Authenticity and Joy

It’s the end of June, and I’m watching the rain come down outside my window. It’s grey and cloudy. Just like my month has been–grey and cloudy. Two more weeks, and my husband won’t have a job. (He does contract work though he does want permanent work.) I look at the rain and wonder what in the world God is trying to grow out of this. No money, nothing to give. All I have now is Jesus. Is that enough? God, will you accept just me? I have nothing to contribute to the church body. Do you love me for just me?

As I ask the question, it’s already answered. Jesus died on the cross for me. He didn’t wait for me to throw coins into the bowl beside the cross before He died for me. Giving myself to Him comes before everything else–even in the church. Keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus comes before anything else. This gives me a measure of comfort on this rainy day. I am so thankful that I count as God’s daughter first.

And, because I am God’s daughter first, I can handle what this life throws at me whether we stay here, move somewhere else. or even live on the street. God is using this time to grow me like the rain nourishing the earth.

Rain and tears–God has a point for both though is may not seem like it. I’ve been told that some people can’t handle being around other people’s pain because it reminds them too much of their own. But, we will have pain in this world, like it says in Scripture, and God has provided methods for us to express it. Maybe that is why I’m going through this pain. So, I will understand when others express their pain.

Because my heart wants authenticity  in my relationships. I have hidden things for so long, even in church relationships, that it’s hard for me to take the shields down. I’ve hidden bad things because I thought they were anathema to expressing my joy in my Lord and Savior. But, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive anymore. Joy and authenticity can exist in the same breath. Not from telling a sad person they shouldn’t be sad because of the joy God gives us. But from sitting with a sad person in the middle of their pain and living in the moment with them.

I didn’t think I had anything to write today, but God has surprised me once again. May we all be authentic and joyful with the people in our lives!

God’s blessings on all of you today!

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The Gift

There’s a lake near where we live. It’s one of my favorite places to go and write. I can look at the waters flow from my perch on the stone bench. It is peaceful in a way that not a lot is right now. The area is green and lush with trees and bushes. I see different kinds of birds on the water and marvel at God’s creation. Essentially, it’s a gift God has given me when life gets to be too much.

But, before yesterday, I hadn’t been out there for a few weeks. Between the high humidity and the rain we’ve been having, it just hasn’t been pleasant to be outside. It was different yesterday. When I was at church, I heard a whisper. ‘You need to go out to the lake this afternoon.’ So, once I got home, I went out there. The first thing I noticed was that the breeze was much cooler. The humidity was the lowest it’s been in a few weeks (and that says something since I live in the southern United States, and it’s summertime). The next thing I noticed was the flow of the water. It was peaceful.

God brought me out there for a reason, and it got me to thinking. How often do we reject His gift to us–the gift of Jesus? How often do we reject His gift of grace? How often do we not extend His gift of grace to others? Sometimes, I have a hard time with grace, and I’m the one whose blog is named Thriving in Grace. 🙂 I’m glad that God lets us ask the hard questions though. If He didn’t, I’m not sure where my faith would be as I’ve had to ask a lot of tough questions.

The gift is always there though. Just like the gift of my place by the lake. I can not go to the lake for a few weeks just like I can try to do things by myself and not ask for God’s help. That doesn’t mean the gift disappears. It just means our focus is not where it’s supposed to be. I want to acknowledge and live out God’s gift in my life. I don’t want to be the person who puts down the gift and leaves it alone.

So, I guess what I need is the ability to focus on the gift and not focus on the minutiae of my life. It is too bad that Satan uses that very thing to distract us. But, God’s gift is too important to lay aside so my prayer, even though I will never be perfect at it, is for all of us to take possession of His gift and leave our burdens at His feet.

God’s blessings on all of you today.

The Mark of Love–Dedicated to Crossbridge

Celebrating anniversaries in this culture is often overdone, but I like them nonetheless. No, not for the presents, cards, or well-wishes I might get. I like anniversaries because I get the chance to take stock and reflect. Look back at where I came from and see where I’m going. I can marvel at the good times and see how the bad times have made me stronger. I can see that God is with me everywhere.

It didn’t use to be that way. Five years ago this month, my older son and I had just started visiting Crossbridge, the church we all attend now. He had asked if we could visit a church, and I agreed. The other members of my family weren’t ready yet so it was just the two of us. I think about this today because it is a Wednesday. Tonight, I will go to worship my Lord and Savior. I will listen to my son play the cojon as part of our worship team, listen to a speaker as part of our summer series, and fellowship with my faith family at table. I’ll watch the kids run around and talk with the adults.

Five years ago, it wasn’t like that. I would drop my son off at church and go to the bookstore to write. While I trusted the recommendation my friend had given me, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to stay myself. I didn’t have the mark of love on my heart that I do now for the people at Crossbridge. I had not yet invited God back into my heart. I was still too wounded from had happened in previous churches. Boy, has my life changed in five years. Now, God is back in my heart, and now, I can feel the mark of love in my heart.

What does “mark of love” mean? I recently heard a similar phrase in a song, and it struck me. “Keep Your Eyes on Me” is a song by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and it’s a part of the The Shack movie soundtrack. I haven’t seen the movie yet though I have read the book and listened to several songs off the soundtrack. Here is the exact phrase I heard. “Ain’t it just like love to leave a mark on the skin and underneath.” The phrase made sense to me though I had never heard it before. As we get to know someone, there are shared conversations and experiences, some good and some bad. We realize we have a lot in common, and we come to have warm feelings for that person. I would state that this is the mark of love. We can have it for our loved ones, and we can have it for our friends. I believe God wants us to take that mark of love one step further. When we accept Jesus into our heart, God wants to give us that mark of love for everyone in the world, for our brothers and sisters in Christ and for those who don’t know Him. It’s not something we can do ourselves in our own strength, only with God’s strength can we love someone the way He wants us to.

Another song from the soundtrack also illustrated love in a powerful way to me. The song “Heaven Knows” by Hillsong United shows how love can exist even through the bad times. I especially liked this stanza:

“Hold my heart, don’t let it break like fear
Sometimes a moment feels like a thousand years
God only knows why love is drenched in tears
Maybe that’s what makes it love
Maybe that’s what makes it love”

Many of us walk away when someone we love hurts us, from our friends, from our families, from the church. It is hard to work through pain and suffering when we’ve been taught to hide it for so long. At least, that’s what I was taught. But, these words ring true for me. I want to live in a way that I love through everything–the good, the bad, the pain, the hurt, the laughter, the joy, the suffering. I think that’s what God wants from all of us.

So, Crossbridge family, I dedicate this post to you. Thank you for inserting the mark of love in my heart and for opening my heart to God’s love. Thank you for loving me through the tears. Thank you for showing Jesus to me and to my family. I love you all!

 

The Struggle is Real

I’ve never made a secret in this blog of suffering from depression. I’ve even written a few times about it. Today, I thought I’d give you a fuller picture of what it’s like for me–not for sympathy, but for knowledge, for education, and to fulfill my “no longer faking fine” promise.

So, depression–what is it like to suffer from it? First, it can’t be prayed away like some Christians seems to think. It’s an illness just like cancer or heart disease–something is wrong with the biochemistry of my brain. Many people function well with depression. I take medication, and most of the time, I do function well. But, that doesn’t discount that there is something wrong with me and that there are areas where I do struggle. Essentially, it is an invisible illness which people are afraid to talk about. I think that might be one reason that people think it can be prayed away. They can’t see it so they can’t see the pain and hurt that results.

There are symptoms though that can be seen several of which I’ve experienced lately. They have brought depression back into full focus for me and helped me to know how crippling it can be. Wanting to sleep all of the time, not wanting to eat, not caring about anything. In fact, I spent part of Thursday and most of Friday in the bed with all of these feelings, and it’s been a slow road back since then. I was overwhelmed with despair, in fact, still am overwhelmed, and that seems to be when the symptoms of depression hit me the hardest. It’s hard to function when I’m hurting that badly, and I felt like I was an awful person because I couldn’t. I kept hearing the words “give yourself grace, give yourself grace” though. Words from God, I think, and they were a comfort.

I struggled and prayed (Yes, people with depression do pray.) through these symptoms and feelings and came out the other side, well, mostly. Depression makes life hard for me to manage, sometimes harder than I’d like. For some people though, the struggle is harder or even impossible, and I don’t want to minimize their pain. Depression affects everyone who struggles with it in different ways because we are all different people.

We need to become more comfortable with talking about depression and not shy away from someone who says they have it. We, especially in the church, need to be careful about telling sufferers to just pray about it, put it in Jesus’ hands, or worst of all, imply that someone who hasn’t been “cured” of their depression isn’t as good of a Christian as they are. Those have all happened to me, and Satan has used them to draw me away from God. Trust me, isolation is not a good thing.

People who suffer from depression are normal people. We are not scary. We smile. We lift our hands and sing praises to God. We live our lives just as those who are broken in some other way. We just struggle in different ways than other people do. In other words, for people who suffer from depression, the struggle is real. Feel free to share your struggle in the comments section. I will pray for all of you.

God’s blessings on all of you today!

 

The Sparrow

When I’m thinking of blog topics, God sometimes brings life experiences or just a word to mind. Today, it’s a word. Sparrow.

The sparrow is a small bird; most varieties being less than an ounce in mass. It is mentioned in Scripture though as an example of God’s provision though. An example, I think, God wanted me to see.

Jesus is speaking in Matthew 10:29-31. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

I like this reference from Psalm 84:3. “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young–a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”

Out of all the varieties of birds that God made, He mentions the sparrow and that the sparrow is near His altar. The sparrow is not a large bird; yet God mentions it specifically. It is a reassuring thought like no other. He also says we (human beings) are worth more than many sparrows. That thought is even more reassuring because sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worth a whole lot to God. When bad things keep happening and happening to me with no let-up and no reprieve, I don’t feel worthy. God could smooth over those rough paths for me, but sometimes He chooses not to. It is hard for me when He chooses not to because I see many people in the world and in the church whose paths look like they’ve been smoothed over. I will admit that I get jealous of those people. I want my path to be smooth while I’m here like the others I see.

But, that’s not the point with this faith I have. We’re not called to be comfortable while we’re here in this world. Jesus died on the cross for our sins, a method of death in Roman times known for its brutality. Millions of people have died or suffered in some way since Jesus’ death and resurrection just for having faith. So, not comfortable at all.

The words in the previous paragraph might make people think that all Christians are supposed to be homeless and hungry. And yes, I know there are many people in this world who are homeless and hungry, Christians included. I go back to the sparrow though, the small bird who is completely provided for by God and who God says we are worth more than. It helps me to remember that God will provide for us and that we won’t be homeless or hungry. It might look different from what I have now. It will be His provision though, and it will be enough. May all of us have a sparrow moment today!

God’s blessings on all of you!

Panic Attacks–Yes Even Christians Get Them

In my last two blog posts, I’ve spoken about getting out of the “faking fine” game at church. The book I reviewed in my last post, “No More Faking Fine”, was a great resource, and one, I suspect I will be tapping into for a long time.

Anyway, this past week I volunteered at the Vacation Bible School at my church. I was a tribe leader and really enjoyed my group of kids and my junior helpers. We all connected well and had a great time learning about Jesus and getting to know each other. We even made up our own song which was cool too.

The words “panic attack” don’t seem conducive to all of this, but I’m getting there. Towards the end of the week, I was asked why I wasn’t teaching in the children’s area. My hands started shaking, and it seemed like all the blood had drained from my face. I was wondering why I had been asked. This all happened in seconds though it seemed like hours. I made a brief excuse which seemed to satisfy the person and the other people who asked me. I guess the good time my tribe was having gave the impression that I had some great teaching ability.

I went home and thought about it some more. The teaching part intrigued me because I did work in a classroom before I began homeschooling so yes, I do have some experience. But then, the voices came. ‘Why would you want to teach? You have nothing to give these kids. There’s no security in your life. Why would you have it to give these kids?’ Yes, that particular thought was true. While I have the security of my relationship with Christ, I don’t have any other kind of security. At least the kind of security that other Christians seem to believe is important.

My hands started shaking again, and my thoughts went tumbling all over the place. I was in the middle of a true panic attack. I wasn’t sure what to say or do or if I needed to say or do anything at all. It was overwhelming to say the least. There was no way my mind or heart could believe that I had the ability to teach in the children’s area. I had to forcibly put the idea out of my mind for the weekend, or I wouldn’t have been able to function at all.

I woke up yesterday morning though with a reason behind the panic attacks. It could only have come from God. I was having panic attacks about teaching because of what had happened to me in our previous churches. The churches where, after I had been asked to teach Sunday School and had been teaching for a while, the people decided we were no longer good enough. After they had gotten what they wanted out of me, I was no longer good enough. My family was shunned for reasons I still don’t understand, and we left the church. So, being asked to teach had opened a locked box in the back of my head, and shame filled me. Shame, even in the midst of our VBS celebration.

We got to the end of our service, and I thought maybe I should ask for prayer. Then the voices came back and the shame along with it. ‘How could I explain something like this in ten seconds? How could I say I didn’t want to teach because I was abandoned by my church family the last time I tried? How could I say I was scared people would decide they no longer wanted to be a part of my life once they had gotten what they wanted out of me?’ There was no way I could so I didn’t ask for prayer, and the service ended.

It bothered me so much though that I came back to pray after my husband and son went in one direction, and I had dropped my other son off somewhere else. I sat at the cross by myself with my hands shaking and my thoughts in turmoil once more. I yelled and screamed at God. “Why, God? Why?” I truly lamented elements of my past for the first time. Dealt with things I thought I had packed away a long time ago. God and I talked for a long time, and I felt the first steps toward healing. Just the first steps, mind you, but enough to where my heart didn’t hurt so much.

I couldn’t recommend this practice of lamenting more highly. God wants a relationship with us, and He can take the yelling and screaming. I just wish I had the courage to share my laments with people in person, but maybe, that day will come. I pray today that we will all have the courage to have a real relationship with God–laments and all.

Praying God’s blessings on all of you today!

 

“No More Faking Fine”

I found out about this book in an interesting way. It was featured in a morning devotional I read a few weeks ago. I read the excerpt from the book, read the devotional, and was completely blown away. It was like I had written those words. No, I didn’t have the same experiences that the author, Esther Fleece, had. But, the experiences of my life, what has brought me to the place I am at now, have broken me to where I knew this book would be a good resource. I purchased the book a day or two later.

Like I said in last week’s blog post, https://alisarussell.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/gods-tears/, I have been an expert at faking fine while talking to someone in person. I’ve written a lot in this blog about the things going on in my life, but have had a hard time talking about them. Writing has been a healthy outlet for me as I’ve processed events in my life and how they relate to my faith. As I’ve said before, the last few years have been a struggle in believing that God was with me in my pain. It seemed that the bad things wouldn’t stop happening.

The devotion and the book have brought the word “lament” into my vocabulary in a real and personal way now. Yes, I had heard the word before, but it was more of a biblical word than a word that I used in my own life. Reading this book has changed that for good. Ms. Fleece’s words about her life, feelings, and faith personalized “lament” in a way I could understand. She was honest about everything she had gone through. Honest to a point that I would tear up at certain portions and wonder why the events of my life were bothering me so much. The old adage of “someone always has it worse than you” entered my mind. I’ve done that a lot myself. Stuffed things inside my head when someone talked about having cancer or being brutally beaten by their parents. Why was I complaining about my pain so much when others had it so much worse?

That one is a lie from the enemy though. Complaining is not the same as lamenting. We have to deal with the things from our past before God can use us to our fullest potential. God wants us to know He is always with us “in the sad and in the glad”. The author does a good job of explaining this in the book. She talks about her experiences of being brought to a point of lament, discusses the Scriptures that demonstrate how to lament, and writes prayers at the end of each chapter using these verses. Those prayers are what I appreciated the most. I read and prayed the prayer at the end of each chapter, and that is when I felt my new understanding flow over me the most. I know I will refer back to those prayers as I continue this practice of lament going forward. Because I will continue it. It has freed my heart and my spirit.

We, in the church, need to talk about the sad parts of our lives as well as the good parts. The church needs to be a safe place for this hurting world for that is the only way we will be able to tell them about Jesus. As I end this review, I want to quote the prayer that meant the most to me.

“Heavenly Father, sometimes it’s hard for me to see Your goodness when I’m in a prison and not in a palace. Sometimes Your help feels so far-off. Everything around me is overwhelming. Please give me the strength to cling to You, and give me eyes to see You, even in my darkest place. Give me a shield of faith (Ephesians 6). Let Your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy (Psalm 130). Listen to my cry for help (Psalm 5:2), and be merciful to me, for I am faint (Psalm 6:2). Amen.”

God’s blessings to all of you today!