Sometimes I struggle.
Well, let’s be honest. A lot of times I struggle.
And my struggle doesn’t always make sense. Meaning, there’s nothing in my life I can look at and say, “This is a really hard situation or circumstance.”
But sometimes I wake up feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders and a hundred pounds on my chest. I look ahead at the events of the day and think, “All of those things are up to me. If I don’t do them, who will? If I don’t stay on top of it, turning and churning out tasks, how will I keep everyone and everything from falling through the cracks?”
And if I’m honest, the struggle behind the struggle is that I feel like it’s all up to me to make God pleased with me – to blog a certain number of times, to wake up at a certain hour, to use my time in effective, wise ways, to run my household in a God-honoring way.
And I recognize about myself that I have a lot of expectations in life. I expect and demand great things from myself as well as from those around me. I really have to work hard at resting…taking a deep breath…believing God is pleased with me not because of my efforts, which are never enough, but because of His grace, which is more than enough.
But I have also come to realize that some of my struggle is due to the depression that is a very real factor in my life. I have struggled off and on with depression for almost as long as I can remember. And while for many years of my life, I have seen depression as a tool of the enemy, something dysfunctional, faulty, something inherently wrong and broken in me, something to wrestle into submission and beat into obedience through changing habits or mindsets, I am coming to see it as a gift from God.
Because it just hasn’t gone away. Yes, there are moments, or days, where it is better, but for the most part, depression stays with me, and I wake up every day with the burden of keeping it at bay.
But no matter how many Bible verses I memorize, or how many times I change my routine, or how long I spend in prayer, God has allowed seasons of depression to remain. So lately, rather than despise it, and beat myself up about it, I’ve been trying to embrace it. Meaning, I’ve been trying to see it through a different lens.
Because I am a wandering soul, a soul bent on pride and independent goals and living when left to my own demise. I despise dependency and weakness. I want to hold the map of my life in my own hands and navigate the course my own way. And the prospect of handing the map over to anyone else, choosing to follow their lead, is a terrifying thing.
But what if depression is God’s grace-disguised tool in my life to force me to hand Him the map? What if it’s His way of saying, “Baby, I know you want to walk your own steps and tell me where you’d like to go, but I can see far ahead, and that is a path of certain destruction. I’d like to take you a different way that will lead to certain blessing, love, and life, but it’s a way where you are going to have to learn to follow. To be dependent. To trust. To pry your hands off the map and take hold of my hand instead.” What if?
So this season, I am using my time to learn to pry my hands off of the map. That might mean going to see a doctor. That might mean going to see a counselor. That might mean sleeping and resting more and checking fewer things off of my list. That might mean handing over my map. (Scary. Very scary).
But one thing I do know – it means feeding on His faithfulness.
Because check this out – I’ve read Psalm 37 hundreds of times in my life. It’s been one of my favorite Psalms to pray for years. But I’ve never noticed until a few weeks ago that while verse 3 says, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness,” the literal translation of the verse is, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness” (emphasis mine).
In other words, it’s not up to me to cultivate or produce anything – a happy heart, a joyful attitude, a bounce in my step, productivity in my day, or success in my plans. My job is just to feed on His faithfulness. Faithfulness that has gone before me and stretched out in front of me like nourishing, green pastures ready to fulfill the deepest of needs and longings in my heart.
What about you? Are you like me? Carrying around the weight of a thousand pounds on your shoulders? Trying to pull it together enough every day just so you or someone you love doesn’t fall through the cracks? Trying to put on a brave enough face so that someone, mainly God, will be proud of you?
Sister, put your load down. Take a seat right next to me here on my bench in a green pasture. And feed on His faithfulness. On what He has accomplished for you, done on your behalf, every step of your path through life. Your job isn’t to chart out your way; it’s to hand over the map and follow the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.
I don’t know what your particular struggle is – it can be a tough marriage, a tough friendship, a tough child, a fresh wound or an old one that’s been a thorn in your side for years. But whatever it is, stop fighting it, and surrender by handing over the map and seeing the circumstances and struggles of your life as pastures in which to feed on God’s faithfulness.
It’s not up to you to have to beat back the thorn or wrestle it into submission; it’s up to you to surrender to the sufficiency of His grace that comes precisely because of the thorn He’s allowed.
This morning I got up early (thanks, babe, for leaving the bathroom light on and door open at 5:00am), and spent some time in God’s Word before listening to one of my favorite songs of all time.
I’m warning you – the song is old school. It comes right out of a 1950’s Billy Graham crusade. But I cannot listen to it without crying. Because the words are all just so true. More than I want my depression lifted, more than I want fame, more than I want wealth, or a life that looks or acts exactly like I want it to, more than a map that gives me the path I want to take, I want Jesus. Because He is the fullest expression of God’s faithfulness that this heart has ever known, and without Him, I am lost. And you are too.
So take a moment and listen to an old song with a timeless message. Tell Him more than you want the thorn out, you want His grace pressed in to help you feed on His faithfulness no matter the circumstances.
Then take His hand, follow Him along the path, and feed in His pasture. A journey with Jesus that surpasses your greatest expectations is waiting. You’ve just got to hand Him the map you’re holding and trade it for His hand in yours.
“Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light
And your judgment as the noonday.”
Perhaps the question I am asked the most often by others is, “What’s going on in that head of yours?” Because I am always. Thinking. Lost in the thoughts in my head, much to the wonderment of those around me.
It’s annoying, really. I wish I could just turn off my brain at times and stop thinking, delving, turning things around me from all angles. But, for better or for worse, that’s just the way I am wired. So, this week, I thought I would let you know what I’ve been turning around in my head – and, brace yourself, it’s the high and lofty topic of scars. (You’re probably never going to ask me again what’s going on in this head of mine.)
And I have to confess, I love a good scar.
Ever since I was a kid, I used to hope that the scratch on my leg or cut on my arm would turn into a scar. That’s so weird, I know. And there’s probably some scary psychological reason why I like scars. But on a surface level, without giving much more thought to any deeper layers, I like scars because I like good stories. And every scar tells a story.
My most notable scar is on my right knee. I was a freshman in high school and decided to run track. Hurdles, to be exact. And my very first track meet was at a school with an asphalt track. The black, tarry kind of track with the little black rocks that get stuck in the soles of your tennis shoes.
The gun went off, and I started my race around the track, only to hook my back leg over the top of the hurdle and eat it, knee first, into the asphalt track beneath me. I had to be carried off the track with an oozing wound and little black rocks stuck in my knee, and that ended my career with the hurdles. The only good thing that came from the fall was a scar that healed over time and makes a good story to those who ask.
My husband Jason uses a scar on his back to tell small children that he was bitten by a shark. (He wasn’t, but the way the scar healed sure looks like he was, and now there are dozens of small children all over the city of Houston who believe Mr. Baker was bitten by a shark. They also believe that he ate a snake in order to win an iPad, which is actually a true story, one I will have to tell another time.)
But in addition to the stories they tell, I think I also like scars so much because they are a reminder in a world where we are so darn fragile, tiny, and small, that while we are destined to fall, we are also made to heal and live to tell our story. And if our skin can heal in amazing ways, then perhaps our hearts can heal as well.
I was reminded of my affinity for scars recently when a friend of mine’s little girl was running through a hallway and split her forehead open on a doorknob. The wound turned out to be worse than was initially realized, and after an attempt at gluing the cut, several trips to the doctor, and then finally, stitches, my friend was having a hard time with the whole experience. She wasn’t upset about the fact that her daughter fell, or needed stitches, or even the pain involved; she was upset that she had not known how to handle the situation correctly from the get-go. She was grieved that she had caused potential harm to her daughter by not taking the right course of action from the beginning and could have caused her daughter a deeper and more serious scar.
As we talked through it, we both realized that the incident with the doorknob wasn’t even so much about the scar as it was about the story the scar told – that as parents, we don’t always make the right or perfect decisions for our children. That we can do things that cause them to hurt. Or fall. Or carry a scar. And that is just plain, downright terrifying.
Because if there is one thread that unites all mothers of the world together, it is this: we never want to do anything, intentionally or unintentionally, that causes our children to carry a scar. We shudder at the thought of scars of the flesh or scars of the heart caused by…us.
But let’s face it: there isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t ended up in the ER or on a counselor’s couch because of a parent’s imperfections. And just to be clear – I am NOT talking about trips to the ER or wounds inflicted because of physical abuse. There is never an excuse for abuse – physical, emotional, or verbal. But I am talking about the kind of wounding that occurs just because we are broken, fallen people who live in a broken, fallen world and cannot always know how to make the perfect decisions for our children.
We are all, all of us, going to fail our children on some level. And that’s a tough pill to swallow.
But here’s the thing: our scars tell our stories. And if we let them, our scars remind us of the lessons we have learned from the great teacher and tutor of pain and the healing and redemption we have received at the hands of our Great Physician.
Because our scars make our stories stronger, not weaker. And they make us relatable to other people. They enable us to look at another hurting soul and say, “You have a wound like that too? Let me tell you where and how I found healing.”
Take Mia Grace for instance. She has a scar that runs from the bottom of her nose to the top of her lip, a scar that was made because of the surgery for her cleft lip and palate. And because of her cleft lip, she is destined for more surgeries and more scars in the future.
As a cute-as-a-button four-year-old who knows she is cute, her scar has never bothered her. She has never once looked in the mirror and said, “I don’t like that scar or how it makes my face look. I hate that scar.”
But I’ve spent some time thinking about how that scar will affect her when she is fourteen. Or twenty-four. She might not be so blind to or casually dismissive about it. And her scar might have the potential to harm her self-image, depending on the story she chooses to believe.
The first story, the true story, goes like this: “Mia Grace, you were born to a mommy and daddy in China who were unable to care for you the way you were meant to be cared for. When they saw you had a cleft lip and palate, they thought the government could do a better job caring for you than they could, so they took you to an orphanage where you would have the surgery you needed and hopefully be adopted by a family who had more resources than they did to care for you. The very thing that gave you a scar gave you to us, your adopted family. God used that scar for His redemptive purposes in your life, and I, for one, am more thankful for that scar than you could ever imagine. Your scar is part of what makes you and your story so beautiful to me.”
But there is a second story, a story she is going to have to work hard not to listen to, and it goes like this: “Mia Grace, you were born to parents who did not want you and abandoned you at birth. You were left at a government orphanage because of your cleft lip and palate, and your scar is a perpetual reminder of the fact that you were un-wanted. Un-desired. Un-beautiful.”
You see, our scars tell us our stories, but we have to choose what story we are going to listen to. But, when we know and are known by the Lord Jesus Christ, we have to learn how to let Him tell us the story of our scars through the lens of the truth – through the lens of His redemption, adoption, goodness, glory, and grace.
And as parents, that’s what we must trust about our children’s scars, even the scars we inadvertently make. They are holy ground upon which the Lord loves to tread, and they have the ability to tell our children something true, right, and beautiful about their past, present, and future as the children of God.
Today, or this week, consider writing out the narrative of your scars or even your children’s scars. Like I did for Mia Grace, write out two different narratives – the truth and then the lie you are tempted most often to believe. And then listen, actually listen, to the narrative of the truth that has the ability to set you free and heal you from the inside out as you look at your scars.
Because while we would love to set up ourselves and our children for a life without scars, we must remember that there is always life in our scars, beginning with the scars bound up in our Healer’s hands. For the Hands that hold us are scarred as well, scars caused by a good Father who allowed His One and Only Son to be crucified so that we could find life in our own scars every time we look, and listen, to the One who works all things for our greatest good, and His greatest glory, even through, and especially through, our scars.
If you are anything like me, walking through this week has been a little dreary. I don’t know if it’s the dreary skies, or the thought of tackling the dreary tasks sitting piled high on my desk, or having to do the same-old same-old daily routines when all I want to do is get on the next airplane to a sunny beach somewhere, but I’ve just been itching this week to get out of the drearies and into something exciting, fresh, new, or grand.
But this time of year, after Christmas has passed, after the newness of New Year’s has come and gone, and before spring steps through the door and we take a break from our daily routines through spring break or Easter, we just have to keep walking and keep stepping through the drearies. We have to look back at all the things we purposed to do in January, the resolutions we made and now, just a few weeks later, need dusting off, and keep stepping in the right direction, trusting that a fresh wind is coming and going to blow right through the dreariness of February into the newness of March.
This week, I was invited to write a guest post on my friend, Marian Ellis’ blog, and since she is one of the women I love, admire, and respect most in this world, I eagerly said, “Yes!”
For over fifteen years now, Marian has stepped up to the plate of taking the gospel to college-aged women, using her story of redemption to invite a generation into tasting the goodness of Jesus.
She is a gifted speaker, author, and one of the most authentic people I know, so after you read the blog, check out other parts of her website and ministry and get ready to be challenged and encouraged to step out of your dreariness into the goodness and excitement of what Jesus is doing all over the country and the globe through Redeemed Girl Ministries.
Here is the link to the post for this week – www.redeemedgirl.org/how-god-measures-success
May it encourage you to keep stepping and keep moving, knowing the Lord has just what you need to battle the dreariness and hold out hope that the newness of spring is on its way.
Valentine’s Day is just one day away, and while it isn’t categorized as a “major” holiday like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, it is still a holiday. And holidays have this strange ability to highlight in our hearts all that we’re not as opposed to all that we are, or all that we don’t have as opposed to all that we do.
For instance, on Christmas, we can tend to focus on all the gifts that we don’t have as opposed to all the gifts we do. Or on Thanksgiving we can dwell on who isn’t around our table as opposed to who is. And on Valentine’s Day, we can focus on the ways we aren’t loved instead of the ways we most certainly are. And you don’t have to be intentionally or unintentionally celebrating Valentine’s Day to feel this way. Certain feelings just pop up uninvited, in untimely places – like passing the card aisle at the grocery store. Or overhearing a conversation about what so-and-so is doing on Valentine’s Day and comparing your ho-hum schedule. Or listening to how so-and-so’s husband brought her a card, flowers, and a gift while cooking the whole family a special dinner, while your husband forgot the whole darn day even existed.
But let me offer a word of hope and encouragement for the day of the celebration of love that is just one day around the corner. While romantic love is a part of the celebration of Valentine’s Day, it certainly does not make up the whole. It is simply a side course to the main course of the all-consuming, life-creating, soul-sustaining love of God.
It is a love that enables us to walk confidently through any and every life circumstance, no matter if our hearts are rejoicing or breaking. And that is the love I want to focus on this Valentine’s Day.
When I was in college, my grandmother sent me a bookmark with these words on it: “You are a fragrance of God to those who are in need and a sweet aroma of the one of God in this place.” The words are a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 which read, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
It is a bookmark I still have and use, and the words on it hold a special place in my heart.
But while I have had the bookmark for over twenty years now, the words took on new and special meaning a few weeks ago.
My daughter Caroline, the same daughter from last week’s blog (click here to read more), came home a few weeks ago and said, “Mom, I’ve made a new friend, and I told her about Jesus, but I don’t know if she has a Bible. Can I get her a Bible and give it to her?”
After saying “Yes!” as fast as I could, I drove Caroline to the store and helped her select a Bible for her new friend. As she brought it home and time wrapping her gift, I thought, “Why don’t I do this myself more often? With my friends, with the people God brings across my path on a day in, day out basis, why am I not more bold and purposeful about sharing and spreading the beautiful fragrance of Christ?” Because, really, let’s face it – is there any other fragrance sweeter, any other expression of love truer, than telling our friends about the ultimate love that will hold them and ground them and never let them go, no matter what in life they will walk through?
Several days after Caroline bought the Bible and journal for her new friend, I went to a store to return some perfume I received as a gift for Christmas. The saleswoman in the store could not have been more helpful or kind. She spent time with me helping me select a new fragrance and then showed me how to apply it so that it would last. First, she had me wash my hands, then she applied the scent to my wrists and tops of my hands, and then finally, she massaged lotion onto my hands that was the same scent as the perfume. The lotion, she explained, was the key that would lock in the scent. (Who knew there were so many steps to applying perfume?!)
And she was right. The rest of the day, every time I used my hands to gesture, emphasize, “speak,” or serve in one way or another, a sweet fragrance greeted my nose. I have never enjoyed the scent of my hands more. And it was a scent that lasted all day.
And I thought, “Isn’t this how my life in Christ should be?” Every time we use our hands in His Name, there is a fragrance, a scent of His unfailing love. Every time we “speak,” a scent wafts up to the nose of the one who is listening, and we have an opportunity to “speak” of Christ, simply by the fragrance of our hands.
So here is my challenge to us this Valentine’s Day: instead of focusing on all that we’re not, let’s focus on all that we are. And if you know Christ as your Lord and Savior, two things are clear: number one, you are loved with a love that will not let you go. And more than that, you are Christ’s beloved. Because as we all know deep down in our hearts, it’s one thing to be loved, but it’s another thing to be someone’s beloved, cherished as the apple of their eye. And in Christ, we have that confidence: we are the beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And number two: as His beloved, you are His fragrance. And wherever you go, you spread the sweet aroma of Him, His fragrance in every place.
So here’s the practical part of my challenge: after knowing who you are, purposefully go and be that fragrance in someone’s life. Because someone in your path today, this week, needs the Word of God, calling them, reminding them, telling them that through relationship with Christ, they are Christ’s beloved too. So like Caroline, as an expression of great love towards a friend, give someone a Bible, the greatest love letter of all time. It might feel awkward, it might feel weird, you might wonder if your relationship with that person will ever be the same, but why would you and I ever withhold a fragrance from someone’s life that can change them forever from the inside out?
Isaiah 55:10-11 reminds us, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
God’s Word does not, in fact cannot, return void or empty. It will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. Caroline gave her friend a Bible like this – it’s a great option for adults or children. And if you aren’t sure who in your life to give God’s Word to, just ask. Ask the Lord to show you exactly who the person is, and wait on His perfect timing this Valentine’s Day. I think you will be amazed at just how specifically and clearly He answers.
And as you wait this week and give your hands in loving service to be the fragrance of Christ to someone else, that same sweet fragrance will come in and refresh and restore your own soul every time the are not’s and the have not’s hit you unawares.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you, our Great, Good God’s beloved.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, I’ve been thinking about all different kinds of love – love in marriage, love in friendship, love in relationship with God. While we often spend lots of time thinking about love within marriage or in our relationship with God, past the age of about twenty-two, we don’t usually spend much time thinking about love within friendship. It’s a topic often relegated to our younger years.
But friendship is an important topic because it is such an important part of our lives. And recently, no one has taught me more about friendship than my daughter, Caroline, and her constant compadre, Tess (also known as “Dr. Phil” when it comes to relationships in Caroline’s world – click here to read about that from last week’s blog).
Tess Tredennick, affectionately known as “Tessy” around our house, is one of my favorite people on the planet. She’s about four feet tall, has a tangle of blonde curls that always look like they may or may not have been brushed, wears cute purple glasses, and never does anything without a leap, skip, laugh, skid, or cartwheel.
Like my daughter Caroline, Tess is seven years old, and for as long as I can remember, Caroline has called Tess her “twin.” Whenever her sisters try to correct her (and trust me, lots of correcting goes on over here with two big sisters because what in the world would we do without their wise and insightful direction in our lives?), Caroline says with passion (she doesn’t really say things without passion), “Tessy IS TOO my twin! I’ve known her since before we were BORN, and I LOVE her!” Obviously, Caroline has a lot to learn about the birds and the bees, but for now, to her, being a twin means knowing and loving someone since before they were born and loving them still just as much seven years down the road.
Caroline and Tess celebrated their first birthday together along with their friend Gray, and they have had almost every birthday party together since.
I think what amazes me the most about these two is that they don’t seem to see or at least dwell on each other’s faults or imperfections. They see each other through rose-colored glasses, loving and accepting each other exactly as they are. And they have always been that way. I can’t remember a time when Caroline didn’t love Tess and Tess didn’t love Caroline. And when they are together, I never have to intervene or referee and blow the whistle or pull one aside and have “the talk” about how one needs to include the other one. They always seem to be completely content in each other’s presence. And when Tessy leaves town, well, life just isn’t quite the same…
That amazes me. I think partly because I remember having a best friend like that when I was little – a friend who could do no wrong, and every available second I wanted to spend in her presence. And partly because somewhere along the way as women, we begin to see each other through jaded, green, envy-colored glasses instead of rosy, I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are kind of glasses.
I’m not sure why or when that transition happens, but it’s a transition that I’ve been trying to undo or fight against now for years. Because as women, our natural, sin-cursed inclination (thank you, Eve) is to see what people are not doing, or not saying, or not being as opposed to embracing exactly who they are, where they are, and with what they are able to offer.
So the past few years I have been taking lessons from Tessy and Caroline and working on trying to come alongside my friends, instead of standing from far off envying, coveting, and viewing life through the lens of a closed circle instead of an open one (click here to read more on that).
Caroline and Tess have also reminded me in a season of life where the needs and wants of family seem to take up every waking moment that friends are not “icing on the top” reserved for dessert and special occasions, but my friends are the necessary stuff of everyday life. The course that goes in the plain, smack-dab middle instead of reserved for special occasions or time at the end. They have given me permission to stay present and enjoy and delight in my friends when there is always the possibility of choosing to complete one more task instead of practicing the presence of people. And that’s been a necessary lesson for a task-driven, tight-margin momma like me to learn during this season of life with four young children.
None of us have time or space for playdates and sleepovers like we did when we were little, but all of us need to be reminded of the necessity and delight of weaving our friends into the everyday fabric of our lives. Because in modern times, friendship, as CS Lewis writes in his book, The Four Loves, has become “something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one’s time. How has this come about?…Friendship is – in a sense not at all derogatory to it – the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary. It has least commerce with our nerves; there is nothing throaty about it; nothing that quickens the pulse or turns you red and pale…Without Eros none of us would have been begotten and without Affection none of us would have been reared; but we can live and breed without Friendship. The species, biologically considered, has no need of it…but few value [friendship] because few experience it.”
In other words, friendship doesn’t cause anything warm or fuzzy to rise up in us like romance, or give us anything back like the love of a child. Friendship requires you to give the most with the least likely promise of reward or return. In other words, friendship requires risk. But friendship also offers great reward.
“Friendship, unlike Eros [Romantic love], is uninquisitive. You become a man’s Friend without knowing or caring whether he is married or single or how he earns his living. ..In a circle of Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares two-pence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for a anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship…Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).
In friendship, we have the opportunity to love and be loved simply for who we are, no strings attached. Not because of what we can give someone or what they can give us. But simply because we stand side by side and and see and love the same truth. “You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).
And as we live and fight and read and pray side by side, friendship also teaches us to love not for the sake of getting anything back but simply because in doing so, we are loving others in the way Jesus Himself loved us: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, emphasis mine). And in laying our lives down, we finally are able to take our eyes off of ourselves and become the people God has called us to be while encouraging and beholding the image of God in one another. And as we do so, “each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others….Life – natural life – has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
In light of the knowledge of the gift that friendship is and because of the strong, steady, life-giving friendships God has given us, Jason and I are constantly encouraging and reminding one another: pursue your friends. Not because we are such great friends, but because we can tend to be such poor friends. It’s easier to check something tangible off of a list than sit in connection over a cup of coffee. Yet over the cups of coffee is where our souls are known and valued and loved for who we are rather than for the things we do. And in those places of total transparency, vulnerability, and friendship, we are free to let our guards down and let others in to walk alongside of us, imperfections and all, on the road before us.
I wish making time for friends was as easy as an adult as it was as a kid. I wish someone would come in with a pencil on my calendar and schedule playdates and birthday parties and sleep overs for me and my friends just like I do for my girls and their friends. But those days are over, and now it is my responsibility to have intentional time with friends who see the same truth and challenge me to lay my life down and grow more into the person God has called me to be. And it is when I weave these times of friendship into the main course at the table of life instead of the dessert at the end, that I am most whole, balanced, full, and richly blessed.
Lewis closes his essay on friendship with this: “[I]n Friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our birthdays, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting – any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others….At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside. Let us not reckon without our Host.”
When we understand that God is the one who has set the table of our friendships and brought specific people into our lives for “such a time as this,” we begin to fight for our friendships instead of against them. We take off our prickles and put on grace. We set aside our tasks and pull up a chair at the feast of transparency, accountability, and love. And we begin to delve into the feast of friendship, if we are seven or seventy-seven years old.
This Valentine’s Day, as I look at the table God has set before me of Godly, strong, humble, kind, wise, beautiful women, I am astounded and humbled that I have a place at their table. And each time I sit down in their presence, I encounter a Christ-like love that shapes me into a better wife, a better mom, a better teacher, a better person, a better friend. And, let’s face it, they give me the necessary tools of laugher and permission to eat as much chocolate as I want or need to make it through one day, one week, one season, one year at a time.
This Valentine’s Day, take an honest evaluation of yourself as a friend and the table God has set before you. Are you a good friend who loves others for who they are, right where they are? Or are you always standing off at a distance waiting to be asked in instead of being brave enough to day in and day out simply walk alongside? Do you make enough time for your friends to really speak into and shape your life? Not just an occasional lunch or cup of coffee, but true iron-sharpening-iron, a true love that stands the test of time and can speak truth and hear truth because it is spoken in love?
If not, don’t despair. But take off your jaded, green, micro-managing, task and time driven glasses, and put on lenses that see through the rose color of love and grace that true friendship offers one meal, one conversation, one encounter at a time.
Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching, and apart from purchasing the necessary supplies for my daughters’ Valentine’s Day school parties or get togethers, it’s not a holiday I think a whole lot about. Usually Jason and I exchange cards and a quick kiss over a crock pot meal while hustling everyone out the door to swim practice, ballet, or basketball games.
But all week I’ve been thinking about Valentine’s Day because of a conversation I overhead between my seven-year-old daughter Caroline and her friend Tess.
Tess was at our house before basketball practice, and I was feeding the girls a healthy, protein-packed dinner of cinnamon crunch cereal and apple slices with peanut butter (don’t judge me; it had been that kind of a day), and I was half-way listening to their conversation as they talked and ate, and I puttered around the kitchen. Well, ok, let’s be honest – I was REALLY listening to their conversation because Tess talks at a volume LIKE THIS, and sometimes it’s hard NOT to listen to their conversations.
And out of the blue, between cereal bites, Tess says to Caroline, “Yeah, I’ve heard that boys don’t like to get married as much as girls. Girls like to get married, and boys like to stay single. But girls are more organized than boys, so boys get married so they can have someone to help them get organized.”
Out of the mouths of seven year olds…but yep, that pretty much sums it up.
And the best part about it is that Caroline listened like she was listening to Dr. Phil, and Tess’ comment led to a deep discussion about who they were both planning on marrying once boys were ready to have a little organization in their closets and in their lives. (My lips are sealed; I’m not telling who their choice of perspective mates are, but at least I know now to start praying fervently for the spouses of this dynamic duo!).
But ever since Tess made that comment, and especially with Valentine’s Day coming up, I haven’t stopped remembering and thinking about the fiery trials of dating, romance, and wondering whose manpiles you would end up organizing one day (if you need a definition of “manpiles,” click here).
Because let’s face it: figuring out who in the world you are going to marry is tough stuff. Awkward stuff. Confusing stuff. And sixteen years down the road into marriage, I am still relieved I emerged in one piece from the search for a soul mate.
I remember one Valentine’s Day my senior year of college, a friend of mine asked if we could have a “talk.” Notice I said, “friend.” We were not dating, nor had we ever had any discussions of dating, nor did I ever want to have any conversations about dating. Yet during this “talk,” at a cafe decked out for Valentine’s Day with red roses, chocolate cake, and a man walking around singing operatic love songs, my friend proceeded to tell me that after thinking long and hard about it, it turns out I wasn’t the girl he was supposed to marry, so we were free to just be “friends.” Which is so weird because I thought that’s what we already were. And at the end of our incredibly awkward conversation with a man singing a love song beside our table, he proceeded to tell me he forgot his wallet, and I had to pay the $60 bill (which might as well have been $560 to a college student).
Like I said, dating is a fiery trial and an awkward experience, one I would rather not have to repeat in this lifetime if I can help it.
But with Valentine’s Day coming up, I know lots of thoughts are going on in the minds of seven-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and forty-seven-year-olds about love in general, or at least about love according to our culture’s definition of the word. Because our culture is crazy-consumed with talking about love, which has really become another word for self-serving sex and ways you think another person should make you happy.
But after spending sixteen years married to a man who has lots of piles for me to organize, my definition and understanding of love within the context of marriage has changed dramatically.
Jason and I started off our journey together on rocky footing. After dating for almost a year, we were engaged and then broke off our engagement two months before we were supposed to get married. Both of us were carrying around a hundred pound sack of unresolved issues from our past that felt like deadweight in our relationship. In God’s mercy, as painful as it was, He allowed us to begin to unpack that deadweight outside of marriage instead of inside. It took a lot of counseling and a lot of humbling ourselves before God and one another, but we were re-engaged and then married seven months after our original wedding date.
During that time of separation, counseling, and healing, we learned how to come back together as two broken pieces that would humbly and dependently make a whole instead of two whole, independent pieces dead set on our own way or the highway.
During that time, Jason read Sacred Marriage, a book by author and pastor Gary Thomas that completely changed his view of marriage and set the trajectory of our relationship for the future. In the book, Gary writes, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?,” a thought that bears as much weight in our marriage now sixteen years down the road as it did so many years ago.
Because it’s true. “If you want to be free to serve Jesus, there’s no question—stay single,” writes Gary. “Marriage takes a lot of time. But if you want to become more like Jesus, I can’t imagine any better thing to do than to get married. Being married forces you to face some character issues you’d never have to face otherwise.” Because marriage, as my mom says, is holy sandpaper. It is designed by God to rub off and wear down the edges of our self-centered habits, goals, and desires and transform us into others-centered, Christ-centered creatures. And let me tell you, it can be one painful process.
Three weeks into our marriage, we were knee deep into wearing the selfish edges off of one another. It was Thanksgiving week, and we were preparing to leave to go to celebrate the holiday with one of our families. And we. Got. Into it. I mean voices yelling, doors slamming, anger rising, “what-in-the-world-have-we-done” kind of arguing.
I ran into my closet, slammed the door, locked it, and curled up in a heap on the floor crying.
Not a great start to start a first holiday during the first few weeks of marriage.
And Jason says in that moment, he knew he had a choice. He too could slam the door and leave me and my hurts to myself, continuing the same pattern and cycle of leaving he had always done in relationships, or he could stay and pursue me, choosing to let the unconditional, covenantal love of Christ wear the edges off of his leaving and teach him how to stay, even with a wife who was an emotional, crying mess on the floor. And he chose to stay.
And his first act of staying was kneeling beside our bed and praying, “Lord, I don’t know how to do this thing called marriage. But I know you do. Help me to love her as You love her, and teach me how to stay.”
And the next thing I knew, I heard a knock on the closet door. He chose to pursue me, even with all my faults, and work through the issues at hand.
I wish I could say that after that incident, marriage was rosy…but it wasn’t. We had a hard first few years because both of us had such hard hearts.
But more than we stayed committed to one another, we stayed committed to Christ, and because of our love for Him, we stayed committed to our love for one another.
I want to offer this hope and healing this Valentine’s Day: a good marriage is not built on the foundation of two good and perfect people. A good marriage is built on the foundation of two broken people who have committed together to love Christ, the Only One who can put our broken pieces back together. Our marriage is living proof of that great reality.
Men, if you really want to love Christ and love your wife this Valentine’s Day, can I tell you what the most attractive thing about my husband is to me? It is his position of humble prayer before the Lord every morning. Every morning, Jason wakes up at 4:30am and spends the first hour of his day on his knees in God’s Word and in prayer for his family, his co-workers, and his friends. I usually stumble out of bed about an hour after he does, and my favorite part of the day is catching him in this act of prayer.
I do not know what the day holds for me or our girls, but I do know that we have been covered in prayer by the person whose prayers are the most powerful and effective on our behalf. And Jason’s habit of praying and humbling his heart before His God helps me trust him and trust his leadership and decision making for our family. And it helps me stay attracted to him in the day in and day out routine of marriage, work, and kids. Someone who serves me like that, loves me like that, is someone I can safely give my heart to, even when life is hard or circumstances are tough.
And ladies, can I tell you what Jason says is the most attractive thing about a woman? It’s not her wardrobe, or her body, or her achievements, but her confidence. A confident woman, confident in her God, confident in her identity in Christ, confident in the body God has given her, confident in joy, confident in grace, confident in contentment, no matter what her circumstances may be. And it’s a confidence that can only be gathered from time spent before the face of God.
I wish I could say I have arrived in this area of confidence and have figured it all out, but I am still a learner. But I can say with confidence, I am further along today than I was sixteen years ago as a newly wed in a heap on my closet floor. As I have dug into my commitment to Christ and listened long and hard to who He says I am, and then learned to confidently embrace who Jason says I am through his love and faithfulness, I have become more confident than I used to be. And it’s a confidence in which I am continuing to grow.
Maybe it seems like feeling love or tenderness towards your spouse is just asking for too much this Valentine’s Day. That’s ok. Maybe it is asking for too much. But what’s not asking for too much is cultivating or feeling tenderness or love towards Christ, the One who never leaves or forsakes you, and who then helps you act in love towards one another.
Like I said at the beginning, marriage is tough stuff. Dating and engagement is tough stuff. It’s a journey that forces you to face yourself as you really are, and not the pretty, flawless person you’ve convinced yourself you are.
And having those pretty edges worn off through the holy sandpaper of marriage is a painful process. But it’s also a beautiful one. Because through a fierce commitment to loving Christ and loving one another, you can actually become the person God has called you to be.
So this Valentine’s Day, if you are in touch place when it comes to love and marriage, don’t be discouraged by the hearts and glitter and chocolate that abound. Cultivating holiness and happiness in marriage is hard work. But it’s good work.
And if you are knee deep in hurt or curled up on a heap on your closet floor, take heart. Don’t leave. Stay. Stay committed to Christ, committed to prayer, committed to confident relationship with your God and with your spouse, and His faithful love can heal any heart. One step, one season, one year at a time. And that’s what the real love of Valentine’s Day is all about.
Happy New Year from my family to yours!
I’m not sure what your new year look like so far. Perhaps you’ve greeted this new year with joy and excitement at the possibility of new beginnings after a long 2017. Or perhaps you’ve welcomed this new year with weariness, still tired in mid-January from the craziness of December. Or perhaps you’ve opened the door to 2018 with a low-lying level of anxiety of all that lies before you in the months ahead.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve greeted the new year with all three emotions going on at the same time – joy at the gift of new beginnings, weariness that still lingers after a long December, and a bit of anxiety about all that lies ahead…for me, homeschooling, moving two times, writing, teaching…and those are just the things I know for certain and don’t include the looming uncertain and unknown.
But at the center of all three emotions lies an anchor of rest, hope, and peace. And it’s not tied to money in a bank account, or the health of my children, or the stability of relationships with family and friends – for all of those things are unsure and to some measure, beyond my control. But my anchor is tied to the hope and certain peace that comes from relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, an anchor that holds fast and I know will weather every storm (although preferably not another hurricane).
On the back of our New Year’s card I wrote this message, and it’s a message I sincerely hope and pray for each of us: “We are thankful for a God who cannot change, yet whose love changes everything. May 2018 be a year of great change from a great God whose love never fails.”
Those words come from a song I’ve been listening to lately from a group called “All Sons and Daughters.” The song, called Rest in You, has a line that says, “You [God] cannot change, yet you change everything.” That one line has played on repeat in my heart and mind for weeks now, and it has helped me tremendously as I have thought about navigating the pages of a new year.
I do not know what changes lie ahead (and I don’t deal well with change; I pretty much like things status quo), but I do know the God of my heart, the God of my childhood, the God who got me through junior high (and that took some doing), the God of my adulthood, the God of my marriage, the God of my children, the God of my past, present, and future, the God of the Bible, the God of the church down the street and the church worldwide does not change.
He does not change in His perfect holiness, His justice, His mercy, His forgiveness, His power, His sufficiency, His grace…but He changes everything.
Think about your year for a moment. There isn’t a hopeless situation or a trial that can occur or a death or a sickness or a week or a season or a day or a year where His love cannot sustain you and His power cannot change you. His presence changes everything. Hope sweeps in moment-by-moment, day-by-day, with the sound of His voice and the tread of His feet. There is no life beyond His reach or circumstance beyond His ability to change radically, completely, and irreversibly for good for all eternity.
So walk confidently into this new year knowing that if you know and love Jesus Christ and are known by Him, He will not change on you or fail you, but His love and mercy and grace and strength in your life can change everything.
And it begins, as my friend Robert Hurley once said years ago, with a “bent heart, bent will, and bent knee.” Change occurs in the hearts of those who are yielded to Him, trusting, Him, loving Him, surrendered to Him, trusting His unchanging nature in the day-to-day changes of everything.
To help me remember His unchanging nature and His ability to change things on a moment-by-moment, life-by-life basis, I know myself well enough to know that I have to be connected to and reading His Word, reminding myself of His character and promises on a daily basis.
Reading God’s Word and applying it through prayer, meditation, and the help of the Holy Spirit takes a plan, persistence, a lot of coffee, early mornings, and hard work. But there is no greater need in this new year than to make a plan to keep myself engaged with the God who does not change through His unchanging Word.
To do that, I have several resources that have been a huge help to me that I wanted to share with you.
I am huge believer in reading scripture slowly, passage by passage, verse by verse, and letting it sink in with much study and thought. Part of the reason is that I am a slow processor, but the other reason is that since scripture has so many layers, if I read it quickly or in large chunks, I miss the nuances and deep truths it always has to offer.
But my favorite theologian, my brother Taylor, challenged me to not only dig deeply slowly through specific passages of scripture but to always be reading through the Bible in a year’s amount of time so that I do not miss the great, sweeping narrative the Bible has to tell.
To do both well, I felt like I needed two hours a day of uninterrupted, sit-down-in-my-chair study time, and at this stage of life, and in most people’s stage of life, let’s be real here: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
But Taylor shared an idea and an app with me that I have loved – the app is called ReadScripture, and it gives you a reading plan each day for reading through the Bible in a year.
Here’s why I like it:
#1 – it breaks up the Bible into chronological sections and has you reading on the timeline in which Biblical events actually occurred. It makes much more sense to my brain than reading different parts of the Bible every day and skipping around.
#2 – Many of the readings have a video that goes with them, and the videos are excellent. They help to explain what I am about to read and enable me to put pieces of the Bible together as a whole in a way I have never done before.
#3 – Instead of reading the passage of the day, I listen to it. And that was Taylor’s idea. He suggested that I use my time in the mornings for prayer and study of specific passages and then to listen to the video and the passage of Scripture being read on an audio app of the Bible. I do this while on a run, in the car, or as I am getting dressed in the morning. I have found that instead of filling my space with white noise, I am learning to fill it with intention and purpose by listening to the story of Scripture. And so far, it’s been my part of the day I look forward to the most.
In order to listen to the passage of Scripture for the day, I downloaded the ESV (English Standard Version) app and listen to the chapters being read aloud that way.
For resources for more specific or intentional study, check out Kelly Minter’s new Bible study on 2 Corinthians called All Things New. I am several weeks into the study and am loving it. She is both humorous and challenging in her commentary, both of which I appreciate in the quiet early morning hours.
And, of course, there’s Tim Keller. He just came out with a new devotional book on the book of Proverbs called God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, and, no surprise, it’s excellent. His other yearly devotional book on the Psalms called The Songs of Jesus is excellent as well and is a great platform for jumping off into both reading and praying through the psalms.
So…take your pick. Listen to the wide, sweeping narrative of Scripture, hone in on specific Scripture through intentional study, or do both. But by all means, do something.
This year, make a plan for engaging in God’s Word, to remind yourself day in and day out, no matter how seasons change, that you love and serve a God who is unchanging yet who changes everything.
This is the one constant we need for all that lies ahead.
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine.”
A few weeks ago, I sat with a dear friend who is walking through a deep and dark night of the soul. I listened and we cried and prayed together for a long time.
We prayed God would meet her in her need; we prayed God would meet the needs of her family and friends around her; and we prayed God would be the lifter of her head and show her the way for every step she is to take in the days and weeks ahead. And when we were done, and she was gone, I felt a definite and certain sense of peace, but I also felt a twinge of conviction and regret.
I was convicted because I realized that while I had prayed for many, many things for my friend, all good things, I had never once asked God in faith to heal the sickness in her body and soul irrevocably, once and for all. I had asked God to help her through her sickness; I asked God to help her in her sickness, but I never asked for full and complete healing right there, in that moment, as we prayed together.
And I was convicted because I believe in a God who heals. Dramatically. Instantaneously. Miraculously. But I think, deep down, I don’t believe He heals like that when it’s just me who is praying.
I saw my mom later that day and shared my heart with her about my time with my friend. I shared my conviction and regret about not asking the Lord for full and complete healing for my friend and about my hesitancy to ask God for such a big thing like that because deep down I believed He didn’t answer requests like that from people like me. He answers them for other people, more radical people, stronger people, more godly people, but not little old normal people like me.
And she just looked at me out of a heart full of wisdom, out of a heart who has prayed and fasted and believed and stood strong more than any other person I know, out of a heart whose prayers for people through the years has availeth much, said, “But Susannah, God has answered your prayers for healing for people.”
And one by one, she listed the situations over the years she knows I have struggled and wrestled and prayed through, the situations and people’s lives she knows I have begged and pleaded and asked God for healing for again…and again…and again…and she said, “I know that maybe God hasn’t healed the way you wanted Him to, and maybe you haven’t seen the miraculous, instantaneous results like you asked Him for, but God has chosen to heal, step-by-step, season-by-season, one day at a time.”
And as she talked, she reminded me that most of the time, that is how we see God choose to heal the hearts around us. Most of the time, He usually doesn’t heal in a flash or in an instant, although He certainly can. And when God does choose to heal that way, it is awesome and incredible and exciting and faith-building.
Bu most of the time, it’s step-by-step, moment-by-moment, situation-by-situation, season-by-season, one day at a time. And He does it that way to keep our hearts completely dependent on Him. She reminded me of how, in her own life, the circumstances that have been the hardest have been the most successful at keeping her completely dependent upon and close to God.
She reminded me that “God knows when to heal in an instant, and He knows when to heal slowly, over time, in the journey, so that our hearts become changed as we fall more deeply in love with Him. But God always heals in response to our prayers; it just looks different sometimes than we think it will or want it to.”
And her words changed everything. They reminded me that it’s not always a result of a lack of faith that God hasn’t healed in an instant every time I have prayed, but it’s a result of His sovereign, steady, unchanging will that knows what healing needs to look like in each and every person’s heart.
And thankfully, it’s not up to me to decide that. It’s up to Him.
A few days ago, I was listening to a song called “Rest in You” by the band Sons and Daughters. The whole song is beautiful, but there is one line that absolutely stopped me in my tracks and has been running through my head every since: “You cannot change, but You change everything.”
God cannot change, but He changes everything. This has become the anthem of my head and heart. We worship and serve a God who cannot change, who has not changed since before the beginning when He created heaven and earth. He is a healer, has always been a healer, and always will be a healer for those who come to Him to ask for healing. He is good, has always been good, and always will be good, and work all things for our good, no matter what seasons in our life ebb and flow.
And while He does not change in His character or goodness or ability to heal, He changes everything. He just does. Because that’s who He is. He changes sorrow to joy; He changes sickness to health; He changes death to life; He changes dirty to clean; He changes hopelessness to hope; He changes anxiety to peace; He changes pointlessness to purpose; and one day, He will change all those who love and long for the Lord Jesus in an instant, to redemptive glory through His unchanging love and grace.
Sometimes He changes things in a moment, but most times, He changes things step-by-step, choice-by-choice, day-by-day, season-by-season. He changes us from the inside out, with hearts made new by His Word, and with wills infused with His courage and the companionship of His Holy Spirit.
If you, like me, have held back on asking God for full and complete healing for a certain friend or a certain circumstance, and if you, like me, have had a hard time believing that God will answer your prayers because of a lack of faith or a lack of greatness or a lack of knowing how to ask, be en-couraged. Meaning, just like me with my mom, have courage poured into you. To keep on praying. To keep on asking. To see that our God is a God who heals because it is who He is, and He is unchanging.
Like me, you just might need to shift your perspective on how He heals. And remember anew that when you pray to a God who is unchanging in His desire and ability to heal, He changes everything. One step at a time.
‘Tis the season…’tis the season for Christmas shopping, getting your kids ready for Christmas recitals and Christmas programs, addressing Christmas cards, attending Christmas parties and events…and for going out of town. For Jason and me anyway. November is the month that holds both my birthday and our anniversary, so almost every year for the past sixteen years, we slip away either to a retreat in Houston or nearby San Antonio, and every few years, we actually hop on a plane.
This year we decided to hop on a plane and spend a long weekend in New York, only made possible by the amazingness of Mia, Nana, and Cara, my mom, Jason’s mom, and Jason’s sister. We booked our trip back in the early part of September (I think it was a knee jerk reaction to recovering from Hurricane Harvey and wanting to get the heck of out town), only to realize our trip was the weekend of our daughter’s ballet performance in the Nutcracker and of her full hair and make up dress rehearsal for her musical theater performance. Yikes. Translate all-hands-on-deck-thank-you-Lord-for-family.
Once everyone’s bags were packed and Lizzie’s two performance bags were ready (what in the world was I thinking saying “Yes!” to both performances when I signed her up for those in September?!?) and we were on the plane, I began to exhale.
I know this sounds crazy, but I love to go to New York with Jason because when I am there, I can exhale. Because when we are there together, we walk and talk. And eat. We walk and talk. And sip coffee. We walk and talk. And wander through museums. We walk and talk. And see shows and wander through shops and think and talk about things greater and bigger than ourselves, things we don’t have time or space to do when we are at home.
So yesterday, we walked and talked a full mile up the east side of Central Park bundled in our coats, breathing in cold air, savoring views of the reds and golds of the trees, and stepped into The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once inside, we stood under Byzantine arches, beheld a faded but tender statue of Mary holding Jesus, and stood in front of the famous French Christmas creche. But our favorite thing we saw was the exhibit, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.” Containing 133 of his drawings, all done in red chalk on white paper, and three of his marble statues, the exhibit gave a unique glimpse into the creative process behind the creator.
We lingered long over drawings detailing arms, legs, the contortion and twisting of muscles in shoulders, backs, and even feet. Many of the sketches were practice rounds for figures he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or statues he carved for Pope Julius II’s’ tomb. His sketches seemed to be living, fluid, full of movement, and I was almost prepared for them to leap to life off of the paper, even five hundred years after they were drawn.
I was struck by many things that spoke through his sketches, but two things seemed to speak the loudest. One was how much he practiced. Michelangelo is known for his masterpieces, but the majority of his time was spent preparing for his masterpieces – drawing after drawing, stroke after stroke, round after round of try and try again.
As someone who works to create as well, this was encouraging. While my creative ability is nowhere near the celebrated genius (obviously), I understand a little bit of the strain and stress of the creative process. My tendency is to think that artistic giants did not have to try; they just drew or carved or composed or wrote and in one fell swoop – boom! – masterpieces came out.
But more and more, I am seeing that is hardly if ever the case. Even the best of the best have to spend many, many hours devoted to practice and cross outs and try agains before the finished product is ready or even ready to be attempted.
I needed that reminder as I attempt to start the first chapter of a book…for the fiftieth time. I have draft after draft of failed beginnings, and page after page of books that will never be finished or studies that will never reach an end.
But the second thing that spoke loudly to me was a comment made by one of the commentators on the audio guide Jason and I were listening to. She said, “If you look closely at Michelangelo’s drawings and sketches, his point is made as much by what he leaves out as by what he accents and fills in.”
Meaning this – as you stare at the cross hatching and swift, sure strokes that came from his chalk to create the anatomy of a leg, or a man’s biceps and broad shoulders, his anatomy comes to life not only by the strokes he choose to make on the paper but also by the areas he choose to leave blank.
And I was arrested by that comment.
Because in a season of life as a creator of the lives and schedules and rhythms and school routines of four young children, as a sometimes writer and blogger and teacher, as a friend, and daughter, and wife, as an advocate of ministries I love and people I want to help, the pictures I am drawing on a daily basis are made effective by what I choose to leave off of the paper as much as by what I choose to put on.
That was a relief to hear. Because I can only put so much on the paper. I only have time and room for so many marks.
And sometimes, my drawings speak the loudest by what I am leaving off of our schedules, off of our plates, off of our routines, by what I am putting on.
This time of year has the potential to be so special – there are opportunities to create family memories and family traditions and spend extra time together during the school break that the normal school year does not afford.
But there is only so much space or room allotted on the paper. And while I want to draw some things this Christmas season, I cannot draw all things. And the things I leave off have the potential to make the overall drawing more beautiful, not less. The key is figuring out which spaces to leave blank. Because when it comes right down to it, that is the difference between a master artist and a mediocre one…a master artist not only knows what strokes to put on the paper but knows what strokes to leave off.
So this week, the first week of Advent, the first week of the Christmas season, think long and hard about the strokes you will make to fill the paper of the next four weeks before Christmas.
Maybe it means some parties go unattended, certain gifts aren’t bought or wrapped, meals aren’t prepared perfectly, or homes aren’t picked up regularly. But it does mean your space and my space is filled well, and to those who are watching closely and to whom it matters most, what they will see is…a masterpiece.