“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19
In the new year of 2017, I recorded some big plans in my journal:
Create a prayer planner to help people grow in healthy prayer habits.
Walk alongside our daughter as she planned her wedding; attend our son’s college graduation.
Continue teaching Bible study at the jail.
My Plans vs. God’s Plans
As a gospel coach and a Type A personality, I enjoy making plans. Every new year, I set aside time to revisit the stories of the “awesome deeds” (Psalm 145:6) God has done in the previous year and to pray and think about what stories he might write in the coming year. I don’t make resolutions, which I know I will break; I make plans, which I hold loosely.
While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with such a practice, I have begun to wonder if my plans, like the desires C.S. Lewis wrote about long ago, might be too “shallow” and too “weak.” Given that we serve a God who is forever doing “brand new things,” I wonder if I am happy “making mudpies in a slum” when what God has planned for me is a “holiday by the sea.” 
In 2017, the year I recorded those plans in my journal, it seemed the Lord had different plans. While our son did graduate from college, and our daughter did get married, and I did continue teaching at the jail, the Lord also wrote a bigger, better story in my life. In August of 2017, when our twenty-two-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor and proceeded to have four brain surgeries over the next nine months, I became more intimately acquainted with the God who was determined to do an astonishing “new thing,” to “make a way in the wilderness…”
Everything in me wanted to attack. After how I had been mistreated—by a friend no less—no way did I want to absorb the pain. Quite the opposite; in my sinfulness, what I really wanted was for her to hurt too. I wanted her to pay for how she had wronged me.
On the other hand, in my anger and hurt, I really did not want to sin. I wanted to be careful not to say or do anything that would be un-Christ like. I wanted to be forbearing, gracious, and forgiving. But I was afraid that because of how hurt and angry I felt, my contrary nature would win out.
An Ongoing Struggle
This internal conflict is the reality of being in the Spirit, and also living in a broken and fallen world. Through faith in Christ’s redeeming work for us at the cross, we’ve been set free from the power of sin, yet the presence of sin still remains. This means we will continue to deal with these dueling natures within us until we are glorified. Too often though, it seems there is no battle; the flesh just wins out. Like Paul in Romans 7, I identify with the desire to do what is right, but then going on to do what I don’t want to do instead.
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
In an age of public sharing, we see people lament life’s transitions. Moms post pictures of the moving boxes or the progression of their baby bumps with coordinated letter boards. They write about the sadness of the empty womb or express their struggle as they wait for a child’s diagnosis. We’re getting used to embracing the awkward and painful transitions of life by locking arms and coming alongside one another in the journey.
There is some good in this trend. Acknowledging and validating the messy seasons of life assures us we’re not alone. This gives us a sigh of relief. After all, Jesus wept with the hurting, cautious not to gloss over the hardship of struggle, pain, and death. But we have to wonder if positive affirmations and prompts to “look ahead” extend our gaze far enough for real hope.
I can relate to hard seasons of transition when our family size changes. When we had four kids three and under, one being a newborn, the days were incredibly long. One morning before church, my husband left early, leaving me at home with everyone else. I was determined to make food for a potluck we were attending after church. In a couple of hours, I needed to nurse, shower, change everyone’s clothes, and make a meal. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. When we finally made it to the potluck, I was so tired and frazzled, I misstepped and dropped the meal before placing it on the table. Seeing the dish shatter into hundreds of shards of glass on the concrete was an embarrassing representation of my heart during our transition to a new normal. I was a big, hot mess going a hundred directions, unsure of my usefulness in such a pitiful state…
These past few years have been hard on our family. I see the Lord at work, and while this is an anchor of hope, I’d be lying if I said this head knowledge always translates to my heart. I struggle to believe He’s near while everything in me feels abandoned. We are a family of deep intense feelers, and we all process our feelings in different ways. My husband and I feel remarkably underqualified in communicating our own feelings in healthy ways, while at the same time trying to figure out how to teach our children to do the same. In moments of desperation, I ask God why so much has to exhaust us relationally, and why He allows marriage and parenting—even with all of the joys—to be so painful. Sometimes I even wonder if it’s worth it to keep my heart in the fight.
A Necessary Cutting
A few years ago, my father-in-law, a retired forester, cut our azalea bushes down almost to the main stem. It saddened me to agree to it because they were so green and full. Or at least I thought they were. Cutting them seemed counterintuitive, but I learned soon enough that outside appearances don’t always reveal what’s truly below the surface.
Even though I was afraid cutting them back would do irreparable damage, I agreed, trusting his expertise. When he was finished, I saw the true state of the health of our bushes. What was left was nothing but dry, brittle sticks. I wondered, “What if we’ve cut away all the beauty and all we’ll ever have now is dead twigs? At least there were flowers on the outside!”He then showed me the evidence of life inside the branches and explained that since all the foliage on the outside had been cut away, the bush can now get the light it needs to grow.
One theme common to many great stories is the idea of the quest. Any time the author takes the character on a journey, you can be sure there will be some sort of growth and self-discovery to follow. Whether it is Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi or Bilbo Baggins making his way through Middle Earth, quests make for exciting reading.Most quests and adventures include the same elements: the character making the journey, the place they are going, the stated reason to go there, challenges and trials along the way, and finally, the discovery. What was the real reason they needed to make this trip?
As Christ-followers, participants in God’s greater, grander story, we have quests of our own. This journey called “sanctification” can be a wild and wooly one. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn from someone else, who also went on a quest of her own? Sisters, meet Sarah.
We are introduced to this woman, originally called Sarai, whose name means “princess,” along with her husband Abram. She doesn’t seem like a candidate for a heroine; she’s just an ordinary woman, whose husband springs some news on her one day: Pack up. We’re moving.Whoa! I’m sure her first questions were the same as ours would be. Where? And why? And that brings us to parts 2 and 3 of our necessary requirements. Sarah is leaving the only home she has ever known and is going to the promised land. The reason was given to her husband. “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” Was Sarah excited? Was she nervous? She was about to begin the adventure of a lifetime! Was this journey of hope and expectation going to be life-changing? What was at the other end? Would Canaan welcome these travelers?
Recently a friend, who became acquainted with some of my life’s story, asked— rather bluntly— “Lori, do you sometimes wonder if God is really good and if He really loves you since He’s allowed so much hard stuff to happen?”
It was a bold question— one that momentarily stopped me in my tracks. But it was an honest question— one that’s bounced about in my brain a time or two because my life has indeed seemed to make a habit out of things that are hard.
I was conceived in adultery, nearly aborted, and later adopted— but into a home filled with the strife, struggle, and strain of mental illness. I spent a season as an angry atheist before coming to Christ; endured nearly a decade of being abandoned by my adoptive parents; and have a lived my entire life as a person with autism. I’ve grieved at the graveside of my mom, my dad, my father-in-law, and my precious sister-in-law; and right now, my husband is battling cancer while laboring to plant a new church on the Mississippi coast.
So, my friend’s bold question about the character and compassion of God comes out of that context. My life’s been hard — some of your lives have been harder! The truth is, there are times when we struggle with the course God has carved for us and with the intentions and affections He has for us in light of that…
The church I attend recently began a small-group discipleship ministry for our women. As part of getting to know each other better, the leader of my group asked us to share a little-known fact about ourselves. I decided to tell the group about living in Argentina in the early-1970’s. The usual questions regarding life in a foreign country followed, accompanied by my well-practiced answers. Being so far away from family and friends at a time when communication was limited to snail mail was decidedly difficult, but the opportunity to experience a different culture and learn a second language was priceless.We spent two years abroad because my dad accepted a temporary transfer to work for the Argentine subsidiary of his U.S. employer. Thus, part of the pre-move preparations involved my parents’ 2-week, company-paid attendance at a local Berlitz total-immersion language school. It was a stressful, morning-to-night grind, no English allowed.Unlike my beleaguered parents, I began my language studies once we landed in Argentina. I was enrolled in an American school where I had classes in English in the morning and classes in Spanish in the afternoon. That, plus daily interaction with native speakers in our community, provided an excellent learning environment. Nonetheless, my parents hired a tutor to help me with the intricacies of sentence structure and verb tenses.Community ImmersionJust as I benefitted greatly from learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Christians thrive best when we’re part of God’s visible church. Scripture is clear that each of us has an important, God-ordained place in His body (1Corinthians 12:12-30) and that we should not neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10:24-25). Furthermore, God’s family is composed of members of varying ages, abilities, and spiritual maturities, just like biological families. We are called to do life together in compassionate covenant communities, where we rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn and come alongside each other to teach, support, and encourage according to the gifts we’ve been given (Romans 12:3-21).
Comfort—we all crave it, and too often we live for it. I wake up each morning to a fresh brewed pot of Starbucks, preferably Sumatra, but any dark roast will do. Sipping that first strong cup eases me into focus. Nice, right? But this pleasurable morning routine doesn’t hold up away from home, where such an aromatic wakeup is rare. Coffeemakers in hotel rooms are typically in the bathroom (just gross!), and don’t even get me started on powered creamer. So I resort to Diet Coke or to covering my sleep-wrecked self with a coat and a pair of sun glasses to embark on a search for a nearby barista. Over time, my morning pleasure, my comfortable way of easing into the day, has come to own me.
What’s your thing? Maybe it’s that mid-afternoon chocolate bar or nightly cocktail. Maybe it’s something completely unrelated to food and drink. Whatever it is, we can so easily worship the comfort god rather than the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). We worship this idol of comfort by orienting our lives on whatever promises to provide it in the fastest, easiest, most enjoyable way, and the more we indulge, the harder it is to cope without our comfort-providing substances. Our comforts become a prison of our own making.
The day after our honeymoon, just eighteen months after I had accepted Christ as my personal Savior, I moved to Covenant Theological Seminary with my husband who planned to become a pastor. Outwardly, I bravely faced the new things God was calling me to; inwardly, I felt great tension between who I was becoming and who I used to be. By His grace and mercy, God was changing me from the inside out.
My mother passed away from breast cancer when I was fourteen. In my grief after her passing, my life turned upside down and inside out. I didn’t know how to allow myself to feel the pain and loss, so I numbed myself to the pain instead. If you can imagine any girl from your middle school or high school who bullied others, struggled with cutting, or engaged in substance abuse—I was like her. After graduation, I vowed I would never come back to my hometown—facing the shame and pain of my past was something I didn’t have the courage or strength to do on my own. I desired to forget the past—to untether myself from the person I had been.
When we left seminary in 2009, God called my husband to serve in a church just fourteen miles from my hometown. As a new Christian one of the first verses I had memorized was 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, (s)he is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” When we moved back to serve in a church so close to my past life, I tried to let this verse fill every nook and cranny of my heart. It is easy to say 2 Corinthians 5:17 from memory—it is more difficult to live by these words and walk in them.