When we plan, God laughs.

They say that when we plan, God laughs.

It’s important to have forward motion to motivate us towards our goals and dreams, yes. Absolutely. But it’s important to remember that ultimately, God knows what’s best for us, and therefore it’s best to not hold onto those plans too tightly.

Twelve years ago I was a senior in high school in the middle of college applications, trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life as well as where I wanted to study. Over the course of the next several months, I made a decision – I committed to attending Concordia University in St. Paul, MN. I was planning to sing in the choir (I even auditioned in person for a music scholarship) and study vocational non-pastoral church ministry. As my senior year of high school was coming to an end, my mental health – due to a wide variety of factors – was beginning to unravel. In May my parents and I made the difficult decision to wait an extra year before sending me to Minnesota, but five days after graduating high school I was placed on my first psychiatric (suicidal thoughts) hold and hospitalized for the first time. At that point any small spark of hope that I could still go that fall was extinguished, and over the course of the next year and a half I was hospitalized three more times. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And not only that… but throughout the next several years, almost every attempt to take college classes – in any setting or context – failed miserably as a result of my poor mental health.

During that season of my life people tried their best to encourage me when it came to my college journey (or lack thereof). I was reassured that college isn’t for everyone, that not having tens of thousands of dollars in student loans isn’t a bad thing… and those are helpful and true reminders, sure. But those reasons for not attending college had very little to do with why I never went. I WANTED to go. I WANTED to learn. So while those reassurances certainly helped, there continued to be a big college sized hole in my heart. One that has healed over time, but one that has never really gone away.

So much happened between then and now, and if you want the beautiful God story of how He rescued me and healed me enough to finally leave home in 2019, you can read about it here.

Interestingly enough, over this last summer I had the chance to talk with a staff/faculty member from Concordia St. Paul who I had met during my college visit there over 11 years ago. I (re)introduced myself, and I had the chance to share the story of why I never went, everything that has happened since then, all of the beautiful miracles God has given me… and the grief that has never fully healed. If I’m being honest, I don’t entirely remember what exactly we said in that conversation, and I don’t remember feeling an overwhelming sense of resolution or closure. It was definitely helpful, though, and I am grateful we had the chance to connect. Little did I know what God had in store within a few short months…

We came home from family camp, I continued recovering from shoulder surgery, and a couple of weeks later Nicholas and I came down with COVID. We came out of our COVID isolation just in time for me to start my new job at Concordia Lutheran School here in Peoria. Going into the job, the idea that I might decide to pursue becoming a teacher and have a classroom of my own was on our minds, but we both knew that in order to do that, I would need to do something that up until now has never been hugely possible…

I would need to go to college.

Even before I had my first day at CLS, we were talking about and discussing various options for me to get my bachelor’s and teaching credential. After my first day, though, the research and conversations about how to make it all work became much more intentional and timely. I came home that day with a renewed sense of hope and drive and joy. Ask my husband sometime… that day changed me, and I haven’t been the same since.

The specifics of how our original timeline got moved from next fall to January to two weeks from now may be its own blog post in the near future; included in that would be the story of how we decided on a specific school and (online) degree program. For now I will share the title of an essay I had to write for acceptance into my school and program addressing my low college GPA, why it happened, what I’ve learned, and why things are different now.

“The Beautiful Story of an Eleven Year Delay in Becoming a Concordia Church Work Student…”

The short version? Concordia University Wisconsin has an online program for a bachelor’s in Elementary Education with the option to add the Lutheran Teacher Diploma – the piece of this whole thing that makes my career ahead of me truly church work. The beauty of going through CUW means that I won’t have to go back and do the added certificate specifically for Lutheran teaching after the fact, and it also pretty much guarantees that they are willing to work with my current employer – one of the many incredible Lutheran schools in our national Church body – so that I can complete as many of my observation and student teaching hours as possible at a place where I already know the students, teachers, and administration. In fact, I’m already enrolled in my first practicum class, and I’m able to count work hours towards my observation hours as long as they overlap (which they currently do for at least part of my day). The rest of my classes this semester start two weeks from Monday on October 23rd… four days after my 30th birthday and six days before our first anniversary.

In some ways it’s still sinking in that I’ll finally be attending a Concordia to study in a church work program. Recently in a closing prayer my therapist gave thanks to God that my dream of college and vocational ministry never died and that I never gave up on it. As soon as we finished I looked up at him and very quickly corrected him – no, I gave up on that dream a long time ago. Thankfully God never gave up on it on my behalf. But that’s the kind of God we serve, one who refuses to give up on us in so many beautiful ways.

So, to summarize the announcement and update, TL;DR…

Mrs. Farley, Lutheran Teacher, coming to you fall 2026!

Painfully closed doors and unexpectedly open windows…

Today was my “first day of school” working as a teachers’ aide at Concordia Lutheran School here in Peoria. For those that are familiar with Lutheran schools, Concordia is unique in that it’s sponsored by three churches – one of them being our home church, Trinity. It also has its own (totally separate) campus in Peoria. For those not familiar with Lutheran schools, most schools are K-8. Education is one of the many things that Lutherans do well, and after just one day at Concordia I can see that it’s yet another example of that excellence!

For now I will still be working at Chick-fil-A. If and when my time there ends it will be a hard decision for me; I absolutely love it! God has made it clear that my time there is not yet done, and He continues to prove Himself faithful by answering prayers and making a way for the logistics of these two part time jobs possible.

My journey to Concordia started off slowly. I saw the job posting and knew they had the need. However, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that it wasn’t time yet to leave Chick-fil-A. It all began before I knew I was having shoulder surgery, though by the time I finally reached out with my first email I knew the surgery was happening. After that things happened fairly quickly – I interviewed three days before surgery and got offered the job about two weeks afterwards. With everything else going on, I haven’t had a chance to share with too many people yet about this incredible opportunity that the Lord has dropped in my lap!

Those of you who’ve known me a while probably know the struggle that college and finding a career has been for me. I’ve attempted many times and have struggled every single time… much to my disappointment, heartache, and even grief. You guys probably also know that I love kids and that I love teaching, and those things about me have remained true through thick and thin over the last 10+ years!!! I don’t know exactly what God has in store for me by way of this job, but when I first expressed interest in the job it was also with the intention of getting my feet wet and seeing if becoming a teacher is a direction that God might be calling me. Seeing as how it’s been a busy several months for us, a decision to once again attempt college – this time with a different format/style of classes, which is another answer to prayer – will not be made quickly or taken lightly. However, after just one day back in the classroom, a day that was also my first day ever in a Lutheran school classroom, I may or may not have found a new calling. I have no idea what exactly that might look like (there are lots of things to do besides being an actual teacher!), and I have no idea what timing God might have in mind for all of this. What I do know, though, is that we serve a faithful God – one who is not only good and faithful to give us all that we need… but one who is also faithful to, when we delight ourselves in Him, give us the desires of our heart.

And, well… a way to serve the Lord that combines both classroom education and ministry in a very real and tangible way? I’ve been told about that reality by many called Lutheran teachers over the years, but seeing a beautiful example of it today blew whatever expectations I had out of the water. To say that ending up in that place would be a dream come true and a beautiful and healing homecoming for me would be a vast understatement! That all being said, the idea of what God might be up to with this over the next several years is one of the few things that as of late that has left this writer speechless.

As Nicholas and I continue in this journey, we would appreciate your prayers. Discerning whether or not the pursuit of this as God’s best for me (and for us!) is no small thing, and it’s not something we want to rush. We ask for your prayers for both discernment as well as a continued passion to keep serving well where God still has me at Chick-fil-A. That job and the family I have there is a miracle in its own right, and I’m so excited to get back to work there in a few weeks!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you. So many of you have supported and encouraged me with your prayers in an incredible way – whether we’ve known each other for a few months or you’ve been in my life for many, many years!!! I wouldn’t be here without you all, and I’m so grateful to be able to share what God is up to in all of this.

Nicholas and I will continue to keep you posted as much as we can, though it may be several months before other decisions are made and finalized regarding any next steps. In the meantime I’ll focus on recovering from shoulder surgery, continuing the long term healing work God is walking me through right now, serving well in both of the roles God has for me right now… and counting down the days until our first anniversary! Looking back I know we’re going to have an epic story about our first year of marriage, but man… it’s been a lot. We’re exhausted.

God is good, and He is good all the time. He’s been good even through the dark days and weeks I’ve had since surgery, not to mention all of the years it took for Him and me to get on the same page about me being alive and the reality that He’s not done with me yet… He is good as He carries my husband and I through trial after curveball after trial right now… He’s still good as He opens up some new doors and windows that I didn’t see coming… and He will always be good, regardless of exactly how it all plays out.

God is also a God of healing. And even when we still don’t know entirely how it’s going to look, when we least expect it He chooses to revisit a door that’s been painfully closed by opening a window that you never knew was there. We can still grieve the hurt and the pain of the years spent behind that slammed door while also giving thanks for the newly opened window. After all, God sometimes opens the window because He knows it’s exactly the healing that we need. And just when we think we have it all figured out, He swoops in and catches us off guard – because whether or not it’s what we think we want, He knows what’s best for us and for His glory.

Thank you, Lord, for the reality of that truth, even on the days when we don’t get it. Sustain us through those days until we’re able to once again see some light, have some hope, and see a glimpse of Your glory through the plans and purposes you have for us.

And may we remember to turn to You through the pain and darkness of all of the in-betweens.

– – – – – – –

How long will I have to hear the stories
Of how you were able
How long will I have to celebrate
The miracle that’s not my own
How long will I lift my voice and sing again
That you are always good
When I’m feeling all this distance
I thought I never would
How long

As long as it takes for my heart to find its song
As long as it takes to know I’m still not alone
And at the end of the day
I’ll stand right here and say
I know that you love me miracle or not

How long will I give myself
Before I give up waiting
How long will I have to hide behind this smile
That says that I’m okay
How long will I hold on to the promises
I thought I heard you speak
When every passing day
Just leaves me broken down and weak

As long as it takes for my heart to find its song
As long as it takes to know I’m still not alone
And at the end of the day
I’ll stand right here and say
I know that you love me miracle or not

I will sing it ’til my broken heart believes it
I’ll declare it ’til I smell the smoke of faith
And with my hands held high
I’ll scream it to the darkness
‘Til hope is finally louder than the ache

As long as it takes for my heart to find its song
As long as it takes to know I’m still not alone
And at the end of the day
I’ll stand right here and say
I know that you love me
I know that you love me
I know that you love me miracle or not

Miracle or not

Could it really be that simple?

We all have our guilty pleasure movies. The movies that objectively aren’t that good but that, for whatever reason, we watch over and over again, simply because we enjoy them. One such movie for both my husband and me is Disney’s “National Treasure” starring Nicholas Cage. It’s US history. It’s adventure. It’s a little romance. And it’s so, so cheesy. And yet… we love it.

A moment that comes towards the end of the movie came to mind recently as perhaps an illustration of something God is trying to teach me. It’s the end of the movie, and Ben is down (trapped) underground along with Riley, Abigail, and his father. The antagonist of the movie has left them there, and they’ve just discovered a treasure room that is… empty. Ben is defeated, but his father has a change of heart and realizes the treasure is real. They’re discussing everything, analyzing it all, but somehow it still doesn’t make sense. Ben then sees something on the wall and says to himself quietly, “could it really be that simple?” In the moments that follow, they discover not only the treasure – but a way out from underground. Escape. Freedom.

That’s the line God is bringing to mind for me. A question, really. But a thought and an idea that has had me thinking.

A little over four years ago God gave me an incredible miracle of healing. It was such a miracle and so unthinkable that I had stopped even asking Him for deliverance in the months prior. For those of you who don’t know, I’m referencing the moment in my life when, for the first time, God revealed Himself to me in such a way that I was able to not only know that He loves and forgives me… but I was able to believe it, too. As a result, a seven year battle with suicidal thoughts was gone. I was able to believe that I am a redeemed child of God with every part of my being. I found the will to live. As I’ve often described it to people, it was the moment when God and I finally got on the same page when it comes to the whole “He still wants me here” thing.

Did all of my mental illness immediately disappear? Not in the least. And I figured that things would likely play out that way, but nothing could prepare me for the road that was just up ahead. Within five months I left behind everything I’ve ever known, moving 3,000 miles from California to Virginia. A month or two later, I had almost completely unraveled… again. I wasn’t fighting a desire to die, but the soul crushing shame had returned. March 2020 wasn’t long after that, and experiencing a global pandemic in a new state with very little community and a heavy burden of shame proved almost impossible to survive. Once again, the desire to take my own life had not returned, but throughout the rest of the year I would experience levels of emotional pain that I had only ever heard about. I remember thinking to myself one night in October 2020 – “Oh, so this kind of pain is why people might numb themselves out with alcohol. Huh. I guess I know why now.” The thought terrified me. And while that thought has come and gone in the years since then, God continues to keep a hedge of protection around me – both for substance addiction as well as any suicidal thoughts.

In December of 2020 I moved to central Illinois. Everything went down with two weeks’ notice, and on December 15, 2020 I arrived in Peoria, Illinois. I was a shell of myself. My situation in Virginia had become so bad that I still don’t know how I made it to Illinois in one piece. But God…

Around this time I began to realize and learn that I have ADHD. Looking back, that knowledge helps so much of my life make sense. But rewriting the narrative of one’s life at age 27 is no small task. By this point the soul crushing shame had returned, but it became more complex. A neurodiverse brain might not take away the need for accountability before God for my sinful actions, but knowing that I do some things simply because my brain is wired differently… well, it’s made the reality of allowing God’s grace to bring healing a whole lot more complicated. I’ve had to work through grief over the lost years and a poor quality of life that happened because of a missed diagnosis. Everything became more complicated. God continued to uphold me with the miracle of no longer wanting to die, but in some ways the journey I began to face became that much harder.

Since moving to Illinois, a lot has happened. I met the man of my dreams who would become my future husband. I switched jobs, giving up work that I loved for a job that would bring so much peace and joy and even healing from the workplace bullying and trauma I experienced in Virginia. I began to get more and more clarity on my diagnosis and why I do so many things differently than the rest of the world. The journey of healing from another round of soul crushing shame has continued, and slowly, over time, things have gotten better. However, some days it still goes back and forth, and this many years later I still have days where the shame is so bad that I can take any situation about anything and find in it a reason why I’m a terrible person who deserves nothing good in this world.

As this healing journey has continued, the rest of my life has continued full steam ahead. In the last twelve months I’ve gotten married, moved out of my apartment into our new place (remember how I moved to Illinois with only two weeks’ notice? Yeah, moving out of that apartment was awful, not to mention retraumatizing). My chronic shoulder pain returned. I got my wisdom teeth removed because I suffer from stress induced nighttime teeth grinding. My husband got a new job, and in the corporate world that’s no small thing. To top it all off – on June 22, 2023, I had shoulder surgery.

To say the last five weeks have been unexpectedly hard would be an understatement. The physical pain has been better than expected. But the rest of my well being? Things have been so hard that I’ve become embarrassed to the point of isolating and trying to fight strong desire to hide from everyone. It’s probably a good thing that our plans for our annual vacation to church family camp were made before we knew about my surgery, because if not there’s a very real possibility that I would have tried to back out.

But – I’m here. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan. In the exact spot that came to mind at the end of my therapy session last week when my therapist, during prayer, asked God to give me an image. Something from God to hold onto. It was my first therapy session after surgery, and by the end of it I was a mess. The image that came to mind, and the place where I sit now… it’s facing the lake. On the sand. A completely unobstructed view of the lake. Beautiful, stunning, and… without any walls.

This brings me back to where we started – a question wondering if it could really be that simple.

I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the continued issue of a shame so deep and so intense that, at its worst, can leave me completely paralyzed. I’ve talked about it with others. God is using the teaching this week to speak to me about it. And I’ve come to realize that one of the biggest things that’s kept me from bringing this burden to the foot of the cross… well, it’s the fear that because I squandered the miracle the first time around, I’m going to squander it again. I’m going to come to a place of wholeness only to struggle again and throw it back in God’s face. And I’m not sure if I could handle that, because knowing myself, the shame would get exponentially worse with each round of failure.

Well, news flash. Of course that’s going to happen again. I mean, DUH. That’s why we need Jesus and the cross. I might not know how it looks to potentially face the battle of setting this down at the feet of Jesus over and over and OVER. I might not even know if I’m ready to take that step.

But when I think about it… could it really be that simple? Could it be that in order to feel the freedom to lay down my inability to silence the soul crushing shame at the foot of the cross, I only have to worry about today?

Over the last several months I’ve come to see my negative thoughts as something similar to an addiction. I know they’re harmful. I know they’re slowly killing me. But I can’t stop because I don’t know how. They fill an empty space in me and I’m not sure I’d know how to live without them. But maybe I’ve been worrying about trying to be perfect in my journey to live a life without them.

Could it really be that simple?

In the early days of getting clean from a substance addiction, you have to take it a day at a time. Sometimes even an hour or a minute at a time. And while the idea of potentially having to fight myself against laying my shame at the feet of Jesus time after time seems overwhelming and maybe even impossible, it has to be better than living inside a prison of shame. Besides, we don’t have to know how. That’s God’s job.

The scripture that comes to mind as an answer to the question of “could it really be that simple” is Lamentations 3:22-23. His mercies are new every morning. Something funny, I have this uncanny way of inserting desperately needed but not always wanted reminders into my life. I’ll sometimes even unknowingly insert them in ways that ensure the reminder will remain there as long as I live. Tonight I’m realizing that I’ve done it yet again – my wedding processional was “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. A beautiful reminder of that promise from Lamentations, set to familiar music that is now tied to an incredibly important day in my life. When I chose the song, I saw it as a testimony and a way to remember and celebrate all God has done for my husband and me. Little did I know that God would use it to speak to me in the future, too.

So, yes, maybe it could be this simple. Maybe the answer to all of this for me is something so straightforward and so obvious that it’s easy to miss. Is it the scarier option? The harder option? Initially, it might be. But God promises to give us what we need. He won’t always meet our needs further out than today, but He WILL give us what we need. That much we can count on.

If you want my honesty, I’m not sure where everything goes from here. I’m not even sure I’m ready to admit the simplicity of the answer God is giving me. But after what feels like some of the hardest battles of shame I’ve ever had up until now, God might finally be giving me an answer. And while it’s not an answer I’m sure I’m ready for today, it’s an answer that I know is true. And an answer that I know will bring healing. I don’t have to know how it all works, we never have to know in order to step back into God’s promises and His best for us. That’s how faith works, though. If we did know, then it wouldn’t be faith.

Lord Jesus, be with me. Help me to accept the simplicity of how to fight this, something I can only do because of Your strength. Help me to focus on today and to know that it’s safe to lay down my burdens at Your feet without having a plan for how to not forget it all tomorrow. And help me to know, believe, and experience all of Your love and grace. Yes, I might have to do the same thing again tomorrow. And the next day. And after a while I might lose count of how many times I have come back to Your feet. But thank You for Your grace that allows me to do that. And thank You for finally helping me see such a big piece to the puzzle – that I don’t have to know how to not squander Your gifts over and over again in order to come to You.

Thank you, Lord. May I slowly begin the journey of learning to see myself in the same way that You see me.

The girl who is loved.

Once upon a time there was a girl who was loved. Loved by so many around her, but most importantly loved by Jesus. For the first twenty-five years of her life she struggled to believe it for herself, but throughout those years it was hard for her to even see what she struggled to believe.

When God finally brought her into a place of living both fully known and fully loved, life was beautiful. It wasn’t beautiful because it was perfect… no, it was beautiful because it was real. Genuine. Painful, yes. But beautiful.

After just a few short months, the girl who was finally living loved was faced with a life altering amount of change. It would test everything she knew about life and love and her faith, and she knew going into it that it would be the hardest season of her life.

Little did she know just how right she was.

After a few short months living 3,000 miles away from a hometown that no longer felt like the home she always knew, a global pandemic changed life on earth as everyone knew it. She did her best to cope, but being in a new place with new people made it extremely difficult. Despite all the best intentions and efforts, difficulties continued to come her way. Major chronic stress continued that, when combined with the continued pandemic fatigue, brought upon a whole new set of mental illness symptoms that she had never encountered before. She had maybe encountered things a little bit like it, yes. But not quite like this. Not to this intensity.

She took a month off of work for the second time in a twelve month period. As she told her co workers the second time around – “life is hard, healthy coping is hard, and sometimes it all just decides to kick my butt.” Hope lingered in front of her as she did her best to recuperate and take care of herself, but unfortunately that hope would prove incredibly futile.

When she went back to work after the time off, it was the beginning of the end. Her work situation became worse and worse by the day. Most days this girl who – not much more than a year before – had thrived and been able to live loved… most days she would spent feeling defeated, belittled, targeted, alienated… in fact, even though she slowly began to realize that what was happening to her wasn’t normal and wasn’t okay, it would take her a year to fully realize it and begin to voice exactly what happened during those two months at work.

The girl was struggling to live loved. There’s just no other way to say it.

Thanks to her incredible parents and an even more incredible God, she got out of that situation and that season in her life. Upon moving to a familiar place she hoped that some healing would begin to come and come quickly, but she could not have been more wrong. Were there many things during the first few weeks of calling a familiar place home that DID bring some healing? Absolutely. But it was a slow and agonizing process, and it would be months before her eyes would slowly open to the realities of both what happened last fall as well as just how bad things had gotten – and how much they would never be the same.

When someone is diagnosed with a new mental illness and/or identified as a neurodiverse individual later in life, the reality of it comes with both significant relief and significant pain. It’s not that nearly everyone in this girl’s life over the years didn’t care for her or love her the best they could… but sometimes in life it can be hard to accommodate for something that you don’t even know exists. As a result, she knew her loved ones did the best the could. That they cared about her and loved her deeply.

But… unfortunately that doesn’t change the realities of growing up and hearing destructive messages repeated, messages that – given the new knowledge of what ACTUALLY goes on in her brain – are not true like everyone always thought they were.

Or like she thought they were…

Maybe even like she still thinks they are.

Where is this girl today? She is breathing, living, taking it a day at a time. The healing process for her is a lot slower than she thought it would be, and it’s certainly much slower than she would like. Some days it feels like things will never get there – that she’ll never be able to take care of herself and all her responsibilities all on her own, that she’ll never learn how to manage just being alive given the brain and neurodiversity challenges she faces on a daily basis, that she’ll never be able to shake the chronic negative thoughts and messages so that she can enjoy even a little quality of life…

But some days there are glimmers of hope. Some days and some moments where things get done and old thought patterns get identified. Some days where the encouragement and positive words from others don’t just go in one ear and out the other.

And, maybe more importantly, how is this girl doing and feeling today? If she’s honest with herself and those around her (which, by the way, isn’t as easy as it was just two short years ago), it all still hurts a lot. There have been so many “why Gods” and “how did this happen Gods” and “where were you Gods”… but there’s also hope. Courage. And if she’s honest, some kind of fight left in her. Because if that fight was gone completely, she wouldn’t even be trying. She might not even still be here.

But she is. She knows that there is a God who loves her perfectly and completely. Whether or not she’s able to believe it everyday, and whether or not she’s able to hear and accept the love from so many around her… deep down at least a small part of her knows it’s true.

This girl, though… this girl is still hurting. A lot. But she also has hope. And light. And courage, and even sometimes… joy.

And this girl?

Yes – this girl is me.

Can anything good come from Nazareth?

If you were to ask my boyfriend and I about “Atlanta”, you’d probably get an immediate response of a crazy look. You then might get a laugh and maybe see us shake our heads. See, between the time that we first met via Zoom and when we first hung out in person (for seven hours, by the way), he took a solo trip down to Atlanta. However… things didn’t go exactly as planned. The original purpose that brought him down there ended up failing almost entirely, and by the time he came home he knew one thing for sure – he does NOT like Atlanta. He enjoyed the trip, yes, but to say it didn’t go as expected would be an understatement. Now, this is nothing against the city itself, but likely more just bad timing and bad experiences.

Fast forward to this week, and he’s about to bring home a beautiful, limited release, Taylor baritone guitar. I’ve seen some pictures and heard a recording, and guys – this thing is epic. It’s beautiful. He’s been waiting several months now for the once every three years release, and at long last that wait is almost over.

What’s pretty funny and ironic, though? He first learned about this unique guitar while he was on vacation and killing time in… yup… Atlanta.

So earlier today, the two of us having the sense of humor that we do, I asked him – “Hey honey, so I’m wondering… can anything good actually come from Atlanta?”

If that question sounds at all familiar and like something else my brothers and sisters in Christ have heard before, it’s because it absolutely is. In John 1, when Jesus calls Phillip and Nathaniel, Nathaniel asks Phillip – “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

In the first century, Nazareth was a very small community that was far away from the major cities. It also did not have a great political reputation, so it was quite understandable for Nathaniel to be skeptical and jaded upon hearing the invitation from Phillip. However, Phillip gave perhaps one of the best answers that we as believers can give to anyone skeptical or jaded or hurting and hopeless…

Come and see.

Given all that life has brought in our world in the last year and a half, it’s safe to say that many of us can think of at least one or two “Nazareth” things. Situations, seasons, events, relationships, jobs… so many different things that leave us with nothing but questions as to how God could possibly use it for our good.

Since leaving California in the fall of 2019, life has brought me more “Nazareths” than I can count. Deep homesickness, feeling metaphorically homeless and wandering for over a year, relapse in several areas in my battle with mental illness, the onset of more severe and debilitating ADHD symptoms, saying goodbye to a job that I had for three years that I (still) absolutely love, and more heartache and heartbreak than one person should be able to endure… and that’s just the beginning.

But… I didn’t come here to share a sob story. I came here to give testimony to our savior Jesus and to remind us all that – yes, crazy as it sounds, good things CAN come from Nazareth.

Looking back at the past two years, in complete transparency I’m not sure if I can say just yet that every moment of every day I believe the good outweighs the bad. Certain aspects of my current circumstances, sure, but there is still a lot of hurt. A lot of pain. A lot of brokenness.

Can anything good come out of moving for the first time out on your own five months ahead of a global pandemic?
Can anything good come of being forced from a job you love because your health is suffering so much?
Can anything good come out of living 27 years before learning you probably have ADHD?
Can anything good come out of fourteen months that felt like painful and isolating wilderness?
Can anything good come out of the daunting task of unpacking twenty-seven years of hurt and false beliefs because we simply didn’t know?

Can anything good come from the Nazareths in our lives?

The question is heavy, but if we look to the cross and to the empty tomb, I think we can find our answer.

YES. Good things can absolutely come out of Nazareth. The greatest thing came out of that first century city, and His name is Jesus.

One of the biggest examples of this in my current circumstances is the amazing relationship I have with the most incredible guy I know. He and I have talked about it many times – how it would have been nice to meet each other sooner (we’re 26 and 27). How it would have been nice to have each other last year when COVID began. How it would have been nice to skip out on the deep hurt in our lives that took place prior to meeting each other.

But we’ve also talked about the very real reality that, without many of the hardships we have BOTH endured in the recent few years, our paths may not have crossed. And if they had, we would have been very different people, and we may not have hit it off the way we did. One of those such scenarios? If I had moved to Peoria straight from California nearly two years ago.

God promises us that for those who love Him, He WILL work out everything and use it for good (Romans 8:28). It’s a beautiful promise, yes. But when we are in the thick of it, or when the night seems the darkest… it’s easy to begin asking those questions again.

Can anything good come out of our Nazareths?

Sometimes we see it right away, sometimes we don’t see it for a while. And other times, we never see it this side of heaven. But between all that God promises us – that He WILL work things for good and that He will never leave us nor forsake us – and the reality that, yes, the best thing DID in fact come from Nazareth… we can have the assurance that He will be with us and that He will fulfill those promises.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always this simple. Please know that most of the time when I write, I’m writing and preaching just as much for myself. In that struggle to believe that something good can come out of Nazareth, though… He gives us the most incredible promise and reassurance and invitation.

Come and see.

Not come after you believe or come when you have it all figured out. No, He just invites us to come.

In our lives today that can look like so many things – community with other believers, remaining active in a local church (in whatever capacity is possible for the situation given COVID-19), sharing and listening to other testimonies, and the list goes on.

Beloved friends, painful as it may be sometimes, the best things can and do come out of our Nazareths. God is sovereign, and He isn’t afraid to allow both the good AND the bad in order to grow us and shape us into who He wants us to be. So the next time we want to ask ourselves, can ANYTHING good come out of this situation… look to Jesus Himself, because the answer is yes.

And if it’s still a struggle to believe it even after that? Take a deep breath, and remember His invitation…

Just come.
And see.

He mends our broken hearts.

What a year it’s been. Actually, it’s been more than a year now since COVID-19 changed everything around us. If your COVID journey has been anything like mine, there have been some moments of beauty, yes. But far more so there have been moments of difficulty. Heartache. Heartbreak. Questions of why. Fears. Silence. Unknowns. Uncertainty. Add to that whatever your personal life has been (and maybe is still) throwing your way… I know at least for me, some days I’m amazed that I’m still upright.

It was about this time a year ago that an everyday life that was difficult but somewhat doable turned into near-constant chronic stress. Little did I know with that first majorly stress inducing incident that it would be the beginning of what I can describe with little else than the word “unraveling”. I would last several more months before we moved me from Virginia to Illinois, but to this day I can only thank the Lord that I made it out of Virginia in as much of one piece as I did. Since calling Illinois home some things have definitely gotten better, yes. And I’m undoubtedly trending in the right direction. But the sense of wilderness that I kept feeling in Virginia – the idea that the big dramatic exodus is over, that God has moved in mighty ways but that now it’s time to just sit tight and learn and wait – has only continued.

Back in June many of the symptoms and a lot of the stress finally began to dissipate. It was a gift for sure. Unfortunately, though, some of the symptoms have worsened again. Like I said, I’m still trending in the right direction, but things continue to not only be not easy… they continue to be hard. Really, really hard. And heavy.

Over the last several months, as I’ve called Illinois home, I have begun to unpack some of the emotions and hurt and brokenness that hit during my season in Virginia. All of the questions wanting to ask God why. All of the questions about the validity of my experience in Spring 2019 if life was now this excruciatingly hard and if I was once again struggling so much. Time and time again I have had to cling to the reality that the character of God is dependent NOT upon our circumstances and feelings and experiences but upon who He is and what His word says and upon the promises He gives.

Last night I happened upon a song that I first heard several years ago. As I cued it up I couldn’t remember much about it, but just that I had found it beautiful and encouraging. Then we got into the chorus, and I remembered why I loved it so much… and it also caught me off guard with its relevance and timeliness…

“’Cause You are mending the broken-hearted

You are making all things new

And You’re rebuilding out of the ruins

A city of hope with the ones You love.”

For any of you wondering, the song is “City of Hope” by Amanda Cook. It’s mostly based off of the passage at the beginning of Isaiah 61…

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…

They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.”

Isaiah 61:1, 4 ESV

It’s a beautiful passage – in fact, Jesus quotes it during His ministry and then declares that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20, ESV).

But the reason this song struck me is because of a different scripture passage in which we are reminded that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted…

“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears

and delivers them out of all their troubles.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted

and saves the crushed in spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”

Psalm 34:17-19, ESV

It’s a passage that I have known for years. It’s a passage that a brother in Christ had me read in a moment of huge distress a few months ago. It’s a verse that I heard quoted recently in the context of very real grief.

Not only is our God mending the brokenhearted… but He doesn’t stop there. He is making all things new.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember these things when we are faced with the wilderness. The wilderness is quiet. It’s exhausting and even confusing sometimes. It’s frustrating for so many different reasons. We know from experience that our God is going to provide and keep His promises, but after several months of struggling to see more than our DAILY provisions… a steady glimpse more than a few days into the future might be nice.

Unfortunately, though, Jesus taught His disciples to pray… several hundred years after the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness… “give us this day our DAILY bread”.

I get the impression that God wants us to be able to trust Him for things on a day-to-day basis. That even though we might not see how or when, He’s not going to leave us high and dry to fend for ourselves.

During a season of wilderness in our lives, it’s also so easy to ask God “why”, to question Him in really any capacity we can think of. “Why did You allow this?” or “Why didn’t you save or protect me from this?”

Over the last several months I’ve been grateful for the support of an incredible home church along with some incredible leaders and pastors. As I’ve met with one of the pastors a number of times, on occasion we will sit in the sanctuary and spend time in prayer and talking through some things. There has been a lot of insight gained and healing received in those moments, and there have even been a few moments of that still, small voice of God giving me a word or a phrase or something to hold onto.

A question that I asked sometime in the last few months was “God, after all that has happened since leaving home, with how much pain and broken heartedness there has been in my life, HOW on earth can Your promises still be true?” But as I sat there in that church, my heart was reassured… “My child, my promises could not be MORE true as a result of what you have been through. They are true now more than ever.”

Talk about a reality check and a gift of great comfort all at once. Between moments in prayer with God like that and the moments when He has felt close, much of my life over the last several months has continued to be in the wilderness. In some ways we will never fully leave the wilderness until we get to Heaven, but in other ways we can have many different types of seasons within our life here on earth. Since living here in Illinois there have been glimpses of an earthly “promised land” as could only come from Him, but we’re not entirely there yet.

I guess He still has much for me to learn here in the wilderness.

But it’s during these seasons of our lives spent in the wilderness that clinging to the promises of God and remembering who He is become absolutely essential. Silence and time cannot change or diminish who God is. He is bigger than all of it.

I could put it this way…

God’s silence in our present has little to do with anything in the past or in the future. If it says anything about the character of God, it tells us NOT that He is a cold and distant father – but rather that He loves us to the point of doing what is best for us, His children, even if it means that our current circumstances remain less than ideal.

His silence here and now can never take away from what He has done in the past, no matter how big it was or how distant He feels now. And it can never take away the reality that He wants what is best for us, His children, and that He will stop at nothing to have our hearts and to make His love known to us.

The bridge of the song I mentioned earlier speaks to this truth…

“We’re the ones you love.”

That’s it. It just repeats that line. So yes, it’s stereotypical modern worship music. It’s repetitive. But it’s a reality that I think many of us need to hear over and over so that it can MAYBE begin to sink in.

We may not feel it now. And we may not feel or see it for another few months or even few years. But – visible to us or not – God is mending our broken hearts. He is proclaiming our liberty when we feel captive. He has released us from the chains of our prisons through His death on the cross and resurrection. He saves us as we are crushed in spirit.

And whether we see it on this side of Heaven or not…

He is rebuilding our hope.

the unexpected welcome home: abundant gifts in the face of grief

Grief.

When we hear the word, despite potentially knowing that it encompasses far more than the bereavement type of grief, we think about death. Perhaps the death of a loved one.

Merriam Webster agrees with this. It defines grief as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement”. But because it is vitally important to remember that grief goes far beyond the idea of tangible death, I found the following definitions from The Grief Recovery Method to be helpful: “Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind…. Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior”.

Grief is hard and brutal and overwhelming no matter the circumstances. But when it’s a much less tangible “loss” or “reason” for the grief, it presents a unique and complicated type of challenge. Not that the death of a close loved one isn’t absolutely brutal and immensely difficult – it absolutely is. For anyone walking through a season like that, please know that my heart and prayers are with you.

More and more, grief that falls under the category of a slightly less tangible “death” (maybe much more along the lines of a significant loss) is gaining awareness. And for that I am so, so glad. It’s important to realize the debilitating grief that can come when a season of life comes to an end or when a close relationship is broken.

But… when the grief doesn’t even fall under one of the more “common” non-death loss type categories. When you can’t even recognize it for the deep, panging ache that it is for several months after the change takes place.

When the grief of no longer being around so many people that became close family can’t even be eased by hopping on an airplane to California because the moment you think about going, you’re harshly confronted by a whole other similar – yet slightly separate – burden of grief… one where you don’t feel fully at home in your hometown, where you can see all of the people you miss… all the while there is still this deep heartbreak because things in that place will never, ever be the same…

That’s when a burden of grief takes on a whole new form. Because try as you might… the writer in you can barely find the words to communicate what this grief is like. But even if you did? So few people would be able to fully understand the deep heartbreak married with this crazy-full mixed bag of painful emotions.

It was sometime after arriving in Illinois that I began to explain it to people this way.

When COVID-19 absolutely halted and shut down our everyday lives in March 2020, seemingly overnight… When all we thought we knew about life was suddenly challenged, turned on its side and thrown back in our face… when all sense of normalcy in life was all of the sudden just… gone…

I will put it this way – it was when I began to see these similarities that I began to understand why I did not react to the total shutdown from COVID in the same way as most people around me. See, when life was halted tangibly and much more externally in March 2020… I was standing there going – oh, this is no big deal. I already went through this five months ago. Thankfully this time around we all have each other, because it makes something like this a whole lot easier.

October 2019. It was a beautiful season of change for my parents and me. God had been working and moving in some pretty incredible ways, and it was an absolute joy to watch it all unfold.

But after being in Virginia for a week or two, I was quickly cornered by that feeling… that feeling of “now what”, that nothing in life would ever be the same, that everything we thought we knew about life was suddenly turned on its side, when all sense of normalcy was just… gone.

The biggest difference, though? Everything and everyone else continued on around me as though life was normal. Because for them, it was.

In a matter of weeks I went from living at home with two of my closest friends (my parents) in a familiar city with so many familiar things to living 3,000 miles away in a brand new state and a brand new city surrounded by brand new people.

In a matter of weeks I went from the security and peace of knowing that my parents were serving in ministry at St. Mark, the only church I had every really known, to knowing that they would never again be there – at least not in the same way.

In a matter of weeks I was confronted in a very harsh way with the reality that I would need to grieve a season of life that would never again exist. I had to grieve seeing familiar people and places on an everyday basis while also grieving the grounding peace that came with Santa Rosa unquestionably being my home.

My first “home post” on my blog here spoke mainly to just living here in Washington/Peoria. I remember reading it back over afterwards and thinking about how funny it was that I barely (if at all) mention the amazing and beautiful church home that God has given me by way of Trinity. Looking at it all now, though, it works out. It gives me an opportunity to devote an entire to post to this beautiful redemption story, to the incredibly tangible example of God working beauty out of the ashes in my life.

Anyone that knows the church of St. Mark Lutheran in Santa Rosa, CA knows what an exceptionally unique and beautiful family of faith it is. It is an immense gift for anyone and everyone who is a part of the family there, so of course it was an incredible gift for the Durham family during our twenty-one years there. During my young adult years, as I continued to call Santa Rosa home and share a home with my parents, I tried very hard to recognize the beautiful gifts around me and discontinue taking them for granted. Try as hard as one might, though… nothing can prepare you for nearly all of those gifts ceasing to exist in the same breath. As I spoke about when my parents had their last Sunday at St. Mark… is one ever really “ready” for a day like that?

It wasn’t until nearly a year later (August/September 2020) that I began to recognize and begin speaking about the deep grief that came by way of this change. The tears began to come… a little bit, anyway. Still not enough, but at least I was no longer completely ignoring the heavy burden that had been clinging to my heart for so long. Grieving something that no longer exists – yet all of the people are still alive and there – is just… strange. Weird. Different. I have had to grieve a life that, plain and simple, no longer exists.

Little did I know that God was getting ready to launch me into a season of beauty and miracles and redemption.

In my first “home” blog post I spoke to the miracle that there was still a place in the world that could so quickly and easily feel like home. And not just that it existed at all – but that God would bring me here, just like that.

Over the last several months of being here in Illinois (it’s been over four now – WHERE is time going??), I have come to call Trinity Lutheran Church my home.

Trinity… the church where my dad was baptized as an infant. Where he grew up, where my grandparents attended until they died in 2014 and 2016. The church where one of my aunts and cousins still attend. The church that I visited over the years as I grew up. The church that is familiar and, in my mind, has always represented my dad and his family.

A church that, in some very similar ways to the incredible family of faith at St. Mark, has always felt like… home.

As Trinity has more and more become home for me, I have continually been grateful and amazed at all that God is doing. But in this last week, as I have had a chance to reflect more on how much I miss the family at St. Mark and the life that part of me always hoped would be there, I have begun to just fall down on my face at the feet of Jesus in awe and gratitude.

I’ve spoken to the fact that coming to Peoria/Washington is an absolute miracle because there was likely only handful of places in the world that could MAYBE begin to feel like home again… in fact there was probably only one where it could happen so quickly and naturally. So, to have God work things out to transfer here, keep my job, and begin a life here that felt even the smallest bit normal again? There’s only one person that could make that happen.

But… as if that wasn’t enough.

Anyone that knows St. Mark knows that there will never be another St. Mark in my life. There just won’t, and it would be unreasonable to ever try and imagine that. But to imagine that, hypothetically, there could be another church home out there that could even come close to meaning just as much in my life… well, prior to moving to Illinois, I guess I had not really thought about that possibility a whole lot.

Believe it or not, there had been a thought process I had sometime last summer or fall about where in the world I might consider to be a place of spiritual heritage, someplace that still felt reasonably normal and safe and undisturbed… well, guess what came to mind. Yup. Long before I knew I might be leaving Virginia, let alone moving to the ONE place where this all could happen.

But the idea of finding another church that has not only incredible leaders in ministry, a wonderful music ministry, and some incredible members and people within the congregation… but that ALSO is a place that carries with it a certain sentimentality, where you feel connected to God but also to family, and a place that by its familiarity can provide a sense of belonging and grounding and home…

All of these things describe the life I knew at St. Mark, no doubt.

What is crazy and just the biggest gift and miracle, though… is that all of these things also describe life for me at Trinity.

When we experience deep grief and pain and loss in this life, it is so much harder to move forward while that gaping hole in our hearts remains just as big as ever. We all know intrinsically that it’s okay to begin moving forward into the next season of our lives, but when there is this near constant reminder of what we have lost… easier said than done becomes an understatement.

As with these types of losses, expecting that someone or something could fully replace that which was lost is foolish at best and harmful at worst. So, in this context, expecting another church to feel not just equally as special as St. Mark but special in the exact same ways… it’s just not going to happen. There will only ever be one church where I grew up, one church where my dad pastored for 21 years of my life, one church where my dad confirmed me. One church for so, so many things.

But… God.

BUT GOD!

The phrase and idea of “beauty from ashes” has been in my mind all week. This is such a tangible, significant, and real example of God doing this in my life.

Will Trinity ever be another St. Mark for me? Not at all. For many reasons, it’s just not logistically possible. But when it comes to the human heart and the journey of this kind of grief, having something so similarly beautiful to fill that hole in one’s heart… no, it doesn’t suddenly make the grief disappear. If only it were that easy. What it does do, however, is help us to begin moving forward, honoring the life that we lost, but no longer remembering that same life with the gaping hole still in your heart, still staring you so harshly in the face every single day.

When we finally have something tangible to hold onto that represents the beauty God can work out of our ashes… even though our steps forward are so often still surrounded by those ashes, it makes it maybe a little bit more doable. It makes it a little bit easier to entirely ignore the grief less and less because, each time you remember what you’ve lost, you can see the beautiful (new) gift that God has given you. The idea of “beautiful dichotomy” that I often talk about, the idea of holding two things together that, on the surface, seem contradictory… it suddenly makes that just a little bit easier.

I have said it this way to a few friends and loved ones this week… “It’s as though God knew there is really only one church and one place in the world that could ever even hold a candle to the specialness that St. Mark represents for me… and He brought me here. He made it happen.” Don’t get me wrong, the grief is still there. It will probably still be hard for a long, long time. But now, each time I think about that church and the painful reality that things will never be the same… I can also think about the amazing miracle that, out of all the places in the world, God brought me to the one right place… the one possibility of ever having something that could ease the pain of what I lost even a little bit.

Over the last few months, as I’ve been walking through so much of the pain and heartbreak that hit while I was in Virginia, there was a moment in conversation with one of our pastors in which I felt God tangibly give me a couple of words for this season in my life. As we sat in the sanctuary, he prayed and mentioned something about the miracle of being “in this place”… looking back, I know that he originally meant the miracle of being in the house of God, free and able to access God through His son, Jesus. In that moment, though, what popped into my mind was the miracle of being in Peoria… at Trinity… beginning to find home in the one place where I could still so easily do so. And as the miracle of that began to hit me, the words God gave me were “redemption” and “restoration”.

It’s been a journey of making sense of both of these words and how they apply to this season of my life. Redemption, that’s something I have been familiar with in the past. But in those first moments I definitely felt much more emphasis on the idea of restoration, so in the weeks afterwards I did some digging into what that word means in the context of our faith. That could be an entire blog post on its own, and likely it will, but for now there is an element of restoration in this idea of God working beauty from ashes when it comes to a church home in my life.

Restoration… God restores what is broken. He restores it to what it once was, yes, but always better and stronger than before. As only He can.

With as much as St. Mark was a gift in my life, there was a part of me that always knew it wouldn’t last that way forever. It’s highly likely that I will outlive my dad, not to mention that I will outlive his years as a pastor. So for as special as it would be to call St. Mark church my home indefinitely… it wouldn’t be the same way forever. It would eventually change and it would be hard regardless.

But now that I’m an adult, living my life, having launched myself into the world… finding Trinity in this season not only means restoration of a church home that can be just SO meaningful and special… but just as when God restores things so that they are better and stronger than before? I don’t have to worry about things changing at Trinity in a way that would disturb what makes it so special, at least not nearly as much as something like my parents no longer serving in ministry at St. Mark.

And as if that wasn’t enough, now that God has brought me someone that I will be able to do life with, someone that was already a member at Trinity, and someone who already loves the church so much… it means that, in this restoration, in the gift of once again having a church home that means SO much… I get to look forward to the future in a way that I never really could at St. Mark.

I don’t know that I will ever NOT miss St. Mark and the life I had with my parents there. Grief is hard, and it just means we look forward to the heavenly reunion where we will never again have to say “see you later”. In the meantime, though… to know that we have a God who cares enough to see the heartbreak, to see how there is still one place in the world that could help ease that grief even a little bit, and to make it all happen and put it into place not just for the short term but for the long term, too…

It’s pretty incredible. The words like “gift” and “miracle” only begin to describe it.

No, it does not suddenly make everything all better. It does not mean that my same stressors are not there, that life immediately becomes easy all the time. The grief is still there, the mental illness is still there, the depression is still there.

But what it does do is make our next breath possible. Then the next breath, and then the next one. And before we know it, we see Him for who He is… one “who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20 ESV).

the unexpected welcome home

“A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” This is how Dictionary.com defines the word “nostalgia”, but a look at the original Greek roots behind the word give us an even better glimpse into the idea of nostalgia and home. The earliest origins of the word can be traced back to two ancient Greek words – “nostos”, meaning to return home, and “algos”, meaning pain or ache.

In one of the recent sermons at my church, one of our pastors shared this information behind the world “nostalgia”, and as you might imagine, it has stuck with me tremendously. Given what my life has been for the last (almost) year and a half, knowing that – at least at some point in time – people have recognized homesickness to go far beyond a “feeling”, that people have seen the deep grief and ache that it can cause for a person… in a strange way it has actually brought some comfort.

Since 2019 I have on occasion developed my own succinct catchphrases to describe either a calendar year or a particular season, and a phrase I have for the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 can reveal why learning the origins of a word like “nostalgia” brought so much comfort.

“I never knew just how much the human heart could break for little reason beyond being lonely and missing home.”

Part of the reason why leaving home has been so hard on me? I didn’t just “leave home” or “move out”. I didn’t even just move from California to Virginia. In the blink of an eye, all that I had come to know about life, everything that was just there as I knew it… it was all gone.

What most of us faced last March when COVID-19 halted life entirely for all of us – that feeling of disbelief, of not knowing what “normal” is anymore, of deep grief for things and places and events that were suddenly no longer there… I think you get the idea…

Well, that’s exactly what it was for me as well – in October of 2019.

When I moved from California to Virginia.

When my parents moved from California to Idaho.

When I no longer shared a home and everyday life with two of the people I love the most.

When my parents were no longer serving the Lord at the church that had been in my life for as long as I can remember.

… when everything about life as I knew it essentially ceased to exist. Just like that.

Now, for someone who even by that time in 2019 had begun to see extensively that living life on God’s terms – and NOT our own terms – is really the only way to truly live… it’s been a hard reconciliation and adjustment.

If I’m being entirely honest? It’s still hard. It’s still really, really hard.

But what’s tricky here… the idea of nostalgia and of longing for home… it can become dangerous.

If we get so hung up on the life that doesn’t exist anymore, the life that we would give anything to have back – we’ve begun to idolize our past. And if we imagine our life as driving in a car (yes I know, God is always in the driver’s seat, but bear with me here), I think we all know that we need to spend most of our time looking forward through the windshield. That an occasional glance in the rear-view mirror is okay to make sure we remember the past for what God has done can be – and should be – a part of our lives, but that anything more than that begins to become harmful.

A thought and question that I have in my notes from that recent Sunday morning…

“Nostalgia becomes harmful when we are discontent with our present circumstances, when we idolize the past… do we even know what we truly long for?”

The short answer? No.

The not as short answer? Also no, but God does – for our home in heaven, yes, but also for here on earth.

And the moments when that nostalgia threatens and begins to morph from just a soul ache and into even more darkness, more pain, more physical afflictions… those are the moments when God steps in to do His thing. As only He can do – beautiful, miraculous, and perfectly timed.

Let me take you back to just a couple of short months ago, when God proved Himself faithful yet again to provide perfectly, even when we don’t even know ourselves what we need.

I had just cooked my first Thanksgiving a few days prior… Thanksgiving entirely for one, because I had a fever and needed to self-isolate just in case it was actually COVID-19. Over the weekend I thought I was clear… then I still had a fever, so more COVID tests and urgent care visits… regardless – I was exhausted. Worried about needing to work the next week, because even if I didn’t have COVID, I was in no shape to try and work four 10s out on the ramp. Not with the way life had been… since July…

Monday morning I woke up to yet another difficult work situation, and after getting in touch with my mom, she asked if I had thought about transferring, maybe seeing what else was out there.

“Like… you mean moving? Like MOVING moving?”

“Yeah. Dad and I have talked about it, and especially since you’re going to work part time and take classes full time, the work need and opportunity that brought you to RIC isn’t necessarily there anymore.”

“Okay… I mean, I could. I could look. But I just don’t know. It’s moving again, plus I don’t even know if people are hiring with all of the furloughs that just hit.”

“Well, it wouldn’t hurt you to look.”

“Okay. Fine. I can look, I’ll let you know if I see anything interesting.”

It was fairly early on the day on Monday, and I had no idea what was about to happen. But – I don’t have to know, God did. He does. He always knows.

After looking on our company website, I saw two intriguing possibilities. One of them? Peoria, IL. PIA. I had known our company has the contract here, but it’s a small airport, so true full time could be tough. But now that I needed part time…

I called my mom to tell her, because if this really was true, that PIA was looking for people… we might have something.

Some context: much of my dad’s extended family is still in the area here. He grew up here. I grew up visiting grandparents and relatives here, I grew up visiting their church with them. There was already a certain… nostalgia…

She and I chatted about it, and later that evening we chatted along with my dad. And two weeks later, my mom and I pulled out of my apartment complex, headed to Illinois.

But it’s something that happened in that first day or two of discussing the potential move here that speaks to why God knew I needed to come. It speaks to the idea of nostalgia, to the idea of home.

For much of my time in Virginia, it was hard to know where home was. I was able to create some kind of a home there, yes, but it was so hard to do that in a brand new place. And when you can’t even tell people where “back home” is… when your hometown and everything familiar and all you hold dear is in one place, but the two people who have remained your constant and closest friends are in a whole other place… it messes with your sense of home. When I visited California at the end of October, I was getting there. I was coming to terms with what home is and what it isn’t. But upon traveling back home to Virginia life just continued to throw me difficulty after difficulty, so by the time I made it to early December… I was exhausted. Defeated.

I was ready to have some sense of home again.

Sitting on my couch during the day that Monday, I had sent the thought via text to my mom. But after waiting for a little while to hear back, I called her… the thought was too beautiful to wait any longer, I wanted to share it with her.

“So… you know how California doesn’t feel quite like home right now, cause I’d be there with everyone and everything else but where’s my house and where are my parents… and you know how Boise wouldn’t feel like home right now cause here are my parents but why are they in this strange city…”

“Yeah…”

“Well. I don’t know it THAT well. We visited more when I was younger. And I haven’t ever had the chance to get to know the family there SUPER well. But it’s familiar people… still in the familiar place… I don’t want to get ahead of myself, we’re just talking about the possibility… but mom, moving to Peoria/Washington… it just might feel like going home.”

… you know when you have those tears that are from deep in your soul, the ones that are full of heartache and pain but that are the very first tears after that first glimmer of hope and relief?

Needless to say, the move was official just a few days later.

Between those first conversations about coming here and when I got the official word from my work, I discovered a song by JJ Heller (“You Already Know”) that so beautifully and perfectly captured the season of transition for me. It has become a reminder that we don’t have to know or have it all figured out… God knows, and He has us in His perfect plan. I can’t tell you how many times it brought me to full tears (not just the wet eyes we get when there’s some “dust” in the room but nearly UGLY cry) in the two weeks between my first inquiry about PIA and actually leaving town.

“Everything around me seems uncertain
My weary heart can’t take much more surprise
I wish there was a point on the horizon
Something I could see with my own eyes

“I need to tell you that I’m scared
I feel completely unprepared
And nothing’s what it was two weeks ago

“But you already know
You already know
Everything I’m scared of
Everything I hope
You hold my tomorrow
And all tomorrow holds
You already know”

This four-letter word and the ideas behind it have come to mean so much for me over the last year and a half. God has taught me so much about Himself, His perfect timing, and His perfect plan. Has it all been easy and pain-free? No. Would so many things have happened differently without COVID? Probably. But as a friend from Virginia described it shortly after I arrived in Illinois… Richmond was a diversion, but now I’m at my destination.

The thing about diversions? Sure, they’re a pain for everyone – the ground crew who gets the phone call. The passengers who arrive late to their destinations. The inflight crew whose schedule gets all thrown off. The crew schedulers and flight ops and airport ops personnel that have to adjust as a result of the diversion. But… diversions don’t just happen because somebody feels like it. They are always intentional and deeply necessary.

So, after I began looking at everything that way, I began to see it.

And as people would ask me how I liked Illinois, how I liked being here…

The answer I gave (and will still give!!) is one that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to give again. In my final few months in Virginia before moving to Illinois, the hopelessness of ever regaining even the slightest sense of home had really snuck up on me.

Thank goodness we have a God who knows our hearts, our needs, and who loves to come in and sweep us off our feet with the gifts we never knew we needed…

“So, Mary, how do you like being in Illinois?”

“It’s really great. Honestly… it’s just so wonderful.

“I’m finally… I’m finally home.”

this is my what

The familiar catchphrase rings in my ears…

“Yeah, I know what I want to do with my life, I’m just not sure how God will choose to best accomplish it.”

Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself developing a few catchphrases that represent events of the year. I had a handful of them in 2019 and a handful of them last year, 2020. There’s been some overlap, yes, but not a ton. However – this is one of the phrases from 2019 that was lost over the past year… but that I’m wholeheartedly committed to bringing back to the forefront of my mind.

Since the last couple of years of high school, I’ve thought about and researched nearly every type of career known to mankind (just ask my parents!). Everything from vocational ministry to teaching to healthcare to commercial airline… if the career exists, I’ve thought about it. At times it has been a total pain, feeling like I have zero focus at all and like I’ll never be able to make a decision and get on with my life.

But now that I have a much clearer picture of what I want my life to be about, of my life “mission statement”… I can see why God wired me to NOT settle on any one career in particular.

I think for most of us, the “what” of our life often relates closely with the “how”. The two are tied together, sometimes even mutually exclusive. But for someone with such intense struggle and pain and life experience in her short 27 years… what I want my life to be about, the ways and messages I hope to share with the people around me… it becomes infinitely more important than the job that I work.

It’s no secret that mental illness is becoming a bigger and bigger issue here in America. It was already bad and turning to much worse before COVID-19 shut everything down, but now that people have spent months in isolation, living on a reduced or even nonexistent income, their routines and daily lives thrown completely upside down… well, I think we all know where things are going.

Sometimes I wonder why I spent so many years focusing on little else besides recovery, self care, and healing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to put such time and focus into it, yes. I’m grateful for all of the therapy and groups and treatment. But… why couldn’t that have happened concurrent with so many other things? Why did it take until age 26 or 27 to feel like I’m finally beginning my adult life?

Well, for starters, things overall would have played out far differently. No one can know what would have happened if I had in fact moved to Minnesota for college in August of 2012.

Here in 2021, though, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that God has given me experiences and equipped me in such a unique way to tell His story of love and grace and redemption… and to tell it as it relates to mental illness.

When I think about every single person out there who wakes up to fight these demons of darkness on a daily basis, it’s easy to feel so helpless. But in that helplessness, I remember this amazing God we have, and I remember that it was when I turned to His power and His power alone to finally break my chains that the change and healing actually came.

Coming face to face with the reality that it was my inability to believe that God’s love and forgiveness could cover the mistakes I’ve made was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

And yet… admitting it was the best thing that ever could have happened.

Why? Because the moment we begin to shine the light in the darkest places is the moment when change and rescue and redemption can finally begin.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be that person. I grew up in church, I knew Jesus, I knew this whole bible and Jesus loves me thing. But deep down? I really was that person.

It was that season of my life, a season of calling out and acknowledging just how unforgivable I had been feeling for so many years, that helped clarify what has now become my “what” in life. As I spent time sitting with the reality of feeling unforgivable, feeling ashamed and embarrassed but grateful to finally be walking towards freedom, I began to understand what I had heard so many people describe. I began to fully appreciate just how hopeless a person could become as a result of feeling outside the reach of God’s love and forgiveness.

It’s something that never once did I expect to become such a cornerstone part of God’s work of healing in my life. But… sometimes it’s those unexpected things that can become the greatest gifts.

Since that season of healing there has been no shortage of the Lord at work in my life. Five months after everything changed He called me to pick up and move across the country to Richmond, VA. It was a move with work, yes, but the nature of my new position meant that I was essentially beginning a brand new job. It’s been a crazy fifteen months since I left California, and it’s been some of the hardest times of my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Why? Because every moment along the way – even the moments of pain and heartache and questions and tears – pushes me further into the “what” of my life. Each experience further equips me to minister to anyone around me through my listening, my speaking, and my actions.

When I walked through the healing in 2019, I became even more acutely aware of the Church’s struggle to acknowledge two things simultaneously if they seem to oppose one another. What do I mean by that? Well, the idea that I could be human and question and be that person who felt unlovable and unforgivable even by Jesus Himself… and yet NOT have that invalidate my worth as a daughter of God?? Woah. Talk about an earth shattering truth there.

And not just that – I also had to come to terms with and begin to articulate the idea that our negative emotions… the grief, the anger, the pain… those also can never, ever negate our worth as a Christian or separate us from God’s love.

The example I often use for that one – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14. We are told that we should never grieve as those without hope… But we are not once told we should never grieve at all.

The Church’s relationship with mental illness and with those of us who deal with it on a daily basis still has a long way to go. Even in my lifetime I’ve seen the improvement, and please believe me when I say it’s so very encouraging. But just because we’ve seen a little improvement… that by no means should indicate that the work is done.

If anything, it’s only just beginning.

Even under the umbrella of this already specific topic, there are so many different things and changes that could help so much. One such example is that the church would do well to realize that the idea of “mental illness” goes far beyond what most of us think of when we hear “depression and anxiety”.

But perhaps even a more impactful change, the thing that I truly see as my “what” in life…

The reminder and truth that all of our emotions, all of our chronic (mental) illnesses, all of our anger and our questions… all of our humanness that comes from living in a broken world… well, I’ll let Romans 8 finish the thought for us.

“So now I live with the confidence that there is nothing in the universe with the power to separate us from God’s love. I’m convinced that his love will triumph over death, life’s troubles, fallen angels, or dark rulers in the heavens. There is nothing in our present or future circumstances that can weaken his love. There is no power above us or beneath us—no power that could ever be found in the universe that can distance us from God’s passionate love, which is lavished upon us through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One!”
Romans 8:38-39, The Passion Translation

Most of us have heard that scripture passage and that truth. But how much have we actually thought about it? How much have we internalized what it means specifically to us, specific to our sin and our mistakes?

How much have we thought about it in the context of the struggle and pain and heartache that comes from living with mental illness?

As I’ve been walking more and more towards the “what” that I feel God has placed on my life, I don’t think I’ve found too many who challenge this truth. But as someone who grew up in a wonderful and healthy church, who grew up surrounded by some of the most amazing people and believers… it wasn’t until I was at absolute rock bottom that I was able to learn and internalize all of this for myself.

It was at rock bottom that Jesus came to sit with me in the ashes… to pick me up, carry me out, and walk me into this beautiful life of freedom with Him. It’s not a life free of my chronic illness. Believe me, that’s still alive and well.

But it’s a life of freedom… freedom to feel and hurt and to be human.

And yet, deep in the middle of all of that, freedom to be a child of God.

So that’s my “what”. Reminding all of us (myself included!) that it’s okay to be human and to hurt and ask to questions… but that even through all of that, we are beloved sons and daughters of God. And that, particularly as it relates to mental illness, nothing could ever change our worth as a Christian or separate us from the immeasurable love of God.

The Day After Christmas

It’s now been two holiday seasons that I’ve spent away from my beloved hometown, my people, my home churches, and so many things that I hold dear. Not that Christmas was a huge deal before I moved… growing up with extended family out of state and two sisters that are quite a few years older, the family gathering part of December 25th has never been all that significant for me.

The other thing that makes the day so special? The fact that we get to celebrate the gift of baby Jesus, come down for us as a human, to fulfill the law and redeem us as His children.

So two days ago as I was able to begin my day with Christmas morning worship, I was thinking about all of this and reflecting on why Christmas often just isn’t… special. It’s not this big deal, YAY JESUS, extra excitement just a few times a year kind of day. Not that the day isn’t incredible, that the gift of baby Jesus is one to overlook. It’s more just that, for me, it’s not really MORE special than most other days. Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I try and live my life in a way that every day is a YAY JESUS kind of day.

Over the last year and a half now I’ve had no choice but to do everything in my power to remember that awe and wonder found on Christmas morning as much as I possibly can. The joy and gratitude we find on Christmas… it’s something that happens for me all throughout the year. After all, when God comes in for an impossible rescue and then continues to prove Himself faithful again and again and again… it’s hard to avoid the joy.

My writing doesn’t often take the form of more structured poetry, but as I drove home from work on Friday night the idea for this poem came to me. As soon as I got home I sat down to write it all out, and I hope and pray that it can serve as a reminder to all of us that the celebration and hope of Christmas can happen the other 364 days, too.

“The Day After Christmas”
an original poem

The day after Christmas
Say goodbye to the cheer
But why must we celebrate
Just one day a year?

The carols are beautiful
Church services, too
But once that’s behind us
Must we forget You?

I’m not talking about buildings
Or sharing what we saw
Or even just worship
But excitement… and awe

It’s no secret life is hard
All our dreams torn asunder
But this Jesus we celebrate
Can revive them with wonder

With liberty for the captives
Good news for the poor
Broken hearts become comforted
And yet – there’s still more…

A bright light in the darkness
That breaks chains of the slaves
And the hardest of hearts?
He can raise from their graves!

So while one day is special
December 25th every year
All the other days, let’s remember
This baby Jesus is always near

His birth was so marvelous
Yet so humble, so mild
Through the year He is with us
Our Lord, the Christ child

If we treat all days like Christmas
Not with carols or special meals
We might meet a God so real
One who rescues, one who heals

So let’s celebrate on Christmas
As we will always do
But what if we ALWAYS celebrate
The God who makes us new?

Our lives may not be easy
And trials might still destroy
But the gift of Jesus Christ our King
Will turn sorrows into joy