I had major surgery in December, so I am starting the new year the same way I ended the old one: SLOW. And while slow can be frustrating, it is also a gift. It has given me time with my family and rest like I’ve never had before. As my body heals and my mind clears, I’m looking ahead to the new year trying to catch some sort of vision. Resolutions? I’m really not good with those. One word for 2021? Nada. I’m looking into what seems like a clouded mirror.
When the pandemic first hit, I compared it to driving into a blizzard. It was disorienting and I couldn’t see very far up ahead. I didn’t know how long it would last. Heading into 2021 feels a bit like driving through fog. We may wish that turning the calendar to a new year would somehow magically propel us into a different reality, but the truth is that whatever we were dealing with in December has followed us into January.
If you experienced loss in 2020, grief will follow you into 2021 and needs your attention.
You may be praying for a loved one who is sick, or looking for a job, or trying to help your child who is struggling. Your marriage may still be hard, and you may still feel anxious or depressed over the reality we are living in. There is still much uncertainty, and like driving into a blizzard or through fog, there are a few things we can do:
1.)Stay alert. We wouldn’t use cruise control in a blizzard and none of us can afford to check out during this season.
2.)Slow down. Most of our external activities have slowed way down, but we have to be intentional to slow our internal worlds. To draw near to God and receive his peace.
3.)Make ourselves visible. Reaching out and connecting with others, and being honest about our struggles, is like turning on our hazard lights. It lets others know where we are.
4.)Follow Jesus. We may not be able to see very far up ahead, but we really don’t have to. We can follow in the tracks of Jesus because he knows the way.
5.)Maintain momentum so we don’t get stuck. Keep moving forward.
I love this passage in 1 Corinthians 8:12-13:
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
This is how we maintain momentum. This is how we keep moving forward.
Trusting steadily in God, in every situation and circumstance beyond our control. Hoping unswervingly, not in a particular outcome or person or political party, but placing our hope firmly in the One who is working all things for our good according to His purpose. And loving extravagantly, in every relationship and every interaction with everyone, no matter how easy or difficult they may be to love.
Of course we will not do this perfectly – that is one of the few guarantees we have. But may these three things be our aim. May these inform our daily decisions and responses and priorities in 2021. God is faithful. May we also be found faithful.
I haven't slept with a stuffed animal for at least forty years. But this past Tuesday, I did. My sweet friend got me this little lamb because in addition to having to have surgery, because of Covid restrictions at the hospital, I would not be allowed any visitors. The thought of me being alone in the hospital the night after surgery broke her heart, so she wanted to give me a tangible reminder of God's loving presence. She was thinking about Psalm 23, about the Lord being my shepherd, and the promise that he would give me everything I needed. And of course, if he is my shepherd, that means I am his lamb.
What she didn't know is that I had been reading Psalm 23 as well, reflecting on the comforting truths found in that passage of Scripture. As much as I did not want to have to go through surgery, as much as I was truly terrified of the process, I could not deny God's hand leading me every step of the way. From every doctor's appointment to things being rearranged on my schedule, it seemed apparent that God was orchestrating all of it. And as I read each line of this beloved Psalm, my heart stretched to believe and fully receive the tender care of my Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (Everything I need, he will provide.)
He makes me lie down in green pastures, (He is in this. He is at work in me, making me slow down. Settle down. Lie down. In green, lush pastures.)
He leads me beside quiet waters, (He is actively involved. This is not just happening to me, but he is actually leading me through this. Leading me into this and out of this. Leading me beside quiet waters, into peaceful resting places.)
He refreshes my soul. (Oh how I need this. Interesting how this happens after He makes us lie down. After he leads us beside quiet waters. After our calendars have been cleared and the activity has ceased. He will restore my soul.)
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. (Sometimes the right path isn't an easy one. Sometimes the right path isn't one we would have chosen. Sometimes God chooses to heal us through pain. I came to see that God would heal me through this surgery, so that I could move forward into whatever he has prepared for me to do, to bring honor to His name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
I wish I could tell you I wasn't afraid, God did give me a measure of peace leading up to the day of surgery. But on that day, as they prepped me and brought me into the OR, I was so scared. I repeated Psalm 23 in my mind the best I could, but the reality of what was about to happen overwhelmed me. My surgeon took my hand as they moved me onto the table, and she looked in my eyes and said, "It's all going to be good. You can squeeze my hand. It's OK." Her presence and compassion brought me comfort. Sometimes we need something tangible - human touch. That is the last thing I remember before waking up in recovery.
The surgery went well. I am on my way to healing. And that little lamb did it's job, reminding me that I am never alone, and that God tenderly cares for me. I am going to re-gift it and pass it on to another dear friend who has suffered too many losses this year. Loved ones gone without a chance to say good-bye. Our Shepherd walks us through the darkest of valleys.
How about you? Do you need a reminder that your Shepherd tenderly cares for you? Whatever you may be facing right now, you are not alone. You are never alone. Read through Psalm 23 and personalize it for you.
Or maybe you know someone who is going through a valley. You may not be able to hold their hand or see them in person right now, but perhaps you could send a card or a gift, or connect with them over a phone call or FaceTime conversation.
I am thankful for my loving family who is taking excellent care of me, for wonderful friends who are showing up with meals, texts, and phone calls, and for this time I have to heal and be restored. Thank you for your prayers, and please let me know how I can be praying for you! (I've got some extra time on my hands . . . ) You can send me a message through the contact form on this website, or find me on Instagram or Facebook and send me a message there.
I am not a good gardener. Which is why, after months of ignoring the side yard of my house, it became overrun with weeds. So I put on long sleeves and gloves (in case there was still some poison oak hanging out from last year), and started uprooting the weeds that were towering over my hostas.
I almost jumped for joy when I noticed that the plants I was pulling out of the ground were tomatillos! I could not believe it. I stood back and looked around to see if any of my neighbors happened to be outside. I got close and inspected them again, and then stepped back in awe and wonder. How on earth could I end up with a tomatillo crop when I didn't even plant any seeds?
I felt like I had struck gold. I can't adequately express how very much I love Mexican food. I'm not sure if I married a Mexican because I love the food so much (Bernie is also French, and French food is exquisite) or if I love Mexican food because I married a Mexican, but either way, I frequently crave tacos, fajitas, frijoles, huevos rancheros, guacamole, chips and salsa. And green salsa (made from tomatillos) is my favorite. I know a thing or two about tomatillos. I buy them and roast them with garlic, onions, and jalapeños to make green salsa for enchiladas, Staring at my newly discovered treasure, dreams of harvesting, roasting, and canning those tomatillos into salsa verde danced in my head.
But I needed a second opinion. I called my husband out, and he excitedly assured me they were, in fact, tomatillos. He took photos and sent them to a couple of our gardening friends. They weren't entirely sure. Still looking for concrete answers, I turned to social media for research. Surely my Facebook friends would be able to clear this up one way or another!
The responses were quite varied:
"Nightshade family. Yes. Nightshade is poison. Be very careful. I wouldn't eat that."
"I think this is a lantern plant."
"There are wild tomatillo plants. That's what it looks like to me. But I could be wrong."
"They are indeed tomatillos. I grow lots of them in my garden. Makes a great salsa!"
"We had those and I thought it was a Chinese Lantern plant a/k/a strawberry ground cherry (according to one source)! 'The flowers, which are insignificant, produce small round berries that are poisonous when unripe, and edible (but not tasty) when mature. The 2-inch wide, papery pod, called a calyx, serves as protective cover over the flower and fruit.'-(from something on Google) Anyway, I'd for sure check it out before eating them!"
"I think if you squeeze one you’ll find they’re hollow inside. Lol. But they’re cool! I have an app called “picture this” that identifies plants. I use it a lot in my yard."
"I don’t know what the name of it is but it is not a tomatillo plant. Sorry! That would have been awesome!"
"Maybe makes a good salad."
"Ground cherries, sometimes called Chinese Lanterns. Pioneers crossing the Midwest plains were said to have eaten these, and Native Americans made jelly from them. Still be careful, as this plant is in the nightshade family which harbors toxins."
"Nightshade family. Yes. Nightshade is poison. Be very careful. I wouldn't eat that."
Umm, OK. We decided to use one of the identifier apps suggested to us, and we discovered - to my great disappointment - that this plant was not really a tomatillo plant after all. It's most likely a ground cherry or wild tomatillo plant, and it is NOT used for making green sauce for enchiladas.
After grieving the loss of my dreams, I've thought a bit about how dangerous it could be to listen to the well-intentioned opinions of others, and even follow our own instincts. We think we know what is right and true based on our limited knowledge and experiences. We think we can judge what is right and true based on appearances and our sometimes faulty perceptions.
Perhaps the wisest five words offered above came from the Facebook friend who ended her opinion with "But I could be wrong."
It can be dangerous - even deadly - to eat wild fruits and vegetables without knowing for sure if they are indeed safe to eat. It can also be dangerous - even deadly - for us spiritually and relationally to follow public opinion and even our own intuition in our quest to find what is right and true.
For me, the Bible is like the plant app Bernie and I used to find the answer to our tomatillo question. It is my source of truth. It is what informs my faith which informs how I think, believe, and live. If that sounds overly simplistic to you, let me assure you - I will be the first to admit that I do not understand everything I read in Scripture. And I'll be honest enough to admit that I don't even like some of what I read. Some teachings are hard to accept. Even Jesus' disciples complained, after listening to one of his sermons. "After hearing this, many of His followers said, 'This teaching is too hard! Who can listen to it?'” (John 6:60 NLV)
I didn't write the book. Just like I didn't create the earth and all the plants that grow upon it. It requires humility to accept the wisdom found in God's Word. It requires a posture of submission to accept the truths found in Scripture and to choose to live my life according to them. Especially when they contradict the 'wisdom" of this world.
How about you? Where do you go to seek truth? Where do you go to find wisdom? What is informing your faith, which in turn informs your thoughts, beliefs, and the way you live your life?
In case you are curious, this is what a true tomatillo plant looks like. You can find these in the produce department of your grocery store, usually by the tomatoes. They look like green tomatoes, but they are not. They are actually related to the gooseberry family. (I couldn't make this stuff up.)
And in case you haven't been able to stop thinking about enchiladas since you read the first paragraph, here is my favorite recipe for homemade green salsa enchiladas. My niece and her husband request this dish when they come in to town. Their son, Lucas, likes to help me make it, and last time he even ate an enchilada! Use any leftover salsa to make chilaquiles, or put it on your fried eggs or drizzle it over nachos.
In the last week alone . . .
I'm pretty sure I accidentally threw our checkbook and ledger in the garbage.
I met a friend for breakfast -- she picked the place and then showed up at the wrong restaurant.
One of my daughters mistakenly took our dog's allergy pill instead of her own.
A friend told me she was so out of it at home, her husband asked her if she was losing her mind.
We've heard of Pregnancy Brain. Grief Brain. Senior Moments. Well, I'm calling it. Pandemic Brain is a thing. If a scientist or psychologist would like to throw some hard data on this to prove it's real, I'd appreciate it. But I know it's real because I am not dumb. And none of the people I have referred to above is dumb. We are not losing our minds. On the contrary, our amazing brains are doing a pretty good job considering all the information we are having to process.
Think about it. We are going through our days, working, parenting, doing household tasks and chores, paying bills, figuring out all kinds of new technology and systems, and while we are engaged in all this activity our brains are processing enormous amounts of information we are hearing. Information that has to be sifted through for context and accuracy. Information which is constantly changing. The numbers. The states on the quarantine list. The timeline for a vaccine. The safety of vaccines. Political propaganda. Biased reporting. Proposed plans for schools and sports programs.
Where I live, we were given a choice whether to send our kids back to school. Not an easy one for some parents to make, Then it was decided for us, and most kids moved to full-time remote learning. Some of my friends have decided to homeschool, so they are figuring out which curriculum to use and what that will look like. Parents are having to figure out combined schedules for work and school. Some of our kids have returned to sports camps and practices, and it's been so good for them to be active and get back to something normal. And then for some of them, their entire seasons have just been cancelled. Again. We run into the store and have to remember to put our mask on. To squirt hand sanitizer on our hands as we leave. But then, shoot! We touch the cart again. But remember? We sanitized that when we came into the store. Whew! We run into a good friend and have to decide whether to give her a hug or an elbow bump. We go eat at a restaurant and have to remember to wear our masks to our table, take them off to drink and eat, and then put them back on again if we get up to go to the restroom. It's just A. Lot. To. Remember.
My friend -- the one whose husband asked if she was losing her mind -- is a preschool teacher. For weeks she has been going back and forth with the proposed plans for the school, trying to plan for her fall semester while planning for her own children who are now doing remote learning full-time. Then preschool was cancelled. And then her director resigned.
Is it any wonder we are a little off our game? Is it that hard to understand how our brains could be so preoccupied with the craziness of this situation that we do things like put the milk in the cabinet and our cell phones in the fridge? That we accidentally delete 3022 files on our lap top and then delete the Recycle Bin? That we confuse our dry shampoo for spray deodorant? That we leave our credit card in the gas pump and throw our checkbooks in the garbage? (To be clear, I didn't do all of these things, but when I shared on Facebook that I accidentally threw away my checkbook and asked if anyone else had done anything dumb lately, these are some of the responses I got.) My theory with the checkbook is that after my hairdresser cut my hair in my garage (can I just point out this is not normal??), and I wrote her a check on the back of our Jetta, I grabbed my broom and dustpan, swept up the hair from the garage floor, and then walked down to the garbage can which was already on the curb for pick-up the following day. With my towel around my shoulders and my hair dripping wet, I waved goodbye as she pulled away, opened the lid, and probably dropped my checkbook and pen, along with the hair, in the trash.
It was not a normal situation. Few things in my life are normal right now. There is a lot going on in my head.
Maybe you can relate. Do you feel like a GPS that is constantly saying "Recalculating?" Do you feel like that rainbow pinwheel that spins on your Mac when too many files are open and it can't keep up? Do your feel like your relationships are being affected, like when your smartphone tells you your wifi connection is weak or poor? That some of your connections with your regular people and your regular rhythms of life are not as strong as you would like? Are you overwhelmed as you try to figure out what to do about your child's education and what role you will have in it? Are you trying to figure out childcare if you are an essential worker and your kids are now going to be at home? Do you miss going to church and going on vacation? Are you sick and tired of Zoom??
If so, I want to tell you what I told my friend. I said, "You can go tell your husband (who by the way is a very nice person) that you are most definitely not losing your mind. Your brain is extraordinary. Honestly, it's remarkable you are functioning as well as you are, given the circumstances. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break. Give yourself grace. This Pandemic Brain is a lot like Grief Brain."
My friend looked at me and replied, "There is grief here. With this pandemic. There is loss." Yes, there is. For some of us more significantly than others, but all of us are experiencing loss. Our kids are experiencing it, too. So be gracious to yourself and to others. Be extra kind and compassionate to yourself and to others. Make allowance for your faults and the faults of others.
I can't wait till we move past this era -- my prediction is that because of how hard our brains are working during this season, we will end up smarter than ever. Hopefully wiser, too.
I didn’t want to see him, let alone have dinner with him. It was Valentine’s Day, and my husband, Bernie, and I had hit the lowest point in our marriage of nine years. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Celebrating a romantic occasion during this season of marriage was awkward, even painful. This is where most couples walk away and call it quits. This is really hard and I don’t know how we’re going to make it. How do we celebrate this day when feelings of being in love are a distant memory?
It wasn’t always like this. Our early years of marriage were smooth sailing, and we looked forward to our time together. Over the course of our relationship, we had celebrated special days like anniversaries and Valentine’s Day (which is also the anniversary of our engagement) in a number of different ways. Some years when we could afford it and extended family members were able to care for our small children, we would get away for an entire weekend, savoring our time together at our favorite bed and breakfast on the shores of Lake Michigan. Other years we enjoyed a quiet dinner in our favorite restaurant, maybe even catching a movie afterward.
One year, as we waited for our server to bring us our drinks and were deciding on which fondue to order, the babysitter called to say that one of our daughters had gotten sick. We rushed home, put the kids to bed, ordered take-out, and watched a movie together. That anniversary stands out as one of my favorites, not because of what we did or where we went, but because of where we were at in our relationship. We were connected. We were figuring out parenting and life together. We felt loving feelings toward one another.
But now, with an accumulation of resentments and negative interactions between us, my heart felt hard. We had barely survived an onslaught of difficult circumstances, including a miscarriage, job loss, and Bernie’s serious bout of depression followed by his devastating diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Initially, our grief had brought us closer to each other, but as the stress and pain reached almost unbearable levels, our fears and anxieties went through the roof.
Communication became almost impossible. We were stuck in a cycle of unresolved conflicts, and every attempt to talk through our issues resulted in another fight. Bernie wanted to move past our conflicts and be close again; when I pulled away because of my hurt, his anger intensified. He felt rejected, like I was punishing him. I needed space and time to heal; he needed acceptance and connection.
Over an awkward, silent dinner, I looked at my husband of nine years and thought, how did we end up here? All around us couples were dining, and I silently made up stories about how happy they were, and the amazing lives they were probably living. Some appeared to be just starting their lives together, dating or newly married. Other couples looked older, and I imagined with envy that they had managed to make it through decades of whatever life threw their way. What was wrong with us? How were we supposed to mark this occasion when we didn’t even know how we were going to survive our marriage?
The Bible doesn’t tell us whether to give roses or chocolate, but it does define what real love looks like and gives guidelines for how to express it. We are told in Romans 12:9 that “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” 1 Peter 1:22b says, “Love one another deeply, from the heart.”
For us, during those difficult seasons, the most authentic way to celebrate our anniversary and Valentine’s Day was to go out to dinner and exchange cards that affirmed our commitment to one another. Cards that said, “Even with all we are going through, I still love you. We will get through this. I’m not going anywhere.” These were not the flowery, romantic celebrations we had often shared, but they were loving and sincere. They helped us to hold on, and gave us hope that we would, in fact, make it through. With God’s help, and our strong commitment to one another, we would come out on the other side.
And we have. With the help of a Christian counselor, Bernie learned how to give me the space and time I needed, even when it was uncomfortable for him. I learned how to move toward him when I felt like running away. We learned to be honest about our needs. With hard work, prayer, and plenty of opportunities to practice loving and extending grace to one another, we are on the other side of experiencing the joy of committed love. The warm, loving feelings have returned, and our friendship is deeper because of all we have gone through. We have authentically celebrated 25 wedding anniversaries and Valentine’s Days, and we continue to look for ways to genuinely love one another, in every season we are in: in good times and bad, for better or worse.
If you are facing a difficult season in your marriage this Valentine’s Day, consider these suggestions:
My writing and speaking career began with a Christmas letter. About ten years ago, I wrote a piece about our Christmas tree and included it with our family Christmas card. I received a lot of positive feedback on what I'd written (from people other than my mother), and someone even recommended that I start writing articles at church for a marriage newsletter. When I was asked to edit and contribute original articles to this newsletter which went out to about three hundred marriage workshop participants, my first thought was No, thank you. I don't know how to do that. But then came this other thought, brave and vulnerable...But I'd like to try. What's the worst that can happen? That I'm terrible at it and I get fired from volunteering?
I wrote an original article for one of the issues, and another leader (who was an editor at Chicago's Daily Herald newspaper) asked if she could rework the article and run it in a brand new parenting magazine the paper was launching. With my name in the byline.
Then I thought of a couple more article ideas for the parenting section, and after getting approval to write them I googled "how to write a feature article for a newspaper." We did this ping-pong thing for a few months, her asking me to write about a certain topic, and me throwing out more ideas, and then she said, "Why don't we just make this a regular column? We'll call it 'A Mom's Point of View.'"
I cut my writing teeth on that column, which ran for five years, and I also took a writing class at a local college. I honed my skills. I opened myself up to critique (which is so very painful, and the best way to grow). I learned from other writers. I registered for a writer's conference, which led to more articles published in various magazines. Several people told me I needed to start speaking as well, because speaking and writing go together, and my first thought was No! I stuttered as a child into adulthood. I want to be a writer. I could never be a speaker! And then my brave voice from somewhere deep inside...but I sure would like to try. What's the worst that can happen? That I'm terrible and no one ever asks me to speak again?
After attending my second writer's conference and pitching my book idea to more than a dozen publishers (and getting rejected by those who responded) I finally got two yeses. I chose Kregel Publishers, and my book, Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy, What My Mother Taught Me About How to Live and How to Die was released in 2017.
I have been speaking and writing to women for ten years, and I love it. I don't know where this journey goes from here, and that's OK. I'm learning to trust God's timing. He knows what is best and is preparing me for what is next. I'm learning to not let fear call the shots. I'm reminded to not despise small beginnings.
As with Mary, all God is asking of me is a willing, surrendered heart. That my YES comes from a place of trusting that He is good, He is with me, and He has a plan. I don't have to figure everything out on my own or know all the details in advance.
And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord;
let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)
Thanks for following along on my journey. You can read my ten-year-old Christmas letter below. Every word of it still rings true. Merry Christmas to you and yours <3
One of the things I love most about the Christmas season is putting up our tree. Every ornament takes me back to a particular time or place, a memory attached to each one. Many memories are joy-filled, and some carry painful reminders of a difficult season or time of loss. Yet when the tree is complete I find that it speaks of God’s goodness and faithfulness in my life, and I am able to see how my story echoes His greater story-the one we celebrate at Christmas.
Some of my favorite ornaments are from different places we’ve lived, like London, Mexico, and Austin, as well as from here at home in Illinois. Some we’ve picked up during our travels, like on our honeymoon, at our favorite bed and breakfast on the shore of Lake Michigan, and from the Wisconsin Dells. I love watching our three daughters dig through the boxes to find their “baby’s first Christmas” ornaments, along with dozens that they have made over the years. We have ornaments given to us by friends and family, as well as a few I fought for at white elephant exchanges.
Packed in these same boxes are ornaments we bought the year my husband, Bernie, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and a Hallmark globe from 2002 that simply says, “Emmanuel, God with us”. We bought it for our friends who buried their precious baby daughter right before Christmas, and then we bought one for ourselves because we needed those words of comfort as well.
We have two Crayola crayon ornaments that say “Oasis” which is where our children spent some time being cared for while Bernie and I found help and healing at our church’s marriage workshop.
Even my nativity set tells a story. I purchased it while shopping with my aunt on vacation. We had no idea that my uncle would go home to be with Jesus that very morning.
Some people would rather not be reminded of such painful memories. And I have to admit, that first year, it was hard to set up my new nativity. But with each passing year, I have come to realize just how significant all these treasures are. Together they paint a picture that is symbolic of our lives: the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, the highs and the lows.
Often during the holidays, we work overtime trying to make everything seem perfect. We sing about our troubles being miles away and miss the invitation to come just as we are – troubles and all – and worship the One who came to be with us, to be our Emmanuel.
"If you could only have two foods on your Thanksgiving plate, what would they be?" This is a game we play in our family of foodies, and my answer is stuffing with gravy, and roasted vegetables - brussel sprouts and green beans with bacon, rosemary, and lemon. (In case you want to challenge the rules of our game, gravy is a freebie and doesn't count as a separate food item. And we make sure there is lots and lots of gravy.)
Thanksgiving in our family is definitely about the food. We host our extended family at our home, and we start the day with brunch (which is every bit as important as the turkey dinner). Midday, we have a traditional potato-peeling contest, which I've found is the only way to get a hundred pounds of potatoes peeled and have fun while doing it. My sister Deb is a rockstar at peeling potatoes. When she steps up to the sink, the rest of us watch in awe and there is lots of hooting and hollering.
My eldest daughter, Kate, has fallen in love with pie-making, and my middle daughter, Claire, is my stuffing soul-sister who loves cooking it almost as much as eating it. Our youngest, Brenna, is not a fan of cooking or stuffing - she likes the sparkling juice. And the rolls.
Every year, my sister, Kari, makes her husband's favorite broccoli casserole which involves velveeta cheese and ritz crackers, and usually forgets the homemade cranberry sauce until we are gathered in the kitchen for grace.
Our gathering changes and evolves every year, because life is constantly changing, and families go through stuff. There are empty chairs at our table because some of our loved ones are gone. Relational changes mean some people are not coming and others are. Illness keeps some of our loved ones away. We miss those who cannot be with us and we are happy to welcome new faces. Our family, maybe like yours, can get a little messy. Families can be complicated. Most are far from perfect.
But through it all, through all we have been through and all the challenges and changes we've weathered together, we have found God's grace to be so much greater than the mess. We've found His love and comfort to be stronger than the pain of loss.
When we gather, the food is a big deal. But more than that - way more than that - it is about the relationships. Siblings reconnecting. In-laws bonding. Cousins becoming best friends all over again. Stories told and retold - often with embellishments. Trying to get the gravy to taste like Grandma's and the stuffing to taste like Mom's. Heavy doses of laughter and forgiveness and acceptance. Because we are family. And no other people on the planet share our history and our stories. It is an absolute gift that our home is the space where all this gets to take place.
If you have an empty chair at your table this year, I pray for God's healing comfort. Take time to grieve. Be kind to yourself. Maybe this article can help - I wrote it about our first Thanksgiving after Mom was gone. https://www1.cbn.com/devotions/when-cancer-takes-your-loved-one
I am not a runner, at least not in a physical sense of the word. I dislike running so much, I don't even like to watch other people do it. Unless they are like Usain Bolt or the guy from Chariots of Fire, because those guys were made to run. And I love watching people do what they were created to do.
But like you, I am running a metaphorical race. I'm doing a number of things that God has called me to do: I'm a person of faith and a follower of Jesus. I'm a wife and a mom. I work at a job I enjoy that fits with my unique wiring and passions, And I'm a communicator - I write and speak, mostly to women, weaving together compelling stories with biblical truth to inspire and encourage women in every season of life. My friend, Julie, creates beauty from clay. I try to do the same with words. And when I succeed, I have this amazing sense of fulfillment that I'm doing what I was created to do. Maybe the way Usain feels when he runs.
Recently I spent a week in Michigan, speaking at women's groups and events and visiting with family and friends. It was the best week I've had in a long time. I came away with a runner's high, with my bucket filled to overflowing with gratitude and contentment. Gratitude for all God has done in my life and the opportunities he provides, and contentment for this journey I've been on for the last ten years. At times I feel like I'm on the slow track, but it's more than OK with me because the work God is doing through me is an overflow of the work he is doing in me. And in his wisdom he knows which opportunities are right for me at just the right time. Yep, I came away from my speaking engagements full of joy (which was precisely what I spoke about at all three events.)
But somewhere between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, and then somewhere between Belmont and Chicago, I lost my joy. I got tripped up in a few different ways, and it has taken me a good chunk of time to get myself back on track. As I write these words I am still working some things out.
Sometimes we need to fall so that we can take a moment, get our focus back where it needs to be, and then continue moving in the right direction. I did some things to bring on the discouragement from last week, but I also did some things to chase it away.
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (comparison, fear, doubt, discouragement)
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (And as my sister reminded me, heaven's economy and numbers are different than earth's)
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast (doubt, distraction, discontentment, pride, self-importance, self-obsession) works through a whole batch of dough.
You...were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. If you are led by the Spirit...you are free. (You are free!)
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit."
And there it is. I trip and flail when I am not in step with the Spirit. I lose my joy when I lose my focus. What about you? Where are you getting tripped up as you run your race? What do you need to do today to keep in step with the Spirit and run the race uniquely marked out for you?
In the past three weeks we have gone from a household of five to a household of three. Two of our daughters are now in college - one a junior, the other a freshman - and though we've done college drop-offs before (and they were hard), this is taking some getting used to for all of us.
I survived my first week. Those close to me lovingly advised me to practice good self-care. To do things that fill my bucket, and to be kind to myself. Because it was going to be a hard week. I took the advice to heart and had every intention of laying low, taking it easy, and giving myself the space and time to process my feelings about my baby birds leaving the nest. It turned out to be a hard week, indeed, but not for the reasons I expected.
A family we know lost their son/brother to suicide. Someone I love was hurting and needed my time. And I sensed God nudging me to visit a friend who has cancer, a friend I hadn't seen in weeks because, well, I was busy getting my girls ready to fly the coop and doing the things we do during summer. It was a hard week, but you know what? My bucket is not empty. God lovingly provided the energy and strength and friendship and prayer I needed to move through each day, taking one thing at a time, doing the things he was calling me to do. Two mornings in a row, friends called to pray with me just when I needed it. And I felt connected not only to my friends, but I felt so powerfully connected to our life-giving God who provides and protects and gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do.
Self-care, from a humanistic perspective, is all about assessing our human limitations and needs for sleep, rest, good food, exercise, relational connection, solitude, recreation, etc...and then being intentional to meet those needs. It's about self-awareness. And though all of these things are good and healthy, focusing on these things alone will not fill our buckets or our souls.
Jesus experienced human limitations and needs just like us. He needed sleep and rest and food. He needed friendship and solitude just like we do. And yet because his purpose was always to do the will of his Father, his days and moments were directed by the Spirit. Time and again we see his attempts to take care of his human needs interrupted by people's needs and God's higher purposes. (If you are a mom, you are most likely experiencing these interruptions several times a day!) He retreated to the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. He performed his first miraculous sign while attending a wedding as a guest. After he began his ministry, he pulled away for times of solitude and then was immediately bombarded by crowds of people with needs. He fell asleep from exhaustion on a boat, then was woken up by his panic-stricken disciples because of a violent storm. He stopped to rest at a well, tired, thirsty, and hungry, and while his disciples went to get food, he talked with a woman who was seeking truth. His self-care was always within the context of his higher purpose and calling - to do the will of his Father. The eating and the sleeping and the solitude - they all were subject to his obedience to his Father in each moment. Which meant that while he was preparing to enter into his season of ministry, he faced spiritual opposition. While he was waiting for lunch, he asked a woman for a drink of water and then, recognizing her spiritual thirst, engaged in a Spirit-led conversation that transformed her life and later, her whole village. And, immediately after being woken by his disciples, he silenced a storm, demonstrating that "even the wind and the waves obey him."
Jesus went to great lengths to explain to his followers his dependency on his Father.
John 5:19: "So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does."
John 12:49: "I don’t speak on my own authority. The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it."
John 8:28: "So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man on the cross, then you will understand that I Am he. I do nothing on my own but say only what the Father taught me."
In John 15, Jesus uses the imagery of a vine and branches to show our need to remain in him, to be connected to the source of life. How foolish it would be to cut a branch off of a bush, lay it on the table, and then spray it with water, sprinkle plant food over it, and shine a spotlight on it, hoping it will grow. And yet if we go through our days not connected to the true Vine, even our best attempts at self-care will be fruitless. Jesus is the Source of life, and apart from him we can do nothing. But when we live from a place of abiding in him, staying connected to him, he provides everything we need to do his will. He gives strength and energy even when we are tired and weary. When we remain in him and in his love, even interruptions don't have to deplete us.
It is good and wise to take care of ourselves. It is good to have self-awareness. It is important to understand the unique ways in which we are wired and be intentional about our choices. But I am learning that solely focusing on meeting my needs does not fill my bucket or protect me from depletion. On the contrary, when I love and serve others as God leads, when I am connected to him as I expend my energy and give of my time, he fills. He satisfies. He replenishes and restores.
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