Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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When God’s Abundance Turns Sour Circumstances Sweet

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In Faithful, Abundant, True:  Three Lives Going Deeper Still Priscilla Shirer says:  “As I’ve considered different seasons of my life, it’s occurred to me that I’ve often been waiting on my circumstances to change before feeling like I can experience God’s abundance.  We often think:  If I can just get out of this season and into the next one, then I know abundance will be waiting for me.  If I can just get out of this disappointing, frustrating circumstance I’m in, then I know I’ll experience God’s best”  (p.68).

Like Priscilla, this thought process has occurred in different seasons of my life.   One time that stands out was my freshman year in college when it felt like all of the comforts and security of home were stripped away from me.  Instead of embracing the exciting new phase I’d entered, I grieved the end of my childhood.  Making meaningful connections with new friends was a struggle and I longed to be known and valued.  I viewed my new surroundings in Southern California with a critical eye and compared everything to home.   Nothing met my unrealistically high standards.  I thought: If I could just leave this place, I would be happier.

In spite of my struggles, I knew I had to figure out how to make things work.  I grew up in a home where “We Don’t Quit” was a motto—I could even picture the paper with my dad’s printing written in green felt pen and pinned to my brother’s bulletin board.   I didn’t want to give up so easily after all the hard work of getting into college and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint my family.

So, in the midst of my intense loneliness, I turned to God– the only One I felt really knew and loved me in this strange place so far from home.  For the first time in my life I needed and wanted to spend time studying His word to find truths that would sustain and encourage me.  I poured out my heart in prayer, sharing my struggles and heartaches.  I listened to Christian music at night as I fell asleep.  It bathed my mind with God’s comforting promises, which seemed more relevant to me than they ever had before.

As the school year progressed, I slowly began to accept my new surroundings, to find friends and to enjoy Christian fellowship.  By the time my parents came to collect me in June, I realized that I was leaving a little piece of me behind as we drove up back to Northern California.  More importantly, my relationship with God was stronger and deeper than it had ever been in my life.

In the midst of my misery and loneliness, I’d discovered the abundance of God’s love and the reassurance of knowing that He would always be with me.  By removing me from the comfort and security of my earthly home, He showed me that my ultimate comfort and security came first and foremost from Him.  God took my sour outlook and sweetened it slowly as He revealed Himself to me during that difficult year.

There have been many other times when I’ve struggled through hard things. Difficulties are always going to pop up, but that doesn’t mean we just have to grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way through them.  God is there with us and has things to show us through our struggles.  Priscilla Shirer says it well:  “The abundant life is not when no impossible situations occur and you’re experiencing peace, joy, and happiness.  While that’s nice, true abundance is really seen when you’re sitting in a prison circumstance, when you’re eye to eye with an impossible situation, and right in the heart of your impossible, you experience the fullness of God”  (p.69).

Seven years ago I found myself staring impossible right in the face and felt hopeless to do anything about it. My Dad’s health was rapidly deteriorating as a debilitating neurological disease ravaged his mind and body.  Although we loved each other, we’d never had a great relationship.  We’d both made feeble attempts to connect at various times in life, but they never produced much.  As I watched him decline, I despaired that I’d lost the chance to develop a close relationship with him because of his compromised state.

And then, right in the heart of impossible, God showed up and made the last two weeks of my Dad’s life our sweetest time together.   He gave me the courage to initiate sharing thoughts with my Dad that I’d never been able to verbalize before.  Although his ability to think and speak was painfully slow, he responded and we had several tender conversations.  It was the first time we shared honestly how we felt about each other without the usual awkwardness or sarcasm that characterized our relationship.   By the time my dad passed away I had a peace about our relationship that had eluded me for my entire life.  I’d thought my Dad’s illness had eliminated any possibility of having a meaningful connection with him, but God used it to bring us together in a way I never would have anticipated.

Ironically, the relationship with my dad that had been such a source of pain and hopelessness for me was the catalyst that launched me into sharing my writing with others.  After my dad passed away, I wrote about our final days together and submitted it for consideration in an anthology of short stories.  To my surprise, the story was chosen and published in 2013 in a book called When God Makes Lemonade:  True Stories that Amaze and Encourage.  I was humbled to discover that God often uses the hardest things in our lives to reveal Himself to us.  Reading the book has showed me the authors of the other stories experienced something similar.
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The truth is we get access to God’s power when we lay our weaknesses and difficulties at His feet.  The apostle Paul knew this when he wrote 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10:

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

When we take our hard circumstances and our weaknesses and entrust them to Jesus, we invite Him to bring change.  Sometimes He changes the hard things we’re dealing with, sometimes He gives us the courage to take action, but often He changes our perspectives more than anything else.  There is no circumstance too large or too small for Him.  Paul tells us God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).  We can have great hope remembering that He can go beyond our wildest imaginings.

Is there a sour circumstance in your life?  Maybe something that seems impossible to change?   God can and will work to bring sweetness to it in His perfect timing.  He is able.  Are you willing to let Him show you?

For added perspective on this topic, click on the link to listen to Laura Story’s song “Blessings.”  It will show you how God uses hard situations to change us and to show us a new perspective.

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Christians Never Have to Say Goodbye

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Kristi and me in Inverness, Scotland 1991

I wrote a blog about heaven this past December called “Traveling Light with and Eye Towards Home.”  In it, I recounted the story of backpacking in Europe with my friend, Kristi.  What I didn’t mention in that posting was that Kristi was in remission after a nine-month battle with breast cancer.  We didn’t know that it was only a temporary reprieve.  The cancer returned with a vengeance in March of this year.  I had no idea that my blog on heaven would become so relevant so soon.

As Kristi’s health declined, I longed to see her face-to-face and prayed God would show me the right timing to make a trip to her home in Texas.   We’d talked, texted and e-mailed regularly throughout her illness, but it just wasn’t the same as being with her.  At the end of April the timing was right and after getting the green light from Kristi and her husband, I booked a flight to Austin.  Traveling alone, I had some good time to prepare myself emotionally and spiritually.  I also had a number of friends and family supporting me with prayer at home.  I asked God to use me to bless and encourage Kristi and her family.  I was anxious about seeing my spunky friend sick and wondering how the weekend would go.

When I finally arrived at her house, Kristi greeted me warmly and maneuvered across the room to give me a hug. She wore a headscarf and gingerly pushed a walker but her broad smile and cheerful spirit remained intact.  In fact, I was amazed at the amount of things we did over the course of the weekend considering Kristi’s frailty.   Her family was bound and determined to give me a full “Lone Star State Experience” when they found out I’d never been there before.  So, in spite of going to give them help, I got a big dose of Texas hospitality in return.

On Saturday morning I sat with Kristi at a hometown parade watching three of her four kids smiling and waving from one of the floats.  Afterwards, I experienced my first Texas thunderstorm- a two-hour deluge unlike anything we have in California.   I spent a quiet afternoon organizing Tupperware in the kitchen after painting Kristi’s toenails metallic blue (she was in desperate need of a pedicure).  While she was resting, her 6 year-old son appeared in the doorway dressed as Captain America and glumly declared “I’m bored.” As any mom would, I countered “How about showing me some of your toys?”  Thanks to my boys, I knew a thing or two about comic book heroes and Lego mini figures, which earned me serious status as I sat playing with him.  That evening I tasted my first “Texas Barbeque” without a plate or utensils at Rudy’s (a combination of a restaurant and gas station).

Sunday morning I was in charge of loading Kristi’s wheelchair into their Suburban and driving the family to church while her husband competed in a triathlon.   Later that afternoon we attended a family reunion in an adobe house that was over 100 years old.   It was a fun and busy weekend filled with moments of laughter and light-heartedness- definitely not what I was anticipating.

On Sunday morning after church, Kristi and I had a rare moment alone at the house.  Feeling prompted by the Holy Spirit, I asked if I could share Psalm 34 with her, which I’d read in Jesus Calling earlier that morning.  It seemed to fit her circumstances perfectly (funny how the Bible does that…):

“I will extol the Lord at all times;
 his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.

Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.

This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.

The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing…The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted 
and saves those who are crushed in spirit”  (Verses 1-10, 17-18).

Later, before leaving for the airport, I found another quiet moment with Kristi and her husband.  It was a blessing and privilege it was to lay hands on them to pray after being apart for the duration of her battle with cancer.  I left feeling at peace, so glad for the time we’d spent together and not entirely sure it was the last time I’d see Kristi in this life.  It seemed like she still had a lot of fight left in he and the family had definitely not given up hope.

As school let out in June, I received word that Kristi’s cancer was spreading and her doctors had run out of viable options for her. I was so glad I’d traveled to see her, but felt I had one more thing to do that I’d been avoiding.  So, I sat at the computer one afternoon and wrote Kristi a letter.  I’d been overwhelmed thinking of how to sum up a friendship that began when we were in 8th grade and spanned so many years.  We’d experienced so much of life together, how could I capture that in a few pages?  With the Holy Spirit guiding me, I wrote a simple letter and sent it with a CD of songs to encourage Kristi and her family.   Here is an excerpt from that letter:

In spite of all these milestone moments we’ve shared, I think the one that means the most to me happened over the course of summer and fall in 1988.  Newly graduated from high school, we both launched in different directions with the same purpose:  working at Christian camps to serve, grow and (of course) have fun.   Working at Houseboats was transformational to my faith and my life choices.  I remember coming home so excited that I finally really “got” my faith and loved God in a way I never really had before.  Returning to life and friends at home was hard and I felt like a stranger in a strange land.   Most people outside my family looked at me like I’d gone a little crazy from being around so many Christians for so long. 

The one exception to this was you.  I can remember talking to you and hearing about your experience at Redwood Camp and realizing that we had both had life-changing and faith-changing experiences that would forever alter the courses of our lives.  I can’t tell you what a relief it was for me to discover that I was not alone and that there was someone who understood the choices I was making and affirmed me for them.  A deeper bond grew between us from that day forward.  Our friendship wasn’t just based on fun times and shared memories, but on a passionate love for Jesus and a desire to follow Him with our lives.

As we headed off to college, we were both set on finding Christian friends and plugging into ministries at our new schools.  Like most of our friends, we both chose to join sororities.  Although the social scene was familiar to us, it felt a bit different now that we’d fully committed to God and were not “riding the fence” as we had in high school days. 

For me, this proved to be pretty challenging at first.  I can remember struggling to find Christian friends among my peers in the Greek System.  As a freshman, I wanted to fit in and make new friends. I called you for some encouragement and you admonished me not to fall back into the lukewarm waters of our high school years and to stand firm in my faith.  You told me it was good for me to stand out as different and pointed out that this could be a great avenue for sharing my faith with a group of people who desperately needed to hear the truth.  I can remember thinking “Wow, God has really given her a strength and conviction that are pretty amazing.”  I don’t know if I ever really told you, but that “pep talk” gave me the courage to press on, to be different and to be a light in a dark place.

If I’ve never said it before, let me say it now:  Kristi, thank you for being a voice of Truth when I needed it most.  The impact you had on me at that time made a significant difference in my life choices.  I’ll never forget your words of encouragement that day or in the days that followed.

Thank you for your partnership in the gospel for these many long years.  I rejoice knowing we will spend eternity praising Him together.

“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers…I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 1:3a-6

Kristi’s husband read the letter to her on Friday, June 28th.  I’m so glad I responded to the Spirit’s prompting to write it.  On July 2, I received word that my sweet friend breathed her last with her husband at her side.  She was freed from her broken body and finally at home in heaven.

A week after receiving this news, I had a dream about Kristi.  We were having a conversation and sharing some final moments together.  I don’t remember the words, but there was a feeling of warmth and peace between us.  She was smiling, confident and reassuring.   Moments later I awoke in the dark and realized I wasn’t just crying in my dream, but in reality.  As I sat up to wipe away the tears and blow my nose, I felt the relief of emotional release. Adjusting to this new reality has been hard; the sadness churns in me but tears have not flowed very freely.

I am still processing this huge loss, yet there is a peace in me that is deeper still.  Kristi lived every moment pointing people to Jesus until she took her final breath.  The faith and trust she and her family showed in her last 15 months impacted countless people and opened their eyes to God’s saving grace.   He used their hard circumstances to bring about much good in their lives and the lives of many others.

I walk in confidence knowing that I will see Kristi again.  I’ll paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ sentiments from the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken:  Christians never have to say “Goodbye”, only, “Until we meet again.”

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Georgetown, Texas 2013