Giant Baby Steps

It’s been a favorite pastime of my daughter and mine to go to stores and try on crazy shoes we’d never really consider (or could afford) buying.  You know the ones – four-inch spiky gold heels, strappy blue-leather wedges, furry neon pink ballet slippers.  As far as we’re concerned, the wilder, the better. We never actually buy any of these – but we love to laugh at just the sight of each other in shoes we’d really never have any occassion to wear.  We’ve been doing this since my daughter was about five, when her little feet wouldn’t even come close to fitting my size.  It didn’t matter, though…she’d still be in the same aisle as me, trying on the same size shoe I would and having a grand old time clomping around.

The other day, after we finished our annual school supply shopping trip, we decided to reward ourselves with a visit to the clearance aisles of DSW.  However, this time as we began to try on shoes, I realized with a twinge of sadness that now my daughter actually does belong in the same shoe aisle as I do.  (She’s just a fraction of an inch away from reaching my shoe size.) As Ella grabbed a pair of multi-colored sequin heels to shove on her feet, she asked if I remembered the time that she nearly twisted her ankle in a tall pair of shoes while she was running.

“Hmmm….I don’t remember.  When was that?”  I asked

“It was when we were picking up Joe from youth group,”  she replied.

And as I casually carried on the conversation as if it were completely natural, I nearly wanted to cry tears of joy right there in the size 7.5 clearance aisle.  You see, that was the second time in over ten months that I’ve heard my daughter speak her brother’s name out loud.

One giant baby step.

Upon returning home from our shopping adventures, I suggested to Ella that she keep her school supplies on Joe’s bed, so that our dog wouldn’t get into the new items and ruin them.  She hesitated (as she rarely goes into her brother’s room), but then thought about it and went into his room to set the bags down.

Two giant baby steps.

Later that evening, I decided to go into Joe’s room and clean out his drawer of leftover school supplies.  After a few minutes of tossing old pencils, markers, and dried-up glue sticks into a trash bag, Ella wandered in and announced she was going to get her supplies all ready.  She proceeded to plop herself down right in the middle of Joe’s floor and begin the organization process.  As we both sat in that room – me tossing out the old, and her opening up the new – I couldn’t help but praise God for this very moment.  We were both spending time in a room that has been so difficult to even step foot in for nearly a year.

Three giant baby steps.  In one day. 

And if she could do three giant baby steps in one day, then I decided I could take a few myself.

The next morning, I went into Joe’s room and did things I never thought I’d be able to do.  I dusted furniture.  I took down the 2016 wall calendar that was still open to September. I moved a couple of things around.  Put books back on the shelf.  Neatly organized the shoes that had been tossed in the closet.  And the big one:  I washed the glass that had been sitting next to my son’s computer since the last day he drank from it.  It was time. And as difficult as it was, I told myself that doing so wouldn’t erase any memory of my sweet boy from my mind.  It wouldn’t change how much I loved him – or still love him.

There’s still more to do in his room.  Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.  And maybe I won’t.  I’ve learned in grief to have low expectations and high levels of grace.  (Trust me – not easy for a type-A, task-oriented girl like me.)  I might set a goal and have every intention of making it happen, but not be able to do it when the time comes.  And I’m learning that that’s OK.  God is teaching me that my list, my agenda, and my plans may not be His own.

What about you?  You may not be grieving the loss of a child, but are you allowing yourself grace when it comes to your expectations for your life?  Maybe life didn’t turn out at all how you thought it would.  Maybe you’re beating yourself up for not accomplishing more in your life.  Maybe you’re really good at playing the game of “If I had just done this instead….”  Oh friend, do not fall into that pit!  Do not think for a second, that anything that has happened to you is wasted.  God is using it ALL for His glory.  It is ALL part of His ultimate good for those who love Him!  He has positioned you right where He wants you.  And He is ready for you to take those steps – however big or small – to His outstretched arms.

For my daughter, it was in the clearance shoe aisle this week.  For me, it was picking up that dirty glass and walking it to the dishwasher.  To most, it might seem insignificant. But to us, it was taking giant baby steps of healing towards our Father, who stood ready to pull us into His loving embrace.

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To Infinity…and Beyond

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
    the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
    human beings that you should care for them?

~Psalm 8:3-4

I recently visited ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration to watch a 3D, live-narrated program entitled “To the Edge of the Universe and Everything in Between”. Unbeknownst to me, this school at ASU is a leading center for space discoveries and study.  Who knew, right?  Plus, the theater was overly air-conditioned, which was another determining factor to attend.  (Hey, it’s how we survive the brutal desert heat of summer.)

The majority of the program was to impress upon us the sheer vastness of space. It began by showing the planet Earth, then zoomed out to show the hundreds of satellites that revolve around our floating home, and continued to pan out to the solar system, the exoplanets, the Milky Way galaxy, the multitude of galaxies, and beyond.  Like waaaaay beyond.  To something called “cosmic background radiation”.  What’s fascinating is that new information and depth to the universe are constantly being discovered.  The edge of the universe is continually being redefined.  My mind was truly blown away by what the latest technology has discovered about the seemingly limitlessness of space.

But perhaps what’s even MORE mind-boggling to me is that there is not one shred of information, not one piece of technology, not one single image brought to our eyes that is new to God.  He knows it all.  Every galaxy, every star, everything in the entire cosmos is no mystery to the Creator.  Yet, while my mind could not even begin to comprehend the vastness of space, I began to wonder if the edge of the universe is as infinite as the love of God.

Just as the show was about to wrap up, the narrator told us to sit back and enjoy as we “zoomed back in” through everything we just saw to the planet Earth.  Once again, I was awestruck….but this time not at the vastness of God, but at His intimacy.  To go from the edge of 45 billion light years away, to our rotating home of green and blue….let’s just say it makes one feel pretty small in the grand scheme of things. And yet, God knows every detail of each one of us, down to our very cells.

The night before my son went to be with Jesus, I watched as he and his friend stood in an open field and stared up at the sky.  In curiosity, I wandered over to them to see what they were looking at.  The absolute blackness of the sky illuminated millions of stars in our view – something we don’t often see because of living in a large city.  We commented on how vast space must be…and how amazing God was to have created each star with just a word.  Joe was so blown away by the sight of the stars, he took out his phone in an attempt to photograph it.  I was not aware at that precise moment that the night vision camera recorded the final photograph I would be in with my precious boy.

But in that moment…God knew.  

He knew what the next day would hold and how it would change our lives forever. There was no mystery to the Creator of the stars that one of His beloved creations was going home soon.

That truth is one of the hardest to come to terms with, and yet, is one of the most comforting lessons a grieving mother learns.  To know that every day of my child’s life was ordained from beginning to end, and that there was no single thing I could have done to change the course of how it ended….it truly does bring comfort to my overwhelmed heart of grief.

“All the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.”

~Psalm 139:16

My grief is constantly being redefined.  But my God is not.  God is who He was, who He is, and who He will be forever.  The circumstances of my life do not change God’s character. Nor will they ever.  It is ME who is constantly discovering the depths of His love and the infiniteness of His grace.  And now I am the one who stands amazed, looking up at the heavens, blown away by what God has done and continues to do in, through and for me.

My friend, I don’t know what kind of valleys you have walked through or are walking through right now.  Whether you saw it coming or you didn’t, be assured that NONE of it was or is a mystery to God.  His knowledge of this vast universe is certainly wise enough to know every detail of your life.  His intimate love for you can fill the very depths of your broken heart as He has done for mine.  His grace goes to infinity.  And beyond anything we could imagine.

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth.  I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit.  Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully.  Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.  

~Ephesians 3:14-19

 

 

 

Jesus is My Pool Boy

When people ask how we desert folks survive the intense summer heat, my response is always the same:  air conditioning and a swimming pool.  I’m not sure how anyone survived 100+ temperatures before these things were invented.  Not everyone is blessed enough to have their own backyard pool here in Phoenix.  But when we were looking for a rental home three years ago, my kids took one look at the pool and diving board and knew THIS was the place to live.  And they were right.

Now, before any of you non-pool owners get any ideas about how we just walk out the door when we feel like it and jump into the cool water, let me stop you right there.  Not only were we fortunate enough to have a pool in our backyard, but we also had a palm tree near the pool.  A really TALL king palm tree.  Sounds pretty scenic…unless you know that king palms send out these long green shoots at the end of May.  And those shoots open up and blossom with little white flowers.  And those little white flowers fall at the slightest of breezes. And it takes WEEKS for all those little white flowers to fall.

What does that have to do with swimming you ask?  Nothing, I suppose, as long as you don’t mind floating around in a pool full of little white petals, dead bees and itty bitty pieces of palm tree debris.  I find the whole scenario rather disgusting, which is why at the first sign of those nasty green shoots, I immediately call my landscaper to come trim my nearly 30-ft. palm tree.  Problem solved, right?  Well, yes….except that the neighbor’s king palm tree sits directly over the wall just to the southwest of my pool. And they could care less about all those shoots and flowers and debris that make their way into my pool.  So, therein lies the real problem: every time we want to swim, I have to spend more than a half-hour skimming all the debris from a tree that isn’t even mine.  (Pity party for one, please.)

It’s a back-breaking task that takes extreme patience, perseverance, and a great deal of strength, too. (And I did mention that it’s over 100 degrees most of the summer here, right?) I cannot go out to the pool and expect to be done cleaning in a matter of minutes.  I know it will be a long, arduous process.  I can skim over a certain area of the pool over and over and over again…just to return to the same spot and find it still a mess. Sometimes as I feel I’m nearing the end, a big gust of wind comes up to extend my cleaning time.  There are moments I have to set the long pole down and take a break. But I don’t quit.  I keep going.  Because I know in the end, I get to sink into that cool, refreshing water and relax.

In those quiet moments as I silently skim the mess from the pool, God has been speaking to my heart about this incredibly difficult journey I’ve been on in my life and how much it is like this process of skimming.  There is no doubt that my days are filled with so much debris and mess.  Broken relationships.  Loneliness.  Grief.  Financial worry.  Anxiety. Fear of the future.  The burdens of others I love.  And just when I think some area of my life is “fixed” and clean, I come back to it over and over and over again, to find out what a mess it continues to be.

Do you identify with this as well?  How many times do you find yourself asking God, “When will this be solved?”  or “How much longer do I have to keep dealing with this?”  Somedays I just want to quit, don’t you?  I just want to put down that heavy metal skimming pole and walk away from all of life’s battles.

As much as I detest cleaning that pool, I have come this conclusion:  I have gained considerable strength (and a decent tan) from those half-hour upper-body workouts. (Hmmmm….perhaps I should consider skimming my pool in the non-swimming months as well.)  If I only had a few measly leaves in my pool, my gain of strength would be quite minimal.  When I stand and survey the mess before I begin, I can’t help but think,  “Why couldn’t there just be a few leaves?  Why couldn’t the neighbor just trim his tree?  Why is today another windy day?”  But as I get to work, it hits me:  The fact that so much mess blows into my pool on a daily basis, which is seemingly frustrating, is the very reason I am stronger.

So many of my life’s messes I did not choose.  And I know you didn’t either, sweet friend. How many times do you survey the mess and ask God those hard questions:  “Why did my marriage have to end?  Why did my loved one have to die?  Why did I have to be the one to get cancer?   Why do I have to struggle with finances?  Why did this happen to ME???”

Most likely, we will never know the answers to these questions on this side of heaven. But I do know this:  it is those VERY messes that grow a deep faith in us, strengthen us beyond anything we think we could endure and empower us to live a life pointed to Christ.

It is the debris of our lives that God uses for His glory and His purposes. 

And the absolute beauty of this truth, is that no longer do we bear the burden of holding onto that skimming pole all by ourselves.  You see, we have the most amazing, strong, faithful, loving, sacrificing pool boy, who takes the pole from our hands and says, “Dear child….you are not alone. I’ve got this mess under control.  Let me help you.”

Make no mistake.  There are days I don’t think I have the strength to keep dragging that net around and around the pool.  But as I am weary, Jesus comes alongside me with His strength as He so faithfully promises to do.  And He reminds me of why I keep going, moving forward, continually skimming those itty bitty pieces of junk. Because there is hope and complete assurance that when all the mess of this life is over, I’m going to put my feet into the refreshing waters of eternity.  And it will be SO. INCREDIBLY. WORTH IT.

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Prayer Changes Things…Part II

On September 6th of this past year, I walked into my house to once again be confronted by the sign that hung over the kitchen sink.   As I looked at those words, I didn’t feel anger.  Or peace.  Or sadness.  Or strength.  I felt numb.  Everything was just as we had left it nearly 48 hours ago.  Which somehow made the pain even more unbearable. Seemingly normal….and yet, nothing would ever be normal again.

My mind couldn’t stop playing the horrific scene that had occurred just the day before. Prayer was an integral part of that day, in ways I cannot even recount.  As I tried to save my son after the accident, every breath I took was a prayer.  When the paramedics took over, I fell to my knees and begged God to spare Joe’s life.  The mom in me wanted to do something, anything….instead of watch the scene that was unfolding before my eyes.  I desperately asked one of the paramedics what I could do to help.  He turned to me, looked at me square in the eye, and exclaimed one word:

“PRAY!”

I immediately knelt at my son’s feet in the back of the ambulance and poured out the most earnest prayers I have ever prayed in my entire life.  Every exhale was a prayer for my son to live.  For God to be his breath.  For a miracle to happen.   For time to rewind just an hour. But as the minutes passed, I began to run out of words.  And hope.  My mind raced with thoughts of what Joe’s life would become….what my life would become….if he lived.  Would he be in a coma? Would he ever be the same child I knew? Suddenly,  my prayers stopped being about what I wanted and became prayers of complete surrender to the will and sovereignty of God. He loved my son a million times more than I did.  He alone knew the future.  The answers.  The plan.

When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before He knew He would die, His prayer was one of utmost surrender as well.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”   And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  ~ Luke 22:42, 44

If I could have sweat blood on that horrific September 5th, I would have done it.  I don’t know about you, but have there ever been times in your life when you have had to completely surrender a situation to God because the circumstances were so totally out of your control?  If you have, you know as well as I do, that placing that situation in God’s hands is an act of full surrender and trust.  We tend to only do this in the “big things” in life, but isn’t that what we should do in all our circumstances?  Surrender daily our own will to our loving Father, who knows better than we do about what will hurt us or bless us?

In the Scripture above, you may have noticed verse 43 is purposely missing.  It reads:

An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.

You see, as everything was being done that was humanly possible to save my son’s life, one of the EMT’s came over to me and asked if he could pray with me.  He put his arm around me and began to pray.  To be honest, I don’t remember any part of his prayer. But it wasn’t the words that mattered in that moment.  It was about God wrapping His arms around me to bring comfort to a mother about to lose her only son.   That one prayer multiplied in a matter of days into hundreds, maybe even thousands of people across the country praying for me and my family.

For those of you who have prayed for me and with me in this journey….YOU are God’s angels sent to strengthen me.  There is never a day that goes by that the power of God’s strength, through prayer, doesn’t hold me up and keep me going.   Every day I wake up, I pray,  “God.  Give me strength just for today.”  And miraculously he does.

I’ve prayed all kind of prayers in the last few months.  Some full of pain.  Some full of anger.  Guilt.  Peace.  Acceptance.  Questions.  Grief.   And while my prayers change on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, this one truth has stayed on my heart:  God has never changed. He still listens, still invites, still answers.  He still strengthens His people through the power of prayer, as He did for His own Son.

And that, my friends, changes EVERYTHING.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

~Hebrews 13:8

 

 

Prayer Changes Things…Part I

For years, there has been a sign in my kitchen with these three words:  Prayer Changes Things.  I’m sure I bought it at some home goods store, with little thought given to the significance of the words itself.  Most likely, the sign matched my decor, fit the space I needed it to, and was affordable.

It may seem odd to say, but I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this sign for nearly five years.  “Really?” you ask.  It’s just a sign.  (A cheap one at that.)  But trust me….there have been times I’ve wanted to thrown this sign on the ground and stomp on it.  I’ve wept at the sight of this sign.  I’ve praised God for it.  Before you have me committed for bipolar behavior towards a piece of wall art, let me explain.

You see, the minute (yes…minute) I was told my 15+ year marriage was over, my dazed eyes happened to wander over to those three little words:  Prayer Changes Things.  I stared transfixed on those words as my eyes began to well up with tears.  “You’re kidding me about this prayer thing, right God?”  I thought.  Because trust me, there was no prayer in the world that would change what had been done.  I stayed angry at that sign for a long time….well, maybe not the sign so much, but more about what it implied. Sometimes I mocked those words in disgust.  Sometimes I avoided looking at them altogether.  But more often than not, I started talking to God whenever I’d see them.

It wasn’t anything formal that started with “Dear God” and ended with “Amen”.  I actually started talking TO God.  WITH God.  And it wasn’t always pretty.  At times, my prayers were shouting matches with God.  They were words of disbelief and shock.  Words of surrender to an unknown future.  Sometimes my prayers didn’t even have words.  Just tears.  I’m quite sure that’s when the Holy Spirit took over as Romans 8: 26 reminds us:

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (NIV)

Over the course of many months and years, I began to discover the crucial truth that was right before my eyes.

Prayer does, indeed, change things. 

It changed my heart to be more loving and forgiving.  It changed my thoughts to not be so filled with anger and hatred.  It changed my attitude about what was important and what was not.  But most of all, it changed my relationship with God to be a much more personal one.  I learned not only to talk to God in a deeper way, but to actually be quiet and listen to God as well.   (I’m still working on the listening part…and being patient in waiting for what God has to say.)

It’d be a nice way to end this blog by saying I never had another issue with my prayer sign again.  But that would be far from the truth.  Little did I know a day was coming when I would once again, look at that sign and begin to loathe those words even more than I did before when life seemingly fell apart all those years ago.

And that’s exactly what happened when I walked into my house just over nine short months ago….

 

 

Lessons from a Cactus

I’m a girl who was raised in the Midwest – rural Nebraska to be exact.  I grew up with scenery that included corn fields and silos and flat land for as far as the eye could see.  So it’s no wonder that even after living in the desert for nearly 15 years, I’m still fascinated with its landscape.  Some people don’t think there’s much beauty to behold in a desert, but I absolutely love it.  Especially when it’s springtime….little flowers of purple and yellow dot the sides of hiking trails, things seem (remotely) green, and there’s a buzzing of insects all around. (OK, so that part I could live without.)

There’s no shortage of trails to hike around the Valley and now that spring break is here, I had some time to try out a new trail.  Normally I’m not one to take photographs when I hike, but finding myself particularly drawn to the enormity of the Saguaro cacti on the trail, I channeled my inner tourist.  Every 100 feet or so, I’d find myself whipping out my phone for another breathtaking shot.

Now, you may not have time to research the Saguaro like I did (this is how you know I’m on spring break), so let me enlighten you on some amazing facts.  The Saguaro is the largest kind of cactus there is and it only grows in the Sonoran Desert.  (If you’re not from Arizona, think tall spiky green cactus with arms.)  They can live up to 200 years old and grow to a height of between 40-60 ft.  They grow incredibly slowly, only gaining 1-1.5 inches in the first 8 years.  It’s not until they’re 35 years old that they’ll even produce the beautiful white flowers that open up in mid-April.  And it takes nearly 100 years for the Saguaro to grow its first arm.  So, the more arms, the older the cactus is.  Are you fascinated yet?

Looking up at one of these majestic plants seems like it would be awe-inspiring.  But if you’ve ever been close enough to a Saguaro, you’ll notice it often has several holes bored through the flesh from where various birds and desert creatures have made their homes.  The base of the cactus has been eaten away from wild javelina and jackrabbits.  Occasional wildfires char the base as well.  Not only that, but the skin of the cactus is subject to sunburn and frostbite.  So how is it, after all a cactus has gone through, that it is still able to keep standing?

Because of what’s inside.

Internally, the cactus is strong.  There are long shafts of wooden ribs that run through the length of the cactus that are banded together.  You can imagine my delight, then, when I discovered how strong that wood is, right?  Wrong.  Turns out the wood is described as “lightweight” and “soft”.  That was slightly disappointing to discover.  And here I thought this was going to be the perfect analogy of how God is strong just like the inside of a cactus!  I nearly scrapped the entire blog post when I learned that.  But God put a familiar verse on my heart just then :

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am GENTLE and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden LIGHT.” ~ Matthew 11:28 (NIV)

OK, so maybe God IS like the inside of a cactus…just not the way I thought. And if God is like the inside, I can’t help but think how much I’m like the outside.  Full of holes.  Burned.  Eaten up by the troubles of this world.

I think we all can relate to that, can’t we?  We’ve all gone through trials in life, whether big or small, and if we’re blessed, we have good friends and family who come to our side to see us through and share words of comfort with us to let us know we’re not alone. Words like, “God is with you.”  Or “He’s right beside you.”  And while those are perfectly accurate truths about God that do bring comfort, they stop short of the most wonderful, crucial truth I am discovering:

God isn’t just with me.  God is IN me. 

Many people marvel at how I’ve survived burying my 14-year-old son.  They say, “You’re so strong!” or “I could never be as strong as you!”  Oh, friends.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Yes, prayers have sustained me, music has spoken to my heart, hugs have brought me comfort.  But God IN me is the reason I’m still standing.  He is my day-to-day survival strategy.

It’s ironic how living in the desert is often about survival. You often hear of hikers who get have to get rescued because they didn’t bring enough water to last the trip.  Every desert dweller knows the key is always having enough water.  Even the Saguaro knows this.  It survives because it has a long taproot that goes down into the ground two to three feet. And it has extensive roots that branch outward to collect as much water as it can. I’m learning that I need that same root system for my life.  That long taproot delves into God’s Word and time spent in prayer.  The other roots reach out to our family and friends for love, support, and comfort. This is how we survive through any tragedy, great or small.

God faithfully promises to lead us beside quiet waters and refresh our souls.  But unlike the cactus adding to its weight when filled with water, our souls become lighter with God’s living water because He has promised that His burden is light.  Our burdens become lighter, too, when we spend time in His presence.  They will never fully go away – we aren’t promised that.  But they are easier to carry when we know the Lord dwells in us.

I’m not sure about you, but knowing that realization –  and TRULY believing it – makes me stand a whole lot taller.  It puts fear in its place. It gives me joy on my saddest days, hope in my despair, comfort for my sorrow, and purpose for my pain. It empowers me to know that I have a living God who makes me, a plain girl from rural Nebraska, HIS dwelling place.

“Or do you not realize about yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you?” – 2 Corinthians 13:5

I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” – Galatians 2:20