Musings for the end of 2016

saying-goodbyeJoy. That was my word for 2016. Joy is something you either have or you don’t. It’s not the same as happiness, which can come and go. That’s why the whole “choose joy” thing is super annoying. Whether I’m in a good mood or not, happy or not, excited or not, I still have joy. Who would choose not to have joy? For me, joy is the result of knowing who God is in my life and that’s not going to change. (Who picked this word anyway?)

What I did learn from spending a year ruminating on the word is that I probably don’t let my joy show enough. Fine. FINE! I definitely don’t. I feel like a grumpy 85-year-old man half the time, shaking my fist and yelling, “Get off my damn lawn!”

I want to be better about reflecting joy. More than anything, I want my kids to grow up knowing that it’s okay to be a goof every once in a while, to relax,  and not to take things so seriously.

As for the year in general…it has had its peaks and valleys. After thinking about it for 27 minutes I decided to go back to school to get my masters and my teaching credential. It’s not hard at all to take care of a family and a house, work, and go to school full time. By “not hard at all,” I really mean, “Get off my damn lawn!” It hasn’t been easy. I have questioned the decision more than once. I will be completely done before the end of 2017, and that is a very bright light at the end of what has felt like a very long tunnel.

I laid 1500 square feet of tile in our home in 2016. Nearly six months later and I sometimes still lay on the tile that looks exactly like beautifully aged barn wood, cheek pressed against the cold ceramic, and thank Jesus that I didn’t cut off a finger or lose an eye. Also, I thank Him for YouTube and Lowe’s.

Nothing happened in November and nobody freaked out. Translation – everyone freaked out.

For the most part, the year was fine.

Then a few days ago, just as it was almost closed, death stuck its foot in the door of 2016. It took a kind, genuine, honorable person less than a week before 2017 bloomed on the notes of Auld Lang Syne. He was one of the very best and I miss him a lot.

The word I picked for 2017 is trust. I was going to pick reconciliation. Frankly, I don’t know which one is worse. I mean better. They’re both so amazing. I’m looking forward to posting more about this soon.

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Silent Saturday and silent seasons

photo by Darren Waters, 14 September 2005
Photo by Darren Waters.

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27:14

For Christ-followers, today is a day of anticipation. The brutality of what yesterday, Good Friday, represents — Jesus’ violent, unrelenting beating and crucifixion — still lingers in our minds. Of course we think about Christ hanging on that cross, but that’s not what Easter is for the believer. We don’t celebrate His death. We celebrate His sacrifice and His resurrection, and that celebration is tomorrow.

So here we are — knowing — that we are in the middle of what represents the darkest day and the most important day in history.

But that wasn’t so for those who walked beside Jesus, followed His real-time teaching, watched Him take His last breath, experienced the blanket darkness that marked His end.

In the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life, the whole land went dark. Luke 23:45 says, the sun stopped shinning. Then the temple curtain split in half. With a hush, Jesus breathed His last, and His earthly life ended. Can you imagine it? The eerie pulse that must have run through the spectators, reaching the fringe where His followers watched in silence. A crowd of believers and Jesus-haters realizing that what He’d been saying all along really was truth.

In a strange way, that’s when the emotional darkness began. No one knew that the very next day, Jesus’ followers would find the tomb empty, splayed open so the sun cut like a knife into the deepest, darkest corners. They didn’t know that so, so soon, the Light would drive out the darkness.

During that silent middle day, there was weeping, fear, confusion, doubting, debating. The disciples were frenzied, unsure. Former dissenters were in anguish that they hadn’t believed Jesus’ teachings.

There was crushing silence.

We know what happened next. Jesus rose from the dead. But that middle day, Silent Saturday as we now call it, that must have been hell on earth. It’s hard to image the darkness.

Or maybe it isn’t.

People walk through “silent Saturdays” all the time. Middle sections of difficult seasons. Times they’re waiting to hear from God, and feel untethered, broken, or alone. They love God and have seen Him do big things, but they’re still waiting for healing, for reconciliation, for joy, for Light.

Like those who waited more than 2,000 years ago, a new set of believers and Jesus-haters are waiting to experience the miraculous.

Glory is coming; that can be counted on. History proves it. The Bible promises it. The first Silent Saturday is proof that every single silent season will come to an end.

Jesus is always victorious.

Joy in 2016

I was a little sad to say farewell to 2015. It was a good year. There were hard times and several goodbyes, but I’d settled in and I was comfortable.

My word for 2015 was “New.” To go with my word I picked Revelation 21:5: And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” I had no idea how relevant it would turn out to be.

I liked “New,” and I’d keep that word for 2016, if I didn’t feel like it’s time to move forward. In contrast, my 2014 word was “Surrender,” and when the clock struck midnight on 1/1/15, I was like, “Later surrender. You sucked.”

As 2015 dawned I considered what “New” would look like. It was cute, how I had it all planned out. I wrote in my journal, “I want to approach everything in a new and fresh way…” It even sounds annoying. I thought I’d just work at being more patient, smile more, stress less. Snort. God was all, “Orrrrr, how about I completely change your life.”

Occasionally I will tell people that I enjoyed labor, that it was a good pain (note, my longest labor was five hours). They either back away slowly, or look like they’re going to punch me in the face. That’s how I feel about my “New” year too. A lot of good pain. It was hard at the time, but I was better off when it was finished.

joyI prayed a lot for my 2016 word. Every where I looked, the word “Joy” winked at me, mocked me. See, joy is a choice, and it goes far deeper than happiness. It’s something I’d have to be intentional about, instead of riding the “New” wave. When John asked me what my 2016 word is, I said, “Joy, and I’m mad about it.” I mean, it’s not really what I’m known for. Once, at a retreat, someone told me I needed to smile more when I was speaking to the group. So I did. I went up on stage and smiled and said “Hi!!!” That was immediately followed by several of my friends laughing because, as they pointed out later, I’m not one to blow sunshine.

Here’s the thing though, I’m a Level 1 worrier (that’s the highest level possible) and I often allow circumstances to steal my joy. If I have more joy, I’d have more peace, more hope, a more positive outlook. This Joy thing could actually be beneficial. When I came across Psalm 30:11-12, I was sold. You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with JOY, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever. 

I may have cheated a little, because I feel like it piggy-backs on New, that it’s Act II to what God did in 2015. He changed my perspective on my past, busted down decades-old walls, gave me a sense of heaven and eternity.

He gave me beauty for ashes, and joy replaced sorrow. It doesn’t make sense for me to keep a lid on that.

Happy New Year, may 2016 bring you peace, love, and JOY.

Life in Progress, Part 4: To be continued…

If I had written the final post in this series last week, it would undoubtedly sound different. That’s because grief is a beast, and there’s no instruction manual for this particular situation. It’s also because I learned a valuable lesson, one that I’ll share before this post ends.

If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 in the Life in Progress series, I would. I just think the story makes more sense in order.

I ended my last post explaining that I decided to chase my mom’s story, which meant John and I were going to Oregon. I questioned the choice a hundred times before we actually left. I thought maybe it was too “Lifetime movie” of me to get on a plane and fly to a city I’d never been before, to go interview friends of a woman who, let’s face it, I really didn’t know. I mentioned my idea to a friend who said I had to go, and as the days went on, I told more people about my plan. Not only were they encouraging, they were taking care of the details.

Since having our first child 12 1/2 years ago, John and I have never been anywhere, overnight, without the kids. Flying to another state was a huge stretch for me. This was a milestone trip for several reasons.

As I prepared to leave, I made some phone calls. I spoke with my mom’s pastor, who organized a breakfast meeting with several of her friends. I was given all the details of where her ashes were spread. I was encouraged to attend her favorite Sunday service at church. Her people were helping me in the midst of their grief.

I was still reeling from the loss and all of the unanswered questions when John and I left our four babies with dear friends to fly to Portland.

It was late when we arrived. A friend’s husband works for a rental car company and set up our reservation. All I had to do was pay our charges and get the keys. As we waited at the counter, my physical and emotional exhaustion began to consume me. I noticed the agent stop what he was doing and lean closer to the computer, with his hand over his heart, and read notes on the screen. Eventually he looked at me and whispered, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Little things like that happened the entire weekend. Friends making sure I was cared for, and Jesus showing me His love.

20150710_134532_001On the first full day of our trip we went to Newport, Oregon. There’s a lighthouse there, and a heart-shaped cove where sea lions gather. It’s surrounded by a wall of craggy coastline, and you can feel the wind fill the entire space. That’s where my mom’s ashes had been spread less than three weeks before. I waded into the water, and cried.

The next morning at a restaurant, I met my mom’s pastor and his wife, along with five of her close friends. They asked me a lot of questions, some of them hard, some of them out of curiosity. They said my mom spoke of me, but they didn’t know a lot about the estrangement.

I have reversed the roles so many times on this journey. If I had passed, and my mom had shown up in my town, how would my friends react? In light of that, I was very, very careful. They knew her so much better than I did, and they had just lost their dear friend. But they were so gracious. They cried with me and prayed for me. They shared funny stories and hard stories. They recounted my mom’s final days and her deep desire to live. They said she was known for her eclectic fashion, her heart for widows, and her propensity for saying exactly what was on her mind. She also loved crepes with strawberries and whip cream. That came up when I ordered the exact same thing; it’s my go-to when eating out.

John and I have spoken often of the people my mom was in community with. They are solid, Bible-believing, faith-filled lovers of Jesus. Not only did God honor my prayer to surround her with Christ followers, He surrounded her with people who are passionately pursuing Him. They were perfect for her.

Before leaving for the trip I’d mentioned to the person handling her estate that I would like her Bible, if possible. I thought of it often in the days leading up to the trip. I told several people that I didn’t want to leave Oregon without it. When the representative emailed back and said that her belongings couldn’t be distributed at that time, I was disappointed.

As I sat among her friends at breakfast, John asked her pastor whether he was confident that my mom had genuinely found faith in God. He responded, “Without a doubt. She loved Jesus.” Turning to me, he continued, “There’s something I think will help you. It’s a note she wrote in her Bible…I have her Bible for you.”

And I lost it. Right there in that restaurant, I sobbed. Someone pulled some strings, I didn’t ask any questions. I just knew I’d be able to return home with something tangible that pointed to her faith.

John and I spent a lot of time walking around town, visiting bookstores and little shops and historical landmarks. We found an amazing seafood restaurant and spent hours there, two nights in a row.

IMG_20150712_112628On Sunday morning we attended her favorite church service. Before he began the message, her pastor handed me her Bible, showing me the note she’d written inside. It’s too private to share in its entirety, but it does say, “God entered my heart and soul. I feel it in my core like a bolt of lightening…I am God’s plan.” It’s dated March, 2010.

I sat next to my husband, in my mom’s usual seat, at her regular service, holding her Bible, two weeks after she died, 20 years since I’d last seen her, and mourned an amazing stranger who also happened to be my mama. It was a full circle the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

I wish I could tie up this series with a big red bow. I wish I could say she left behind a letter, any explanation at all for the choices she made. The truth is, this story is to be continued in more ways than one. Over time I believe I’ll learn more about her. For the most part though, I think my questions won’t be answered until the other side.

This situation has drilled home the truth that people will always disappoint us. No one on this earth is perfect. No one can be Jesus to us, other than Jesus. I can only tell so much of my mom’s story because I didn’t actually learn about her last years and her faith until after she died. Any kindness toward me I assigned her, I did because I couldn’t stand the idea of her dying hating me, or worse, nothing-ing me.

That’s why I have to stop focusing on her story.

I have to tell my story. That’s the valuable lesson I learned.

I had a mother who fought emotional and psychological demons for most of her life.

She wasn’t the greatest mom.

We parted ways, and it broke the already-broken pieces.

I found the Lord.

I prayed for her salvation for 20 years.

She fell in love with a man who took her to church. Then she fell in love with Jesus.

And for years, neither of us reached out to the other.

I will always wish that the Jesus-loving version of my mom was in my life.

But now I have to move on to the next chapter. I have to face head-on the areas I struggle with on this earth — many of which came from my relationship with my mom — while honoring her faith, and thanking Jesus that He always does what He says He’s going to do.

 

 

 

Life in Progress, Part 2: The God-shaped hole in my mom’s life

On the far left. One of the few childhood pictures I have.
On the far left.
One of the few childhood pictures I have.

I ended Part 1 of my 4-part “Life in Progress” series by saying that one would have to know the beginning of the story I share with my mom in order to fully understand her ending.

Since my mom’s death in June, my perspective on my childhood has changed. I’m realistic, but now I see it through a different set of lenses, lenses that filter with forgiveness.

I was 5 when my parents divorced and my mother and I moved to Central California. She battled depression for many years, and once we settled into our new town, the alcoholism that had snaked its way through my family tree caught up to her.  She was wildly discontent. I know now that she was searching for anything that would fill the God-shaped hole in her life.

A friend once told me that she didn’t want to have kids as a way to cure boredom. I understood, because that’s how my mom ended up with me. By the time I was in first grade, she had checked-out. A single parent without a support system, battling addiction, doesn’t make for the greatest care-taker, especially with a handful of a child.

Without the minutiae, my mom put my physical safety at risk a number of times. The emotional and psychological warfare was constant. And every argument, every threat was a brick in the wall I was building around my heart.

She experienced things that should have prompted her to get better. Her AA sponsor committed suicide. Money became a major problem, as in, there wasn’t enough of it. At 42, she had breast cancer. Still, nothing served as a wake-up call.

And she was a runner. When things got hard, or she wasn’t content, she’d run away.

The summer before sixth grade we moved to Southern California. The summer before high school, we moved to another part of our community that landed me in a new district. While I tried to settle in, my mom’s depression and mania grew worse. Any friends she had, began to retreat.

When I was a sophomore, she sat me down one day after school and told me to make arrangements, to “have a place to go,” because she was at her absolute end — emotionally, mentally, she was done. She said her only way out was death. I remember being raging mad, storming off and slamming doors. We rarely spoke of it again, which probably seems INSANE, but was indicative of our dysfunctional existence.

She’d make threats, and I’d compartmentalize them. Lock them away in my mind under, “Too hard to think about.” I was my mother’s daughter.

For a year after that, she stayed mostly in bed, didn’t work enough to cover our bills, took large sums of money that didn’t belong to her, and was putting together a stockpile of prescription medication.

By my junior year in high school, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I left.

Less than two weeks after I moved out, and just prior to my emancipation hearing, I found myself at a church service. I was at rock-bottom. I didn’t have my home, or my mom. I lacked the life skills that parents should model for their children. It was bad.

While teaching me to loathe organized religion, throughout my childhood my mom dragged me to all manner of churches and spiritual centers. It wasn’t uncommon for her to hand me a deck of tarot cards after I’d had a bad day, or tout some New Age philosophy.

I could tell though, sitting in that service, that what I was hearing had nothing to do with religion or spirituality. For me, it still doesn’t. I didn’t like religion then, and I don’t like it now.

For me, it had everything to do with truth and a relationship with Christ.

So on that day, April 13, 1997, I became a Christ-follower.

In my last post I wrote that my mom’s death was not the biggest part of our story. The decision I made to follow Christ, however, completely changed the narrative. That choice, combined with my very difficult childhood, are integral plot points.

And eventually, years after we parted ways, a divine encounter between my mom and a stranger in a Phoenix RV Resort started in motion a series of twists that I never could have anticipated.

That’s the beginning of the best part of the story…

The weight was lifted, a new door was opened

The music played loud and I could feel it in my chest. The bass rattling the base of my faith. My rock was huge compared to many of the others. It worked out well, because Jesus always works things out, because I had a huge leap to make and it would take a big rock to write it on. I could have written one word on my rock. One word to represent a step of faith. That would have been okay. It would have been easy. Instead I wrestled with God. There in that top-level seat, I fought with God in a toddler-like stubbornness complete with crossed arms and squinted eyes. I shook my head back and forth until finally, almost defiantly, I wrote on my rock. My white-knuckled hand hung over the white bag, full of the steps and leaps of faithful IF sisters.

And then, I let go.

Gently, like an exhale, a door closed.

***

photo (6)Last weekend I hugged my husband and four kids goodbye and traveled from my  beautifully-chaotic home in Southern California to Austin, Texas for the  IF:Gathering. In its second year, the conference consisted of phenomenal teaching,  powerful worship, and 2,000 women who attended, expectant.  We were joined by  women in homes and churches around the world, watching live online. It was two  days of looking inward and looking up. We heard Christ-centered messages instead  of watching speakers. We shook hands, hugged, and laughed, and we didn’t  compare or criticize. Always, in the speaking, in the music, in the personal touches,  we were encouraged. Gone was the fluff, replaced instead with a real, honest, raw  message of faith. It was a get-your-hands-dirty-be-courageous-focus- on-Jesus  weekend.

I traveled with two dear friends. We laughed, hard. We ate, a lot. We prayed, we walked, we brainstormed. We explored what it would be like to take the things we were learning and apply them to our ministries.

About 10 minutes after the 2014 IF:Gathering ended, we started talking about traveling to Austin in 2015. We were among those able to get tickets in the midst of slammed servers and a ton of women, all trying to do the same thing. We purchased our plane tickets in November, just before we sat around our family tables, giving thanks. And then, we waited. We waited as February neared. When it was finally time for IF, we left our husbands with reminders, instructions, suggestions and prayers.

I knew that God was going to move in some area of my life. I went, wringing my hands, excitedly fearful.

I listened as Christine Caine told us to let go of the past, that it would only hold us back. “You’re afraid to step into what will be because you’re hanging on to what is dead,” she said. “If the horse is dead, it’s time to dismount.”

Tucked in Jen Hatmaker’s message I heard her say, “Sometimes we go back to bondage because freedom is too painful to imagine.”

Bob Goff sat on stage next to his lovely wife, “Sweet” Maria, and pointed out that “people who love people the way Jesus did are constantly misunderstood.”

Bianca Olthoff reminded us that “there’s something beautiful in being obedient.”

Then, on Saturday when I was already all-in, Amena Brown happened. I can’t even. I can hardly string words together to convey the powerful way Amena uses words to share Jesus with the world. “Be strong and courageous,” that’s what played my heart strings.

After two days of asking ourselves, “If God is real, then what?” After two days of being challenged. After two days of personally standing in front of two doors, the conference drew to a close. In a theater steeped in musical history, 2,000 women sang their hearts out to Jesus. “You’re a good, good Father. It’s who You are, it’s who You are. I am loved by You. It’s who I am. It’s who I am…”

***

I finally wrote on my rock. My white-knuckled hand hung over the white bag, full of the steps and leaps of faithful IF sisters.

And then, I let go.

After five years of writing for the newspaper, I’m writing my final column this week.

Gently, like an exhale, a door closed.

Instead, I’ll focus my writing attention on Christ — on this blog, and on poetry that points right at Jesus.

A boulder-shaped weight lifted, and a new door flew open.

Dear Sisters

typewriterRecently I performed three pieces at Dwelling Place, a weekly women’s Bible study  at Southwest Church. This letter was among the three, and it was an honor to read it  to the ladies…

Dear Sisters,

A note of thanks.

To those whose hands are held together with arthritic knuckles and tissue-thin skin.  Thank you. Thank you because you remind me of my own grandmother. In the  wrinkles and crow’s feet, I see only laughter and wisdom’s wings. You have taught  me about hard work, dedication, patriotism, and a faith that rests on hymns, and  Christ’s feet. You may not feel as strong as you once did, but you have moved  mountains.

To the women whose youth was marked by an assassinated president and freedom fighters. My mother’s generation. The women who put the first cracks in the glass ceiling, but never forgot that Jesus is King. You watched a nation march for peace, and you wanted to shout from the hills that in the corn fields and the jungles, Christ was the answer. You helped raise an entire generation of women who are proud to be daughters of the King, and moms and employed – all at the same time – if we so choose. You paved the way for that. You raised up game changers in the Church. Not women who seek to rock the boat, but women faithful enough to step out of it. Those women you raised, many of them are my friends.

To those women. Thank you. For your stories and your experiences and all the things you bring to the table. For your passionate pursuit of God’s presence and the way you seek after Jesus with wild abandon. I see you. I see you fighting to tear down walls, yours and mine. I see you juggling responsibilities and spinning plates and wearing hats. I’ve seen you at your best and you’ve seen me at my worst. I watch you with your own daughters. Together we worry about our girls’ hearts and their futures, because we are a generation of mothers who drop our children off at school and pray they stay safe. Thank you for your examples of faith and joy. Thank you for the laughter.

My prayer for 2015 for all of us – from the ladies with great grandbabies to the ladies who are practically still babies – is that we keep our masks off, and our hearts open. That we are vulnerable, where His strength is perfected. That we let His light shine through the broken places. That we are so focused on our Father’s business, our lives can’t possibly be about show business. I want this to be the year that we unpack our baggage and stop trying to become what we think we should be, rather than becoming, simply and boldly, more like Jesus. I think, when we get to that place, we won’t care what people say about us, whether they like us or not. We’ll be so focused on Christ that our approval rating won’t matter.

My prayer is that we rend our hearts. That we act as a connector between the hurting world and the healing love of Christ, always keeping our lamps lit and our feet firmly planted. But never motivated by recognition.

I’m asking God that we not let our jobs define us. All the quarterly reports, commissions, paychecks, accolades — it can all become the rat race very quickly, and it can make it difficult to run the race. May we all be filled with the knowledge that we are His daughters, first. We are not what we do for a living.

In 2015, I pray that we stop comparing ourselves to one another. When we were created by our Father, He put so much thought into our giftings. It’s our uniqueness that makes us beautiful. How it must grieve His heart when His daughters miss how stunning they are because they’re so focused on how He created someone else.

This year, dear sisters, let’s not gossip. Hold me accountable, and I will return the favor, if you want me to. Our daughters, and sons, are watching.

And, let’s smile more. There is much to be joyful about. Because no matter what we do, how bad we mess up, or how difficult things seem, Jesus loves us huge. Let us all, humbly thank Him for what we have, and gently remind each other of those blessings when our complaining drowns out our worship.

What if the next 12 months were about stepping outside of our comfort zones, and thinking outside of the box? What if we do the thing God has been whispering to us, but we’ve been ignoring? What if, by doing that one thing, generations from now, someone will be saying that we moved mountains? Not for applause or promotion, but for His glory. Be brave, and do not conform.

Let’s vow, that this year, we become audacious in our faith. That we turn to the Word, talk to God, lift our hands, open our hearts, put on His armor and get radical. Because if every woman in the Church were to do all that, what else could it be but radical?

It will be a year of planted seeds and lives saved.

Finally, again, thank you. All of you. For teaching me and putting up with me, laughing at my jokes and overlooking my myriad faults. For taking my calls, holding my hand and encouraging me – with your words, your faith, and your example.

Sisters, may 2015 be the year everything becomes new again.

In Christ’s love,

Amelia