In the Midst of Struggle

In the Midst of Struggle

I zipped up my running jacket and stepped out into the cold drizzle, a biting wind blowing against my face. Taking a deep breath, I resolved to make it a short run and started down the street. My thoughts swirled with reluctance as the chill penetrated each layer and settled into my bones—it was cold and wet and miserable—what in the world was I doing outside?

I knew the answer, even as I forced my body to ignore the myriad reasons I should turn around and pour another cup of coffee instead of running in the rain. My natural inclination is never toward discomfort, even when facing it leads to benefits on the other side. But experience has proven that perseverance is always worth it, even when it feels easier to quit before I begin.

Sometimes life feels like running in the rain.

Hard days—or seasons—make me want to hide at home in my jammies where I’m safe and warm. I’m in one of those hard stints now. Lately, anything beyond the basic activities required to get through the day feels too overwhelming to attempt. Extra things like reaching out to friends, writing thank you notes, and organizing the piles around my house have shifted temporarily into the “not today” category.

So I haven’t spent time writing in a while. Not only because I haven’t made much time to write, which takes considerable determination during any normal season, but also because it feels tricky to put my heart into words. If I’m honest, I haven’t wanted to admit I’m fighting a battle for healing that isn’t over yet.

I’m still in the midst of my struggle.

For a writer, it’s vulnerable any time you are brave enough to put your heart on a page and press “publish,” opening yourself up to the opinions and potential criticism of others. But when life knocks you facedown in the mud, the risk of sharing your struggle from that vantage point feels like an invitation to be kicked in the face while you’re down.

Yeah, I guess it’s time to admit I’m that writer. Here I am, facedown in the mud.

The details don’t matter, because we’ve all been there or will be at some point. Maybe it’s a period of grief, a struggle with depression, a life transition, relational pain, some sort of loss, a hard diagnosis, or another type of crisis—whatever the cause, it leaves us reeling, uncertain which way is up and if we’ll ever be the same as we were before.

I keep waiting to reach the other side of my particular season of struggle, eager to share all the lessons I’ve learned after surviving such a difficult time. I know I’ll have a story to tell of God’s faithfulness, that I’ll point to different moments when my heart changed and my load lifted on the road to eventual transformation. I’m clinging to the hope that I’ll have words of encouragement for anyone on a similar path, cheerleading those who are struggling in their own ways to persevere.

But I’m not on the other side yet.

I’m still in the midst of my own battle to remember who I am, piecing together my identity by sorting through each broken fragment. So instead of waiting for the end of this slow, arduous process, I’m writing from the middle of it—in the midst of a place I’d rather not be.

Transformation isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Like Cinderella’s experience with her fairy godmother, I’d much prefer to wave a magic wand and arrive at the final destination of this healing journey I’m on, where in a flash I’m altogether different than I used to be—stronger, braver, more whole-hearted.

Real-life transformation, however, requires a lot more tenacity and grit. Change comes almost too slowly to notice, demanding stamina to keep moving forward with almost no evidence that forward is really even the direction you are going.

Sometimes perseverance looks like things that are intuitively productive, like journaling or exercise or counseling or heartfelt prayer. Other days perseverance looks like getting out of bed. Then doing the next thing and the next, one tiny next thing at a time. And sometimes it looks like simply not giving up, even when giving up feels like the only thing that makes sense.

Perseverance eventually changes us if we keep not quitting, no matter how slowly movement comes.

Today, the gradual ascent toward transformation looks like admitting I’m still not where I want to be. I’m writing from the midst of my struggle, where my capacity has been exponentially diminished for a time. It’s humbling for this recovering perfectionist to say no to invitations and back out of commitments, but pretending I’m at full strength will only use the precious energy I need to keep pressing on.

It’s tempting to push my people away, as if distance will keep others from seeing the dirt smudged across my face and caked in my hair. But the vulnerability of telling the truth about where we are opens our eyes to see that we’re not alone in the mud after all. Sharing honestly with safe people helps us to lift our heads enough to see a whole heap of others who thought they were the only ones here too.

If you find yourself today in a place you’d rather not be, you are not alone. You may be in the midst of it, but this is not the end of your story.

I’m here with you, cheering you on and reminding you that you don’t have to climb a mountain today. You just have to choose not to quit. Go for that run or make your bed or light a candle and spend some time breathing deep. And if that one thing is all you do right now, it’s enough.

Sometimes victory simply means not giving up. Let’s keep pressing on together. We’re going to have a breathtaking story to tell on the other side.

Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want

Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want

Waiting is hard. No matter who you are or what you’re waiting for, it’s hard. Just ask any kid on a road trip how they feel about not being there yet. Or, if we’re honest, ask any adult how they feel about waiting in the grocery line, waiting for the weekend, waiting for vacation, waiting for a promotion, or waiting for retirement—waiting is hard.

No matter our circumstances, we are all waiting for something. I’ve been waiting since I became a mom for my kids to go to school. Don’t judge me—I know it sounds horrible, but it’s an honest confession.

Yet, I also remember back to pregnancy and how excruciating the waiting felt as I longed to meet each of my children, both entering the world comfortably past their due dates. And now as I parent two preschoolers, depending on God’s grace most days to enjoy the beautiful gift of this exhausting season, the approaching fall beckons me with new hope as my kids (and I) joyfully anticipate preschool and kindergarten.

We are all waiting.

Regardless of what we are waiting for, there is always something ahead that promises greater fulfillment. We somehow believe that when the next thing comes, then we will finally be content. But the truth is, even when we finally receive the thing we await, waiting begins again for a new “next thing.” Whatever season of waiting we are in, our lack of control will either drive us to despair or invite us into dependence on God’s grace.

During the past several years I’ve spent as a stay at home mom, I’ve discovered the joy of pouring my heart onto a page through writing. I don’t know if I would have ever discovered the gift of purposeful reflection writing affords if I hadn’t been thrust headfirst into this slower-paced life with babies. Needing a place to use my brain and process what was happening within my heart, writing has become a creative outlet that both keeps me sane and fills my soul.

As I searched for ways to improve my craft, another writer suggested an online course called Writing with Grace with Ann Swindell. My entire approach to writing has been transformed by her powerful teaching, which has given my words new purpose and freedom. (Unsolicited advice: Anyone who wants to grow in their ability to use writing to bring life to others should check out this incredible class!)

Because of my deep respect for Ann’s teaching, I jumped at the invitation to participate on the launch team for her new book, Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want, releasing on April 4th. This book is for anyone who has waited, is waiting, or will wait—in short, this book is for everyone.

Ann artfully weaves together my very favorite story in the whole Bible—the story of an unidentified woman who suffered from bleeding for twelve years despite giving all she had to doctors who couldn’t heal her—with her own story of waiting to be healed. Ann’s writing is vulnerable and courageous, revealing the raw places in her own heart where waiting has cost her dearly. This book reminds us all that hope is real, hope can’t be taken away, and hope is worth waiting for.

Ann invites others to experience the fullness of God’s grace in the midst of their waiting. She honestly explains, “Waiting is hard because it thwacks against our hope and makes us wonder if the promises of Christ are real. It makes us wonder if Jesus is really good…In all of those places, waiting asks us if God is still good and if he really sees and loves us.”[i]

But there is hope for those who are willing to bring their desires and struggles to the One who made us and knows us and loves us more than we could ever dream. Because “hope is the antidote to despair, and it’s the only way to live through prolonged seasons of waiting without losing our faith or our sanity.”[ii] As someone who has felt a bit crazy during periods of extended hopelessness, I can testify with assurance that hope is indeed worth fighting for.

Nothing thrills my heart more than helping others find a place to experience the grace of God for themselves. This book is one of those places. Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want is a story for all of us, because each one of us is waiting for something.

And the best part? If you order a copy (or two or three) by April 3rd, you can get some amazing pre-order goodies for free! So go ahead, give a copy to the ones you know who need it most. You don’t have to wait to share hope today.

PRE-ORDERFREEBIESAVAILABLE-NOW

[i] Ann Swindell, Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want, 212.

[ii] Swindell, Still Waiting, 212.

When Life Bursts Through

When Life Bursts Through

The snow finally just melted in our town for the first time since the end of November. To say it’s been a long winter is a bit of an understatement. My kids squealed with delight to discover grass on the lawns in our neighborhood, exposing its sad condition after many months of bearing a frozen topcoat. Sometimes it feels like endless winter is about to bury me too.

Over the weekend, the sun peeked out for a couple hours and we braved the chilly air so the kids could ride bikes in front of our house. I was sitting on the porch step when my son brought me something he had found in the dirt. “What this, Mommy?” he asked in his sweet little three-year-old voice.

I looked closely at the odd-shaped green thing he showed me, rounded on one end and flat on the other. Then it hit me—he was holding a bulb in his tiny hand. After months without any signs of hope, new life was sprouting through the dirt! After what feels like a never-ending season of dormancy, I’m spotting the first signs of new life in my heart, too. Hope bursts through just when it seems like the waiting will never end.

Seven years ago, I was in the middle of one of the hardest seasons of my life. Anxiety had reached an all-time high, to the point where my body and mind were so overloaded I had to take time off of work to learn how to function normally again. Those two months of sick leave ushered in a season of rest that lasted longer than I’d ever anticipated; I haven’t worked full-time since.

Moving to a new town and learning (ever so slowly) to embrace my life as a stay at home mom forced me to stop spinning all the former plates of achievement, professional competence, and busyness that had produced such anxiety in the first place. These past seven years have been my training ground for the pace of life I actually want to live.

Instead of accepting stress and busyness as a normal rhythm of life, my babies have given me the gift of unproductivity. They’ve forced me to slow down, teaching me through their constant neediness that growing deep roots cannot be rushed. Growth is supposed to happen slowly—there is no shortcut for time.

Never has the picture of the vine and the branches meant more. As Jesus instructs those who want to know him, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” If I want to grow, I must hold still.

I must remain. Remain in the place where I believe God’s love is real. Remain quiet enough to hear his voice whispering to my heart. Remain in the words he spoke for his friends to write down. Remain in the truth that I am loved. Remain in acceptance, whether I feel like I deserve it or not.

As I remain quiet and still, the vine nourishes me with its life. Hope floods my soul, just as nutrients flow from the vine to it’s branches, causing them to grow. I don’t produce the growth myself, I just hold still long enough to let love grow in me. Quit resisting, quit striving, quit squirming under the discomfort of being loved just as I am, not as I should be. A life filled with love can’t help but bear fruit.

I’m different today than I was seven years ago, and I only have one explanation for the change: Love changes everything. The work of holding still and learning to remain in God’s love has changed me from the inside out.

I’m not afraid of failure anymore, because I know I am loved. 

I don’t have to strive to prove my competence or worthiness anymore, because I know I am loved. 

I don’t have to worry about what others are thinking or saying about me, because I know I am loved. 

I don’t have to say yes when I don’t have the capacity, because I know I am loved.

While I was getting my haircut, my hairdresser and I were talking about how different we are than we used to be, especially before we both had kids. She told me something that has stuck with me: as new follicles grow over time, they replace what has fallen out so that every seven(ish) years we have a whole new head of hair. My hair is different than it was seven years ago. I am a different woman than I was seven years ago. Love has changed me, from my head down to my toes.

Life is starting to burst through. Just when the winter felt like it would never end, a new shoot of hope pokes its way through the ground. Love is growing–a new season begins today.

When You’d Rather Just Quit – Why Persevering Matters

When You’d Rather Just Quit – Why Persevering Matters

It’s not normal to want to do hard things. My husband jokes that he doesn’t like going to the gym because he has an allergic reaction every time he works out—his face gets red, he starts sweating excessively, and his heart beats fast. Like my man and exercise, most humans will avoid pain and discomfort at all costs.

I recently heard a friend say that weight training actually creates tiny tears in your muscle. It’s in the process of your body rebuilding those tiny tears that new muscle is actually developed. I guess that means without tearing your muscles, you will never get any stronger.

What hard thing feels like it’s tearing your muscles a bit?

I was in the middle of an exercise class a few weeks ago and trying to devise a way to sneak out early without being perceived as a wimp. I just wasn’t feeling it. Some days my body simply will not listen to my brain, and this was one of them. The instructor was wearing a shirt that said, “Strong is the new pretty.” Suddenly it hit me: if I snuck out of class, I wasn’t going to get any stronger. Or prettier, apparently.

If I listened to my discomfort and chose not to push through a hard hour, I was going to miss the chance to tear my muscles enough to let them rebuild.  If I wanted to be strong, I had to do the work it took to get stronger. I decided to stay in class. It may not have been my best workout, but I finished it.

Sometimes it’s more about choosing not to quit than giving a perfect performance.

Real life is the same way—there is no shortcut for building endurance. Strength comes from persevering through hard things. The discomfort associated with pushing through physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual fatigue is usually a sign that you are getting stronger.

That’s not to say we should push ourselves past the point of physical or emotional exhaustion, or that to grow we need to live in a constant state of weariness and overload (I’ve been there—it’s not a healthy). It takes wisdom to know when to push and when to rest and recover—but most of the time when something is hard, I would rather quit it completely than wrestle with the tension between persistence and rest. It’s in the wrestling that new strength emerges.

Right now I’m in the midst of something that feels harder than I anticipated it would. The thing I committed to isn’t going the direction I’d hoped, and the length of my commitment seems to be increasing before my very eyes. My muscles are tearing in ways I didn’t expect.

My natural response is to give up and say, “Well, at least I tried.” But perseverance takes practice. Building endurance requires persevering in little things, one decision at a time.

Some days I’m more inspired than others, but often my choice to keep going just starts with getting out of bed. Then pouring a splash of coffee into my cup of creamer. Then praying. A lot. Then taking a shower. Then getting dressed. Then showing up to do the thing I said I would do, trusting that I’ll have what I need for the next few moments.

Some people call the choice to persevere or to quit “fight or flight.” You can either press into the hard thing, fighting through discomfort, stress, tension, fatigue, or you can run away from the thing that causes those undesirable feelings. Most of the time, I just want to run away.

When I feel overwhelmed by the incessant demands of my precious, inherently narcissistic children, I’d rather put on a show to keep them quiet than deal with my own selfishness, magnified by their constant needs.

When I feel needy and overly sensitive for reasons that seem irrational, I’d rather eat something sweet—anything sweet—than rumble with the deeper cause of my emotions.

When the demands on my time and energy outweigh my capacity to keep up with my commitments, I’d rather drink a latte or a glass of wine than deal with the root of my stress.

When I look in the mirror and don’t like what I see, I’d rather shop for something new and pretty to wear than examine the untrue beliefs about myself that drive my pursuit of superficial beauty.

When I get in a fight with my husband, I’d rather give him the silent treatment and go to bed angry than apologize for my part and try to lean into the discomfort of being seen in my ugliness.

Fighting is harder than flighting. Building endurance takes work. Persevering through hard things means tearing our emotional muscles a bit. But there is no shortcut for the strength of character that comes from pressing in when you feel like numbing out.

Sometimes I’m tempted to think that it actually would be better to live a comfortable life than a good one. Why would anyone choose to do hard things like run a marathon or scale a mountain or earn a college degree or have a baby?

For the same reason it’s worth the fight to save a marriage, care for an elderly parent, raise a difficult child, reconcile a broken relationship, deal with emotional baggage, wrestle with questions of faith, battle with cancer, or press into the thing that breaks our heart. Because, in the words of Glennon Doyle Melton, life is equal parts brutal and beautiful—life is brutiful. And because our perseverance through our current struggle prepares us to persevere with hope through the next hard thing that will come.

Our choice to be be brave and persevere today helps us to respond with grace and strength tomorrow. We will not lose hope when life gets hard in the future because we know we’ve endured victoriously in the past. Our hearts will be stronger than they used to be.

So I’m not going to quit just yet. Today I’m on vacation with my family, grateful for the chance to step away and catch my breath and gather my strength to keep pressing in and pushing on when I return.

But I want to gain the full benefit of this current struggle by allowing my spiritual muscles to tear a bit. I am trusting that the strength I am building, slow and imperceptible as it may be, will be worth the fight.

Choosing not to quit could possibly take all your courage and all your strength–but you are brave and getting stronger by the second. May you have the strength to endure today, no matter what form perseverance takes.

 

Joy in the Aftermath of Christmas

Joy in the Aftermath of Christmas

As all the holiday hoopla draws to a close this week, I’m finding myself tired. Really tired.

Christmas has a way of sneaking up on us. A minute ago, summer was ushering in fall and kids wore fresh new wardrobes and excitement about what the school year would bring—and then we blinked and it was Thanksgiving and the season of family gatherings and holiday festivities and frenzied calendars and days full to the brim of so many good things. And then we blinked again and it was over.

In the midst of all the Christmas prep, baking cookies that I didn’t really want to eat and shopping for presents that I meant to get weeks ago, I found myself wondering why in the world is the most joy-filled time of year also the most stress-filled? 

Wasn’t my heart supposed to be overflowing with celebration and thankfulness and constant worship of the One we celebrate?  I wanted it to. I really tried to make myself focus on the right things. But I still got sucked into the hustle. I lost my joy because I lost my focus.

So often joy gets snuffed out by the pace productivity requires. I am as guilty as anyone of pressuring myself to death to make every year the Best. Christmas. Ever. There’s a lot to fit into days and weeks that only get shorter as night comes earlier.  Just think of all we expect ourselves accomplish in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas:

Christmas cards to order, address, and send out—extra time required for adding meaningful notes.

Coordinating schedules with loved ones to find a way to fit in time for everyone who wants it.

Advent calendars with activities for each day, intended to point hearts toward heaven.

Christmas parties for every job, exercise class, activity group, and social circle.

Gifts to think about, shop for, purchase, and wrap for family, friends, teachers, mailmen, and hairdressers.

Cleaning house and doing laundry in preparation for company, or packing up your life to travel elsewhere.

Menu planning, grocery shopping, and food prep to make special meals that both bless and impress.

Cookie baking and treat making for neighbors and friends—extra time required to write words of love.

Crafty creativity for those extra loving homemade gifts—which take extra time to create.

Elf on a shelf. When do those parents sleep?

School Christmas programs, performances, and concerts galore—plus any extracurricular festive entertainment unique to this season (Nutcracker, anyone?).

The list goes on and on. We are experts at filling our time with extra things—and extra pressure to do it all—often leaving ourselves feeling frazzled and empty, relieved when all the shenanigans are finally over. I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before this year that all of these extra things take extra time to complete.

The build up to Christmas is enough to bring us to the end of ourselves—and steal joy right out of the celebration.

The truth is, Christmas comes anyway. Whether or not I’ve checked everything off my list. It comes when I’m most worn down by my failure to live up to my holiday Pinterest board standard. It comes when I’m tired of plans to attend one more event and would rather just stay home in my pajamas. It comes when I’m surrounded by people and just need a moment to myself. It comes when I’m weary from all the preparation, when I feel like I’ve let people down, when I didn’t love well or engage enough or smile like I meant it.

Christmas comes, even when I am focused on my own weariness instead of the One who made himself small so I wouldn’t have to earn his approval.  It doesn’t depend on my performance, my thoughtfulness, my baking skill, my procrastination, my attitude.

Christmas comes when night is the darkest. When we have the least left of ourselves, Christmas comes to bring hope to the stressed out, worn out, burnt out. Christmas comes every year whether we’re ready or not.

Christmas comes, because Christ came. He said he would and he really did. God keeps his promises, regardless of our ability to keep ours. He promised before we even understood how much we needed it that he’d make a way for us to get out of the pit of self-destruction, self-absorption, self-pity we are all trapped in. He knew before we ever started trying that we could never achieve perfection—he would have to do it for us. So he came.

A couple days after Christmas now, I’m sitting in the wreckage of several cumulative weeks of hustle. The tiredness from traveling and sleeping poorly, the extra few pounds accumulated through stress eating and eggnog lattes, the weariness of an introvert constantly surrounded by people without relief, the spiritual fallout of losing margin in my daily rhythm.

But as I flip through photos snapped during different moments of this hustle-and-bustle season, I remember there was joy in the midst of the crazy. I choose joy in this moment by I focusing my heart in gratitude for those moments. Joy and thankfulness come hand in hand.

Looking at these pictures reminds me that Christmas isn’t a once-a-year experience–it’s an invitation to  joy.

It’s an invitation to joyful hope that comes from receiving the gift of being loved just as I am.

It’s in invitation to joy-filled freedom that comes from believing my worth doesn’t come from delivering an admirable performance to anyone watching.

It’s an invitation to joyfully abundant life that comes from focusing on things that last forever instead of those that are over in the blink of an eye.

Christmas invites us to remember that Jesus came once and he is coming again. Ready or not, he will come. May our lives reflect the joy of knowing his promises are true and his love is trustworthy. Because joy is a matter of perspective—and knowing the Source of joy means it can never be taken away.

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