Jolted awake, I grasped my husband’s chest with a hug that cried, “I’m scared!” Frozen in fear I had difficulty interpreting the sudden alarm. My body was reacting to past trauma, but this time stress wasn’t the trigger (my life is much better now compared to a year ago). It had to be something else: it was memory.
A year ago my body had reached its boiling point and collapsed. Relentless to release culminated stress, I found myself in a panic.Uncontrollable tears, depraved appetite, and what food I could swallow was quickly rejected. Sleep was only a dream. My body renounced life’s essentials. Of course, I hid this torment as best as I could behind the perfect disguise, a smile. But behind closed doors my body revolted & shook like an overworked machine – sparks, smoke and rattling parts grinding against each other. “Listen! Enough is enough!” I lost all control to ‘hold it together.’ For someone with a strong sense of pride, feeling completely out of control was frightening. I was going down and crashing was the only option.
An anniversary is an occasion for celebration. This anniversary is a different one. It marks my surrender. Although today looks very different than a year ago, my mind and body occasionally respond to the past. But I am more frequently met with support and health, and within time I’m replacing fear with trust. I’ll toast this anniversary knowing that like everything of value in this life, it’s a journey branded with both struggle and joy.
“What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.” C.S. Lewis
I woke up sleepy but rested. It’s a fresh start. Although my day-to-day has seen only minor changes, I have a new perspective on life. The classic, perfectly-painted life now looks more like multidimensional abstract art.
Today, I’ve embraced my life as a perfectly messy art-form. It’s beautiful because it’s my journey. I’ve re-discovered the simple treasures I lost while trying to paint the perfect life. What a lie that is! And what an ongoing battle to fight! These treasures, hidden by my own blind eyes were always there. They beckoned me, but I ignored their voice. My body was too weathered with stress and those treasures were luxuries – not necessities. One more thing my burdened soul couldn’t balance.
Today, I’ve humbly traded my classic art piece for time. It came at the cost of my pride and position, but essential for survival. Frantic mornings have turned into a soothing routine of gratitude. Tiny kisses on my nose coupled with a rapidly wagging tail, “Good morning! I must charge the morning by announcing this yard is mine and I’m awake!” A pressed and poured Americano in a hand-picked mug, each sip a memory from where the mug was purchased. A rooster mug from Portugal. A turtle mug from Aruba. A turquoise and white-striped mug – a gift from a special family. Time has allowed for reflection, and with it, knowledge. When life speeds up, my route must be reset. I pull off the speedway and make my way down a scenic road. The natural life – the green, gold and blues – seep into me, revitalizing my soul.
Time is a choice of focus. Shifting focus, shifts time.
Today, I woke up sleepy but rested. I gaze beyond the picture perfect life to fully appreciate the perfectly messy art-form – the place where time is stilled and treasures dwell.
From time to time I reassess my life’s purpose. I feel that I’ve gained some life experience – at least enough to have an idea of what’s most important in life. My life’s purpose has changed from the need to figure out my vocation (my 9-5) to a method/means in how I live my life. My focus has shifted from ‘calling’ to the ‘day-to-day’ mindset.
A friend commented on my last post by saying how Isaiah 43 has helped her understand God’s love. I thought I’d refresh my memory and read it for myself. There were many parts of the passage that brought me encouragement, one of them being that we are made for God’s glory. Those words kept repeating in my mind and yet I had no practical understanding of what that truly meant.
The initial image I had in my mind after reading “we are made for God’s glory” was that of a proud and loving father who takes tremendous pride in his children. I have yet to meet a parent that doesn’t think his/her child is the best. Even when a child misbehaves, there is this unrelentless love a parent has that doesn’t allow behaviour to outshine all the good in his/her child. Despite the ups and downs that come with parenting, Moms and Dads dearly love their children, and if given the opportunity will let you know exactly how proud they are of them. Despite all our short-comings God, too, views us as His pride and joy.
…so this was the initial picture I had in my mind after reading “I have made them for my glory.” Isaiah 43:7b My second thought was one that crosses a critic’s mind “Isn’t that selfish of God to create us for the soul purpose of giving Him glory? As if He needs an ego boost!” Our idea of glory includes wealth, power and influence. People step back in admiration (or jealousy) when someone steps out of an expensive car or a movie star walks a red carpeted event or CEO of multimillion dollar company talks about his/her success at a conference. Not that these individuals are necessarily looking for admiration but their ‘perceived’ status makes others want to be like them. God, unlike our idea of glory, doesn’t need us to make Him ‘look good!’ He is glory. …and we are made for His glory.
To think that we are created to make someone other than us greater is an ego downgrade. This is hard for us to grasp since we humans don’t have a great track record for making someone other than ourselves look good. We are very selfish, and on the severe end of the spectrum can be down right evil to each other. If my perception of God is distant, power-hungry and uninvolved, than of course I’d think that He is selfish in wanting glory. I’m thankful that my experience with God is loving, forgiving and near therefore I have no problem illuminating who He is.
To be made for His glory frees me up from exhausting thoughts about my life’s purpose. To look beyond what I can get out of this life to how I might I illuminate God’s glory. “We weren’t meant to be somebody – we were meant to know Somebody.” – John Piper. Wealth, fame, glory, power and so on, are signs that we have somehow ‘arrived’ in life but have nothing to do with our life’s purpose. Our purpose isn’t to turn ourselves into a god (someone important or above others) but to reveal Him in our daily lives. “It is about the greatness of God, not the significance of man. God made man small and the universe big to say something about himself.” – John Piper. God was never made for us. We are made for God’s glory. Being made for God’s glory means we illuminate who God is – loving, faithful, kind, just and forgiving.
Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1
Once again I feel like I am like a child trying to understand the complex truth and nature of God. Being made for God’s glory frees me from trying to figure out my life’s purpose. Instead, I know that in all things I need to embody who God is – kind, loving, forgiving, just and faithful. I know that God views me like a proud and loving parent, and hopes that I choose goodness, kindness, faith over selfish desires. When we welcome the living, personal presence of God we become “brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him” 2 Corinthians 3:18
With one hand grasping an Americano and the other spreading open the pages of a recently purchased book, I read the words “God’s love is permanent” and the noise around me ceases. A calm comes over me. I’ve heard the words “God loves me” many times in my life and in many different ways, but to think that His love is permanent brought a new perspective to my beliefs. What struck me was how I don’t live like I believe that “God’s love is permanent.”
It’s hard for me to imagine anything in this life as being permanent. Tattoos aren’t forever thanks to laser technology. Marriage is meant to be a life-long commitment but love often doesn’t last forever. Even landscapes change over centuries. ‘Permanent’ in my experience is simply ‘a really really long time,’ or ‘until I get sick of it,’ but not necessarily forever. It’s no wonder I have a difficult time imagining God’s love as being permanent.
I’m happy to say that I’m not the only one who struggles to understand God’s love. Paul described God’s love as “too great to understand” but wants us to have the “power to understand” it:
“And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” Ephesians 3:18-19
My limited understanding of ‘permanent’ has made it difficult to believe that God’s love isn’t just a ‘really really long time’ or until He gets sick and tired of my roller coaster life. Our human ‘forever’ love is conditional on how we feel about the other person on any given day. If we get annoyed with them, we have no hesitation changing our relationship status. Even the degree in which we love family (the most ‘permanent’ relationship) is conditional on how we feel about them. Our experience with relationships makes it difficult to understand this idea that God’s love is permanent – it doesn’t change and it is always apart of us. God’s love is not constrained by our sense of time or limited to our good deeds or lack there of.
While I’ll be quick and sure to say “God loves me,” if I take an honest inventory of my life, I live as if God’s love has an expiration date. It’s found in very subtle ways: When I’m overwhelmed with life, I’m so busy trying to figure out things on my own that I don’t have time for God’s love (or to think that He actually wants to be apart of my busy schedule). When I’m exhausted and feeling low, I go into a survival mode and can’t feel God’s peace. When I’m immersed in selfish pursuit, I picture God sitting at a distance with His arms crossed waiting for me to ‘get it together.’
As I sat amongst a sea of laptops at the coffee shop where I was reading, I knew I needed to let those few words “God’s love is permanent” take ownership in my soul. I’m finding more and more often it is the obvious truths (the truths that I once knew so strongly in my early Christian life) that I need to return to. It’s like hearing the words “I love you” over and over again but longing for the intimacy behind those common words.
The delicious yet bitter taste of my Americano became more rich in flavour with the words “God’s love is permanent,” and it triggered a month long journey back to a place of letting God love me. I’ve been allowing the words to sink deep in my soul and change my outlook of who He is and who I am. I’m discovering love doesn’t look for faults, neither does it overlook them. Love is patient when I’m ignoring God or pursuing selfish desires. Love doesn’t sit in the judgement seat but in gentleness holds a mirror of truth to my face and gives me time to reassess my life. Love is more than a pat on the back or an inspirational quote like “Stay strong and keep going!” Love believes in me when doubts have clouded my judgment. Love befriends me in my loneliness. Love is forever imprinted in my heart. It never leaves me and the more I welcome it, the larger its influence becomes in my life.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” John 15:9
After a few messages back and forth Steph and I arranged a quite spontaneous but perfectly orchestrated evening. We began our evening with dinner at a community food program at a local church. The region puts on the dinner while the church lends its gym for the event. A group of volunteers prepare and serve the food. We sat at table #1 which I was told is always called last. I guess they must go by the verse ‘the first shall be last.’ Steph and her mom are regular guests at the program and are very familiar with both the volunteers and guests. When I arrived I was greeted with smiles and generous portions of casserole, caesar salad, veggies and even a slice of pie with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Although I didn’t have much of a chance to chat with Steph during the meal, I discovered that I had more connection to the guests at my table than I thought.
After our meal we said our goodbyes to our tablemates and volunteers and headed off to chat, just the two of us. The coffee shop we planned on going to was closed for renovations, so we decided to go for a long walk instead. As we headed towards the walking path behind her complex, Steph pointed at a car pulling out of the parking lot with people she believed to be drug dealers. It makes her unhappy and she’s uncertain about how to interact with them (which is completely unlike her very friendly personality). Steph is like a ray of sunshine that warms even the coldest person, cracking the ice to call forth a smile.
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Isaiah 55:1a
As we start our walk under a beautifully lit sky, Steph, with intense emotions, answers the question, “Do you hear God’s voice, and if so, what does it sound like?” She tears up as she explains that God is her everything. He is someone that she talks to all the time. When she was 15 years old God would speak to her during worship services by giving her pictures in her imagination. She would see pictures of Jesus and her sitting on a cliff or riding a Vespa. She said it was God’s way of telling her that together they would go on adventures. To me it’s this magnificent reminder that God loves us like a friend. He finds joy simply by being with us, whether it’s sitting side by side or going places together. God uses our imagination to speak to us.
Steph’s friendship with God and these vivid pictures contribute to her honest dialogue with Him. She doesn’t shy away from her emotions and from time to time will ask God, “Why am I so angry today?” Knowing that God will reply, she’ll wait for an image in her mind. Sometimes the root of her anger is from a past experience. She will then ask God for wisdom and will receive a sense of resolve. I know what’s it’s like to wake up angry, but unlike Steph I may not address the emotion by asking God what’s causing my anger and for help to resolve it.
As we reached the end of the path and turned around to walk back home, Steph began to dive deeper into ‘God being her everything’ – the statement that triggered much emotion at the beginning of our walk. You see, at dinner before we entered the gym to get our meal we were given a name tag. Steph didn’t need to tell the volunteer her name, as she was a repeat guest. Steph has that warm, friendly personality that makes anybody and everybody feel welcomed and special. Although her name tag read “Steph”, she admits that ‘poverty’ was a word that defined her for many years – something she wore as a label. She didn’t go into much detail about her upbringing other than she is 1 of 8 children and often did not have the money and resources needed for everyday life. Not only did her family lack the resources, she also struggled with the poverty mindset. For her, money was strength. Without it she felt powerless.
God, on the other hand, used money to strengthen her faith and test her obedience. Having a passion and natural ability for acting Steph spent four years and $25000 to become a professionally trained actress. She pursued acting but with the need to pay off student loans she had to move back into her complex with her mom. During this time she felt called to attend a ministry school in California. She lacked the financial means to attend the school but within two weeks she had $5000 given to her by friends and was able to go. She was living on about $20 a week for groceries and during a church service God asked her to give it all away. To her, money meant power (not to mention food) and without it she would be powerless. After many tears and wrestling with God, a close friend helped her obey God’s voice and Steph gave her only $20 away. Moments later God blessed her with $1000. She shared what God had done and more people received financial blessings. Money is power but there are two types of investments: one fattens you up and makes you selfish, and the other strengths your faith and builds God’s kingdom. “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). This investment was the latter.
During the year Steph spent at ministry school God’s voice was heard in a stronger tone. She said, “The more you hear God’s voice and act on it in faith the clearer and more consistent it becomes.” I asked her a tough question: “Now that your working a 9 to 5 job, does God still speak to you in these extreme ways?” To this she replied, “God still speaks but sometimes it looks different for different seasons. God says ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘wait’.” Today, God says to her, “Wait!” Steph still has dreams to act and to be married, but a lot of her life looks different than what she’d thought it would.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:26
God speaks to Steph. His voice is heard in the flowers and skyline during a rough day and felt through the tenderness of a close confidant. To Steph, God is her everything!
I have to admit I could have written so much more about our conversation. I was incredibly humbled and personally challenged by Steph’s unashamed willingness to talk to God like a friend and to give everything she had when all she had was enough for a week’s worth of food. I’m reminded that God doesn’t see our frustrations or questions as nuisances but wants us to draw near through honest dialogue.
During an afternoon lunch date I asked Angela if she hears God’s voice, and if so how does God speak to her and what does He say. I have to add this was after much chatting about ‘what’s new’ – I didn’t just dive into this question. I truly appreciate those friendships where you can talk about a fancy pair of heels, groceries, love, family and God all in one visit. Our lunch date consisted of all these which made for an excellent time.
I have to be honest, when I did ask Angela these few questions there was a long pause. They are not the type of questions you can answer within a few seconds. It’s the “oh my, I really have to think about these.” She was quick to respond that she, like myself, has never heard God’s voice audibly. Then there was the long pause. After a few more bites of my burger and fries I leaned in closer to hear her response. She said that she hears God’s voice when she is compelled to step out of her comfort zone. As someone who becomes anxious in crowds, travelling on public transit is not a preferred form of transportation for Angela. When travelling on public transportation she would rather sit alone but has felt compelled to sit beside certain individuals. She feels that it’s God’s way of asking her to step out of her comfort zone and obey Him. I asked if by sitting next to a certain person if she felt like she was supposed to talk to them or pray for them. She replied with, “No – sometimes I talk to them but sometimes I just feel compelled to sit next to them.” Reflecting on her response, I’m reminded that when God asks us to do something out of our comfort zone it could be something as simple as sitting beside a fellow traveler. It’s God’s way of reminding us that He’s with us and we don’t need to fear.
My conversation with Angela didn’t end with just one story of how God speaks to her but continued telling me of how she felt that God spoke to her about getting into a specific post-secondary school. She explained that it was somewhat of a difficult process applying for the school but she diligently persevered. After much paper work, long and difficult waiting periods and close dead lines, she didn’t get accepted. “All the doors seemed shut and I tried to remain positive because God is faithful and I trust He is in control…I was confused and angry, disappointed for a bit but it was an important experience.” She was sure that she had heard God’s voice tell her that this was the school she was to go to. Otherwise she wouldn’t have gone through the long process of applying for it. However, she didn’t remain upset about not getting in or didn’t questioned if she had heard wrong from God. She reminded me that God speaks to us and it’s up to us to obey His voice. Then she explained that when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Issac, Abraham obeyed God each step of the way. In the end God didn’t want Abraham to go through with the sacrifice. Abraham obeyed God’s voice and God provided Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead of his only son. (Genesis 22).
Angela’s story of God telling her to apply for a specific post-secondary school and going through the long and difficult process only to not be accepted helps me not to question God’s voice. It does leave me with this question though: Why would God ask you to do something when it’s not going to work out in the end? I can think of numerous areas of my life where I thought I was supposed to do something and it would, in turn, have a certain result. I have to learn to listen to God, to go out on a limb and pursue those nudges, all with keeping in mind that the end result may not be what I thought it might be…and that’s alright!
“But Samuel replied, ‘What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of ram.'” 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT
Everyone seems to know where ‘the best’ restaurant is for Chinese, Indian, Thai, etc. Like everyone else I claim to know where the best Thai food is in town. The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, but what it may lack in curb appeal it makes up for in layered flavours of sweet and spicy. It was at this gem of a restaurant Claire and I had an afternoon lunch date, joined by her adorable 1-year-old daughter. Although her daughter avoided the spicy dishes, she did enjoy steamed rice (which was more like sticky rice seeing that it ended up behind her ear and stuck to other parts of her clothing). She was very content eating her rice all the while enjoying the Thai art and surrounding customers while mom and I chatted.
After some time catching up on life I asked Claire if she hears God’s voice. Following a short pause she said, “Yes!” She said that she hears God’s voice audibly. I had to stop myself from showing too much excitement (it’s a quiet and serene environment and I wanted to shout, “REALLY?!!”). I needed to find out what God’s voice sounded like to her. She explained that God speaks to her through people. His voice is the sound of other believers and mentors speaking into her life. “How can you expect to hear the still small voice of God when you’re not listening to the audible voice of God through someone else?” I had to sit back for a moment to fully digest what she said. So it’s possible that God’s voice sounds like the people around me. It makes sense! She continued, “God’s voice is all around us. It can be heard in the voices of others.” She explained that since we are made in the image of God, and each person is wired up differently (some people are intellectual thinkers while others are emotional feelers), and God uses our unique personality to speak to others. “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27 NLT
I asked Claire if she could explain a specific occasion where God spoke to her audibly. This question evoked a slightly longer pause than the first question. I quietly waited, and joined her daughter by having some more steamed rice (except my rice was paired with cashew chicken and Pad Thai). In a serious but very compassionate tone Claire began to tell me of a time when she was in college and was asked to love an individual that was incredibly difficult to love. She heard God’s still small voice say to her, “Please love this girl. Please, please love her!” The first time she heard, “Please love this girl” her response was, “No way! This girl is way too difficult to love.” …but she kept hearing God say to her, “Please, please love this girl!” I thought to myself, isn’t it weird for God to sound as if He is begging? Why would God need to beg? Begging is surely not a sign of a powerful God, although it is a sign of a loving and relational God. God is not so powerful that He doesn’t need us. He lovingly partners with us to show His love to others and to develop selflessness in us. God asks us to see each other (no matter how difficult someone may be to love) through a lens of love. “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” 1 John 4:11-12 NIV
After numerous times hearing God say to her, “Please, please love this girl” Claire embarks on a very bumpy journey of loving this very troubled teenage girl from her local church…and when I say bumpy I mean rough. So rough that on one occasion punches were thrown. I know! I can’t for the life of me imagine this sensitive, kind, new-mother throwing a punch. I needed to hear this story in full. It all started after a lovely day at the beach – ice cream included. (Who doesn’t love a day that includes ice cream?). While Claire was driving the teenage girl home, she sensed the girl’s mood change from happy to angry (which was quite common for her). Claire turned to her and said, “I know you want to punch me right now. You can but I’ll punch you right back.” How did Claire know that the girl wanted to punch her? Sometimes you can just sense these things! I get it! Without hesitation the girl punched her hard right in the arm, and Claire without flinching punches her back. I know this doesn’t sound like the kind of mentoring strategies you’d hear about through a church-mentoring course, but for them it worked.
Claire spent her college years mentoring the young girl, and suspended judgment that opened the door for a very honest relationship with this girl. She was the only one who knew the girl was self-harming and engaging in unhealthy relationships. Claire also had the difficult job of talking to the girl’s parents about her toxic lifestyle. Throughout Claire’s college life she mentored the girl she wanted nothing to do with, even after hearing God’s voice say “Please love her!” It was an incredibly bumpy road of learning to love someone when it wasn’t easy. Even after graduating college, getting married and moving away, Claire stayed in touch with her. The teenage girl is now a young woman and Claire and her talk regularly over social media. When the girl’s father was very sick and on his death-bed Claire returned to the family’s home. The girl’s father’s last words to Claire were, “Take care of my girls” (meaning his wife and daughter).
Be the shelter that ‘the difficult’ retreat to when the downpour of pain becomes too overwhelming for them, all the while knowing that the torrential rain will test your shelter’s strength and may knock you down. – MB
It all began with “Please, please, love this girl!” To Claire, God’s voice was a desperate call to love someone very difficult. God’s voice is the still small voice that is heard in her spirit and begs her to love others even when it’s difficult. His voice is also heard audibly through God’s people (God’s image bearers) and especially through her mentors.
I left my lunch date with much more than just a full belly – I also left with the question: If God’s voice told me to love ‘the difficult’ would I, like Claire, make a commitment to a bumpy journey of loving someone? Loving someone difficult isn’t easy but it is what Jesus asks us to do.
Only weeks after the interview I found myself challenged to love when it wasn’t easy, and to understand that in certain circumstances I may be ‘the difficult’ one needing love. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13:34