went about my routines, I couldn’t shake feelings of gloom.  On one hand, you could argue that I was taking this too seriously.  It was just a pumpkin; something that would be gone in a month, regardless.   But it was more than that.  I wasn’t sad over the pretty store-bought pumpkins, though they were inarguably much better specimens.  I felt the grief of a loss; of months of hoping, learning, nurturing, and growing, crushed out in one careless act.

I let my mind run away a bit.  I wanted to know who had done this.  (I suspected I knew, and as it turns out, I was most likely correct, but I wanted to know for sure.)  Irrationally, I wanted to explain to the responsible parties exactly what they had done.  How their evening of mischief was not so innocent.  How through their thoughtless act, they’d taken something from me, something far more important than anything that could be replaced with money.  I wanted them to know that.  I believed if I could get them to understand, if I could get them to consider the consequences of their actions, how in a careless moment, they’d broken what had taken me months of care and vigilance to grow, that I wouldn’t feel so bad about what had happened.  If it meant they would be more careful of what their actions could mean going forward, then all would be fine.

But obviously, none of that happened.

This got me to thinking about the ways we carelessly crush others every day.  Though not so much anymore, in the past I’ve been very guilty of pushing my way through life with a sarcastic tongue.  I know I’ve hurt many people with my careless and thoughtless words; words I’d said to cushion my own pain; words that I thought sounded funny.  I’d hurt people because I’d been hurt myself, and I just thought that’s how things worked.  God had convicted me of this sin years ago, and I’d already put this hurtful habit behind me.  Since this was popping up in my life, I couldn’t help but wonder:  Is there something else that I’m doing?  Some area in my life where I’m being careless, and hurting others through my thoughtlessness?

Maybe.  And I didn’t want that.  I never want to be responsible for crushing the delicate hopes of someone’s heart on a careless whim.  I realized I would have to be much more thoughtful when dealing with the tender hearts of others.  Because when you dig deep enough, each one of us has a tender or wounded heart that needs to be treated with respect.

After Carter woke up and I got him fed and dressed, together we walked down the street to investigate the mess.  As I had suspected, it was my little pumpkin.  Whoever had taken the large pumpkins had looked at the puny, funnily colored one, and decided it wasn’t worth stealing.  But instead of taking the trouble to return it to us, they decided to smash it to pieces, leaving it broken in the street.  As I looked sadly at the shards, I decided there was only one thing to do.  I gathered each and every broken piece, carrying them awkwardly in my arms towards home.  I walked straight to the backyard, and tossed them into the garden where they’d begun life on the vine.  Here they would decompose, disperse their nutrients to the earth, and in doing so, provide a rich place to grow pumpkins next year.

Stronger pumpkins.

And isn’t that a beautiful metaphor for what can happen when we take the broken and battered pieces from our own lives.  Gather them up.  And give them to God?

More Cowbell

This is a story I originally wrote nearly a year ago.  As I tried to decide what to share next, this popped into my mind.  I hesitated because it’s pretty personal, somewhat embarrassing, and a bit gut-wrenching.  I wasn’t sure I was ready.  The same day, I went to Target and saw a guy wearing a shirt with a photo of Will Ferrell over the words ‘More Cowbell’.  THE SAME DAY. Seemed like a pretty clear sign. I am profoundly regretting that I didn’t get the courage to ask the guy for permission to take his picture. 

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Weight and body image have always been an issue for me.  I was a chubby kid, then an obese adolescent.  I slimmed down a bit in my teenage years, before topping out at an all-time high by my early twenties.  This was followed by the obsession to slim down for good.  First it was the low-carb diet, which worked pretty well to get rid of the bulk of excess weight, but wasn’t something I wanted to maintain long term.  For me, there was always a general feeling of un-wellness with this eating plan.  Then I went for years of fluctuating up and down a bit and tried to make up for it with lots of walking.

Not long after getting married, the pounds began to creep back on.  At this time everyone was talking about Weight Watchers, and I decided to give that a try.  It worked.  I lost more weight than I’d originally set out to lose, but there was a problem:  It sparked obsession.  All I could think about was eating food, logging the food I ate, and ticking off steps on my pedometer.  I would focus on taking a certain number of steps so that I could eat more food and then get upset when it didn’t work out.  My whole life revolved around what I ate and how I was going to work it off.  But, this could only work for so long.  Eventually it all fell apart and I began piling the weight on again.

Me at my thinnest... Autumn 2008
Me at my thinnest… Autumn 2008

One day during a church service, our assistant pastor was talking about idols.  He said that we are all made with the desire to bow to God, that though not all bowed to God, each person bowed to something.  His words sent conviction through me:  I’d made my body into an idol.  Not only was there the weight obsession, I’d also struggled with anxious feelings and a preoccupation with my health.  The result was the same.  My body was an idol; it consumed my attention, leaving minimal space for worshipping God.

Time moved on.  I began opening myself more to a relationship with God.  In seeking him, I managed to shove my body issues (all of them) to the periphery for the first time since elementary school.  For the first time in decades, I really wasn’t thinking about it.  This was an awesome time, but the feeling of freedom didn’t last long.  Before much time had passed, I learned I was pregnant, and this re-fired the whirlwind in my mind.  There were some concerns about my health, and I was concerned about the obligatory weight gain (too much versus too little).

The time of my pregnancy was difficult and scary.  I didn’t lean into my faith as I should have, and I made choices that pulled me farther and farther from God’s comfort and grace.  My doctors had not sugar-coated the potential concerns that could accompany my son’s birth.  There were some abnormalities with my body, but I was assured that every precaution was being taken to ensure that I would not hemorrhage on the operating table; also there was a plan in place should that happen.  (My fear-filled mind translated this to “there is a good chance you may bleed to death and never meet your son.”)  I didn’t talk to anyone about the intense fear I felt.  I was afraid to think too much; to feel too deeply, and so I went deliberately numb, all but stopped praying.

The morning I checked into the hospital for my planned caesarean, though I was all but crippled by fear, I still had enough vanity to refuse to answer how much I weighed in front of my husband.  As the woman checking me in was putting my information into the computer, when she wanted my weight, I forced Steve to turn his back while I jotted the number on a piece of scrap paper that I slid across to her.  Later when the anesthesiologist asked, without waiting to be kicked out, he left the room.  Maybe that’s a little nuts, but honestly, who wants their husband to hear how much she weighs when she’s 9 months pregnant?

After Carter was born, my weight was higher than it had been for some time, and the health issues revealed during my pregnancy took some time to dissipate.  I began to despair of ever feeling normal again.  But, still, time moved on.

New Momma
New Momma

When Carter was about 6 months old, I tried Weight Watchers again.  I shed the unwanted pounds, but the same as before, the quest began turning into obsession.  Recognizing the signs, I didn’t let it get so far this time; so once I met my goal, I quit.

My weight stayed pretty steady, maybe creeping up just a bit here-or-there.  Though I was an active mother, the problem was my diet.  I’d taken to binge eating for comfort.  I would stand in the pantry and shove down chips, or eat cookie after cookie with seemingly no control.  I was convicted by the sinful truth of what I was doing; experiencing emotional challenges and stress, but instead of turning to God to comfort me, I was turning to junk food.  The Lenten season was fast approaching when I made these connections, and I decided to give up sweets for the 40 day period.  This was meant as a spiritual discipline, not to lose weight, though I did shed about a pound per week.  (I was still hiding in the pantry eating chips through this time though.)  Once Lent ended, the pounds I’d lost came back with the return of cookies and ice cream.

I spent the next year or so feeling miserable about my body.  Though I desired to be healthy, I struggled to make good choices.  I’d become addicted to the sugar and salt I’d used to comfort myself when I was feeling stressed.  Once again, the weight began piling on.  I tried to deny it, but the truth is that I wore out the inner-thighs in two pairs of my favorite jeans.  You just can’t explain that harsh reality away.  Still, I was hesitant to once again pursue weight loss.  I’d begun to sense the connection between spirit and body, and believed that if I wanted my faith to continue growing, I had to leave God’s space open for Him alone.  I couldn’t once again throw all I had into a weight loss obsession.

Towards the end of March, 2014, an unlikely series of occurrences helped bring some focus to my body-image issues.  It all seemed pretty random, but these events caused a shift in my inner-self.  It all began when my favorite dance competition show began their spring season.

Before I get into what happened as a result of watching this show, I need a moment to pause… to pre-clarify something.  I generally don’t criticize the messages shared by other Christians.  I believe we each have a unique journey, and as individuals, we don’t have to agree on everything.  I also believe it’s a waste of energy and divisive to harp on these differences.

Now that I’ve explained my beliefs on this subject… I’m going to bend them (just a bit) to clarify my perspective.  I mean no disrespect, and I’m not trying to convince anyone to abandon their convictions and follow mine.  But because my body issues are the largest distraction to my faith, I’m going to delve into the comments made by a Christian who professes beliefs very different from my own.

Ok, I’m going to climb off my soapbox now and come to the point.  On the first night of the season, I watched as they introduced the stars of the show.  One of the stars I recognized was a Christian who is very open about her beliefs, which is cool.   But starting with the first night, and continuing on throughout the season, she went on and on and on (and on and on) about her costumes, and how they had to be extremely modest due to her faith.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not making a judgment on her spiritual convictions.  My problem is rooted in the fact that as this lady spent the whole season making an issue of her costumes, and her attitude seemed to imply that ‘any good Christian’ would feel the same way.  But I don’t believe that’s true.  She worships the same God that I do… the God who originally created us to run naked and unashamed.  The God who called David a man after his own heart, and let’s not forget how King David stripped down to a loincloth in front of all of Israel and danced with wild abandon out of  his irrepressible love of God.

My personal belief is that there is a fine line between dressing skimpily because you feel bad about yourself and seek attention, and simply wearing what you want because you accept yourself for who you are, and knowing that you are accepted and loved unconditionally by God.

Later in the week I was meeting with the women’s group at church.  Body issue was a topic in the book we’d been discussing, and I brought up the dance show situation, contrasting it with an essay I’d read by a Christian author concerning a beach outing.  She explained that she was swimming with her friend, and they were both very conscious of their imperfect middle-aged bodies.   She couldn’t help but focus on a (not young) mother with her young child.  She said that the mother also had a very imperfect body, but far from seeming self-conscious, she was clothed in a bikini.  She ran, jumped in and out of the surf, and laughed and played with her child. The author was overcome by the beauty of this moment, because it was clear that the mom was ‘all there’ with her child.  She wasn’t wasting energy worrying about how she looked in her bathing suit.

From my perspective, the later illustration represents a godlier attitude towards the body:  Don’t beat everyone over the head repeatedly by explaining your beliefs over and over, (and over and over).  Just be who you are.  Be who you are…. And truly live.

On Sunday morning, I began getting ready for church.  For years I’d worn jeans and tee-shirts pretty much all of the time.  (I should probably mention that where I attend church, this is perfectly acceptable.  Or if it’s not… no one has called me out on it, which amounts to the same thing.)  On this particular morning, however, something stirred within me as I tried to decide which shirt to wear.  I decided it was time to wear something other than a tee-shirt.  I grabbed a brown, open-necked cotton top.  I even dragged out my old red trench coat as opposed to what had become my uniform hoodie.

I was bordering on lateness as I checked Carter into the kids ministry and hustled him off to his room.  As I rushed into the auditorium, the lights were dimming for worship.  I paused to greet two of my friends, who offered to move so I could scoot in next to them.  I declined, pointing towards the empty row across the aisle, explaining that sometimes I move around a lot during the singing and I didn’t want to crowd them.

As the first song began to play, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.  I thought of an old Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the recording of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by the Blue Oyster Cult.  In this skit, Will Ferrell is responsible for playing the cowbell, which his bandmates find highly distracting.  The producer, however, keeps asking for more cow bell and makes suggestions such as “really explore the space”.  I was laughing at myself because it occurred to me that I’d declined sitting with my friends so that I could have freedom to ‘explore the space’.  Then I realized I was even dressed like Will Ferrell in the video, with a too-short brown shirt and jeans.  I even had the frizzy, curly hair.  (Thankfully I lacked the beard, chest and belly hair.)

The last song we sang that morning was “The Stand”, the lyrics of which are very special to me:  “I’ll stand, with arms high and heart abandoned.  In awe, of the one who gave it all.  I’ll stand, my soul, Lord to you surrendered, all I am is yours”.

These words resonate so deeply with me because of the events leading up to and surrounding the birth of my son.  After a lifetime of trying to control everything about my life, I made a decisive move.  With my women’s group at church, I took part in an oil anointing.  This was something that was done prayerfully and whole-heartedly, and that day, I gave up control.  It was a wonderful and life-altering, but brief (unfortunately, I allowed my controlling nature back in, though I am working on ousting it for good) moment where I truly gave my all to God and his plans for my life.

Two weeks later, I was pregnant.  As I’ve mentioned, my pregnancy was hard, I learned that I had some previously undetected female problems.  It seemed my uterus was filled with fibroid tumors, one of which blocked my cervix almost completely.  The other doctors in my OBGYN’s practice were mystified that I’d managed to become pregnant; one even congratulated me on overcoming these obstacles and wanted to know how long we’d tried to get pregnant before succeeding.

The truth is, we weren’t trying.  In fact, we were trying not to.

So here’s my point:  I gave God my all.  And I meant it.  So he took my imperfect, tumor-filled uterus and against all medical odds blessed me with the greatest gift I’ve ever known.  My son.  That is why the words “all I am is yours” fill me so completely with wonder.

So, back to this Sunday morning in late March.  As I sang these words to my God, how could I not raise my arms to the sky?  So I did.  Then I felt the air on what became my bare belly when I raised my arms.  And as this was the final song, the lights were back on.  My 35 year old brain screamed for me to lower my arms and cover the pudge currently on display.  But if I did that, I would be allowing shame of my body to stifle the worship from my spirit.  I wouldn’t be worshipping with ‘All I am’.  I thought over what I’d just said two days ago about dance costumes, King David, and bikini clad mommas.  It was time to own who I was.  If I was going to worship with all I had, at that moment, that included a visible belly roll.

After church that day, I went home and dug out an old Will Ferrell SNL DVD and found that skit, and watched it with Carter.  I laughed harder than I had in a long time.  Carter loved it as well.

After church that Sunday... rocking my Will Ferrell shirt with Carter.
After church that Sunday… rocking my Will Ferrell shirt with Carter.

The following day, I began to wonder what all of this meant.  Watching that old SNL DVD had reminded me of how I used to be.  I used to have a lot of fun, and laugh a lot.  Over the last several years I’d begun taking life so seriously, and taking myself so seriously.  I didn’t laugh like I used to.  I didn’t have fun like I used to.

Paul tells us in Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  An honest self-assessment forced me to admit there was a definite lack of joy, peace and faithfulness in my life.  And that wasn’t good.  I felt God whisper to me in that moment:  “Be who I made you to be”.  I was made for laughter.  Sure, life is serious, but it’s also beautiful.  And hilarious.  It was time to let go.  Let go of control, fear and worry.  These are the things that stop me from being who I was made to be.

As I said, I feel that my body issues have stifled my spiritual growth.  I’d focused on my body because I wanted to look good, and because I feared illness.  But this was backwards.  God gave us these bodies, and like any resource, he expects us to do our best to care for them.  So after these revelations, I knew that once again I would have to make some dietary changes, but for different reasons.  I want to be who God made me to be.  I want to do what God has for me to do.  I can’t do that when I’m hiding in the pantry eating chocolate.

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It’s been nearly four years now since I’ve offered my all to God.  Nothing that has happened since then has been easy.  Much of what I’ve been through has been incredibly hard.  I spent many years chasing after the perfect body, and wishing my life would be perfect as well.  I don’t have all the answers.  If anything, the longer I’m on this journey, the more questions I have.  But I now see the life I used to desire, even if it were possible, would be shallow and empty.  I have no idea what’s coming; but one step at a time… one mistake at a time, I’m learning to cling to what matters most.  And though I’d say I still mess up more than I get right, that’s OK.  I’m learning that I was never meant for perfection.  And really, who would want to be perfect anyway?  You’d miss the adventure of living by God’s grace.

How I look now... enjoying my family : )
How I look now… enjoying my family : )

And besides….what’s there to laugh at if you’re perfect?

Sam the Giraffe: Part 2

As summer wore on I became increasingly excited to visit the ranch.  Carter had developed a great interest in giraffes, which he nicknamed ‘Highrises’.  He has five or six highrises, ranging from cuddly to hard plastic.  (And he likes to sleep with them, even the hard plastic ones!)  Feeling sure that this time he wouldn’t find the kiddie chairs quite so interesting, I couldn’t wait to take him to visit Sam!

Throughout this healing journey I’ve traveled over the last few years I’ve written daily.  I’ve shared some of my writing, mostly with friends and trusted ladies from church, but I’ve had no real ambition to do anything else with my words.  To be painfully honest, I never gave myself permission to dream of anything special for myself.  I didn’t think that I deserved it, or could ever be good enough.  So after going to school to obtain a degree in a field for which I felt no passion, I worked, and worked hard.  Even so, my business career didn’t turn out like I’d hoped.  And now I stay at home, taking care of my child.  And I write.  And for the most part, I have kept the words to myself.  But I believe that needs to change.  I believe that God is writing a story through my life, and whether it’s meant to be told to those close to me, or to a wider audience, I’m just not sure.  I just know that it’s not meant just for me.

In August 2014, I resolved to “go for it”.  Put all of my writing together as a collection of essays, write an introduction and conclusion, include a few more stories, edit and clean them up…. And then…. Something.  (That’s still a loose end.  The problem is that every time I read what I’ve written I make a ton of changes.  If I keep doing that, nothing will ever get finished.)

One Saturday morning I wrote an introduction to clarify my essays.  A little over a week later, on Monday, August 18th, 2014, I followed up by compiling a conclusion.  That morning as I wrote, I could feel the Spirit at work within me.  As I typed, my hands shook, but I kept going.  When I finished, I felt great.  I sent my work out to a few friends.  My husband called from work and we talked about the upcoming week.  I told him I really wanted to take Carter to see Sam.  Steve agreed and said he would fill out a vacation form to take some time off that Friday.

After saying ‘goodbye’ to Steve, I hung up the phone and pulled up my Facebook newsfeed.  I was startled to read an entry from the Idle-Hour Ranch stating that Sam had suddenly taken ill, and they were asking for prayers;  prayers for a miracle.

I was stunned!  The brain thinks silly things at inappropriate times, and my first thought was to wonder whether he would be up to visitors by Friday.  Then I fell to my knees in my kitchen, right in front of the stove while Carter sat across the room eating breakfast.  Though I’d met him only three times, Sam’s very existence had made such a profound impression on my life.  I was desperate that he should live.  I raised my eyes to Heaven, picturing this sweet creature, and aloud, I pleaded:  “Please don’t take him.  Let him be OK!”

After a few minutes, I once again picked up my phone and scrolled through the post, searching for an update.  I found one; not from the ranch specifically, but from another poster to the page.  It read:  “The ranch has made a separate update.  Sam didn’t make it.”

As I searched for the official post, I cried.  It was true.  Sam was gone.  I read the details of Sam’s last hours and I felt a profound sadness.  I was sad for Sam’s pain.  I was sad for his family.  I was sad for me, and the people like me; people who’d been touched and blessed to have met an interacted with such a creature.

The day passed and I was in a gloom.  I thought of how I’d written about my faith – how I’d almost completely finished recording this leg of my journey, and how one of the lights that led me on my way was now gone.  It seemed so strange that the day I finished writing and made plans to visit Sam was the day he passed away.  I remembered what he meant to me.  How he’d helped me realize how important it was that I commit all that was in me to God.  Sam may be gone, but I’d be grateful to him forever.

One of my friends, a person I’d shared my writing with earlier in the day sent me a message.  She let me know she’d been struggling with some things and my words had arrived at the right moment, right when she needed to hear them.  I love how God does that.  He used me to speak to her when she needed it, just like he used a giraffe in the farmlands of Troy at a time when He knew I would need something extraordinary to get my attention… something sort of huge and unexpected, such as a giraffe in the farmlands of Troy.  : )

Days passed.  I saw a post from the ranch requesting donations to help with the expenses they’d incurred with Sam’s illness and death, as well as funds to help care for the other animals during the winter, when they aren’t open to the public.  Mine is a one-income family, but, wanting desperately to help, I made a small donation and I shared the link for the fund a few times on my Facebook page.

A week after Sam’s passing, I was still very sad.  I really began to ponder the ‘why’ of this.  What exactly was it about meeting Sam that touched me so deeply?  In a flash, I understood a few things.  Sam had inspired me to give my ‘all in’ devotion to God.  This is big because I’m always cautious, hedging my bets, afraid to love without holding back; afraid to dream, or expect anything extraordinary.  I’ve held back because of fear.  Fear of the immense pain of risking myself totally…. And having something go very wrong.

I made a startling correlation that morning.  The family that runs the ranch… I don’t know them, but from my perspective, they seem to live out the commitment I’ve strived for.  From my vantage point, it seems they are ‘all in’ for God’s plans in their lives.  They are ‘all in’ caring for and loving the animals on the ranch.  In the days following Sam’s death, I thought of the pain they would endure when one day they update their website and remove the words, “Home of Sam the giraffe”.  I thought of the love that built their ranch, how it began so they could have animals to use in Nativity services, and what it has become.  Love shows in every detail, down to the choice of a giraffe soap dispenser for use at the hand washing station.

I thought of the pain a person endures when they open themselves up to love this way and then one day…. It’s gone.  Would they do it differently?  Hold back the love and temper the joy if they knew how it would one day end?  I hope not.  And I doubt it.

I also thought of Jesus.  He was a man of joy, but also he was called a man of sorrows.  His heart was broken for the lost of this world, foreshadowing the breaking of his very body.  We are told in scripture that he wept for his dead friend Lazarus, though he knew the miracle He would bring about; restoring Lazarus to life.  He wept for the loss.  He wept for the pain on those who loved and lost a brother; a friend.

We are told in the book of Matthew that as Jesus headed towards Jerusalem, knowing what would happen to him, that as he gazed upon the city that would so soon seek his destruction, he said, “Jerusalem!  Jerusalem!  Murder of the prophets!  Killer of the ones who brought you God’s news!  How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me.”

Jesus was sad.  It’s OK to be sad.  Sometimes that is the only real response to the things that happen in life.

I will never forget Sam.  He was special.  And I praise God that I got to meet him.  My heart aches for his family.  I wish there was more I could do to help.  I am reminded of one of my favorite scriptures:  “One day at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Peter and John were on their way into the temple for prayer meeting.  At the same time there was a man crippled from birth being carried up.  Every day he was sat down at the temple gate, the one named Beautiful, to beg from them going into the temple.  When he saw Peter and John entering the temple, he asked for a handout.  Peter, with John at his side, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Look here.”  He looked up, expecting to get something from them.

“Peter said, ‘I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have I give to you:  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!’  He grabbed him by the right hand and pulled him up.  In an instant his feet and ankles became firm.  He jumped to his feet and walked.”  Acts 3: 6 – 8 MSG.

The family that runs the ranch has shown obedience to God’s calling, and in so doing, they helped pull me to my feet like Peter did for the man at the Beautiful Gate.  Now they suffer and I want to help.  Like Peter, it’s not money I have to give, but they are in my prayers.  And I can give them my words:

Thank you for doing what you do.  It means more and touches more deeply than you will ever know.

www.idle-hourranch.com

http://www.gofundme.com/IHR-Giraffe-Fund

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