On Birthdays, and Jesus, and Relationships

On my walk around the lake last night, I was thinking about the past year and talking to Jesus about it. I had no idea that this year would impact my life in the way it came to. Nor that my soul would find such rest, life, and hope in the midst of such brokenness, bitter waters, and black skies.

Friends, God brings such beauty from such ugliness. He gives life in place of death. He serves up a feast in the midst of the driest desert. But oftentimes, we cannot see it until we’ve walked much further down the road. And, sometimes, this doesn’t happen until eternity.

The best year of my life was the year I found saving faith in Jesus—the year Jesus truly captured my heart and life. But this year would be close to that one, in its own odd way. Whereas 2009 was pure, unbroken beauty, because I couldn’t see anything but Jesus; 2017 brought its own beauty, though it came crushed, hidden, and disguised in pain and tears.

Birthdays are the days I look back on the past year and reflect on all that filled up the previous several hundred days. Some years have been mostly bitter, some years have been mostly sweet. At first, this year looked like it would be all bitter, but the sweetness was just so wrapped up in the bitter as to not be able to taste it for a little while.

And when I step back from this year, this I know…Jesus is everything. And relationships are precious gifts.

Jesus

Jesus is everything because he created it all, holds it all, and it is all for him, through him, and because of him (Romans 11:36). Nothing in life even comes close to comparing to him. And nothing matters more than having a real relationship with him—where he is loved, treasured, and delighted in. Jesus is all.

This winter, when the stress and strain I had been experiencing turned into physical pain, I was confronted with the questions, “If you never had another good day in your life, would you still worship Jesus? If the pain doesn’t go away and you are never able to run again, sleep comfortably again, or simply breathe without it hurting, will Jesus still have your heart?”

He was enough for those months and he will be enough for every day after them.

And People

For most of us, if we could see our lives as a tapestry or mosaic made up of all the people who have been or are in our lives, we would likely see something so beautiful we would cry—and thank God. Relationships are such a gracious gift and one of the most precious things in all of life. It is in the context of relationships that we experience even more of Christ. Relationships with tangible human beings allow us to feel the love, affection, and kindness of Christ in ways we never would be able to if we were not in community with others.

For me, this year has been sprinkled with some very deep, grace-filled, gospel-focused, Jesus-centered relationships. Gratitude to God feels so small for the enormous blessing these people’s lives are. Such grace.

For sure, it was a year. But it was a year that was held in the sovereign hands of our Savior. He was enough and will always be enough. And being loved by him is everything.

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Do the Next Thing

With the beginning of a new school year, so many pieces of the past year have flashed before my eyes, with their own questions trailing behind them. How is possible that an entire year has gone by just like that? After everything the past year contained—what deep grace is this to be in the grace-filled place I am today? Am I seeing tiny glimpses and bold swaths of God’s presence in this last year (Gen. 39:21)? Do I see how much of the previous year was covered in a love so vast, so deep that one day it will simply cover over all the pain, failings, and brokenness of these years (Rev. 21:4)?

Over the couple weeks off between semesters, I wrote a lot. Prayed a lot. Read a lot. Cried a lot. Dreamed a lot. Hoped a lot. Listened a lot. And was helped and encouraged a lot.

For several weeks before break began, I had great expectations of using the time away from school to write a half dozen blog posts. But that did not happen. Over the course of the two-week break, numerous topics found their way into my journal or a Word document. Sometimes, it was something someone said, a verse I read, something from one of the many books I’d been reading, or something I was wakened up to during the night. But I was not able to finish anything.

The words just were not there to bring even one thing to completion.

It is like seeing something but not being able to see it clear enough to adequately describe it.

So, instead there is this post about doing the next thing.

Be Faithful in Doing the Next Thing

Truly, there are days and years and seasons when that is all any of us can do. Or should do.

Trust God, listen to him, be with his people, and simply do the next thing.

Three weeks ago, I received an email from Travelocity, asking me if I were ready to go back to Great Falls, MT, as it had been nearly a year since I had been there. And over the past couple months, Facebook has regurgitated quite a few memories and blog posts from my summer trips to Myanmar and the Dominican Republic. Another lifetime ago.

But I am not going back to the reservation in Montana this fall. Nor am I in another country.

No, I am going to school, while living in a small town in the Midwest.

Doing the next thing. With joy.

If someone had told me last summer what my life would look like this year, I never would have believed them. But I am deeply thankful to be here. There are not enough words to express how much I love my school and church and the people who make up both. Nor is there enough gratitude for the sisters, friends, pastors, instructors, and classmates who share life with me. God has been kind.

And I am realizing that doing the next thing can look a million different ways for a million different people.

It may mean showing up to work or it could be resigning from a job. It could be serving in the church or it could be taking a season off to just attend. It could be moving far away or staying in the same place. It could be continual doctor visits or unending tears in the midst of broken hearts, lives, or bodies. It could be laying under the stars or driving home at night. It could be singing worship songs to Jesus in the shower or pouring your heart out to him on a late evening run. It could be admitting your fragile faith and great unbelief to God. It could be sharing Jesus with your unsaved coworkers or encouraging a friend. It could be listening to the breaking hearts of people you hardly know or simply offering a greeting to someone who doesn’t look at all like you. It could be seeing a counselor or finding a mentor. Or it could be realizing that it is one’s time to pour into the soul work of others. It could be a time for more afternoon coffee dates or a time to stay home and read to your children. It could be any of these things or a hundred thousand other things.

Be Faithful in the Time Given

When Frodo mournfully told Gandalf that he wished all the mess with the ring had never happened to him, Gandalf spoke words to him that are also thoughtful for us, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

To a follower of Jesus, deciding “what to do with the time that is given to us” should, above all else, be consumed with living lives that proclaim the glory and worth of Christ (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Rev. 4:11; Jude 1:24-25). This also means deeply loving, knowing, and treasuring Jesus (Ps. 16:11; Luke 10:27a; Matt. 13:44; Phil. 3:7-8). And it should also mean that we love others out of the overflow of God’s great love to us and in us (Eph. 5:2; 15-16; Luke 10:27b). The million smaller things we do next should first have their source in our One Thing—Jesus (Luke 10:42).

His grace, strength, and love are enough for every next thing, every next step (2 Cor. 9:8). He is always enough. We are simply called to love him deeply, love others greatly, and be faithful in doing what he has called us to do.

 

 

Dandelions

 

One can either see them as hideous, nuisance weeds or one can choose to see them as flowers the color of sun and hope. Either they are pepper shakers of seeds that will cause more problems in future years or they are vessels for a thousand wishes to be carried off in the wind.

During my couple weeks off between semesters, I was able to spend much time in prayer and reflection on the previous months. And either they can be viewed as a series of hard days or they can be viewed as the means God used to bring me to this very place. I will not say that I’ve always seen the past months and years as a blessing—far from it on many days. But through it all, I deeply believe that Jesus does all things well (Mark 7:37). Even the things that hurt. And sometimes especially the things that hurt.

My heart and soul are at peace that my time simply ran out. I have no other way to describe it except to say that the sand in the glass finished falling, the track ran out of blacktop, and ashes were all that remained of the fire. In some ways I burned out, in other ways God called me out. In both ways, he was speaking to me. Both were a gift even if they didn’t both look that way at the time.

Though I may not be done with the after effects of the past, it is with deep gratitude that I look back and see that Jesus has led me all this way, even when I couldn’t see him, feel him, or hear him. He is my salvation, and it is with joy that I draw from that well—the one with living water that will never run out (Isaiah 12:2; 55:1, John 7:37).

God was very kind and brought some precious people into my life to walk this journey with me. I have not gone alone. Their prayers, care, grace, and encouragement were the sweet gifts of a compassionate God. Because of these people, I know more of grace now than I ever did before this year. And to these people who embodied this grace of Jesus in ways I neither expected nor deserved—I am forever grateful.

Along with gratitude for the faithfulness of God in this past season, I look forward to this next year with joy. Joy does not erase all sorrows or heal all hurts, but there is a deeper joy in Jesus that goes far below the past and present circumstances of life (Psalm 16:11).

There is much joy at returning to school. Joy in learning more about Jesus to love him more. Joy in the rejoicing of being with family and friends. Joy in delighting in the little things—bugs dancing on the water, lilacs outside the window, owls crying in the trees at night. Joy in both old and new relationships. Joy in a church that feels like coming home every week. Joy in the full, precious, beautiful gospel. Joy in the majesty, grace, and sovereignty of our Savior King. So much joy.

In this next year of life, I long to more fully see the past grace that brought me to this place in the same light as the dandelions in the field behind my apartment. Beautiful. Immensely so.

Found in Him

As the days and weeks continue to flow by like a steady stream, I am realizing two things. All of life goes on. And Jesus’ love for me is not based on who I am or what I do.

The past few months, my classmates and I have been studying the book of Philippians. That book was always a favorite of mine, but these months of intense study in this book have opened my heart to see that there are riches and depths to this book that I never fully saw or appreciated.

I have cried so many times at the way God has used this book to speak to the depths of my soul during this particularly challenging, changing season. I am humbled at the goodness of God—he never shows up too early or too late to our life situations. He is always on time. In my timeframe, I would have thought he showed up two years too late. But his thoughts are way above mine and his plans are beyond mine (Is. 55:8). He can be trusted.

Nearly all of us want to be found in something—career, relationships, school, ministry, and the like. We want to find that spot that was made exactly for us, while also craving significance and meaning in our lives. We wander, try and fail, and attempt something else in our search for meaning. We compare ourselves and come up short. We hang onto something too tightly and it gets choked or breaks in our grasp, leaving us—frantically—scrambling for the next anything to grab onto.

All of these things are fragile, frail, fleeting attempts to hang onto something that was never meant to support the weight we try to hang on it. And for a long, long time I have struggled with this—this searching for significance in what I do or who I am. But what I have finally come to realize is that there is nothing and no one to be fully found in but in Jesus and his righteousness (Phil. 3:9).

It is counting all else as rubbish and worthless compared to being found in and known by him. The truest significance is being in Jesus. It is not found in making a name for myself or being known for something I do. Rather, it is in the losing of myself that I am truly found. He must become greater and I must become less (John 3:30).

As I transition out of the life I have known for several years now, how desperately I have needed to know that God loves me, not in spite of me or for what he can get out of me, but because of who he is. And because he is unchanging (Mal. 3:6, Heb. 13:8), I do not have to fear that one day I won’t be enough in my frail self for him to keep loving.

But not only have I been consistently reminded that God’s everlasting love for me is not grounded in my love for or service to him, he has also brought people into my life at this time who have given me the very grace of Christ. There is nothing I can give them in return for all they have given me. I am a grateful debtor to the gracious kindness of Jesus overflowing in them.

Christ is my hope. Christ is my life. My life is hidden in him (Col. 3:3) and my citizenship is with him in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Who he created me to be is secure in him. Before the foundation of the world, he called me by name and knew who I would be (Is. 43:1, Eph. 1:4).

Life goes on. And so does Jesus’ love.

Dear ones, I hope you feel the enormous freedom in not being found in what you do or in who you are. I also hope you feel the immense relief that your piece of life is not sustained by you. And I pray you deeply know that you are loved and treasured—not because of who you are or aren’t—but because of who Jesus is.

All is Grace

Tonight’s post is a little different from my usual posts. This is not a post I wanted to write but the topic is near to my heart and something I feel passionately about. It is also something I have both struggled with and something I understand. Finally, it is something that Jesus died for. And in the end, all is grace.

Suicide. The word is scary and painful. We don’t know what to make of it or how to feel it. It is deeply bitter and ties our stomachs in knots. It is my guess that most of us know something about it—far more about it than we wish we did.

Tonight, I want to remember the life of a young man I did ministry with. I first met him one glistening winter day, and he had beautiful blue eyes and a sparkling smile to match. Though it was such a short season that our paths crossed, I was blessed by his presence on Sundays. He loved Jesus and his excitement and joy in him was so evident. We had many good conversations, as I frequently got to be the team leader for my nursery room, so did check-in, while he ran the check-in kiosk for all the nursery rooms.

We had similar faith stories and congruent purposes in life. Though neither one of us had outgoing personalities, something resonated with us and we talked like we’d known each other long before meeting at church. The half-hour or so of time we had on Sundays always went far too fast and before we knew it, I went into the nursery room and he went back upstairs. The weeks we did check-in together were some of my best, as I both loved the joy that poured from his heart and face in all his conversations and interactions and his deep commitment to following Christ.

But I have regrets with our friendship. I didn’t get to know him beyond church and didn’t keep in touch with him after we went our separate ways that spring. With situations like this, one always wonders, “should I have noticed something?” or “what if I’d played a more active role in his life?” or “what if life had gone differently for him? What then?”

Only God really knows. Only God fully knows the excruciating pain that drives us to desperate extremes. Only God.

I have no answers for this, but I fully trust in the sovereignty and goodness of God in these terrible circumstances. All I know is that Jesus died for everything. His death nailed depression, worthlessness, and suicide to the cross. There is freedom from death in the death and life of Jesus; but not everyone experiences that freedom in this life.

We take our eyes off Jesus and get consumed with the horribleness of this life. When life is a tragedy, nothing looks or feels right anymore. And just like Peter, we sink. We cannot walk on water without Jesus. And we can’t row our own boats in the storms without Him. Nor can we fight the deep, dark waves of depression and death by ourselves. We were made to do life with Him. We were made for Him.

I know nothing, but in the end, all is grace. Jesus is grace. And that is enough.