Finding Hope in God’s Plan (Even When Life Seems Hopeless)

The following was written as a devotional for our church’s Faith Quest 2015 team. Our theme this year is God’s Plan, Our Hope. 

As I prepared for this devotional, my first thought was, After the last two months, maybe I’m not the best person to write a message about finding hope in God’s plan. Perhaps a different Nichole, from a different time, a Nichole with a lighter heart with feathers and wings, might have something to say about hope. So I pored over my blog archives and, even though a few posts came close, nothing was quite right.

That’s when I decided to skip the devotional this year. After all, who reads it anyway? And then I heard that still, small voice saying, Maybe God wants you to dig into this topic for a reason. 

So here I am, dreading the dredging of my black, inky soul, the drawing out of the ugly and the real. Cringing as each keystroke scars this white page. Because right now, I’m not really a fan of God’s plan – at least the part of His plan I can see.

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When My Best Isn’t Good Enough

I hate being weak. I hate that I am not enough. I want to be more. To do more.

God, so much of what I want to do is for You. Why do You keep holding me down beneath Your mighty hand? You say You will lift me up in due time. When will that be? Can You point to a date on a calendar? Or give me a general idea? If it’s a long way off, my iPhone goes ahead like 20 years. And Due Time has got to be within the next 20 years. Right? God? Are you there?

In Jesus Calling, I’m instructed to rejoice in my weakness which, like a lodestone, draws me ever closer to God. Once upon a time those were encouraging words, but lately they sound a lot like this: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

What happens when I am aware of my desperate need for the Lord but I don’t feel any closer to Him?

What happens when He doesn’t answer my prayers? When I ask for strength and yet have so little? When I beg to feel Him, plead to hear from Him and yet…nothing?

I go to His word for nourishment but everything tastes like dry grass. Parched, I drag myself across burning sands only to find an empty creek bed. I wrap myself in the love of friends and family but my heart shivers through the sunless night.

And I recollect a truth carved in the walls of my soul…but it’s like recalling the lyrics of a song without remembering the melody.

I know He is with me but I can’t feel Him.

And so I recite the words, even though I can’t remember the tune:

Fear not, for I am with you.
     Be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
     I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Isaiah 41:10

And I believe…even though I don’t feel. And I hope even though I can’t see. And I choose trust instead of fear – trust in the God who promises to uphold me with His right hand.

His right hand – a symbol of strength in the scriptures. Not His left, but His right hand. Because God only gives us His best.

And I keep reading:

For I am the Lord your God
    who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you. Isaiah 41:13

The Lord my God who takes hold of my right hand. Not my left, but my right hand – my strength. My best.

And I consider what life would be like with God holding my right hand. I imagine cooking without my right hand and typing without my right hand – and the imagining comes pretty easily because with chronic pain and tendonitis, I am sometimes forced to rest my hands, and wow…even in those brief hours, I hate it.

(Did I mention I hate being weak? Because I do. I hate it.)

Honestly, God taking hold of my right hand doesn’t sound particularly helpful. Surely, it would be easier if He held my left hand.

But then…would He even be helping me at all? Or would He just be something I hold onto to make me feel better – like a security blanket or the cross I wear around my neck?

Like an unsteady toddler who cries for help after falling down and then pushes her father away as soon as she’s back on her feet, I want Him to help me do it on my own.

But that’s not quite how it works, is it? God is not raising us to be independent. Rather, He’s calling us back from independence, into the freedom that comes in total dependence on Him.

And that means that sometimes He must take hold of us at our strongest places, limit us, slow us down.

Perhaps it’s the only way He can get me to stop trying to do it all on my own. In taking away the things I rely on – my endurance, my abilities, my intellect, my creativity, my spiritual insight, my energy, my confidence – He reminds me of the one thing that really matters: Him.

And I remember His strength that called light out of darkness, igniting the fire of countless suns and flinging them across space and time.

His strength that hurled the planets into motion with perfect precision, summoned beings out of the earth and rushed the wind of life into man. His strength that bore the crushing weight of humanity’s doom and under it, through it, forged a new way. His strength that ruptured the tight and binding prison of flesh, birthing new life in a dry and barren wasteland.

His strength. Which has always been….will always be…enough.

And so, confused and frustrated, weak and exhausted, I stop tugging and pulling and fighting and trying to wrench my hand away from His.

And in this moment, I surrender my best – which is never enough – so that He can give me His best. Which has always been….will always be…enough.

———————————————————-

The morning after I completed this post, Leroy Case preached about our God the “Star-breather.” His message was incredibly relevant to me, to this post, and at the end he shared a song with us. And now I am sharing it with you.

Already All I Need by Christy Nockels

 

 

Escape Not Allowed At This Point

The other night my daughter showed me a social media meme of a computer screenshot with a dialogue box and the words “Escape is not allowed at this point.”

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I scoffed and then whined, “That’s exactly how I feel!”

Truth be told, I feel that way a lot. I mean, somedays I just want to claw my way out of my own skin…shed this body that holds me prisoner. But blinking in my mind’s eye is this annoying little neon reminder “Escape not allowed at this point.”

For the last six or seven weeks, I’ve been experiencing an as of yet unexplained bout of relentless heart palpitations…what the doc calls a “benign” (though, I say, hardly normal) irregular heartbeat. If you’re wondering what that feels like, imagine having the hiccups all day, every day, for a month and a half. Fun, right? So yeah, it’s driving me crazy! And while I’ve had a bunch of cardio tests, the only current recommendations are some heavy hitting drugs – you know the kind with television ads that show people running through fields of grass, smiling, while the soft spoken, monotone voiceover tells you of certain possible side effects such as dizziness, headache, rash, amnesia, hair loss, fingernail loss, tooth loss, the inability to sleep…or stay awake….and death. (Now tell me, since when is death a “side effect”? If you ask me, there’s nothing “side” about it.)

Anyway, I have a great primary care APRN who has recommended a specialist that can fit me in, oh, sometime next year…ok, I may be exaggerating a little, but after a direct call by my APRN to the specialist, they’ve worked me into their calendar in mid-February. Which, based on recent calculations, is about 138,240 palpitations from now.

“Escape not allowed at this point.”

Friday, I got to talk on the phone with my dear sister-in-law, Anne, (who is currently living the pioneer life in Vermont). At one point, I asked her how she’s doing spiritually. I won’t tell you what she said….that wouldn’t be very friend-like. But I will share what she shared with me and the world on her blog…in a sec…

First, here’s a timeline refresher:
I feel monumentally frustrated.
I talk to Anne and happen to ask her how she’s doing spiritually.
That night my daughter shows me the “escape not allowed” pic.

OK, got that? So then, the next morning I open Anne’s new blog post, which is an update on the pioneer life and her thoughts in response to my question “How are you doing spiritually?” After lots of fun updates she starts to talk spiritual and when I get to her main point, I nearly fall out of bed: she writes “You can’t escape God.”

You can’t escape God.

Now remember, she didn’t write this message specifically for me. It was simply a summation of her recent experiences with God, shared with her friends, family and blog readers. And yet, God spoke directly to me through her. (Love it when He does that.) As a result, I was reminded that while I can’t escape myself, my skin, my problems, I also can’t escape God. And isn’t that the better truth? The best truth?

I don’t so much need to get away from my problems as I need to get into God. In fact, running from my problems is akin to running from Him, because God doesn’t exist apart from reality. He is reality and any attempts on my part to escape reality put me, at least mentally, further away from God.

I believe, and my experience has been, that God manifests himself in my life most powerfully when I live in reality, accepting my circumstances and inviting God to work in and through them rather than looking for a way out. I guess I just needed a reminder. Thanks God…and Anne.

Immanuel, God With Us, doesn’t promise to take away all our earthly trials but he does promise to be with us in them, always, even to the end of the age.

Escape is not allowed at this point.

But peace is.

Hope is.

Love is.

Joy is.

God is.

Catching Fire Movie Review

I know you have all been anxiously awaiting my review of Catching Fire, the movie based on the second book of Suzanne Collins‘ trilogy The Hunger Games.

Well, you can finally relax. It’s here!

I have already written a review of the books and the first movie; check them out here and here.  (In my opinion, the book review qualifies as “not to be missed.”)

Please note that I use the term “review” loosely. You will find no technical terms or expert analysis…just me, my thoughts, opinions and sometimes wacky connections to life and God.

First Impressions:

  • What a fantastic story. The whole concept is brilliant: a futuristic, dystopian society at the mercy of a corrupt, oppressive system that pits teenagers against each other by making them fight to the death on reality television. Brilliant! Horrifying, but brilliant!
  • Liked it better than the first HG movie.
  • Great casting! Finnick, Beetee, Maggs, Johanna, Cashmere, Gloss…almost exactly as described in the books.
  • Special effects significantly improved from the first movie.
  • So fast paced! I couldn’t believe that when the Quarter Quell finally began, there were only 45 minutes left to the movie.
  • Gale, Gale, Gale. I confess that if I hadn’t read the books, I would want Katniss to choose Gale. He’s just…so…Gale.
  • Prim. What is she, like 35 now?

Bad News First – What I Hated:

  • Not knowing Katniss’s internal dialogue. The books, written in the first person, allow us to understand her internal struggles, fears, doubts and hopes.  Whether it’s the fault of the screenwriters, the actors, both or neither, the movie limits our ability to identify with Katniss.
  • Peeta is not as strong a character as he was in the books. While he comes across way better than he did in the first movie (more on that here) he’s still too feminine and puppy-doggish towards Katniss for my taste.
  • The failure to develop Katniss and Peeta’s relationship on-screen. Maybe no one could figure out a good way to transition back and forth between the story’s fierce intensity and its deep, sometimes painful, tenderness. (Except in the case of Rue.) And I guess that if one side of the story had to be sacrificed, this was the way to go. Otherwise, you run the risk of making just another sappy, teenage love story.
    But in the books, the relationship between Katniss and Peeta illustrates of the running theme that hope is the only thing stronger than fear. Because the only thing that conquers Katniss – a wounded girl, walled off from love and driven by fear – is Peeta – the boy with the bread, the dandelion in the spring, the embodiment of hope. Many things help save her life in the arenas but Peeta saves her heart.
  • Katniss’s mother, when tending to Gale’s wounds, is nervous and ineffectual, and Prim has to take over. Yet in the book, the mother is actually composed and competent. Perhaps this was done to demonstrate Prim’s maturity, but it was unnecessary. Anybody with one good eye can tell that Prim’s not a little girl anymore.

What They Left Out…But Shouldn’t Have:

  • Plutarch showing Katniss his Mockingjay watch at the party. If the goal was to keep people in the dark about his part in the revolution, well, the book’s kind of gave that away already.
  • When Peeta takes care of Katniss after she injures her foot and they experience “normal” life together.
  • When Peeta says, “My nightmares are usually about losing you…I’m okay once I realize your here.” (page 86)
  • Katniss & Peeta on the rooftop, watching the sunset together, a couple of days before the games.

What They Should Have Left Out…But Didn’t:

  • Katniss kissing Gale then kissing Peeta then Gale then Peeta then Gale then Peeta. OK, I may be exaggerating. But this is my least favorite part of Catching Fire, the book and movie.  It’s so Bella-from-Twilight. Pick a man, sister. And until you do, stop kissing and holding hands and “just cuddling.” It’s bad role-modeling and selfish and just plain embarrassing!

What I Loved:

  • A funnier, smarter script that seemed to follow the book more closely than the first movie.
  • No major fails like in the first movie. (Yes, I am referring to the bread scene, the worst massacre of the first film, which given the nature of the story, says a lot.)
  • Peeta & Katniss’s speeches in District 11. Rue & Thresh’s families, the old man whistling the Mockingjay tune. I cried. Like a baby.
  • Peeta holding the morphling girl as she died, coaxing her to look at the beautiful colors in the sky until she passed.
  • Cinna and the Mockingjay dress. No. Explanation. Needed.
  • Peeta. His character is better. Funnier. Stronger. But still not taller. I will always love Peeta.
  • Effie. Funnier. Kinder. Human. Even likeable!
  • Haymitch. Still Haymitch.
  • Snow’s granddaughter. The perfect foil of her ruthless, evil grandfather.
  • Individual Assessments when Peeta painted Rue and Katniss hung an effigy of Seneca Crane.
  • The elevator scene. Hilarious.

Favorite Lines:

  • Haymitch: Nobody wins the games. Period. There are survivors. No winners.
  •  Katniss: What can you see? Prim: Hope.
  • As graffiti: The odds are NEVER in our favor.
  • And the best line of the movie: Remember who the enemy is.

So good.

Finally, I can’t think of a better way to end this post than with the last few paragraphs of my trilogy review. (Read the whole thing here.)

Do humans universally long for…a love that sacrifices one’s self to save another? If our music, movies, plays and books are any indication, then we must… it should come as no surprise that so many people love these books…the story stirs something deep within us.

As a baker, Peeta literally feeds and nourishes people in a starving community. This, I imagine, was no accident on the author’s part because he is ultimately the one who satisfies Katniss’s deepest hunger. I can’t help but smile a little at his name, which is actually a homonym for a kind of bread eaten by millions of people the world over. But I wonder if as Collins was writing Peeta, she considered the One who truly satisfies.

We, every one of us, are part of a Hunger Game. Only this is no game. This is real.

Look around you. Think about it. Why are you here? Who’s really in control? Are you still a slave to the unseen powers of this dark world? Do you know who the real enemy is? Are you hungry? Starving for the truth? Desperate for something…or someone to satisfy your soul?

He’s out there, you know. Your Rescuer. The One who said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” is all the food your starving soul needs.

And He’s the only chance you have of getting out of this arena alive.

Recognizing God’s Voice

Dear friends, I have a new post on our church’s 40 Days blog. Here is a taste, then you can keep reading at their site if you like:

Photo by Rose Braverman

Photo by Rose Braverman

Recognizing God’s voice…that’s a phrase packed with will all sorts of potential reactions. Here’s some that come to mind:

  •  Oh, so now you think God is speaking to you. Great.
  •  I don’t hear God. I pray. I meditate. I sit in silence. But guess what? Crickets.
  •  Umm…does this mean I’ll hear a voice? Or have a vision? Or fall down on the ground and start screaming and hollering? Because I really don’t want to cause a scene. Just sayin’.
  •  God has already spoken. The Bible is His final word.
  •  Are you hearing voices in your head?
  •  How do I know if what I hear is from God?
  •  I’m actually kind of afraid to hear from God. What if He’s angry with me? Or worse…what if He doesn’t say anything at all?

And of course there’s the unspoken fear of many comfortable Western Christians:

  • What if He tells me to sell all my belongings, shave my head and move to Zambia? ‘Cause that happens…like all the time…right?

Listening for the Lord, hearing from Him and then understanding what He’s saying can be scary and frustrating. But it can also be exhilarating, freeing and life-changing. I am grateful that some of my first experiences as a Christian included Listening Retreats. At those retreats...keep reading this post

I Am Not Enough

I am not enough. I will never be enough. I am inadequate. Completely, desperately inadequate.

I sit at the counter and feel the weight of those words pressing down on me, pressing me into the counter top. I am unable to push back.

Why do these thoughts oppress me when they are true? The truth sets me free. But this…this is hopelessness and shackles and life draining from my limbs and air leaving my lungs. Somewhere deep in my thoughts, this truth harbors a lie. What is it? What am I thinking?

I search my mind. God, help me search my mind. I think about how I think about me.

I AM not enough. I am NOT enough. I am not ENOUGH. I never will be. I never was. I learned that long ago. I remember crying out to God to rescue me…to fix me. I knew there was something wrong with me. As a child, a teen…I did not wonder…I did not ask. I knew. I was deficient, defective, Less Than…

Less than what? Less than what I should have been. What I could have been. I failed. I am a failure. Should have been what? Could have been what? Enough. I should have been enough. I should have been adequate. I should have been complete. Strong.

But I know…deep within me…in the cold, dark place…I know, I couldn’t have been enough. Because I am broken and I am a sinner.

Oh, but I should have been! I should have been enough. I should have been Good. Strong. Complete. Independent.

That last word almost slips by. Out of the corner of my eye I see it…drifting off into the distance…trying to sneak away…but I caught it. My mind draws that word back and lays it out before me. Because that’s a word that doesn’t belong. Independent. That word doesn’t live in the space I share with Jesus. That word has no place here.

But I feel it: my desire to be independent; to be good; my anger at having failed. I hate that I need help…that I need to be rescued. And I begin to untangle the lies from the truth.

I am not enough.

Finish that sentence, Nichole.

I am not enough…on my own. Truth.

I never could have been enough. Truth.

I never could have been enough…because I am defective. Lie.

How is that a lie? My sin, my brokenness, my failures and misdeeds clamor and clang down the streets of my life like a Mardi Gras parade…refusing to be ignored. I should have gotten it right. But I am a failure. I am defective…a disappointment…weak…

You never could have been enough because you were never meant to be enough…on your own.

Truth.

I feel the freedom. The pressure easing off my back, my chest. I breathe.

I need God, not because I am defective, but because I was never meant to live without him. I was made to need Him. We were made to need Him. And yet we come into this world thrashing and gasping for air…desperate to survive. Selfish…to keep the breath for which we struggle, to hold this life..to own it…to be something…on our own.

On my own, I am not good – not because I failed – but because I could never be good apart from God. I was not created to be on my own. On my own, I am nothing…maybe something worse than nothing.

I am not a failure. I just am. Truth.

I am needy. Truth.

I am weak. Truth.

I am broken. Truth.

And that is exactly what He wants me to be. Truth.

On my own – like independent – those are words that have no place between Jesus and me. His Spirit and mine. We are one. I will never be on my own. I cannot be on my own.

I am His. Truth.

Everything He gives me, which is all of Him, is endless. I don’t need enough – I have everything. I have more than everything.

I am complete. Truth.

I breathe in this truth. I am light and hope finds its wings. The truth sets me free.

I am free. Truth.

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. 2 Corinthians 12:9-11

One of my all time favorite songs. Hey fellow Scots, dig these bagpipes: 

A Love We Cannot Fathom

The other morning as I was praying for a friend, these words just poured out onto the pages of my journal. About halfway through, I realized that this message is not just for one particular friend (though it is certainly for you, my dear) but for all of us. Happy Easter, my friends.

What if we just stripped away all the theology, all the questions, all the seeming inconsistencies of life … and just let Jesus love us?

What if we took a step back from our toil, set down our work and opened our hands. I would like to sit in a chair – perhaps a rocking chair – and rest my tired feet and aching muscles. And then, what if we just sat back with nothing left to do but receive His love?

No need to labor over this or that. Forget about if you’re doing a “good enough” job. Stop fretting over whether you said this right or thought that right. Just stop and let Him love you.

Because His love just is. There is nothing you can do to change it. You can’t increase His love or decrease His love. His love has no limits – past, present or future. His love is perfect, bottomless and complete. God’s love just is.

So what if instead of thinking about love, trying to figure it out, you just sit back, relax and open your heart?

You may say that you don’t get it – this love. You wonder, how can you receive His love when you can’t even fathom it? Here’s the thing: you will never truly be able to fathom the depths of His love because it’s His love… and He is God.

But you can experience His love. You can receive His love.

When you were a child, you didn’t understand or fathom your parents’ love. How could you? An infant, a toddler, a child, a teenager can’t know what it is to love with a parent’s love. They can’t even begin to understand such love.

Oh, but they receive it! Like a dry sponge, they soak in every ounce of love their parents will give them.

And so it is with God. We don’t have to understand His love….we just have to receive it.

He loves us. Whether we love Him or not. His love never changes, never runs out, never gives up. His love for us, for me, for you… just is.

And this love is more faithful, more powerful, more rich and deep and warm and consuming and freeing and nourishing and redeeming and forgiving and compassionate and nurturing and constant

Photo by natasha555

Photo by natasha555

and merciful and gracious and fierce and healing and completely free… than any love we’ve ever known.

His is a love we cannot fathom. But it is a love that is ours.

Let go of your toil. Let go of your work. Let go of your need to figure it all out. Let go of every last shred, every little thread, every tiny cord of control. Let go so that you can open your hands and receive.

Let go. Let go. Let go. And let Him love you. Let Him have you.

He waits. He waits at the gates of your heart for the moment you will turn the lock, pull back the heavy doors and let Him in.

He waits. He longs to give Himself to you. Receive Him. He is yours.

Answers

“I am intellectually empty and vacant.” Those are the words one minister spoke to his congregation last Sunday. Not as a man without hope, but as one honestly acknowledging that he had come to the end of himself. There was nothing that the intellectual, rational part of his being could do with the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut.

We are all a little desperate today.

The following, somewhat paraphrased, quote from the movie Love Comes Softly, keeps running through my mind:

“When we’re hurting, we spend an awful lot of time looking for answers, when what we really need is comfort.”

I believe we need that truth now more than ever.

Now, as the shock wears off and the anger surfaces. Now, while we search for someone to punish. Now, when we are grasping for reason. Clinging to frayed hopes for humanity. Now, as we race to protect our children and ourselves. As we try to control the uncontrollable, rationalize the irrational and console the inconsolable.

Now – when we are searching, desperately searching for answers, we must remember where to look.

I have wrestled with pain before – pain that the world can do nothing to ease. I have searched for answers.  I have railed against God. Pounded on His chest and screamed, “WHY?!!!”

Then God asked me: “What answer would satisfy you?”

So, I imagined the God of the universe standing before me and saying, “Nichole, you have suffered because ______.” But every word I used to fill in the blank fell short of my expectations. No answer sufficed. Every time – every time – my response was, “Well, you’re God. Surely you could have done it another way.”

Some pain is too deep, some things too extraordinary to understand.

20 children shot dead and hundreds more traumatized, scarred for life. Surely there was another way!

When Job lost everything he had – family, health, business, friends, position in society – he cried out to the Lord for an answer. The Lord answered out of the storm. But probably not in the way Job expected:

“Brace yourself like a man;
    I [God] will question you [Job],
    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
 while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?”

Can you just imagine His booming voice, like the rushing wind or crackling thunder? Continuing like that for several more chapters, (Job 38-41) God’s answer hardly seems like an answer at all. It rather seems like…a rebuke.

But what answer would have satisfied Job? Would he have actually found comfort in knowing that God allowed Satan to sift him like wheat?

God is so good. He knew what Job needed better than Job himself.

Instead of speaking to Job’s intellect, God reveals Himself to Job’s heart. And Job responds:

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know….

My ears had heard of you
    but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

God didn’t give Job an answer. God WAS the answer.

Finally, Job surrenders. He stops his frantic search. He lays down his quiver of accusations. Throws himself on the ground and vomits up the bile of his bitter, grieving heart. He has seen the Lord and at last, he rests. At last, he finds comfort.

Grief, sorrow, pain. Harbor these waters of affliction and your wells will turn bitter and run dry. But let them flow, let your tears rain down, seek comfort in the arms of your Father, and there you will find the waters of life. (Oddly enough my blog last month was about grieving. You can read it here if you would like to explore this topic further.)

To my grieving fellow Connecticutians and Americans, what arrows are in your quiver? Strung on your bow? Acts of retribution? Making someone pay? Judgment? Or acts of morality? Giving financially to victims? Social activism? Or acts of self-protection? Fear? Isolation?  Not all of these things are bad, but do them – even the “good” ones – without receiving comfort and you will be like Job, like I once was, perhaps even like the perpetrators you despise – weary, bitter, empty and isolated.

Can you admit, like the minister did, that you are intellectually vacant? Can you fall at the feet of the One and Only Answer you will ever need? Can you let Him be enough? Because He Is. He Was. He Will Always Be, the only Answer that satisfies. The One in whom all questions fade away.

This is one of my favorite songs and as music often does, it says more in 3 minutes than I could in a thousand years.

Healing Rain

I Had a Dream….no really, I did!

I was with my youngest daughter, Christina, and a friend. We stood in a vast, barren landscape of dry, scraggly hills covered with natural debris. I didn’t look at the sky but it must have been sunless, because everything was gray, ashen.

I am bent over a pile of withered, cracked branches – branches much longer than I am tall and about the thickness of a baseball bat. The branches are so dry, they’ve begun to turn white. I kneel down, curious. Lifting up a few branches to see what lies beneath, I notice they’re stuck in some sort of gray mire. An old riverbed! The mire reeks of decay. 

I lift my head. To my left are three dead owls.

Nothing lives here.

I stand and look around. I see now – the hills and valleys are actually the stony banks and dry beds of countless rivers and creeks. Each one filled with desiccated branches.  Everywhere my eyes scan: parched, lifeless land.

A moment later, I am at an old farmhouse. Not mine. My grandmother’s? My mother’s? I think we’re on vacation. My entire family is there. Even my grandparents, who’ve long since passed.

My grandma’s in the kitchen. There’s a child sleeping on an over sized chair. Is it Christina? Or am I seeing myself?

I step out the screen door and the sky looms heavy, oppressive, dark. Drizzle dots my skin. I sigh and think, “Ugh, rain. Another family vacation day ruined.” Then I remember the dry riverbed. I put my hand out to catch the drizzle. “No. Not enough to make a difference.”

Next, I am standing outdoors. Christina and I are by the street, facing the white farmhouse. She seems younger in my dream.  My friend stands in the yard, facing us. Behind her there’s a little vegetable garden. And I have a sense that my grandma is watching us through the embroidered café curtains of the kitchen window.

It starts to rain. And pour. And pour. For a moment I am disappointed. Rain on vacation.

I look at the ground beneath my feet. Mud. So much water the ground can’t hold. My skin, my hair – soaked. What a mess! What a…

I remember: The dry riverbeds. The barren wasteland. This rain – it’s falling there too!

I turn my palms heavenward and lift my face to the rain. Rain will quench the parched land and fill thirsty riverbeds. Perhaps the rain did not come when I wanted, as I expected, but it came and it is good.

What do you do with a dream like that? What do you make of it? I would love to hear your thoughts. It has been a couple of weeks and God is still speaking to me about it.

I should tell you that this dream came on the night of Tuesday, November 6 – Election Night 2012. Hmmmm….

I should also tell you that our church is in the midst of a spiritual emphasis we call “Pray for Reign.” Together, we are praying for God to reign in our lives, individually and corporately, and that His spirit would rain down on us and on our land.

Back when Pray for Reign began, I fell in love with this song Waiting for the Rain by Misty Edwards:

“..I’m waiting in the desert, just waiting for the rain…”  

This weekend, I had the privilege of being with a friend while she grieved. As I watched her cry, God gave me a sort of vision: I glimpsed dry riverbeds, like the ones in my dream, deep in her soul. And they were being watered by her tears. The beauty of it took my breath away. The eyes of my heart began to see…to understand grief differently:

Loss of any kind leaves an empty space in our hearts. If we hold on to that loss or run away from it, that hole becomes an dry, decaying ditch. What water is left, sours from the rotting branches of bitterness – those worthless things we use to fill our hollow spaces. Then it happens again…and again, so that one day, we look around at the expanse of our souls, and see acres upon acres devoured by loss. An emaciated wasteland.

Nothing lives here.

“…oh but I won’t leave this desert, until I see the rain…”

More often than not, God won’t bring back what was lost – people die, dreams are dashed, life changes, friends move away, bodies grow weak. All this life…it’s just a letting go.

I have wrestled with this. I have burned with rage. I have desperately asked. I have silently cried. Then came peace – or at least the hope of peace: Nichole, every empty cavern, every hollow grave, is a place for Me to enter. Everything I take away, creates more room for Me.

This life is loss. I can rail against reality – rail against Him – or I can accept what’s true and give Him space to rain…to reign.

“… I can see the clouds gatherin’ now…are you ready…are you ready for the rain?”

Are you ready for the rain? When God sends it, will you let it fall?

Will you?

Because the rain that fills our dry riverbeds will not fall from the sky. The rain that soaks our shriveled souls, will fall from our eyes. Our very eyes.

Grief is a gift from God. A well to the deep healing waters of heaven. Let Him rain.

Lament your loss. Mourn what’s missing. Cry out in your pain.

I had a dream. God reigned.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19

Lessons from Grandma

I haven’t posted anything in quite some time, but I have been writing! Today I want to share an excerpt from that writing. It is about my grandmother, the most influential woman in my life after my mother.  She passed away 3 years ago this August and I miss her as much as I did the first day she went away. This post is not only about her, but about me and just a few of the life lessons she taught me. I hope they speak to you and bless you as well.

Grandma. 5’ 10” with short, dark-blond hair (before it went white) which she set in curlers weekly for that June Cleaver kind of look. Not that my Grandma was much like June Cleaver. Gosh, I’d probably catch heck if she heard me comparing her to June Cleaver! Kim Novak…or Angela Landsbury…maybe she would like those comparisons better. After all, Grandma traded in skirts and dresses for elastic waisted, pocketless denim or polyester slacks long before I came along. And whenever she was at home, the only thing she wore on her feet were those toeless, backless, slide-on, terrycloth slippers. I guess she figured if clothes weren’t comfortable then they weren’t worth wearing.

I, along with my brother and mother, had the privilege of spending more than half my childhood living with my grandparents. While she didn’t work outside the home – and she cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed on a schedule you could set a watch to – my Grandma, Arlene was her name,  found no bliss in her domestic duties. Domesticity was her job. Period. She lived for the moments in between. Those filled with piano playing, crossword puzzles, game shows, family visits, apple pie with cheddar cheese, diet coke, Pall Mall non-filters, Murder She Wrote and Fred Astaire.

One afternoon, when I was about 10, I came home from school with an assignment. I plopped myself down on the floor in front of the chair where she sat.

“Grandma, I have to ask you a question for homework. If there was one thing you could have done differently in life, what would it be?”

“Oh, let me see,” she said, resting her elbows on her knees and rubbing her wrinkled hands together. She turned her blue-green eyes to the floor to think, then looked back up at me and said, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have had so many kids.”

I, the firstborn of her fourth and very last child, stared back, wide-eyed, slack-jawed.

“I think I would have stopped after the first one. Raising all those kids…ah.” She waved her hand as if brushing away all the chores of childrearing. “Then maybe I would have gotten a job or something.”

She said it so casually, so matter-of-factly. My mind reeled. My grandma – the most dependable, reliable, non-threatening person I knew, one whose love I never doubted and whose care I never lacked – just wiped my name from her book of life!  I imagined the consequences: my mother, my aunt Joanne, my uncle Gibby, my cousins and me…all gone. Uncle Thomas and his kids the only survivors. How easily she dismissed our familial line!

I took a breath and checked myself, searching for any internal hurt or anger. There was none. In fact, if I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have even laughed. Geez Gram, I thought, you can think those things if you want, but maybe you shouldn’t say them out loud…to your grandchildren!

But I found that I couldn’t hold it against her. Rather, my appreciation for her grew. She had hopes and dreams beyond motherhood and housewifery; she wanted more than us. I wondered what held her back. Was it falling in love with grandpa that caused her to settle down and have kids? Was it her limited education? Or just a lack of options for farm girls in the 1940’s? Whatever the case, she wanted something different and yet her dutiful, personal sacrifice betrayed none of those regrets.

My grandmother was the solid ground beneath my shifting sands of life. Borrowing from singer Sarah Evans, “she was steady as the sun.” Faithful. Predictable. Available. Consistent. She loved us all and would stand by us until the end. Of that I had no doubt. That day, I saw in her, perhaps for the first time, the incomparable value of a life sacrificed for others.

She was no saint. I’m pretty sure a woman who at times shared vocabulary with sailors can’t be canonized. And her insistence that “that Mary, she wasn’t no virgin” probably wouldn’t have won her any votes either. But she was ours and nothing, not even her own dreams, would change that.

At that moment, I made a point to tuck this little conversation away, knowing that someday, when I was old enough, its retelling would make us all roar with laughter.

I learned a few more things that day. I learned that while our choices matter, life is bigger than our choices. And that our regrets don’t have to define us. But perhaps, most importantly for me, an unplanned child, I learned that our plans might not always be the best plans.

How precarious was my entrance into this world! What if my parents never met? Never dated? What if they’d chosen to abort me? It was 1973 after all.

Or what if my grandma had stopped at just one child and went off to get a job instead?

Life is not only bigger than our choices; it’s bigger than me, bigger than all of us. That day, I stopped asking “What if?” and began to wonder “Why?”

Why was I here? Why was my mother here? My grandmother? Anyone?

I was Curious.