When the Way is through the Sea

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I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.

I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, and he will hear me.

In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted.

When I remember God, I moan;

when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

You hold my eyelids open;

I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

I consider the days of old,

the years long ago.

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search:

“Will the Lord spurn me forever,

and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah

(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)

These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song.  These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.

God, where are You?

Can You hear me? 

Have You forgotten me?

Did You stop loving me?

Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?

Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

let me meditate in my heart.”

Then my spirit made a diligent search…

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old.

I will ponder all you work,

and meditate on your mighty deeds.

(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)

When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.

Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the great waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

(Psalm 77:19, ESV)

Your road led through the sea,

your pathway through the mighty waters—

a pathway no one knew was there!

(Psalm 77:19, NLT)

“Yet your footprints were unseen.”

“A pathway no one knew was there.”

Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.

So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.

Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.

Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,

when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,

help me to diligently seek You.

And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,

help me follow Your lead.

Amen. 

Holy Ground

I have surpassed the 50-day mark of social distancing at home. Even though I’ve gone out for neighborhood walks, picking up food and groceries, one doctor’s visit, and a birthday parade for a friend, I have cabin fever. The initial excitement I had at the thought of being hidden away in introvert bliss has dissipated into drudgery.

There are things I’m incredibly grateful for and continue to enjoy: hearing birds sing as they come to our feeder, wearing loungewear every day, cooking between Zoom piano lessons, not having to drive to work or church and, as a result, being able to spend a little more time with God in the morning without feeling hurried.

But this season has been emotionally and mentally grueling. Like many, it has been a struggle to stay informed about what’s happening in the world without feeling anxiety/dread/frustration. I had a couple weeks of worry when I saw lupus patients struggling to get their prescriptions for a certain medication—a medication I take to stay alive—refilled because it was being used to treat Covid-19. I’ve cried with students both from work and church who are grieving losses, worrying about unknowns, and dealing with difficult circumstances because of or in addition to the pandemic. And as I’ve cried with others, I’ve had my own set of things to cry about. High on that list was not being able to hug my seniors one last time. And then you throw in Zoom fatigue on top of all of that. (Imagine teaching piano lessons on Zoom! Oof!)

At first, I was overwhelmed as I felt all the feels. But a few days ago, I found that my mind and heart were numb. It wasn’t just a feeling of being stuck in a routine. It was a heavy numbness. Like something inside of me was dead. No joy. No fire. No intention. Just going through the motions like a machine.

I read my Bible. Nothing. I prayed, God, I can’t do this. I sat there. Awkward silence.

The night before, as I was teaching our college small group, I talked about getting comfortable in the awkward silence with God. “The awkward silence, that’s when you know things are about to get good!”

Come on, Esther! I just talked about this last night. I told the college students about being comfortable in the awkward silence. So here I go. I’ll just sit here…

And that’s when it happened. That’s when God whispered, “This is holy ground.”

What if I chose to live as though this place where my feet are is holy ground? Because it is. This place where my feet are, this is holy ground.

Because this is the place where God beckons me to sit with Him, where I get to commune with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

This is the place where He says to me, “Peace, be still,” and my body and soul find rest.

This is the place where God is doing something and He invites me to be a part of it.

This is the place where He gives me clarity and vision for Kingdom dreams.

This is the place where I get to prophesy over and speak life to my husband and the people I meet with on Zoom.

This is the place where He gives me words to write for people who need comfort and hope.

This is the place where He takes my hands and miraculously lets them move at the impulse of His love to make music when words aren’t enough.

This is the place where He teaches me to play and laugh and delight like the sunshine and birds I see through my windows.

This is where my feet are. And this is holy ground.

A Rule of Life

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For some time, I’ve been feeling a need for a shift. 2020 has an increase of activity in store for my husband and me and I’ve been stressing about how to make everything fit. I know God’s capacity will make up the difference for the capacity I lack, but I can sabotage myself by living in a default of unhealthy rhythms. So this year I’m cultivating a rule of life—daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms of spiritual disciplines.

Because I’m entering a new normal of increased activity, a lot of these rhythms are practices of being with God over doing for God.

This isn’t something I’m entering legalistically. None of this is set in stone and I’ll periodically adjust it as my life rhythms change and as my soul and spirit needs. But for this season, here’s my rule of life:

Daily

Morning hour of solitude and quiet:

  • A time to quiet my heart, soul, and mind so God’s voice can become clearer and louder.
  • No to anything that pulls my focus away from God.
  • Yes to getting ready for work, tuning my heart to God’s through prayer, Scripture, writing, driving to work, music, and planning for the day.
  • Inspired by Jess Connolly, I ask God this question: God, what have You ordered for me today?

Wash off the day:

  • When I get home and don’t plan on going out for the rest of the day, put on some relaxing music or a fun podcast, wash my face or take a long shower, and put on pajamas. This is a moment to transition from a mindset of activity to rest.

Evening 15 minutes of quiet:

  • No to devices.
  • Yes to free thinking, journaling, and prayer.

Weekly

Sabbath: (Thursday evening to Friday evening)

  • No to striving.
  • Yes to rest, play, and worship.

Weekly Quit:

  • At the end of each week, I write in my journal something I’m going to quit. It’s a practice of repentance, turning away from something that pulls me away from God, who I’m called to be, and who I’m called to love, so I can choose something better.
  • “This week I’m quitting ___________ so I can ___________.” (Some real examples of my weekly quit: “This week I’m quitting relying on my own abilities so I can rely on God’s power and rest in His capacity.” “This week I’m quitting checking email and social media before 10 a.m. so I can cultivate a rhythm of morning quiet.”)

iPhone / social media break:

  • I’m ashamed of my addiction to my phone and social media. At the same time, these things are important tools for my work and ministry. So I need this weekly break to keep my phone and social media in their place.

Monthly

One fun thing: This is one of my goals for the year because taking time to have fun is hard for me.

  • No to anything that involves striving or productivity.
  • Yes to…well…something fun.
  • This is worship!

Yearly

Family vacation

  • “change of pace + change of PLACE = change of PERSPECTIVE” ~Mark Batterson

Monastery retreat

So how about you? What are some of the rhythms you’re cultivating this year? I’d love to hear them!

Advent

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Advent is a time of expectation and hope, but the beauty of this season gets overshadowed by busyness, rush, and consumerism. Art has a way of quieting the noise and helping us be attentive to the profound things of life.

May this piece of poetry open for you a small space when the noise of your life gets a little softer and the whisper of God gets a little louder.

 

Listen

 

I groan

—a prayer too deep for words—

as I fight to hope and believe

I will hear Your voice again.

 

The Lord hears

—the Word becomes flesh—

four hundred years of silence

broken by a Baby’s first cry.

 

Overture for the Year

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It took me a long time to decide my goals for this year. For me, year goals are important. I’m the type of person who’s constantly working on improving myself—I’m a 1 on the Enneagram—but having times of reset helps me evaluate my progress and recalibrate. So months before this new year, I spent a lot of time dreaming and asking God for direction.

In an episode of The Office, the Dunder Mifflin employees were watching Andy perform in a musical. As Michael Scott was muttering something at the start of the performance, Darryl said, “Shh. If we don’t listen to the overture, we won’t recognize the musical themes when they come back later.” That’s what this post is: an overture for this year. You’ll see these themes in my writing. And hopefully, as this year progresses, those who do life with me will see these themes become more and more woven into the fabric of my life.

My Goals for 2019

1. Love well. 

I want my life to be marked by love.

I want to love God well. I want to love my husband well. I want to push myself beyond my introvert tendencies and love my friends well over cups of coffee. I want to love my students and the people I minister to well, going beyond requirements and pouring my heart into their lives.

2. Cultivate a prophetic ear.

I want to cultivate a prophetic ear so I can have a prophetic voice. I don’t mean I want to stand on a street corner with a sign warning of the end of the world. I want to be a voice that speaks life and hope and change into my culture and generation. And this starts with something simple: less noise and more prayer.

3. Spend money meaningfully.

I’ve got three subgoals for this one:

  • Live on a budget.
  • Be generous.
  • Slow/ethical fashion. (I know that’s not a complete sentence, but I’m still trying to figure this one out and this is going to be a year of learning.)

4. Write a book proposal.

This one scares me because I had this goal last year and didn’t come close to achieving it. And when I realized it wasn’t going to happen, I was filled with guilt. But the end of this year, my book proposal doesn’t have to be completely finished, but I want to make significant progress towards being done.

5. Grow into the performer I want to be.

I want to keep refining my craft, to be a more secure performer, to have a stronger vision for what I want each piece to be, and to push my artistry and ask more of the music.

6. Love what I see in the mirror.

My perfectionism makes it tough to look at myself in the mirror. This year, I want to cultivate healthy rhythms of exercise and rest. But more than that, I want to look in the mirror and see beauty regardless of my weight, hair, or makeup.

Also, I want to dress like an adult…because I’m 37 years old and don’t need to wear Hello Kitty and three separate patterns. It’s time to limit my outfits to one cutesy thing at a time. Again, progress.

7. Donate healthy hair.

When I was diagnosed with lupus, I lost about half my hair. Because of scarring on my scalp, the doctors weren’t sure how much of it would grow back. The long, healthy hair that falls on my back is part of my testimony. It is an Ebenezer reminding me that God has brought me this far. But a few months ago, I realized that I can’t just let my hair grow out forever. So this year, I’m paying it forward.

8. Make the library in our house a place where I want to be.

This is my decluttering goal.

9. Read/listen to 100 books.

How will I do this? I’m an avid reader, but my husband introduced me to a game changer: Hoopla. An app where I can borrow audiobooks for free? Yes, please!

10. Do at least one fun thing every month.

The fact that I made this a goal this year is already a sign of growth. This goal may sound frivolous, but my struggle to intentionally take time to have fun has worn on my mind, emotions, and even my body. And to be perfectly honest, this is the goal I’m scared of the most.

A quick note about goals: As this year began, I didn’t expect sudden change. If I would’ve done that, I would have already felt like a failure and given up. I’m approaching this year looking for progress, not perfection. So if you’ve started this new year feeling like you’ve already messed up your New Year’s resolutions and goals, that’s okay! The year’s not over!

 

Words We Sing on Monday

Update (December 17, 2019): It has been one year since I wrote this blog post. It has also been one year since my last cortisone injections! Hallelujah! (Insert shouting and happy dancing here.) As I look back and read the words I typed a year ago, a different set of challenges weighs on my heart. But these words are still true: “God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yesterday in church, I found myself swept away by a song that spoke of the God’s goodness and repeatedly declared,

“You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.”

I wasn’t just singing words. I was remembering times when I desperately cried out to God in my pain and He flooded me with His comfort. I was worshipping the God I know, the God I’ve experienced.

I didn’t know that I was preaching truths into my soul I would need to hold onto the next day.

People ask me, “How are your hands?” more often than, “How are you?” Lupus has been unkind to my joints, adding difficulty to my life as a pianist. Every few months, I get multiple cortisone injections in order to continue to use my hands and play the piano. For those of you who are wondering, yes, the injections hurt. But the relief they bring and the music they allow me to produce are enough to keep me coming back for more.

Today, I visited the hand surgeon for my routine injections—one in each thumb and index finger. Four in total. “Do you think they’re working?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “Well, of course they’re working. You wouldn’t be back here to subject yourself to this if they weren’t working.”

And then he spoke of the best way to proceed, expressing concern about the danger of repeated injections for so long. I told him, “The rheumatologist doubled my dosage of Plaquenil last Friday, and hopefully that’ll help me to not need shots as frequently.”

“Then, let’s see,” he replied. “Let’s see how things go with the new dose of Plaquenil, and then when”—not if—“you come back, let’s do an MRI and consider surgery.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed surgery. In past visits I’ve barraged the poor doctor with a multitude of questions:

  • Will surgery affect my piano playing? (Possibly.)
  • If I get surgery, is it possible I will need surgery again? (Yes.)
  • What is the likelihood that surgery will be effective in my case? (It’s hard to say.)

The prospect of surgery has never sounded attractive to me. But as the doctor spoke today, the prospect of continuing as I have been looked equally unattractive. No option comes with a guarantee; and no option is without dangerous risks.

This is where I’m at. A place where I have no idea what the best way to move forward is. A place of unknown. A place where the mind easily imagines worst case scenarios.

So today I’m facing my worry with quiet trust. I’ve prayed short prayers—anything longer than a few words will bring me to tears. It’s not that I’m afraid of tears and emotion. I’m sure I’ll be ready to cry ugly tears tomorrow. But today, I want to process. To let the words of the doctor sink in. More importantly, to let the words I sang yesterday sink in.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down.

You’re never gonna let,

Never gonna let me down…

After all, what’s the point of singing words like this on Sunday if I can’t continue to sing them as I face the darkness on Monday?

I’m not praising God out of naiveté. I can sing to God, “You’re never gonna let me down,” because I’ve been through the unknown and darkness so many times already and He’s never stopped being good or left me to fend for myself. He’s always been with me. He’s always brought me through.

God is with me. And today, when my mind is full of questions, that’s all I need to know.

“‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’
(which means, God with us).”
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Prayers We Stopped Praying

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In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”

Luke 1:5-7, ESV

“Why is this happening? How have I sinned? What’s wrong with me?” Years of living for God and doing everything right, and still she was barren.

“Lord, please give me a child.”

How many times did this prayer escape her quivering lips? How many times did she allow her heart to hope, only to be disappointed? And with each passing year, her window of possibility got smaller and her wounds grew deeper.

She was barren, marked with shame. And her years of hoping were over.

She knew the story, the one that happened millennia ago. Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, was 90 years old when she conceived. “But God has been silent for centuries. Could God still do things like that today? And if He could, would He?”

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.'”

Luke 1:8-17, ESV

He was chosen by lot. What appeared to be the luck of the draw, something completely random, was divine. God was in the randomness. And as he performed his duties, something miraculous happened. Prayers he had stopped praying years ago were extravagantly answered. He was finally going to be a father.

How do I know Zechariah had stopped praying for a child? Because what he said in response were not the words of a man who still prayed to have a child, but the words of a man who had given up:

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.'”

Luke 1:18, ESV

He had just heard the most wonderful news of his life, but He couldn’t praise or give thanks. How many times had he prayed for a child? How many times had he consoled his crying wife? How many times did he mask his shame as other men in the community beamed with pride because of their growing families? How many years had God disappointed him before he stopped praying that one, painful prayer?

And after all those years, when his peers were enjoying the births of their grandchildren, was God really going to finally give him a son? Maybe he was numb. Maybe he still felt the sting of old wounds. Either way, the idea that God would bless him now in this way was preposterous.

But this man who had dedicated his life to God’s service had more to learn about God and His ways. Zechariah’s age, circumstances, and limitations were no match for what God could do. God could do anything. But after everything Zechariah had been through, could he believe this—really believe in a personal, non-theoretical, hope-risking kind of way?

And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.

Luke 1:19-22, ESV

I used to think that Zechariah was being punished for his unbelief, but now I’m not so sure. Because he was suddenly unable to speak:

  • he could no longer speak words of doubt
  • other people were able to see he had a divine encounter, so they became part of the story and Zechariah wouldn’t/couldn’t walk this journey alone
  • he was constantly reminded of what God had done
  • he could spend more time listening, remembering, and reflecting on what God had done.

(How often do I think God is punishing me when really He’s blessing me and preparing me for something beautiful?)

Sometimes when God answers prayers we’ve abandoned or forgotten, He needs to break through the walls we’ve raised to protect our hearts and get our attention so we don’t miss what He’s doing. For Zechariah, he was speechless. Not in a metaphorical way, but in a literal, inconvenient, and disruptive kind of way. For nine months.

Nine months to let this glorious miracle sink in. These nine months would transform Zechariah to his core and make him the kind of father that his son would need him to be: a father who wholeheartedly believed in the God who can do anything, who hears our prayers, and who keeps His word.

When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. How kind the Lord is!’ she exclaimed. ‘He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.’”

Luke 1:23-25, NLT

No one could look down on Elizabeth any longer. Not only did God make Zechariah and Elizabeth a father and mother; He made them a father and mother like Abraham and Sarah. How kind the Lord is!

And this child would have a special place in history. He would be the one who would prepare the way for the Lord, the one who would baptize the long-awaited Messiah, the one of whom Jesus would one day say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

God knew what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story would be all along, writing their story so much more beautifully than they possibly could. However, I’m sure it didn’t feel beautiful to Zechariah and Elizabeth as they navigated the many chapters of barrenness and abandoned prayers. But God didn’t stop writing their story when others declared it to be written. When the plot seemed to be at a standstill, everything changed. Their future would not be the quiet they anticipated and their past now had purpose they had never been able to see before. For them, it was as though God rewrote the story they thought they knew.

And for us…

God remembers the prayers we prayed long ago, the ones we gave up on and stopped praying, the ones that became too difficult to pray as the years went on and left us wounded. He remembers and does something more wonderful with them than we can imagine. 

God is kind even when prayers go unanswered, even when He delays, and even when His ways make no sense.

And God writes beautiful stories. If you feel like your story isn’t beautiful, just wait; God’s not done writing yet.

I Can’t Do This

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I was behind on my book writing schedule. Days of trying to write left me mentally fatigued and overwhelmed with my inability to produce something that wasn’t trash. I was at the end of myself and I broke down in tears.

God, I can’t do this, but You can.

You—whose voice can thunder and break the cedars

whispered this dream into my heart.

You—who spoke life into existence

can speak this book into being.

Amen.

On this day, these were the only words I wrote that I didn’t immediately discard, their substance making up for their small number. Words raised towards Heaven are never wasted; they’re the ones that can change everything.