A Season of Hope

Do you celebrate advent?

All through my childhood, my parents would gift me with an advent calendar on December 1. I was always excited to open the little window and eat the little piece of chocolate as I eagerly counted down the days to December 25. I never really knew what “advent” meant, but I knew I loved the anticipation of Christmas Day.

Why? Because the Christmas season is a time of hope. If you’re a child, you eagerly await Christmas Day to see the magical appearance of presents that may not have been there the night before, hoping you got that gift you asked Santa for. If you’re an adult, parent or not, you eagerly give others presents, hoping they like the gift.

And if you’ve ever faced a heart-breaking disappointment, you hope for relief…and maybe a miracle.

I wish I could tell you I got the Christmas miracle I begged God for last year, but I didn’t. I wish I could tell you that this year doesn’t ache, but I can’t. It doesn’t hurt as much, but the hurt hasn’t entirely gone away. I wish I could tell you that I’m not still walking through the difficulty, but I can’t.

I wish I could tell you my childlike joy never faded, but it did.

But the great thing about the Christmas season is that it’s never too late to get that joy back. And that is why I am going to be working to celebrate this season and read the story of Christ, through the book of Luke. I encourage you to join me.

If you’re curious about what hoping and waiting on Jesus means, if you’re struggling to find even simple happiness this season, or even if you just want to read along to see what’s going on, I welcome you.

Let’s unwrap joy together.

Burned

The church I have begun attending encourages what they call “Try 5,” which means to try 5 weeks of the church (so 5 Sundays) to see if it is for you. Well, today was my 5th week, and I’ve decided to make it “my church”. It was also the 4th week of the series God for the Rest of Us, and the message, like the past 3 weeks, resonated with me. The topic was those burnt by the church.

Have you walked away from a church because you felt you were being judged? Did you walk in feeling broken and leave feeling even more so? Were you told you couldn’t share your story to seek guidance?

This is for you.

. . . . . .

I wasn’t burned by my previous church necessarily, but something went wrong along the way that I began to feel unworthy. My husband and I were continually asked about when we would be having children, because others who had been married for a similar length of time already had at least one child. (We were in no place to have children. When we expressed this, people seemed disappointed, and I could see some sort of judgement in their eyes.) When I expressed anxiety or depressive symptoms regarding anything, even before all this happened, I was continually given the verse “be anxious for nothing.” (While that can be a peace-inspiring verse, it felt like I was being dismissed.) When things did begin to happen, I sought advice and the advice felt judgmental; no one offered up their story to establish their credibility with me (which, for me, is huge), and when stories did seem to begin being shared, it was “we shouldn’t focus on our past.” When more things happened, I was flat out told to give up, and it didn’t feel like it came from God; it felt like it came from that individual. No hope was offered, and nor was prayer.

I became disoriented and lost. I had trusted these people, and now I felt they were abandoning me in my time of need, in the time I most needed to hear and feel God.

. . . . . .

The message today focused on Matthew 7:7-12:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

What came out of this passage was the message of the 3 ways the church should respond to those who are asking, seeking, and knocking.

The first thing is that anyone who wants to find Jesus should be able to. Simple as that. Individuals or church-specific rules should not get in the way of allowing and helping others to find Jesus.

The second thing is the church should not throw stones. Again, simple. We are all broken in some way, and no one person’s brokenness is better or worse than another’s.

The last thing is the golden rule: the church should do to others what you would have them do to you.

While my pastor spoke strictly from the perspective of this church and how our church, I felt it was a good message to take to heart for anyone in the church—anyone who is a follower of Christ.

. . . . . .

The first two verses of this passage tell us if we ask, if we seek, if we knock, we will receive, we will find, the door will be opened. Reading that, my initial thought it great! I’m asking for this thing, it’ll happen. Of course if I am asking, I desire that. Like now. I desire reconciliation above anything else, and I know God does not wish the destruction of marriage.

Here’s the thing, though, that keeps reverberating in my head: ask in faith, in honesty, to seek Him.

Am I asking, praying, having faith that God is a good God and is capable? Am I being honest in my prayer? Am I truly trying to seek Him and not simply satisfy my flesh?

The truth is, I’m not 100% certain. Not because I don’t have faith, but because I have been burned.

Because people have told me I’m too far gone. Because no one else offered the encouragement I needed. Because no one showed me compassion. Because I felt like I was just a problem to be solved. Because no one prayed with me to help me find the answers. Because I was left to do it all on my own.

And that’s what this message came down to for me: when you’re left to do it on your own.

. . . . . .

Have you been burned by a church? By people? Do you have a similar story to share?

Have you questioned your worth?

Have you loved God but hated Christians for these very reasons?

Unfortunately, people get in the way of a lot of things, and church and faith are no different.

. . . . . .

I’m glad I have found this church. I am glad I have been attending the small groups. The people seem open and honest. They seem willing to see and understand brokenness. They seem truly willing to pray with you and for you. They focus on their community, just eager to show love and compassion in any way possible. They just want the community to know there are people who care.

The last time, I became involved in church very quickly. This time, I’m going to take it slow. But I can feel God moving (I think), and I feel like something is about to happen. I can feel the excitement building for church things and these people.

I just hope I don’t get burned again.

Fearful and Forgotten

I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.

. . . . . . 

As I sang during worship today, I allowed the words to wash over me, and I had a realization. It’s one I have probably had before, but it came to me again today, and I couldn’t help but feel there was a reason for that. As I worshipped, hands clasped in front of me, heart aching, I realized I have been a slave to fear.

Fear got me here. Fear of what would happen to my family if I didn’t have a job. Fear of what my worth would be if I didn’t get the type of job I (thought) I had wanted. Fear of being stationary somewhere, yet fear of leaving.

What would happen if I gave everything to God? What does that even look like? How uncomfortable would we be? How could He possibly solve our financial difficulties? How could He possibly bring healing or restoration to my broken marriage?

Fear of what I cannot see. Fear of the unknown.

I don’t know what it looks like to fully trust God. How do I do that? What does it mean? I have been going through the book The Power of the Praying Wife and reading those prayers with every ounce of my soul I can muster. Most days, tears stream down my face as I do. As I utter those prayers, I try to believe they will inspire supernatural, Godly change. I try to give everything I am struggling with to Him, yet I know my fear holds me back. I read each chapter and utter each prayer with as much of a heart of a believer I can muster.

But is that showing trust in Him?

. . . . . .

I am still afraid. Afraid He will not grant me the desires of my heart, as the Bible promises, afraid He is not listening. I feel abandoned.

So maybe that is why God guided me to this particular church. Today’s message was “God is for the forgotten,” week 2 of the series “God for the Rest of Us.”

The pastor walked us through bits of the story of the Israelites, specifically chapters 1 and 2 of Exodus and chapter 29 of Jeremiah. In Exodus, they spent hundreds of years in slavery. They probably felt abandoned and forgotten, and yet, when the Pharaoh who had enslaved them eventually died, they still had enough faith to cry out to God. God heard their cry and recognized the urgency.

In Jeremiah, they are enslaved yet again. In Jeremiah 29, God tells them to build houses and have families where they are. In essence, he tells them to take care of where they are and what they have and to keep living. And Jeremiah 29:10 provides information that may be the most difficult to swallow: “For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you…”

Let that sink in. Seventy years. The Israelites had to be frustrated by this message. They are expected to live 70 more years in captivity? I can imagine there was a sense of relief in knowing it will all end eventually, but there was probably sadness in the knowledge that some may not live to see the end. Then, some may even have questioned if it was ever going to happen, even after that promise.

. . . . . .

There were three highlights from this message for me: (1) God sees you and shares your concern; (2) take care of where you are and keep moving forward; and (3) it won’t happen on your time, but on God’s. Exodus and Jeremiah both show that God cares for His people and will deliver them from their pain. Jeremiah, though, serves as a reminder: we must keep living, even in the midst of pain, and we can’t expect things to happen when we want them to.

I found the idea of taking care of where you are interesting since one message that affected me at my previous church was on being content where we are so God can move us forward. I tried to be content there, and, as I settled into that and felt peace, I received a job offer. I thought maybe that contentment led to the job offer. Looking back, I think the job offer was a temptation I succumbed to, not a Godly way to move us forward.

Not enough time had passed, and, while I am still learning, if there is one thing I know, it is that God will allow time to pass before moving you forward.

. . . . . .

As the pastor (I think now my pastor) joked, Jeremiah 29:11-13 seems to be a favorite among Christians: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for me with all your heart.”

I can see why. It provides hope. It shows God’s promise to us that He will not leave us, that He is always thinking of our future.

Most of all, though, Jeremiah shows us that God is always at work, even if we can’t see it.

. . . . . .

I walked away feeling more hopeful, an experience I have felt each time I have attended this church or a small group associated with it. But I also felt convicted. I have been praying for things to happen, but I realized I was praying things would happen on my time. That is not how God works.

We always want something when we want it. We live in a world of instant gratification. But God doesn’t work that way. Things will happen when we trust completely in Him. He has a timeline for us, even if He doesn’t always share it with us as specifically as He did with the Israelites in Jeremiah.

I was reminded today that God is listening. I was reminded He has not forgotten me. While I will have to continue to work to give everything to Him and completely trust in Him, and even just learn what that all means, somehow that gives me the strength to keep praying.

. . . . . .

Have you ever felt forgotten or abandoned? What helped you get through it?

Have you ever needed reminding God has not forgotten you? What verse reminded you?

Responding to the Conscience

Seven months ago, I packed up our three animals, my clothes, and anything I might need for six to eight months and drove away from our apartment in Arizona to Maryland for a job. This was the only solid job offer I had received in six months, and we were against the wall financially.

I tearfully hugged my husband, and I could see the emotion in his eyes, too.

As I drove out of the four feet of snow, my heart started hammering wildly, more tears sprung to my eyes, and I started to have trouble breathing. My mom, who had traveled from Maryland to help with this move, asked if I wanted her to drive.

I sniffed, shook my head, and gripped my steering wheel. But I glanced in the rearview, and when I did, I heard a murmuring in my head: why are you doing this? Don’t go.

Crying, I kept driving. Because I didn’t feel like we had a choice; it was take this job to help support our family or hate each other because he would be the only one working.

. . . . . . 

When was the last time you had a twinge of conscience? How did you respond to it?

This question was asked by one the blogs I follow, one of my favorite blogs actually. While I could have responded as a simple comment on the post itself, I felt compelled to create a post of my own about feeling the twinge of conscience. Because our stories are our testimonies.

I responded poorly. And I’ve never told anyone.

. . . . . .

The entire move, I couldn’t help but feel I had done something wrong. A gentle whisper pervaded my thoughts: don’t do this; turn around. The logic part of my brain, though, the part that handles finances and planning, was shouting at me: what are you going to do otherwise?!

Looking back, I now feel that small, gentle whisper was God telling me I was not doing what He had asked of me.

As the months progressed, things got worse. Tears became frequent, practically nightly. My heart ached (and still does). I began to see things in a different light. I was no longer excited for the opportunity; instead, I was miserable.

But I never told anyone I was miserable. I feigned happiness day in and day out. Because I felt if I let people know I wasn’t happy, I was showing weakness. If I let them know I felt I hadn’t made the right choice, I would be scolded.

In the months since, I have learned not to care what others think of my choices. I should not concern myself with what others think of my mindset or my aspirations. What matters is if I am doing what I have been called to do.

. . . . . .

I mentioned I was going to begin a fast. Week one did not go as planned, and I beat myself up for every mistake, as I am prone to do. I grabbed a cookie or two one night; I ate a few M&Ms at work out of sheer boredom. I decided the pre-packaged frozen chocolate covered fruit we have is acceptable since it curbs sweets cravings, but I realize that’s not staying true to fasting desserts.

But I have heard another gentle whisper on my heart during this time, so maybe I’m not doing everything entirely wrong.

This whisper has told me to “fast” complaining.

I realized I have complained about what I am unhappy about, what I don’t like, and just things in general. I am feeling angry all the time again, and that’s not a healthy state to be in.

Instead of complaining about my day or what I struggle with, I am going to change it to thanking God for another day and another opportunity. Instead of complaining out loud, I am going to give those concerns and frustrations to God, whether that means openly praying them during my prayer time or writing them in my journal as they arise. Either way, I am going to release them because, otherwise, they just poison my attitude.

. . . . . .

When I complain, I can feel a nudge of stop doing that. But, as we all know, once we begin complaining, it can be difficult to stop. But I know that nudge is my conscience, or God, telling me to stop and re-examine before I continue to speak.

This time I am going to respond better.

This whole experience has showed me that I have been self-centered in the past. I have been able to see that I gave up gifts I had been given to pursue things the world told me to pursue, because the world told me those things were necessary.

I am writing more now. I found avenues to publish material to get my content out there. I have reconstructed my blog to reflect my writing aspirations. (I hope you like it. Let me know!) I am actively working on writing pieces I had put away for years because I was told, not by friends or family or my husband but by society, that it would never matter because no one would ever care.

We all make mistakes. We all do things we shouldn’t have done. We all get off the path at some point. We don’t always listen to our conscience’s whispers to us. What matters, though, is that we eventually do.

I am choosing to actively listen.

. . . . . .

When was a time you didn’t listen to your conscience? What did you learn from that experience? What are the steps you took to change it?

Day 18: God Knows Who I Am

How did it go?

Another day of travel. This time, though, it was to visit family.

I didn’t realize how hard it might be on my heart to visit. I always cry when I see my dad, because I usually have a long time between visits, and this time was no different. Coming back also brought me back to when my relationship began.

The few hours I’ve been “home” have brought on a lot of emotions.

I’ve also realized whatever I am going through has helped me connect more with my dad.

Maybe I am beginning to see the small blessings in everything.

I also came across an article today while sitting in the airport on healing anxiety, and I found it pretty powerful. I think I am going to take some of the advice about writing and health and see where it takes me. Maybe if I feel I am dedicating time to my writing (and thereby my spiritual body) and maybe if I feel better about my physical body, I will begin to feel better overall.

What did I learn?

While on the airplane, I was able to journal a bit, and I was able to continue to see what gives me anxiety.

I don’t really know who I am.

Day 11 of this challenge was about researching myself, and I think that’s something that will continue. I know, you’re thinking well, duh, you don’t just find yourself overnight. I think I was hoping I would.

For a while now I have felt that, at 25, I’m supposed to know who I am and exactly what I want in life. I guess that’s part of the whole needing to plan everything part of myself. As it turns out, I may not know exactly what I want or who I am.

And that’s okay.

So I’m going to do more than research myself—I’m going to experiment. I’m going to pray for guidance, direction, and self-discovery. Because God knows who He wants me to be.

Day 7: Positivity Isn’t Without Negativity

How did it go?

I woke up with a heavy sense of dread and complete sadness. As is most often the case with depressive symptoms, I can’t tell you why I woke up feeling this—I just did. I somehow managed to get out of bed and get ready for work—shower, brush my teeth, get dressed—which all seemed to happen in a mixture of slow motion and speed, with a pause every so often for a dry sob. It was the least amount of effort I’ve put into my appearance probably since having to administer early morning finals when I was teaching.

As the morning progressed, even before I got Belle and I in the car to leave, I just felt everything welling up into anger. Anger that I had to get up, anger that the Keurig didn’t seem to like the coffee pod I had placed in it (thereby only giving me a half a cup of coffee), anger that I had a commute, anger that I’m so tired…and anger that I feel so worthless and undervalued. I just felt inexplicably angry.

I know, I know. Where’s the positivity?! you ask.

On my commute, I listed to TED Radio Hour’s episode “The Case for Optimism.” For some reason, Tali Sharot’s piece in the episode struck a chord with me. She made the case that we are natural optimists, but that too much (or even too little) optimism can have its own negative side effects. Take a listen, and maybe you’ll see why it stuck with me.

As the day wore on, those feelings of frustration and anger never seemed to really go away. They dimmed, perhaps, enough for me to harness some energy for work, but I could feel them all day. I managed to do my job. I got excited about an article I’m writing (more on that once it’s complete). But, deep down, those feelings didn’t go away as I had hoped.

It released when I got home. Yelling at my mom, a flood of tears, screaming into my pillow…and Belle laid near me the entire time, reminding me she was there when I was ready. The one living creature who (I feel) doesn’t judge me for my emotions or decisions.

So, today was not full of positivity. I couldn’t find a way to reframe what I was feeling. But it wasn’t without a lesson.

What did I learn?

In weak moments, pray. As I bawled and screamed into my pillow, I just cried out in prayer. Because nothing else seems to help. And maybe that’s sign enough.

But I think Sharot had a point about positivity. Up until a few months ago, my general optimism served me well. Then real life hit, and suddenly choices had to be made that optimism…well, frankly, optimism wouldn’t be enough. And, in hindsight, I think I was a little too optimistic. I let it cloud my judgement. Just as I am trying to force myself to be positive now, no matter what emotions I face, I think I forced myself to be positive because I didn’t know any other choice. AS Sharot said, though, realism is valuable—that tiny lack of optimism can be realism.

Maybe I shouldn’t push down negative feelings to replace them with positivity. Maybe I need to embrace that negativity, that little bit of realism, in order to become positive.