Sunday, July 27, 2014

Thankfulness - Especially in the Darkness

I ran across an old journal tonight when I was looking for something else. I sat down in a plastic storage tub, on top of an ancient comforter that now serves as a drop cloth. Immediately I was transported back in time. First, I relieved my friendship with sweet Laura, and how God allowed me to love and serve her and her family in her last days and beyond. That experience forever changed me and opened my heart to love others. How God has enriched my life by bringing me so many dear friends after I took a chance and let myself love Laura!

In one of those entries, I wrote about Laura's cousin, who had told me how God worked during her separation from her husband, and how both of them were drawn closer to God through it. I saw the glory of God shining in her eyes as she recounted that story, and I wanted that kind of joy and peace for myself. But I shuddered at the price of it.

I wrote this prayer on July 11, 2011 (11 months before my marriage fell apart, almost to the day):

Lord, have mercy.... What might that mercy look like? Am I strong enough to survive it? Please prepare me for whatever the future will bring. Let me be so rooted and grounded in your love that I'm not shaken by the hard times, but instead send my roots down deeper.

Tonight, tears of joy and wonder streamed down as I realized how faithful God has been to answer that prayer. When I wrote it out (with trembling fingers), I had no idea what was coming. But God did, and He already knew how He would use it all for my good.

Fast forward one year and four months, to November 2, 2012. This was about three weeks before Bill and I separated, when I was in the deepest despair I'd ever known. In that entry, I wrote a list of everything I was thankful for. I didn't say why I was writing it, but probably it was to help me focus on what is pure and lovely and excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).

I'm thankful for my health. For sleep. I'm thankful for morning walks with God. For sunsets and sunrises, and eyes to appreciate them. I'm thankful for trees, flowers, birds. I'm thankful for chocolate peanut butter banana smoothies, for homemade bread from freshly ground wheat. I'm thankful for food on the table and for my family together at dinner each night.

I'm thankful for Allyson's laughter, her hugs, and her kisses. I'm thankful for Ethan's musical talent, his intelligence, his love of learning. For our home, our yard, our dog, our pool. For heat and air conditioning and clean water. 

I'm thankful for a peaceful home because Bill and I try to treat each other with respect..... 

I'm thankful for God's love that never fails me, even when I fail Him. I'm thankful for peace that surpasses my understanding, not a peace that the world gives. 

I'm thankful for second chances and hundredth chances. I'm thankful for mercy and compassion. And music. I love to sing praises to my God. 

I love morning snuggles and bedtime songs with Allyson, back scratches for Ethan, reading Scripture to my children.

I'm thankful for Bible study, for the ladies who love me and encourage me and pray for me. I'm thankful for the truth of God's word and for a heart that longs for God. I'm thankful for the storm I'm in! Because God is using it for my good. I'm 42 years old and I'm changing and growing and learning. 

I'm thankful that I don't need to worry because God is in control. He loves me, and his plan for me is good. He ordained all of my days before one of them came to be. He guides me with his light. He knows where we're going because darkness is as light to Him [Psalm 139].

I'm thankful that I am never Forsaken, always Beloved. That I can nestle under His wings and be carried against my Shepherd's heart. I'm thankful that He sees me, knows me, takes delight in me. He rejoices over me with singing! He quiets me with His love [Zephaniah 3:17]. He redeems my life from the pit. He crowns me with love and compassion. He satisfies my desires with good things. [Psalm 103].

He heals me with His Word. He never leaves me or forsakes me. My heart is steadfast when I trust in Him.This is His book, and He is the author of my salvation. It's going to be a good story, one that brings Jesus glory. 

I am thankful to be alive, thankful for a grateful heart. May I ever be so, Lord. 

Amen! May I never forget my Father's faithfulness. His mercy is beyond my comprehension.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

They Don't Miss Nothin'

Disclaimer: This story might shock a few of you. Feel free to bail out if you feel uncomfortable at any time. However, chances are that none of you is more of a prude than me, and if I survived the  actual experience, you can probably survive reading about it. I'll go easy on you, which is more than I can say for my masseuse yesterday. But I'm getting ahead of myself....

On Friday we celebrated my sister Amy's 50th birthday. True to form, I didn't even think about what I might buy for Amy until that morning. On the way to Allyson's summer day camp, I asked her for ideas.

"Gently used kids' tattoos?" [Leftover from her belated birthday party the night before; more on that soon.]

"Um... no."

I thought about it off and on through the day, but all I could come up with was a massage. The only problem was that, according to Amy, I promised her a massage for another birthday a couple years back and then forgot about it. So how could I promise her another now?

I prayed about it, but still came up with nothing. Before long, I was off to the party empty-handed.

While Amy opened the presents that other people so thoughtfully purchased or even made, I stood around feeling like a pretty crappy little sister. Okay, so I'd offer her a massage, and we'd schedule it right on the spot. But when? The next several weekends were booked....

Just then, I tuned into a conversation between my sister Melody and her friend Dana. They planned to go to the King Spa the next day. Melody and her husband Joe had been talking about this Korean bath house for years, and I'd always been curious about it, but not curious enough to spend the money.

The gears spun in my head for a moment. Hmm. What if Amy and I went along? It could be a sisters' day. A sisters' and friends' day. But I could hardly buy Amy a massage and not also buy myself one. What would I do while the rest of them got pampered?

"It isn't in the budget," I thought.

"Be quiet, Dave Ramsey," I answered. "Amy only turns 50 once. And I could use a massage, too."

"...and it's pretty cheap," Melody told Dana.

Those were the magic words, though I later learned that "cheap" is all a matter of perspective.

Monday, July 7, 2014

So Long, Hope and Laughter

If you were paying close attention, you may recall that I promised to tell you about our hermit crabs, way back in February. Time to make good on my promise....

Last September, when we got Arwen, Allyson started lobbying for her own pet. When our beloved hamster Fluffy passed into glory in November, she became even more insistent. What she really wanted was a cat of her own, but I told her we'd have to get used to taking care of one before I'd be ready for two. So she tossed around several ideas: bird? guinea pig? snake? (just kidding; that was Ethan's suggestion, promptly nixed).

I was as noncommittal as possible as she pitched each option. "Yeah, maybe.... Sure, honey, one of these days."

When Christmas rolled around, she came home from Canada with a pocket full of money from Uncle Jack. She'd scarcely kissed me hello before she announced breathlessly, "I know what I want with my Christmas money! A hermit crab! Can we go today?"

"Maybe tomorrow," I hedged.

A cursory Google search told me what I needed to know: Hermit crabs are cheap, easy to take care of, and don't live that long. Yes, yes, and yes.

Allyson did an online search of her own. She'd decided to name the crab Laughter, but she thought that sounded weird, so she looked up the Spanish translation: Larisa.

"That's a weird name," Ethan said.

"Not as weird as Arwen," Allyson retorted.

"Why would you name a crab Laughter?"

"She can name her crab anything she wants," I said. "You got to name Arwen, remember? And I think Laughter is a great name."

We hit Petsmart the next day. We purchased the $20 starter kit, an $8 crab, a couple of extra shells, small bottles of salt water and fresh water, and a little bottle of food pellets. Back at home, Allyson immediately dumped the half inch of gravel into the tiny plastic cage and leaned the metal climbing rack against one side.

She gingerly transferred Larisa from her Styrofoam cup into her new home, while I took pictures, which I've inexplicably lost. [Argh!!!]

"This house looks too small for her," Allyson said, and I agreed. "How often are we supposed to feed her?" Allyson asked.

"I forgot," I answered. "Let's look it up online."

For the next two hours, we read all about the care of hermit crabs. Guess what? They aren't nearly so easy to take care of as I'd thought. And guess what else? When properly cared for--which they usually aren't--they can live up to 30 years! (I'd be in my 70s!) The reason they usually die within a month or so is that they are slowly asphyxiated outside their natural tropical environment. They can die even more quickly if the temperature falls below 70.

It turns out that the little kit all the pet stores sell is wildly inappropriate for hermit crabs. They need a much larger space, and they need high humidity because they breathe through modified gills. Their habitat (or crabitat, as crab lovers affectionately call it) needs to be between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, they need a deep substrate that they can burrow into. And that sponge that comes with the starter kit is a breeding ground for germs.

That's why, one day later, we marched back up to Petsmart and returned that $20 starter kit. We replaced it with a 10-gallon fish tank and coconut husk substrate, a mister bottle, and a realistic log for Larisa to climb on. Let's just say all of that added up to a wee bit more than Allyson's Christmas money.

But it was worth it to see my little girl's joy as she hydrated the coconut husk brick in a mop bucket and then arranged all the accessories just so. After that, she affixed several beach themed pictures to the outside of the crabitat, "to make her feel at home." [Sure wish I could show you the pictures I took that day.]

It reminded me of what she did for her ill-fated goldfish back when she was 5.

Larisa seemed very happy in her new crabitat that evening. After that, we could only guess... for two reasons: 1) Hermit crabs are nocturnal, so she only came out to eat when we were sleeping. 2) Like all hermit crabs, Larisa loves to burrow. Every now and then we could spot her pretty shell along the side of the glass. And once we got very excited when we realized she'd exchanged her original shell for one of the shells Allyson had brought home from White Rock Beach after summer vacation last year.

Beyond that, there was very little excitement. Okay, no excitement. Allyson got it in her head that what Larisa needed was a playmate. According to all that we'd read online, hermit crabs are social creatures despite their name. Maybe if we bought another crab, Larisa would come out and play.

So I forked over another $8 for Esperanza (Spanish for Hope). Hope was a bit bigger than Laughter, with a very impressive purple pincer that we were both afraid of.

Within an hour or so, we had two buried crabs that we never saw. Allyson promptly lost interest, and I was left to care for our seemingly imaginary crabs. (It reminded me of the time Bill told Ethan there was a hamster in the empty hamster cage, shortly before we bought Fluffy.)

And it was really a pain in the neck, because:
  • They didn't much care for those convenient food pellets. Instead, they preferred itty bitty chopped up bits of fresh fruits and vegetables, tiny dabs of peanut butter, bits of beans, laboriously cut-up sunflower seeds, etc. And those bits of fresh food got moldy quickly in their warm, moist crabitat.
  • Maintaining the right humidity level was a crapshoot. When it got too high, mildew was a constant problem. A bit of mildew was actually a good sign, but it had to be removed daily because it could make the crabs sick. When I removed their moldy food shell at night, I often felt I was really just feeding the mildew. If the humidity dropped, the mildew went away, but it would be only a matter of time before the crabs strangled. If the temperature got too low, they would sort of hibernate and might be in danger of dying, but if we used the heat lamp, the moisture dried up. One solution would have been to raise the temperature a few degrees for the whole house, but I wasn't willing to pay higher gas bills.
  • Their water bowls tended to get slimy, and I wasn't supposed to use soap to wash them (nor tap water, for that matter). So I rinsed and rinsed them under the tap and then tried to dry them with paper towels, which left bits of paper that were probably toxic for them.
The one advantage to taking care of them was that they were hardy little creatures who could go for many days without food and fresh water. I tried to feed them every other night, but that was hard to remember. Sometimes it was three days, or four. And the time I forgot to ask Bill to feed them when we went camping, it might have been a total of five days. Sometimes their water bowl was stone dry. But they clung to life stubbornly.

As the months passed and I continued to chop produce for these pets that we didn't see for literally weeks at a time, I became resentful. I didn't mind scooping Arwen's poop and feeding her twice a day because sometimes she'd let me pet her. But what was the point of putting food in a cage that might as well have been empty?

I complained to God about it now and then, and I suppose part of me hoped they would join Fluffy in heaven.

A couple of months back, I asked Allyson if we could give the crabs away to some true crab lovers. At first she refused, but then she realized she might be able to get a different pet. "Sure," she said.

I asked several neighbors for advice on getting rid of crabs, to which they replied that I shouldn't say that out loud. "Seriously," I said. "I'd like to put them on Craigslist, but I'm afraid to have a stranger come to our house to pick them up. And if I take their tank out some place to meet someone, what if they don't want them? That would be a big hassle."

I'd hoped one of the neighbors would take them off my hands, but for some reason after all my complaining, nobody was interested. One neighbor suggested cooking them in a soup, and I shuddered.

I continued to complain/pray about getting rid of them, but I think God knew I needed an attitude adjustment. Each time I trudged to Allyson's room at 11 PM to feed them (because I never thought of it until I was crawling into bed, and my conscience wouldn't actually let me starve them), I'd ask God to help me be a better caretaker to these innocent creatures who were entirely dependent on me.

I'd like to say I learned to love Larisa and Esperanza, but that would be a stretch. Instead, I learned to accept my duty and to serve them without (too much) complaint.

It wasn't long after that when Conrad, the big brother of Allyson's constant companion Ellie, got a hankering for hermit crabs. Allyson enthusiastically offered him the crabs and all of our supplies. He said he'd have to check with his mom. I crossed my fingers and prayed.

Within 24 hours, the crabs were gone... to a much better home where they will be loved and played with and appreciated. I have to admire Conrad and Ellie's mom, who already has two dogs, birds, and two big turtles. I guess the more, the merrier.

It was so fun to see Conrad and Ellie's joy as they set up Allyson's crab tank.
They put tin foil and a towel over the mesh lid, just like we did. 

When I ran into Conrad the next day at Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, he excitedly described their night-time antics and told me how fun it is to hold them. He's not at all afraid of the purple pincers.

And neither is Ellie:
Ellie and Lisa, a.k.a. Larisa

There, now you've seen Larisa. Now that she's no longer part of our family.

Soon you may be hearing about Allyson's next pet. She's already scheming.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Daring Adventure

Many times now, I've told you how excited I am about whatever's around the bend. And that was so. In the abstract. When I think about the rest of my life, I have no fear because I know the story God's writing is beautiful. But....

When I think about next week, that's when I worry. Because next week I have to make all sorts of choices that affect me and my children. And what if I make a wrong choice that leads me into more struggles? Yes, next week is pretty darn scary.

But there's something even scarier than next week, and that's today: when the journey begins. I told you just a few weeks back that I was ready to Leave so I could Go. I was ready to leave my past behind and go wherever God would send me--without having any idea where we were going. Again, that was true in the abstract. I didn't get terrified until it was time to take the first step.

For the last few weeks, I've been seeking God's direction for this phase of my life, asking Him to show me what changes He wants me to make and to give me the courage to be obedient. The only problem is I still don't know where we're going. I've prayed and prayed, asking Him to show me the path, but I haven't been able to hear His answer. Probably that's because I'm not good at being still. Instead of listening after I pray, I ponder my questions endlessly, examining them from every angle and trying to solve the dilemmas with logic. It's exhausting!

Just yesterday morning, I was grappling with confusion and anxiety about my future. I felt utterly lost in the darkness, like I was crying out to God and He wasn't answering. No, not that He wasn't answering, but that I couldn't hear Him because I was too far out in the wilderness. The sermon at church seemed to have been written just for me, and it gave me hope. Our pastor shared some darkness his own family is dealing with, and the purpose they are finding in it. He talked about this passage:
Who among you fears the Lord?
Who obeys the voice of His Servant?
Who walks in darkness
And has no light?
Let him trust in the name of the Lord
And rely upon his God.
Look, all you who kindle a fire,
Who encircle yourselves with sparks:
Walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled—
This you shall have from My hand:
You shall lie down in torment.
(Isaiah 50:10-11)

Pastor Bill assured us that being in the darkness doesn't mean we're not where God wants us. Isaiah's words show us that we can fear (revere) God and obey His commands and yet still be in the dark. He said God allows us to walk in the dark for a purpose, that there's always something He wants to teach us. He encouraged us to trust God to lead us and to resist the urge to light our own fire. Figuring out our own way out of the darkness, he warned, would only lead us to more sorrow.

At some point, he shared a thrilling quote from Helen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure, or it's nothing." I was convicted by her courage; both blind and deaf, she focused on life's adventures instead of her struggles.

I felt most encouraged at church, but it wasn't long before I was trying to light my own fire again. All through the day, I mulled over my dilemma. What if I made this choice? Where might that path lead? Or that choice? Oh no, I was afraid to go there. Maybe I could just make no choice at all?

By bedtime, I'd decided that I would just run back to the last place I felt safe and comfortable and forget about this whole Leaving and Going thing. I felt disappointed, confused, worn out, and defeated. On the floor of my closet, I poured out my frustrations to God. "Why did things have to change?" I asked. "I was happy before. Now I'm scared. I want to go back."

And then the Holy Spirit led me in a totally different direction. I realized that I didn't need to run away from the circumstances that were causing me pain, but that I needed to run toward God and let Him heal my pain. Oh, the comfort I found when I laid all of my hurts at the foot of the cross!

I sensed His tenderness then, saw Him cradling my fragile heart in His powerful hands. I remembered how precious I am to my Beloved, and I knew He would protect me from harm wherever I might go.

Only then could I find the direction I'd been pleading for. "Please," I asked. "Hold my hand. Lead me out of here. I'm tired of striving. I can't figure this out, and I don't want to try any more. I don't need to know where we're going or how to get there. I trust you, Daddy."

I drifted to sleep feeling absolutely loved, safe, contented.

Can you guess what happened next, you who know me so well?...

 No. That's not what happened! I woke up this morning feeling just as peaceful, just as settled as I'd felt when I fell into bed last night. I still didn't have specific answers to any of my questions, but I had an assurance that God would lead me one step at a time.

During my morning quiet time, I decided to meditate on Psalm 73, which Christian artist Ellie Holcomb had quoted during the Celebrate Freedom concert this past Saturday. My heart thumped when I read these verses:
Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:23-26, emphasis added)

Here was God, answering me back with a sacred echo. Yes, He will hold my hand and guide me! This familiar passage came alive to me in a whole new way.

I thought, I've always wanted to see Rome. But suppose someone dropped me off in the middle of the city with no map and said, "Go explore the city. Have fun! We'll see you back at the hotel tonight." I'm sure there are a handful of you who'd think that a great adventure. Not me. I would probably sit down right there on the sidewalk with my back against a wall and wait for someone to come find me.

But what if there was a tour bus waiting at the side of the road with a guide who'd grown up in Rome? I'd climb on in a heartbeat. It wouldn't matter at all that I didn't know the ultimate destination, nor the route we would take. I'd trust that guide not only to get us where we needed to go, but also to make sure we didn't miss any of the good stuff along the way.

That's an adventure I'd sign up for. And that's the adventure I have signed up for. I realize at last that God is not going to give me the itinerary, because I don't need to know all those details. I don't need to know what's happening next week, or what will happen if I take this path or that path, as long as I don't let go of my Guide's hand.

It's going to be a daring adventure. I don't want to miss a minute of it.


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