faith


Tomorrow I am giving my testimony in MOPS. I was originally going to give it back in February, but we were snowed out, so I was rescheduled all the way in May. I reread it just now after not having touched it since the winter, and thankfully nothing about my testimony has changed in the interim. I wanted to share it here both for others to read, and also because it encompasses a lot of the things I wrote about in the early days of this blog. Be aware that it’s quite long. ūüôā

I want to tell you a story this morning. Please keep in mind as you listen that this is not a story of grief, loss, fear and longing. Despite those elements being present in my testimony, this is a story about joy.

I want to start by reading a passage from Lamentations 3:

[a]I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.

4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.
6 He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.

7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.
8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked.

And the New Living Translation’s version of 1 Peter 1:6: “So be truly glad: there is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure trials for a little while.”

Has anyone here ever heard — or said — that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle? I think it was Mother Teresa who first made that claim. She was wrong. I know only the slightest bit about God, but one thing I do know is that He does, in fact, give us things that are beyond us to endure. There comes a point when all of us have to lean on Him, and not on our own strength.

There was a time in my life when I read — and lived — Lamentations 3 every single day. From 2010 through 2012, I experienced a season of profound grief which included three significant losses within one year. I suffered two miscarriages four months apart (one of which occurred very unexpectedly on my 31st birthday), and just as I began to emerge from that fog, my mother died of breast cancer after a sudden decline. The Lord truly had walled me in so I could not escape. He weighed me down with chains.

I found out that I was pregnant with my son, Will, just over 24 hours before my mom died; in fact, I told her I was pregnant during the very last conversation we were able to have. So I began my journey into motherhood in the midst of deep, deep grief. I wasn’t excited to be pregnant; I was filled with fear about losing another baby, and I really wasn’t sure I was interested in bringing new life into a world I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a part of anymore. I felt very keenly the fact that we are all just pilgrims in this earthly world, and that our true home is in Heaven. I knew that my mother had gone to her true home, and that my first two babies had as well, and frankly, their home sounded a lot better to me than the lonely world in which I was stranded.

Not only was I grieving, but I felt a lot of resentment as well. I resented the fact that, as Joel says, my years were being “eaten by locusts”. I was enraged by my loss. I walked around feeling for a long time like there was a literal giant hole in my chest where my heart had been, and that frequently it bled out all over the floor. I got very used to this feeling — a lot of the time, in fact, I could actually feel it physically. As you might imagine, this was uncomfortable, but the physical sensation matched my emotional state, and this was in a way comforting.

I realized early on that in my weakness, I was not at all up to the task of “staying strong” during these ordeals. I needed God to carry me through. I prayed every day not for the strength to endure, but for him to carry me, shelter me, protect me, uphold me during the storm. I felt more than anything like I was on the floor of a tiny boat, riding these giant waves of grief and anger, just praying for his protection. “Staying strong” was not at all an option, because my strength was gone. If I was going to survive my grief and learn to live again, it was going to be because of God’s mercy, and because of his strength.

I was blessed to have been raised by a godly mother who used her cancer diagnosis as an opportunity to glorify God. After she died, her friends told me that she never asked for her cancer to be taken away. Instead, she asked that God would be glorified through it. As a cancer patient she felt blessed to have the hope of Christ as she faced death. Her prayer was answered in every way, not least through the challenge it presented to me, her daughter. If my mother could pray that God would be glorified through her illness and death, so I must too be willing to pray the same thing in all of my own circumstances, no matter how painful. I reluctantly asked that God would be glorified through my grief, and that my losses would ultimately bring me closer to him, that I would grow in wisdom and closer to that elusive peace that surpasses all understanding.

I did not want to pray these things; in fact, to be honest I really would have preferred to be able to stay blissfully ignorant and spiritually shallow. I longed to return to a time when I still believed that if you just “fought bravely”, you could “beat” a deadly disease, and that having a baby was as easy as simply wanting one. Spiritual growth and closeness to Jesus did not seem like a worthy tradeoff for the loss of my mom and my babies. But I kept being drawn back to Philippians 3:

7¬†But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.¬†8¬†What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ¬†9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ‚ÄĒthe righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.¬†10¬†I want to know Christ‚ÄĒyes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,¬†11¬†and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

The challenge was just that forgetting what was behind, straining toward what was ahead, and pressing on toward the goal were not fun things to do. I was challenged over and over to actually claim my faith. Psalm 63 states, “because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” Better than life. Can I really believe that? I was being called to actually live out these truths I had professed for my entire life.

In addition to having to face the stark truth of Scripture and live up to my mother’s testimony, I was also just very tired of my grief. I knew that my grief and rage were both natural responses and also very necessary, but I finally came to a place where I didn’t want them to rule my life forever.

From the book of Joel:

‚ÄúI will repay you for the years the locusts¬†have eaten‚ÄĒ
the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm[b]‚ÄĒ
my great army that I sent among you.
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.”

Note the line my great army that I sent among you.

I had no desire to become my grief, and succumbing to a lifetime of sadness and anger would only be allowing the locusts to eat not just these years, but my life and my soul. If I was to believe the Scriptures, one of God’s promises to me would be to repay me for these years of grief. To redeem it. How could I allow that to happen if I stayed locked inside my sadness? How could I do that, and allow cancer to win? To allow death to win? 1 Corinthians 15:26 states that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. My task was clear: I had to learn how to be happy.

There are 235 references to the word joy in the Bible, which is more than the words grief, sorrow and weep combined. So that told me something. Slowly, God began to show me how to make my way through the labyrinth of grief and use it as a means of finding joy.

I learned quickly that there was no avoiding the pain of grief, and that trying to white-knuckle my way through the experience wouldn’t make it any easier. Instead I turned to my yoga practice, and there I became comfortable with being uncomfortable. God used yoga as a way for me to begin to approach peace in the midst of pain. If I could breathe and stay calm while balancing in a difficult pose, I knew I could do the same while balancing in difficult circumstances. I stopped being afraid of the grief. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t have to let it hurt me. My grief and I began a hesitant coexistence.

He also allowed me to be angry. I really believe that actually experiencing what I was feeling — all the rage, the overwhelming grief, the fear — without running away from it was key to being able to survive it. Anger was huge for me; I did not shy away from it. It was far easier to be angry than sad. My rage wasn’t focused on anything in particular, but it was my faithful companion for a long time and I actually think it was healing.

Through all of this I clung to the verse in 1 Peter that reminds us that there is wonderful joy ahead. I knew now that this must be true regardless of how much I could lose. No matter what happened to me, I believed God’s promises to be true. I had to. There is so much evidence in scripture of this wonderful joy — weeping may remain for the night, but joy cometh in the morning (Psalm 30). The Lord shall be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end (Isaiah 60). Death could not win. It was impossible; it was written there in black and white, in the gospel, in Jesus. The victory had already been won. It was mine for the taking, but I had to want it, I had to believe it, I had to receive it.

I felt all the while like I was in a kiln. I felt like I had been lit on fire, but the fire was doing what it was meant to do: purify me. I was unfinished clay and I was going to come out beautiful. My losses made me a different person. In the end they made me a better person. I am wiser, I am more faithful, and despite all that God has taken from me, I trust him far more than I ever did before, because he has shown himself trustworthy to me. He has repaid me for the years the locusts have eaten. This doesn’t mean that my loss was good or that the purpose of enduring them was in order to make me a better person. It means God redeems. It means he took death and disease and used them for his glory.

There is a line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that resonates with me, and it’s this: “He will not forget his grief, but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.” This is what the Lord has done in me.

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As I alluded in my previous post (thanks for the encouragement!), I’ve been feeling really frustrated these days. The peaceful zen of our winter has given way to a riotous, chaotic spring, and I’m not sure what to do with it all. The riot and chaos is all in me. Everywhere I look I see things I have failed to do, and while I am trying my best to just accept that that is part and parcel of being home with two small children in a fixer-upper while also managing a part-time job from home (not to mention trying to pursue personal goals and hobbies), it is really hard. Is the chaos just something I have to accept, or is it a result of poor planning and decision-making on my part?

A large part of the frustration is that I am irritated with¬†myself, because I can’t help believing it’s the latter. Maybe because it’s easier to blame myself for living in a house that’s strewn with duplos and toy dinosaurs instead of one with perfectly swept floors and clear surfaces; that way I still feel like I have some control over it.¬†It’s not perfect because I’m just not trying hard enough.

Of course I realize how ridiculous that sounds, and I know that the chaos right now is probably a little bit of both, and that I need to be able to forgive myself for being too tired at night to pick up the duplos, too scattered to sit down and really think about my novel, and so overwhelmed sometimes that I start to shut down. Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean that I think it’s okay, or that I don’t have to strive to do better. But I do have to work harder at not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’ve realized something about the frustration I’m feeling: I’m letting it control me. I’m resisting it instead of breathing through it, and that only makes it harder.

See how God redeems even my worst character flaws? This frustration that I feel is working to refine and mature me — as a mother, as a Christian, as a person. Instead of resenting my frustration and allowing it to make me irritable and overwhelmed, I can take a step back, acknowledge what’s¬†good (even if it’s not perfect) and what I can do in the moment to get past it. I spent much of today doing that, and you know what? I feel so much more in control of things. Imagine that.

Life, not just motherhood, is an exercise in sanctification if you allow it to be. But motherhood can be like a crucible for this sort of thing, a greenhouse for less-than-pleasant personal growth. I get the feeling that right now, maybe I’m not meant to¬†not be frustrated. And maybe it’s okay that I feel discouraged. When I was in mourning, I often reminded myself that feeling sad was normal and that I didn’t have to try to run away from sadness. Maybe now I don’t have to run away from feeling frustrated. Instead of resisting it, I can sit with it for a while and try to learn from it, and know that it doesn’t have to be the one in charge. Like holding a challenging yoga pose, I can just keep breathing.

And that makes me feel so much better.

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(Gardening: a good exercise in both frustration and hope. Above is a speck of green that will someday, I hope, be a salad.)

It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but I still have moments where I instinctively reach for my phone to call my mom. Most recently this happened the other day when I took a picture of Anna practicing her sitting. I then had that whole numbing string of realizations: I can’t text her this picture. In fact, she never met Anna. And in fact, she never even met Will. She never got to know me as a mother.¬†She’s still gone.

It hurts just as much as it ever did, but I’m so used to it now that it feels more like a heavy, dull punch to the chest than a violent blow to the head. It knocks the wind out of me, but I can catch my breath sooner now. It’s wearying to think that this is going to continue happening for the rest of my life.

I’ve accepted my loss. I have “come to terms” with it, whatever that means in the end. Spiritually and theologically I allow it. But it still pisses me off.

In the end I’m just really annoyed that I don’t have my mother around. She doesn’t know my kids and they’ll never know her. It was my worst fear when she was diagnosed, and now that it’s come true, it feels just as empty as I thought it would. I hate not having her around for advice, for encouragement, just for company. Right now I don’t hate it in a sad, disappointed, grieving way — I hate it in an angry way.¬†I may have a happy life, but I can think of a million little ways in which it would be ten times happier and richer if she were still a part of it.

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Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting? — honestly I can see the¬†victory and feel the sting¬†all the time. It’s here in my own heart, in my neverending sadness. It’s hard not to feel sometimes like death has already won.

But today’s Easter sermon was on 1 Corinthians 15. What a relief I felt when I read the passage! It’s one of my favorites and one that brought me deep comfort when my mom was dying.¬†To destroy suffering.¬†(You can listen to it here.) What Easter means is that death¬†hasn’t won. The battle has already ended.

50¬†I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51¬†Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed‚ÄĒ 52¬†in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53¬†For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54¬†When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‚ÄúDeath has been swallowed up in victory.‚ÄĚ

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
¬†¬†¬†¬†Where, O death, is your sting?‚ÄĚ

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

That victory, here on earth, here in my mortal body, feels hollow sometimes. Sometimes I just¬†want her back, damn it, and that’s the end of it. It’s that physical ache that will never really go away, that hole in my chest that’s never going to close, that longing that is not joy.

But death has been swallowed up in victory. On the other side of this we will laugh at it. I don’t know why there is so much suffering in this world, but in spite of it, laughing in its face, I see God’s redemptive work every day. One day I will try to write and make sense of my mother’s life story and testimony, but all I can see when I look at it right now is that redemptive work. It’s all I see, too, when I think about my own grief and loss. See? The battle has already been won. Suffering will end. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

This is why Easter is my favorite holiday. The hope fulfilled. The longing satisfied. The joy, the joy, the joy.

Ever since I had Anna (more on her to come) I have had a lot more time to read than I anticipated thanks to the kindle app on my phone; I read while I feed her. So since she joined us, I’ve blasted through about ten books. (She’s 3 months old.) One of these books was recommended by my sister —¬†March by Geraldine Brooks. It’s a book that tells the story of the father in¬†Little Women. In the book, he serves as a chaplain during the Civil War. I won’t give too much away about it, because you should read it too, but I arrived at book club ready to talk about what I¬†didn’t like about the book. And there were a few things — I didn’t really love the book when I had finished it. But in talking about it, layers of meaning began to be revealed and I realized this was a powerful book with an unusual message.

March talks obliquely about vocation, and the reader is left wondering whether the decisions and choices March made were the right or best ones. Consequently, the book made me think in a new way about my own vocation — motherhood — which is one that has honestly been hard at times for me to accept. I have always liked being a mom, and deep down I have always enjoyed staying home and being a full time homemaker, but I’ll admit I fell prey to “just a mom” syndrome and felt embarrassed that I wasn’t “doing more” with myself, that I was just wasting years at home with small children while I waited for my real life to resume. Reading this book forced me to look at my vocation more honestly and directly, and to be able to see it with the true value that it has. (Note: it has intrinsic value both for what it is, and also because God has called me to it.)

It’s no secret, since I wrote about it several times when Will was a baby, that I struggled a lot with letting go of my career. I spent a long, long time clinging to this idea that I absolutely had to resume my career by a certain deadline, come hell or high water, because if I didn’t — then what? What if I just¬†let go and stopped trying to plan out the future? What if I just … trusted? The idea terrified me, frankly, because I was afraid that if I didn’t I would miss the boat. What boat that was, I don’t know, but I have always hated the feeling of being¬†untethered and that is what I felt in my first few years of motherhood. I felt untethered.

But I’m learning to let that go. Just before I read¬†March I attended a forum at my church on women and vocation. One piece of advice the speaker offered? “Do what’s in front of you.” This was given in response to the question of discerning God’s will for your life. Start by looking at what’s in front of you. And right now, God has placed me here in my home. I realized that my stubborn determination to plan out my future career wasn’t leaving room for anything else. It certainly wasn’t leaving room for God, and I definitely wasn’t following my calling. (I do believe that I am called right now to be a SAHM [though I really hate that title].)

I will talk more about this later, I’m sure, but I did a lot of thinking last month after attending the forum and reading this book. It was a humbling few weeks as I considered how much I was struggling needlessly against the path God had placed me on, but it was also so liberating. Forgive the cliche, but I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and the worry and anxiety I had been carrying around for so long began to dissipate at last.

So thanks, Geraldine Brooks, for giving me the opportunity to think honestly about my vocation and to finally (finally) stop feeling like it’s not good enough. Because of that, I can finally (finally) stop living in fear of the future.

So I follow a number of natural living, health, and nutrition blogs these days. Most of the blogs I read follow Michael Pollan’s advice to “eat real food, not too much, mostly plants”, and I’ve found a lot of helpful resources as I’ve transitioned further and further away from the Standard American Diet. I have been learning so much about health and nutrition in general and it’s been absolutely fascinating. (I drink whole milk! I have wheat berries and I think I might try sprouting them! So much to do!)

Anyway. Being a natural living hippie health nut is all well and good (and a lot of fun) BUT it carries a risk. And that is the risk of arrogantly believing that your superior lifestyle choices are going to save you. One blog I follow posted this question on facebook:

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(Go visit Butter Believer! Have faith in real food!)

There were a ton of responses to her questions, most of which made me silently rage. They included “all the chemicals and toxins in the products they use and food they eat” (love the dismissive use of “they”), “SOY!!!!!!!!!”, “food that is not nourishing & birth control”, “a lot of hormonal issues due to eating habits probably is a huge culprit” and “wheat and low-fat diets”.

Well isn’t that helpful! I broke my never-get-into-internet-arguments-with-strangers rule to add this to this discussion:

response

This kind of attitude is all over the place. When will people learn that try as we might, we can’t control everything? Yes, I take a great interest in my health and well-being in the hopes that I will be able to avoid chronic disease in future years and to live a full, vibrant, and long life. But it would be foolish in the extreme for me to assume that my good choices are going to somehow exempt me from danger. They may protect me, but save me? No. I am trying to do everything “right”, to be sure. But ultimately cancer doesn’t care if I drink organic milk or use a paraben-free body lotion. It might be harder for cancer to find me, but not impossible.

It’s so easy to fall into that trap, though.¬†So easy to start assuming that if you do a, b and c you’ll be saved from x, y and z. And it’s just not that simple. May I never lose sight of that. May I never forget who’s really in control. My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart (Psalm 7:10).

I get so consumed with thinking about the future.

Actually, in my mind it’s not just the future, it’s THE FUTURE, all emphasis, all the time. I get so consumed with thinking about what comes next — when Will is older and he and his future sibling/s are out of the baby stage. Trying to decide about their schooling, about my career, our choices and lifestyle as a family. It gets overwhelming at times.

Just today a song on the radio reminded me of my early days in Virginia. I moved here when I was 24 — no job, no relationship, not even any friends in town! (Leah and my cousin Rebecca both lived here already, though, so it’s not like I was completely alone.) At the time none of this bothered me, but I remember later in my 20s feeling just the way I do now — unable to relax and enjoy the moment because I was so consumed with my anxiety over the future. Would I ever get where I wanted to go?

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(I think this was taken in March 2007.)

Thinking back on that time in my life is like thinking about a different person. Look how different things are now:

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And in the meantime I built meaningful friendships and a career I loved. I got where I was going to go, and I was always going to do so whether or not I spent all my time wondering if THE FUTURE was ever going to arrive. Of course it was. So why was I so worried?

I don’t want to look back on this time in my life and think to myself, why did I spend so much time worrying? Why didn’t I just enjoy it? — AT ALL.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:34

Obviously I can’t ignore the future and expect that that someday I’m thinking about will never arrive. (I’m living 20s-Amy’s someday right now, after all.) Instead, the best thing I can do is keep Future Amy in mind as I make my day-to-day decisions. Make my present look more like the future I am dreaming, rather than wishing away the present in hopes that the future will arrive sooner.

I think the reason I am clinging so tightly to a locked-down, this-is-what-will-happen-and-when step-by-step march into the next decade is that, I’ve realized, this stay-at-home mom lifestyle makes me feel like I am flying without a safety net, like I am untethered to the “outside world”. It feels terribly risky. I don’t know why, but there you go. It’s helping me to expand my definition of what life can be; I think deep down I still doubt that what I do every day is really worthwhile.

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I mean, I doubt Will agrees with that.

Letting go of my anxiety over what comes next means letting go of the trapeze and just … flying. No safety net, just trust.

Time to work this out! I need my yoga mat.

I did a handstand in yoga class for the first time last night, and it was an exercise in faith.

Now, as an absolute beginner to handstand, I of course was not doing this unassisted. I had one person holding my hips, and another one supporting one leg as I kicked up. To my surprise, getting into handstand was not difficult at all. It was maintaining the handstand that was tough. Once I was upside down, handstand became not just a physical challenge, but a mental challenge as well.

So much about yoga for me is learning how to breathe through what my teacher has been calling “therapeutic irritation”. That deep stretch, that muscle shaking, that almost-but-not-quite-painful sensation that advances your asana practice. Learning to breathe in those moments translates into learning to breathe in a larger sense, learning how to stay calm, focused and centered when things in life are hard. But even more right now, it’s an act of faith. It’s trusting that my body can do things it’s never done before, that I can challenge myself and meet that challenge without falling apart.

I did almost fall apart doing handstand. I learned two things very quickly, but not quite quickly enough — one, that my body was, in fact, capable of holding a handstand. And two, that I had people supporting me and that I was not going to fall. (Even though once I got into handstand, I didn’t know what to do with my legs and felt pretty certain I was going to keep falling forward and break my neck. Turns out that wasn’t going to happen.) Handstand is scary! And scary things make it easy to want to panic.

How often do I live like I’m going into handstand for the first time? — forgetting to breathe, forgetting how to stay calm, forgetting even that with two people surrounding me, I wasn’t going to fall. And the fact that despite my doubts, my arms can and did support me. It made me think about how I live out my faith.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13

Why is it so hard to put that into practice? So hard to live that out, and so easy to forget that I’m not doing this alone. I don’t have to worry about falling. I can do all things through him who strengthens me, surrounds me, holds me, bolsters me, challenges, yes — and meets me where I am. I don’t have to panic.

This was my first handstand, but it was definitely not my last. My challenge going forward? Remembering Philippians 4:13 at all times — but especially when I’m upside-down.

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