“Alabaster Jar”: And an Exercise for Diminishing Lingering Anxiety or Fear

NOTE: I am categorizing this in Allegory because what I experienced was an allegory of the mind, something that could easily be written as the actual literary form. A pragmatic allegory, if you will, with a touch of imagination.

So, my beloved readers:

I am not a mental health specialist, and I do not play one on TV. I don’t even know what a “TV”, as named such, is–a transitive verb, perhaps? I do not act as a mental health specialist, though, either in theatres or on television. I do, however, know a sister in Christ who knows a bit about how our intricate, uniquely-wired, beautiful, fearfully-and-wonderfully-made, individualized, beloved, snowflake-like minds are constructed. She has read THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, knows and loves Psalm XVIII, finds Revelation a holy rather than a terrifying book, and speaks about half an inch of French–the degree she would denote with her hands if she were speaking of her linguistic capabilities. Her voice is pragmatic and no-nonsense, but her heart has a song in it. She listens to more percussion-driven Christian music than I, but holds it close the way I do the Touching the Father’s Heart collection from Vineyard Music. And, as I’ve said, she knows a bit about human perceptions of life, and how we can get ourselves out of the processing patterns that threaten our relationship with God and with others. I’m not sure how to designate her on this blog; I’m torn between Appointed-by-God and simply Treasure, for she fills both capacities. I think I’ll settle on Treasure.

Well, yesterday afternoon, I confided to Treasure that I have always had a propensity for holding some idea so tightly to me, fueled by an overly-active amygdala, that there is little room for anything else. The amygdala, for you normal types who do not remember most everything you’ve ever read, is the center in the brain that controls fear and anger. So, what I was actually saying is that, if some distressing or worrisome thought enters my heart, I cannot easily obliterate it–not by keeping quiet or ignoring it, and certainly not by distracting myself. The only things that ever help are studying the Word voraciously or so immersing myself in worship that my senses of song, prayer, dance, alabaster, and listening are all engaged at once. But those things only work WHILE I am involved; the moment I turn my attention to other things, whatever was troubling me before is right there to claw its way into me again, unless the Lord Himself has taken it from me. The thoughts can be anything–concerns over my health or that of loved-ones, ponderings about someone’s safety, distress over someone’s reaction to something I’ve done… As a young a child, I was so concerned about honesty that I found myself forcing mini-conferences upon all the adults I trusted, often several times a day, in order to assure myself that I had not told an inadvertent lie.

Perhaps you can relate. You probably don’t react as intensely as I have, and not to the same things, but you are acquainted with the general concept. You don’t talk about it, and you may be distracted from it, but you have your own concerns, sorrows, griefs, moments of frustration, worries, fears, phobias, and thorns. Since that applies to all of us to a greater or lesser extent, I thought I would share the gift that Treasure gave me–a tool for reducing or temporarily eliminating some of those burs that latch onto our thoughts. It requires effort and imagination, may not be appropriate for some very real crisis moments, and may require a level of whimsy not characteristic of some analytical personalities. It isn’t an instantaneous or even a permanent fix, but it joyed me. I am posting it here in the hopes that it might be helpful to you, for a gift this joyful was never meant to be held by one or two people.

For this exercise, I chose just one of those distressing thoughts that has been known to keep me awake at night. Working with one at a time is more helpful than trying to do away with every fear and worry at once. Then, Treasure asked me what substance the thought would take on if it were tangible. Now, my beloved readers, have you ever eaten a pita or other meal containing large quantities of store-bought hummus with a somewhat thicker consistency, then forgotten to drink any water during your meal? That hummus, though not dry in itself, tends to dry out the mouth and throat like cotton. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. However, hummus–with or without the water!–is delicious, and these intrusive fears are not. I wanted something that would have the same dry-mouth/dry-heart effect, though, so eventually I declared that the concrete substance would be most akin to very fine-grained sand that nevertheless packs tightly, is difficult to sweep out completely, and tends to both dry out the areas that it reaches and to chaff sensitive skin, thus producing the FEELING of eating without hydrating.

We then envisioned being filled to the brim with this upsetting substance. That wasn’t difficult–I was already bursting from the weight of impure sand! Then, she said, I should imagine places in this vessel named Ready Writer where the sand could slowly trickle out. The level getting lower and lower. No more sand in my head and neck, in my arms and shoulders, in my heart, in my legs and feet… This was a little more difficult than you might imagine, but it was worth it. In my case, knowing how a substance like that one would be prone to cling, I also imagined water cascading down and assisting in the process–pure, clear living water… That was most helpful! So, no sand within, and no more intrusive agitations for the moment.

Then, Treasure suggested that, since those thoughts were still inevitably nearby and within reach, I should envision something that would allow me to at least distance myself from them. Take a broom and a dustpan and sweep that unwelcome substance up and toward the door of the room we were in. Place it in an imaginary rubber-plastic container and “drag/carry” it–twenty-five pounds or so of anxiety, by my estimation–to the corner of another room, where I am already actually storing a number of boxes in “real life”. Push it into the corner, turn away from it, and leave it for another time. The goal here, Treasure reminded me, is not to “store” the distress in a garage or bring it to a dumpster, because that won’t work. You may–and probably will– experience thoughts like this again, and distancing them that far will only hinder the interactive analogy.

Then, it was time to be filled–renewed, restored, overflowing with something helpful so that there might no longer be room for the sandy anxiety to take up residence again, or to be poured into me by another person. When asked what I would like to be filled with, I said that the beautiful, fragrant combination of frankincense and myrrh would be fitting. Anointing oil–but I am not sure where Treasure stands on the topic of continuationism and did not want that charismatic-sounding term to come between myself and a precious child of God.

Well, at this point, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit began the process–began to work through Treasure’s wordsand voice. In the next few moments, we envisioned that anointing oil filling me completely, pouring into every nook and cranny of my heart, mind, and spirit. Overflowing this vessel in all the places where the “sand” had formerly resided. It was absolutely glorious. I felt as if I were actually receiving this blessing–saturations of joy and peace–directly from the Holy Spirit. Those were moments of hands half-raised, of praying in my heart as Treasure spoke, of remembering who He has made me to be and knowing that, in His strength and by His grace, I did not have to hold the things that had so threatened my relationship with Him moments before.

I will never forget Treasure’s words. Without a hint of rebuke, she reminded me, “Someone who is filled with frankincense and myrrh cannot be filled with sand”. In other words, “Stand firm! Jesus has you and He loves you”! I wonder–do any of my readers need to be reminded of the same thing? Does anyone reading this need to be reminded that in Him we have the victory? Because of Who He is, because He has conquered, because His grace is more than sufficient for us, these things do not have to become strongholds in our lives.

This was the exercise to which Treasure introduced me. Whatever you may be going through, I hope it was as much a blessing for you to read as it was for me to experience. Great is His faithfulness–and His lovingkindness.

Addendum: This post belongs with the song “Alabaster Box” by CeCe Winans—it just does. It doesn’t fit thematically, but the song is too beautiful, and so was my experience with that exercise. Besides, the account in Luke VII on which the song was based is beyond-words glorious, and it, above all else, bears reading and absorbing. If blending this post with that song are in any way effective in encouraging the reading of Luke VII, I will have done my job for the day.

Restoration and Holiness, Part VII: “Mourning Into Dancing”

By 18 May, I decided that I was strong enough to devote my every action and thought and word to the Lord for a period of three days. It was going to be wonderful, I told myself—so much time to worship. It would mean suspending some Internet activities and canceling a few engagements with family and friends, but it would be a pure delight.

It would be a joy, that is, if I could only forgive…

First, I had to forgive myself. Two days before, I had said something to Hannah that I felt was in direct violation of everything I was trying to accomplish in the Lord. I had not meant for my words to come out the way they did, but I could not seem to forgive myself for having said them. And despite the fact that I had a full grasp on the Scriptures which state that God is faithful and just to forgive confessed sin, I felt unable to accept even His mercy. So, the first evening of that time of devotion was spent unfruitfully, simply waring myself out with wonderings and tears.

But then dawned Monday, 19 May. Somehow, that morning brought with it a slight acceptance of the possibility of God’s forgiveness—one tiny crack in the thick walls I had built around my heart. And then, Good Samaritan called. Now, Good Samaritan would be the first to say that she does not agree with me on most points of theology, but she seems to enjoy hearing me talk and she has been used of the Lord on multiple occasions. Several times, I have mentioned some great and pressing concern, and she has paraphrased Scripture that fit perfectly with the situation. I once asked her about this and she told me emphatically that she had no idea that what she had said was Biblical, so I can only conclude that the Lord speaks through her, for His purposes. Case in point: One day, because I had no church or fellow brothers and sisters to turn to, I remarked to her, “Something was once said to me that has crushed me in the areas of all I have ever held dear. That faith I treasure is being threatened… And please don’t tell me to just forsake the One I love!” Beloved readers, don’t try this… God used it, but it isn’t the best of ideas. I was desperate, though, for some sort of advice, and I had run out of places to seek it. Well, Good Samaritan thought for a minute and then said, “You need to take some time to just do what you’ve always done to get back in the place you need to be. Don’t listen to the lies… Grab your shield and hold on to it.” My SHIELD!? In that moment, the Holy Spirit filled me with the joy that comes from being chastened and convicted, and with a knowledge of the armor of God—complete with the shield of faith. I took Good Samaritan’s advice, and the Lord restored me.

Now, all of that had been in July of 2011. But when Good Samaritan phoned on 19 May, I thought she could help me with general forgiveness. We had gotten to that point, and I assumed that she might have some helpful thoughts. Before I knew it, though, I had not only discussed my own wrongs but brought 2006 into the discussion. You know—Two Thousand Six, that year in which I underwent spiritual distress and trauma so all-encompassing that it changed my entire outlook on the things of God. Why I brought this up with her when I had told myself I would never speak of it to anybody, I cannot now fathom. I know only that her sympathetic silence served as a sounding board of sorts—a means of helping me come to my own conclusions about God’s power to heal and my need to forgive all the anguish I had experienced in the past eight years. In that moment, the Lord confirmed again that He would help me to forgive if I was willing—and that with forgiveness would come restoration.

And that is what I held onto that day long, long after I had hung up with Good Samaritan. All that afternoon, I considered my role in failing to release the pain that had been caused those many years before. Then, too, I began reading a book entitled TOTAL FORGIVENESS by one R. T. Kendle. The author brought up some interesting points. For example, I had always believed that to forgive meant to attempt to forget as literally and completely as possible—to mask the memory, deny it, crush it, bury it, and generally suppress it with all of my frail human strength. Rather difficult for someone who remembers lying on the water bed at her grandmother’s house at the age of six months… Forgetting is not in my vocabulary, and so I must be living in unforgiveness—must I not?

Not so, claimed this joyous book. When Joseph’s brothers came to him and begged forgiveness for their mistreatment of him, Joseph did not say that he deserved to have been brought to Egypt, or that his brothers had done no wrong. Instead, he acknowledged the deed and then chose to forgive it ANYWAY which, if you think about it, is really a greater measure of merciful living than simply denying that something upsetting was ever done. “What you did was evil, but God…” Acknowledgement, filled with love and a sense of the Lord’s plan—what a wonderful new perspective! From that point on, I determined to truly forgive—that is, not to hold what others had done against me. To sincerely desire the Lord’s blessing in their lives, and to ask the Lord for strength to think of both those who had hurt me and the incident itself without anger, bitterness, or even pain—as a fact rather than a tale of woe and anguish.

As the days of dedication to God passed, I became more and more saturated in His mercy, His grace and forgiveness—and I resolved to shower all that I had received upon others. Then, too, there was an increased sense of His joy. And finally, there was Wednesday afternoon—Wednesday, 21 May, that is.

I had been in worship. Looking back, I cannot now recall what I sang unto the Lord, but I do know what the Holy Spirit ministered to me. I had read the Sermon on the Mount—had, in fact, so immersed myself in the teachings, the very words, of our wonderful Lord Jesus, that I felt closer to Him than I had since I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now, I was singing unto Him with all of my heart, placing every need before Him in awe and reverence, reiterating deep within that He was all that I would ever need.

And then, to my heart, there came an incredible knowledge that the Lord would heal me, had healed me, would continue to heal me. I said in Part IV of this series that the Lord began showing me this earlier in the month, but the moments of 21 May were different. It was much like the man whom Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda. First, He asked the man if he wanted to get well. There’s a minor parallel to what He did in my life at first, when I was given the hopeful possibility of being made whole in heart, mind, soul, and spirit again. But 21 May was like the healing itself—it was leaping and dancing, throwing my hands into the air and singing for joy, crying out in thankfulness and weeping for sheer gratitude—not quite like the man in John 5, who did not seem to comprehend the wonder of what had been done for him, but that is a theological discussion for another time.

In that instant, I knew that all my mourning, all the effects of 2006, all the painful associations I had ever accumulated as a result of the spiritual crises I had experienced, were being washed away. I was free. Whatever the Lord had given me when I first received His Holy Spirit, He had suddenly restored to me again. It was beyond words. What singing there was then, what pure and unalloyed wonder! The very fragrance of His presence permeated that moment (see II Cor. 2:14-15). I felt baptized, renewed, and filled anew, and coming away from that time in Him was like immerging from the Jordan River or some other symbolic place without bothering to dry off, just allowing that holiness to cling about me like the garment of praise that it was.

Proof of all that the Lord had told me came later that evening. In the past, I used to see a counselor in order to cope with a great deal of emotional anguish—caused, I am now sure, by the spiritual turmoil I was wearing like Christian’s loathsome burden in THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS. That evening, his name came up in the conversation. Suddenly, and without giving it any thought, I found myself crying out, “Naomi, Naomi, very soon the day will come when I do not need him anymore!”

Now, those who know me understand that I am very, very quiet about certain things in the Lord—or, at least, I had been since 2006. If the Lord showed me something special either in His Word or most especially by His Holy Spirit, I might remark softly to one believer at a time, “I believe… now, we can’t know the mind of God… perhaps I’m misinterpreting here, but it seems that God may have told me… I think…” Saying something so definite—nay, proclaiming it from the rooftops as I did that evening—was so uncharacteristic that it stunned me even as I spoke the last syllable of that declaration. Certainly, if I had said something like this in the past, I would have been temporarily silenced by what Naomi said—”I pray it will be so for you soon–I really do.” But not on that precious day. There was no silence. Instead, in words that leapt over one another like gazellse in my hurry to speak them, I tried to explain: “But you don’t understand… God promised… He told me that all the mourning and sorrow were over, and He has healed me, and I won’t need to see this man anymore because He is my Wonderful Counselor!”

And what more can I say of that evening, that night? It was like being in the throneroom of God, like living in His manifest glory and presence, yet having just an iota of enough presence of mind to be able to communicate with others and go about my daily routine. It was ineffable.

That week, I asked the Lord to show me what to do with this counselor of mine. I try to serve the Lord in wisdom; I was not going to step out before Him. So, I asked that the Lord would use this man to propose our next steps—from one week to two, from two to even less than that. This is exactly what happened, and I rejoice to this day that He is strengthening me to walk with Him alone. Now, please don’t misunderstand—what I was doing was helpful, and it was used by God for a season; I am in no way opposed to it. I just know now that what the Lord is doing, He can accomplish with OR WITHOUT the help of those from whom I had formerly sought help. Rejoicing!

If I had ever harbored any doubts about my freedom in Jesus, they were all laid to rest on 31 May. I was reading Revelation that evening when I cam upon this from chapter III, verses 7-8: “The words of the holy one, the true one, [Who] has the key of David, [Who] opens and no one shall shut, [Who] shuts and no one opens. … Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (RSV, capitalization mine). I know that I am not a member of the church of Philadelphia, but in that moment, the Lord used this passage to speak to my heart. Those words were for me—a seal of sorts, a promise that what He had begun and was completing in me would not be taken away. So often, other Christians try to caution us against losing some spiritual blessing. Has that ever happened to you? You’re at a weekend youth conference and on Friday evening, not ten minutes into the service, the pastor or worship leader says something about keeping hold of God’s blessings when you return home on Sunday afternoon and going into Monday… have you ever experienced this? Well, another believer had warned me against growing faint-hearted when I was still atop my mountain, and I began to wonder. Was I going to slip, to slide, to revert to my former fleshly and faithless ways? Into the midst of all of this came that promise, and I no longer doubt that He Who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful, and I have no need to fear, for if I should begin to fall, He is able to make me stand—His gifts and His calling are without repentance. Open doors.

Addendum: “Mourning Into Dancing” by Tommy Walker has been a heart-cry since December of 2004. I forgot the message, though not the song, in the intervening years. Now, the message of that praise chorus has woven itself into my very framework. “Where there once was only hurt, / He gave His healing hand; / Where there once was only pain, / He brought comfort like a friend…” The song is too beautiful to miss. It may be found on the album SONGS FOR WORSHIP: GREAT IS THE LORD. The word “for” in that album title should be represented by the number that is its homonym, but that seemed irreverent and insincere—the only thing that Integrity Music ever did wrong as far as album construction went—and I could not bring myself to write it. Now, go track down that song and rejoice with me, my beloved readers!

“Give Thanks”: The Epic Project, Wherein I Rejoice in Another Year in Jesus

Before I pen this post, allow me to say that what you are about to read is entirely Hannah’s doing. It wouldn’t have come to this were it not for that beloved sister of mine…

Back in 2011, we were doing our normal Thanksgiving things. I was rejoicing in the ways that the Lord had shown Himself to be my hiding place. We made macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and green-bean casserole, a delicious basket of rolls… and—oh, yes—a turkey. We poured glasses of iced tea, set out plates adorned with sunflowers and I Corinthians XIII—not the most seasonal solution, but those plates were special to us—and sat at the table to pray. On the table next to my plate was the digital voice recorder. I had scarcely been without it since July of that year, and I had no intention of allowing Thanksgiving to go unscrapbooked. Well, we prayed, and then Jedidiah asked us to describe what we were all thankful for that year. Blessings were declared—we were thankful for God’s work in our lives, for each member of this exquisite family, for physical health… When it was my turn, I said:

“Last year, I was thankful for my spiritual life and that the Lord had gotten me through that year. It was so trying, and I was just determined that HE HAD GOTTEN US THROUGH THAT YEAR! and because things were looking better… that that would be kind of the end of most of our trials. I, I thought that. [Meaning: I really believed this, naively.] And this year, I’m thankful—yes, for the same thing, for my spiritual life… But I’m thankful that He has become my secret place. I’m not thankful because I think that it’s going to be the end of all trials. Maybe it is; maybe this is the last thing that we’re ever really going to have to go through… But I’m thankful that He’s going to get us through anything. I’m thankful that He’s shown me that, and that He’s taught me how to trust again. I’m thankful for the times when I had to really pray through … A plane trip that [Hannah] took when [she] went to see [an acquaintance]. … But that I didn’t have to panic about the whole airplane thing. [I am terrified of flying, and of having my loved-ones fly, but the Lord had sustained me when Hannah took that trip.] I’m thankful that He has taught me again how to trust and how to take refuge in Him—and, no, I’m not perfect at it, but I was certainly a whole lot less perfect at it last year, and all I really wanted [at that time] was for everything to go away. All I really want now is to see His glory.”

As you may have deduced from the disjointed nature of that speech and from the excessive use of brackets, I just listened to the recording of that moment and inserted a transcript of it here. Well, toward the end of that speech, everyone was embracing and weeping, so overjoyed at Who He is. After the emotion of the moment had died down, though, I was teased for quite some time because I had not done the typical minute-and-a-half cataloguing of earthly and spiritual blessings and left it at that. “You gave a speech!” “A message!” “What was that—a mini-sermon without the pastorship?” Yes, yes it was. Furthermore, I am convinced that 2011 would have been a one-time event were it not for some of the teasing. However, Hannah’s remarks have made me feel that the 2011 speech should be an annual tradition, and I have done my best to make it so ever since. Last year, I believe I spoke on being set free from a paralyzing depression and gradually restored thereafter.

I have been contemplating all of this for over a week. I plan to carry on the tradition this year, but would like to do it with deliberate umph. If I believed in the use of PowerPoint, I would create one—but I don’t, and never will. PowerPoint is for business meetings. It is not appropriate for church, because it should not be used in worship of any kind—and, at their core, these little speeches of mine are worship. So, no PowerPoint. Instead, I plan to use actual, tangible objects to illustrate my life, placing them on the table one at a time and expounding on their significance. I may also employ music.

And now, my beloved readers, you are going to be a part of my brain-storming session. Commencons!

“Back in April, 2012, I accompanied you on a number of errands. At one point, we stopped at [a diner] for chocolate malts. As I waited, I found a paper napkin. [At this point, I will reach into the bag I will have brought and retrieve a paper napkin. I will probably unfold the napkin as I talk.] Suddenly, I was caught up in what that napkin would look like if I unfolded it—how the thin, fragile paper would resemble the intricacy of Bible pages. And, oh, to think on the Word of God! For the rest of the day, my heart was enveloped in a knowledge of His presence. This, I learned, is what it is to pray without ceasing. It is possible—Paul was not employing hyperbole when he told us to do that. And for months after, the them of prayer without ceasing continued to envelop me. It was as though the Lord was taking a passage I had only ever read and applying it directly to my heart. It was shortly thereafter that I realized that my life is really comprised of themes—great, overarching ideas that characterize certain eras in my spiritual life.

“This year has been no different. First, there was the era of rest—from November of last year to early March of this year. [I have a candle decorated with four crosses. The lid, too, has a cross cut into the top, and the effect is like that of a lantern. The candle itself is highly fragrant and would detract from the food aromas that will be filling the dining area, so I will simply bring the lid, holding it up and emphasizing the cross.] There are many things in life that I am not all that good at—thinking holistically when my brain wants me to be so concrete about life, engaging in intense emotional or physical exertion and finding work a pleasure, certain types of paperwork, talking to others… But one thing I am good at is knowing how to rest. I’m good at listening to worship music in many different languages, loving the Old Covenant as well as the New, connecting mundane words and phrases with the things of God… Resting. Being rather than doing. Of course, there used to be quite a tension in my heart between what I knew I was called to do and what I felt others expected of me. The classic Mary and Martha tension—but, you know, Jesus loved them both. And gradually, I learned to do what I needed to do without tearing myself away from worship, and I learned that worship and rest comprised a glorious calling that should not be spurned. This was when I learned to devote one specific day to Him each week, and when I wrote and refinded that allegory. [The allegory is entitled “Your Grace Is Sufficient” and is present on this blog.] I’m so thankful…

“From early March to early May, the overarching theme was honesty. By this, I don’t mean simply not lying, or even just telling the truth—but a sense of purity, holiness, and sincerity that penetrates every facet of life. [I have an old-fashioned-looking glass bottle with a quaint latch and an artistic handle. I call it the Iced Tea Lantern. I will be setting it on the table, filled with iced tea. Unlike other objects, which I will be retrieving and then replacing, the Iced Tea Lantern will remain on the table—both as a symbol of something I’m still experiencing and for the practical purpose of using it as my beverage du jour.] Those were the days of writing the Alpha and Omega Project [an annotated compendiom of everything that had ever blessed me or my family]. That project required a level of sincerity that was sometimes daunting, but always exhilarating. It also served as a reminder that I have a profoundly unique perspective on life. Like the Iced Tea Lantern—you know that iced tea is a motif, that it tells a story of sunshine and clean laundry freshly warmed in the dryer and of children’s Maranatha! Recordings and of coming home from a long journey. To others, iced tea is simply iced tea. Sometimes, this has been a gift; at other times, a challenge. I call it the rosebush—both thorns and blooms. That theme of honesty embedded itself in my heart and removed any possibility of facades. I shan’t elaborate on this, but the Scripture for that theme is John 1:43-50, which describes Jesus’ interactions with Nathanael. The Lord gave me that passage in 2010, and these past few months have only served to reiterate it. Yes, I’m so thankful.

“Then, from 6 May to 6 July, there was the era of restoration. First, on 6 May, the Lord showed me that He is enough, no matter how some of His people treat me in church and such… Let’s not dwell on that, save to say that He is my shield, my exceedingly great reward. On 7 May, He promised to restore me and to heal the heartache caused by so much pain in 2006. [I will retrieve my Bible, a Revised Standard Version in a quilted cotton case, trimmed in softest lace, with a cameo affixed to it.] This Bible was given to me in 2004, when life was still pure and new… Then, I endured things that threatened to shred my heart, and I did not know what to do about them. I didn’t even think to ask the Lord for healing because, on the surface at least, I appeared fully set free. Only I knew the turmoil I continued to experience. But then, for two weeks in May, the Lord gradually began to restore me… And then, on 21 May, He set me completely free from all the anguish of 2006. [Singing while Unzipping this case to reveal a worn and much-loved leather Bible] “He’s turned my mourning into dancing again…” And I am full of joy. Every waking moment, I now spend dancing in my heart before the Lord, worshiping Him with a devotion I thought had been silenced, soaring on eagles’ wings, rejoicing in a treasure I cannot even put into words. [If I can find it in time and fix a flaw in the construction, I will hold aloft a Willow Tree carving, a girl who appears to be dancing with abandon, with her arms outstretched. I will also be placing the Bible in my lap instead of returning it to the bag—again, symbolic of something I continue to experience.] Hallelujah! I’m so thankful…

“I think I would have continued doing exactly what I was doing—rejoicing, but perhaps without as much growth—had it not been for 7 July. You all know the story: hot water heater, long and complicated days, new carpet… [Retrieving a small battery-operated water fountain, with no rocks but with enough water for the demonstration.] I was torn by all of this. For a time, I feared that I had lost what the Lord had so recently given… But then… [Now, adding the little rocks that go with this fountain, one by one until all are in place.] Then, there was a time of devotion. Of remembering anew who I am in Christ Jesus. Of continuing to read Matthew and Isaiah and Psalms. Of studying Hebrews with [Naomi] and just holding fast to the Father. Of spending that week in the Oasis, and listening to the Oasis Network [a Christian radio station from Oklahoma]. Of learning to differentiate emotional stress from spiritual turmoil. Of putting my apartment back together after having been displaced—rearranging the furniture, and allowing it to be symbolic of starting anew. Of acquiring the new sofa set and doing interesting things like recording the Phonetic Alphabet. Of writing that poem, the one about tears, cascading down… [At this point, turning on the waterfall and allowing water to actually trickle down the twists and turns in that little structure. Quietly:] Yes, I am thankful.

“And then, do you know what He taught me? He taught me about healing [displaying a container of anointing oil], and about spiritual warfare [a wooden representation of the Armor of God]. You know that I was very concerned about an impending doctor’s appointment for a time. And yet, what went on in my prayer-closet was a different story entirely. During those evenings when I drank tea and listened to the Oasis network, I was being constantly reminded of the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Acts II might well be the theme for all of October. That’s why we read so much of it together. [Over the past several weeks, I have been requesting recordings of specific chapters in Acts, particularly those pertaining to healing, God speaking to His servants, and othyer manifestations of His power.] This has been a time of learning anew to love, to cherish, to rejoice in, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and to trust Him. All of this was clarified to me in what the Lord said to Hezekiah—”Surely, I will heal you.” If ever I needed this promise confirmed to my heart, it was last month—and now it is firmly etched there again, a promise for me as well as for that king of Judah. The spiritual warfare aspect of this came in when I began to remember that when we resist the devil, he must flee from us. I didn’t always trust the Lord to the extent that I should have, and sometimes I didn’t come against Satan—as evidenced from some of the things I said and refused to let go—but I began to learn, to see what it was to put on the whole Armor of God, and to call on Jesus when I was tempted. Believe it or not, Mark is full of moments that emphasize spiritual warfare. We’ll explore them sometime… And I really am so thankful.

“And now? Is there an overarching theme for this moment? Yes, there is… It is a portion of Colossians 3:3: “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” [Removing several Communion cups—a few olive-wood, some glass, some plastic, some of slightly different shapes—and one taller cup, more fragile glass, and elaborately engraved.] You may have noticed that I have been quiet, especially last week. In fact, [Hannah] even told me that I looked sad. I wasn’t melancholy then, and I’m not now. I have been quiet because [a sister in Christ] and I have been talking about what makes each of us unique. I had confided to her that I sometimes drive myself and others to distraction by some of my eccentricities. I have tortured myself for years, wondering whether I should change but constantly held by those Scriptures about honesty [tapping the Iced Tea Lantern]. Well, as [this sister in Christ] and I were discussing the ins and outs of what needed to be changed and what didn’t, the Lord filled me with the deepest possible of peace. Ever since that time, He has been guiding me through every moment of every day. It is as though He has been carrying me. And ever and always, a constant in my life and what He has engraved at the deepest level on my heart, has been the Scripture about my life being hidden with Christ in God. [Noting the Communion cups] We are all vessels for His glory, used by Him—some of us to reach those who are broken, some to give nourishment and provide leadership to those inside the church. [Holding up the one unique cup] And some of us are Mary of Bethany, called to rest and worship, made of different materials and with different adornments and of a different size… It used to bother me that I did not look like other vessels, that I did not belong to this group or that one or the ones over here [separating the different types of cups into groups]. Now, though, I have learned for myself that my life belongs to Him, that it is hidden. In Christ. With God. I wish I had more profound words to express this concept—I wish I could explain it adequately—but for now, all I know is that it is in my heart, placed there by the Lord. I know that we are all hidden with Him when we die to self, despite trials or quirks or pain or brokenness or earthly difficulties. And I know I am so very thankful.”

That will be my speech—or my presentation, however you would like to think of it. I just proofread this post while taking notes on the things I would need and the points I wanted to emphasize within each of the seven themes. It begins to strike me that perhaps this project is too vast for the Thanksgiving table. Never mind that my own food will get cold—I could live with that, and it does not concern me. However, some of this bears the undivided attention of Jedidiah and Company. I might bring it into the living room following our feast and show others what the Lord has been doing in my life—things that I have felt ill-equipped to discuss before because they were so close to my heart. However I do this, I know that it should be a joyful and celebratory project that may help to put the spiritual aspect back into this day.

Thank you for the ideas, Hannah, no matter how inadvertently you bestowed them in 2011.

Addendum: “Give Thanks” is one of those delightful songs which proclaims the Lord as all-powerful. Centered on the provision of the Holy Spirit; the grace of God the Father, Who is referred to as the Holy One; and rejoicing in the gift of Jesus Christ—absolutely beautiful! Any of the various versions by Don Moen is anointed, but I am basing this post off of the rendition from his album “Worship with Don Moen”. As far as I can tell, this album is still unavailable from the iTunes Store, but may be purchased from Don Moen’s website.

Restoration and Holiness, Part IV: “Jumping Up and Down, Shout Hosanna!”

Oh, how I have longed to pen this fourth part of the wondrous things the Lord has begun, and will continue, in me!—and what a delight it is to do so now. I began Part I on 21 May, though I did not publish it then. This means that, from at least the time of my beginning this series until now—a glorious three weeks and two days!—the Lord has kept aflame all that He is doing. It is beyond comprehension, the things that the Lord can do. However, I am beginning to see something that I had not anticipated. There is no possible way to expound upon God’s glory in one tidy “final” part, so I will be continuing this series indefinitely, for as long as it takes. In GOD’S SMUGGLER, THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE, THE HIDING PLACE, THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE ON EARTH, etc., John and Elizabeth Sherrill taught me that the best Christian testimonies/memoirs/autobiographical sketches are comprised of detail upon detail. If faith, hope, and love are the multi-colored threads that must be woven into a tapestry in order to create something beautiful, details are the cloth that upholds that embroidery.

But I am getting very much ahead of myself. Let us begin with 7 May. In most ways, that Wednesday was like any other. True, I had received worship music in the mail, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. I’m always buying worship music; sometimes, I listen to it right away, and other times, I let it sit on my iPod for three years before plunging into a sea of new, beautiful, congregational adoration. That day’s music actually consisted of two DVDs, which I promptly sat down to convert to MP3 files using Audacity. Hey, they’re my DVDs, and I don’t plan to sell the audio material I extracted—you wouldn’t want it anyway. This is unique music. Unique or not, though, you must know that it was what I listened to exclusively from 2002-2003. We didn’t have much in the way of worship music, so I took what we had and ran with it. What we happened to have were two obscure, independently-produced VHS tapes of Christian children’s music. My beloved readers, if you were stranded on a deserted island with only the International Children’s Bible, I can guarantee that you would be studying it before long! And so, this was worship. Every sung and exclaimed “hosanna” and “hallelujah”, every account of His cleansing, every mention of the name of Jesus, every celebration of His goodness. And why did I buy these DVDs anew? Because, if nothing else, I wished to catalogue an era—to scrapbook it, as it were, and to make an audio picture of where I had been spiritually in the months after receiving the Holy Spirit. Very mature, intellectually-sound aims, don’t you think?

Now, a project like this actually requires me to stay with the computer and make sure that everything is running smoothly. JAWS, Audacity, and Windows Media Player don’t always play nicely in the sandbox. So, there I was, sitting in my sanctuary—though I could never have known then what a great moment of worship would unfold—and wrapped up in blankets and heating pads, for the evening was chilly. For two hours, I listened to that music. For two hours, I found myself remembering every nuance and every note of joy in the singers’ voices. And for one-and-a-half of those hours, I found myself singing the name of Jesus, and the word “hosanna”, and the concept of His cleansing, with all my might, just as I did during that 2002 era of innocence and of “no worship music”. But how could I have said that? Whether it’s a five-year-old singing or a seasoned sixty-five-year-old raising reverent anthems to our Lord, are they not both worshiping Him?

Mature, intellectual aims quickly faded into the background, and as they did, the Lord began reminding me of things I had long chosen to forget. How I would awaken during those early days of seeking—and finding!—with a song already on my lips. How I would bring the Bible to the small high-school I attended and read between classes, during lunch, and anytime a visual movie was being shown and I somehow couldn’t participate. How I would come home from school, do homework and read the Bible with my beloved baby sister, enjoy a cup of very cheap hot chocolate as though it were an imported delicacy because of my gratitude to our Savior, bask in the joyful knowledge that I had somehow managed to complete most of my own homework earlier in the day so I could worship, and then proceed to do just that. Late, late at night, when I was certain that everyone else was asleep, I sneaked out into the living room, turned on the television, hope that the loud buzzing would not wake anyone else, insert one of those two precious videos into the VCR, turn the volume down as low as humanly possible while still being able to catch every third or fourth phrase, and sing deep inside with no words, but with all my heart. That was the best and only use I ever found for the family television! When my heart had been satisfied, I quietly put away the video and the remote control and tiptoed back to bed. I wasn’t afraid of getting in trouble for being up so late on school nights—I was one of those teenagers who was given a little more freedom just because my mind worked differently; I was also permitted to get up at the crack of dawn to do my homework rather than completing it all at night, and I often did just that. No, I wasn’t afraid of being found out, but of being interrupted. This was my most precious worship time—never mind that it happened to be taking place in a highly-centralized location.

As I listened to this precious music and contemplated the ways in which I used to go about enjoying it twelve years earlier, the Lord began to minister something truly wonderful to me. Gradually, He showed me that He could restore all of that joy and innocence, all of that purity and peace, to my heart. Once again, I could be filled with a freedom in worship that would override the need to explain to my readers why I might happen to have children’s music in my possession—less excusing my “unintellectual” actions, more exuberance in Him. Deep in my heart, I knew that He was promising to heal emotional and spiritual traumas that had broken me for over eight years, wounds that had been mine since 2006. Soon, they would all be gone, and only His glory would remain. If I would only accept His work in my life, He would return all my wasted years, those myriad moments I had spent in loneliness and self-pity rather than in His Shekinah glory.

In my last post, I wrote that the Lord had called me to repent, but that I had resisted for three days. I didn’t want to repeat that mistake. I wanted all He was going to provide, and, much more importantly, I wanted to please Him and to live in His presence. As soon as I realized what the Lord was beginning to do, I said, “Yes, Lord.” Just that. Right there in my worship sanctuary/prayer closet, with that lovely music still playing, I ran and leapt and danced in the freedom I knew I was being given. In many ways, my reaction was like that of Simon Peter—jumping into the sea and swimming toward Jesus rather than waiting for his boat to be rowed ashore, or asking Jesus to wash not only his feet but also his head and his hands. Joyous and trusting to a great extent, but somewhat impetuous. Oh, I should absolutely have surrendered to God and accepted gladly all that He was doing, but—well, you’ll see what happened.

In that moment, I believed God’s restoration had all been given to me at once, and that I was prepared to go out the very next day and conquer the world. Does this remind you again of Peter, walking on the sea toward Jesus but sinking at the sight of the waves? That was me—praising God for what He had done, not what He was doing or what He would do, and then falling flat on my face the next day.

That Thursday, 8 May, was the date of Naomi’s monthly infusion. I always go along, simply because the infusion seems symbolic of how far the Lord has brought us. On this day, something happened with one of Naomi’s nurses that made me profoundly uncomfortable. I made the mistake of over-inflating my distress and sharing it with anyone who would listen, much to the heartache of all involved. Oh, I begged for forgiveness—from God, and from others. But even then, even after Hannah and I had gone for a long walk in the cool breeze, even after I had sat in one of my favorite outdoor places to worship and listened to Don Moen’s “I Want to Know You More”, even as Hannah and I walked home and picked lilacs along the way, I felt defeated. I did not know what had happened to the promises of the previous evening, but I was quite sure that I had not been set free after all, and might not be… Indefinitely. I cried out to the Lord without any real expectation and resolved to go back to whatever shrinking, unemboldened ways I had attempted to forsake. I was unchanged, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. True, actually, I could do nothing more, but His power is far greater than mine—how much pain I could have been spared had I chosen to remember that! . But—oh! How great is His mercy!—for the Lord did not allow me to languish in my miserable failure for long, but stretched out His hand and lifted me from the waves, asking in the process, “Where is your faith?”…

Addendum: All right, I’m going to go out on a shaky, intimidating limb and use as my worship title one of the songs that so blessed me on 7 May, a little worship anthem by Rob Evans and something ostensibly for children. Are we not all children of God? And therefore, does not the song “Jumping Up and Down, Shout Hosanna”, from the DVD/video ON TOUR, more than qualify as legitimate praise? “Shout Hosanna” it is! As performed live, the song features exuberant clapping and the waving of palm branches, a discussion of the Triumphal Entry and of following the Great Commission, and so many moments of pure praise. Its freedom reflects what I had on that wonderful evening and what I was very soon to have again, though I did not know it at the time.

Restoration and Holiness, Part II: “Praise You in This Storm”

On 7 November 2006, I did all the things that had just become a natural part of my overflowing-with-joy, Shekinah-saturated Christian life. I listened to old Maranatha! Music recordings, I took Communion, I reflected on healing and on the comfort of the Holy Spirit, I embraced an album containing a seven -minute rendering of “Amazing Grace”. The joy was inexpressible. I was still talking about it the next day, between classes that I had recently begun at the university. Oh, the professors were grating to the point of persecution even though I didn’t speak directly to them about the things of God, and I knew I faced an overwhelming deadline that evening, but—oh!—the glory of the Lord!

I have almost forgotten that day. I could not help but forget, considering what happened that night. All that joy and peace, every drop of calm and contentment, seemed to have evaporated in the spiritual crisis I experienced on 8 November 2006.
Detail-oriented though I am, especially in writing, I have made a commitment before the Lord never to discuss the specifics of what happened that night. It is not edifying, and does not lead to forgiveness or peace or restoration. Suffice it to say that the experience cut me through the heart, like a cheese-grater against all that I had ever called faith, hope, and love. I cannot express what happened, but I can describe the results—purely as an important part of this exercise, and only because you, my beloved readers, need to know what I lost in order to understand what the Lord is now restoring.

Day by day after that, I thought that perhaps I could wake up in the morning to find that I had been restored. Had I been stronger, or known what was coming, or put on the Armor of God, perhaps that would have been the case. Instead, I languished. One of the first things to disappear was my physical health. My voice was so strained by the effort of speaking around the pain in my heart that I developed a hoarseness that lasted for months. Tears would have brought sweet relief, at least for ten minutes—but my ability to weep over this tragedy had somehow been shattered. I could scream, I could allow the pent-up frustration to come out in anger, but I could not cry—very, very unlike me. I’ve since used this as a diagnostic of sorts: if I was still able to let tears come, I knew I was fundamentally all right, no matter how great the pain. I slept and woke, ate and attended classes, but without fervor or enthusiasm. During that time, I developed a knee bleed due to Coumadin complications and had to use crutches for a few weeks. In the past, I had always sailed through medical difficulties because I knew that the Lord was with me and that His promises as set forth in Scripture were always mine to cling to. You’d think that something as comparatively simple as a knee bleed would have caused me to immerse myself in Him, forget whatever crisis had hitherto stood in my way, and begin dancing before Him again as soon as I could set down my crutches.

But, you see, my dear readers, I was far past that point. As November gave way to December and Christmas plans, I allowed the fear and anguish and bitterness in me to fester and grow, like so much mould on a loaf of once-fresh bread. A weed you can at least pluck out, allowing your crop to flourish—but I was afraid the sin in my life could never be plucked up and out, but that if any part of this “bread” was to be salvaged at all, there would have to be a lot of systematic bread-removal involved…

January of 2007 brought with it an intriguing new course, innocuously called Survey of British Literature. To my professor, this meant that we were to survey the Existentialist writings of one Samuel Beckett. My precious, beloved readers, no matter what you believe, may I please take this opportunity to implore you, from the bottom of my heart, not to even consider reading a play entitled ENDGAME? It is fraught with terror and chaos to the point of being evil. And because my memory has always been unusually vivid and detailed, I could not banish snatches of dialogue and script direction from my thoughts for nearly five months. Every night, just as I was preparing for bed, that horrifying play would burrow into my consciousness, with all the attending chaos and confusion. By this time, as you’ll know if you read Part I, I had been filled with the Holy Spirit for four years, so I should have realized that this required some good, strong spiritual warfare—”resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). But as I lay there resisting the urge to scream in terror, to cry out for help that I was no longer sure how to request, the closest I could come was occasionally whispering, “Jesus, help me…”

But would He? You must understand that this was no ordinary attack, no trifling battle. Not only did I feel unable to come against Satan, but I truly struggled to even consider coming into God’s presence through prayer and worship. The Bible, which had always provided such comfort, now caused my heart to ache for what I so longed to have again—that glorious friendship with the Friend of sinners. I remember lying awake one morning and listening to an audio rendering of I Samuel, a book that had always brought me joy in the past because I saw the Lord’s glory and presence in those majestic accounts involving Samuel’s service and the restoration of the ark of the covenant to the Israelites. This time, though, what I found were passages about David and Saul. Was I like Saul? Were other Christians like David? Was I, without intending to, harming other Christians, or the Gospel of Christ, in my conduct? It was at that point, I think, that I stopped trying to attend church, stopped seeking altogether–very difficult when God’s presence is all you need, all you have ever needed. I felt that my sins so separated me from the Savior that, somehow, since I should have known better from the beginning, that I could not ask Him to cleanse me. I wondered during those days—oh, how I wondered! I shan’t spell that out for you, but you can probably guess what I may have questioned.

Oh, the Lord tried to bring me again into His presence—He did! Seven times, He called me; seven times, I said, “I am not worthy”, and continued my own way. Not a figure of speech—I counted those calls after the Lord set me free. I remember one time listening to a beautiful allegory by one Dennis Jernigan; the holy, loving, precious presence of the Lord came and filled the room with such strength and power that I could only bow before Him in repentance. I’m now convinced that, had I carried that mercy with me, I could have been freed that night, but I didn’t–and so I continued to wander. I have always prayed, before and since traveling that desert, that the Lord Jesus would use any and all of my experiences to encourage or help others. If you are reading this in a blur of pain, if you are under any kind of spiritual duress, if you love Jesus but feel so unworthy that you, too, can’t find it in you to come into His presence, if you are in turmoil or fear, know that you aren’t alone. Know that you aren’t alone, and know, too, that our Lord loves you and that He is waiting for you to return to Him fully. Ask Him to set you free, and then abandon this post in favor of seeking His face. Draw near to Him and know that He will draw near to you. This post can wait.

Well, this went on for nearly six months—8 November 2006-26 April 2007. Then, Seminarian Sister received a word from the Lord, called to give me God’s gentle chastisement, and then faded into the background again. I have seldom seen the gifts of the Spirit used so appropriately; in an era in which people sometimes misuse what they don’t fully grasp in the Lord, Seminarian Sister knew exactly what she was doing. Then, Hannah did something that melted my fear and bitterness entirely—she invited me to church. Beneath her tender words was an invitation from the Lord, the last of many, many gentle calls to repentance—”Come home, come home. / Ye who are weary, come home. / … O sinner, come home!” First came the peace, then the joy… But it was when those tears began to fall at long, long last that I knew I had truly been set free. Ever since that time, a special way of taking Communion and the old Integrity worship chorus “He Is the King” have both taken on new, joy-filled significance.

Subsequent months were spent being renewed in my All in All, my First Love. There was so much to rediscover—so much worship music I had bought but never been able to grasp, so many hours remembering and relearning how to pray. There were times on my knees, moments listening for the voice of God. Gone were the chaos and confusion that the enemy had tried to use in pummeling my heart—it was all so wonderful. I spent hours in the Word, reading and rereading Matthew and Luke, Genesis and Psalms. One morning, I read of King Hezekiah and realized that, in many ways, I was much like him—I, too, had been restored and healed of something too great for me and, like Hezekiah, I would write songs of joy for God’s goodness.

And, my dear readers, isn’t that all enough? Wasn’t it sufficient that God had restored me to a relationship with Himself again? Was it not more than enough that He should teach me to pray again, help me to worship again, show me His glory again? Of course it was! So, really, what did it matter that things weren’t really the same after that spiritual crisis? If my wounded heart had been sutured—if, in fact, it almost felt as though I had been given an entirely new heart—then what did it matter that my arms and legs had each sustained multiple fractures? I was alive, so did I really need to concern myself with whether or not I could walk? I was just so grateful to be in Him again that I decided that the rest didn’t really matter. “THE REST” looked something like this:

* I could no longer endure stress. Had my mother and sister been diagnosed with MS in those pre-2006 days, I would have made “Heal Me, O Lord” our family anthem and continued on my merry way; after those days of heartache, though, I nearly shattered under the weight of multiple sclerosis in the family.

* Worship was quieter, just as fervent in heart but not as externally enthusiastic.

* I often found it difficult to discuss the Holy Spirit, even with like-minded Charismatic believers. What if I said something amiss about His gifts or promises?

* No longer was I as bold in proclaiming the Gospel. In fact, I worried for years that if someone approached me and openly asked how to become a Christian, I might no longer have the words—though I would yearn for the ability to articulate Christ’s salvation. Not a good situation.

* I feared that the 2006 crisis, or something like it, might spring up and slice my heart again.

* The walls surrounding my memory, and the gates that allowed only holy and righteous associations in, seemed to have been smashed. As a result, painful memories took up residence among the joyful ones. Although lilies still represented Resurrection Day, certain coffee cups now reminded me strikingly of unhappy dates and times.

* I had a difficult time forgiving anyone—myself as well as other Christians.

* Multi-tasking of any kind was a thing of the past. No longer could I share a meal and a conversation at the same time.

* I don’t believe I trusted the Lord as much as I once did; I spent fewer moments in His presence from day to day.

* Spiritual warfare was no longer something I practiced. It was almost as though I forgot, although the principles of applying the armor of God and coming against the enemy lingered somewhere in my memory banks, just out of reach.

But all of this was something I pushed deliberately into the background. After all, wasn’t dwelling on any lingering brokenness akin to unforgiveness? I now see that what I conceptualized as “dwelling on” a difficult event might actually have led to my healing, but that is a topic for a later post. And besides, wasn’t failure to accept things as they now were bordering on ingratitude? After all, I continued reading Scripture if a little less voraciously, I kept praying, I took Communion daily as a reminder of His grace, I accepted His promises, I allowed Him to use me in ministry, I had been in His manifest glory many times since that spiritual trauma, I now knew with absolute certainty that my name is in the Book of Life and that no one and nothing can separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ my Lord, I could attend church without the condemnation that had formerly plagued me, I was being restored in my relationships with others… And so I did nothing about “the rest”. I relegated all those doubts to a top shelf in a back closet, turned to coping techniques rather than to His healing, and accepted that this was the way that things would always be. I was sadly changed, and that was that.

As the Lord wills and gives me strength, I will continue this project. If He wills, Part III will discuss the turning point of 2013, and Part IV will begin the meat of what has been taking place over the past month.

Addendum: “Praise You in This Storm” is not actually a favorite worship song of mine, but its percussion does mirror something like a storm and its lyrics do express God’s nearness even when we feel that we are losing everything. Much like my situation, those many years ago…

“Garment of Praise”

Please note: This is not at all the post I meant to write today. Actually, I was going to entitle it, “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas Tree”, write something light and fluffy for the day after Christmas, and leave it at that. However, halfway through writing this, the Lord impressed upon my heart the lessons He wanted me to take from the intertwining experiences I’m about to relate. Especially if you happen to be sorrowful or suffering at the moment, I hope you can find the same encouragement I have.

For the past few weeks, I have vacillated between joy and dread. First, strongest, and most important was the joy–joy in Jesus, joy in the restoration He was beginning in our lives, joy in His Word and His presence, joy at His ability to heal that which was broken… joy, joy, joy! There were long evenings spent overwhelmed at His absolute glory. Moments riding in the car and listening to “Sunshine in My Soul”, entirely ignoring the fact that we were all about to stop for coffee and eschewing my loved-ones’ questions about whether I would like a peppermint mocha or a hot chocolate. Evenings of watching in wonder as the Lord restored a relationship I thought had been damaged indefinitely. Yes, there was joy.

Yet, lingering somewhere in the background, there was also that sense of dread. It reared its head when I was presented with a box of ornaments that we had purchased in 2006. Since that year marked the beginning of the worst six-month spiritual valley I had ever encountered, I could not bring myself to hang those ornaments because I did not want to be reminded of that time. Likewise, I refused to attend any church whose Christmas Eve service was designed to accommodate more than five hundred people–no PowerPoint sermon outlines or percussion carols for me, not since last year’s service encompassed those elements, and last year had been trying. Oh, the Lord has so much work to do with me! And, if you can believe it, I’m actually better than I used to be…

Worst of all, though, were all those secular Christmas songs. Now, before you begin thinking that I’m simply saying that out of false piety, you must understand that my first real exposure to “White Christmas”, “Suzy Snowflake”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and “Silver Bells” came at a time so traumatic that it was a five-year struggle to put most of the heartache behind me. Somehow, my anguish at hearing those songs extended to all Christmas songs that did not directly mention the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ while delivering a five-point salvation message. Of course, some of this is hyperbolic; I do believe that “O Come, O Come, Immanuel”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were all written before five-point sermons came into being, but the bottom line is that all Christmas songs I listened to had to include the manger, shepherds, and angel of the Lord while entirely avoiding bells, holly, and trees.

My sister, whom I shall allegorically refer to as Hannah, saw it differently. Perhaps, she had seen videos featuring some of those greenery-oriented songs; perhaps, her mind simply works differently than mine. Whatever the reason, she was quite nonplused by many of the songs I took such pains to avoid. One of her favourites was “Holly, Jolly Christmas”. Now, not only had I heard that one during a difficult time, but the singer had been a professional musician-don’t ask me his name–who sang the song with a note of such profound despair in his voice that it made you depressed just to listen to him. So, no matter how upbeat future versions were, I always imagined weeping music notes surrounding the singer. Not a holly, jolly song.

No, no, I am not penning this post as a bitter rant. I have a point in all of this. Let’s return to the joy for a moment–the all-consuming exultation in the Lord Jesus that ruled most of my days and nights throughout December. With everything within me, I wanted to truly celebrate this year, to make it sparkle with meaning. Recalling how miserable I had been last year–another spiritual difficulty, which I could have prevented had I been a little more attentive while I was training to get my guide-dog–and remembering the way I had refused to do much of anything with the tree, people’s gifts, or random Christmas decorations, I resolved to make the most of this year as a thank offering to God. I spent hours traveling to the Christian bookstore and browsing through devotionals until I had found the perfect ones, tracking down gift wrap with crosses and doves on it, knitting ribbons for certain loved-ones’ gifts, working to provide a sister in Christ with heart-stirring worship music for her under-the-tree enjoyment, assembling gift baskets, etc. It was wonderful! Together, Jedediah and I went to the crawl space and unearthed the carousel that’s been a traditional part of Christmas past since 1994, but that had been missing since 2004 because–let’s face it–no one really wants to risk fibre glass exposure in an unfinished room under the basement stairs.

And the tree! We couldn’t get a real one this year, but we did get the friendliest artificial one we could find. Three varieties of “pine” branches made of different materials, pine cones attached to the branches, a rotating stand. Unlike the scraggly, stationary, uniform tree we had been living with since 1999, this one had personality. During previous years, the person who was closest at hand and who was in possession of the greatest mental fortitude decorated the tree–or I would decorate it, if I felt that too much time had elapsed without so much as a strand of garland on our poor, bare evergreen. This year, every last one of us participated. We decorated both the tree and the banister railing with garland–something we had not done since 2004–and festooned our tree with a cinnamon-scented freshener and snowflake ornaments. Then, it was time for my favorite part–all the mismatched, hand-made, or other highly-individualized ornaments. I don’t care how many display trees feature nothing but uniformity of Christmas bulbs and tinsel, and I’m not sure I’ll care if/when the Lord should choose to heal me–being visually-impaired has absolutely nothing to do with the sentimental cortex, corresponding sections of the heart and brain that I can’t get a single scientist to acknowledge but that I am convinced exist. Back to the ornaments. We hung my harp and Hannah’s cat; a train car; a Christmas bulb with four sunflowers on it; two candles on the same ornament; stained-glass ornaments depicting the Last Supper and the feeding of the five thousand and more stained-glass ornaments featuring Bible verses, much to Hannah’s dismay, since she made them in fourth-grade as part of a private-school project; ornaments cut from aluminum foil, much to my horror since I had made them out of desperation back in third grade; a bell shaped like society’s concept of an angel; a tiny doll that looked much like an antique spool doll; a cross Hannah had made in a high-school ceramics class; two doves in different flight positions and constructed of different materials…

Then, we adorned the top of that beautiful, valuable, love-filled tree by attaching a wire cross to the top of it. I had made the cross in my sophomore year of high school, and it was jagged and imperfect. So was the original, you know–it wasn’t an ornament or a decoration, but a true and beautiful gift of grace. Anyway, we wanted the cross to stand out this year, so there we were–my less-than-six-foot sister and my much-less-than-six-foot self, standing on chairs and finding additional wire and other mechanisms to use in affixing this cross. It was one of those hand-over-hand, cooperative, Body-of-Christ closeness moments that will not soon be forgotten. And, really, isn’t the cross the very best possible ornament to put at the top of a tree? Doesn’t it say so much about the real reason for Jesus’ coming, denoting a gift rather than simply speaking of a single event?

So, we had a lovely Christmas tree. But let us return to the holly and the ivy and everything in-between for a moment, shall we? About a week before Christmas, Hannah and I went to the local Hallmark store in search of a last-minute card. And what do you suppose was playing, incessantly, for the first five minutes of our shopping excursion? Hannah loved it. “Have a holly, jolly Christmas–it’s the best time of the year…” I grinned and bore it, relieved beyond all measure when the song finally ended. But then, it seemed to have gotten itself firmly implanted in Hannah’s mind, because she didn’t stop singing or humming it for the rest of our fifteen-minute card-hunt. Once, I ventured to speculate that perhaps Christmas, beautiful though it is, is not “the best time of the year”–but that that honorable designation belongs to Resurrection Day. The rest of the time, I gritted my teeth and continually admonished myself, “Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost… Forgetting those things which are behind, we press on… Behold, I do a new thing… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, PATIENCE, kindness, goodness, faithfulness… Love is patient and kind, does not seek its own, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not parade itself. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… And now abide faith, hope, and love. The greatest is love…” In other words, “Ready Writer, control yourself and let God strengthen you!”

My breakthrough came when I was loading my guide-dog and her harness into the car. As I bent to make sure my dog’s tail was safely in the car, I could still hear Hannah singing, “Have a holly, jolly…” Then, getting side-tracked and perhaps a bit tired of the tune at hand, she added, “Christmas tree!” I’m not sure whether she had intentionally decided to altar the words, if she was bored and in search of a distraction, or if she had decided to begin on “O Christmas Tree”, but the effect was hilarious. A holly, jolly Christmas tree? Was our rotating tree, then, the best one of the year–from house to house and city to city? I mean, really! A jolly Christmas tree!

I burst out laughing. “Hannah, did you really say what I think you did?”

“Oh, did I?” But there was no use concealing the musical blunder. So, she did what any self-respecting singer would do–she began adding pieces to the composition as though the lurch had been intentional all along. Lines about crosses atop trees, about sunflower ornaments and garland and rotating stands and lights and pinecones perched on branches…

Now, my beloved readers, don’t try this at home. If this sounds like a beautifully-constructed rendering, please know that inserting the word “tree” in this song to begin with threw off the entire rhythm. The result was imperfect, hand-made, like the artificial subject that waited at home. But it made us laugh, don’t you know? And that broke away at some of the tension in my heart. A despondent-sounding man singing about unnecessary mistletoe was one thing, but a song about a lovingly-decorated tree was quite another. Will I ever come to embrace the original version with any degree of fondness? Likely not.

And yet, and yet… The Lord has shown me that He can restore even what I have long associated with crises–that He can turn my mourning to laughter and fill me with praise and rejoicing, that He can take something that had turned to jagged heartache and soften it little by little. He still has much work to do with me–that is why Scripture compares us to fruit trees–but I know what He can do. First, it’s an accidental song about a Christmas tree; then, perhaps someday, He will help me to listen to the original without shedding a tear; and a few more months or years down the road, perhaps I will find something beautiful in the 2006 ornaments I could not hang this year. And why stop with Christmas-themed items? The popcorn I can never bring myself to eat now because it tastes of loneliness may one day be sanctified through the giving of thanks. The hated, dreaded task of waking others up in the morning–a chore I avoid with a passion better spent on other pursuits because it puts me in mind of still more brokenness–may be used of the Lord one of these days; perhaps He will show me ways to have coffee brewing and worship music playing next time. Or the blanket I used in the hospital for two weeks during a series of simultaneous bleeds and clotting episodes, if you can imagine–may the day come when the Lord will bring to mind the careful weave of each fibre and remind me of how He forms us with even greater care?

My point is this: Jesus Christ is able to heal and restore absolutely anything–any memory, any trauma, any heartache, any pain or affliction in my life. And then there’s this: I may have an unconventional way of writing about it, but I know that I cannot possibly be the only Christian who suffers, to some extent, from PTSD (post-traumatic stress) or DESNOS (a disorder of extreme stress not otherwise specified). I used to believe I was all alone–that Jesus came to bring life and to give it more abundantly, and that if I were not constantly rejoicing then I was a flawed, sinful person. Guess what? That isn’t true. Note, if you will, that Jesus rebuked anger, that He even rebuked unbelief, but that He showed great compassion on those who were crushed in spirit. And if He can restore me, whether gradually as now or instantaneously as at some other times, then He can do the same for you. No matter how destructive the sorrow or grief, He is faithful, He is merciful, and He will cause all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. And, what is more, He is able–able to either transform the trial so that it becomes less painful and glorifies Him, or to heal the wound left by any amount of damage, leaving behind either a painless scar or nothing at all. Do not lose heart; keep on praying, keep on seeking and worshiping and trusting. He is with you–He will provide the grace or the strength or the restoration or healing that is needed, and He is always, always a very present help in time of need. Hannah’s impromptu song was something the Lord used to begin to teach me that—that, no matter how frustrating the situation may appear, the garment of praise will eventually be mine again–given to all who trust in His ability to take away heaviness.