My grandmother was a librarian. Each time I visited her little white house she would have a new book waiting for me. From a young age she gave me a love of story, a love of diving into someone else’s thoughts and words bringing adventure to life. To this day, I love getting lost in someone else’s story. I love those beginning chapters that set up the plot, the page-turning chapters when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and then the best part: when it all comes together to a satisfying conclusion.
Recently, I’ve been challenged to think about my own story. What do I see in the twist and turns, the moments of not knowing what is going to happen next, and the parts that could be considered an adventure but don’t always make sense?
A Red Carpet of Faithfulness
At 29, I was a single girl living in New York City, on the cusp of a big life decision. I’ll never forget sitting in a downtown Manhattan office building with a sweet friend seeking her advice on what I should do. I wanted her to tell me exactly what to do (or maybe what not to do). She was the type of friend who could be honest with me, but in a gentle way.
To my surprise, instead of telling me what I should do, she began asking questions about my life. She asked me to recount different seasons of my life when I was unsure of what to do and what led me to take the next step. She sat there quietly, just listening, and then she said something that changed my life in a significant way. In her soft voice she said, “Bethany when I hear your story, it makes me think about a red carpet. As you look back on your life, you see the red carpet being rolled out for you. However, that red carpet isn’t a carpet at all, but God’s faithfulness in your life…
Early in the pandemic lockdown, I was determined to be productive. Like many of my friends, I used some of my new-found time to do deep house cleaning including purging things that tend to collect in every available closet, shelf, and drawer. Before long, my Tupperware was properly matched with lids and arranged by size. The junk drawer was decluttered. Clothes were tried on to see if they “sparked joy” a la Marie Kondo.
Then came the big stuff. Stuff that has not been used in years but somehow, I haven’t wanted to let go. The waffle maker that would have to be dusted to be used. Shoes that once matched an outfit no longer in style. Books I enjoyed but will not reread. Finally, the attic! Holiday decorations so abundant that every year I have to decide which items I will display because they all can’t be used at the same time. It became clear that I am clinging to too much stuff!
Not that I am not grateful. In fact, I am very thankful for the abundance that I enjoy. But during this period of self-quarantining, I am haunted by the role these possessions have in my life. This was on my mind when, during a morning devotion, I read Matt 6:19-21 through this new lens. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Ouch! Have I been busy “laying up treasures on earth?” I don’t want my mind and heart to be so obsessed with the physical things in my life that I lose sight of eternal treasures…
Every spring I have ambitious plans for creating a beautiful haven in my back yard. I pour over magazines, dreaming of lush plants, tranquil water features, and sheer beauty spilling from every bed. I put on my gardening gloves and head out, ready to conquer the curse of thorns and thistles and bring beauty and order to my corner of creation.
I usually last about 4 hours before I give up.
Gardening is hard! This year we spent all of our time and gardening budget on removing poison ivy and hauling in a truckload of rich soil. None of this produced the magazine worthy garden of my dreams. Yet all of it was incredibly necessary. Gardening takes time, hard work, and patience. It requires me to commit to the long haul, to get my hands dirty, and to wear myself out investing in things no one else will see so that beauty can spring forth from a ground that is cursed. I struggle to live in the tension that exists between toil and fruition.
Digging in a Desolate Land
I am not alone in this struggle. In some of Israel’s hardest seasons, when their lives probably felt like a pile of dirt and poison ivy, God made his people a promise. He spoke of a day when, “their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more” (Jer. 31:12). To his people living in exile, who lived with uncertainty and unrest, God proclaimed, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden…I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which is desolate” (Ez. 36:35-36). God comforted his children in tumultuous times by reminding them that he is a gardener…
There is a short-term mission trip truth that many of us understand: The one going on the mission trip usually receives way more than the people to whom we are hoping to minister. And that was true last summer when I visited some old friends of mine in Kenya. A team of women from my church went to teach at a women’s leadership conference and put on a medical clinic. It was fantastic.
If the Lord Wills
As we arrived, we started reconnecting with women I hadn’t seen for years. It felt a little like old home week! I was laughing and chatting with a friend of mine when I remembered something about her. This woman would rarely make a statement regarding her future without ending that sentence with the phrase: “If the Lord wills.” It was like her own personal punctuation mark.
She’ll say something like, “Sue, I will see you in the morning, if the Lord wills.” My friend is a farmer and lives her life a little more hand-to-mouth than some of us do. She lost her daughter tragically and has a deep faith in the Lord. She knows exactly what it feels like to pray for rain, food, clothing, and all the Matthew 6:25-33 things. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes forget that the Lord has a plan, a sovereign plan, and everything we have is from his hand.
One of the most difficult days for me since this whole crisis started last March was when I began to clear my calendar of upcoming events, both professional and personal. I mean, I wasn’t simply postponing things or rescheduling. I was removing them from existence. It hurt. Many of us have experienced grief and loss of many kinds during this season…
If someone asked you in 2015, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” would you have said, “In the middle of a pandemic?” More than likely, it never crossed your mind. Suffice it to say we are all not experiencing what we expected. Here is the big question #1, how do we deal with the gap between what we expect and what we experience? Sometimes it feels as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. Big question #2 follows closely behind, what will fill the gap? Since we are all riding this fluid wave of uncertainty, the potential fillers are limitless. Here is my real-time confession of what has filled my gap since March.
Fear of getting sick. Fear of suffering. Fear of disappointing others in a cancel culture. Fear a scratch church plant named King’s Cross we sought to launch in March will not flourish. Fear of the unknown. In Latin anxiety means “to choke.” There are more than a few days when these fears feel like they are strangling me. But when I look across this insurmountable chasm, I ask my Father for faith to fill the gap. I know without it, it will be impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6).
I am a long-range planner by nature. Last year I traveled to locations all over North America working with Hinged teams to make our conference plans. I remember praying with teams, but I am not sure any of us quoted “if the Lord wills” (James 4:15). These past six months, I have led these teams through a disappointment discipleship course. It was the class we never wanted to attend. It is a gospel classroom where we ask God to transform us in the gap. The curriculum is designed by the Spirit to produce endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-5)…