A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps – Proverbs 16.9
Our little suburb is undergoing some serious growing pains lately. We have had an influx of new businesses and homes and that means a lot of delays in getting where you need to go. As roadwork has become a normal occurrence and traffic has increased, you have to leave earlier to get where you’re going than you used to. I’ve just become accustomed to expecting delays.
This week as I came to yet another halt near my home there were flashing signs warning of a detour, a road up ahead closed for the day. It wasn’t just a delay but a complete change of direction. The way ahead wasn’t clear anymore. If you wanted to get where you were headed, you had to follow the signs guiding you, trusting they would take you to your destination eventually.
The delays and diversions all around me have me thinking about how I am no stranger to changes of course in my life.
In college I changed my major three times as God continued to narrow down the dreams He had for me to pursue. Each new dream meant the death of an old one.
Expect delays up ahead.
I left relationships behind to follow what He was saying, moved away from home, pursued more school, and readied myself for the job overseas I thought was the fulfillment of my dream.
Then this handsome face from my past who had previously just been a friend reappeared.
Warning: Detour Ahead.
We started a life together and God gave us a new dream. Our roots as a family had barely begun to settle into the earth when we pulled them up and moved to the Middle East. We felt like we were thriving there, coasting ahead. Then, we started to see red lights ahead of us again.
Within six months we found ourselves back in our old apartment in the states. Family issues had arisen and we knew our place was back home for this season.
I won’t lie and say each change of direction was easy, that all roads are equal. Some left me reeling, questioning if I’d heard God correctly. It took years before I understood why we had to give up our dreams after such a short time and return home.
When our course is abruptly redirected or stopped altogether, it can be jarring. But we aren’t left alone. If we will keep our eyes on the path ahead we will see that there are signs leading us on...
I don't even know what I was doing when I burst into tears. I was busying myself with yet another task that needed to be done right then. Maybe I was washing the dishes that inevitably pile up in the sink. I swear, no one else was in the kitchen when I washed the last one and another cup appeared out of thin air. Perhaps I was sweeping the crumbs off the kitchen floor - again. All I know is I was frantically cleaning so I could get to the other endless tasks waiting for me - writing deadlines, bills to pay, or emails to answer.
In an effort to get it all done I was rushing around the kitchen when the scent of Georgia summer invaded my senses. I stopped near the bowl of gardenias I had brought into the house earlier that day.
If you haven't lived below the Mason-Dixon line, you won't understand how the aroma of this flower signals the coming of summer in the mind of a child of the South. The Gardenia is a staple of the southern garden. The plant itself is a bush, it's leathery leaves shiny and thick. One day there will be tight green buds, nothing more than the promise of a flower waiting to unfurl. The very next day there is an explosion of white, the smell of the Cape Jasmine flowers thick in the air.
When I was growing up we would find the biggest white blossoms, the velvety soft petals -- thicker and smoother than the rose and more fragrant than even the honeysuckle that grew wild in the woods -- and pluck them from the bush outside our back door. We would place a bowl full of the blooms floating in water somewhere in our house. Before the thermometer reached 100, before we broke out the bathing suits and sprinklers -- this scent floating gently through the house told us summer had arrived.
That night in all of my busyness, the captivating aroma caught in the air for a moment and took me back in time. All at once the memories of so many summer nights spent on the back porch came flooding in. I would sit for hours talking on the phone (yes, the kind that you actually had to dial a real number to call and that either had a chord or a battery that would beep incessantly if the cordless phone had been away from the base too long).
I can't tell you what drama was unfolding on any given night as there were so many -- from friend to boy dramas, school or parent problems. But it always seemed like the problem of the hour meant the world as we knew it caving in on us. Everything seemed to be life or death, so urgent. I think now, with regret, how I missed so many little moments caught up in all the things that never really mattered at all.
And here I am -- years later and supposedly so much wiser. I am doing it all again. That pile of dishes has to be conquered or I will go insane. If I don't meet that deadline my writing career will certainly come crashing down all around me. The lie of scarcity says there is never enough time. I must get it all done - today!
Meanwhile, the love of my life -- the one I could only have dreamed of as the boy-crazy, headstrong teen that I was back then -- he is sitting in the other room, waiting for just a few minutes with me before the day ends. My two little ones are upstairs sleeping peacefully, replicas of another child that wanted nothing more than to catch just some fireflies in a mason jar before summer's end.
I can teach them the joys of a Georgia summer - of gardenia blooms and fireworks set against the backdrop of Stone Mountain, of whippoorwill calls and rootbeer floats. Or I can miss it all by being caught up in all the tasks marking up my overly full agenda, even the necessary and good things that distract me from what really matters.
The sobs caught in my chest and I dropped what I was doing in the kitchen and, before I knew it, I was sitting on my front porch surrounded by gardenia blossoms. Some were in full-bloom and others were waiting to spring into the world tomorrow. The clean, tropical smell mixed with the humid night air and enveloped me like the sultry voice of Billie Holiday, who used to wear a gardenia in her hair whenever she performed. I don't know how long I sat out there, stroking the velvety side of a flower until I had rubbed a hole in the petal. Memory mixed with prayer, tears with laughter. Continue Reading
The party was completely pin-worthy, Pinterest-perfect. Donning my little hand-made hat, I walked around the party watching the kids decorate their tea cups and laughing at the rabbit and queen of hearts costumes. The mad-hatter cake was just tilted enough, the frosting looking too good to cut into.
When a friend commented the next day how wonderful my five-year-old daughter’s party had been, saying “I don’t know how you do it all” I smiled modestly and cheerfully said something about just not sleeping but I was lying through my fake smile, hiding all the cracks underneath the surface.
Inside I was trying to do everything I thought I was expected to do and be something no one asked me to be, least of all my family. Like the slightly chipped teacups I bought at the thrift store for the party, I looked good on the outside but imperceptibly, quietly, I was cracking.
The voices on every side were bombarding me, telling me everything I should be doing. Feed your kids organic food, but live frugally and buy locally. Work out and get that perfect body, but make sure you don’t spend too much time away from your family. You can have that perfect party at little cost when you make it all yourself, but slow down so you don’t miss out on your kid's lives. The contradicting voices cried out, clawed at me, and made me feel inadequate, harried, and always less than enough.
By the end of that year, I was barely keeping the tight anxiety in my chest at bay, fighting exhaustion, and feeling far from God. I couldn’t fit everything into the day. Between my family, work, church, volunteering and everything I believed I had to do, God was relegated to the leftover edges of my life. I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore and I started practicing saying “no” to things.
Committing to live more simply, I pulled back on commitments, tried to let go of all the perfection, and promised to listen to God’s voice instead of all the other ones I had let become my Master that year. I spent more time just being with my family. Parties became small outings and I curled up with my new Bible study and asked God to speak.
The trouble was the voices didn’t stop bombarding me, telling me all the things I should be doing.
They came from authors of books and writers online who promised a more peaceful, spiritual life. They came from the very Bible study I hoped would be the answer to my spiritual dryness. They came from the pulpit on Sunday morning...
Today I am joining my friend, author Tina Osterhouse in her spiritual practices series, writing about the practice of letting go of everything you "should" be doing. Join me there?
On Wednesdays guest writers are raising their voices. This week I have the special treat of swapping places online with my friend, author Tina Osterhouse. She is joining us today sharing how we can attend to the voice of God in Scripture, see his fingerprints in our lives. When I read her words I am challenged and inspired to dig into the Word, eagerly looking for evidence that He is speaking, has always been speaking. I know you will be, too. I will be writing over at her blog on Friday...stay tuned! - Nicole
Last night I was over at my friend John’s house. He’s a spiritual formation professor at a Christian university. He’s recently walked through the valley of the shadow. We have a lot in common: a similar history in ministry, denominational similarities, and now, divorce. He lives on a lake with a big backyard and a long wooden dock. His daughters hung out inside the house and watched a movie. We sat outside and put together his new adirondack chairs. I passed him the screws, held the arm pieces in place, and sipped on Argentinian red wine.
I asked him about hearing from God, what’s important for him when it comes listening. He looked up from his project, reflective. “Oh, I suppose lots of things are important. Early in my youth when I learned to speak in tongues, or when I would spend hours in worship.” He paused and smiled. “I think the foundation for hearing God is when we learn to attend to God’s Spirit as we’re reading scripture.” He shrugged. “A lot of people plow through the Bible and try to read as much of it as possible. But slowing down and attending to God’s voice, to what the Spirit is saying as we read scripture is the best way to learn how to recognize God’s voice.”
* * *
When I was ten, my mom bought me a new NIV Topical Study Bible. Hardback. Beautiful. At ten, I didn’t spend a lot of time reading it. Not yet, anyways, but for some reason, one afternoon I ended up sitting on the living room floor with my Bible open, leafing through the pages. The sun was shining on that particular corner of the living room and the carpet warmed my belly, when I stumbled upon Jeremiah 17:5-8.
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.
But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and ever fails to bear fruit.
I read through the verses. I read them again. The imagery was striking. I understood. It made perfect, absolute sense to me. A desert, parched and barren …. a tree planted by streams of water. Roots that went deep into the stream. No fear of the heat. I paused. My little mind overflowed with the beauty and the structure of the passage, and also the overwhelming clarity. This was black and white. Yes or no. Trust in God or Trust in people. Life or death.
I wanted to be a girl who trusted in God. I wanted to be a tree, not a parched bush in the desert.
I’d always loved to read. I read novels all the time. I read every Janette Oke book I could get my hands on. Bodie Thoene was a personal hero. As for reading the Bible, it would take years to love scripture and let it wash me, let it change and transform me, let it feed my deepest parts and call me into the unknown, into the Truth that goes beyond intellect and touches the Eternal. Still, for being ten years old, there were elements in that encounter that went beyond mere reading. Something happened that connected me to that which is Other, and I knew it. I had touched the Mysterious and interacted with something More than myself.
* * *
John has been having some troubles with his work and we’ve spent quite a lot of time talking about it. During one conversation over the phone he expressed worry, doubt, concern – the stuff of life. Out of nowhere, I responded, “Read Jeremiah seventeen,” I told him. “Maybe that will help. Meditate on those verses.”
What seemed to come out of nowhere, wasn’t out of nowhere. It came from the place where my spirit and God’s Spirit had somehow touched, had communed over those gorgeous words so long ago. Twenty-eight years later, I drew them up and handed them to my friend so he might feast on their hope.
On Mother’s day, my son Lucas, gave me my gift. A picture frame with a beautiful tree he had colored. The picture was titled, Blessed. The verses underneath were … Blessed is the one who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.
I smiled and caressed the words through the glass frame. Oh, those words … those life-giving words.
I’ve spent my life learning to trust God, learning to turn away from placing my hope in people and putting my hope and cares in God. The words of Jeremiah have been my food, my template, my anchor, the symbol I’ve grasped onto when I needed a frame of reference. There, as my fingers touched the words through the glass frame, I sensed a gentle smile from above, a moment of recognition with the Other, with God, Eternity and Time intersecting.
It’s not magic, it’s certainly not incantation or spells. Of course not.
It’s not mere words, either.
We enter into a mysterious kind of relationship with the Spirit as we engage with God through the scripture. Over time those mere words, ancient and as varied as the geography of our planet, become the story and substance of our lives.
I spent so many years wishing to go back.
The years between college and the real world were marked by a struggle to find my place, a kind of limbo. I was truly on my own for the first time, a stranger in a city not my own. I was stuck in a place between the dreams God had called me to and actually live them out.
As I was looking for myself, I found something else.
When I think about that time, I can still feel the sticky heat coming off the bayou. I can feel the breeze blowing through the live oaks that hung down like arms reaching out to embrace you. With my feet dangling into the murky waters off Gulf Coast docks, I spent hours discovering a God who was gently whispering His love for me.
God’s voice was as real to me as the jazz music that invaded every corner of the Quarter. In those early years of my adulthood I felt like I had arrived at a new realization of who God was.
I left that place behind and violent storms have since changed the landscape where I discovered God anew. They changed me, too. I married, lived abroad, returned home. I became something new again—this time mother, twice over.
Somehow, in all the landscape changes over the years, that tangible feeling of God’s Presence got swept away like the apartment I lived in next to the beach, crushed under the raging winds of Hurricane Katrina.
I kept trying to recreate those moments when I had heard God so clearly. I longed for my seminary days when I could spend hours debating theology or discussing faith stories. I struggled to hear God in the same way, but the winds shifted and I couldn’t hear it anymore...