First Things

2011 began with my husband losing his second job to his addiction.  I quickly became numb, as the nightmare that I thought I would never have to live through again suddenly became our reality.

It was six years prior that we had hit rock bottom, or so I thought.  Never again would I ever want to relive that torment.  And yet here we were.  Like beating cancer, pulling yourself up to live again, believing for something more, something new.  And then being told by the doctors that the cancer is back.  The addiction has reared its ugly head like a demon’s most vicious attack.  Unrelenting.  Inescapable.

Initially we were so disoriented, so whipped with the attack of the enemy, that it was hard to get our footing.  While I attempted sleep, I would toss and turn restlessly, ever aware that this nightmare was not going away.

Yet having walked this hell before, I knew how to hold onto the glory of God.  To look for Him everywhere.  To collect every word, every breath, every sign of life, every song, every verse.  His glory — the very essence of who He is — is revealed in times like these.  God is seen, made known, and revealed in the darkness.  If only we will tune our hearts to Him.

This is how we glorify God.  This is how we experience who He is and what He does.  Willing to walk where He allows us to go, for more of Himself.

Ever faithful, ever true, God gave me a vision of what He was doing.

Instruct the wise, and they will be even wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn even more.    Proverbs 9:9

Relapse in recovery is about going deeper.  A new and greater level of healing.  Revealing areas that we missed before that need our attention.  (I say “we” because all of us need to do this kind of personal work.  Recovery and healing and growth has to be claimed by the individual.)

God made it clear to me that this relapse was not about failure.  It did not mean that all of the work up to this point was null and void.  Instead, He was teaching us even more.  He was taking us further still.

We prayed two things: for wisdom and provision.  God, we have no idea how to walk this.  No idea how to survive but to hold onto You.  We need Your wisdom and direction; we need You to provide the way.  Lead us through.

That is when He revealed first things first.  While the crisis at hand clearly involved the loss of a job, God prioritized healing.  The job has to wait.  You have to walk deep healing.

Healing would take everything we had.  Emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, and financially.  And in that, I found the wisdom of praying specifically for provision.  Because God, we don’t have it.  On our own, we can’t make it.  We are spent.  We’ve been knocked over too many times.

We’ve walked decades with God and learned that though His way is often harder, it is best.  He has shown us where to go, and we have been blessed to walk faithfully and obediently, even in our human failings and frailty.  Strangely, mysteriously, He finds incredible beauty in humanity.

As we close a year unparalleled in our story thus far, God brought another verse that rings again the echoes of where this year began.  It is the bookends holding us up, holding us together, giving us vision.

In the same way, wisdom is sweet to your soul.
If you find it, you will have a bright future,
and your hopes will not be cut short.  Proverbs 24:14

God is growing us in wisdom.  Because first things of healing are prioritized, our future can be bright.  Our hope is not cut short.

Praise God for healing and growth in 2011.  Praise God for redeeming us and making us new.  Praise God for His wisdom and provision in incredible abundance.  Praise God that He knows the better path for us to walk, and sustains us by walking it with us.

May His first things ever become my first things.

Our Redecorated Christmas Tree

I wouldn’t have chosen it this way.  In fact, there is a LOT about our story I wouldn’t have chosen.  Yet God has allowed it to be so.  And my part is to live within this space, and glorify him here.

Our family lights a Chinese lantern in the month of advent to keep watch.  Wait for his coming.  Look for him.  Urge one another on to believe God, even when our soul is weary.

What is it about God’s timing that makes it so incredibly long  and hard to wait?  I have come to terms with waiting by realizing two things.  God is patient (literally read LONG suffering) and he is well acquainted with grief.

He can handle the wait.  He sees the purpose so distinctly, that for the joy set before him, he is willing to endure the cross.  That is a big picture kind of God.

Scripture teaches us, “For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” 2 Corinthians 4:17

I could argue that present troubles don’t seem small — they are tangled, multi-faceted, and layered in complexity.  They are piled up, ongoing, and anything but small.

And won’t last very long?  A year is made up of living one day at a time,  for three hundred, sixty-five days. Often hour by hour8, 760 hours to be exact, and it can weigh heavy on your shoulders some days.  It can be hard to walk when you can’t see what God is doing.

Yet God’s Word promises that the glory outshines the darkness.  Don’t sink down in the dark any longer.  Arise!

Scripture promises the Lord is coming!  That is what advent is all about.  He came in Bethlehem and he is coming again.  And for those who wait on him in prayer, He is going to show up faithful, again and again.

Our daughters are tired.  Their faith is worn out.  In the past few weeks, both have come to me in tears, fearful and hurting.  Why hasn’t God shown up yet?  They aren’t waiting for Christmas presents.  They are waiting for God to answer their prayers — for God to give their daddy a job.

Perhaps God gave us THIS timing with great purpose.  He gave us THIS Christmas to be like no other.  A life changing, faith transforming, incredible opportunity to believe God — here.  To simplify Christmas to what matters most.  To have the incredible honor of raising our kids in faith and hope, even when the answers haven’t come.

We sat around our lantern and passed a Christmas gift bag.  We had already given Jesus our gift of praise and I told them now it was his turn to give us a gift of his promises.  This is what we hold onto.  This is how we keep going.

Filled in the bag were scripture after scripture of what God has given me in the past few weeks.  And now we redecorated our Christmas tree to cover it with His Word.

For all the times where our soul has grown weary, we can look at our tree and see verse after verse of hope and faith.

One scripture after another, everywhere we look, more faith.  More hope.  Comfort.  Mercy.

And suddenly, God transforms this fearful place of uncertainty to the most sacred Christmas of all.

If we already had a job, we would have missed out on this holy waiting as a family.  A holy expectancy that Jesus will surely come.  Urgent, desperate prayers that reach fulfillment.  A chance to tell our children that this faith of ours isn’t shallow or trite.  It is all we have to stand on.

And they will never forget it.

I was given the greatest gift in the world from Maddie this Christmas.  I will treasure it for the rest of my life.  All on her own initiative, held as a surprise for days before Christmas, she had this gift wrapped just for me.  She has captured our year in a homemade ornament.

It says “We can do hard!”  And she created a reference, “Richards Family 6:2” which stands for 6 people in our family and 2 dogs.  This is a phrase we began our year with and we remind each other once again as the year is coming to a close.

In all honesty, this year has been gut-wrenchingly difficult.  I have been worn thin and stretched beyond my ability to cope.  But God allows us to catch glimpses of joy that are so rich, I wouldn’t dare want to miss them.  God’s glory revealed in our midst.  

Today held great joy that could only be felt because of our intense wait.

I reminded our children again today of our lantern, looking for God.  For Christmas Day, it has been lit the entire day.  Therefore, keep watch.  Hearts expectant.  Romans 8 in the Message says, “We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”

A Different Kind of December

The question was asked for reflection, what “blessed surprises” have I experienced that I could testify of God’s goodness.  It grabbed my attention in a fresh way, but somehow I knew the answer instantly.

This has been a different kind of December for us.

Our advent tradition for many years has been to live simply and focus on Christ.  We light candles on our advent wreath and share in family devotions about hope, love, joy, and peace.  We read scriptures and share our hearts about what it means to live it out in our daily lives.

We have a tradition of writing our thanks to Jesus every day in the month of December.  On Christmas morning, the first gift to be opened is our praise.  It brings joy to hear what each person has reflected on that month as we give God our gratitude and adoration.  It humbles us before God that this is His day and the reason we celebrate.

Advent is always full of meaning for us, lots of added family activities for fun, with the least amount of emphasis on shopping which is really only one small part.  This year is no different for me in some ways… only richer, more important, and deeper.  Something in particular though stands out.

As I have reflected on all that I’m grateful for most recently, I want to share two “blessed surprises.”  It is what has made this December markedly different for me.  These two scenes are a window into how God is transforming my heart.  Perhaps because they came so close together, I was able to see how incredibly profound and sacred they were.  God gave me a deep heart for two women this past week that I will save anonymity and rename here.

The first woman I’ll call Ruth.  We had never met in person, but through Visiting Orphans we developed the start of a precious friendship.  Ruth was scheduled to travel to China with me for a mission trip. The timing was just enough for us to start a bond, and then for God to soon bring two beautiful daughters home from Ethiopia and China.  I missed out on having her on my team, but I was incredibly honored to pray her two little girls home.

Through the months of Ruth’s adoption journeys, I have followed her blog postings and prayed my heart out for her family.  Facebook connected us further as we could share in prayer updates and family photos.  We have emailed some deep heartfelt concerns and held each other up at the throne of God.  And yet, we had never met in person.

The past few months have been horrifically painful for her, as Ruth’s dad battled an abrupt and vicious cancer.  My heart was so knitted in that I carried her family in many, many heartfelt prayers.  Her dad passed away a week ago today.

As God would have it, I happened to be passing through her town several hours away on the day of the viewing.  Details the way only God can orchestrate, I was able to hug her tight in her grief.  I was able to see with my own eyes and touch the hands of these two precious little girls that I prayed countless prayers for.  God had connected our hearts and it was sacred to be there in person.

The second woman I’ll name Hannah.  I had rushed late as usual into a church pew, apparently into the very seat God had saved for me.  It was the only one open.  I sat alone, the girls upstairs in their classes and the boys on a weekend away with Todd.  As we “passed the peace”, I met Hannah, who was already familiar with Todd from their recovery meetings.  She asked where he was, exchanged brief greetings and sat back down.

Throughout the service, I noticed Hannah wiping away tears.  Afterward, I asked if there was something I could pray for her.  I didn’t know if she would offer any words or not, but I wanted her to know God cared for her.  I knew the details were well known by God, and my place in that moment was to be present for her.

In her anguish, she opened up to me.  Her honesty and desperation were the kind of transparency that I have experienced and greatly appreciated in the recovery community.  She invited me into her story.  She gave me a part of her heart that was in deep need of comfort and hope.  She asked for nothing from me.

I embraced her with genuine depth and sincerity.  I met her daughter and jotted down the names of her family that I could continue to lift up to God.  And then in a way that only God can do through people who have walked suffering so deep, I was able to breathe life into her.  I know how hard it can be when your world is in so much pain, but there is hope!!  God can turn things around!!  It takes time, but He can and He will.

I left church with my life changed in that very moment.  It was with Hannah that I felt “church” had taken place in the way scriptures calls us to come alongside the broken.  It was with Hannah that I was able to see the transformation in my own heart of how I could relate to her story like never before.  It was with Hannah that my heart most genuinely, affectionately worshipped.  Newly found gratitude, warmth, and affection for the God that had allowed me to walk a similar journey.

Oh God!!!  I get it!!!  This is why You let me walk heartache and suffering.  This is how You invite me into the stories and hearts and lives of the hurting.  My heart sees.  My heart is compelled.  I can’t help but draw near.

I have walked incredible grief and sorrow and pain…and sometimes barely survived.  But with that, He calls me to enter into those same familiar places, where His people need deep comfort and authentic hope.  Be present.  Be willing.

The world rushes by……   I feel it so strongly to the core of my being that it absolutely aches within me.  There are so many distractions, so much busyness, so many things to do, and time is gone.  But if we fall into those traps, we completely miss the sacred.  The blessed surprises. The opportunities to see Jesus right there in our midst.

It’s a different kind of December for me.  At the top of my most treasured reflections of God’s goodness this month is in the sacred interactions with Ruth and Hannah.  I am humbled and in awe that God would allow me to be a small part of their journey, to deeply understand their pain.  A glimmer of hope to embrace them in their suffering.  God is here.  God loves.  God comes.

Recalling Faithfulness

It was ironically similar to this month — this season of waiting, anticipation, and desperation before God.  It was December 2004 and strangely enough, my husband had just lost his job to his addiction.  At the time, we didn’t really understand it was an addiction.

We were just beginning to learn about how incredibly entangling his bondage was.  We learned of new hope with therapy, a daily sponsor, and recovery in a twelve step group.  All of that was new lingo to us.  I remember it being shocking to embrace and accept, but I hoped to God it would bring help for Todd.  My heart broke for him and our family felt deeply torn by the heartache.

Something else, though…something extremely significant in our world was being birthed.  I honestly believe God gave me our calling to adoption, at this very time specifically, to give me something huge to trust God for — to watch Him move mountains and grow my faith, and nurture our little ones to follow hard after God.

God began our call to adoption with three words — surrender, obedience, and provision.  Surrender because we thought we were done having children. We didn’t have room or money.  Obedience because He called us to bring a little girl from China into our family.  He had a bigger plan, a greater purpose, and He wanted us to align with Him.  And provision because it would take the miraculous to accomplish such a thing.

We had many hurdles to trip us up that year, but losing a job in this particular timing trumped it all.  Our months of waiting for our referral ended for the other families in December.  They all received beautiful precious pictures of their babies waiting for them to come bring them home.  Joy overflowed for them.  We had to hold our breath and wonder.  Fear intertwined with pain and faith.  Our referral was unable to be received, because no job according to China means no adoption.

I was utterly confused before God.  I grieved a stillborn adoption, asking God if this was only meant to be an illustration, a metaphor, or a test of our faith.  Was God just giving us His Word for now, and fruition would be at another time, another baby, or did we just miss it?  I sobbed on my knees in prayer.  I so wanted to understand what God was teaching us, how we could survive it, and if God would come through.

The short story for now is that He did.  In the very final hour that we could receive this precious little girl, God made the way.  God opened the door for exactly what was needed.  And on her first birthday, we were able to see her face.

The Jews, God’s people in Old Testament history,  have a tradition of retelling the stories to recall God’s faithfulness.  At the same time every year, they have festivals called feasts that bring back to mind who God is, what He has done, and to remember they are His.  It is worship, relationship, connection.

I believe I’m in one of those months right now.  There are again mountains needing to be moved, and I know the God that can move them.  How do I know?  Because He has done it before, and He can do it again.  Remember that time seven years ago when we had no job?  Remember that anguish of soul that God touched with the miraculous?

As I sit in awe of Him, I feel like Mary, pondering things in her heart.  Go back a little further.  My heart swells with joy as I recall December 2001.  Ten years ago this month, Todd graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary with two masters degrees: a masters of divinity and masters in counseling.

God’s provision outpoured once again, as I was able to stay at home to have babies and raise our little ones.  Todd went to school full time, and worked odd jobs like bus driving, a coffee shop, a school janitor, landscaping, and with that there were others who came alongside us and supported us.

In the end, we had survived countless miracles…sometimes barely getting by, or praying our hearts out, but we graduated debt free.  Glory to God!!!!!  And to think that when we started I thought I would need to work full time and not be able to stay home to nurture my babies.  God gave my prayer partner, Denise, the scripture that the oil will not run out, and He fulfilled it!!!  That’s my God!!!

Incredible joy outshines my weary soul this morning.  I am so tired of walking this road that has devastated me in so many ways.  I have had many moments of wondering how I could take another step.  But God!  I don’t want to miss out on what God is going to do!!!  Have mercy!!  Help me get there, God!!

We can’t see it yet, but I am assured that this God who brought us through seminary debt free, this God that brought our daughter home and provided every penny, is also the God that will carry us through unemployment, recovery from addiction, and restoration of our hearts.  How big is your God?

The Birth of a Savior

A crisp winter night.  Shining stars filling the sky.  Shepherds watching their flocks — all is calm and the hush is sacred.  Enter the scene, angels, heavenly hosts, the sweet tenderness of a newborn babe.  Beauty.  Delight.  Joy.

I’m not saying it didn’t happen that way.  I certainly believe the scriptures that tell us so.  The trouble is that our scriptures are written on such crisp, clean pages.  Some readers glide through the story like they are skating swiftly over ice.  In my case I’d be clinging to the rail and inching along because I don’t skate.  But for those who do, you can imagine the ease that we can gloss over the detail, seemingly unaffected.  It is familiar and routine and sadly mundane.

If we sit with the story with some empathy, I can feel what it is like to be great with child and incredibly uncomfortable.  I remember tossing and turning in my soft bed and barely being able to sleep in the days before delivery because my body ached so badly.  And I wasn’t even taking a long journey on a donkey.  I have experienced a tap tap in Haiti, where the wagon type vehicle jostles across the bumpy terrain, and that might be a bit like what Mary encountered.  I have been desperate enough to need a bathroom in the fields of China on a long journey through the countryside, which could possibly identify with needing to find a room at the inn.  I have given birth, but not at the age of 16, without the help of a hospital staff and the Godsend of an epidural.

I think if I had to endure what Mary did, I would be completely overwhelmed.  I would have had at least one panic attack if not more, and I would have been scared to the core of me.  As if it wasn’t enough to have angels telling me God’s plan for me being greatly chosen, to experience a virgin pregnancy that everyone in my village wondered about my reputation, and then to give birth after a long arduous journey in a smelly stable with crisp crunchy hay.  Our carols and pictures make it sound magical, like a dream.  A mystical sight to behold.  Have we fallen asleep or grown numb to what happened that day?

I mean no disrespect whatsoever.  I’m only asking us to wake up.  This was real life, and an incredible calling to fulfill.  From all human perspective, it was utterly impossible.  And yet, make no mistake, this was exactly what God had called them to.  He made it possible.  It was truly sacred and holy, infinitely profound.  But it was also a painful, brand new birth mess.

We want nice packages wrapped in pretty paper.  A good sale and a finished to do list.  But what about when life hands us a mess?  In the past few days, my world just got quite a bit messier.  Not only did the job interviews end with doors slammed shut.  Todd was denied health insurance any longer.  He was hardly covered before because of his rehab experience, but now they shut him out and the price of medication went up.   There was no warning that he would suddenly be cut off.   Then today as he applied for his unemployment, he found that this is his last week to receive it.  If it isn’t renewed in some form, the well has run dry.  Merry Christmas.

Enter GOD.  Enter there has to be a way, because our God is the Way MAKER.  I have no  sweet answer to end this post.  But I am encouraged to know that the real manger story had to be difficult.  Seemingly impossible.  Yet God made it possible.  I’m going to bring that back to mind in the coming weeks as we approach Christmas.  It was a long, dusty road, an exhausting journey, and there was ample blood, sweat, and tears.  But in the end, a SAVIOR was born, which is Christ the Lord.  And a Savior is exactly what we need to bring us through this mess.  He is LORD over this household too.

Embracing Reality

I’m wondering if others see it too. Things are pretty backward in this thing called a faith journey.  We miss the whole point of Jesus coming.  We get tripped up in appearances just as much as the Pharisees did.  Lofty ideals are hard to let go because we wish beyond anything that they were true.  But in the process of working so hard that it could ever be so, we drift back into the distance of ever being known for who we really are.  We lose connection, relationship, and embrace.

From what I understand of Jesus and grace, all are welcome to draw near and find relationship.  Your life can be horribly difficult and messy, and Jesus can handle it.  You don’t have to hide; you don’t have to pretend.  In fact, you can let your guard down and be real.  He welcomes the authenticity like a fresh breath of new life.

Jesus welcomes the honesty because it is the start of surrender.  It is letting go of pretense, denial, and avoidance.  It is the acceptance that our reality is that we need help.  It reveals a heart that is humble and teachable, who doesn’t have to have it all together to be presentable.  This heart already knows it is desperate for God to save.

This morning I looked at the nativity by my kitchen sink and thought about the many nativities and symbols of Christmas spread throughout our home.

God spoke to me there.  He wants us to remember He is mighty to save.  He wants us to remember that He came….He comes…..and He is coming.  That is what advent is all about.  The holy waiting.  The anticipation of hope fulfilled.

Who I really am is a woman of great faith and tremendous difficulties.  I am married to an incredible man whom I deeply love, but who also battles sex addiction that has cost both him and our family two jobs.  God has provided immensely this year for ten weeks of rehab, ongoing therapy and marriage counseling, but those vessels of healing are also incredibly painful to walk.  I have plummeted the depths of my own raw unhealth, codependency, and woundedness. It has been a tremendous amount of work, depth, and commitment.  We continue to walk unemployment and uncertainty, but that isn’t even a full picture of what we carry.  And maybe what is hardest is to keep walking in faith and hope, when real life is so difficult and giving up isn’t an option.

I’ve spent too many years swallowing and drowning as I tried to carry the weight of these realities.  I haven’t done it apart from the grace of God, but I’ve also failed to cultivate a community of support until now.  I’ve had to do some hard looking at my faith and processing the platitudes that Christians toss around.  Many don’t know what to say and they hope that their prayers are quickly answered.  Most don’t interact, don’t wrestle, and don’t want to face real life or depth.

I am drawn to those who can tell the raw truth.  I am grateful for those who have endured great difficulty and came through stronger.  I’m finally learning to integrate my faith, that GOD IS MIGHTY TO SAVE……He is HERE….He is coming!!!  He is worth holding onto and believing in and hoping for!!  But I’m also more able to give him my full heart, my full offering, that I’m poor in spirit and painfully desperate.  I won’t make it without Him.  That is a reality worth embracing — heartfelt, humble, and true.  Hallelujah, He can handle it.

Sorrow Flows Freely

“To protect your thankfulness, you must remember that you reside in a fallen world, where blessings & sorrows intermingle freely.” Sarah Young

It’s a jungle out there.  Last week we were slapped in the face twice, by two different job opportunities that led to closed doors. The long waits ended abruptly and swiftly.  The people themselves were kind enough as they quietly stepped out of our lives.  What remained with me, though, was the feeling of being harshly tossed to one side, then the other– how life can be brutal.  It can knock the wind out of you.

It is hard to pick up crumbled pieces and keep walking.  How did I hold such hope and then feel such defeat?  I am grounded in faith, prayer, determination, and the strength of the Spirit of God.  And the door still closes.  The wait lingers on like a relentless attack.

Our family has had some precious advent devotions together this year.  Instead of sticking to the traditional scriptures and stories, we are branching out some.  We are digging deeper to find the words to sustain us in this difficult season.

No matter how it feels, no matter what we face, God has not forgotten us.  He sees us.

I’ve been greatly encouraged in the past few weeks by Ann Voskamp.  She writes,

Faith is this unwavering trust in the heart of God in the hurt of here. Unwavering trust all the time though I don’t understand all the time. God is always good and we are always loved.

This past week our eager children were ready to hear that daddy’s interview brought him a job.  But it didn’t.  And I had to draw them back to the scripture that we had shared together in our advent devotions.  Even if he does not…. even if God doesn’t provide a new job, even if the answer is no.  Ann writes on in faith and I cling to every word:

Even if He doesn’t do what we beg, we are still His beloved.

Even if He doesn’t, He still is.

Even if He doesn’t do what we will, His will is still right and His heart is still good and the people of God will not waver.

Real prayer has eyes on Christ, not the crisis.

 Even if He doesn’t – He does give enough — Himself.

Even if He doesn’t – He does still love us.

“If He doesn’t — I will still believe. Still believe — in Him.”

That which we fear might happen to us — might be the thing to produce deep faith in us. Why be afraid of anything — when He’s using everything?

It is painfully difficult to watch your daughter cry out, “Mommy, why isn’t God answering?  Did He forget us?” But it is an incredible honor and privilege to speak truth into her hurting heart.  “No, sweetheart.  God is here.  God is taking good care of us.  He is answering.”

We’re letting our sorrow flow at times.  We cry tears of heartache and pain.  We wonder what God is up to and where He might lead us.  He has given us this season, to worship Him here.  Right in the middle of real life.  He is God and He is walking with us.