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

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

I thought, “Preach it, sister!”

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

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

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

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

Photo by kshelton CC0 1.0 Universal
Photo by kshelton CC0 1.0 Universal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does that tell you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day I was Done with God

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

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

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

Photo by J.Perreault. Used with permission.
Photo by J.Perreault. Used with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The days turned into weeks and still I waited.

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

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

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

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

Then He answered the question I dared not ask:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Mickey - Thunder Mountain
Hidden Mickey, Thunder Mountain Railroad | Photo from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then a miracle happened.

I knew Him.

I know Him.

And knowing Him is the greatest treasure of all.

**********************************************

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

Need | A Salvation Story Imagined

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

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

Photo by Tito Balangue
Photo by Tito Balangue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive Press at Public-Domain-Image.com
Olive Press at Public-Domain-Image.com

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

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

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

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

“I know that, too,” he whispers.

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

“Thank you,” she says.

“You’re welcome, mother,” he replies.

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

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

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

“But you can’t!” I’m shouting now.

“I am the only one who can.”

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

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

“How can that be?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no other way.”

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

“Yes. You do.”

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

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

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

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

One of my new favorites by Hillsong…

Confessions of Library Book Hoarder

girl hiding behind books
Photo by svedoliver

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…ok,” she replies meekly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter’s Coming but Spring is Here!

I know so many people who look forward to, and even cherish, the cool, colorful autumn season. For me, the warm colors, rich smells and cozy sweaters are just a harbinger of things to come. There is not a

Photo by HalfGeniusHalfWit
Photo by HalfGeniusHalfWit

crackling fire bright enough to dispel the coming darkness or hold back the icy winds that I dread so much. Truly, truly, I dread the arrival of winter. I could list a thousand reasons why and at the top would be exchanging flip-flops for bulky jackets, open windows for cold hardwood floors and the sound of crickets for the hum of the furnace (cha-ching!)….but what I dread the most, what weighs on my body like a heavy, lead jacket, is that each day the coming winter snatches another two or three minutes of sunlight from my eyes.

To you this may sound absurd, but for me the trouble begins as early as October. One day I am my normal self, and the next I can barely drag myse

lf out of bed in the morning. After lunch, I fight valiantly – mostly for the benefit of my employers and coworkers – to keep my eyes open and mind alert, lest someone find me slumped over my keyboard and drooling on the week’s worship order. Before dinner, I frequently fall asleep on the couch which inevitably leads to an evening battle with insomnia and then…sleep, sweet sleep, just 10 more minutes, please! Some mornings, the only thing that gets me out of bed is telling myself that I can sleep again in 12 hours…eight, if things are really rough. How sad is that?

There are plenty of studies out there that define this condition and even some supposedly effective therapies, but expensive solutions for feeling tired quickly take a back seat to braces, college tuition and new tires for the car. So this time of year, you will find me counting down the days until December 22, when the sun starts rising earlier and setting later. As of today, there are 66 more days on the downhill. 66 more days of sliding headfirst into the abyss. 66 more days of darkness. I empathize deeply with our ancestors who worried, year after year, that the sun might sink below the horizon and never return. Had I lived back then, I likely would have joined the chanting and dancing and whatever other rituals thought necessary to summon the sun back up into the sky. Oh, the things we take for granted…like the air we breathe and the sun rising faithfully every day!

You may think I’m exaggerating but seriously, what other season is universally synonymous with death? When you read a book or watch a movie – excepting Christmas specials and Hallmark Channel Valentine’s movies – you know the barren trees and gray skies signal nothing but heartache. I poke fun but the reality is that every October a part of me goes to sleep while the rest of me longs for those spring days when I will once again feel fully alive. Yet the worst part of all is that the tiredness from lack of daylight brings with it a real and genuine sadness, a heavy heart and physiological pain I can’t escape.

The steel skies and withering grass remind me all too vividly of the cold, barren winters of my heart – particularly seasons of loss and grief. Leaves, far past their youthful days, give in to the relentless winds and let go, falling slowly to the earth. How many of those whom I’ve loved, have done the same? The winds blow through me and, for a moment, steal away my breath…the emptiness is so consuming, even my chest feels hollow. Time does not heal all wounds. The scars remain. Tell me something new. Tell me something of hope.

Over our recent Columbus Day weekend, we New Englanders were given the rare gift of bright, sunny, 80 degree weather for four beautiful days. My husband and I spent one of those days working in the yard – weeding, trimming and getting ready for winter. Only it felt like late June. I pruned dead branches and leaves from our lilac bush, careful not to snip the buds which are already set for spring. After I finished with the lilac, I visited my azalea and rhododendron bushes. I knew better than to clip anything from those early bloomers, and simply stood there for a while, wondering at the plump, promising buds. Swiftly, but not abruptly, the world seemed to stand still – like God had stopped the sun in the sky or pressed the pause button on his giant remote. Time felt suspended and my feet, unmovable. It was one of those moments where you can almost hear God whispering in your ear, “Pay attention.”

Tell me something new. Tell me something of hope.

Have you ever experienced that instant when something you already knew or had seen a thousand times or had recited to others over and over, suddenly became real to you? Before you knew, but afterward you understood. Before you believed, but then you received. That’s what happened to me. It was as if God had been cultivating the soil of my heart for that perfect moment when I had turned just enough for him to slide his shining blade beneath my armor, enabling him to skillfully and painlessly plunge into the hollow of my heart a new and precious seed of truth. Immediately, the seed took root and filled my chest with a peaceful warmth.

Photo by Karpati Gabor
Photo by Karpati Gabor

My heart, my mind, my body – all were still. Warren Wiersbe said, “Nature preaches a thousand sermons a day to the human heart.” I listened. I listened and my soul was still. Silently, I received the promise which God revealed to me through the autumn buds of a spring-blooming flower. Even in winter, we are never without the certain hope of spring. Before the first frost touches a single petal, before the biting winds blow or even one snowflake falls, God places spring in the heart of his handiwork. On every bough, a bud, and in every bud, a flower.

I stood motionless, full of wonder and gratitude. God had just spoken – sweetly, tenderly, directly to me. He knows my weaknesses, my fears and my doubts and he doesn’t roll his eyes at me, or tell me to suck it up. Instead, he meets me where I am, with his arms offering comfort and in his hands, hope. ‘I know you are dreading this coming season, Nichole. I know. But it won’t last forever. Look here! I have already prepared the flowers for spring. See! Evidence! A sign of hope for you. My promise of spring for you.’  There are only a few times in my life when I have genuinely, tangibly felt God’s love – this was one of those times.

Yet, this message, however personal and pertinent, reaches far beyond the seasons, into the place of promises eternal. In this world, there are a thousand winters – winters of the heart and of the soul, winters of the mind and of the body, even winters that bewitch and blind our spirits. But in every winter, even the winters of sorrow, bitterness, darkness and defeat, we are never without the certain hope of spring and the peace, joy, life and victory that it brings.

Nature declares the glory of God and through creation we catch sight of the Creator, and of ourselves. Who is God, and who are we to him, that He would not leave us to doubt or despair, but rather allow us a glimpse into tomorrow? What compassion! What grace! Before winter even begins, a glimpse of spring. As darkness falls and the storms rage on, a glimpse of hope, a glimpse of heaven.

No, time does not heal all wounds. The wind whips around my shivering bones, and frost settles on my skin…yet long ago, when my heart wandered in the darkness of an enchanted winter, God planted there the first seed…the Seed of eternal spring. A ray of sun, warm and bright, pierced the darkness and slowly, the ice packed around my heart began to melt. The spell was broken, the endless winter ended. Though the coldness comes, its icy fingers have no hold on me. Yes, scars remain and sometimes, the pain still steals away my breath. But I rest in knowing there is no winter God has not written, no abyss beyond his reach, no one lost he cannot find, no darkness he has failed to light, no sorrow for which he has not prepared a Spring.

 

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  ~ Romans 1:20

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