Unexpected Gifts

Sometimes, I read old blog entries and I’m like, “Wow, did I really write that?” It’s weird to hear a message from your five-years-ago-self. Super weird. But this came up in my Facebook memories today. And, I say this with as much surprise as you might: it’s good. Like really good. Hahahahaha. Merry Christmas my friends!

Lightning Bug

Photo by claritaPhoto by clarita

Do you remember that Christmas present you always wanted but never got? I found mine while reverently flipping through the Sears Wish Book, eyes wide, excitement bubbling through my veins. I circled the picture over and over, practically cutting a hole through the paper with the tip of my pen. Then, when I showed my parents, they promptly informed me that a Barbie Dream House was not in the budget nor would it fit in our two bedroom apartment. Even after a letter to Santa and some earnest prayers, come Christmas day, among all the presents under the tree, there was no Barbie Dream House. So goes life. Sometimes, we ask for one thing and get another.

Most of the time, such disappointments are small and quickly forgotten. But at other times, they hurt. Imagine the child who wants a set of paints or a guitar but…

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No Strings Attached | Why I Stopped Defending God

DONE DEFENDING GOD

I’m done defending God. To family. To friends. To you. To the world. But most of all, I’m done defending God to myself.

I gave it up several weeks ago – cold turkey, as they say – when something masquerading as a gift appeared nearby. Something that for now brings smiles and giddiness and dreams that buzz through skin like the flush of red wine. But like all young things, it carries the seeds of its own potential destruction. Beneath the shiny, crimson skin there lurks a poison. And I lie awake at night wondering which will be the fatal bite: the first, the fifth, the fiftieth?

Enraged would be a mild description of how I feel. Because I see what’s coming. I see a day when this imposter dressed in pretty colors slips off her overcoat to reveal the disappointment, the heartbreak. And I don’t want to watch my people hurt anymore.

What really burns is knowing that God could have prevented this. He could have prevented this. But He didn’t. So here I am. Again. Watching helplessly.

And I am tempted to try to talk myself out of this reality, to try to convince myself that God will do things differently this time…that He has a good reason…a bigger plan…a better plan.

It’s a thing we learn to do as Christians – to tell ourselves who God really is in spite of what the world tells us. As if we know who He really is. As if we can understand what He’s really doing.

RUMORS OF GOD

I know I’m probably freaking some of you out at this point, right? After all, aren’t we supposed to preach the gospel to ourselves, battle the lies with the truth of His word? Aren’t those good things? Yes, they are…until they aren’t.

Until they become just another work of the flesh, another attempt to figure God out, define the boundaries of who He is, carve out features we recognize, features that make us feel safe, or strong or big or small or whatever it is we think we need at the time.

So when confronted with this new circumstance, I was tempted to run and hide myself in the “truth”. I told myself things like “God won’t hurt her” and “If He does, it’s only for her good” and yada, yada, yada. But none of it rang true. Like oil on water, these “truths” refused to sink in. Because they weren’t real. They weren’t actually true.

What evidence do we have that God won’t hurt us? Or if He does, that it’s only for our good? Look at Job, for crying out loud. What did he get out of that hot mess? Nothing. Except, perhaps, a very painful learning experience, which he probably could have done just fine without.

As far as we can tell, God made Job suffer because of a bet He made with Satan.

And when, after immeasurable loss and suffering, Job finally presses God for an explanation, God doesn’t even try to defend himself. He doesn’t say “OK, here’s all the reasons I needed to let you suffer. Here’s why I’m still good. Here’s why you can still trust me.”

Not even close. Rather He turns on His booming master-of-the-universe voice and basically tells Job to suck it.

Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
….Now what do you have to say for yourself?
Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges? (Job, MSG)

Those are the bookends of a long speech in which God’s singular defense is His own awesomeness. He’s like “Job, shut up. Listen. I’m God. You think you can do the things I do? You think you can understand the things I understand? Well, you can’t. So just stop.”

It’s like the biggest non-answer answer in the history of the world. Jesus often used the same tactic. People asked a question and Jesus answered with a question.

And why shouldn’t He, when we go to Him demanding reasons or explanations that we can cut and measure and stack and cobble into an image of a god we can understand – a god we can shape and mold and fit into our human-sized minds. A god we can handle.

Even answers can become an idol. Even reasons and understanding and explanations can become gods if we want them more than we want God himself.

Job learned that the hard way.

I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears! (Job, MSG)

Isn’t that what we do? We settle for rumors of God. Because a god whose motives and means we can understand…that’s a god we can control – a predictable god, a safe god, a god we can carry.

Only we’re so busy creating this god we can carry, we forget that what we really need is a God Who can carry us.

So I’m done listening to the rumors – yours, mine, anybody’s – about who God is. And I’m done feeding them to you. Because God doesn’t need defending. He didn’t defend himself to Job. He didn’t defend Himself on Calvary. So I’m pretty sure He’s not waiting on me to defend Him to anyone, including myself.

So from now on, when I look at God and see someone who’s always setting me up for the fall, like Lucy to Charlie Brown, I won’t try to convince myself otherwise.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not who He is, but if He wants me to know that, He can show me. It’s really up to Him, don’t you think?

NO STRINGS ATTACHED – A VISION

At around the same time that I made the decision to stop defending God, (which by the way is rather freeing) I had a “vision” of sorts. I was praying during worship (on THP, which I figure my daughter would like to know) and I saw this image of thousands and thousands of strings. And each string was attached on one end to God in heaven and on the other end, to a circumstance of my life here on earth. In that moment, I realized that my understanding of the Lord has always been tied to my circumstances, because I let life – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly – define Him.

Then I saw giant shears, snipping away at the strings, five, 10, 20 at a time. And I heard God say, “No strings attached. Now, you will get to know me with no strings attached.”

And isn’t that what Job did? Isn’t that what it’s like to follow God with no explanations? No neat and tidy reasons?

I will not tie God to my circumstances anymore. For better or for worse. That means that bad things aren’t evidence of a bad God. And good things aren’t evidence of a good God. And I will just have to wait here to find out who He is.

I said before that it’s freeing – not defending God. It’s also terrifying. Like stepping off the edge of a cliff without a net.

I’m not gonna lie. It’s been painful. Painful. But it’s also real. And real is so much better than rumors.

Because above all else, I want my God to be real. It starts there, don’t you think? Because if He isn’t real, nothing else matters.

So I’ve been waiting. Afraid. Hurting. Angry. Doubtful.

And then one recent Sunday, I had the privilege of helping orchestrate a special communion service focused on the King of Love. While preparing for communion, the congregation reflected on which aspect of God’s love meant the most to them over the last year. People then wrote that word down on a piece of paper and, upon going up for communion, dropped their cards in a basket. During the remainder of worship, I categorized the cards and handed them to a friend who painted the words on a canvas, which our pastor revealed later, during his message about loving our enemies.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

The service was powerful. (Listen here if you want!)

But for me, the sweetest moment came as I sat on the floor surrounded by hundreds of cards all proclaiming God’s active love for the person who penned each word.

Some cards shared the same word but each was unique, written by a different hand, a different person, with a different life experience. I read them over and over as the song played on: “You don’t give your heart in pieces…You don’t hide yourself to tease us…Your live is wild…Your love is not ashamed to be seen with me.” (Pieces by Amanda Cook)

There, spread out before me, was evidence of the real God, manifest in the lives of my people. Broken, hurting, joyful, thriving, aching, loving, battling people.

There on a torn carpet, surrounded by bits of paper and ink, He revealed Himself to me.

Strong. Unshakeable. Relentless. Enough. Faithful. Unspeakable. Patient. Long-suffering. Steadfast. Like the spring rain. Merciful. Costly. Perfect.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

And I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have to dig Him up or carve Him out or hunt Him down or figure Him out or defend Him to anyone, including myself.

“Here I am, Nichole.” It was as simple as that.

No strings attached.

 

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When Thanksgiving is a Sacrifice

I don’t want give thanks. Sorry, Ann Voskamp, but my heart can’t hear you now.

I gaze at the starry sky, watch thunderheads roll out over the ocean and lightning bolts streak from the clouds to the water; I stand in speckled green sunlight beneath rows of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss…and I don’t want to say, thank you.

Because to accept these things, these moments, as gifts, and to open my heart to offer thanks, feels wrong somehow. More than wrong. It actually hurts.

To thank Him for what He’s given, reminds me of what He’s taken. Thanksgiving requires receiving. And to receive I must open my hand, my heart…see, feel the ugly, weeping wound. To receive, I must let go.

He gives and takes away.

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Desperate

Have you ever been desperate for God? To feel Him holding you, to know He sees you, to hear Him speak to you?

So desperate that if He were standing before you, you would climb into His lap, bury your trembling body between His shoulders and will Him to wrap you tightly in His arms?

But He’s not, is He? Standing before you, that is.

He’s not standing before me – not in a reach-out-and-touch-Him-with-my-hands kind of way. And some days, that’s the way I need Him.

Today. That’s the way I need Him today.

Sometimes we experience God’s embrace through the arms of another person, a hug, a squeeze of the hand. Or we see Him looking out at us through the eyes of a friend. Or we hear Him speaking to us on the lilt of their words.

Only I’m alone.

And even God’s word feels foreign to me. No. Rather, I feel foreign to God’s word. Impenetrable.

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On Being a Girl | Late Night Ramblings

Tough. Sharp. Witty. Snarky. Capable. Independent. Powerful. Like super-powerful, machine gun, taser wielding, ninja powerful. In control. Emotionally guarded. Mysterious. Beautiful…in an average-girl-made-alluring-by-her-mystery-and-inaccessibility kind of way. Likes others, even loves others, but doesn’t need anyone.

That’s the girl I want to be: Ziva David, Sydney Bristow, Kate Austen, Veronica Mars.

Today I read an article in Smithsonian magazine about Amazon women, in which the author, Amanda Foreman, suggests that girls don’t want to be girls unless we have powerful, warrior-like heroes and role models, like Wonder Woman. That ruffled my feathers a bit. Maybe some girls want to be girly girls…soft, submissive, sweet, meek. And that’s OK, right?

 

 

Then I sat down and devoured season three of Veronica Mars and realized – I am that article. I want, have always wanted, to be Sydney, Ziva, Kate, Veronica. I mean, I even dressed up as the Black Widow for our Christmas Card for crying out loud:

Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

So maybe there’s something to this Amazon woman deal after all. Because apparently I want to be Wonder Woman. (With more clothes on, thank you.)

So what’s that about? Power? Control?

Is it bad? Is it wrong to want to be strong and powerful? Maybe not.

But to want to be always in control? (Eve calling….)

To want to be independent? To need no one else?

There is this part of me that wants to shut out the whole world. To keep my heart all to myself. To keep my love for others wrapped up tightly inside, hidden away.

So that all my love is mine. And all my pain is mine. And all my fear is mine. And all my joy is mine. And all my grief is mine. And all my shame is mine. And all my everything….is mine.

And you can’t have it. You can’t see it or touch it or feel it or know it. You can’t have it. Because you can’t have me.

And there it is.

A cursed and wounded heart, frozen by freedom’s great imposter: independence.

But I want it so badly. Today, more than any other day, I feel it – how strong it is, this idol that rules my heart.

And so I ride fences and seek pleasures that harm me. Always wanting what I can’t get. Pawing, stamping the dusty earth along the rails…butting against walls that hold me in, chasing freedom. Freedom from pain and people and expectations and false hope.

But walking through this world alone is its own sort of prison…with transparent, icy walls that deceive me into believing that love is safer when it can’t touch me, that seeing is enough. Will I ever be able to let someone love me? Tell me, Don Henley, when will it be too late?

This idol…this me wanting me all to myself…it has to go. It has to go.

But how? How do I surrender who I am? The only thing I have…me?

But do I even have me or is it just an illusion, a lie? Because who am I anyway? How did I get here and how will I go?

I am not my own. I didn’t make me. I can’t keep me.

Or more astutely:

It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, then I first begin to have a real personality of my own…There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given yourself to Him you will not have a real self…Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. – CS Lewis

Oh the futility of my fight. On my own, I am nothing.

And I feel tired. And I don’t want Him to love me or comfort me BECAUSE I AM ANGRY. Angry like a 6 year old girl who just realized that someday she will die. That this life – this awesome, beautiful, terrible, wondrous life – will end. Will be snatched out, like a carpet, from under her feet, knocking her hard on the floor and stealing the breath from her lungs. No more blue sky and green trees and grass to tickle the feet and beaches to wander and dreams to dream and futures to plan.

And she lies there thinking, “Who is this God that gives and takes away?”

And the pain and betrayal run deep. So deep that even nail-scarred hands that gave everything burn. Because this place is raw. And the healing hurts.

And I wonder…who am I? Why did You make me? Why did you make me a girl? What does it even mean? Who should I want to be? How should I want to be? Is it safe to want to be anything? Or will you snatch that out from under me too?

Or will you take this broken, wounded, angry girl…and remake me into something beautiful? Something strong? Something good? Something free?

There are so many things I want to be, but Lord, can You make who I am?

 

No More How-to-live-a-good-Christian-life Books!

Last week a friend emailed me asking to borrow some books for her vacation. In her note she wrote something like this, “I want good, enjoyable fiction. I don’t want another book on how to live a good Christian life. I already have more of those than I can count.”

I thought, “Preach it, sister!”

Self-improvement books are burdensome. Because somewhere deep inside I know the truth: I can’t improve myself.

I have books stacked on my bay window, books lining the shelves in our basement, books piled on my nightstand, books overflowing onto the floor and books creeping under my bed…oh yeah, and books on my Kindle. And while some of them are fiction and poetry and science geeky kind of stuff, a whole lot of them are “how to live the good Christian life” books.

Which is interesting, because I’ve never liked how-to-be-a-better-kind-of-anything books. Actually, I may be the only parent in the history of modern parenting that hasn’t read a book on how to be a better parent. (“Ah, that explains it,” you remark to yourself. I can hear you!)

Despite my disdain for such books, they’ve still found their way into my home, like sugar ants crawling over the countertops in the springtime.

Sure, books like that can be helpful. Sometimes. But I can only think of two or three that have genuinely impacted my life. (Admittedly, my avoidance of such books may affect the odds.) Most of the time self-improvement books, even the Christian kind, wear me out. With every turn of the page, every latest idea, next step or new plan, I feel a heaviness descend upon me, and I am weighed down by could-haves and should-haves and have-tos and want-tos and before I know it I’m carrying 10 times the weight of the book on my back.

Books weigh a lot – just try moving a box of them – but self-improvement books are burdensome. Because somewhere deep inside I know the truth: I can’t improve myself.

None of us can. We can’t fix the brokenness we inherited nor mend the brokenness we cause. That’s why we need Jesus. Yesterday. Today. Every day.

I know there’s some verses out there on this topic…let’s see:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5

Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain…Psalm 127:1

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Matthew 23:27-28

Sadly, many self-improvement books are just instructions on how to whitewash ourselves. No wonder they’re burdensome! Any attempt at righteousness is more than we can bear.

I felt not only burdened but trapped, caught in the sticky web of do this and be that.

I can’t fix myself. I can’t improve myself. And I can’t even pretend very well. Because deep inside, I know…I know what’s deep inside. I know what I’ve done and I know how I think and I know what I fear and I know what I hate and I know that sooner or later, I’m going to screw up again. (And chances are it’ll be sooner.)

I’m not saying that every “how to have a good Christian life” book is worthless or that you should never read them. But if my friend feels this way and I feel this way, well, chances are that some of you feel this way too.

Last week, after reading my friend’s email, I realized just how much this self-improvement mentality was once again weighing me down. I felt not only burdened but trapped, caught in the sticky web of do this and be that. And I wasn’t even in the middle of a self-improvement book.

What does that tell you?

This self-improvement/life-improvement mentality pervades our atmosphere. It’s runs through the veins of our culture. There’s almost no escaping the madness. And yet there’s a way. There’s always a Way. Which leads me to my next point: self-improvement mentality keeps my focus on me and off of Jesus. And “me” is a small, murky, unpredictable place to be.

So while I’m not suggesting you throw out all those books, I do encourage you to throw off the weight of self-improvement, or life-improvement or whatever you call it. Just let it go. (Oh gosh, now I’ll be singing that song all night – by the way, a post on that movie is in the works.)

Now where were we…yes, let it go. No! Not the surrender to your curse and harm the whole kingdom kind of let it go! Let it go like surrender to God let it go. (Geez, I really need to finish that blog post.) Whoops! Went off the rails there a bit. But seriously….

Surrender to Him your feeble attempts at making yourself better, making your life better. Lay it all down. Again. But not because I say so. After all, this is NOT a self-improvement blog. In case the previous two paragraphs weren’t evidence enough of my questionable methods, let me just say it outright: I can’t make you better. I just happen to know Someone who can, Someone who will. Which is why I write a drive-my-readers-into-the-arms-of-God kind of blog, and hopefully make you smile while doing it. (Contrary to what you may think, my goal is not to drive you into His arms screaming and crying…but hey…if it works…)

So go to the Source. Surrender to Jesus because that’s what He says to do…over and over and over again. (Psalm 46:10Mat. 11:28-30, Prov. 3:5-6Ps. 37:7, Mark 14:35-36, Jer. 10:23)

And feel Him slip the burden off your back and free you from the tangled web of lies and wash you clean. Let Him hold you in his arms and quiet you with his love and rejoice over you with singing. (Zeph. 3:17) And let His song heal you. He’s the only one who can.

The Day I was Done with God

Some days – far more often than I would like to admit – I feel like God has pulled the rug out from under my feet. Or better yet, that I am Charlie Brown and God is Lucy, who’s just swiped the football away from me, again. I try and try and try and no matter what, I miss, I fail, I fall. And there I am, lying flat on my back, staring up at the sky shouting, “Really? Really?!!”

Oooohhh, can I get angry. I mean the breaking-things kind of angry. On my worst days, you can find me shaking my mental fist at God, silent screams reverberating in my gut, “I am doing my best here, God! I am trying! Why…do…you…keep…making…this…so…impossible?! Do you want me to fail?!”

But on the very worst day, I spat out something pretty much exactly like this: “You know what, God? That’s it. I’m done with You.”

Yes, I actually said that. (I shudder every time I tell this story.) And there’s more….

“You and me, God. We’re done. I’ve had it. I’m sick of you bailing on me, on my kids, on my family. So that’s it. No more. No more quiet times. No more prayer. No more me relying on you for anything. We. Are. Done.”

It’s awful, I know. Horrible, dreadful, treacherous. What was I thinking?! Well…I wasn’t.

In mother terminology, I was what we call OUTOFCONTROL. And I knew it. But that’s the thing with being OUTOFCONTROL, you can’t really help yourself.

I immediately braced for the death blow. Any second I would be struck by lightning…or hit by a bus, at least. I mean, you don’t say things like that and get away with it. In more mother terminology, I was cruisin’ for a bruisin’ and the cruise was over. Somebody get the wooden spoon, already!

Well, a few minutes later, still alive and breathing, I realized that my new plan actually had some practical implications. At the time, I was leading a women’s Bible study and co-directing a kids program at church. Oh yeah, kids! What about my kids?! I quickly determined that I would put up a good front; I would take the kids to church and perform all my nice, Christian duties. I would “pretend.” I would “play Christian.”

And so I did. I went on. I went on asking nothing from God. Giving nothing to God. Expecting nothing good because I deserved the worst. And surely the worst would come.

Several days passed without any catastrophic acts of divine retribution and I suddenly understood that such a fate could hardly be God’s worst. No. His worst wouldn’t be a bolt of lightning. His worst would be to just leave. And so I waited for Him to leave – for Him to leave me ALONE.

And so I waited for Him to leave – for Him to leave me ALONE.

What would it be like, I wondered? Would I know He was gone? Would my mind and soul, once awash in Light, suddenly go dark? Would my heart, once warmed by His ever-presence, turn cold and barren? Surely life without Him must be like life without air.

The days turned into weeks and still I waited.

Raging waters from angry clouds beat violently upon the earth, overflowing banks and uprooting trees. But after the storm squeezes dry the clouds and the wind runs out of breath, the waters begin to slow. Smoothing out and away, moving almost imperceptibly, they find their way home, around rocks and through mountains, over fields and through the rush, back into the lap of the ocean.

So too, riven lovers find themselves pulled again, as if by lodestone, into that familiar embrace.

And even the rebellious, petulant child, once again finds her little arms wrapped around her daddy’s neck, though his strong arms do the holding.

And so weeks later, to my own surprise, I found myself resting quietly in the lap of my heavenly Father. Perhaps because my own father left me so easily – and more than once, too – I wondered at the strangeness of this God who stayed even in the face of my betrayal.

Then He answered the question I dared not ask:

“You see, Nichole, you were done with Me, but I am not done with you.”

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits– who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s…

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love…he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust…but from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him…Praise the LORD, O my soul! Psalm 103

Thankfulness | Searching for God as for Hidden Mickeys…er…Treasure

Wall art in Morocco, EPCOT | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

During a recent trip to Disney World, our family hunted day and night for Hidden Mickeys – symbolic representations of Mickey Mouse in the iconic three-circle shape, inserted subtly in the design of rides, attractions and artwork throughout the park. And we found them: created by white paint stains on a desk in Spaceship Earth, in the paintings along the Maharajah Jungle Trek in Animal Kingdom, as a three-dimensional object formed out of metal bands in a Living with the Land water tank, in the mosaic walls of The Coral Reef restaurant and more.

At The Coral Reef | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

The only reward for discovering a Hidden Mickey is the excitement and satisfaction you experience upon finding one. And yet, in a park that offers some of the best entertainment in the world, our family couldn’t get enough of this game. We’d be zipping along on some ride and one of us would point and shout, “Hidden Mickey!” while the others craned their necks, trying to catch a glimpse of the shape before being whisked away. We were treasure hunting.

Maybe, like me, you love treasure hunting: searching for something hidden, something hard to find, or maybe even something that’s right before your eyes but if you really pay attention you realize it’s more than you thought…more than a paint stain…more than a few random pieces of metal.

Some of you may insist this desire stems from our need to hunt for food or what-not. Snore. Treasure hunting is about more than survival. It’s about finding something valuable, precious, unique or rare.

A couple of years ago, I read the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. (Check out her blog aholyexperience.com.) In her book, she writes, rather poetically, about the power of thankfulness – but not in a trite “count your blessings and be happy” kind of way. By sharing from her own life journey and study of the Word, she illustrates that even in the face of great difficulty, we can find things for which to be thankful. And that in gratitude, there lies great power…power to release, heal, transform…because “thanksgiving…always precedes the miracle.” (p.35)

Her book inspired me to begin my own gratitude journal, writing down things for which I am thankful. First came the obvious, like family, God, shelter, food; then came crocuses in spring, warm pajamas, books, strawberries, hot showers, sunsets in Cape Breton, finding sea glass with the girls, eating popsicles with the family during a break from yard work, licorice tea, butterflies migrating through our yard, lemonade, thunderstorms, the root canal that brought relief, a spontaneous hike with a friend, a full night’s sleep, medicine for a sick daughter away at college and caught in a blizzard, Anne of Green Gables, and on and on and on.

When practicing thankfulness and gratitude, life itself becomes a treasure hunt, a search for the valuable, precious, unique and rare.

One sunny spring day, as I stood in the driveway with hundreds of little helicopter seeds from our maple tree swirling in the air around me, I thanked God for the beauty of his creation. A sense of childlike wonder filled my being and I smiled with inexplicable joy…

Hidden Mickey - Thunder Mountain

Hidden Mickey, Thunder Mountain Railroad | Photo from Wikipedia

On some days, I feel like life is mostly about losing…losing everything…losing everyone. And in some ways, that’s true. Life is loss. And I hurt. My girls grow up and out and away from me. And my grandparents pass away. And family gets busy and sometimes pain divides us. Even my body and mind betray me and I can’t stand the skin I’m in. How can I escape myself? The pain is painful and the emptiness feels like a black hole and I think, Why? Why God? Why so much loss? So much letting go?

And then I remember that every loss, every emptiness, is space for Him to enter, so that what was once barren can be filled again. Thankfulness lets Him in and I am filled. 

Not because I made a list. Not because I’ve had good experiences. Not even because, as most Americans, I have more than many ever will.

I am content because God has everything. Or more importantly, because God is everything. At least, He is everything that matters.

I am not saying that God and His gifts are one and the same. Rather, His gifts are an expression of who He is. By giving, He opens a doorway to the greater gift: Himself. Our gratitude lets Him in.

And then, with our thanksgiving, we give Him ourselves. It’s all we really have to offer Him anyway. And it’s exactly what He came for.

Maharajah Jungle Trek Mural, Animal Kingdom | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

So what if every day we hunted for God’s hidden treasures like hunting for Hidden Mickeys? Could we find ourselves driving down the road with our family, pointing and shouting, “Look at the sun on the river!” …or opening the windows on a rainy night and whispering, “Shhh….can you hear the rain on the tree tops?” and savoring the scent of wet pavement…or hearing a baby wailing in the store and thinking, “The sound of new life.” …or holding the door for an elderly man, even though you’re in a hurry, and remembering that he is worth your time…could we?

Could we stop to ponder what those gifts tell us about our Father God? Could we thank Him and be filled, not with stuff or feelings, but with Him, very God Himself?

As I stood in my driveway, caught in a whirlwind of helicopters and giddy with joy, I marveled at God’s handiwork, how he designed the seeds to fly and the wind to carry them and the soil to nourish them. I wondered at His ability and desire to create such varied and complex life. I soaked in the warmth of a sun that burns at His command. And in that moment, I knew Him.

He gave and opened the way. My gratitude let Him in. With thanksgiving, I gave Him myself.

And then a miracle happened.

I knew Him.

I know Him.

And knowing Him is the greatest treasure of all.

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I think the following song, 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman, (one of my favorites) beautifully captures the joy of thankfulness:

Need | A Salvation Story Imagined

Recently God helped me to more fully understand the depth of my need for His work on the cross – that even if I could stop Him, I wouldn’t, because I need Him to save me and to save everyone I love. This was hard to express and when I sat down to write it, what came out (below) was unexpected. Please don’t freak out that the “Judge” is a woman. I’m not questioning God the Father…it’s just creative writing.

I stand, hands clasped tightly behind my back to stop them trembling. There is no noise to muffle the pounding in my ears, against my ribs, in my stomach. Breath comes fast but not fast enough.

Photo by Tito Balangue

Photo by Tito Balangue

Concentrate. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Somewhere nearby, a crow is cawing. Gray clouds shroud the sun and a cold breeze bites at my ankles.

I fix my eyes just above her head, on the words engraved in the stone wall behind her, “Justice Shall Prevail.” Though I’m staring at the stones, I can tell she isn’t looking at us. She examines the scroll before her, reading every word. When she looks up, her face is hard and cold, like metal. She’s here to judge me. To judge us all.

She doesn’t ask if we are guilty or innocent. She already knows.

To my left, stands everyone I love. To my right, looms a crude wooden platform and behind that, a pile of stones so tall that it casts a shadow over us. There is no one else, save the Enforcers. No one to condemn or defend us. The record speaks for itself.

My children, two boys and two girls, old enough to answer for themselves now, stare ahead as I do. Except for the youngest. He looks hard at the ground. Silent tears roll down the cheeks of my oldest daughter. I can feel her crying.

“Guilty as charged!” The judge’s voice hits me like a bullet. “For rebellion, treason, betrayal and murder. You know the penalty.”

For a moment, I can’t breathe. But I will not move. I will not turn my head. The judgment is no surprise. I know. We know – we all know – what we have done.

Except the youngest. “We’ve done nothing wrong!” He shouts. “Mother, tell them! We’ve done nothing wrong!”

My eyes burn. I open them wide to keep the hot tears from spilling out. In a moment, they will take us to the platform, lie us on our backs side by side and strap us down so we cannot move. Then they will pile stones upon us – stones equal to the weight of our crimes – until we are crushed to death. But what scares me most – what hurts me most – is that my own son seems to have forgotten the difference between right and wrong.

His screams grow louder and the judge bangs her staff against the stone wall and the Enforcers scramble toward him and a sob threatens at my throat and then I hear him…not my son…but him.

“I will pay!” He thunders. “I will pay for their crimes!”

Olive Press at Public-Domain-Image.com

Olive Press at Public-Domain-Image.com

Silence once again engulfs us and I snap my head to look behind me. He walks toward the judge, meeting her eyes with his. A plain, simple man in appearance, but something about him is different. He is determined yet tender. He stops between me and the platform.

I am frozen in place. The judge’s eyes pierce the man as she asks, “Do you know the cost?”

“You know that I do,” he answers softly.

I watch something like sorrow pass over her face as she warns, “I cannot stay with you.”

“I know that, too,” he whispers.

For a moment, she looks away but then turns her face toward him again…softer now…not like metal…but like, like love. Is that possible?

“Thank you,” she says.

“You’re welcome, mother,” he replies.

Mother? I stare, forgetting to breathe. Then he looks at me for the first time and I feel as though I’m melting beneath the warmth of his eyes. It’s like I’ve known him all my life, as though he is my brother, my father, my friend. And I can hardly bear the thought of him taking my place. My chest aches and I before I know what I am doing, I find myself on my knees in the dirt, crying, “No! No!”

He rests a strong hand on my head and whispers, “But you cannot pay. Even your death will not be enough.”

I begin to sob and I don’t understand my own tears. I cling to his bare feet, my hair, soaked now with tears, falling around my face, and all I know is that I never, never want to be separated from him.

“But you can’t!” I’m shouting now.

“I am the only one who can.”

Between sobs I plead with him, “I am a traitor. A murderer. All my life, I have been lost, confused. But, but, but now you’re here and when I look in your eyes…I’m… I’m not lost anymore. Please! Please don’t go!”

“If you try to pay for your crimes on your own, you will die and we will be separated forever. But if I pay for these crimes that I did not commit, I will live and we will be together again.”

“How can that be?!”

I hear the judge’s steady voice, “I wrote the law and my son will fulfill it.”

“How do I know? How do I know you will return?!” I demand.

He puts his hand on my chin and turns me towards him, brushing the hair out of my eyes, “I came here today to save you.” He pauses, shifting his gaze to each of my children – even the youngest, who looks defiantly at the ground. “And to save them.”

Dread, sorrow and shame overwhelm me. Grief and desperation ravage my body and I can’t get air. And I know…I know that I need him…this man with eyes that see into my soul…I need Him to die…so that I can live and so that I can be with him again.

“Do you want me to save you?” he asks.

I look down, clawing at earth with my fingernails, “Is there no other way?”

“There is no other way.”

Helpless, I collapse, “Then, yes. I need you to save me. I need you to save them.”

“Yes. You do.”

He takes my head in his hands, bringing my forehead to his lips before stepping away. Afterward he speaks to each of my children, though I cannot hear his words.

Finally, he looks toward his mother. She turns and walks away.

Alone, he climbs to the platform and lays himself down in the shadow of the stones…the stones that should have crushed us all…the stones that will now crush him.

As we all watch him go, it is my youngest son who weeps the loudest of all.

One of my new favorites by Hillsong…

Confessions of Library Book Hoarder

My name is Nichole and I am a Library Book Hoarder.

Why am I telling you this? Well, first of all, there are apparently no support groups for this condition. (Actually, seems like there may be a bit of discrimination going on here. I’ve already tipped off the NYT, so I’m pretty sure you’ll be reading more about it any day.) So you’re my therapy. Plus, I think it’s time I just put it all out there. You guys have gotten to know me pretty well over the years so I’m laying it on the line. One more glimpse into the life and mind of me.

Now, I know you’re tempted to think I’m making a big deal about nothing, but when a person hasn’t stepped foot in her local library for over six years because she owes over $55 in fines, you know she has a problem. And when that problem starts to affect her family, her children, then you know for certain.

The last time my 13 year old borrowed a book from the library was when she went with a friend in 3rd grade. Imagine this little peanut of a girl, long dark brown hair, clutching her library books to her chest, looking up at the librarian with wide, brown eyes – which look even wider behind her royal blue, plastic-framed glasses. Poor little girl, she’s nervous already, because she knows – even at this innocent age – she knows what’s coming:

“Oh my! Your mommy owes a lot of money to the library,” says the librarian.

“Uh…ok,” she replies meekly.

“Well, I’ll let you take these books today….but tell your mom, she needs to come in and pay these fines.”

She told me, alright. It’s the first thing she said when she walked through the front door. On and on about how embarrassed she was, how ashamed. And let me tell you, she wasn’t kidding. Now, if I so much as mention the library, she practically starts shaking all over. I think she might be scarred for life.

Great. Now I need to find a support group for my kids: Children of LBHs.

Whenever we need any kind of book or want to borrow a museum pass, I send my husband or oldest daughter with their cards. (I think that sometimes they go together for moral support.) And while they’re checking out, they wait with bated breath – will the computer cross check their last names or address with their fugitive mother/wife? Surely, alarms will start blaring at any moment, rotating beams of bright red lights will flash around the room as bars slide over all the windows and exits and members of the Overdue Library Fees Enforcement Squad, fully armed and dressed in black, emerge from the walls shouting, “Down on your knees. Hands on your head. We have you surrounded.”

By the time they get back to the car, beads of sweat cover their foreheads and I half expect them to say, “Got it…drive!”

And I have no excuse. None, whatsoever. On a snowy day, in heavy traffic, our local library is, at most, 10 minutes from my house. We have two cars (three if my daughter’s home from college). And I probably drive by the building at least once a week. So getting there is not an issue.

And, if I am laying it all on the table, then you should know that my next door neighbor and dear friend, God bless her, is a town librarian; and she has offered to return my books for me whenever she goes to work – which is four days a week. So I literally could walk 40 feet out my front door to return my library books on time. No excuse!

But you see, what happens is, I forget. And then, once the books are late, I’m embarrassed and ashamed, (maybe that’s the issue I need to take to the psych’s couch – seems a bit dramatic now that I’m typing it all out), so embarrassed that I don’t even want to tell my neighbor and the longer I wait the worse it gets. So that months later, I find myself driving to the library under cover of darkness, stuffing the evidence in the night drop, hoping to high heaven there’s no cameras on me. (Yeah, I know they’ll know it’s me when they scan in the bar codes, but there’s just something about being seen…sooo…yeah, I’m basically acting like at toddler.) Anyway, that’s pretty much what happened the last time my books were late. You know, six years ago.

A couple years later – let that sink in – a couple years later, I was cleaning one of the girls’ bedrooms and came across a Spot the Dog board book.

Wow, this looks an awful lot like that book I convinced the librarians I had returned, I thought.

Slowly, with trepidation, I turn to the back cover and there it is, in big letters: “Property of the Simsbury Public Library.” Shame, fear, dread and embarrassment wash over me and I can’t help but think, I am the worst person in the world! I have stolen a library book. What kind of a person steals a library book? Sure, I didn’t mean it. I really, really believed I had returned it. I didn’t mean to lie to the librarian. Is it a lie if you think it’s the truth when you’re telling it?

That’s when I knew that I couldn’t go to the library anymore. I had tried to reform, to change my ways, but I couldn’t break the cycle of failure, guilt and shame. Finding that book was the last straw.

At first, buying books instead of borrowing them wasn’t so bad. I owed $55 after all. But the cost added up quickly. Imagine having to BUY all your youngest child’s summer reading books. I know I don’t have to. She could use her own card. But after her traumatic encounter with the dues enforcing librarian, I couldn’t risk putting her through that again. It’s just too cruel.

Last year, my husband bought me a Kindle Fire. I love my Kindle Fire. But even the cost of these e-books adds up after a while (kind of pricey for books that don’t have to be printed, bound or shipped, but what do I know).

Then, somewhat recently, the libraries in Connecticut significantly expanded their e-book selection. (Sure, I may be 17th on the waiting list for The Great Gatsby, but I can instantly download Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number!) So now I can borrow books for free and the best part is…..they automatically take them back from me after 21 days!!! AU-TO-MATICALLY!  No guilt. No shame. No overdue fees. This is better than a support group. It’s medicine. It’s a solution.

Well, that was enough motivation for me to suck it up, go down to the library and pay my bill. I was half-expecting to find my photo plastered on the wall behind the check-out counter, along with the rest of the Library’s Ten Most Wanted. Good news! That didn’t happen. Nor did the librarian on duty take it upon herself to chastise me. She was rather quiet, actually, which makes sense; she is a librarian, after all. And even better news!!! If you wait long enough and let your library card expire – which mine had – you only have to pay a maximum fine of $40. So I actually saved a little over $15! That was a week ago, and I’ve already read two free, library e-books!

I know, it’s kind of sad that I have to rely on someone else to discipline me because I can’t do it myself, but at some point, a person just has to accept her limits, right?

Now, if I could only find a similar system to take away the Nestlé’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips after I’ve eaten half the bag in one sitting……..