The Assignment

I was in my 20’s when I got my first pair of glasses. I didn’t think I needed them but my eyes had never been checked and someone talked me into going to the eye doctor for some problems I was having with nighttime glare. I left the office with a prescription that landed me with glasses. I can still remember walking outside that day and realizing trees had individual leaves on them!

Recently I was in a conversation with a longtime (and long distance) friend who suggested I needed a different kind of vision correction.

Expert pinned on noticeboard

“Sheree, I have an assignment that I think we really help you.” I had just admitted I was pretty discouraged about some things going on in my life and in the lives of some folks I love.

My ears perked up. I’ve always liked assignments, especially those with an attached goal. Like when my third grade teacher assigned a reading program that would result in completing a stack of books by years end with the promise of a shiny red ribbon. Reading was one of my favorite things to do so quickly made my list, devoured the books well before the deadline and couldn’t wait to get that ribbon.

My friend’s assignment is one I have also enjoyed working on. It’s taken some hard work at times. Other times, though, it’s felt nearly effortless. Some days the assignment has been on my mind all day, while other days I fall into bed at night only to realize I haven’t given it a single thought. But I can honestly say that after a couple of months I’m starting to experience the fruit of keeping this project in mind.

And here’s the assignment she gave me: Become an expert at seeing God at work. 

Her words have rolled around in my mind again and again.

  • When a friend expressed her battles with discouragement over a difficult relationship I was able to point to several clear evidences of God’s grace in her life and the life of her friend. As tears fell we both marveled at how easy it is to lose sight of Him when times are tough.
  • When my daughter recently shared some wearying encounters with one of her children I was able to empathize with her maternal frustrations but also remind her of some key areas in which God has been at work in my grandchild. She agreed and we realized how important it is to lift one another’s gaze to God’s activity, especially when it seems our labors are in vain.
  • As I recently poured out my heart and complaints to God (yes, we can do that…the Psalmists surely did!) about some common struggles married couples walk through, including Benny and me, I experienced a fresh awareness of the importance of thanking God for some specific things in my marriage that are clear examples of His work.
  • During a challenging week when a several weighty pressures were bearing down on me I felt hopeless for needed changes in my heart. Yet God gently reminded me of an area in my life that used to be a substantial weakness but that He has turned into a Christ-empowered strength. I was reminded that His work in the past is a pledge that He will keep strengthening me to become more like Him — even in the very area about which I was feeling hopeless.

The amazing thing about these experiences was that I didn’t have to stop and put my “God’s at work even and especially during hard times” glasses on. It was as if God had given me spiritual laser surgery and I didn’t even realize what was happening until the clarity had already come. How amazing!

Becoming an expert at seeing God at work doesn’t diminish the hardships or pretend everything is okay. It also doesn’t deny that I live in a broken, fallen world with fellow weak and needy and sinful people. Rather, it puts the darkness of hardship and weakness against a backdrop of the radiant work of God’s Spirit in our lives that says, “Yes, you are weak, tired and battling hopelessness. Things are hard. People around you are hurting and you realize your help is just not enough because they need Me. But I am near. I am good. And I am busy in ways you see and in other ways you cannot yet see. Trust Me. Allow Me to open your eyes to glimpse My power on display. I am working and My work always produces fruit.”

I’m still not an expert. But something precious is happening my heart…and with my eyesight. I still get weary. I still battle discouragement. I still wish I could be more helpful in the lives of those I know are struggling. I still squint to see more clearly at times because all I can see are areas that seem to lack any activity of the Spirit of God.  But my eyesight is improving and I’m seeing more clearly that God is busy doing His marvelous work of helping His children grow and change and become more like Him.

I’ve never been an expert at anything. Hmm…in fact, I’ve never really wanted to or had the time or money to.  But becoming an expert at God’s work in the lives of those in whom He has promised to be busy is something I’d love to accomplish. 

And today my friend and I will talk again to see how I’m doing.

Who’s With You in the Mess?

Yesterday I talked about how much I hate being sad. Several women contacted me to say they were grateful that what is often the silent trial of sadness was brought into the light. They, too, are sad about unplanned singleness, relational challenges, distance from family, martial strife or ongoing struggles with weight.

It made me wonder why we’re sometimes afraid to admit we’re sad.

Is is because we will be perceived as ungrateful? Whiny? Discontent? Do we fear others will quickly point out all the things and people in our lives for which we should be thankful? Does being sad mean we are automatically ungrateful or discontent?

In short, is sadness always rooted in sin in our hearts? If not, why do we and others often rush to “fix” the sadness with reminders of God’s blessings?

I’ll be honest.  I often want to “fix” others sadness because I don’t want to face their sadness either!  Recently one of my grandchildren was crying because she had lost a treasured toy. Her sadness threw me into high gear to help her find it! When we couldn’t locate the toy I pulled her onto my lap and attempted to talk her through the disappointment and assure her it would turn up soon. No amount of words helped. She wanted that toy in her little hands…now. After a few minutes of sitting in Granma’s lap she settled down and ran off to play.

When we hurt, others don’t know what to do. They want to fix our hurt or disappointment or sense of loss by helping us to see our sin, seeking to align our thinking with biblical truth or ask us what they can do to make things better.  But sometimes we just need to be held and told that God is with us. Human “fixes” don’t really deal with the pain when what we really need is His comforting presence.

A friend and I were talking last week and I was expressing to her my craving for relief from the sadness in my life.

“What would bring you relief, Sheree?” she asked.

I paused. The thoughts running through my mind all surrounded a change in my circumstances: better communication between Benny and me; fewer interruptions during the day from my mother-in-law; appreciation and understanding from an in-law with whom I had a recent conflict; etc. When I shared these things with her she listened patiently but even as I talked my words seemed hallow. There was something missing. I knew comfort and hope wouldn’t really be found by God fixing my circumstances but by doing something wonderful in my heart.

My wise and caring friend empathized with my struggles but then lovingly reminded me that the relief I sought wouldn’t be genuinely found by God dealing with the stuff on the list I had just shared with her. While this would be wonderful on one hand, deeper peace would come in enjoying His help and strength in the midst of my challenging circumstances. Because the Christian life is one of various trails and difficulties  (which are, in fact, promised because of our fallen lives and world) I needed to know that the Bible also promises that Someone is with me all the way.

“Sheree, what we all need to understand is that true relief is found in God walking with us through the messes of our broken and flawed lives. That’s why Jesus came into this dark and needy world: to bring His presence here.” She went on to communicate that the temporary relief from Him fixing the current circumstances would tempt me to find my hope in man, not Him.

Over the past week her words have meandered through my thoughts, bringing me hope. I’m a fixer. I find peace in order. I don’t do well in the midst of a mess (unless it’s created by my adorable grandchildren!). My good friend helped me to see that I was looking for relief in all the wrong places.

The source of your and my relief is God Himself. Not God plus an attentive husband or obedient kids or understanding in-laws or more money or less weight or living near family or fewer interruptions in our full days. Those things may happen or they may not. But what is always true no matter what messes we find ourselves in which bring sadness or pain is this: God is with us. He is faithful, good and loving — even when hardships expose our anger, resentment, self-pity, distrust of Him or ungratefulness.

God is with us in the mess and that’s where relief can truly be found.

And here’s another comforting reminder: not only is He with us but He is patient with our wrestlings. He is at work, moving us toward hope that His past faithfulness to carry us through dark times in the past is a pledge of His present and future grace to bring us through yet again.

Cleaning up the mess might seem like the best thing that could happen in our lives right now. But another mess is just down the road because we live in a fallen world with fellow sinners; a world that is literally groaning for Jesus to return and make all things new (Romans 8:22). Our own groanings for relief can be turned to humble cries to God to help us see and experience Him in the mess.

My sadness is still coming and going. But gratefully I am more aware of God’s comforting presence in the midst of it. He is opening my eyes to see that fixing the mess is far less important than experiencing His strength, tender love and comforting guidance in the mess. He is using His word and a dear friend to counsel me and I am finding growing peace even though my circumstances aren’t changing.

There is hope.

When Christmas Isn’t Merry or Bright

Mom’s snowflakes and a great-grandaughter who will have one for her tree someday.

I love the holidays. The little girl in me thinks the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. Yet the big girl also knows the dark side of the holidays. Busyness. Stress. Greed. Sadness.

Yes, for many the most wonderful time of the year is hard.

Last week I was missing my parents. Mom and Dad loved Christmas. Even though money was always tight, they found ways to make it fun.  Josh, my oldest, fried our turkeys this year — and I watched through tears, remembering all the years Daddy perfectly carved our birds, insuring the light and dark meats didn’t touch on the platter. I was especially moved when my grandchildren started hanging the crocheted stars Mom tediously and lovingly made for our tree over twenty years ago when my kids were all little. One day I want each of My People to have one for their trees.

For years Christmas was hard on my sister because the man with whom she planned to spend the rest of her life left her with two young kids and she didn’t know how she would afford gifts. Christmas was sad for Benny as a teen because his 6-year-old sister died of leukemia the week before Christmas. An infertile friend dealt with the pain of not having a little one to share the holidays with year after year as she received yet more cute pictures of families in matching Christmas outfits. A friend in her 40’s recently admitted she has given up the hope that she’ll ever have a  husband with whom she can share the wonder and romance of Christmas. Another friend is worried that tension over the past year will result in not having happy holidays with her divided extended family. A grandmother I spoke with recently is sad because she won’t see her grandchildren for Christmas this year…again. And yet another close friend is facing the painful fact that this may be her last Christmas due to an ongoing battle with cancer.

Dad would have really enjoyed munching on this turkey as he carved it.

Are the holidays challenging for you? Does busyness, financial stress or sadness tempt you with anxious, sad thoughts about the coming weeks? Are you lonely? Isolated from those you would love to see during the holidays because you can’t afford to make the trip? Worried about how family times will go because people aren’t getting along? Wishing you had a special friend or little ones to shop for?

Honestly, I don’t have anything much to say except I understand and you’re not alone. A simple google search will let you see how prevalent holiday depression and sadness are. The coming of Jesus Christ was veiled in turmoil and perplexity then and we still live in a fallen world with broken people like you and me. This Christmas, like the very first one and every one since then, will be a mixture of joy and suffering for all who are willing to admit it.

My prayer is that even if this Christmas isn’t all merry and bright for you, it will be filled with an awareness of the love and nearness of God. He is Immanuel, God with us. God with you. In the midst of your worries or sadness or loneliness or stress He is near. He came then to live a sinless life to make a way for you to be forgiven. He’s here now, dwelling in you, to provide abiding assurance that your circumstances, though hard, are unmatched by His unwavering commitment to empower you to persevere. Because He came you can make it through this Christmas with joy in the midst of sadness or uncertainty.

Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord.

Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity,

Pleased as men with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!


Spinning Plates

Yesterday I came across a booklet by author and biblical counselor, David Pawlison, called Peace Amid Pressure.  (You can find it here.)

Using Psalm 131 he discussed how to find inner composure in the midst of the stress and busyness of life.

“Oh, Lord,” the psalmist begins, “my heart is not lifted up; my raised are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”

Any mother who has nursed a baby has a keen understanding of what this psalm means. A nursing child is restless and eager to be fed or comforted. In fact, babies are often more relaxed and content when anyone but Mommy is holding them!

After they’re weaned, though, they sit peacefully on Mommy’s lap or lay quietly on her shoulder. The “oh, you’re the one who feeds me!” attitude is gone. The understandably self-centered baby who looks to Mommy for what she can give often becomes a toddler who likes having her nearby; enjoys talking to and playing with her; and asks her countless questions.  After weaning, the mother-child relationship becomes that…a relationship.

Recently I’ve been under a lot of stress. In fact, it’s taking a considerable toll on me, including elevated cortisol levels, difficulty sleeping and fatigue. When I sit down and think through what’s stressing me, it’s pretty much just normal life stuff: a full schedule; a large family with varying needs and troubles; getting a son off to law school and adjusting to him being gone; practical preparations for my youngest starting college nearby; working part time from home; mid-life changes; serving alongside Benny with our new church; and the daily chores of running a home and serving my family. Nothing abnormal or earth-shattering.

But stressful! Sometimes I feel like the person who is trying to keep plates spinning…while watching some crash to the ground.

I want to have a quiet soul. To sit in my Father’s lap with trusting peace. The psalmist indicates that sinful pride could be at the root of some of my struggles. How much of the stress I’m experiencing is simply because I’m not relying and leaning on God? Am I fretting over things because I somehow think the world is on my shoulders? Do I really think I can effectively keep all the plates spinning around me on my own? When I can’t keep up with everything “perfectly” do I feel I failed and should have done better? Or do I acknowledge my weakness to God and others and run to a throne of grace for fresh strength?

These kinds of questions help me to be honest with my own heart. And that brings conviction, hope and peace. I’ve been running to the throne of grace and finding God’s word to be true: He does help in time of need! The help He extends to the humble (or at least to those who are wanting to be humble!) is promised and given. That alone brings peace.

If you’re experiencing a stressful season in your life, I pray you will join me in seeking to have a still and quiet soul. It’s not something we can do on our own. But God will be faithful to help us! He always does.

Our hope in Him is never misplaced.