Navigating the Fog: Practicing Routine Heart Checks through Conversations with God

navigating the fog (3)Moments after the attendant handed us our blended Butterfinger milkshakes, my youth pastor handed them back through the same window. “These are too low,” he pointed out, “Could you please top them off? 

I stared at him, speechless at the audacity of his words. He turned to me. “They were too low,” he repeated. As we thanked the attendant and pulled away with our newly topped-off shakes, he remarked, “You’re thirsty.”

Confused, I thought he was talking about a physical need, perhaps explaining his insistence on my paper cup being filled to the very top. But as he continued, I realized he was referring to my meltdown earlier that afternoon, the one eliciting the pit stop for shakes in the first place.

“Your spiritual tank is running low.”

He said it matter-of-factly, as if it should have been obvious to me. But it wasn’t. My anxiety over the pressures of high school had distracted me from my spiritual practices of prayer and worship. In the midst of my senior year, the variables at stake overwhelmed me: the unknown of life after high school, my self-imposed standards for a perfect GPA, my spinal fusion and the awkward hinged body brace I wore that year, my extracurricular activities, and my part-time job. 

Having a youth mentor at such a turbulent, impressionable time in my life was critical for my spiritual formation. But who fills that role for me now? Is it my husband? My pastor? A life group? My faith will always have room for growth; it is a life-long journey in which I am the student. With social media at my fingertips, I could find an influencer to follow, or I can look to the people in my own life, learning so much from those who have gone before me and those who walk alongside me. 

The unknown can be overwhelming, and staying in my comfort zone becomes more and more enticing. Before we plow ahead, or remain in the safety of our comfort zones, we need to intentionally set aside time to do a heart check, asking ourselves hard questions. Establish this heart check as a regular practice. What will yours look like? Will you write out your thoughts or process them with a friend? Consider whose input might have value in your conversations with God, whether it comes from a spouse, children, parents, friends, a counselor, or other key voices. Will you set aside time for this reflection seasonally, annually, monthly, or at another consistent interval? What problems are you looking to solve? 

First, I examine my priorities. What truly matters, and am I making space for these things? How am I spending my time and energy? Are they congruent? If not, what can I do to realign my priorities and my time? Identify pain points and note what has worked well. 

I also reflect on my motivation. Do earthly things motivate me, such as achievement, approval, or money? Where does God fit in? Am I feeling content, complacent, or scared? Consider where you might be able to hold back and allow someone else to step in with his or her gifts. Are you already stretched too thin, or are you better-equipped to serve elsewhere? 

Nearly 20 years after my drive-through top-off, I wake up, stiff from the air mattress in my husband’s old Eagle Scout tent, camping with my family of five. I’m thirsty again. I continue to ask myself these hard questions.

Is this life I’ve built the one I want to continue to build? Are there things I can adjust, or do I need a foundational shift? Is my heart here where my feet are planted, or am I restless for a different path, one where I feel more fulfilled in my calling?

I unzip the tent, careful not to wake my light sleepers, ages two, five, and seven. Standing at the lake’s shore, I shift my feet ever so slightly, trapping the dazzling morning sun behind one of the sweeping pines, backlighting its needles into precise silhouettes. Where do I need to stand to allow God’s radiance to embolden me in this way? 

I question my footing and whether I have enough faith to remain in one place long enough to allow God to shine in and through me, or whether my tendency for restlessness causes me to leap too soon. Am I being true to my identity in Christ? This is the self-reflection I need during this regular exercise. Do my priorities align with my identity in Christ? Is my time spent running after what He is nudging me to do?

Am I restless because I wonder if a better opportunity will come along?  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” Ephesians 2:10 (ESV). How do we know whether to plant ourselves where we are, or to uproot and walk? Am I listening to God’s directives, or am I striving for control? What can I surrender to God? 

Am I happy? Am I trying so hard to obtain a different life for me and my family that I am not enjoying what I have now?

Poised over my journal on a wooden bench at the water’s edge, my pen can’t keep up with these racing questions. Am I becoming who the world wants me to become, or who God wants me to become? Am I, in my mid-thirties, too young to have regrets? At the same time, am I too old to pursue new ventures? Should I be grateful for what I have, for what I’ve already built for myself? Is there only one “right” path for me? People move all the time; how do they start over? Would I be okay starting over? Who would support me? What would people think? Am I in too far deep to unravel it all and step into something else? I’m not a risk-taker; what if I fail? If this new venture doesn’t work, will I be able to come back? I vacillate between my comfort zone and the unknown. 

I don’t know what lies ahead, but God draws me out from my questions. He silences my panicked thoughts. He beckons me to listen. Right here on this campsite with no phone service and my family stirring in the tent, He has my captive audience. I bow my head. 

“This is your life,” He gestures to me, to the sounds of my boys. “Home is not confined to the walls you reside inside, but is defined by the lives you have created inside. It isn’t going to be easy.” 

What isn’t going to be easy? Is this His way of calling me to step out, or is this my own rationalization, trying to discern what to do next?

“Watch me. Let me take the lead.” I notice a small fishing boat tied a few yards away, rowed here from the boat launch across the lake. For whatever reason, it is tied here for this brief time. I imagine God with the oars as I untie the knots. God waits for me to settle in, surrendering to His directive. 

“Lord, where are we going today?” I question. He doesn’t answer, rowing into the great expanse of fog, able to see further than my limited vision. “I won’t let you down,” He reassures me, “just stay with Me.” The boat doesn’t follow a track. It glides along the lake, slicing its path through blurry waters, leaving only its wake. 

The full afternoon sun delivers sparkling clarity across the lake. But after a day oscillating between slow progress forward and hints of clarity, the next morning sweeps a new blanket of fog onto the lake, God’s invitation to join Him in the boat again. This time, I step in the boat with more confidence, knowing Who is at the helm, but not knowing where we are going. My faith assures me I will be delivered safely to shore again at His appointed time. I’ve done this before, not on this exact path, but with my same God, and we will continue it again, every day, through the morning fog and afternoon clarity, and evening darkness, establishing these sacred rhythms of yielding and trust, leading and following, praying and listening, resting and stepping out, always leaving a wake for those who follow behind.

navigating the fog (2)

I haven’t always gotten in the boat when He’s offered. Unable to discern through the fog on my own, I’ve struggled to relinquish control at times. I’ve stayed in safe harbor, not changing or growing. I’ve felt safe — content, even, but not fulfilled. But when I step off-shore, into the boat, trusting His vision to guide me, we journey together, my heart aligned with His. He calls the fog to rise from the surface of the moving waters in His time. I wake each morning, hungry for this passage with Him, my Father. I trust His pattern of fog and clarity. Sometimes entire seasons bring only fog. But I am ready for whatever the day brings, for what He reveals as we journey together into the unknown. 

I am filled. 

Practicing Mindfulness and Gratitude

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude

Mindlessly, I flip through my most-frequented apps. I check to see what new kids’ clothes I’ve sold on Kidizen. I pop between my Zillow and Trulia real estate apps just for fun — are any good properties for sale in our town? We’d love to downsize and simplify a few things. I check my monthly sales total on my Teachers Pay Teachers app and calculate my goal progress for the month, right on track to surpass my April goals. I open Instagram to whichever of my accounts is logged in and then toggle between the three of them. Without thinking, I open TpT again, only to realize that I just checked that app a minute before. I set my phone down and exhale. My toddler picks it up and hands it back to me, as if it should be a permanent extension of my left hand. He’s so accustomed to seeing it there. I place my phone under the cushion of the outdoor patio furniture behind me and reach for the other things I brought outside with me on this gorgeous spring day — my leather-bound journal, my Bible, and a book, “Not the Boss of Us.”

I read a few paragraphs from Kay Wills Wyma’s newest book and look up, pausing to really take in my own backyard. We’ve lived here two years now and are reaping the benefits of the landscaping put in by the prior owners. The first thing I noticed was the wide-open sky. It reminded me of my honeymoon in Montana, aptly-named “Big Sky Country.”

I’m praying about a lot of things these days. God has been placed a calling on my heart that I can’t quite comprehend without having to unravel a lot of other things. I’m not sure what to do. I want to be obedient, and I’ve been praying for over a year now. It’s hard to not wonder, worry, and try to take control.  I take a break from my futile attempts to play out every possible scenario in my head.

I look around my backyard, practicing a mindfulness exercise I teach my elementary students regularly: Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

It’s an exercise in grounding oneself when thoughts are racing, whether from anxiety or the general overwhelm life so often seems to spiral within us.

I record a few of my observations in my notebook. Later, I’d transfer them to Instagram to steward my words in case they can bless someone else.

  • I see: my toddler eating a lollipop and playing with his fairy garden, my breastmilk ring and all that it symbolizes to me, my neighbor’s dogwood tree, and tall grasses waving in the wind way up on the hill behind my house.
  • I hear: songbirds, trees rustling, far-off train, wind chimes.
  • I smell: familiar scents of springtime and new mulch that remind me of childhood and home.

I also note what I would have missed by staying inside today, on this gorgeous 70-degree spring day: my new neighbor painting a canvas on her patio, wind chimes, the baby figuring out the swing, the way our trees throw twinkling shadows on freshly-cut grass.

My gratitude list:
1. The baby all to myself this weekend while the big kids are camping with daddy
2. Pink dogwood in bloom
3. A fragrant backyard
4. Gentle breeze
5. Everything we need
6. Vacation one month away
7. Chorus of birds outside
8. Good friends
9. Summer within reach

Recently I spent several nights away from home, traveling solo to a conference. I knew, going into it, I would have a chance to meet one of the most famous authors in my profession and ask her my questions about the next steps in publishing my first children’s book. I didn’t know, though, that her keynote would resonate so much with me that I’d spend the next several weeks contemplating hope and its role in combating anxiety and depression. I wondered how I could use the information to help my families at school.

During her keynote, we watched this powerful video by Nature Valley. I’m glad I grew up in a generation when playing outside and interacting with the world around me was natural and expected. Now it seems like going outside has to be intentional. Meanwhile, our fixation with technology seems to be stripping us of hope.

I watch my toddler playing in the fairy garden. “Fade-ees! Fade-ees!” he squeals in delight as he moves the small plastic fairies around the miniature garden we made last summer in a large ceramic planter on our deck. Without his brothers here, he has his pick of any fairy he wants, and he clutches all of them in his tiny fists. He drops one, and it rolls under the woven ottoman. He points up to the playground we built up on our hill and asks, in his words, to go play in the mud kitchen.

“You can go up there,” I encourage him, easing back onto the couch and reaching for my Bible and notebook.

“No. Mommy come,” he demands. I put my books down, thinking longingly of the quiet time I’m so desperate for, but I follow him up the hill and watch as giddily he transfers measuring cups’ full of muddy water back and forth from the 99-cent Goodwill cupcake pans to the matching pans in the sink. A little mulch drips down the front of his striped romper and he is concerned for just a moment, then returns his attention to the cakes he is making me. I notice the blue handprint painted near the sink, the pink dogwood blossoms near the swings and peer through the lilac bush, its blossoms already dropping in the short-lived Virginia spring. If it hadn’t come up here, I might have missed them entirely. I watch my neighbor mow her lawn, amazed at the checkerboard pattern she seems to so effortlessly create every single time. I appreciate whoever hung wind chimes far enough away that I can enjoy them without interrupting sleep over them.

These grounding exercises lead me to a conversation with our Creator that only He can orchestrate. The feels of the breeze against my face slows my own racing thoughts of what I could be doing right now to prepare for the workweek ahead and the rest of my family’s return from their camping trip. The scent of lilac brings me back to the present moment. God has called me to notice this very scene before me. “Truth,” Wyma writes, “Truth that tomorrow’s worries and yesterday’s happenings don’t get to overinform or steal from today.” My two-year-old has not a care in the world as he enjoys his red lollipop and sloshes water around the mud kitchen we fashioned from a yard sale kitchen sink, old wooden pallets, some extra boards, and a corrugated steel roof. It is their favorite activity, and all three of my boys still fit side-by-side in front of the sink. Just as spring will segue silently into summer, there will come a time when they won’t be able to all fit across, forming and serving mud cakes together. And so I’ll soak it up now, instead of looking ahead to the next thing, the next house, the big picture. God is calling me to see this very moment before me before my littlest toddles back inside the house to snuggle against me for a nap. Laundry and packing lunches and Friday folders from school can wait a little longer.

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, NIV).

Great references for getting outside with kids:

  • “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McQurk
  • “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy
  • “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv 

More of my thoughts on mindfulness:

 

Navigating the Messy Middle

this tension -- wanting to pursue my calling, but having to surrender something else in order to do so.

Do you ever feel restless to move?

Is it to a new home? A new job? A new city or town? Do you need a mindset shift? A new perspective? A new workout routine?

Who is moving? Is it you who needs to move, or is time to finally acknowledge that God is moving in your life, making big changes and offering to shoulder your insecurities and self-doubts?

Perhaps my word “move” for the year is drawing me from my own sense of security and allowing Him to move within me.

God,

You filled me with awe in worship this week. I want to surrender to your call, but I fear losing the security I’ve worked for. Some people earn degrees and never fully use them in the field they intended; I fear stopping too early. I know I can use my education moving forward, regardless of what I do, my knowledge and experiences will alway be a part of me. God, why am I put in this tension — wanting to pursue my calling, but having to surrender something else in order to do so. It feels like I have to let go of one thing to switch to another, letting go of one trapeze and trusting that I’ll catch the next — and I’m afraid of flying. I want to serve more fully with the gifts you’ve laid upon me. I am in the mess of this tension every day and I do feel anxious and restless about it. I don’t have time to myself to devote long stretches to what I love doing. I can’t even schedule time and guard it — I have three small boys and a full-time job! I have to accept time where it comes organically, and that unpredictability is stressful for me. I can’t be creative on a schedule, anyway. When the mood strikes, I might be nursing a tiny human on my lap or teaching a class at school. I may wake up early, and my kids wake up minutes later. I know you will make a way because it is your will for me, I’ve seen you do it over the past year as you’ve opened many doors for me (and closed even more), and I am so thankful for all of it. Amen.

Right now I feel like I’ve found a “partial solution,” as Tsh Oxenreider calls it, but I also feel like I can only commit partially, even though I want to give my all–thus the tension I’m constantly mulling over in the back of my mind. My pastor recently encouraged us to ask ourselves how we can lean on our church to pursue God’s call.

This is probably one of the hardest parts for me. It isn’t that I intentionally put walls up. It’s just my personality makes it difficult for me to process things out loud with others — I process quietly –internally– and usually through writing. Inviting someone into my mess means attempting to sort through jumbled thoughts before I’ve had a chance to make any sort sense of them. As my uncle says, I’ve always held my cards very close to my chest, and I’ll admit to this. It has always made it harder for me to ask for help and it makes people assume things come easily for me, which drives me crazy because it couldn’t be further from the truth. Usually by the time I share something, I’ve had quite a bit of time to pray over it and wrestle with it, and I’d rather just share things with a few close friends, anyway.

Jennie Allen writes, “Because he didn’t call us to something alone. He carries the yoke for us, so we can run with power” (Restless, p. 147). When I am not ready to invite others in to the mess (even though I know I need to, that vulnerability fosters connections and relationships), I know that I can count on God to meet me, already knowing the details of my mess, reassuring me that He also knows how it will all unfold.

So for now, I’ll continue to pray through this messy middle and try to encourage others to join me in this tension.

For more reflections on my one word for 2019, “move,” check out my two previous posts:

My One Word for 2019: Move

Knowing How to Step Out in Faith

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Knowing How to Step Out in Faith

2-17-19 blog cover

When my husband and I were first interested in getting a Prius for our new family vehicle, suddenly, they were everywhere.

Every time I was pregnant, or wanted to be, or had just miscarried a precious life, it seemed like there were pregnant women everywhere.

With blinders on, with intense focus on something, we tend to notice it more.

Only two months into 2019, I see and hear the word “move” everywhere– in books, music, scripture, sermons, and podcasts. I know in part, it’s because it’s the word I’ve chosen to pray over and reflect upon this year. But I also know God placed this word on my heart in the same way that He has placed a calling in my heart and His Spirit in my soul to tend it, and He is continuing to encourage me by revealing a deeper study of what it means to really move toward Him.

My journal lately is starting to sound like a broken record as I continue to revisit the same tensions in my quiet time. I may not have my own expectations for exactly what “move” will mean for me this year, but I also know that my wonder and unknowing is what will stir me to lean on Him for direction.

In Restless: Because you were made for more, Jennie Allen writes about God moving to meet us, willing to meet us as far as we jump, multiplying what we give Him as He did with the loaves and fishes. (This also reminded me of a beautiful essay written by my dear friend Christina, “He Makes Much Out of Little.”)

How can I serve the community where I am right now? How can I stop trying to guard the security I’ve come to know in order to step out in faith?

Lord,

Thank you for the gift of time You provide for me to listen. Thank you for where I am right now and being willing to move to meet me, whether I stay or go, whether I give a little or give much. I know you will take what I can offer. Help me to see where I can serve right now. Help me to share my gifts in the places where you’ve intentionally placed me right now, instead of always questioning whether I’m in the right place. I can serve my community right here. Thank you for this renewed perspective and mindset shift. I can look at where I am though the lens of gratitude and service. Amen. 

If you ever feel guilty for just craving alone time to indulge in self-care and uninterrupted reflection on pursuing the next steps God is calling you toward, I’d be honored if you’d head over to Kindred Mom to read my essay published on Kindred Mom this week, Seeking Solitude in the Midst of Motherhood.

For more thoughts on my one word for 2019, “move,” you can find my recent essay one post back.

 

 

My One Word for 2019: Move

png (1).pngA recurring respite awaits me, unassuming, in the middle of my week. I didn’t find it until this past fall, when my son began piano lessons. The cozy den where I wait during his lesson is warm and inviting, the L-shaped sectional welcoming me back week after week. Worship music plays from a small boombox on the bottom shelf of a curated bookcase of Bibles and devotionals. A soothing candle is usually nestled onto the farmhouse coffee table, but today in its place squatted a small jar of Hershey Kisses, some last remnants of the holidays. I’ve joked with my son’s piano teacher that I would pay her the same amount she charges per lesson in exchange for the solitude of this room for 30 minutes a week, even if there was no lesson.

As the lesson began over in the music room, I thought about the rhythm I’ve created for this quiet time. I had gotten into a pattern of fitting writing and silent worship into these 30 minutes, but today I thought I might be too nervous to write as I carefully poured over some notes instead, notes I’ve been preparing for months for an interview tomorrow.

Somewhere between the steady beat of the worship music, flipping through my notes, and the labored piano notes of my six-year-old’s lesson on the other side of the wall, I found myself overcome, succumbing instead to prayer. Had there been room, I might have even dropped to my knees, but the couch afforded plenty of space to feel His presence.

I felt gripped, tethered on a fast-moving train, the pull of God’s call almost dizzying me even as I tried to sort out the scenery rushing past, everything I’ve ever done in my life leading up this moment, this new track being laid out before me. I pray for this door to be opened, that tomorrow will shed clarity onto the blur of the track before me.

My word for 2019 is “move.” God gifted me this word to steward and then pulled me along when I was least expecting it tonight. I have a lot of ideas of what “move” could mean for me this year, and I will continue to pray that God will guide me toward where He’s calling me with this word.

I should have known God would meet me here, as He does week after week.

Only this time, there was chocolate.

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Did you pray for a word this year? I’d love for you to share your word below.