Word of the year 2016

I have a confession to make, and as a graduate of a liberal arts university (with a minor in religion and philosophy), this is truly crawl-under-a-rock worthy. I made a classic Christian mistake. I interpreted a passage of Scripture (Nehemiah 8:10) a) entirely out of context and b) in light of—wait for it—a contemporary Christian worship song rather than the context of the passage itself, the Jewish culture, or anything else reasonable or helpful.

OneDay 2000

At OneDay 2000 (and yes, those are scrubs I’m wearing)

The embarrassing fact is this happened some time in college, and I’ve been running on the fumes of my lazy interpretation ever since. Has it caused me any major harm? Has it harmed others? Not necessarily.

At least one good thing came this Scriptural interpretation error for about 18 years. It opened my eyes to the truth that I’ve probably made similar errors numerous other times in my walk of faith over the years (incredibly humbling). Yikes—gotta keep my mental antennae up now every time I read the Bible for sure. What the heck was wrong with me? Were my emotions leading my brain or what? Who knows.

Here’s the problem.

I missed so much goodness by failing to see the big picture.

Each year since 2011, thanks to the prompting of my friend Denise Felton, I select a word as my focus or theme rather than making resolutions or setting specific goals. This helps me to stay centered and gives me something positive to meditate on; the appeal of choosing a word of the year also appeals to me since I’m a writer and have degrees in English—word nerd to the max, for sure.

This year, I felt compelled to focus on the word joy. If you read my previous blog post, you probably understand why. 2015 presented many challenges, and if I had to select a word in retrospect to represent my emotional state of being in 2015, it would likely be grief.

Who wouldn’t like a little relief from THAT? Joy hot fudge cake sundae with a little extra joy on top, please. And joyful cherry, too.002

I began researching joy and its word origins, reading articles online about the differences between happiness and joy, searching for quotes online and famous folks defining “joy,” and reading Scriptural passages about joy. All of this reading and research was helpful, but what stunned me—and quite frankly moved me to tears—was Nehemiah chapter 8. I knew I’d love verse 10 because, as I mentioned, I already felt attached to this verse because I’d belted out Matt Redman’s “Trading My Sorrows (Yes Lord)” more times than I can recall.

And I meant it—well, I meant that I WANTED the joy of the Lord to be my strength. Until the past few years, I didn’t even know how to allow God to be God in my life—I was my own god, managing and controlling and answering all my own questions and only turning to the real God as a last resort. So the whole “Trading My Sorrows” song and saying “Yes, yes Lord” thing was, at best, me paying desperate lip service to a noble concept I wanted to apply but simply couldn’t.

I recently purchased Sara Groves’ new album. The title track is Floodplain. I understand the song so well; the first time I listened to it, I gasped. She was describing the former Bethany.

Some hearts are built on a floodplain
Keeping one eye on the sky for rain
You work for the ground that gets washed away
When you live closer

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to that’s the way it goes
Some hearts are built on a floodplain

And it’s easy to sigh on a high bluff
Look down and ask when you’ve had enough
Will you have the sense to come on up
Or will you stay closer

Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees
Some hearts live here

Oh the river it rushes to madness
And the water it spreads like sadness
And there’s no high ground
And there’s no high ground
Closer to the danger and the rolling deep
Closer to the run and the losing streak
And what brings us to our knees

Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to Lord please send a boat
Some hearts are built here

What happened to move me off the Floodplain is similar to what happened for God’s people, the Israelites, in Nehemiah chapter 8–God ultimately comes in for the win and fills them with more joy than they’d ever imagined. If I had taken time to read this chapter for myself slooowwwllyyy rather than rushing through it, latching on to the portion of the verse mentioned in the catchy Christian worship song all the cool kids were singing at the time, maybe I would have taken note of this as an 18 year-old kid… But maybe not. As Sara Groves states, “Some hearts are built here.” Mine certainly was.

Nehemiah, a servant of God who was serving as governor on behalf of King Xerxes, felt led to lead the Israelites who’d returned to Jerusalem out of exile to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He appealed to Xerxes, who granted him permission to oversee this task, and over a period of several months, Nehemiah worked tirelessly to make it happen but not without encountering numerous naysayers, some of whom threatened his life and tried to attack Jerusalem. While reading Nehemiah today, I felt exhausted at times—so I’m pretty sure he must have felt this way, too. There were times when the men did not even disrobe and disarm while sleeping for fear of being attacked at night. All this occurred while the people worked non-stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

When the Jewish people finally finished rebuilding the walls, Ezra, the priest, gathered the people together to read the Book of the Law. The people listened attentively, and Nehemiah and the priests said to the people, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law… “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated like this. And their joy was very great.  (Nehemiah 8:9-10, 17)

I never knew the back story—that the priests commanded the people to stop grieving and to find strength in the Lord via the avenue of joy that day.

And the back story goes WAAAYY back. These people returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to other nations, enslaved to nations and forced into God-knows-what kind of bondage. Many of their babies died from starvation before having a chance at life. I could go on and on. I’m not making this stuff up—read the books of the prophets in the Old Testament—it’s all there, and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people are horrific.

These people—the ones having difficulty holding back tears while the Book of the Law is being read for the first time after the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt—these people are the survivors. But the priests see the big picture, and while they empathize with the mourning of the survivors, they also want to help the survivors thrive and move forward. They don’t want the people’s spiritual feet to remain stuck in the muck of grief. They want them to move into the clear, clean dry land of joy.021

This story—the story of the completion of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah chapter 8—occurred in the seventh month on the Jewish calendar during the Feast of Trumpets. This is the Jewish New Year.

It’s my New Year now.

This story resonates with me because it’s a beautiful depiction of what God has done for me, and it’s what I’m asking Him to do for me again.

After a long, hard year in 2015, I certainly relate to the overwhelming feelings expressed by the Israelites in Nehemiah. Like the people of Jerusalem, I am ready to celebrate like I have never celebrated before in 2016. I want to say at the end of this year, “And my joy was very great.”

As the wise king Solomon once said, there certainly is a season and time for everything. And there has been enough grief.

Excuse me, please. I must go heed the words of Nehemiah 8:12.

“Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”

I know, I know… I’m taking the words out of context again… but for the love of chocolate…

 

The best and worst of 2015

The truth is I’ve never read The Tale of Two Cities.

After spending 20 minutes scouring SparkNotes—yep, SparkNotes (the shame of it)—and reading quick online plot summaries and popular quote interpretations, I found myself sitting at my white handmade desk at 11:15 p.m. the night before Christmas Eve, tissuing away tears. It might have been the mention of the Christ-figure Carton and his martyrdom, or maybe it was Manette’s inability to tear himself away from making shoes even after being released from prison that got me choked up. I don’t know. But I decided to order a copy of the old classic and conquer it in 2016.

What drew me to the text in the first place was my recollection of the infamous opening paragraph and how well it reflects my sentiments regarding 2015.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

I won’t even begin to apply the quote to the universe or to philosophize about the state of the Union or the world at large, ISIS, global warming, technology and its effects on Generation Z (or the rest of us for that matter), or the countless other sociopolitical problems we face.

For today, I’ll stick to my own neck of the woods and my little life.

I wish I could not relate to the opening lines of The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I wish I considered these lines ridiculous and over the top. But I relate—I relate very well.

Each autumn, I attend a women’s conference that renews me spiritually. I participate in a group meditation that’s particularly meaningful to me and am handed a phrase which seems to always ring true in the coming year. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy, if you like, but I consider it a positive promise of sorts from God, or something hopeful to work toward or claim. In 2014, the phrase I was handed was “Blessings fill your life.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Indeed—blessings have filled my life this year. Some of them have overwhelmed me with their enormity. God has blown my expectations out of the water in many ways, redefined “miracle,” and allowed me to observe others’ miracles, too.

But this year also brought bone-crushing, soul-splitting grief. I lost several friends whom I dearly loved—and the means of loss were ugly, confusing, and left me with more questions than consolation. When I asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” I didn’t hear a pretty piano playing a sweet hymn in response. I heard nothing.

In those times, I tried to keep doing what worked for me spiritually—to daily maintain my spiritual condition. But sometimes, many times, I just sat outside at night and looked at stars and said nothing at all, and I think He was okay with that. Other times I hated Him and all but spat at Him. I’m pretty sure He was okay then, too. He is God, after all. He is a Big Boy and can handle my humanity, even when I am embarrassed by it.

During those times, I had no idea how “Blessings fill your life” applied to me, but the card emblazoned with the phrase haunted me from my bulletin board. I wanted to throw it in the garbage but never did.

I’m glad I didn’t.

The best of times made their way back around again, and when they did, they did not disappoint.

There’s too much of the best to spell it all out, and quite frankly, some of it is too personal to share. A long time ago God somehow explained to me that we’d share many amazing moments that would blow my mind and steal my heart along this journey together. I learned that if I shared all of them, or even most of them, they’d lose their power somehow. So I pick and choose what I share.

One of the biggest miracles and strangest turn of events occurred in relation to employment. In June, I reconnected with a friend/business acquaintance, and dozens of prayers, careful decisions, and two months later, he and his wife offered me my current position as Content Manager of their company. I’m not joking when I say that I’ve dreamed about working for this company for a decade; seeing God fit multiple pieces of a complicated puzzle together seamlessly this summer was nothing short of breathtaking.

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With my bosses/mentors/friends, Steven & Faith Rothberg

I recently traveled to Minnesota to train for a few days. We worked like dogs, but I never felt tired until I closed my eyes at night. While recalling specific conversations and moments with a team member recently, I realized that not once while training and brainstorming did my bosses say, “Oh no, we just can’t do that,” or “That’s not a good idea.” Perhaps THIS is why I’m overcome with gratitude every time I think about work.

This year I also realized that losses and flaws are often my greatest gifts.

While driving back from the airport after traveling to Minnesota, alone, tired, and ready to see my little Maggie who I knew would be ready to see me, I hurriedly drove at sunset while chugging cheap coffee. I suddenly felt a moment of panic when I realized I couldn’t recall if I’d taken the right exit or not. What if I didn’t, and I am heading in the wrong direction? I really have no idea where I’m going. I paused, took a deep breath, and prayed for guidance. I decided to call my husband for help even though I hated asking for his help while driving because believe it or not, he can be a little cocky at times.

When he answered the phone, he was calm and helped me right away. I was heading in the right direction after all.

Something in my mind clicked; God seemed to be saying If you never felt fear, you would never trust Me.

Oh my God. You’re right. Thank You for my fear.

I couldn’t believe I was driving down the road thanking God for my FEAR. What a gross thing to be thankful for. But for me, an egotistical, independent perfectionist, a little fear may be necessary to keep me coming back.

That got me thinking about the rest of my “best of times and worst of times.” The most painful moments when I have been smothered by grief have felt the worst, but those moments led me to seek the Comforter, the only One who can fill gaps in me. I’ve felt frustrated and at a total loss when my toddler doesn’t comply and goes in the opposite preferred direction, but this reminds me I’m not in control and Who Is. There have been many times this year when I felt too overwhelmed to speak or write. I learned that God and I communicate just as well as two silent beings.

Blessings have filled my life after all.