Sometimes life looks like a stump. Sometimes death seems so dominant, the brown looks so barren, the wood looks so withered that it seems like life in no way can sprout.
And every single one of us has situations or circumstances in our lives that cause us to look like stumps. Those circumstances can be anything from a barren marriage, to a barren womb, to a barren friendship, to barren finances, to a withered wallet. Those situations can be sickness, surgery, depression, or a diagnosis of cancer. But whatever the stump is, it is in area where we say, “Here, way down deep in this part of my heart, my family, my sickness, my past, my present, or my future, there is no possible way life can ever sprout.”
But here’s the thing: stumps are God’s specialty. In God’s economy, stumps are only platforms for real life to sprout. Whenever something looks barren in the physical realm, you can be sure that God is doing work underneath the surface to give life in the spiritual realm.
Several months ago, we drove out to my in-laws’ ranch with some family friends. We had a full day of eating great meals, riding horses, looking at cows, going off of rope swings, and doing all sorts of things you can’t do in the city.
The whole day was full of great memories, but the best memory for me came in the moment I walked by the stump.
I’ve walked by this one particular stump for years. And it’s been exactly that. A brown, dead, dry stump. But it was the strangest thing – this stump had shoots of green, thin branches, and even green leaves sticking out from it. It was so unusual I stopped to take a picture of it.
And I’ve thought about that stump often over the past few months in light of circumstances in my life and in the lives of those I love around me.
Because it looked like the stump I’ve always imagined shooting straight out of Isaiah 11 – “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:1-2).
Jesus was the shoot that came straight from that stump. And His specialty is in the stump business. He brings beauty from ashes. Life from death. Resurrection from crucifixion. Healing from sickness. Redemption from failures. And healing from scars. Sometimes His answer comes in the form of a stump. And looks like a stump. But when Jesus makes His home in someone’s heart, the only option is for life to prevail.
While we are here on this earth, we often don’t get to choose what our circumstances look like on the outside. We don’t get to choose whether or not our sickness is healed, or our spouse remains faithful, or our children are always safe, happy, and secure.
But while we don’t get to choose our circumstances, what we do get to choose is the climate of our hearts. We can choose whether or not we will have hope in a God who promises us that He cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). We can choose that we will trust even though God doesn’t always heal our circumstances, He always heals our hearts through great, deep, wide, long, and high love of Christ (Ephesians 3:17-19). We can choose to believe along with the long line of prophets and saints who have gone before us that “though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet we will exult in the Lord and in the God of our salvation.” We can choose to trust that “He has made our feet like hinds’ feet and He makes us walk on our high places,” even if those places greatly resemble barren stumps (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Sometimes when our circumstances don’t change and our spouse doesn’t listen, or our boss doesn’t listen, or our diagnosis doesn’t listen, it’s tempting to think that our God hasn’t listened. When God doesn’t choose to heal our circumstances, it comes dangerously close to looking like the stump has prevailed. It’s easy to think, “Really, God? What’s the good in this? Where’s the life in the stump?”
But that’s when we have to force ourselves to sit down, open the pages of our Bibles, and remember that we will not be wrestling with stumps forever. One day, we will be fully…alive. And what seemed to us to be such sorrow on this earth will be turned to stunning glory. And the green leaves we see beginning to unfurl out of our hearts and sometimes circumstances here on earth will one day be fruit, ripened to its full and greatest potential.
Stumps stink. But every stump here on this earth in the body of a believer in Christ is simply a holding place for life. And one day, one day, those shoots will burst forth and the stump will be remembered…no more.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” II Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18
(For more on the wait for healing and learning to choose hope in the midst of barren circumstances, look for the bible study Waiting on the Lord which will be released this fall!)
This past school year, I started a new thing with my three oldest girls. I got them each a devotional book and a journal and set up a place in the house for them to have their own time with the Lord in the mornings. I love reading the Bible and praying with my girls for morning devotions, but let’s face it, with four kids, four breakfasts to fix, four lunches to make, and four heads of hair to brush, morning devotions can be more idealistic than realistic when we are running behind (which was practically every Monday and Wednesday morning when the girls went to their on-campus school days).
A couple of weeks before school was out, my oldest, responsible, ruler-follower kind of daughter came in the kitchen and said, very seriously, “Mom, there is something you need to know. Caroline has NOT been having her quiet time in the mornings. Instead of looking at her Bible and drawing a picture about Jesus, she is drawing pictures of herself talking on a cell phone, and she is drawing pictures of hands she says are Jesus’ hands, but they’re not, mom. They are her hands and they have lots of rings and bracelets all over them.”
I am not sure what kind of reaction Lillian was expecting to get out of me (she was so darn serious), but I can assure you she was surprised when I started laughing – so hard, in fact, I started to cry.
And sure enough, I went into the living room where Caroline was sitting, and there she was, coloring a picture of herself talking on a cell phone. Does it count that she had on a cross necklace in the picture?? As I flipped through her journal, I saw picture after picture of hands modeling every kind or ring or bracelet or necklace you could imagine, and lots of self-portraits…all with a cell phone.
So it looks like, once again, I get mom-of-the-year award: 1) for asking my five year old WHO CANNOT READ to lead herself through her own devotional time and 2) for not checking on her progress or even giving her instructions through the entire school year. Too bad I got this information in early May.
But I couldn’t exactly point the finger too far or be too upset with Caroline. Number one, Caroline is just so Caroline. She does what all of us wish we could do deep down on the inside and then looks at you like you are crazy if you ask her why she did it.
And number two, I can so relate. Talking on my cell phone when I should be focused and doing things that actually count. Listening and hearing God’s voice instead of thinking about what new jewelry I would like to wear or shoes I would like to buy. Creating and staring at my self-portrait when God’s portrait is the only one that will bring any significant, lasting, or necessary changes in my life.
Like we’ve talked about before, summer is a great time to add a little extra margin to your day-to-day schedule. When you and I actually have time to sit down and breathe for a moment, choose to do things that are actually helpful and restful. Choose to make a plan and execute it for taking time to be in God’s Word. Choose to think through your prayer life (or lack thereof) and be intentional about connecting with God and creating the time and space to do so. Choose to take a day or two and go away to retreat and rest with the Lord, thinking through the past school year, what you would do differently for this next year, and what you would keep the same. But whatever you are doing, however you are choosing to connect with the Lord, take a lesson from Caroline and learn to BE ALL THERE.
Focus on fixing your thoughts. Fight to resist all distractions. Because nothing, nothing in this world will help you or point you towards connection with the Lord or being fully present in the moments you have given Him. Everything pulls us away from the very thing and the only thing that gives us the life and peace and joy that we really need.
A friend of mine told me about a sign she saw in someone’s house. It read, “Be Present, Not Perfect.” That has become a mantra for me, a motto I think about frequently.
No one expects perfection from myself except myself – but what my husband, my children, my parents, my friends, and especially my God desire is for me to be all in, all there, all present, whatever moments we have together.
Instead of working on being perfect people, let’s work on being present people. Present moms. Presents wives. Present daughters. Present friends. Present women to a very present God.
It’s hard to believe, but we are coming up on the year mark of our adoption. I’m not sure what I thought I would feel after one year, but the overwhelming emotion I have on most days is thankfulness. Thankfulness that we all made it to this point and are still standing. Thankfulness that we all know each other, like each other, and are learning to love each other like real families do. Thankful that after two and a half long years of waiting, I know her, she knows me, and we both like each other. A lot. Thankfulness, as I love to tell her often, that “Out of all the babies in the world, God gave me you.”
Because for so long, for over two years, there was always so much uncertainty. Who would our child be? What would she look like? Would I ever have enough courage to make it through the piles of paperwork to even get a child? If we did, what kind of medical needs would she have, and what kind of surgery would be involved? What would her temperament be like? Would she be a cryer, a tantrum thrower, tough as nails, or solemn and sweet? What was her story and how much trauma had she endured? How would my biological children adjust? The questions, anxieties, and uncertainties were endless. But here we stand almost one year later with a trip to China behind us, a mound of paperwork in our past, and Mia Grace Baker in our arms as a permanent part of our family.
But as I think back over the past year, if thankfulness is our primary emotion, becoming has been our primary action.
What I mean is this: there was a moment in time, a singular moment in time, when LingYu Xu, legal ward of the Chinese government, was brought out of a back room with a curtain, clutching a kleenex in one hand and a tiny shovel in the other hand, her head drenched with sweat, and placed into my arms.
In that moment, that singular moment, LingYu Xu became Mia Grace Baker and instantly went from orphan to adopted, alone to surrounded, and abandoned to beloved. She went from having no one claim her as their own to two parents, three sisters, four grandparents, ten aunts and uncles, nine cousins, twenty five neighbors and a host of beloved friends and wonderful extended family clamoring to hold her and love her as their own. She was welcomed in in every sense of the word in a display of love that still makes my heart swell with thankfulness.
But as much as Mia Grace became our daughter in a single moment through the gift of adoption, Mia Grace had to become our daughter over the past year through the gift of adoption. And that was something I was not quite prepared for. It sounds ridiculous now to even admit it. I mean, how could I have expected a child who had a revolving door of caretakers, never heard one word of English, nor seen a white person to instantly trust a woman with pale skin who looked nothing like her and spoke in a strange dialect to trust me as her primary caregiver and mother?
But as strange as it sounds, I think I did expect this instantaneous bond of deep affection and trust to occur. But that bond is something both Mia Grace and I have had to work hard on this past year. I never knew it would be so painful to have someone who calls you “Momma” to reject dependence on you at the most basic of levels. To stuff and hoard food in her mouth and refuse to swallow. To refuse to let me hold her bottle and hold on tightly with her two little hands while pushing my hands away. To refuse to face me in the rocking chair and snuggle in and demand to always face outward, a position she can control while monitoring the room and keeping a safe distance away from me.
She had no idea in her little seventeen month old self how hard her independence was on a momma’s heart. But she wasn’t in daughter mode. She was in survival mode. She was in abandoned-orphan mode, even though she had been adopted. And because of that, Mia Grace had to learn how to become.
And she has come so far. In less than a year, as long as I have read the requisite two books before nap time or bedtime, she will face inward and let me rock her for a long, long time. She still refuses to close her eyes or fall asleep in my arms and let go of complete control, even if I know she’s exhausted. But hey, I will take what I can get. After a year, she will actually eat and swallow about four or five bites of meat or a protein before stuffing the rest in her mouth and make me fish it out an hour later, but a quarter of a hot dog is better than no hot dog at all. After a year, she will approach me from the front to give me a hug instead of only feeling comfortable enough to hug from behind. After a year, she has stopped reaching up and out for strangers to hold her and is content to be in mommy’s arms.
But we still have a long way to go, and as I have said before, orphan habits like control, fear, independence, and survival die hard. They’re a lot like that little shovel she came out clutching so tightly in her hand in China. After several days of holding the shovel, eating with the shovel, and sleeping with the shovel, I finally had to pry it out of her hands. I don’t think she held on to the shovel because it was a great toy or help to her throughout her day. I think she held on to it because it was the last familiar thing she took in her hands from the orphanage. She held on to it because it was comfortable and familiar. Orphan habits are a lot like that. It’s not that they’re so great, or so fun to play with, or helpful to us throughout daily life. It’s just that they are the last familiar remnants we hold on to from the orphanages we once knew and called “home.”
Just like Mia Grace, I have orphan habits too. In fact, perhaps the hardest part of adopting Mia Grace has been the way that she has made me look at my own orphan habits. And in order to help her put her habits and control tendencies aside, I’ve had to put mine aside first. And if I’m honest, that’s been really hard to do. To make her stop trying to control, I try to control right back. And trust me – I’ve learned this one from experience – you can’t fight control with control. Someone always ends up broken in the process. You have to fight control with humility and love. When she begins to act out in fear, I have to help her go back to the place where the train derailed, back to the point in her heart and mind where she was left and abandoned by the two people on planet earth who were never meant to abandon her, and help that place of derailment, unhealthy independence, and lack of trust heal. Through trust. Love. Patient words. Slow responses of healing and empathy instead of quick reactions of anger. And that is so tough to do for someone who is a recovering control addict herself.
All year I have pondered and meditated on the helpful words from Henri Nouwen in his book, Life of the Beloved: “If it is true that we not only are the Beloved, but also have to become the Beloved; if it is true that we not only are children of God, but also have to become children of God…how then can we get a grip on this process of becoming?…Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do…What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life. Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about, and doing from hour to hour.”
Becoming the Beloved of God is hard. When all you can hear are the voices of failure whisper their way through your day, it is so hard to believe, I mean really believe, you are the Beloved, the beautiful, and the valuable of God. Becoming the Beloved takes intense focus, concentration, and consistency in training our ears to listen to the Voice of the One who loves us, made us, and calls us His own. And just as I have needed time and grace to become the Beloved of God and to pull the truth of who I am into the rhythms and specific realities of everyday life, Mia Grace has needed that time and grace too to become my daughter in the daily rhythms of everyday life.
So one year in, both Mia Grace and Mommy are still working on becoming children instead of orphans – me a child of God, and Mia Grace a child of mine. But we are learning, she and I. We are learning how to become, how to rise up from set backs, how to recover from falls, how to say “I’m sorry” when we’ve failed, and how to believe God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose as His Beloved.
Motherhood is tough. Especially motherhood in the younger years when everyone is in diapers and needs a hand, needs help, and needs Momma! Sometimes (or, let’s face it – all the time!) mothers of toddlers and newborns need direct and special encouragement from the Lord that the work they are doing is significant, does not go unnoticed, and will not be in vain, no matter how many times your two-year-old has thrown himself on the floor today and yelled, “Mine!” I can’t think of a better person to provide that encouragement than Margaret Austin. I met Margaret five years ago when she was pregnant with her firstborn, and it was instant love, connection, and admiration for this dear friend! In the past five years, Margaret and her husband, Thomas, have moved ten times because of Thomas’ career in the NFL, and Margaret birthed three babies in that time period – Adam (4 years old), Isaiah (2 years old), and Hazel (9 weeks old). After watching and admiring Margaret, I’m pretty sure NFL wives are just as tough as their husbands! In the past year and a half, Thomas has transitioned from playing football in the NFL to coaching football at Clemson in South Carolina. Yet through all of the moving, transition, babies, and change, Margaret has remained…Margaret. She is beautiful, bold, never afraid to tell you like it really is, but never afraid, either, to obey the Lord and walk in obedience that path He has for her (even when it hurts). Over the past five years, Margaret has made God more real and beautiful to me, and I know she will do the same for you as she shares encouragement straight from her heart and straight from the trenches of toddlerhood.
Hi friends. Margaret Austin here, friend of Susannah. I got to know Susannah when my husband Thomas played for the Texans from 2011-2012. God placed Susannah and Jason in our lives at a time when we knew no one and desperately needed some friends! They had us over for a meal & we instantly loved them. I guess they loved us too because they let lonely me come over and spend the night quite often when Thomas was playing in away games, and we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with them that year. Susannah was such a dear friend to me, especially as I had our first son while we were living in Houston. She let me tag along on playdates, bible studies, & swim lessons.
Thomas and I got to know Bernie better when we lived in Charlotte, NC as he resides just outside of Charlotte. After we moved to Clemson, South Carolina last year for my husband to coach football, Bernie flew down for lunch with a fellow Seed Company employee. He flew down for lunch again last week.
I’d been texting Susannah just a few days before to pray for my patience as a mother. I felt tired and discouraged and very, very impatient with my 2 active boys, my 7 week old daughter, and mostly impatient with myself. When Thomas drove up with Bernie and Kirk, I was having a rough day. In fact, I didn’t even make lunch for them this year–I was recycling a baby meal that someone brought over the night before! I was feeling weary of motherhood, trapped at home with a nursing infant, envious of my friends who seemed to have more freedom and less baby weight on their bodies. My boys seemed to spend the first half of our lunch disobeying and being disciplined. They finally went inside for naps, and I felt like I could breathe and focus on our lunch guests. I hadn’t had time to say much during lunch besides, “Sit on your bottom. Eat your food. Don’t touch your brother. NO, you can’t have your paci until you eat your vegetables. Stop poking the baby’s nostril.”
But Bernie (and the Holy Spirit) knew just what my tired soul needed. Bernie started talking and he didn’t come up for air for about 15 minutes. He began telling me he admired me?! What on earth would an 84 year old man who spent his life doing important work for the Lord have to admire about a worn out stay at home mom? Bernie told me that he wanted me to know that my work as a mother was important, that I had no idea how God would use my children in the coming years or how my work might come to fruition. He told me that he’d struggled when his family lived in the jungle with whether or not he was doing the right thing for his family, living in such extreme circumstances. He’d wanted a comfortable, 9-5 life at times. But he’d pressed on and continued because this was where he felt God calling him.
This was especially encouraging for me to hear as I often struggle with wishing my husband would be called to a 9-5 job rather than one that requires him to work extremely long hours for parts of the year. Often I question if this job is family friendly, if our kids will turn out alright with daddy gone so much during certain times of the year and they are stuck at home with a frazzled, selfish mommy. But Bernie reminded me that if we have been called by God, He will equip us and our work will be our ministry. “Full time ministry!” he said. “What is full time ministry and who came up with the phrase anyway?! All of life is full time ministry, no matter what God calls you to do professionally.”
By the time Bernie left, I had tears in my eyes and a very grateful heart. My husband was amazed at God’s timing, as he knew I needed a special dose of encouragement that afternoon. Bernie left me with a copy of a letter he’d recently written to his children regarding his wife’s painful illness, outlining what he was learning through it all. In the letter he wrote, “Is this really an ‘opportunity for great joy?’ If so how do we get that joy? The answer is to realize that joy is a choice, an opportunity. This disease wasn’t the opportunity we were looking for but for sure one God has given us. Joy is a choice that we can make…we can choose to surrender all we are and have to Him and trust Him completely. And we can choose joy even in troubled times.”
Bernie told me that he had been watching me over the years of our wild ride with football, and that he admired how my faith had fueled my works, and that my works would be in vain if not for Christ. Well Bernie, right back atcha. I pray I am faithfully staying the course if the Lord allows me to live until I am 84. Until then, I will leave you with the words of this song Bernie shared with me:
It will be worth it all when we see Jesus,
Life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ;
One glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase,
So bravely run the race till we see Christ.
Sometimes the sky looks dark with not a ray of light,
We’re tossed and driven on, no human help in sight;
But there is one in heav’n who knows our deepest care,
Let Jesus solve your problem – just go to Him in pray’r.
Life’s day will soon be o’er, all storms forever past,
We’ll cross the great divide, to glory, safe at last;
We’ll share the joys of heav’n – a harp, a home, a crown,
The tempter will be banished, we’ll lay our burden down.
When We See Christ, by Esther Kerr Rusthoi