Grace upon Grace upon Eleanor

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Grace upon Grace upon Eleanor

My daughter Eleanor has achieved many things in her three years so far. Mostly, these achievements are related to destroying various things around our home – countless rolls of toilet paper, completely unrolled and then shredded and deposited in various places around the home, countless baby dolls and carpet areas covered in bright pink nail polish that I still don’t know how she accessed, and, most recently, purple sharpie on my white kitchen cabinets.

Last night around 5:30pm, I was dealing with Comcast, who accidentally didn’t process our autopayment for the month of June, and is now charging us a late fee for not paying our bill on time. In case you aren’t aware, Comcast has the single worst customer service on the face of the earth, and Comcast solely exists not to provide internet and TV service like we all think, but because the Lord in Heaven knows that human beings need to be tried through the fires to learn patience (see Romans 5), and Comcast is a direct gift from God to learn these skills. Either that or the Enemy runs the world and likes to mess with us.

I was absolutely fuming at Comcast over the ridiculousness of this (I called and waited NINE minutes to speak to a human, which isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things, but they informed me then that my husband was the sole person on the account, so they couldn’t communicate to me about it, so, of course, I just went online and logged in and chatted with an online customer service representative who communicated with poor English which drove my patience to the brink of insanity and I pretended to be my husband because WE ARE ONE according to GOD’S HOLY WORD and EVERYTHING THAT IS HIS IS MINE so there’s NO REASON WHY the DUMB CABLE COMPANY CAN’T JUST TALK TO ME but anyway I’m digressing so yeah the person wouldn’t refund the late fee because they had record that they had sent an email about the payment not processing).

So anyway, it is super hard when you are FUMING at COMCAST and their RIDICULOUSNESS to be patience and kind and loving. Jared wanted to play ball with me, so I tried desperately to put aside the firey ball of “IMMA KILL YOU” in my chest to enjoy some time with my son who was being delightful and sweet, but I was just still so, so mad. So about 5:30, husband gets home, and he comes in to talk and stops himself to say, “ELEANOR, NO.” This is always the alarming phrase in our house (see above about rolls of toilet paper and nail polish in two-day-old carpet and etc), so I immediately just x’d out of the conversation with the irritating Comcast person (it isn’t his fault, really) and walked into the kitchen to find this:

Ellie destroys the cabinets

Of course, my instinct, with the firey ball of fury still in my chest, was to yell at my daughter for the ONE MILLIONTH time about NEVER DRAWING ON ANYTHING BUT PAPER FOR THE LOVE OF PETE. But this was a whole new level. This is purple Sharpie. This ain’t no colored pencil or washable marker like it has been every other time. Straight up permanent Sharpie.

So I started my “angry mean scold.” “Eleanor, you cannot ever draw on anything but paper! We have told you this so many times, and you still don’t learn. This is not okay!” Of course, my sensitive, sweet little daughter gets her amazing epic pout face which I sorely wish I had a picture of and starts bawling her eyes out because she can’t stand to disappoint us even though she constantly does. Immediately, it was like the firey ball of fury in my chest was submerged in cleansing water, and all the anger was gone. In the middle of my scolding, I started busting up laughing. I just could not, you guys. It was all too much. I’m looking at little Picasso’s artwork on my one-year-old white kitchen cabinets in the middle of yelling at her about it, and I realize that she has drawn these truly lovely smiley faces on the middle area. Something about them being smiley faces (which I didn’t even know she could draw, by the way!), and there being three of them there, and her face being so distraught because she knew that once again, she couldn’t measure up…I have to tell you, it was the grace of God that I reacted the way I did, and it couldn’t have been anything else.

I’m so grateful that God softened my heart toward my girl in that moment. I was able to build our relationship instead of putting barriers in it. I was able to treasure the sweetness of her drawing our family instead of focusing on WHERE she drew it and WITH WHAT. I was able to remember that the real treasures are people, not one-year-old white kitchen cabinets. I can pretty easily paint over purple Sharpie, but I can’t as easily paint over mean, harsh words that leave scars on my tender daughter’s heart.

And also, once again, I couldn’t help but see myself in my children. So often, I ache to do what is right, and I just get it wrong. So often, I am in the middle of having a good ole time when I realize that I majorly messed up something important. And while there are consequences, my God always, always, always responds to me with tender love and grace. He wraps me up in his arms and reminds me that I can do better. He comes alongside me while I clean up my mess. Often, he cleans it up for me.

Oh, and I asked her about what she had drawn before I took to it with a Magic Eraser (and I’ll be trying several other tactics today before the inevitable painting over it that I’ll be doing when it doesn’t all come off). Those two medium-sized smileys are Jared and Ellie (Jared is open-mouthed because “he is very loud” and Ellie has a straight across facial expression which just made me LOL), and the teeny, tiny smiley with appendages protruding is Baby Grace. This sweet little image is the first drawing of all three of my kids, and it is so fitting that it is done by my sneaky, manipulative, sensitive, tender middle one. I just know she’s going to grow up to see people and include them and put herself permanently in the middle of that, just like she did with purple Sharpie on my white cabinets.

Ellie destroys the cabinets 2.jpg

Little Girl(s)

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Little Girl(s)

*photo courtesy of Amy Joy Photography – please check her out!*

On the first night that Ellie was born, just over 3 years ago, I was in the hospital having trouble sleeping at like 3am. I stood up and stood over her tiny little body, and I cried over the miracle and great fear of having a baby girl. Then I wrote her a letter.

Having another little girl a week ago, I’m in this crazy nesting mode. I’m about halfway through organizing all the paperwork in our entire house (mostly this is because I forgot to renew my teaching license and I have to track down 3 years worth of CPDUs to input into the system before June 30…whoops!), and I found the letter I wrote Eleanor that first night I knew her:

“Eleanor – shining light, Lynn – water, calm
[and I’ll add Grace – God’s undeserved favor, Olivia – olive branch, a symbol of peace and the truth of God’s promises]

Little girl[s]
I fear for you, because I know what it’s like to grow up as a little girl.
I know the fear of being overpowered
and the fear of being seen as too powerful.
I know the tender heart
and the hardness that comes from never being enough
But Christ is enough.
I know the heartbreak of being unloved
and the brokenness of being lusted after
and the healing of being fully known, fully accepted, and fully loved
because He is enough.
I know the disjunct of imperfect Christian parents.
I know the reconnection of fighting for togetherness
because He is enough.
I know the pain of expected perfection
I know the pride of being right
and the collapse of doing wrong.
He is enough.
Boast in Him – His grace is power and gentleness.
It is tenderness and firmness.
It is whole and exactly right.
It is able to overcome human mistakes.
It is a once broken cord that is stronger when reattached; it is healing stronger than before the break.
It is humility in correction and a covering when there is shame.
His grace is enough.
He is enough.
I only pray that your heart will ache and thirst for this grace – that you’ll be a shining light for His name.’

Sustained

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Sustained

I do not do well without sleep. I would say the average person is just slightly off-kilter when he or she is sleep deprived; I am a psychopath murderess assassin. I’m a “10-hours-minimum-per-night” kind of gal. My sense of patience and calm is completely related to how I slept the night before, not to mention that everyday tasks seem truly Herculean when I haven’t slept and I can’t drive a car or walk through a grocery store without nodding off. I mean it’s like a real issue – I don’t get some kind of awesome supermom power like some do; I just totally fall apart. There’s probably some medical reason, really, because it’s honestly debilitating. As you can imagine, with a 2.5 day old child in our home, sleep isn’t something I’m getting. So far, the three of them have been absolutely worth the sleepless nights (and I’ve taken truly Olympian [but totally healthy, loving, and careful] measures to get them sleeping through the night early in life so that I can be a functioning citizen and caregiver).

But last night, the reality that I will not get to sleep more than a few hours at a time at best until at least the month of AUGUST (😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱) when I have to start working a 12-hour-per-day musical season and interact positively and meaningfully with hundreds of 12-14-year-olds for 8 hours a day – well, the reality hit me, and it was a little much to take. There were tears. There was nausea. There was crying out for deliverance.

These are the times when I’m grateful for the Holy Spirit, who said, “Mel, she ain’t sleeping tonight unless she’s in your arms. You made it to 5am. Go make a cup of coffee and open up my Book and remember that you are allowed to eat sushi again now.” Perspective is powerful. So anyway, I’m going through some Psalms that others have claimed are their favorites, and next on my list was chapter 8. I know it’s a stretch, but I’m so comforted to read that “out of the mouths of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and avenger.” David had, like, actual enemies. I have sleep deprivation. But still, in the “first world” of it all, I am so thankful that my God established his strength and gave power to me.

I believe that God speaks through His word. Sometimes it is big and profound and tear-jerking. Sometimes, it is “Melody Kay, your tiny daughter’s very existence proclaims my unending power. Can you just take a little chill pill for a hot minute and remember that I have this? Remember that you are tiny, and I’m mindful of you. Remember that I made the stars, but I care about you. I have given you some of my power, and you can do this.” Even though I imagine him being a tiny bit sarcastic to me, He is establishing the truth in my heart again and again with love and the same grace we named our daughter after. He says, “Darling, precious child, I have this. I have this. I have this.”

Thank you, Jesus, for this precious gift named Grace Olivia. Thank you for “having this.” Thank you for your Word and your mercies that are new every morning. Thank you for coffee. You are so, so good.

Slowly Softening Heart

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Slowly Softening Heart

So I don’t know…this may be a bit of an overshare, not sure…but, my master bathroom is really the only remaining room in our home that is still gross. We flipped the whole house, but that bathroom needs a bit more effort and we prioritized the kitchen (which I’m not sorry about). We did do the floor and the sink in there, but the shower is horrible and the walls are some kind of gross plaster deal. Also there are two doors – one leads to the front entry of the house and the other into our bedroom. 🤷🏻‍♀️ Unfathomable to me from a design perspective why someone would sacrifice that much square footage in a master bathroom, but I digress. We’re going to have to take out all the drywall, tear down a small wall next to the toilet, seal off that extra door, move shower piping, and replace the shower and all the drywall (bye-bye, money! 💸💸💸).

Anyway, we had these ugly, totally rusted, beige-ish vents everywhere in the house (see top photo for reference). The one in the master bath sat directly in front of the toilet, so literally every time I’ve had to use the restroom (which is a lot, as you can imagine, since I’ll be birthing this child in #sixdays), I had to look at that ugly vent cover. It always bugged me, even after the pretty floors were redone. Ryan replaced it today, and he’s been replacing each one, little by little, much to my extreme delight. We’re noticing as we finish flipping this house, little by little, that the details really make the difference. We did all the big, expensive stuff first, like appliances and flooring and sinks and counters and cabinets, and now we’re in “baseboard-crown molding-vent covers-artwork” mode. These little things add so much to our look as we slowly finish them up.

It may seem silly, but I like to think of this flip as a metaphor for my heart. As I was growing up, the Lord worked on some pretty big stuff, like self-obsession and self-righteousness and lack of compassion or mercy. Now, he’s working each day in smaller ways, in the details. He softens my approach toward my kids when they are driving me nuts – just one little word said in a kinder tone is his doing. He reminds me to see the beauty in the work of others instead of responding with my go-to jealousy. He helps me think of the heart/life-circumstances of that obnoxious person who is driving too slow in front of me. These are little things that I wouldn’t have cared about before, but the Holy Spirit has softened my approach toward people as I’ve learned how to love them a little better. I’m finding that loving people well is in the details – those little things in little moments. And I’m grateful that Jesus can use something as mundane as vent covers to remind me of himself.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Phil 1:6

The Bigger Picture

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This time of year, I love looking through my memories on Facebook. Obviously there are many worth seeing: graduations, vacations, weddings, etc. from over the years.

But my favorite is this: in 2009, I had just graduated from college (I graduated May 17, I believe). The following 2 weeks, I stayed at Millikin while all of my best friends slowly started moving on. I was set to stay in Decatur for the whole summer and nanny again, which was so fun for me, but I was used to having my people surround me, and that was going to be different this year. I was excited about my first teaching job for the fall, but I couldn’t actually do much to prepare for it, so things were a bit stagnant on that front. As I stayed around, I did all kinds of things I’d never done before, particularly hanging out with new people I’d barely known before (especially random boys!). I also was working with my roommates to clean out the house, having our final Friends and West Wing marathons, and just enjoying all being together for the last time. While all of that was in fun, it was in anticipation for what was next, which was unknown and scary and kind of sad.

I had the worst semester ever right before that – student teaching was a nightmare, my relationship that lasted for most of college ended, and I truly felt like I would just be alone forever. As my friends started to leave to go on toward Nashville and Chicago and Boston and other exciting places, I stayed in good ole’ Decatur, Illinois, and I felt boring and plain and alone.

You may be wondering why I look back with such fondness on this. The answer is easy: I’ve read the book before, and I know what’s just about to happen. At this point in history 9 years ago, I am moments away from the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced. As I see these old posts full of hope and immaturity and sadness and uncertainty and silliness, I know now that on May 31, 2009, I will be frantically and grumpily washing dishes in the house where we all lived while a bunch of friends are having a good time swing dancing in the backyard. I know a cute boy will come into the kitchen and ask me for a drink, and I’ll be rude and accidentally make a comment that hurts his feelings. I know that a friend will tell me that he is the best guy on earth and is definitely worth knowing, so I’ll send him a Facebook message a few days later apologizing for being a jerk. I know that we’ll decide to hang out for the summer since we’re both stuck here alone with no friends left. And I know that almost exactly 2 years later, I’ll walk down a church aisle toward him while he bawls his eyes out with most of those friends surrounding us again, and we’ll start the journey together.

I love late-May/early-June each year for this incredible reminder. God knows what he is doing, and he can see what we can’t see. I had no idea how quickly Ryan would be in my life after this. I had no idea about our somewhat controversial whirlwind romance. I had no idea that another human could so perfectly mesh with my weirdness. I had no idea what within 9 years we’d have such an incredibly blessed adventure, almost three beautiful children, a goofy dog, a home we love, so many jobs, and so much love and laughter everyday. I had no idea what was coming! But now I do, because I’ve read the book.

If you are in a place where you are waiting for God to move, you might not realize that he is already moving. You might not realize that in such a short time from now, a dream will be realized or something life-changing will happen. Remember that he can see a bigger picture, and he really knows what he is doing. The story he has for you is a lot better than any you could make up for yourself. He wrote the book, and he knows what’s next.

Psalm 108: Thoughts

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A preface: I decided recently to start thinking about one Psalm every day during my quiet time each morning. It has come to my attention that I spend FAR too much time focusing on what I don’t have or what I don’t have yet, and so little time focusing on the One who gives me everything. I think the Psalms are a great opportunity to adjust this focus from myself to my Creator, who gives me all things, and spend time thanking Him for what I have instead of asking Him only for what I need all the time. I spend far too much time crying out to Him in want and far too little time acknowledging who He is.

Psalm 108

My heart, O God, is steadfast; I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, higher than the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth. Save us and help us with your right hand, that those you love may be delivered. God has spoken from his sanctuary: “In triumph I will parcel out Shechem and measure off the Valley of Sukkoth. Gilead is mine, Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet, Judah is my scepter. Moab is my washbasin, on Edom I toss my sandal; over Philistia I shout in triumph.” Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom? Is it not you, God, you who have rejected us and no longer go out with our armies? Give us aid against the enemy, for human help is worthless. With God we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies.

The first thing that I notice here is that it is sort of split into 3 parts.

PRAISE
From verses 1-6, David talks about God’s glory, and he talks about singing praises to him. He mentions individual praise – he will start praising God first thing in the morning. He will start his day by praising with music. He mentions group praise – he will praise God among the nations – with other people from many different countries and with his own people. Then he says why he will do this – because of God’s attributes, including:

God’s great love (higher than heaven)
God’s great faithfulness (as high as the skies)
God’s glory (we lift you higher even than heaven, show your amazingness over the whole world)

GOD’S POWER
From verses 7-9, David speaks some poetry as if from God’s mouth. He acknowledges God’s power and greatness (largeness). First he basically says that God will carve out and measure off Shechem and the Valley of Sukkoth. These are the two places that Jacob stopped on his way back to Canaan in Genesis 33 when he was returning home to reunited with Esau. Perhaps this is David’s acknowledgement that God has been with Israel all the time and has guided their steps before he brought them to the Promised Land, a representation of and literal victory. Then he talks about Gilead and Manasseh belonging to God. He says Ephraim, which was the most powerful tribe, is the helmet (they are powerful, so they provide protection for the head, makes perfect sense), and he says that Judah, the tribe of David’s, is the scepter (that makes sense because Judah is the tribe the rulers are from, which acknowledges its royalty – also Jesus is from Judah, so this could possibly be considered a prophetic moment?). Then in verse 9, he talks about the enemy –  Moab, Edom, Philistia – and how he will defeat them. One is his washbasin – he’s cleaning himself of it, I suppose. At one he will toss his sandal – that sounds like either he is careless toward it or he will annihilate it by stepping right on it in his greatness. At one he will shout in triumph – we all know how David felt about the Philistines (hello, Goliath).

HELP, PLEASE
Verses 10-13 discuss David’s need for God’s help. He feels like God has abandoned his people up to this point, and that they don’t have victory because God isn’t with them anymore. Only a third of this whole psalm talks about what David needs. He spends far more of the time talking about the attributes of God and praising him than he spends asking for help. He clothes his need in praise of God, who he is confident will help them. He is sure that God will defeat the enemy, and he is sure that Israel cannot do it without God. Even his plea for help is a form of praise – God’s power is what will defeat the enemy, and nothing else. In verse 12, he says “human help is worthless.”

 

Now, I’m going to recreate this Psalm as my own prayer.

God, I will not give up on you. I will choose to sing to you. I will start my day with you every day, singing to you with music and praising your name! I will bring others into my praise – I will gather and praise your name with other people who know you will save. You are an incredible God. You have love that reaches higher than I can imagine. You are faithful beyond anything I could need or even want. I want you to be lifted higher than anything else, so that everything else falls away. It all pales in comparison to your glory. Your glory is greater than I can even see – it spreads beyond the entire world.

Help me, God. You are powerful, and you defeat your enemies. You are victorious. I know you have said that you will rescue your people, and you have been faithful. You will be able to rescue me from my sin, from my selfishness, from my pride, from my grief, because you are all powerful and wonderful.

I know you are the One who will rescue me, but I feel like you have left me alone. I cannot beat my sin, my selfishness, my pride, my grief, and my unbelief. Human help isn’t doing any good. Come with me in this, and heal me. With you, I will see victory, and you will defeat my sin and death with righteousness and light.

In defense of Christian popular music

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I have a love-hate relationship with Christian music, especially the newer stuff. I had really unique and constant church music experiences growing up (my dad was a minister of music), and music praising God was literally the center of my life. Then I majored in music in college and learned lots of things about teaching music. Needless to say, I have lots of major opinions about how music should go down in church and/or how music that is designed for worshipping should be. So when I listen to songs on Christian radio, I find myself more often than not rolling my eyes. Oh, this one again? 🙄

I get really worked up as I listen to Christian radio. I wonder about and get really nit-picky about the theology of some songs (did God really not want heaven without us? That seems very human-centered instead of God-centered)(why are we inviting God here? Isn’t He already here because two or three are gathered in His name? It’s kind of asinine to invite God somewhere, really). I question the wording of some songs (“you took the fall, and thought of me, above all” – really? Jesus placed me above everything else? Again, that seems a little human-centered. God constantly says in His word, particularly throughout the prophecies in the Old Testament, that He is doing things for His sake, and that Israel should remember that it is not for their sake that He saves them). And then there are the little things that just bug me or rub me the wrong way (that random whistling in that one really actually great Danny Gokey song…what is UP with that whistling for just two seconds at the climactic moment? It’s like God is an old man in a rocking chair chewing on hay for a second)(the Christmas season Jingle Bell Rock where they sing “mix and mingle with the jingling FEET” instead of BEAT, I mean seriously, you can’t look up the lyrics to make sure they’re right before the song gets nationally produced? Come ON.)(Oh and then that super fun song “Higher” that I actually love, but the lyric “higher” goes lower in pitch as it is repeated. Haven’t those writers heard of text painting? The word is “higher,” the notes should go higher. Drives me bonkers). It also bugs me how shallow many of the songs are – they often just seem like filler lyrics because they rhyme or lazy songwriting where you wanted a hit so you sing about how good God is. I mean, I do get it, He is really really good, so I can’t blame them, to an extent. And then there’s the cheese factor (“hold me Jesus, cause I’m shaking like a leaf” – really? “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss?” You couldn’t get something less gross and cheesy to fill that lyric space? “That’s why God made tears?” Gag-face.). And don’t get me started on all of the water metaphors (even though all of those songs are REALLY good)(“you call me to deeper waters, you said don’t be afraid,” “you call me out upon the waters, the great unknown where feet may fail,” “you have made me brave, you have made me brave, you call me out beyond the shore to the waves” – I heard all three of these on the radio today, dead serious). And lastly, the number of times per day I hear Chris Tomlin’s voice. I seriously think he writes a number one hit every time he goes number two (talk about holy crap, amirite?). But really, there’s lots for a (please read my sarcasm here) super mature and theologically developed veteran Christian like me to pick apart.

And then my incredible God reminds me of what I just mentioned above – it’s for His sake, not mine. And I am humbled and reminded of why Christian music is worth it, after all (above all? I kid).

1. These songs are written to market to a large multitude of people of all walks. Sure, some of the songs don’t really speak to me lyrically (Third Day’s I Need A Miracle), but they do speak to someone. Am I such a self-centered Christian that I need every song to move me or speak to my personal needs regarding growth? I hope not. Instead, I hope I can be renewed in the simpler truths of God each time I hear them. Worship is a choice – I can choose to worship when listening to any song that isn’t sinful regardless of the lyrical depth. God’s mercies are new every morning, great is His faithfulness. I can sing the same lyrics again and be renewed, similar to how Scripture can still be meaningful after the millionth read (this is especially true if the song lyrics are actual Scripture). An example of this would be I Could Sing of Your Love Forever. For years, I’ve hated this song, and I’ve rolled my eyes every time it has played. Again? Really? I’d think. But there is something to be said in repeating the title lyrics. Could I sing of his love forever? I will, won’t I? How cool is it that people of every tribe and tongue will come together to sing of his love? How cool is it that my favorite thing is to sing, and it is one of the only things that carries over from earth into heaven? I get to sing of His love forever. That’s actually pretty awesome. And now I no longer want to gouge my eyes out, but instead my heart is filled with renewed love for a Savior who went out of His way to keep His promise to Israel, and then extended that promise to a lowly Gentile. I will open up my heart and let the Healer set me free. I’m happy to be in the truth, and I will daily lift my hands, for I will always sing of when your love came down. Beautiful.

2. Even though not every song is deep or spiritually great, many, many, many are. Take a listen to “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again,” “Blessings,” “Thy Will,” “Broken Together,” “Even If,” and “How Can It Be.” All of these songs are about choosing to praise God when things don’t make any sense. There is a necessary level of spiritual maturity to even understand those songs. Then, there are all the great songs that outline our faith so well. Take a listen to “In Christ Alone,” “Glorious Day,” “We Believe,” “Forever,” “Doxology,” “Be My Everything,” and “All I Have Is Christ.” Honestly, I’ve found that it is worth it to listen to the shallow stuff for a while just to hear some of these played once. I bet some of these songs drive other people nuts, just like I bet some of the songs that drive me nuts mean the world to someone else. There is so much to grow in with our faith, and in different seasons, we have different needs. Certain verses have meant so much to me during particular times in my life, but they aren’t as profound to me now. I would hate to dismiss an entire ministry because I’m irritated by some songs when there are so many excellent ones, too.

3. Many people argue that modern Christian popular music is too emotional, but there is an emotional side to humankind. I’d say it’s half. We are half emotional, and half logical. While I do think we need to practice caution in getting so emotional that we stop thinking and therefore reject truth in favor of feelings, I think it is totally okay to get a spiritual high from singing to Jesus, especially when singing His truths. Some people are really turned off by the wavy-armed, tear-covered faces of worshippers because “they aren’t really worshipping, they’re just having an emotional experience.” I think we’re forgetting that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I almost always get emotional when I remember what God has done for me. When I see the incredible, totally unwarranted blessing that He has showered on me, I am moved. When my heart is moved, my hands and feet start moving, too, and I become a doer of the word rather than just a hearer. This morning, we visited the church Ryan grew up in. That church has an amazing culture of worship – every voice sings. There are only like 200 people in there, and there was one pianist, one guitarist, one box-drum player, and one female vocalist, and that room was totally filled with singing. I couldn’t even sing. I just stood there and cried. This is a glimpse of heaven – people coming together and shouting for joy His praise. “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me…oh, I’m running to your arms, your everlasting love will always be enough.” It refreshes me and spurs me on to keep living for Jesus. He is enough! I am glad to be emotional over Jesus. He is certainly worth having feelings about.

4. The biggest reason that I’ll celebrate Christian radio is that it allows me to consistently put thoughts about God and His goodness in my head throughout the day. Every time I drive, I think about Him. Whether I eat or drink or whatever I do, I can praise Him in it. The constant thought of His presence reminds me that He is there, and it helps me focus on Him in what I’m doing instead of ignoring Him (and that’s really why we sing about inviting His presence, isn’t it, so that we acknowledge and remember Him?). The reminders of my sin (I am guilty, ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become, these hands are dirty, how can I lift them up to the Holy One) help me confess. The moments of reveling in His glory (worthy is the…lamb who was slain, holy holy is He) and dreaming of heaven (I Can Only Imagine, Glorious Day, I’ll Fly Away) move me and give me a reason to live well, really. I can actually meditate on God’s word all day with minimal effort, just from turning on my car. I think this is the modern equivalent to writing the words on our foreheads and meditating on them day and night. These songs get stuck in my head, and I find myself singing little snippets all the time. I didn’t even realize I knew some of them! Something is always going in our ears these days – what could be better than praise to Him? What we listen to affects us – I know that I’m a more Christ-centered, kind, loving person when I regularly meditate on God’s word.

Christian songwriters should be held to the same standard as pastors, as they are essentially teachers of the Word. The lyrics and meanings of any song written about God should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that it contains biblical truth, not false doctrine or heresy or blasphemy. This can easily happen when songwriters are rushing to put out the next number one or create a song for attention or glory. We should pray, critique, and carefully edit our words of praise since we are imperfect. Overall, though, we must remember how good God is at using things for His glory even when they aren’t quite right. He is the author and perfecter of our faith.

Even though I love to roll my eyes at those same old songs playing again on the radio, I am so grateful that there exists a ministry whose goal is to spread the love of Christ through song. May God give those people clean hands and pure hearts as they work for His glory, and may we always remember that worship isn’t about our personal likes and dislikes, preferences and desires, but it is about giving back to the One who gave us absolutely everything.

Treasures

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I always remove my wedding rings before I bathe or shower. They are still just a tad too big, and it bothers me how they spin around when they get soapy with shampoo and scratch my noggin when I’m scrubbing. When I was 18, my dad brought me back a Bohemian crystal ring holder from Czech on one of his visits (oh yes, we’re fancy like that)(actually, my dad was just involved in a Czech music ministry for about 7 years of my young adulthood), so I always put my rings in that. It sits on the bathroom sink, and the master bathroom in our new house doesn’t have much counter space. It kind of freaks me out. So every day, I gingerly remove my wedding rings, terribly fearful that they’ll fall out of my hands (I still haven’t gotten them soldered together) and into the dreaded sink drain, ne’er to be found again, and so I tenderly place them on the ring holder. Then, when I get out of the shower, I carefully pick them back up again to wear.

Yesterday, as I was doing this for like the 1000th time (what’s up, 6 years of marriage!??!), I asked myself why it would be such a terrible disaster if I dropped them into the sink. Well duh, I thought to myself, because they are irreplaceable – the permanent, unending symbol of the love between us, and because they were the most expensive thing we’ve ever bought for one another besides our education and home (and children – hospital bills, y’all). They are treasures. They represent the absolute best part of my life. And also they are pretty.

Of course, the next thing that popped into my head was “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal, for where your treasure is, there your heart will also be” and I started to feel that guilt that constantly haunts me because I am a broken sinner and I can’t seem to get much right.

I treat those rings like they are so precious, taking extra good care of them. I’m tender and gentle and careful and kind. I’m treating them like they are my treasures. But really, they are a treasure that represents my actual treasures, and the only kind of treasures that are worth storing up on earth because they can transfer over to heaven: people. Those rings are precious on earth in and of themselves, but they are only real treasures because of what they represent. The actual treasure is my husband.

I don’t treat him so tenderly anymore. 6 years of marriage and 2 years of dating before that lends itself to that, doesn’t it? I snap at him, am sarcastic and a little mean sometimes (and a lot mean sometimes), I openly show how frustrated I am when he doesn’t inherently understand my deepest needs and desires. I’m still kind to him, laugh with him, and love him dearly, but I’m just not quite so careful anymore.

Literally every time I handle those rings, I am so, so careful. Many times I handle the actual treasure, though, I am so, so careless. My carelessness results in hurt and brokenness instead of encouragement and support. How can I think of Hubs as the actual treasure? What would it mean for my marriage if I was gentle, tender, and careful with each interaction with him? I think it would certainly mean growth of my character, and I bet it would result in growth of his, too. And it would be storing up a treasure for heaven – a pale shadow of the truly perfect relationship we’ll share someday, restored by an absence of sin and the presence of God’s face.

I Wish I’d Known…Grace

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So my dad’s a pastor. Anybody who has ever had a pastor daddy knows the special pressure we all feel as PKs – the “you-better-act-perfect-because-if-not-your-dad-will-lose-his-job-because-1-Timothy-3:4-says-so” pressure. I got it extra double amounts because I’m the oldest and a girl. I actually remember someone in our church family once sitting me down and explaining to me that my behavior could directly affect whether my dad kept his job or not because he couldn’t be an overseer in the church if his children didn’t obey him. I also was a normal Sunday school kid, so I learned all the rules of Christianity, like be good and be nice to people and obey and follow the rules. I was a textbook oldest child: perfectionist, over-achiever, bossy, rule-following, judgmental, etc. I found no trouble in being perfectly obedient and always doing the right thing. I didn’t really rebel, although there was that time freshman year I snuck out to go on a date even though the rule was that I had to be 16 to date and I was only 14 and got epically grounded for a full 3 months. No outside of the house time, no cordless phone, no aol instant messenger, nothing! It was horrible – obey your parents! Seriously though.

I guess the point of all this is that I felt the pressure to be good from a young age, and I knew that I wasn’t good. But I felt like if I was good more often than I was bad, or if I was only bad about small little things, then it would balance out and God would be proud of me. Since my parents are wonderful humans, I at least had a good understanding of unconditional love – I totally got the whole “we love you anyway even if you do the wrong thing” thing, but I really thought that the amount God was proud of me that day was based on how I was acting.

I even really knew we were saved by grace. I knew we weren’t possibly ever going to be good enough to get into heaven on our own. Like let’s say somebody said for us to jump to the moon. We all try to jump to the moon, and I’m wearing my air Jordans so I jump the very highest. Did I actually make it to the moon? Of course not. The goal isn’t to get the closest to the moon; the goal is to jump to the moon. I’m doomed from the start – I can’t possibly jump that high. So it really doesn’t matter if I get the closest, because it’s not like closest counts. It’s either that I met the goal or I didn’t. And that’s a goal I can’t possibly meet. I understood that I was saved by grace – God just threw the rules out the window. He just went and got the moon and put it directly in our hands – there’s no contest or even effort. He just did it for us. But the thing was, I was still trying to jump to the moon everyday. I was working super hard for something that I already had. I was wearing myself out trying to reach an impossible goal, and I was forgetting that I already had it.

The problem for me came when I was about 12. I was a bright, inquisitive, nerdy tomboy who also happened to like frilly things. I had a vivid imagination, and I liked to be silly. I was very outgoing, and I loved attention. I read books like there would be no tomorrow. I still played with my American Girl doll or Barbies almost every day. I spent a lot of time pretending/playing that I was an American transfer student to Hogwarts who Ron Weasley fell in love with (mind you, only 3 Harry Potter books and zero movies were out at this time, so I had no idea the direction that was going to go). I was still a child, but my peers were moving into adulthood. The fact that I didn’t care to style my hair or wear makeup began to play into my social status. I still remember with pain in my heart my 7th hour science class in 7th grade. I was in a group of 4 with these two really popular girls and this one really popular boy, and they were so mean to me. Looking back as an adult, it’s almost hilarious, but it hurt so bad back then. They would call my hair a dirty rat’s nest and tell me how ugly my handwriting was. They would tease me that my khaki pants and polo shirts were Walmart brand (we wore uniforms) and that my tennis shoes were out of style. I distinctly remember saying I was going to go to the dance, and them saying that I probably couldn’t dance at all, and I responded that of course I could, because I had been in dance for years, and they rolled their eyes at me and said I was so stupid because this was not like ballet. All of that stuff seems so superficial and dumb to me as an adult, like I want to go back in time and smack myself for caring at all about these people’s opinion of me. But as a 12-year-old, I was crushed. And I would do absolutely anything to have those people like me. Of course, overachiever I was, it wouldn’t suffice to have them simply leave me alone. No, I had to be one of them. I must be a beloved member of their group. So the conclusion I came to was to change literally everything about myself that made them find me repulsive so that they would be my friends.

I started caring a lot about my appearance. I’d get up every morning really early to get all primped and pretty. I begged and cried and whined until I got more acceptable brands of clothing and shoes. I started copying this one popular girl’s handwriting so they’d compliment mine. So it worked! They became my friends, or at least I was getting invited to be around them and I wasn’t getting teased anymore, but was part of their conversations.

The tradeoff was that I forfeited myself to do this. I got rid of everything about myself that made me interesting. I wasn’t silly or childish anymore. I only wanted to blend into the crowd and do what everyone else wanted. Being liked was more important than anything else. I became a shell of myself, blending and twisting to fit perfectly into whatever place I was stuck in. Just as I felt like I was getting my bearings, my dad got a new job and my family moved. Yay for starting high school in a new town! It is literally the worst. I basically just started over with the whole “trying super hard to fit in” and totally changing myself thing, and it really didn’t work that time. I think people have an innate sense when someone is trying too hard to fit in, and that person becomes unlikeable, even if the other people can’t quite pinpoint why they don’t like the person. That was definitely the case for me freshman and sophomore year of high school. I could tell that nobody in particular truly liked me. Instead of resigning to just be my natural self, I sunk deeper into myself and became an even worse shell of nothingness and despair. Anger replaced my innate silliness. My go-to was emptiness and anger and jealousy and resentment. And somehow I kept that self-righteous, I-always-do-the-right-thing attitude, which made me seem bossy and judgmental and even more unlikeable. The sad truth – my number one goal was to be liked, and I was very not liked. I fought with God so much during this time – I begged him to take away the things about my personality that made me difficult. I twisted his words, praying that he would make me more like Him, but really meaning that I wanted to not be the way he made me anymore. My family moved again between sophomore and junior year of high school, and I got another chance to start over. I did just as badly this time, and was very relieved to escape to college. Everywhere I went, I brought my anger at never fitting in, never having a place, always feeling like I needed to change myself for whoever I was around to become likable. It was just exhausting and frustrating and seemed so hopeless.

Bottom line: I spent the years from age 12 to about age 22 hating myself. I hated my strong personality, my bossiness, my need to be the center of attention because it made me seem arrogant and conceited, that I had to soften everything I said so that it wouldn’t come across too mean. I hated that I needed people to feel energized, but people made me feel terrible about myself. I hated that the Church claimed to love one another when really they only loved those who were lovable. And of course I hated the way I looked – what I would have traded for stick straight hair and skinnier legs and blue eyes and straight teeth! And that self-obsession, being totally turned in on myself, filtering everything through the self-deprecation lens, always worrying about whether people wanted me around, seeing that they didn’t but having to be around them anyway, it stopped me from ever even considering that maybe some other people might feel just like I did. I was trying so hard to be good, to be just right, to deny myself, but for all the wrong reasons. And it had the opposite result of what I hoped: I was less liked because of it, and I wasn’t serving the kingdom of God at all by denying what made me “me.” The lack of being able to make a difference in God’s kingdom caused me to fall even deeper into myself. Everything I did – it all stemmed from obligation and guilt and turned me into an even more selfish person.

Sometime in early adulthood, someone talked to me about justice, mercy, and grace. They explained it so well: justice is getting what you deserve. Let’s say you kill someone. Justice would be either the death penalty or a life sentence – getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. So you killed someone. Mercy is that you are pronounced guilty but you don’t have to go to jail for life or have the death penalty. Mercy is unfair. But then there’s grace. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. It’s going one step further. So you kill someone. Grace is that person’s family comes to you and gives you all of the person you murdered’s inheritance and legally adopts you as a member of their family. It is crazy. It’s a totally illogical and completely unfair reaction. You guys, this is what God did for us.

God had this plan that we would be his kids. We were like, “no thanks God, we’d rather do things our way.” This is the ultimate crime: creation rebelling against its Creator, thinking that it has a better idea of what it should be than He does. I should have known: my constant practice of hating myself, of thinking that I knew better than God what kind of person I should be – that’s a perfect example of sin. Our punishment was separation from the Creator, our Dad. Dad loves us, and he can’t stand the idea of being separated from us forever even though we really screwed things up. Instead of forcing our separation, or causing us to be forced to jump to the moon, which he knew we couldn’t do, he brought the moon down to us. He brought himself to us. He put on our messed up skin and walked with our messed up selves and taught us how to love each other the way he loved us. Then we killed him. But he beat death, and then he was like “it’s cool, no worries that you killed me, come be my kids and have my inheritance and be with me forever.” It’s this crazy amazing story because it has nothing to do with us and everything to do with us. It has nothing to do with us because we didn’t do anything to be heroes in the story. We are the bad guys, like the whole way through.

So that’s grace, guys. We get everything, and we deserve the worst. But God doesn’t just stop with grace. He extends a challenge. I love this, because it is all over Scripture. Every time Jesus forgives somebody who doesn’t deserve it, there’s a challenge with it. The challenge isn’t “be good, then I’ll forgive you.” It’s “I forgive you, now walk with me and learn how to be good.” It’s not “look what you did,” but “look what I did.” I always think of John 8: A woman was caught in the act of adultery, which was punishable by death. The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, so they brought the woman before him. This is the passage where he says that famous line “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” and none of them can throw a stone because they know they are all sinners. We like to leave the story there – Jesus doesn’t want us to condemn one another because we are just as guilty as each other – but there’s more to the story. Jesus asked the woman where everybody went, and she said that no one remained to condemn her. So Jesus says, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” He has grace for her – he gives her another chance at life, but he balances it with a challenge – go and leave your life of sin.

To sum it all up, what I wish I’d known is grace. If I had been able to understand the magnitude of God’s grace (and I still can’t understand this fully), it would have resulted in one big change: I would have turned outside of myself. Instead of literally spending 24/7 trying to change myself so that other people would like me, I would have been spending 24/7 trying to like them. It’s a totally different mindset – how can I love people today? vs how can I make sure other people like me today? When I shifted my mindset and started trying to live by extending to others the grace that God had already extended to me, my entire life changed. People can sense when you truly care about them, and they like you much better for it. It turns out that most people feel the same way I felt – awkward and uncomfortable in their own skin, feeling a great dislike for core things about themselves. When they are extended grace, when we love them unconditionally the way Jesus loved us, we’re like magnets to them. There is an aura about us in those moments that can’t come from anywhere but the Holy Spirit, and people are drawn to Him. I have been able to have meaningful relationships with so many people – people I wouldn’t have even noticed if I’d been trying to spend all my time getting noticed – because of this mind shift. Think of light onto a prism or diamond – light coming in to one place is multiplied and beautifully reflected in many different directions. It’s like the miracle of the loaves and the fish – it looks like there’s only so much to start with, but God can multiply even the smallest things to make plenty for everyone. When we accept God’s grace and extend it to others, there is always going to be plenty to go around.

Here’s the ending to my story: remember how I hate that I’m passionate, and bossy, and I have a vivid imagination, and I love attention? Those exact qualities, when developed and sculpted and pruned and filtered through the Jesus-lens, become some of the greatest strengths I have, particularly when I’m teaching. My passion keeps me interested in doing the same things, day after day. My bossiness keeps my students in line. My vivid imagination keeps my students interested in what we are learning and helps me to be creative with how I teach. My love of attention means that I don’t mind in the slightest when I have to get up and talk to 500 parents at performances. God gave me these qualities on purpose, and he has blessed me so much when I’ve surrendered them to him instead of trying to get rid of them.

Here’s my hope for you: I hope that you will see the incredible grace that God has extended to you, and that you’ll accept it. I pray that you’ll be that diamond or prism, reflecting that incredible grace to as many people as you meet. And I pray that you’ll surrender your own self, both the things you like about yourself and that you don’t like about yourself, and you’ll allow God to use those things in his miracle way to bring glory to Himself to the edify His kingdom on earth. You won’t believe how full your life will get.

I Wish I’d Known…

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I’m a small group leader for the youth group, and we are about to start this series of talks called “I Wish I’d Known.” Basically, some of the small group leaders are going to spend 15 minutes each over several weeks giving a talk to the big group about what they wish they’d have known when they were in high school. I am presenting on February 19, so I’ve been spending a whole lot of time thinking about this topic in preparation.

And honestly, that is impossible. First of all, I wish I had known like everything. I wish I had known I’d get the best husband ever so I could just calm down about that. I mean, seriously, I could give a whole talk to teenagers about dating relationships (couldn’t we all?). I wish I’d known that my hair would end up being controllable. I wish I had enjoyed the lack of effort required at the time to keep myself in shape. I wish I’d known that cheerleading wasn’t everything. I wish I’d known that people are always difficult, and they’re always going to disappoint you, and that doesn’t change the fact that you love them anyway and pray for them anyway and like them anyway. I wish I’d known that some of those things that I hated about myself were actually blessed gifts if I’d use them with God instead of Satan’s twisted methods. I wish I’d known that I’d find the absolutely perfect career and never change my mind once. I wish I’d known I would, in fact, get to stay home with my babies in the midst of that career. I wish I’d known how to budget better then.

And then second of all, I wouldn’t change ANY of that, so I don’t really wish I’d known anything in particular back then. I wouldn’t trade a bit of it. The choices I made were based in what I understood of myself and God at the time, and God blessed me immensely in my obedience and taught me endlessly amazing lessons in my disobedience. Not that I recommend disobeying God, but he truly does work all things for good.

And that’s what I’m going to talk about: He works all things for good. He really, actually, truly does. And I wish I’d have known that at 16.

At 15, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my family went through a very difficult period in which I felt alone and ostracized from my church “family.” I was disgusted at the behavior of many people who I’d previously respected as strong Christians. I was hardened, sad, and lonely. And a little jaded. I didn’t do anything wrong – why was I being treated like a leper? This was NOT what God called Christians to act like – including those church leaders who were treating my family the way they were (and those same church leaders who had taught me for 2 years before that about how God calls us to love each other with grace). I was realizing for the first time just how messed up God’s church is, and it jaded me. The true magic, though, is that God kept me with him. I never wanted to stray from him. I never felt like he suddenly wasn’t real. It’s a miracle, honestly. I was angry and upset and unforgiving and not really Christ-like, but I still desired and believed in Jesus.

My family moved that year, and my dad took a new church job in Alton, Illinois. I should mention that I grew up completely in the south, and Illinois was total and complete culture shock. I did not care for anything about Illinois – the way the people acted, our new church, snow/winter/cold weather, my new schoolmates, the way people made fun of me for my accent and assumed I was stupid and assumed that I thought the South won the “war of northern aggression.” (SO. MANY. EYEROLLS.) After feeling ostracized by people who were my people, I moved into the land of not-my-people and felt ostracized some more. I didn’t fit in at all. So I immediately started looking for a boyfriend (should I mention here that I actually still had a boyfriend in Mississippi? No, I shouldn’t mention that. It makes me look like a jerk. Which I was.) and found a nice new boy to date. I got rid of my accent best I could, although I still stick “y’all” everywhere and even a good “used-to-could” in there every once in a while. I tried out for the top singing group at school and made it. I worked hard on grades. It probably looked from the outside like things were good, but I was incredibly unhappy, which I think was clear to anyone who talked to me. When you are incredibly unhappy, it is obvious to everyone. I literally do not keep in touch with a single person my age from Alton, Illinois, which is a real shame, because as it turns out, a lot of them were fantastic people. I wish I could go back and treat other people better. I wish I could go back and get outside of myself and see the people who needed love around me. I could have made such a difference, and I could have figured out that joy comes when we get outside ourselves and love others instead of wasting away in self-obsession.

The biggest thing, though, is really that God works all things for good. First, I dated that boy I mentioned above for over a year, and he taught me SO MUCH about myself. In Alton, I met the most influential people in my spiritual life besides my immediate family – my youth pastor, Mike, who shared my great passion for musical theatre, and my Sunday School teacher, Sheri Steward, who I still keep in touch with. The Purpose Driven Life came out during that time, and that church I didn’t care for at the time participated in the 40 Days of Purpose, which completely changed my life. That’s when I first learned that it wasn’t about me (which is the first sentence of that book). Casting Crowns, the band who seriously defines my life (someday I’m going to write an entire post about the difference Casting Crowns has made in my life) released their first album and they just spoke my language. I realized how much I loved music and that I couldn’t part from it, thanks to two incredible women, Ann Davis and Laura Plummer, and an incredible man, David Drillinger. I went to Honors All-State Choir my senior year and bawled my eyes out as the boys sang “The Awakening” around me. Ann Davis told me about a school that put out great music teachers called Millikin, which I had never heard of before. The Chamber Chorale came to us on their tour, and they were amazing. I decided I would be in that choir, and I would go to Millikin, and I would become a choir director like Ann Davis. And it probably goes without saying, but I never would have done any of the above listed things if not for God planting my family in the weird little place of Alton, Illinois. (I feel like I should mention that I ended up truly treasuring my little church in Alton that I hadn’t originally cared much for.) The two things that would define my life most strongly – my relationship with God and my relationship with music – were nurtured and developed and grew exponentially while in Alton, and I hated almost every minute during those two years of high school. I wish I’d have known how God would use that, and I wish I had enjoyed it instead of dreading each day.

Fast forward: I did go to Millikin, and I was in Chamber Chorale. I realized quickly that Chamber Chorale was actually the second choir at Millikin (even though it’s better than top choirs at most universities, I’m not biased or anything), and the top choir was University Choir, which I was unfathomably blessed to be part of and was single-handedly the most influential part of my character development in my entire life. I met another boy at Millikin who I dated for 3 years and learned an incredible amount from, most acutely that we weren’t the right match for one another, which helped me to define the characteristics of the right match for me. I did major in music education, and I graduated among the top of my class and immediately got a job teaching music. A week after graduation, I met a really cute boy whose face I get to stare at every day and also get to see in tiny 3.5- and almost-2-year-old form every single day, to my greatest joy. We’ve settled our lives in a church that truly strives to love the way God calls us to and into ministries that give us great pleasure. My life is so good, and it is so full of direct, obvious, amazing blessings. Everything that has happened to me has resulted in such a good life. God pieced together all kinds of nasty sin and brokenness and selfishness and cowardice and rage and bitterness, cleaned it up, and made my life truly beautiful.

I wish I could have known in high school how good it was going to end up, because I would have faced each day so differently. I would have treated others so much better and cultivated better relationships with my peers. I wouldn’t have necessarily made different life choices – I love where I went to college, I would still break up with all the boys I broke up with, and the pain I experienced from being left out of things taught me how to lean on God and turn outside of myself, which I wouldn’t trade for anything. But the thing that would change would be how I treated others. In my selfishness and worry and distrust, I pushed aside so many people who needed Christ’s love. When I made things about myself, I missed incredible opportunities to serve God’s people and make disciples. I would adjust my attitude to one of joy, and hope, and peace, because I should have been confident in the promises of God.

 

The plans he has for you are good. They will help you prosper, and they will not harm you. They will give you hope and a future.

He will work all things together for your good.

He will never leave you or forsake you.

He will lift your burdens and give you his instead, which is easy and light.

He will heal you, and he will teach you how to praise Him in the storms. He will teach you how to love and forgive and let go.

He will give you a really good life. Trust me. Trust him.