Life has a funny way of moving in directions you never intended, taking you to places you could never have imagined from a younger and often more naive perspective. When I was a little girl I had mapped out in my mind what my life would look like. The model family, how I would meet the man of my dreams in college and marry him at 23, have two kids by the time I was 27, have a nice house and comfortable existence in a place where I would settle down and stay for the rest of my life, growing old with my husband, children, grandchildren and good, lifelong friends nearby.
Things haven't worked out quite that way. As a young girl I watched my father descend into the depths of alcoholism until he left us when I was 12. I saw my mother struggle to hold her heart and our family together. By the time I was 25 I had been through a series of my own dating relationships and painful break-ups that left me feeling somewhat used and somehow "less than." While I met the man of my dreams at 26 and was married at 27, I spent the first three years of our marriage in a state of suicidal depression and illness due to an undiagnosed brain tumor. Against all odds we had one child a few years later, but could not have the others I longed for. I moved ten times in fifteen years, between three states and six cities. I have experienced financial peace as well as the stress than comes from knowing there wasn't near enough to make the ends meet. I have experienced the painful ripping apart of the marriages of dear friends and family. I have walked with my husband through debilitating injury and the resulting chronic pain. I have known the sharp and sometimes lasting grief of needless, severed friendships. I have cried an ocean of tears.
I have made poor, selfish and sinful choices. And I have suffered the consequences in some very painful ways.
Much of my life has been spent in what my sister refers to as the "shadowlands" -- a place of darkness that presses in overwhelmingly. A sense of hopelessness and wandering. The type of darkness that goes far beyond my general melancholy nature. (She says I am a poster-child for melancholy). Melancholy submitted to the Lord is a beautiful thing, but left to its own can lead to deep and desolate darkness. I have spent much time in the shadowlands, sometimes as a result of my own choices and sometimes because of circumstances beyond my control.
Those have been the times, however, that I have grown the most. The times that I have gained the type of wisdom and maturity that can only come from long periods of pain and loss and questioning. Innocence lost and found. The times that God has gotten my attention and has caused me to press into Him. To repent. The times that He has come to my rescue, around the bend, through the mist. If it weren't for the place of my deep need and darkness, I would never be in a place to discover again that Jesus is present in the shadowland, too. It's the digging of a deeper well, full of all He is and all He offers by His grace, being poured into my soul. For me, coming out of the darkness is where my life truly began.
Hannah Whitall Smith says that "The valley is the place of vision." I see that now, and know that when I have come out of the shadowland my eyes are always clearer, the sun brighter, the sky bluer than I remembered. And most importantly, I have a deeper hope and trust in a steadfast and faithful God who is perfect in all His ways toward me.
As I have been thinking about my recent trip to Europe with my sister, I am reminded that there are some really incredible experiences in this life. Some are the kind that make your stomach ache from laughing--when your face hurts from smiling so big for so long. Some are so inspiring you feel like your heart is going to burst. Some are so full of pain it seems like one more moment under the weight of it is one too many. And then there are things that mark you and change you from that point forward. This was that kind of trip.
I was invited to lead worship for a group of women, missionaries to eastern Europe (places like Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia, Ukraine). Women who have left the relative comfort of America to give their hearts and lives to serve Jesus in some pretty dark places, all to reach people that desperately need to know Him. They live and serve immersed in the language of the country and have next to no opportunities to worship corporately in English, their “heart” language.
Being with these women was inspiring to me on so many levels. I think the most inspiring part was in the stark contrast between their hunger for the experiencing of worship together as sisters in Christ, and our North American complacency at times. In my world (and as is the case with most who live in America), you can find a place to worship corporately at any given hour of any given day. Homes, churches, Bible studies, colleges, youth groups, worship concerts, retreats -- the list is endless. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of corporate worship, available any time, anywhere. This is not so for these precious friends of mine in eastern Europe. They gather together once, maybe twice each year, with other missionaries serving Josiah Venture in various countries throughout the eastern block. And when they do gather, time is precious. They know the days and hours are limited, and they don't want to waste a moment of it.
On the first evening of our time together and as they entered the meeting room in the castle where we were staying, you could almost feel the anticipation in the air. Usually, when I lead worship, I expect that it will take time for hearts to engage and connect with the heart of God. I even plan for that. But here, as soon as I began to play and music filled the room, hands were in the air, faces were turned toward heaven, some knees were bowed, eyes were misting (or tears were streaming), voices were loud and beautiful and unashamed. Not a word or note was wasted–there was no sense of “token worship” as I sometimes feel in services I attend. And this was the second time I had experienced being in the presence of these beautiful women who love the Lord with all their hearts – three years before it was the same amazing experience for me. Hearts immediately and totally swept up in worship. Oh how this must bless the heart of God.
So I return home all the more determined to model this kind of whole-hearted worship in my own life, in the places where I have influence. I think of my friends in Europe quite often as I prepare for worship, quite often while I’m leading, and I pray that God will allow me that same urgency to connect with His heart with unashamed abandon. I want to be unwilling to accept anything less of myself when I accept His invitation to approach the Throne in worship.
I am anticipating returning next spring with my sister, and I am already preparing my heart for the rich experience of worship we will have together. Some experiences in life are really incredible and this is one that I am so thankful for.
I’m a busy girl. Too busy. I often think about how busy I am. I dislike the word busy. It conjurs up images in my mind of ants marching all in a line, heading somewhere (who knows where) just because all the other ants are doing it. I wonder if they ever think about why they’re all marching. Or if they just want to stop and sit in the shade and think about something other than the endless march they are part of. Or maybe they’d like to march the other way. Or put down the gum wrapper they’re carrying back to the hill.
I feel like an ant sometimes. Like this past week, for example. The fall season of lessons started up for me. I had 30 students come through the door over a period of four days, a family to feed, a young son to be a good mother to, a conference to plan for, recordings to finish, bills to pay, errands to run, friends to visit, phone calls to make, a husband to love and serve -- all good things, nothing out of the ordinary. But all together it made me feel like I was marching, marching, marching. And I find myself focusing on the time it’s going to take to do everything on my schedule and how tired I’m going to be when the day is done -- and I zap all the fun and joy out of all of it. So there I am, all exhausted and stressed and living for my next free day. Not in the moment at all.
I’ve heard it said that “busy” is not a good thing, that busy is often the partner of stress and the enemy of peace and rest and sanity. So sometimes I try to fool myself and think that I just have a “full schedule.” The reality is that I’m really just busy. And probably need to learn something about balance. How do the ants do it?
So this weekend I’m at the coast doing music for a women’s conference. I’m going to take a long walk on the beach and ponder how I can get some balance and still do all the things I need to do, how to filter out the things that aren’t important, treasure the 30 students that come through my door each week, (knowing they are busy too, and have chosen to spend some of their busy days with me), soak in every moment I have with my husband and son, and look at the glass half full for a change, no matter what the day looks like.
And whenever I have a moment, I’ll stop marching, get out of the line, sit in the shade and ponder something nice. Be in the moment. And then I’ll get back to it with a renewed sense of purpose. I’ll let you know how it goes.