God Is Near?

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One late afternoon a few weeks ago, my husband Ben and I walked out to the driveway as he prepared to take one of our boys to an activity. We were in the middle of our conversation when he exclaimed, “look at those clouds.” I turned around and was astounded by the big, fluffy white clouds hovering just above the rooftops of the houses around us. The sun highlighted their beauty. I felt as though they were close enough to touch. 

In that moment, I felt closer to God as well. Amazing how viewing the mountains or the ocean or a gorgeous sunrise can make us feel that God is near to us. Nature is not the only way we feel God’s presence obviously, but it is a common source of awe. The Psalmist was also inspired by God’s handiwork: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:3-4 & 9). When we sense God is close, we may be filled with peace, wonder, and admiration. We may feel small in comparison to God’s magnificence, but still feel like an essential part of the larger universe.

At other times though, we may feel distant from God. We may feel isolated, weary, and abandoned. We wonder if God hears our prayers or cares about us. The Psalmist understood those emotions as well. Bluntly, he asked, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). Nature provides the imagery for these times too. We may feel we are wandering in the dry, unrelenting heat of the desert or lost in the tangled maze of the wilderness. The people of God experienced the confusion and despair of the arid desert when they escaped slavery in Egypt. (Exodus 16). And Jesus knew what it meant to feel separated from God when he spent a challenging time in the wilderness. (Luke 4). 

When we start to believe that God is absent, we must remember that almost everyone has experienced similar episodes. We are not alone in our feelings of frustration and anger. It’s okay to reach out to others and ask for their support and encouragement through the times when our souls feel empty. And we must remember that God is not gone even though it may feel that way. God will help us find our way back. When I couldn’t feel God’s presence, one of my favorite verses has helped me: “This is what the Lord says— ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’” (Isaiah 43:16, 18-19). 

We must hold on in times of desperation and believe that God will restore us. That God is still in relationship with us when we feel darkness only. God has provided us with his creation in nature, which includes both beautiful and harsh environments. When we feel we are trudging through the desert or the wilderness, let us know that God is working on new ways to reach us so we can once again feel the nearness of our God.  

Waking Up

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Every weekday morning, Ben and I hit the snooze buttons on our respective phone alarms several times before we get up. We finally drag ourselves out of bed, but that’s where the similarities end. Within minutes of waking up, Ben is extremely chipper – singing and making jokes. I, on the other hand, drag for a while. I trudge to the kitchen to make the boys’ breakfasts and lunches. The kids, especially my ten-year-old son Alex, fall more into my camp. At times, Ben’s cheerfulness clashes with Alex’s unhappiness about getting up and going to school. `I’ve tried to explain to Ben that not all of us are like him. In fact, some of us don’t understand how he can be so happy that early in the morning. His response: “If you’re awake, you might as well be happy.” Much easier said than done.

I don’t think I’ll ever come close to the speed with which Ben goes from sleep to joviality. But I’ve learned to give myself some grace in the mornings because I’ve come to know who I am and what I can and cannot do in the early AM hours. I walk through the routine of preparing the kids for school, but I don’t make any real decisions until I’ve been awake for a while. I don’t immediately think about how many things I must do that day because I’ll feel overwhelmed. I watch the same morning show every day to learn the news and occupy my mind. I tell myself that it won’t be long until I feel more alive and then I can get on with my day. I used to become frustrated with myself in the mornings because I was groggy, allowed the world to crowd in too quickly, and let my anxiety run amuck. Now, I know that if I take my time to acclimate to the day, I’ll eventually be just fine.

I’m taking an online class in which we’re discussing effective listening from a Christian centered perspective. One of the main components to listening well to others is to know oneself. To be aware of the biases and world views we bring to the conversation that might get in the way of truly listening to another person’s experience. To know our weaknesses that might impede relationships but also to celebrate our positive traits that can enhance communication. When we know our anxieties and triggers, we can better listen to another’s problems without inserting ourselves into their narrative or making the conversation about ourselves when others are in need. When we believe in our strengths, we can feel confident in being with others as they struggle. In caring for ourselves, we can more effectively care for others. In knowing ourselves, we can know others more fully. 

Taking time and making space to understand and accept ourselves is important, essential even, to live authentically and be present with others in their struggles. Let us embrace the process of knowing ourselves so we can be awake in our lives and in the lives of others.

Grand Plans?

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I’m a little obsessed with journals and notebooks. As a writer, I’m practically unable to pass up a journal that calls my name, especially those with an inspiring image or quote. Recently, when I was cleaning and organizing our room and office, I found an inordinate number of journals that I’d collected. I had to check them to see if I’d written anything in them because I often only write in part of a notebook. I picked up a spiral notebook with “Grand Plans” printed on the front. I assumed that I must’ve written in this one and wondered what I had to say about my grand plans at some previous point in time. I opened the cover and gasped because the pages were completely blank. Not one word. Didn’t I have grand plans? 

The fact that I lacked a grand plan in writing bothered me. But I couldn’t just fill in the empty pages immediately because I couldn’t identify my own grand plans. Nothing like writer’s block when you’re thinking about the future. My problem stemmed from my initial perception of the word “grand.” I automatically went to the idea of grand as something big, far reaching, exciting, earth shattering, monumental, and magnificent. Something that would change things and make a huge difference to many people. Something that would bring fame and success. What could I ever do that qualified as grand according to that view?

So, being the word nerd that I am, I followed the course I often take –  I looked up the word grand in desperate hope that another definition would suffice. And I found this alternate meaning of grand: “having more importance than othersForemost” (merriam-webster.com). I liked this different take on the concept. Instead of an elaborate, over-the-top scheme, maybe a grand plan can be relatively simple. When I thought of grand in this way, my perspective changed. I can easily think of plans that are more important to me than other plans. My grand plans revolve around my family – taking care of them, raising my kids to become competent adults, loving them boundlessly, and always having their backs. My grand plans include serving God by helping my church and community. As for my writing, I would love for my future to include wide readership and publication, but even if those dreams don’t come true, it is important that I write for myself and any others who might find encouragement from my work.  

My grand plans involve small, everyday actions that are consistent, routine, and reliable. Others may think these plans small and insignificant. But when I consider grand plans in terms of what is most important to me, it isn’t hard to figure out what is foremost in my life. Sometimes, we get stuck believing that our goals are not adequate or worthy if they aren’t large and impressive. We may not feel we are enough or don’t measure up to others because our plans are not considered fabulous by society. If we stay true to ourselves and those we love, our plans may be quiet and steadfast but grand, nonetheless. We shouldn’t feel daunted because our plans don’t qualify as grand by the world’s standards. We can be content that our plans involving our families and communities are special, important, and truly grand.  

Facing the Fear

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I’ve always relished the beginning of the school year, even as an adult. I feel like it provides a new start similar to the New Year. This year, in particular, as my daughter went to college, I entered the school year with an even stronger feeling that a new chapter would emerge. I decided to lean into the idea that this year would bring fresh opportunities, especially with respect to my boys. It didn’t take long for two new proposals to crop up. One in the realm of church popped into my head during a meeting, and the other one came from school via a teacher’s request three weeks in. My first reaction to both was “that was fast.” And my second was “oh-no.”

Immediately, I felt resistance. I hadn’t expected either of the opportunities; both truly came out of the blue. And so, I wasn’t sure I wanted to accept the options. What would they entail? Would I be too busy if I took on the duties? I needed to pray about the prospects before I moved forward. As is my habit, I started writing in my prayer journal, which is a stream of consciousness exercise for me. I write what’s on my heart and mind without filtering so that I can truly express my feelings to God. This process also often reveals what I’m truly worried about. 

That is exactly what happened in this instance. I wrote about serving the church in a new capacity and said, “I worry that I won’t be good at it.” With respect to volunteering in a new role at school, I wrote “But I admit I am scared to do it. Can I do this right?” My concerns boiled down to fear. Fear that I wouldn’t measure up if I stepped outside of my comfort zone. That I would fall flat on my face. That I would embarrass my kids if I failed. That other people would complain about me behind my back. 

Once I identified fear as the root of my reluctance, I felt more at ease. I’m intimately familiar with fear and anxiety. I don’t like to fail, which makes me risk adverse. For those acquainted with the Enneagram personality types, I am a textbook Six who seeks safety and security and anticipates the worst possible outcomes. So, when I saw my concerns in black and white and realized my worries were based on fear, I thought, of course. And yet, even though I often default to fear, I needed to go through the process of prayer and analysis to understand why I felt hesitant. 

I’ve decided to pursue both new opportunities. I didn’t see them coming, but I’m grateful for them. While my fears will not disappear completely, I’ve learned that for me, fear can hold me back unnecessarily from exciting pursuits if I allow it. I recognize that being open to the possibilities without letting fear overwhelm me will be a lifelong struggle for me, but one well worth fighting.  

Staying Afloat

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I returned home after dropping my daughter Riley off at college fully expecting grief to overwhelm me. I thought I would feel depressed and spend large amounts of time crying or in bed. Once I got home, though, a funny thing happened: I actually felt okay. Not that I didn’t miss her because I did. Driving away from her while we both cried was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But contrary to my expectations, I wasn’t devastated when I arrived home. I kept checking in with myself wondering why I felt alright and questioning whether I would falter at any moment. I expressed my bewilderment to my therapist who said she thought I’d made it through the hardest part. I honestly didn’t understand how or why I was making it without repeatedly falling apart.

During this entire time, before and after taking her to school, my friends kept checking in with me. They sent texts, left voice mails, commented on my Facebook posts. On Sunday at church, almost everyone asked how I was doing. A couple of my friend groups scheduled lunches to make sure I stayed busy. They even gave me gifts, sentimental reminders that they were here for me while Riley was away. 

Then, I got a text from a friend who said, “You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers friend!” And it dawned on me. All of the people who’d been thinking of me or praying for me were keeping me afloat. They were steering me toward a safe landing. They were God’s hands and feet when they reached out. They were God’s mouthpiece when they told me they would be there for me. They showed God’s love with their empathy and kindness. They followed God’s ways by surrounding me with light and friendship when I could’ve been overcome by darkness. 

I’ve heard people say they’ve “felt” other people’s prayers. I admit that I wasn’t entirely sure what people meant by that. Intellectually, I appreciated all of the prayers for me from others. But this time, in these circumstances, I actually felt buoyed by the compassion my friends demonstrated. I felt lighter and stronger and more capable of navigating these new waters.

I’m not saying I won’t encounter rough seas at any point of this journey, but I know now I can turn to any of those who offered help when I need them. They will row out to steady me and steer me away from the storms and the rocky shores. They’ll point me toward the beacon of God’s love just by being themselves. This is the gift of community.

I’m grateful for everyone who has taken a moment to think of me over the last few weeks. And I ask that they continue to send waves of positivity my way. I’ve learned how it feels to be held. I only hope that I can serve as a safe harbor in return someday. Thank you, Friends.

Bonded in the Nest

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We’d packed up the van and were ready to leave for the airport to take Riley to college. Riley looked up at the bird nest in our garage and wondered when the pair of doves would have their baby. Just then she saw a pair of eyes peeking out from underneath the mother bird. Riley, Ben, Jed, and I hopped up on the edge of the van’s floorboard so we could see better. Mama bird didn’t like us being that close, so she flapped her wings and flew out of the garage. That was when we realized there were two baby birds. When I’d originally found the nest in the garage, there was only one egg. But now little sibling birds nestled side-by-side comfortable in the nest. Mama bird came back, and she and papa bird still take turns minding the nest. 

The discovery of two babies was made more special by the fact that we’d just witnessed Riley and her three brothers say goodbye to each other. Honestly, I think Ben and I expected the youngest Alex to be the most upset about her going away to school, so we were better prepared for his tears. We were caught off guard though by the strength of thirteen-year-old Clay’s emotions. His sobbing while he hugged Riley was absolutely gut wrenching. Thankfully, friends took Alex and Clay for fun and a sleepover, so they had distractions awaiting them. During this first part of the goodbye, Jed, our sixteen-year-old son, had remained stoic. I busied myself with some tedious activity in an effort to stop crying myself.  When I walked back into the family room, I saw Jed crying as he said his goodbye. That sent us all into a fresh round of tears. As hard as it was for Ben and I to leave Riley a few days later, watching our children bawl because they would miss one another may have been the most heart breaking part.

And yet, even while we were in the throes of those unbelievably difficult moments, I found myself thanking God for the gift of our family. Since having kids, I’ve always dreamed that they would be close. That someday we would be like those families in movies at the holidays when all of the children and their spouses and their kids gather together at their childhood home with mom and dad. When you watch the fighting and name calling and teasing that arises naturally between siblings living together every day, sometimes it’s hard to believe that the wish will come true. But on that day, in those tears, I became confident that their bond is solid and strong. I was full of gratitude for that scene that could’ve come from a movie.

The baby birds are getting bigger and now stretch their necks to watch us from their perch. It’s getting harder for mama and papa to sit on the nest with them inside. We’ve gotten attached to them and will miss them when they grow too big to stay. Just like we miss Riley. But I love that the baby birds have each other to share their early days. I hope and pray my children stick together through thick and thin well beyond their days in our cozy, crazy, beautiful nest.  

Propping Up the Past

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My thirteen-year-old son Clay and I ran up to his school to pick up some supplies a couple of days before school started when we encountered a staff member who has worked there the entire time Clay has been in middle school. Afterward, I grumbled a bit to Clay, regurgitating my disappointments with some of the decisions this person has made. And when we got back home, my older son Jed piled on with his complaints. This is the beginning of my eighth year with a child at this school, and Jed was there both before and after the arrival of this person. We thought things were better before. Then, Clay said, “She seems nice. I think she just has a hard job.”  

Ouch! Clay put me in my place. I told him I would try to have a better attitude. I realized that perhaps Jed and I were not being fair because we were comparing this person to her predecessor whom we’d both liked a lot. All we could see were the ways this person didn’t perform like the previous person. And even though I stand by my conviction that carpool doesn’t work as well these days, I know I haven’t looked for the positive in this person. All I could see were the ways she didn’t measure up to the past in my perception. I didn’t give her a chance. And I probably omitted any of the former staff member’s foibles from my memory. 

We do that sometimes with people, places, and times. The past becomes nostalgic while the present becomes problematic in comparison. True, we can learn a lot from history, our own and that of our communities. If we dare to take a hard, truthful look at the past, we may avoid repeating the difficult parts. But if we merely glorify what has been without recalling the entirety of the past, the good and bad, we may get stuck in a past that never actually existed in the first place. All to the detriment of today.  

If we never give new people a chance because they are merely different, then we are doing ourselves a disservice. We may miss out on the good that others can provide. We need to give relationships with new people a chance on their own merit, not dismiss them out of hand because we are caught in the comparison trap. We can make an intentional effort to open our minds and hearts so that we experience the kindness, love, and positive traits of others who are new to our lives. 

And we should be careful how we talk about the past versus the present. Constantly repeating the shortcomings of someone who is new to a role as compared to the person who held it before is often an effort to pull others to our way of thinking. I was guilty of that in this circumstance because I was trying to influence Clay’s opinion. I didn’t even consciously think it through at the time, but I now know that I wanted Clay to feel the same way as me. Thankfully, Clay had enough insight to hold his ground and remain on the side of kindness. 

A day after Clay corrected my behavior, I encountered a similar situation. A new person in a role vacated by someone who’d been a favorite. But this time, I caught myself feeling edgy toward the new person. Instead of continuing to build up a wall to keep the new person out, I took a breath and asked the person to repeat her name. She said, “I’m new.” That’s right, new and altogether deserving of welcome. 

Leaving the Nest

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A pair of doves has built a nest in our garage. We repeatedly tried to shoo them out until we realized they’d already managed to construct the nest and laid an egg. We then started to support them by leaving the garage open a crack and putting out a small bowl of water. They are vigilant. One of them is always sitting on the nest guarding and incubating the egg. 

When I was pregnant with each of my children, I felt such relief and excitement on the first day of the month in which they were due. We’d made it. The delivery date was in sight. All the months of waiting and worrying were about to pay off. The baby was about to arrive, and our family would change forever. Those memories came flooding back when the calendar rolled over to August 1 this year.  This month, my oldest child, and only daughter, Riley will start college over eight hundred miles away from home. The anticipation of her absence is hard at times. I now truly know the meaning of bittersweet.

I had a little meltdown the other day, and by little meltdown, I mean sobbing uncontrollably for about an hour. I was talking to my therapist when I realized that I’d been attempting to wall off my emotions. If I could avoid thinking about it, I could avoid the feelings.  But that’s not how emotions work – if we don’t let them out, they fester inside of us. When the wall finally came tumbling down, the tears and sadness rushed in with overwhelming force. I felt better after my crying episode. I’m not suggesting I won’t cry more because I know I will, but I think I moved a little closer to acceptance after that emotional release and the acknowledgement that I was in denial.   

While I’m sad Riley is leaving, I’m also proud of her. This is exactly what Ben and I raised her to do. All the waiting and worrying is about to pay off. Her launch date is in sight. She is ready. My girl is independent and disciplined. She worked so hard in high school in both academics and dance. Her potential is limitless. She is about to embark on an amazing adventure. And I need her to know that I am happy for her. That we are cheering for her. That we believe in her. I don’t want to hold her back in any way. I especially don’t want her worried about me. This is the right thing and the right time for her. 

Obviously, the dynamics of our home life will change as she ventures out on her own. Thankfully, I’ll still have my boys at home to keep me busy. Although I’m warning my friends, if I start making crude and off-color jokes on a regular basis after being surrounded by boys all the time, please take me on a girls’ night out. 

My bird friends are still waiting. After the bird hatches, they’ll have to raise the baby until it is mature enough to fly away. The metaphor is not lost on me. We’ve spent the last eighteen years on a similar journey. I can’t keep my daughter in my nest forever. Through the tears, I’ll celebrate her accomplishments and wait with anticipation to see all of the wonderful things she experiences. My baby is ready to fly, and I believe she will soar. 

Pray Anyway

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My favorite nurse is leaving my doctor’s office to attend medical school. I’m happy for him but sad too. He has always been so upbeat and supportive of my family, and he responds to calls and questions quickly and thoroughly. I visit their office on a regular basis to manage my asthma, so I’ve followed his journey to med school for a while now. I’m going to miss him. After we saw him last week and I hugged him goodbye, I thought: I’ll pray for him. And then I questioned myself, who am I to pray for him? I only know him professionally, not personally. To me, it felt like that moment you see an acquaintance out and about, and you think you should say hello, but then you don’t know if they’ll even remember you. And you must decide whether to approach the person and risk embarrassment or stay silent and avoid the encounter. Maybe I was overstepping my place to pray for him. 

I realized that I don’t question praying for those whom I know well, and I don’t think twice about praying for nameless, often faceless people, like those caught up in disasters or war. But when I didn’t know how I fit into the life of someone that I knew, but didn’t know well, I felt timid. Then, almost immediately, I felt God tell me I was being ridiculous. Why would I ever hold back a prayer? Especially if my reticence stemmed from my own insecurities. First of all, I hadn’t even told my nurse friend of my plan to pray for him, so I couldn’t actually feel embarrassed. And, it’s not like we can only offer a set number of prayers to God a week. God asks us to pray without ceasing, not to limit our prayers. I realized I filtered my prayers through an arbitrary and unnecessary thought process.

Instead of trusting God that my prayers were valid no matter my significance in another’s life, I let fear stand in the way. Praying for others allows us to support and encourage them. We ask God to comfort or care for them. That they will feel God’s presence in difficulty or in everyday circumstances. By choosing not to pray because of my misguided concerns, I was being stingy with prayer. My initial impulse was to speak words of concern for another, but my reluctance meant I did the exact opposite – I ended up caring about myself more than them. I didn’t want to feel unworthy, so I almost decided to shut down instead. As if God would ever say, why in the world is she praying for that person when she doesn’t even know them that well? God is love and welcomes every word we speak in love on another’s behalf. 

I believe that when people cross our minds, we offer a sufficient prayer when we simply say “God, be with them.” And then maybe if we can, reach out, send the text, make the call, to tell them we’re thinking about them. But if we can’t because we don’t know them that well, let’s pray for them anyway.  

“Help me here, Sis”

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We were sitting around my parents’ kitchen table catching up with my nieces on a recent visit. My daughter Riley asked the seven-year-old where she liked to eat when she was on vacation at the beach in Florida. She listed a couple of places then turned to her older sister and with perfect comedic timing and a pinch of sass said, “help me here, Sis.” My oldest niece smiled and provided the names of additional restaurants. Riley and I glanced at each other as we held back our laughter. This girl has spirit and spunk and none of us want to squelch that. 

But as I thought more about our conversation, I realized what my niece had accomplished with her adorable little quip. In one fell swoop, she’d invited another person to participate in the conversation and asked for help at the exact same time. She’d done it in such a casual and comfortable manner, though, I almost missed the significance of her statement.

Most of us don’t ask for help so easily. Instead, we worry that people will think less of us if we ask for help. We often berate ourselves for our inability to handle all of life’s circumstances on our own. We fear people’s judgment. We want to hide our troubles to avoid potential shame. We may even decide to suffer in silence because we feel weak at the prospect of reaching out to another and anxious about being vulnerable in front of others. But we need to normalize asking for help. To make it a more common occurrence because who doesn’t need some help on a regular basis? 

I saw a friend at Target the other day, and she shared some difficult information about challenges facing her family. We talked for a while about the range of emotions that she and children might experience. And at the end of the conversation, I said what many of us often do: “let me know if you need anything.” Most of the time, when presented with that statement, we say we will call if we need something but know we won’t. This time, my friend said, “that dinner we talked about having might be good.” We’d previously discussed having dinner sometime in the future but didn’t have solid plans. In that moment, though, she achieved the same thing my niece had. She invited me to help and gave me a concrete opportunity to do so. The more I thought about her response, the more I admired her for it. She’d shown vulnerability in what she’d shared then offered me a way to be present with her.

Maybe that is one path to normalize asking for and receiving help. When someone asks us what we need, we actually tell them. Even if no one can fix things for us, they can probably go for a cup of coffee. People want to help us when we are in need. Let’s learn to ask for help in specific ways. And in turn, we can show them that the next time they need help, it’s okay to ask because we’ll be there for them too.