The Purpose of This

I would argue that in life, it is easiest to overlook the small things, the short things, and the seemingly meaningless things. After all, how can something so tiny have such a big impact? While I am completely guilty of overlooking the simplest lessons of everyday life, once in a while God will open my eyes to something that I have looked at a million times before, but never actually seen.

This past weekend was not one of those times—it was huge, to say the least. I went to a conference where I was surrounded by powerful women (and a few men) who brought the best of what they had to offer and did it all for the glory of Christ. I made connections, and friends, and did all of the things I was supposed to do; I even took away significant lessons from influential people. But when I returned back to my ‘normal’ life,  something started to happen… something very small.

All the little details of the weekend came flooding back, and I realized the true significance of all the people I met and the speakers I listened to; my takeaway was not the big thing—it was the four word sentence that fell randomly into a lecture, it was the miniscule piece of advice that I got from the woman sitting next to me, and it was the feedback I got in the form of rejection. Those little things are what stuck, and they are the lessons I am most likely to recall, and to take action on.

Tucked in the book of John, at the end of chapter twenty, is a short section containing only forty-eight words and two verses. It reads:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of this disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

     The fitting title of this section is “The Purpose of This Book”. Now, I cannot tell you if ‘this Book” refers to the book of John, the Gospels, the New Testament, or the entire Bible— but I can tell you that I have never read that section before today. It was so small; I skipped it. Right in the midst of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus—the literal climax of the Bible—are two of the most important verses of the entire story. And I skipped them.

Every writer knows that a good story answers the staple questions: who, what, when, where, and why? The recounting of Jesus’s life story gives us the who, the what, the when, and the where, but these two verses give us the why. Without it, the who, what, when, and where would be meaningless. If Jesus did not preach, teach, come into the flesh and die a criminal’s death, then rise again—you and I would be paying for our wrongdoing with our own lives.

Every person I spoke with through the course of the conference asked me, “What are you writing?” And of course, I could tell them. But when one women changed the question to, “Why are you writing?” I was at a loss.

During one of my sessions, my tired mind was drifting in and out of actually listening—until I heard something that I knew God meant for me.

     “You are putting too much of yourself in your writing…” she said.

Talk about convicting.

I tried to come up with an excuse in my head: “Well, of course I am going to put myself in my writing. I’m telling my story.”

No. I knew it was wrong as soon as I thought it. He corrected me so quickly and so gently.
This is God’s story. I’m not writing for me or about me. If I were, my words would become mere stems of pain in you or the world, because I don’t know how to use them of my own accord. Hire a carpenter to bake your wedding cake and you’ll be eating sawdust.

When I read those verses (30-31) in John 20, it clicked for me.

Jesus is performing miracles all around me, every day. Not all of them are on this blog, or even in writing, but the ones I include and the ones I share are so that you may believe and live life to the full in Him.

My why is you. And His why in choosing me to share my victories, shortcomings, and lessons learned, is you too. He wants to win your heart and your life.

So I challenge you to evaluate the thing you do—writing, singing, dancing, loving, mothering—and pay closer attention to the little things you might normally overlook.

What’s your why?

 

 

The Bookshelves

The final days of my trip to Uganda consisted of pure, lighthearted adventure. The other voyagers and I traveled up to the northern Nile and stayed in Murchison Falls National Park. The African savannah is absolutely beautiful and nearly surreal. To physically be in a place I had only read about as a little girl was dreamlike. It took a minute for my brain to realize that I was actually seeing baboons playing, giraffes eating, elephants walking, and even a few lions basking in the sun right out my window.

Each place I stayed in Uganda was brilliant. I kept thinking to myself that it surely could not get any better, and then we would move on and I would be proven wrong again. Our final stay was at Paraa Safari Lodge, which was so nice I felt like I was on a high class vacation and not a mission trip. It sat right along the Nile River and personified the perfect tropical paradise.

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(The view)

 

One part of the lodge that stood out to me, however, was the bookshelf in the main lounge. It was just a normal bookshelf, but all of the books were the wrong way. Now, when I say ‘the wrong way’ I do not mean that their spines were facing inward and the pages outward; they were all lying down horizontally on their covers in carefully arranged stacks.

 

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(The shelves)

 

I had never seen a bookshelf organized like that in my life. I found it odd, but so very intriguing at the same time. Maybe it was simply for aesthetic, or as a means of artwork; it was a talking point by my terms at least. Perhaps it actually was done for functionality and with purpose.

In my contemplating thoughts, it hit me. Why did I automatically assume the way the books were lying was wrong? For something so inconsequential, I was very quick to judge and label that wooden bookshelf as erroneous.

I think entirely too often, we get caught up in our own ways—how we like to think about and act upon things—and instead of taking the time to acknowledge others’ opinions and ideas, we automatically assume they are incorrect.

Knowledge is the root of wisdom, and is acquired by an awareness of supplementary matters, philosophies, and designs floating in the lives of others. Proverbs 24: 23 reads:

“These are also sayings of the wise. Partiality in judging is not good.”

I evaluated the bookshelf in partiality to my personal accumulation of knowledge. After all, that is the only information on which I have to make judgements. The reality of prejudice is that it is always laid upon a foundation of individual knowledge; in twenty years of experiencing and witnessing bigotry, I have concluded that we are all simply too obtuse and senseless to pass judgement on others, not because we are lacking, but because we are human. All the knowledge in the world could not save us from ourselves.

Who knows? It could be I am the one arranging her books in a peculiar manner. The thing I think we all need to appreciate is the distinction between being wrong and being different. The way that bookshelf was structured was in fact different than what I was accustomed to, but nothing about it was wrong. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of books lying on the shelf in sideways stacks. It was visually very interesting, even though there were some functionality quirks I still had to work out.

In the end, as homage to the message evoked, I decided to change my own personal bookshelf around a little bit. Now, every other shelf is lined with books the way I have always had them, and the remaining shelves are stacked with books the way I saw them in Uganda. It is a reminder and signifier to myself that integrated ideas are, most often, much more effective and better than the ones living alone in my head. I have to listen to what others have to say, consider their views, and take them seriously, just as I hope someone would do for the ideas I have to bring to the table… or in this case, the shelf.

 

Little Red Dots

It is mind-boggling to me how quickly things in life can change. In a matter of seconds, everything can be different: one moment you are a child, the next an adult, one moment you are single, the next engaged, one moment you are a renter, the next a home owner, one moment you are a couple, the next a family—and the list goes on.

 
While I haven’t experienced all of these changes particularly, I have made a few of my own split-second decisions, which led to prompt changes. Each of them is significant, and each of them has shaped the person I am becoming.

 
Something I feel we often forget is that many changes in life can be undone: you can sell your house or car, change career paths, get divorced, or even return a shirt you bought at the store. Undoing changes can be a good and bad thing; they can bring healing and they can bring hurt.

 
On the other hand, just as many changes in life are permanent: the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the pictures you post on the internet which seem to continue showing up no matter how many times you have removed them. Permanent changes inherently carry more weight, merely by definition.

 
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a long-time friend and I sat in a booth at a local coffee shop eating pastries, sipping javas, and laughing in a carefree fashion. It was our first semester of our freshman year of college, and I suppose that single large change wasn’t quite big enough for the both of us. As one topic led to the next, our conversation by some means steered to the subject of tattoos.

 
I am unsure of how exactly it happened, but not even a half an hour later, we were sitting in opposite chairs at a tattoo parlor down the street, completely ready to be inked. The crazy thing is, I do not remember having any hesitant feelings at all—I was wrapped up in the whimsy and fun of it all.

 
We walked out of the tattoo parlor together feeling independent, valiant, and larger than life. My friend had chosen to get a small hummingbird tattooed on her ankle, while I went for something literally larger than life:

 
On my left forearm, sits the entire world. What I mean to say, is that I got a tattoo of the world map flat-laid across my arm. I love travel and I love adventure, and it seemed completely fitting.

red dots

The part of getting a tattoo which I failed to take into account, was the various reactions of others which ensued immediately and continue to this day. Of course, my family member’s responses were among the first: I still cannot forget the wide-eyed look my mother had on her face—it was one of sheer disgust and horror. My brother cried, my uncle teased me, my sister was completely speechless.

 
Not all the feedback was destructive. My tattoo has proven very popular among friends, barista’s, and frequents of vinyl stores. And over time, my family has grown to fancy it too.

 
The completely dippy element is—everyone has an opinion to report on my choice. Random people I pass in public or complete strangers at literally any place in the world feel it necessary to give their outlook on my left arm—positively and negatively. Sometimes people are vivid with their words, and other times their expressions and body language do all the talking.

 
My whimsical decision to make a permanent change has taught me an important lesson: our choices and actions will have an effect on the people interacting with us whether we intend for them to or not. If you choose to have a child, the person sitting in the office waiting room is going to have an opinion of that child, whether it is crying or sleeping or laughing. If you choose to get divorced, the person across the counter at the drug store is going to have an opinion of you when you take your hurt out on them in the form of frustration.

 
Picture the ocean for a moment.

 
It is massive and bluish-green and waves are crashing against the shoreline. Whatever the context of your imagination, I can tell you exactly what you are envisioning: the surface.

 
We have only ever been accustomed to see the shell of the largest piece of the earth. Beyond our vision is more natural life and activity than we can know, but we continuously and instinctually see the surface.

 
I don’t think the solution is to change that part of ourselves; seeing the ocean as merely the surface has much to do with the functionality of our eyes and the messages they send to our brain. Altering our biology is not the answer.

 
What we can change, is the way we judge, treat, and react to others—even over something as insignificant as a tattoo. We have no control over the feelings, emotions, and responses of others in part to our own actions, because they only see what is on the surface. It is entirely frustrating, I will admit, but the only way to subdue adverse reactions, is to become exceptionally wise, humble, and forgiving in our own actions.

 
I am a rather carefree person; it does not bother me when people give their opinion of my tattoo. I know it is in human nature to be curious, candid, and even concerned.

 

To avoid conflict, I have to focus on my own ocean—not just the part that people see.

 
In an age where it is easier than ever to give an opinion, it is more difficult than ever to find common ground. Escaping conflict does not mean that we dodge everyone who has a different opinion than we do. I seriously doubt there would be very many people left if that were the case.

 
Do not let your own insecurities keep you from freely engaging with others.

 
I know that the reactions to my tattoo will likely never stop. That is okay. What I see when I look at down at my arm is not just some ink, some art, or even some mistake; I see my life in experiences. I see little red dots on all the places I have been, and those dots remind me of the incredible memories I have made, beautiful things I have seen, and remarkable people I have met. I look at my tattoo, and I see my story; I recall how it has intertwined so perfectly with the stories of others, and I am able to identify the hand of God throughout.

 
My permanent decision, while having somewhat naïve beginnings, cultivated a treasure and some fresh perspective. Upon reflection, I have concluded that the biggest changes often do happen in the shortest amounts of time—whether that be by the signing of some papers, the flip of a switch, or even the fleeting pinch of a needle, hastily producing another little red dot.

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The Pain of the Plant

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Of all the lessons and certainties God has made known to me, there is one which seems to stand out above the rest. I do not believe this is because it is the most important, but rather the concept I have the hardest time accepting. Whenever some plan or dream goes awry the Lord reminds me of his sovereignty and instructs me to remember; pain is a necessary and nonnegotiable part of life.
Experiencing pain doesn’t mean that we are doing anything wrong, or that we are being punished—it only means we are alive. I have to repeat that to myself constantly, and I know it is nothing to be ashamed of. Keeping faith afloat is like tending a garden: both need to be watered and fed, cared for and maintained, given ample amounts of sunlight, and most importantly, time and space to grow. Eventually, if we do our part and tend to the garden well, we will reap a bountiful harvest.
When I picture myself as a gardener, I see a blissful, smiling me surrounded by beautiful blooms engulfed in sunbeams with butterflies flying all around. The only problem is this is a storybook fantasy. Real gardening is hard work; it takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication.
I am going to be brutally honest here—all my plants die. Every single occasion in which I try to prove my green thumb, I end up only proving my incompetence. Most of the reasons my plants die are completely carless and avoidable; once I planted a tree that never got a chance to grow as I placed it in the one spot which never received sunlight. On another occasion I sat my rosemary bush outside in the fall to get more direct sunlight… and forgot about it until spring.
My efforts are miserable at best, and I empathize with those who care for their own plants. It also makes me a bit envious of those who are actually able to keep any sort of vegetation alive.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I was just a plant in this world—that we all are. You and I require the same food, water, time, care, and supplication to grow. From beginning to end, our lives are as fragile as all of the plants I have murdered in the past twenty years. It actually scares me to even think of myself as the gardener of my own life; I would not have lasted through the first winter if that were the case.
So many times, the Scripture uses sowing, plowing, harvesting or another agrarian metaphor to portray a point, and so many times I believed I understood those metaphors. By the hand of God alone I was able to discover just how out of touch I was with the world around me.
We live in a society that does not know where the majority of their food comes from; instead of farming and harvesting, we go to the supermarket or worse—the drive-thru. We do not have to labor for our food in the way every citizen of Israel, Rome, and Greece did in Biblical times. When God told the masses the Parable of the Sower, they could relate on many levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. If they did not plant seed, they would not have food to live. If they did not toil in servitude to their crops, they would not reap a harvest. If they grew impatient and walked away, they would not see the fruits of their effort.
Stop for a moment and take a look at the creation surrounding you.
To understand the Lord’s metaphors, I had to gain a knowledge of nature like those had by the Israelites. This may seem very basic, but the only way to plant a seed is to dig a hole.
We have to take an instrument of steel and pierce the ground over and over again, opening it like a fresh wound. To plant a seed in us, God must first open a wound.
Expect to be hurt and cracked open, because it is the only way to plant the seed of life. Take God’s words to heart and recognize that you will not see a harvest overnight. Be patient in your efforts; know that God is not wounding you, he is working you. He is the gardener who waters, feeds, and pulls the weeds.

“Be patient, therefore brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until is received the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”               – James 5:7-9

The Lord speaks through his handiwork: he made the plants and the land, and he uses them as such. If you want to know God, pay attention to the green; pay attention to the world he made.

The Beauty of Grace

Through times of hardship, days of joy, trials of life, and every experience in between, there has been one fact I have come to accept as truth: our God has a matchlessly glorious sense of humor.

This, of course, is not Biblical—at least I don’t think it is. The scripture does not say that God’s plan will always prevail by way of irony seasoned with hints of satire, but in my understanding, it sure seems to happen that way more often than not. The wonderful thing about this though, is it makes our God more relatable; everyone loves a good humored leader. Through the way his plans unfold, we are able to gain familiarity of his character, which is laced with light heartedness, mercy, love, and justice.

Often times the great comedians of society—the night show hosts, SNL members, social media stars, and stand-up comedy regulars—are recognized by a signature, whether it be a funny wink, voice, skit, or routine. The Lord has a signature too, and the more time we spend with him, getting to know his voice, his face, his routines, the more we will be able to identify his work.

Last October, I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar faces, foreign landscapes, and exotic ways of life as I journeyed through an entirely new place—Uganda. A small country in Eastern Africa, Uganda is bursting with culture and littered with hope. Most people have this picture in their heads of third-world countries being nothing but poor, sorrowful, and itching with pain and hurt. I would be lying to say I had not had the same vision in my mind a time or two. The truth is, there is poverty and so much pain and hurt, but there is also a massive army of people filled with joy, humility, gentleness, faithfulness, and a bone-trembling fear of God.

This was a special kind of trip. Many assume a trip to such a place, led and organized by a nonprofit, is in fact a mission trip—that is what I assumed myself when I signed up to go. Love Does, the organization which sponsored the trip, however, does things a bit differently. Our days there were not spent building churches or installing wells, or repainting classrooms. Instead, we saw Uganda: I and the other (amazing) attendees were consumed in the people, conversing with them, loving them, knowing them, and gaining awareness of their culture and livelihood. It was all about the people, many I am now thankful to consider my friends.

The education I was getting from these new-fangled relationships silently began changing my perspective and even more, my heart. The organization itself has aptly named these adventures, Vision Trips. I am not sure I would have entirely understood that, had I not gone to try it out for myself. Yet, as I sit and reflect on my time there, it makes all the sense in the world. It changed the vision I had in my head of what underdeveloped parts of the world are really like. I think as Americans, many of us find ourselves afraid of the unknown that awaits us there; the reality in my case, was that I felt more peaceful, safe, secure, and loved in Gulu than I ever had in an American city, because it was so obviously and tightly wrapped in the arms of the Lord.

One day during our visit, we experienced a very unique project launched by Love Does with the mission of installing literacy and Jesus into the lives of some of the neediest in the country: the witch doctor school. Now, I was told by some of the students attending the Restore secondary school, that the correct and more common name for these people was “traditional healers”. My mind liked the idea of spending the day with traditional healers much more than it did witch doctors—the term gave them less menacing qualities and calmed the anxiety swelling in my chest as I recalled stories I had heard and read about witch doctors in this exact part of the world.

IMG_5312The students of the witch doctor school dancing for us, with us, around us.

Once again, the vision I had in my mind was shattered. We arrived at the witch doctor school and much to my astonishment found… dancing. And singing. And smiling faces. They welcomed us so warmly and genuinely and as their lesson for the day began, they sat with us. The woman next to me clenched my right hand in both of hers as if we were already lifelong friends. The men and women began saying their ABC’s aloud, followed by reciting the sounds of some letters and pronouncing the words written on various pieces of paper taped to the wall. At the end, their teacher asked if the visitors had any English words they would like to teach the students. One of the girls in our group suggested the word “beautiful”.

I turned to the woman still grasping my hand and introduced myself as Alyssa.

“I am Grace,” she said softly. Her eyes were deep and yellow and her skin showed the wear of hard labor.

In my mind, I was trying—and failing miserably—to come up with the words to accurately explain to Grace what the word “beautiful” was. I realized quickly it would be difficult considering she knew very little English and beautiful was such an extensive word: it can have many meanings, some poetic and difficult for even the scholarly to understand.

I said a few things in attempt and she looked at me, very confused, watching my lips move as I talked. Then I noticed she was wearing a bracelet around her wrist; it was hard plastic painted silver with fake colored gems placed in a flower shape inside—the kind one would buy for a child to play dress-up with at the dollar store. I took my other hand, pointed to it, and very slowly, with emphasis exclaimed, “Your bracelet is beautiful!”

Her face erupted in a warm smile and she began to blush and giggle like a little girl—almost like she didn’t believe me, almost like she already knew. Then she looked down at me in the same way one would look at their own child and slipped the bracelet off her wrist. She took my hand and clasped it around my arm and said, “Now you be beautiful too.”

I didn’t know what to think as she sat embracing me. I was trying to hold back tears, but it was proving quite difficult. This woman, who most likely had nothing, was willing to give one of her only possessions to a complete stranger, who had everything, at the drop of a hat. I knew that was not the kind of generous love I would get to experience often in my life.

It became clear to me that Grace was a healer. She may not have always been. Perhaps she was a true witch doctor at one time, who sinned and practiced evil witchcraft as according to the name. Whatever her background, she had somehow ended up at this place in this time next to me. She was being transformed, just like many of the students there. God had placed new desires in her heart, and she was learning how to accept perfect love for the first time in her life. With a new and holy fountain of audacious love flowing deep within her, she was finally able to give some away.

2 Corinthians 12:9 reads: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Grace came from a place of weakness, but she let the Lord use her frailty and mistakes to transform her into the beautiful healer I saw her become that day.

As we prepared to leave the school, I tried to return her bracelet, but she shook her head. Then she leaned into me very closely, placing her hands on my shoulders, pressing her cheek against my cheek, and softly whispered, “You keep. Take with you and make you beautiful, make world beautiful.”

I sat, amazed. I still am really—by her generosity, her gentleness, her tenacity, her humbleness, her… grace.

But isn’t that what grace does? God gave us the gift of his son, to keep with us in our hearts, to carry with us everywhere, to make us beautiful and to make the world beautiful.

When I think of her, I am reminded of the verse Ephesians 2:8—

“For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

This is the part where the humor of God I discussed comes into play.

I was literally saved by the faith of Grace. She gifted me with a bracelet most would pass off as worthless, but it is so very precious to me. I did nothing to deserve or earn her gift, but she gave it anyways, out of love for her new sister in Christ.

Like all things, I believe God planned this run with irony. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were sitting on his throne up in heaven, giggling like Grace at his cleverness– that is certainly what I would be doing if I were him.

I still have the bracelet, by the way. I don’t wear it out for risk of losing it, but it sits on my bedside table as a reminder of Grace and the things she taught me.

When I returned to America, I showed the bracelet to a few of my friends and told them the story of where I had gotten it:

Wait,” one of them said in disbelief. “You got this from a witch doctor?”

I nodded.

“What if it’s, like… cursed?” she asked, wide eyed and completely horrified.

I laughed and thought to myself, “Ah, the sweet curse of Grace—a signature of our comedic God.”

 

I Am Very Busy.

“I AM VERY BUSY.” These are the four little unholy words which fill nearly the entire cover of the planner I use to map out every day, every minute, and every hour of my life. My planner is full and worn. I treat it much like a toothbrush, making use of it routinely.

The crazy thing is, I have never been one to use a planner. In elementary grades, I remember the school providing planners for every student to write their homework in. It was a good idea really: students were unknowingly being conditioned to manage their time and act responsibly in their everyday lives. Still, there were some lazy and… radical students who chose not to participate—myself included. In my third-grade mind though, it did not make sense to take the extra step; I could simply bring my work home and complete it, or I could write it down, bring it home, and complete it. In my eyes, it seemed a nonessential waste of precious time—time which could better be spent playing in the dirt and collecting butterflies, as third grade me loved to do.

In middle school and high school, I bought planners at the start of every year and would pump myself up to use them. Generally I planned for the first few weeks, but by mid-September the book was only taking up space in my locker. I would watch my friends write in their planners, thinking they had it all together, and occasionally I was a bit envious, but most of the time I was relieved. Throughout my Jr. High and High School careers, the planner thing never stuck with me; I simply wasn’t a planner person.

College came and I did not even attempt planning. Only, I forgot some things. Likewise, I had an ever changing work schedule atop the school responsibilities and ended up a bit overwhelmed at everything I had to keep track of. I told myself that if I bought the perfect planner and invested money into one I loved, I would have to use it.

So I did just that. Now I am the proud owner of an oversized eighteen-month planner I use regularly with the four words mortared on the front: “I AM VERY BUSY.” How fantastically annoying they are to me: so bloated and bold, as if standing on my shoulder and shouting into my ear their accusations, defining me so thoroughly.

Of course, I am the one who chose this planner for myself. I invited these words into my life not carelessly, but carefully—which is honestly much worse. I did not just grab the first planner off the shelf either. I researched for weeks and weighed the options of beauty, charisma, and functionality in each of the candidates. I had convinced myself the only way I would truly use it was if it were perfect.

To be fair, this planner I chose is very practical and functional; it has stickers and folders and note sheets and so much room for planning. Undeniably, the insides are wonderful, but the cover is exhausting. I think I selected it because I thought it was funny; and I think I thought it was funny because it was true.

Also, I believe I was tricked by the remainder of the cover. It is all plain, yet cascaded with the most calming and dainty shade of light pink. It is my thought that I was distracted from the bold words by this very color. So now I am left with a giant planner I adore so much, but drives me completely mad every time I go to open it.

I did not always feel this way though. When my planner first arrived, I was taken; the first few months were planned in perfect detail with colored gel ink pens and stickers and washi tape and even a few doodles. Those four words on the cover were like sweet honey to my human soul. I would read them fondly to myself every time I opened it to write down another assignment, meeting, coffee date, etc.

I was very busy. To me, this meant: “I have friends” and “I have the approval of others”, and “I actually have a life”, and “I am (dare I say it)… popular.” The little girl inside of my head was so completely overjoyed at this self-appointed status.

My fondness of this person and this planner did not begin to diminish until another four word phrase began popping up all over the pages of my life, smearing itself thinly enough to cover everything, but maintaining its structure amply enough to ensure I would get the message. Those four little words were “Be still and know.”

Now, I would love to say I understood the message right away, but that would be a complete lie. At first, I said to myself, “Well this is odd. This phrase keeps popping up—it seems like I’m seeing it everywhere lately.” It did not occur to me the reason it seemed as if I had seen it everywhere lately, was because I had.

I went on with my life: planning and doing and rushing around gushing at the fact I had so much to do and so little time to do it. I was dead beat and loving it. The words continued appearing, of course, and I continued pushing them away blissfully.

Then, they began persisting more forcefully. Their appearances were not mere chance encounters, but heavy words selected just for me to have forever. But how was I so sure of this?

In late December, my brain had finally begun to catch up with all the facades. I sat at my family Christmas thinking, “Maybe there is a connection between all of this, or a message I am supposed to take away.” Just as my mind finally started stirring with the idea, I pushed it out again. “This is family Christmas,” I argued with myself. “You can contemplate life’s signals on your own time.” Then my grandma handed me a present. I opened it gracefully.

With care, I pulled out the item inside. It was a canvas of a picture I had taken while traveling, and printed at the top, right in the center, were the delicate words: Be still and know.

As I write this, I cannot help but feel a tad silly. My grandmother could have chosen any four words in the entire history of the world to print on this canvas. There were literally endless amounts of possibilities, but these were the four she chose.

Hebrews 4:12 reads, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Let my negligence be an example of how completely powerful and consuming the tidings of God can be. If He has a message for us, we will receive it no matter how many times he has to say it, spell it out, or even shout it at us, desperately trying to get our attention. His words are more powerful than anything we can entertain our mind with here on earth; they rest on our hearts gently, and make their bubbly presence known even in our bones.

“Okay, God,” I thought, gazing at the canvas in my lap, “I get it. I will listen to you now.”

Only my promise was flawed, because listening to God isn’t the same as obeying God.

As the weeks went on, I understood that I was supposed to “Be still and know”… but I did very little to actually be still, or know.

“Be still?” I thought anxiously. “My mom is not going to like that.”

I would talk with God as if we were the only two sitting in a city coffeehouse on a rainy day.

“Alright God, help me to know, help me to know, help me to know… know what? What is it? What am I supposed to know?” I questioned. I leaned over my latte a bit, awaiting his response. At first, he did not say anything, so I asked again. And again. I droned my questions on and on, over and over, paying no attention to what was going on around me. Finally, his lips moved, but only barely. Was he talking? I couldn’t tell. I leaned further and further and further across the table and—

Well, here’s the thing about a whisper: You gotta get close to hear it.

“…And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a low whisper.” 1 Kings 19:11-12

Sometimes we have to wait for the wind to die down, the quake to pass, and the fire to be put out before we can hear the voice of God. I myself am guilty of forgetting this. I think he will part the heavens and quiet the earth whenever he has something to say, just so I can hear. The reality of God is that his voice is gentle and guiding, and at times barely audible. In fact, his voice may not be a voice at all. Part of me wondered how I was supposed to hear a voice that wasn’t a voice, but the Lord answered again and said, “Be still and know.”

I thought, “Okay, God, but what if the wind doesn’t die down, and the earth quakes forever, and the fire blazes a path between us for all eternity? How am I supposed to hear your voice then?”

Then in the silence, I recognized that which I already knew: more often than not, the wind will not die down, and the earth will quake forever, and the fire of the world will try to separate us.

It is our job to quiet the wind, to still the earth below our feet, and to put out the wild flame of chaos.

The plans I make, the commitments I craft, and the time I spend scheduling my life out in this huge pink planner are constantly taking up room in my heart and mind. My busyness is the wind, the quake, and the fire, and until I dispel those things, I will not be able to hear the still small voice of God.

His whispers are tenderly subtle and require full attention and nearness. Simply, to be near one point, we must move further from all the others. Every one of the worldly affairs we partake in is a point which marks us farther from God, farther from his will, his voice, his love, and his presence.

The more I went to open my planner, to map out my entire life in short sections, and to write my will for every day, placing it on a pedestal of honor, the more it became exhausting, proving strenuously grueling. I was pouring gasoline on the fire, trying desperately to keep it ablaze, but my arms were growing tired and my legs weak. Then God told me to rest, to be still.

Psalm 37:4 tells us, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I always thought it meant God was going to give me the things I wanted. The Bible is full of examples and stories which serve as metaphors, but I believe this is one truth we are to take as literal. Whenever we find our joy, our gladness, our enchantment in him, he will literally bestow upon us new wants; he will delicately place longings and cravings in our hearts.

As I moved closer to him in an attempt to hear his whispers for once, he created the yearning in my heart to rest, to stop, and to sit in his quiet calmness.

The world will tell us it is irresponsible, irrational, even wrong to quit—you must always finish the things you start. In truth, I do not think I have finished half of the things I started in my life. I quit after the third day of sixth grade track season, I quit an elite college program for high school seniors (which I spent the entire summer preparing for) within the first week, I have quit multiple jobs, I have quit friendships and relationships, and guess what? I am completely fine. In fact, I am at peace. Removing all of the clutter weighing heavy on my chest allowed me to breathe again—it allowed me to lean into God and just… be with him.

There is a lovely Italian phrase I find myself doting upon quite often. It is “il bel far niente”, which means: the beauty of doing nothing. And my, is it beautiful. To do absolutely nothing, to quiet the mind and push aside the fears and demands of life and just sit in the stillness, inviting Him to join you—it is magnificent. You may believe you are not allowed to slow down, take a break, or clear the schedule of your life, but I am giving you permission right now. Quit something. Abandon your post if it keeps you up day and night, robbing you of any rest. Vacate the pages of the plan you have carefully calculated for yourself. Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans –Proverbs 16:3.

Eugene Peterson once wrote, “Busyness is an illness of the spirit.” A weak spirit is incapable of serving God, communicating with him, and carrying out his will. In order to be near to God and truly live a life for him, we have to quiet our hearts and our minds, and that begins with quieting our lives.

Say no to another commitment. Look at your calendar with an open heart, asking God to reveal to you the things which need adjusted. Become empty so that you may be filled with the Lord’s presence.

We need to stop overcommitting ourselves to the world and offering whatever is left to God. Society may see we are no longer ensnared in its trap, and it will make an effort to win us back. One of the things I have noticed personally since condensing my commitments, is a handful of people think I am lazy because I say no to commitments and spend so much time sitting, reading, studying, and being present with Jesus. Clearing some time in your schedule will allow a void, but how you choose to fill the void is completely up to you. Time spent with the creator of the universe is not wasted, or shiftless, or meaningless, and you should not feel guilty about it. Prioritize your time just as you do everything else in life.

The only way we will ever hear God’s voice is if we clear the calendar and make time to meet with him. So I invite you to be still awhile in his presence and know, as you rest in peaceful assurance, that he is a wonderful, joyous, exalted, humble, and merciful God.

 

Lobsters, Sunbeams, and Neon Target Signs

For me, this week is the one week of the year I believe people look forward to the most: vacation. We take time off at work, pack up with friends or family, and hit the road leading to rest and relaxation. My family, in particular, is one which prefers to change things up every year. Just for insight, some of our past destinations have included Gulf Shores, Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon, New York City, Yellowstone, and (of course) Walt Disney World. There are six people in my family, all with very different interests, so going to different places and on different types of vacations is the best way to accommodate everyone’s personal idea of a holiday.

This year, my sweet mother spoke up first and said she wanted a real break—a week on the beach to do absolutely nothing except lie in the sand and listen to the waves. The past few years have been filled with travel and museums and exhibits and various city and country landscapes, so this idea sounded like a nice change to us all. After some exploration, Tybee Island came through as the perfect spot—a secluded little island off the coast of Georgia with beautiful white sandy beaches, masses of local eateries, busting culture, and an array of marine life including sea turtles and dolphins.

So here we are… on a gorgeous island whose weather can never be predicted, where seemingly endless amounts of cats run free and the northern, southern, eastern, and western coasts all feel like completely opposite corners of the world. I was excited to soak up some sunshine, try new foods, discover local art (and coffee, let’s be honest) and have a much needed break from the responsibilities of everyday life.

 

IMG_8279 (Thankfully, my local coffee quest was entirely successful.)

 

The vision I had in my head of a perfect beach getaway quickly laughed in my face before continuing to stomp its heels and crush me completely.

Our first day at the beach was seemingly flawless: not too crowded, sunny without a cloud in the sky, hot, but not too hot—even the ocean waves rose immaculately to a summit ideal for jumping and boogie boarding. I lay on my straw mat in the sand sporting a brand new black suit that I was lock, stock and barrel in love with. Sunshine covered me and made me feel warm and relaxed and happy; things could not get better. I rotated from my back to my front to ensure an even tan, and grew more and more comfortable with each minute that passed.

Before I knew it, I heard a conversation mid-progression happening right next to me. Now, this may not seem so alarming to you, but in fact, it was the most terrifying conversation I have ever heard in my life. The context of the discussion was insignificant at best, but with the hearkening comprehension of talk, came the realization of the worst: I had fallen asleep.

Immediately I was awake, and, mind racing, I could not think of anything except the consuming fact that I was hot—so incredibly hot. My insides hurt and my outsides burned with the fiery zeal that I assume the Hawaiian volcanoes are burning with at each burst of lava erupting out their tops. I ran to the water to cool myself down, hoping for once it was as cold as the Northwest Passage. The water felt incredibly soothing in contrast to my scorching body and I found myself wading further and further out until the waves were taller than myself and I was transported to salty, sandy, showery paradise.

Now careless, I jumped the waves laughing and joined my siblings out among the highest waters. What a silly mistake that was. I think my moment of extreme bliss lasted for all of three minutes. With my back to the oncoming waves, I shouted something meaningless ahead to my sister… but the blank and worried look on her face made me quickly turn around.

You know in the surfer movies where the ten-hanging hero has to surf the biggest and most unimaginably unruly wave in all the ocean to save their family name, defeat their enemy, or just prove that they are the best? This was nothing like that. At all.

The wave was quite large, probably the biggest of the day—but instead of being the hero who was ready to paddle under on her board and come up riding gloriously the victor, I was the unfortunate bystander who got in the way of the surfing hero and made him lose his moment of sweet triumph. The wave hit the top of me just seconds before he did, sending me below the water and crashing my already aching body against the bumpy shells of the ocean floor. I was bent into an odd shape from the extreme pressure and power of the water and the tops of my thighs drug along the sharp edged sand for what seemed like forever. Resurfacing, I coughed the water out of my lungs and blew the salt out of my nostrils. Then, looking around I found my sister, also drenched from the wave, and the surfer, soaked and frustrated from having to abandon his nice surf in order to avoid hitting us both. At this point, I gathered that I was actually not looking—I was squinting, because my sunglasses were now somewhere deep in the ocean. I was beyond ready to leave the beach.

On the way back to our condo, we had to stop and buy new sunglasses so that I would be able to actually open my eyes. As I grabbed a few pair and tried them on in the miniscule mirror atop the display, I took notice of a horrific sight: my own reflection.

You look rough,” I said to myself, taking in the sandy, discolored, raw face that stared back at me. My hair looked like it had been struck by lightning while still damp and mascara ran down my cheeks in clumps, and the eyebrows… oh, the eyebrows. I picked the largest pair of sunglasses, to cover up as much of my impressively shameful face as I could.

Just as you can probably guess, the aftermath of my perfect day at the beach was—well, not so perfect. Remember the episode of Friends, “The One With Ross’s Tan?” I was Ross, who kept turning and then forgot to turn and ended up with one side of my body embarrassingly darker than the other. Except, instead of a harmless tan, my backside was burnt to a tender red crisp, resembling a brightly colored lobster—and not the kind of the lovingly eloquent reference by Phoebe Buffay.

The next day, rain ensued. Unable to spend the day on the beach, we elected to explore historic Savannah, Georgia. I had brought a ridiculously cute new outfit just for our day in the city that I was so excited to wear. I will spare you the painfully devastating details of how cute this outfit was in comparison to the outfit I actually ended up wearing, but just know it was a travesty. Because of my superbly severe sun-fried back, I had to wear a lightweight t-shirt and cardigan, paired with my mom’s black maxi skirt to protect my tender pink legs. My rosy forehead, nose, and cheeks shook their stubborn heads at the idea of makeup; my frizzy curls felt like barbed wire against my raw back and demanded to be tied up in a scrunchie. I wasn’t feeling the best about my look, which was…religious, to say the least, but I was not about to completely give up style in the name of comfort: I still had two perfectly adequate feet.

Upon our arrival at the beginning of the week, we made a quick(ish) stop at one of my favorite places—Target. After two days of traveling, that red neon bull’s-eye sign looked so very holy. Technically, we were only making the stop to use the bathroom and get some snack food for our condo, but it’s Target—who could blame a girl for wanting to do a speedy store sweep? Like a kid on Webkinz in 2006, I dug up a lot of gems: an entire outfit off the clearance rack, a new book, some cold brew to go, a yoga strap, and the most adorable pair of cognac summer flats.

My outfit may have been subpar, but my shoes were going to be envied. I put them on confidently and watched as my red toes poked out the ends.

The day was great; I loved Savannah—the atmosphere, the food, the shopping, the culture, the history, and the architecture. However, by the end of our adventures, my heels were screaming in bloody anger. We walked and walked and walked some more, and my glorious Target shoes betrayed me by leaving glowing, enflamed blisters on both of my ankles. I finished the last few blocks not by walking, but by waddling like a full-term pregnant women does when she is entering the emergency room doors ready to give birth. My sunburn was also cackling hysterically by this point, rudely enslaving my mind to its pain.

When we got back to the condo, I collapsed into bed (on my stomach, of course). I rested, drenched in aloe vera and essentials oils, while everyone else hung by the pool. I have never been one to take naps, but that afternoon, I found myself drained—mentally and physically. For hours, I just laid motionless. I read that cold showers helped significantly with sunburn, so I decided to give it a try.

Taking a cold shower is about as easy as it sounds: for someone who loves scalding-hot showers, it was a challenge, but once I got used to the temperature, the icy water felt magical on my back. This somehow turned into the longest shower of my life—and all I did was stand there and let the water run over me. In the midst of this, though, I was able to fully scrutinize myself for the first time. I was messy. And broken. And hurting. And damaged. The discoloration in my legs was remarkable: vivid red and translucent pale, mixed with purplish-green lumps scattered around in the form of a million inconspicuous bruises. The skin around my face looked dark and felt tough—a high contrast from its usually soft pastiness. The portion of my back that wasn’t tomato red shined luminescent. I looked like a ghost who got mugged and left for dead in the desert—frankly, I still kind of do.

Admittedly, I grasped through the agony that the mugger behind the mask was none other than yours truly. I did put sunscreen on, but I did so carelessly, slopping it on last minute and unevenly. I am the one who casually allowed myself to fall asleep. I am the one who wasn’t paying attention to the ocean’s waves and the surfer behind. And I am the one who chose to wear shoes completely impractical for walking around a city.

Of course, I was not meaning to sabotage myself, but I also was not giving enough attention to the things which required it. My choices were reckless and thoughtless and a bit irresponsible, I will admit. I think that all too often, we do self-sabotage out of sheer negligence. Worse yet, instead of confessing to ourselves, we spiral. It is easier to point fingers, blame others or the universe, or even God, for the circumstances at hand. After twenty years of decision and mistake making, I can tell you that the person affected the most by your actions and choices, is you.

As I looked down at myself, I sighed at all of the red wounds that cloaked me.

Red isn’t the color of pain,” I thought, “It’s the color of love, affection, and passion.”

Then I realized something: Love is painful if you neglect it. In the same way my body requires me to look after it, communicate with it, protect it, and care for it, a relationship requires time, attention, and careful nurturing to flourish and remain healthy. If our relationships with one another are painful, it is our obligation to first examine whether or not we are giving them the time and attention they deserve. Instead of assuming others are at fault, our first move should be to assess what we can change for the better. Maybe you don’t even realize you are impairing your own relationships, because it is done haphazardly. I did not intend to damage by body by neglecting its needs, but it happened—and in the same way, ignoring love’s needs will cause it to scorch.

Of course, in every relationship, it takes two. You may not always be completely to blame, but if that is true and the relationship is still painful, you are to blame for not doing anything about it. Unfortunately, it takes a lot longer to mend what is broken than it does to just care for it appropriately in the first place: instead of taking the two minutes to properly apply sunscreen or change into socks and tennis shoes, I spent the entire week nursing my wounds with aloe, ice packs, cold showers, creams, Band-Aids, essential oils, and lots of rest.

It is my personal belief that relationships are only successful when both parties put forth effort and invest in one another. Being among the guilty, I know that it is so tempting to blame the pain on the other person. Here is the thing that finally broke me out of my stubbornness: there is one relationship where I am always at fault.

When the pain and pressure and failure of my relationship with Christ is making me angry with him, I have to remind myself that He is good and He is sovereign, and I am imperfect and blemished. It took me too long to recognize that if my relationship with God was painful, it was no one’s doing but my own. He has set the only truly perfect example of love for us, and He taught us everything we need to know:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7

I was not patient enough to correctly put on sunscreen, or considerate enough to wear more comfortable shoes; I was resentful at my decisions then irritable because of them: that is not love.

Sometimes the reason we find God’s word painful is because it is condemning. While reading His well-known wisdoms on love, I took note of the preceding verse:

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” –1 Corinthians 13:3

So I sit here, laughing at the irony, hoping I have something left to give and a love left to gain, and longing for the day when I simply offer my heart, instead of burning the rest of my body and enduring all of this unnecessary pain.