"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me." - Philippians 4:11-13
These verses... my naive 22 year old self picked these verses to write in sharpie marker on my wooden handmade bunk bed in Malawi, Africa. We were encouraged to write a verse that would be left behind for the future missionaries who would occupy those beds. We were the first. Almost 20 years later, I have no idea if that bed still remains. What I do know is at 22, I had a strong desire to find contentment in the Lord and this photo sits by my desk as a reminder. I spent almost 6 weeks one summer and 2 weeks the following summer with beautiful smiling faces that may have lived in poverty but their souls revealed a joy that inspired. I wanted that. I missed however, a word recently discovered in those verses that changed everything for me. "Learned"
In her book Relentless, Michele Cushatt quotes Timothy Keller "this is a dark world. There are many ways we keep that darkness at bay, but we cannot do it forever. Eventually the lights of our lives- love, health, home, work - will begin to go out. And when that happens, we will need something more than what our own understanding, competence, and power can give us " This hit home... "more than our own understanding, competence, and power". Michele's book encourages readers to identify the presence of the Lord throughout their own lives. She referenced Joshua and encouraged readers to identify 12 different markers, a chapter dedicated to identifying each marker, where we truly see the Lord. These 12 "stones" create a memorial altar testifying to God's relentless presence with us.
As encouraged by Michele's book, the photo from Malawi is one of my altar stones. It's a reminder of very real moments where I determined to always find joy. That however is not exactly how life has played out and has proved to be so much easier said than done. Attempting in my own power, I know I have often forced life with a determined attitude to be positive. Throughout these past couple of years however, the "lights have gone out" which has led to a reliance on something outside of my own power. "Sometimes you can't bootstrap yourself to health. Sometimes, broken is all you have to offer" - Cushatt. Brokenness is so very real and brokenness is ok. Sitting in a Sunday school class, discussing the wandering Israelites, the discussion led to contentment. That wooden bunk bed with that verse flashed through my mind. It required a reread of scripture when I got home. I'd never focused on the word "Learned" - Webster's definition: "to gain knowledge or understanding of, or skill in, by study, instruction, or experience". Adding to that C.S. Lewis' view of experience - "Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."
The reread of scripture, classroom discussions, Michele's book, and reflections on life, brought the realization that the years following desires in Malawi are full of reminders that God has continued to prepare, equip, and teach. I haven't always seen the good. It is such a process and some of the most difficult lessons being that contentment comes through the Lord, not in our own power to create joyful moments for ourselves. It also requires a faith that survives doubt and as she describes "for the men and women who feel beat up by a faith that has failed them and a God who has disappointed them". My own faith has felt these very things and failure has been a very real word in my own thoughts. Reflecting on these 12 stones gives joy through a whole lot of tears. Not only is there contentment, but Paul also describes earlier in chapter 4 a "peace of God which transcends all understanding". I can't explain how. I can't say there isn't fear at times. I can't say there isn't a struggle, but I can definitely share this peace has stood "guard" over my "heart and mind" in the most difficult moments as promised in scripture. It's every bit of a journey, both good and bad. He teaches and guides...we "learn". If you found yourself in a difficult place in your own journey this holiday season, I'd encourage you to grab a copy of Michele's book Relentless. Let her help walk you through the difficult places and see the Lord once again. When you can see the fingerprints of the teacher, know He loves you, and know He's with you, you really can find joy in the journey. The "peace of God"..."in Christ Jesus". C.S. Lewis also writes "Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak. He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think...When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letter because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it." God is with us and He holds our hands.
I honestly wrote this a couple of weeks ago after reading Michele's book without knowing what the second photo would look like only knowing where it would come from. The contents didn't matter, only what it represented in how everything worked out. I also knew this second photo may not ever happen. I was ok with that too. Life changes in an instant and we are never guaranteed tomorrow. I am so thankful for these memories. Clayton really wanted to see us and I just didn't know how that would work. He's at an Airforce base over 18 hours away in the middle of New Mexico and can't take a lot of leave. Flying 6 people to see him wasn't an option. Clayton isn't one to ask for a whole lot and this crew has missed him so much too. He asked more than once and I finally agreed still not knowing how it would all work out. We drove a little over halfway and he met us in an area of the U.S filled with incredible beauty that I never knew existed. Oklahoma actually has mountains and canyons and not just plains. Who knew??? More photos from this adventure soon. The Lord continues to work things out for our family. This family photo, yet another precious reminder of the Lord's constant provision and the latest altar stone. So thankful. Humbly and maybe a little cautiously, because my faith still struggles at times, walking into 2020 doing my best to let the Lord hold my hand, look for Him in the journey, and embrace the learning process. He always goes before us. He promises to. Daily steps...Here's to 2020 and hopes of many more fabulous adventures! Happy New Year from our crew!