The Seasons and The Stages of Life

I have a love-hate relationship with the season of winter. Mostly hate. To be honest, I despise it. It’s 3 months of literal death and figurative torture and just plain miserableness. David writes that a “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” which I’m pretty sure has something to do with school not being canceled despite a chance of winter precipitation. In addition, three of my favorite things (Flowers, Skirts, and Sunshine) are not typically possible during the winter. I think Christmas must be winter’s only saving grace… Thankfully we don’t live in pre-Aslan Narnia, where it is “always winter but never Christmas.” Think of that!

What makes it worse is that I spent last winter (one of the Southeast’s most ridiculous winters in terms of precipitation) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where our temperatures were in the 100’s by late February. I spent this winter in “Famously Hot” Columbia, where our lowest recorded temperature was still in the double digits. (Now that I think about it, we might have had 9 degrees Fahrenheit early one morning.) Even though it was not actually that cold this winter, compared to my friends in New York or Canada, and despite not missing a single day of work this school year due to weather precipitation, I still hate winter.

I wonder if I have some kind of seasonal depression. Possible, but not super likely. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough for the joys of winter. Every season has joys, right? (Springtime definitely has more… Don’t tell Winter I said that.) Winter is the time for remembering the birth of our Savior, which should be joy enough. Winter also has the beauty of scarves and hats: wearing the things I’ve knitted. Winter has the sweet warmth of hot chocolate and peppermint mochas. It has gift-giving and two weeks off work. It has bonfires and boots. It has familiar songs and childlike joys. Winter is when we watch Elf, one of my favorite movies. Winter is the time of year when I get to break open a new planner… What joy! Winter houses fresh starts on New Year’s Day and free chocolate on Valentine’s Day.

Without everything dying in winter, how would we be able to celebrate new life in spring?

Switchfoot sings that the “shadow proves the sunshine,” which is completely true. If flowers didn’t die, animals didn’t hibernate, and temperatures didn’t dip, what joys would spring bring? How would we know when to celebrate?

We’re still four days out from the official “First Day of Spring,” but our high today was in the 80’s. Why am I complaining? There are joys here today and there were joys last week and last month and two months ago. Winter is just a season that is here today and gone tomorrow. It is the cycle of life, the passing of calendar months, the rhythm of hearts…

The rhythm of hearts. The rhythm of my heart.

See, It’s been a bit of a winter recently. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” like I wrote at the beginning. Unmet expectations are easily cause for complaint, depression, frustration, irritation, and all that is unbecoming to a child of God. When I’m looking for everything to go according to plan, I find myself standing in a blizzard wearing a skirt and sandals.

This is not what I had in mind, God. 

God chuckles. He’s got me right where he wants me. He’s been planning this all along. This was my Emergency Plan U, but it has always been His Number One Plan A. God doesn’t have backup plans. He doesn’t need them. Everything already goes according to his plan.

This is not what I want, God.

Oh, but it is. And God knows that. He knows that my ultimate goals are to know Him and be known by Him. He knows that my ultimate goals are to become more like Christ through everything thrown my way. He knows that my ultimate goals are to love with abandon because that can be my only response to His incredible love shown to me on the cross. Technically, this is what I want. As gold is refined through the fire, so am I refined through difficult circumstances. How can I be more like Christ if I do not have moments of suffering? How can I celebrate spring if I do not have moments of winter?

This is impossible. I can’t do this.

God chuckles again. I feel like pouting. But he reminds me, like a good and gentle Father, that he is with me. He turns my face to his, like a patient lover, and lets me see into his eyes that are full of love. He is holding me, guiding me by the hand, whispering in my ear, and sometimes dragging me (see below) along the journey. He is not finished with me yet. And He is not going anywhere. He does not send me anywhere that he did not go before me and behind me. He will never leave me alone.

Footprints Parody
Taken from http://www.diethobby.com/blog.php?ax=v&nid=878&topic=Footprints

I get a kick out of that every time.

Anyway…

Friends, winter does not mean that God has left. It doesn’t mean that He is silent. It doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong and now God is giving us the silent treatment until we confess the right thing.

Winter means that we are in a season of figurative or literal death. Death of unmet expectations, deferred hopes, or a very good part of our lives. Or it could be the death of a person dear to us or the end of particular season of happiness. It’s just that: a season. It will come and go. It has a reason for being here, but it is temporary.

I have been working on a new 10 year plan recently. It’s part of my personal getting-over-supposed-seasonal-depression program. I know I will have plenty more winters in the next decade. But I also know I will have springs of new life, summers of carefree happiness, and autumns of remembrance and contemplation. Because of that, I’m going to dream big. Anything can happen in the next ten years. And I’m praying I have many more decades to go after the next one. So I’m not going to settle. Winter has a way of making us settle, telling us that chapped lips and wind-burned faces and cold toes are normal and are going to last forever. God, on the other hand, beckons us to see crisp summer morning hikes and warm April breezes and sandy toes instead. Let yourself dream big, friend.

Maybe there is more to life than winter. Maybe there is more to a year than December through February.

Maybe spring is on the horizon just as summer break is inching closer, day by day by day…

So today, I’m going to eat my mint M&Ms leftover from Christmas and dream big. I’m going to look for opportunities to love today while preparing for more opportunities to love tomorrow. I’m going to buy more skirts and soak in more sunshine and smell more flowers. I’m also going to not hate winter. It made the sunshine that much more beautiful today.

All things work together for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose.

Dissatisfaction: Trusting God in Un-Ideal Circumstances

When I went to buy a Christmas present for a relative today, the cashier asked me to take one of those phone surveys by calling the number at the bottom of my receipt. He seemed quite excited about it, and I figured it couldn’t hurt. I dialed the number as I walked out of the store. It seemed as if the automated voice told me over and over again: “Press five for extremely satisfied… Press four for satisfied… Press three for neither satisfied nor dissatisfied…” And so forth. It went on and on.

I realized during the phone survey that I am not satisfied with my current circumstances. Nothing is working out the way I had planned, even the good stuff. Like, for example, the fact that I am teaching six year olds after just graduating with a degree in Secondary Education. I never expected to hold so many hands and stick so many Band-Aids and settle so many disagreements over erasers or line leaders as I have so far this year.

It’s December ninth, almost seven months since I walked across the stage to receive my college diploma alongside a couple hundred of my peers. For many of you, me included, life since graduation has not been exactly what we’d hoped. Some of you haven’t gotten the jobs you expected. A few haven’t gotten any job at all. If you do have job in a field you chose, colleagues or working conditions may not be up to par. If you’ve moved, there’s an added level of finding your way around a new place, locating the good grocery store and a local Bible-believing church. Many of you are in un-ideal living conditions, such as living with your parents if you wanted to move out or living with new roommates you aren’t quite sure you actually like. And then there’s the whole money issue, like when your car needs a new battery the same month you have to go to the doctor and get a prescription filled on top of student loan payments and car loan payments. Awesome.

It is easy at this point to give up. To give up because you are tired, because things are not working out like you’d hoped, because your plans are not coming to fruition. Or, at least, to give up on the inside. You may still go to work because you need the money, but you may give up on being cheerful at your job. You may still cook dinner for your roommates on your assigned day, but you aren’t open to having good, honest conversations with them. You may still go to church, but you aren’t soaking up the lessons from the sermon or connecting with the body. You may show up to your service commitment or help someone out of obligation, but you may not be letting it change you. You may still have fleeting moments of awareness and hope and joy but, in general, life falls flat. Life stinks. A lot.

Let me tell you this, friends: This is only temporary. This spot you’re in right now may not be ideal, but it will not last forever. On one hand, you should be open to and serious about the next step for you, whether that is applying for a new job, enrolling in graduate school, pursuing and officializing a relationship, whatever. On the other hand, keep in mind that there will always been greener pastures. There will always be a next step you are looking towards. Therefore, consider that even though your current circumstances may not be ideal, God is working in them.

The book of Genesis is full of barren women and childless couples who felt like they were in a holding place of un-ideal circumstances. Consider Abraham and Sarah, who didn’t have Isaac until they were ancient… Literally. Also note Isaac and his wife Rebekah in chapter 25: Isaac prayed for Rebekah to have children when he was forty years old. She didn’t give birth to their first children (twins) until he was sixty. That was twenty years of prayer and work and effort and wondering. However, the Bible doesn’t say that Isaac complained and gave up and blamed God for not getting what he wanted. It says that Isaac “pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife” (v. 21). He pleaded; He didn’t doubt. And God did great things. In Isaac and Rebekah’s case, we don’t know what God did in the meantime. However, we do know a lot of Abraham and Sarah’s journey and all the adventures God took them on between calling them away from Abraham’s family and bringing Isaac into their lives.

This quote has stuck with me for a while: Never doubt in the dark what God has revealed in the light. Dear friends, have you gotten to the point where what you knew to be true in more ideal circumstances has fallen by the wayside now that you are in un-ideal circumstances? Go back to what you know. See, God doesn’t change. The way we perceive him changes, but he himself does not change. Not even a smidgen. Therefore, all the truth he revealed to you when you were sitting in chapel service after Bible class after prayer meeting in college is still true. All the truth he revealed to you when you sat by an ocean in a foreign country with your journal and your acoustic guitar is still true. Go back to that. Read your old blog posts or journal entries, Skype with a friend who went overseas with you, or revisit old places where you heard God clearly. Remember that he has not changed… The truth is the truth wherever you are.

Just as a great guy loves his girl and shows that love through his actions and his attitude whether she is near him or far away or whether she is a joy to be around or an emotional wreck… So God loves us (even deeper and more unconditionally). You have already been made holy, righteous, and redeemed before him. He loves you regardless of your current circumstances because your current circumstances do not explain or define his attitude towards you. They are, however, where he has put you for the time being. And he works in them, too, every moment of every day, even when you can’t see him.

What if God chose these un-ideal circumstances for a reason and put you in them for a reason? Sounds a lot like Esther, huh?

If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?

– Esther 4:14, NLT (emphasis mine)

Mary, Receiver of Grace

Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”

– Luke 1:28

I have always wondered what the angel Gabriel meant when he said that Mary was “highly favored.” The different translations I’ve purused make it sound like God just really liked Mary for some reason. However, I heard something in church this morning that made me question it again, and today I found that the words “highly favored” can be translated from the Greek as literally “having been graced.” It doesn’t stop there.

In Strong’s Greek Lexicon, we see that the Greek word translated as “favored” is χαριτόω (charitoo). Interestingly, charitoo is a verb relating to the noun charis, meaning grace. Charis is the word we see in John 1:16, translated into English as Grace Upon Grace, the title for this blog, and the word that has been hitting me over and over for an entire year. 

Anyway, back to Gabriel describing Mary as “highly favored”: charitoo. According to Strong’s, charitoo can be used in Greek in three specific ways:

  1. to make graceful (charming, lovely, agreeable[, or accepted])
  2. to pursue with grace, compass [or surround] with favour
  3. to honor with blessings

I was blown away when I read this list. God chose Mary to carry and mother his Son as an honor. Because of this, she was “highly favored,” even “surrounded with favor.” She was “honored with blessings” and “pursued with grace.” She was “accepted.” She received grace.

But why?

It is the general opinion of the Catholic Church that Mary was chosen because she was sinless and perfect. Many also believe that Mary never had any other children, and that when she died, she was made Queen of Heaven. While I seek to honor my Catholic brothers and sisters, I must also acknowledge that I do not believe that Mary was sinless.

Ironically, the verse cited by many Catholic apologists to prove Mary’s sinlessness is the same verse I quoted above. The NLT, NIV, ESV, KJV, and both the NRSV and RSV Bible translations use terms like “you who are highly favored” and “favored one” to describe Mary. In contrast, while some of the approved Catholic translations of the Bible also use “favored one,” many (especially the older ones – see here and here) state that Mary is “full of grace” instead, note the RSV:CE and DRA. According to Catholic tradition, Mary is “full of grace” not because God has chosen to demonstrate blessings, acceptance, and favor upon her on the day that Gabriel visited her for the purpose of conceiving Jesus, but that Mary was already sinless and innately “full of grace.” For more information, compare a Catholic interpretation with a Protestant interpretation.

My goal here is to cause division but to make a point.

I have been delving deep into this issue of grace all year, and I have found that grace is not deserved. It is not earned. It is freely given. It is God giving me what I do not deserve out of his abundance of blessings. It is patience and forgiveness and acceptance. Therefore, I find it very hard to believe that either One: Mary earned the grace of God and the privilege of being the mother of Christ, or Two: God created Mary as a sinless and perfect person for the purpose of bearing and rearing Christ. If Mary was perfect and then was considered “full of grace,” what hope does that leave me, sinful to the core and utterly hopeless?

No, Mary was a person like me. She was fearful and confused. She did not know what the angel was talking about. She was blessed not because she was perfect, but because she believed in the Lord. She needed Christ to save her. She considered herself a “lowly servant girl,” willing to be used by the Lord. Christ died even for his own mother.


Think God can't use you?

God can take even the most sinful people and do great things through them. How? Because he makes them graceful, he pursues them with grace, he surrounds them with favor, and he honors them with blessings. He endows them with grace; he makes them accepted. He charitoo them. And us, too. God working through our tiny blips on the timeline of eternity is one way he is pouring grace over us and claiming us as his accepted children. He does not need perfect people to achieve his plans, because he is already working through imperfect people.

What is the irony that I would find an excellent definition for grace, my OneWord for 2013, in the Christmas story? That’s the place in late December 2012 when this all began, and it is the place in December 2013 where it will end. Honestly, this search for grace will be a never ending journey. Understanding grace, understanding my receiving of grace, and learning how to give grace will be life-long, because I will probably never truly get it. And I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay that I feel small and undeserving. To paraphrase Mary’s magnificat, I am overwhelmed with joy in my Savior.

With a little over a week until New Year’s, the time has come to select a word for 2014. I can already tell this is going to be a crazy year. Over three months in Thailand and Hong Kong, college graduation, moving to a new city with friends and starting my first real teaching job (hopefully!), and ending 2014 in a much different place than where I started it. With these thoughts running through my head, I invite you to check out the new www.OneWord365.com website, all prepared for 2014 by its creator, Alece Ronzino. A fellow blogger, Melanie at OnlyABreath.com, offers free OneWord blog button images that you can personalize yourself or get her to personalize for you for a donation. If you are planning to do OneWord365 for 2014, I suggest you check out both the official website and Melanie’s images. Make it a goal for yourself to include your OneWord is as many things as possible: as a journal prompt, a Pinterest board, a Bible verse memorization tool, a phone or computer desktop background, a magazine cut-out collage poster, etc. You might just see it showing up everywhere!