Important

Maggie’s obsession with carousels began six months ago when Nettie, her grandma, brought her a coloring book with sketches of horses. The cover featured an intricately adorned carousel in Tennessee. Maggie was hooked. She began begging to ride carousels and asked questions about them daily. I blamed Nettie for that.

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Maggie’s first carousel ride was a little anticlimactic; the carousel, a rickety three-horse ride at Wal-Mart, wasn’t working properly. We deposited coins while she giggled and shouted with glee. And nothing happened.

Maggie kept riding, though. She pretended the horses were whinnying, kicking, and dancing. She sat atop that broken carousel for at least five minutes while we watched, amused.

A few months later, she rode an antique carousel at the zoo. I’ll never forget her face while the breeze caught her golden hair, her eyes closed and tiny teeth shining in the June light.

part0_13 (1)Nettie brought Maggie a toy carousel a few weeks later. The carousel’s status surpassed that of her “snowballs,” globes swirling with white plastic specks, sparkling glitter surrounding Baby Jesus and his mother.

I knew Maggie loved her carousel, but I barely noticed it. When she pushed a red button, the Christmas-themed figurine played electronic carols. I couldn’t make it through two of them without distracting her to play with something else or leaving the room to finish loading the dishwasher.

Until last night, I had never heard all the songs the carousel carries. We lay in bed together, the three of us, watching the mirrored column in the center of the ride scatter its green and red lights around her bedroom. She showed me which horse she loves most on the carousel and explained why. I hummed along to the tunes and held her soft, squishy hand and rubbed her warm, smooth back.

Six months had passed, and I’d never heard the music.

How much beauty in small places do I miss?

I often ask myself, “How important is it?” I typically prioritize big, urgent, prominent things. Work. Marketing. Chores. Meetings. Writing. Scheduled events.

Last night, I saw the world through Maggie’s eyes once again.

From now on, my response to that rhetorical question when presented with moments like this will be “Top priority.”

 

Seeing love

The minute I start thinking about how much work I’m getting done, whether I’m accomplishing enough in my business, if I’m on target to complete my goals for the month or year, or how clean the house is, I’ve lost the ability to exist in the present moment with my child. Worry robs me of enjoying life with Maggie. You’d think that acknowledging that would be enough to permanently rid me of obsessing over work, future plans, past failures, or to-do lists. But no. I still find myself wide-eyed with locked jaw, focused on matters which I know will not matter one single bit in 10 years… maybe not even in one year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we inch closer to the day she starts preschool—she’ll only go three mornings a week, so it’s not like she’s walking out the door and never looking back, but it still feels big to me—I am reminded that we’re turning a significant corner as a family. Every time she asks me to go sit on the porch with her in the evening to watch her turtle, a little box turtle my husband found for her, which she named, “Said,” I don’t want to say no. But I hesitate, knowing I have a client waiting for a resume. I hesitate because a friend is coming to stay with us for the weekend, and the house is far from clean or even sanitary right now. But I try to leave my worries behind and play anyway because I know I don’t say yes often enough.

There are too many times I’ve hesitated in the past or said no. And I have carried regrets for all of those times over the past few years. I refuse to carry regrets with me related to saying no to my daughter and her requests for my time, love, and attention. Will I say no to her when she asks for material possessions, demands freedom to explore unsafe areas of the world, and permission to push boundaries which are in place to protect her? Absolutely—I will always say no if it’s in her best interest. But I will say yes, yes, yes if she’s begging for more of my love.

I once heard a speaker say, “Whatever the question, love is the answer.”

The other night I was feeling pushed to my limits with Maggie. She had a hard day that day, and I’d had one, too, dealing with repeated frustration with her demands and defiance. I took a breather and stepped out of the bathroom while she finished her bath. I glanced at the wall and saw an old portrait my dad gave me years ago hanging on the wall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScripted on the portrait were the words, “I asked Jesus, ‘How much do You love me?’ And Jesus said, ‘This much.’ And He spread His arms and died for me.”

I took a deep breath and went back into the bathroom. Maggie splashed around in the water with her bath crayons happily and asked if I wanted to see the pictures she’d drawn of imaginary sea dragons, birds with their mothers, and Mama, Maggie, and Daddy. Of course I did.

I needed to see that portrait. I needed a reminder of just how much God loves me and my little Maggie, and to be reminded that there’s nothing I can do to mess that up. I needed to be reminded that there’s nothing Maggie can do to ruin my love for her and that’s all she needs to hear and see from me every day is a reminder of that Great Love, the kind of Love that holds out its arms all day long for us.

Channeling Ginger Rogers

I’ve read the Christmas story in the book of Matthew at least a dozen times—too many times, maybe. I mumble along with the verses, chanting a Biblical “yada yada yada.” My eyes normally become glassy as I gloss over the familiar words.

But this morning was different. It seems that not only had I glossed over the words, but I’d also missed part of the meaning. My memory recounted God warning Joseph in a dream about Herod’s ill intentions, and my memory recalled God—once again in a dream—giving Joseph the “all clear” to return to Nazareth. But this morning I picked up on verse 22 for the first time. I read about God speaking to Joseph once more in a dream—this time to say “never mind.”

How had I missed that third dream message?

Did God change His mind? Did He make a mistake the first time and had to correct Himself? Was this a case of human will interrupting God’s plans? Did Joseph’s fear cause him to misinterpret God’s will?

I’ll never know.

What I do know is that I am not sure I would have heeded God’s warning that third time—I might have ignored him the first two times, too. I’m one of those stubborn souls who has to learn things the hard way—by trial and error and experience. The benefit of learning through my own experiences is that the lessons stick. I know what happens when I don’t yield to God, and I know what happens when I do. I like to think of my relationship with God—my life, really—as a dance between me and God.

TopHatFredAstaireGingerRogersI’ve been on an old movie kick lately—probably due to the classic Christmas movies playing repeatedly on Turner Classic Movies channel. Watching Fred Astaire dance alone is art in motion. I’m convinced that no other tap dancer will ever match Astaire’s level of skill, ease of movement, or natural rhythm. But watching Astaire partner with great female dancers is even more of a treat because he leads them so subtly, so gently that the leading isn’t even noticeable.

In my own life, my dance with God has had its graceful moments and its embarrassing moments, too, when my two left feet take over. When I don’t feel like holding His hand and following His lead, He behaves like a true gentleman and steps aside, allowing me to twirl and spin out of control and go in whatever direction I desire.

Joseph’s dance with God seems a little more graceful than mine. Joseph listened to God and paid attention to his dreams, which God used to speak to Him. But throwing plans to the wind and changing directions—literally, in Joseph’s case—wasn’t a small decision. Two other people were affected—Mary and Jesus (and maybe more children, who knows).

I wonder if Mary recognized how lucky she was to have Joseph by her side. When Mary became pregnant, Joseph listened to God and never left her side. Joseph led their little family through a few years of nomadic existence, fleeing danger and eking out a living in foreign lands. Even though each of his decisions might have incited cynicism, sneering, or rejection by others, Joseph stayed close to God and moved only when God moved.

Mary’s not the only lucky dame in the world. I’m lucky to have my husband, James, too. His life dance with God is a little less frenetic than mine. There have been fewer highs and fewer lows. He’s a bit of a rock. He isn’t the most vocal, outwardly pious person in the world (thank God). He doesn’t let fear dissuade him, and he doesn’t allow input from outsiders to change his mind, but he listens to God—and then he moves. For four years, I’ve been praying Psalm 1 for my husband—that he would be like a tree planted by the water, with roots going deep, deep to the core of God so that he would be strong and secure.

He is.

_DSC1797He’s rooted in God, but he’s not afraid to let God uproot him any time he pleases, and he lets God shine light onto the path in front of him, highlighting only one step at a time. When it comes to God and James, God is Astaire, and James is Ginger Rogers (minus the beautiful curly hair and flowing evening gown, of course).

It’s a beautiful effect—God leading Joseph, and Joseph leading his family. God leading my husband, and my husband leading our family. God as the choreographer, guiding us through the steps and creating beauty in motion.

And all I have to do is dance.

This is my story . . .

*My friend Samantha Hogan has been gracious enough to share my life story with her followers on Facebook. I thought I’d share it on my own blog as well. A wise woman once told me, “The past is in the past. You don’t have to bring it up or talk about it ever again, unless you choose to, and unless it can help someone else.” 18 years ago, my reality was harshly altered. 18 years later, God has transformed me and refused to let ugly actions permanently alter my beautiful future. Here’s hoping God will do what He says He’ll do for YOU in Isaiah 63–transform ashes into beauty.*

What my life was like before

I was baptized in a creek when I was five years old. I had no clue what I was doing or what it meant. I just wanted to be like my dad. Months before he left our family and became smothered by his drug addiction, he was baptized as part of a semi-charismatic revival or camp meeting. I don’t remember the details. I just remember my dad sitting me down on a big rock before we headed down to the creek, asking me why I wanted to be baptized.

“Because you are, Dad.”

So they let me. It didn’t hurt anything. I barely remember it.

After my parents divorced, my mom was stuck raising four girls, ages seven and under, by herself. She still managed to take us to church. For a while, she dropped us off for Sunday School and picked us up afterwards. Then she started going with us again. In Sunday School, I learned all the books of the Bible and earned a beautiful orange, shiny bookmark, the first of several hundred in my current collection. My Sunday School teacher must have understood the hardships my mom faced because she offered to pay to send me to gymnastics lessons, something I wanted to do but something a single mom on welfare cannot afford. Mrs. Gutshall was one of the first people to show me, not tell me, how to love others and give selflessly, for fun and for free.

My super cool friend Morgan, circa 1990-ish

My super cool friend Morgan, circa 1990-ish

When my mom remarried, and we relocated to Arkansas after her graduation from dental hygiene school, we started attending a small Southern Baptist church within walking distance from our house. During a lay renewal that September, my friend Morgan wanted to “get saved” when her grandma, our teacher, asked anyone who wanted to ask Jesus into her heart to say a prayer with her. Morgan grabbed my hand, so I decided I better pray the prayer, too, since Morgan was cool, and she was my BFF.

At that time, I gained a better understanding of what “church things” meant. I knew God was God. I understood basic Christian doctrine. I’m not sure I understood what the future held, and that in only six short years, having basic head knowledge of Christianity would not cut it. I would need more than that. I would need a passionate, desperate, trusting relationship with the Healer.

Growing up, I maintained that head knowledge and fostered it. I grew in understanding, memorized verses, and refused to have sex, drink, or do drugs. I wasn’t perfect, but I liked being the “good girl” in my group of friends. My churchy background taught me that if I did X, Y, and Z, I could basically guarantee an easier, more joyous, and safer life.

That proved to be false.

What happened to change me

When I was 16, I was raped the first time I had sex by a family friend. I didn’t tell my mom, for reasons too confidential and complicated to explain in a few short sentences. I harbored the hurt, PTSD, and anger for years. I wrote in my journals, smoked a lot of marijuana, and engaged in risky behaviors. I didn’t care anything, most of all myself and my own well-being. “True love waits” was a joke. You can wait as long as you want, I thought, but someone can screw everything up for you anyway. So who cares?

Me "faking it" during the worst year of my life.

Me “faking it” during the worst year of my life.

I didn’t. Not anymore. A few friends reached out to me and recognized the drastic difference in my attitude, the look in my eyes, my decision-making. But for the most part, I kept up a fairly Stoic façade and did so well enough to fool my parents and most other people in my life.

When I went on a mission trip to help build a church in Oklahoma, something clicked. Maybe it was the feeling I got from helping others. Maybe it was putting some distance between me and the marijuana and friends and negativity back home. Maybe it was the Native American man who took me aside after I sang during a worship service and said, “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special about you. You keep using that gift. You keep following God. He’s going to do something with you.”

On July 4, 1996, as the sun set and the fireworks began, I slipped away from the group and sat on an old rickety wooden fence and had a candid discussion with the God who I presumed existed but did not care too deeply about me personally.

Well, I’ve tried everything else. If you can give me peace and change me, please, please, PLEASE do it.”

That was it. No big words. Just a big moment in my soul.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story, and that I lived happily ever after.

That’s not real life. It’s not my real life, anyway. Afterward, my faith grew exponentially. But my ability to let go of the coping mechanisms and go-to reactions I’d acquired as a result of trusting Bethany rather than trusting God were not easy to part with. My spiritual life was literally a roller coaster. I lived very much like the Israelites in the Old Testament who worshipped God, followed Him for a while, got cocky, did their own destructive things for a while, crashed and burned, repented, and started the cycle all over again. I spent almost two years free from the behaviors I’d engaged in to fill a void in me. Then I reverted right back to 16 year-old Bethany for a while. Then I spent another year clean and clear and growing like a weed spiritually. Then I reverted again.

I did this, with varying lengths of time between relapses, for years. It seemed that I could never fully trust God, although my heart really wanted to. It seemed that my mind wouldn’t let me. My tendency to over analyze, criticize, and cynically rip apart every pure intention only worsened when I became entrenched in the disease of alcoholism after marrying a man who could not stop drinking.

Years went by. I kept going to church. I kept reading my Bible. But I became less trusting, more cynical, and more bitter. Then, thanks to my second husband’s addictive behavior leading me to a point of crisis, I turned to an anonymous recovery program for help. And I got it.

I didn’t just learn how to change my actions and behaviors. I had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over, just me and God. No churchy religious mess in the way. Nobody telling me what to think and believe. No judgmental, self-righteous “we’re praying for you” whispers—translated as “we’re all talking about you”–around me.

Just me. And God.

What my life is like now

That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve continued to grow closer to God, little by little. I am far from perfect, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The more I lean on God, and the more I let Him have, the less the old Bethany shows up. And the more I like who I am.

Changing is a process, not a moment. It involves a lot of sweat and tears, a lot of falling down and getting up again, and a lot of forgiveness. It took giving up on church for a while and wrestling with God honestly. It took a recovery program, and it still does. It took Christian counseling, too, because some scars are deceitful, just scabs covering festering wounds from the past. Thankfully, God is patient, kind, and tender-hearted, and His kindness led me to repentance, over and over again. It still does, and it always will.

Today I choose to do the next right thing more often because I have a secret, precious, deep relationship with the Man Who Healed My Heart. I know I cannot lose His love, no matter what, and the more I make choices to trust Him, the more I trust Him, because He keeps proving Himself trustworthy.

cropped-009.jpgI have the Chinese symbol for trust and belief tattooed on my left wrist to remind me of what matters.

And I have His Love wrapped around my heart, which is really all that matters.

Dirtiest bath ever

When I was in Beijing as a college student, I took the dirtiest bath ever.

At the Great Wall of China during one of four amazing trips

At the Great Wall of China during one of four amazing trips

After spending three weeks in a smaller city in Shandong Province working on ESL skills with college students and other community members, the group I traveled with spent three days in the nation’s capital, climbing the Great Wall, walking through the once forbidden gate of the Forbidden City, meeting Alanis Morissette in the gift shop, and other interesting touristy things.

But the best part about our final three days in China each year? The first long, hot bath I took in our lovely hotel.

After staying in a smaller city and in a nice but simple hotel for three weeks, the luxury of hot water at all hours of the day and night overwhelmed me. Our rooms in the simpler hotel were not really “roughing it” by Chinese standards. We had hot water for one hour a day, most days. Workers delivered boiled, potable water to us each morning in a vessel so we could wash our faces, brush our teeth, drink hot tea, and take sponge baths. And our rooms were carpeted and had air conditioning. Compared to the Chinese college students’ dormitories, we were in the lap of luxury.

Compared to our spoiled rotten American standards of living, we were suffering (and some of us had a tough time not whining about it along the way).

There is nothing like going without what you don’t need to bring you to the realization of what you do need.

Most days, I skipped the opportunity to take a hot shower during our one-hour window of opportunity in lieu of spending time with college students, practicing English, getting to know them as individuals, answering their probing questions, and performing a song or dance on occasion for a group of giggling roommates (eight to a room, by the way, as compared to two on American campuses). I don’t regret missing any of those showers. As we say in the Ozarks, “a little dirt won’t hurt.”

It didn’t. Each time I went to China, I experienced some of the most amazing, interesting, miraculous, and inspiring moments of my life. Not once did I rue missing a few baths. But every time the plane took off from the tiny airport, heading to the big city where we’d spend our last few days abroad, hot, salty tears created rivets on my dusty cheeks as I left people I’d grown to love and care about and pray for.

The first year I went, when I took the dirtiest bath of my life in Beijing, I remember being disgusted and amazed at the degree of dirtiness I had achieved in three short weeks of less-than-perfect hygiene. I scrubbed and scrubbed with a white washcloth, filling the white porcelain tub with so much dirt and grime that the water literally transformed from translucent to opaque, dark brown. The washcloth might never be white again, even with the help of bleach. And to this day, when I take a hot shower or bath, I thank God for the gift of endless access to hot water. And I remember the flood of warmth that washed over me during that very dirty bath in Beijing, along with the relief I felt, knowing that I was finally clean again.

Sunrise on the White River, 2012

Sunrise on the White River, 2012

The Ultimate Cleansing Agent did a similar dirty job for me–and for my fellow filthy humans–by washing away the nastiest, dirtiest, and most disgusting gunk of all. One time only, never needing to repeat this dirty job, He wiped off the darkness in our hearts to reveal who we really are. Souls created in His likeness, meant to reflect the Light of the world.

I’m so thankful He has scrubbed me–and the anyone else who lets Him–completely clean, once and for all.

Happy Easter.

 

This little light of mine

Our little light

Our little light

Since my daughter’s name, Margaret, means “daughter of light,” and since my 2013 word of the year is light, almost every night while nursing her, and other times during the day when I spontaneously break into song-and-dance (happens often, folks), I sing her a sunny compilation of light-themed songs. You Are My Sunshine. Shine, Jesus, Shine. And of course, This Little Light of Mine.

Maggie was named after both sides of our families. Margaret is her great-great grandmother on her father’s side of the family. Jacqueline is my mother’s name. When selecting her first name, I was torn between one name I absolutely loved the sound of. It was more trendier and cuter, really. But its meaning fell flat for me, even though I tried to repeatedly convince myself that it didn’t matter.

It did. Meanings matter to me. Words matter to me. So names matter even more.

When I learned that Margaret means “daughter of light,” I was sold.

My life’s love story has been one of Light piercing through what seemed at times to be impenetrable darkness. Over and over again. The passionate pursuit of Light, in search of my muddled soul’s heartbeat. Never thwarted by layers of stagnation, sadness, or sin, the Light has searched me out. It has found me. It loves me.

Maggie's room and her life verse hanging above her crib

Maggie’s room and her life verse hanging above her crib

As I painted the sign for my daughter’s room with her life verse on it, I had no idea that a few months later, I’d read the book Praying Circles Around Your Children by Mark Batterson and that I was setting into motion a master plan, orchestrated by Someone much more omniscient,  to pray meaning and purpose into my daughter’s life.

“Arise, shine, for your Light has come. And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” -Isaiah 60:1

That she would glorify God. That His glory would rise upon her. That she would reflect the Light her entire life.

She already does. My mom, not knowing at the time about her life verse, commented a few weeks ago that her smile lights up the room so brightly that there’s no need for electricity. Of course, this is a grandma speaking. But it’s true. Through bouts of illness since becoming pregnant, she has brought light and joy and hope to me countless times. I see her father’s countenance change, too, when their eyes meet.

And tonight I got to take my little light to church for the first time. Even though she wasn’t a fan of the music and also seemed to be missing her teething toy, Sophie the Giraffe, there was one brilliant moment.

As I swayed with her in the back of the room, hoping to soothe her, I noticed a woman crying. Not weeping softly. Crying. Sobbing. Holding onto her husband and shaking from sorrow. She reminded me of my stepmom, Jodi, a recovering addict whose health problems related to her addiction cost her to lose her life a few years ago.

I caught the woman’s eye. And that Still Small Voice reminded me of my daily prayer over my daughter.

“Let her be light.”

Sucking it up and overcoming my germaphobic tendencies, I slowly walked up to the woman during the worship music with my four month-old daughter and hugged that woman close and whispered words of encouragement in her ear. She stopped crying and touched Maggie and smiled. And of course, Maggie smiled that smile that wins everyone over who is privileged enough to witness it.

Maybe Jesus wants some of us for sunbeams, but Maggie’s the moon, reflecting Light in even the darkest moments.

That little light of mine shone bright tonight.

Getting it

This morning, as I read through 1 Chronicles, I came across a passage I’ve read and studied multiple times before, outlining the story of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Some of the details I remembered were missing from the 1 Chronicles version, so I flipped back to 2 Samuel to check out the other version.

“So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing . . . David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might . . .  As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michael daughter of Saul (David’s wife) watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”  –2 Samuel 6:12-16

Why?

I’ve never understood why Michal hated David for dancing before the Lord. Bringing back the ark was a huge spiritual success for David and the Israelites. Everyone with David was singing, shouting, and dancing. And as his wife, wouldn’t she want to share in his joy rather than turn up her nose at it?

Apparently not. My Bible’s footnotes explain that “Michal had no appreciation for the significance of the event and deeply resented David’s public display as unworthy of the dignity of a king.”

The bottom line: she just didn’t get it.

As I contemplated these verses over a cup of coffee and chocolate buttermilk pie, memories of times in my life when those around me “just didn’t get it” trickled in.

Striking a pose, 2009

I remembered attending three different churches over the course of a decade and going to ministry fairs hosted by each church. Each time, the churches sponsored a booth with a suggestion box and encouraged members to write down their specific spiritual gifts and talents if they hadn’t found a group, committee, or activity that seemed like a good fit. Each time, I wrote down, “I love to dance, and I feel it’s a gift God’s given me. I’d love to use that gift in some way.”

Crickets.

I never got a single response to that request. Dancing in a traditional, often Fundamentalist denomination, wasn’t really considered acceptable. Maybe to some, it would be considered “public display unworthy of the dignity of a Christian,” to paraphrase my Bible’s footnotes on Michal’s perspective on David’s dancing.

China, 2005

I recalled another moment in a church service, in one of these same churches, when the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus began playing. I had just returned from China and had felt the heavy spiritual oppression surrounding me for three weeks. I’d come to value freedom of expression in a way I’d never valued it before. It seemed only natural to physically stand in reverence to God now that I had the option to do so.

The minute I stood up, in the middle of several rows of pews, I believe colossal drops of sweat began to drip from the music minister’s face. I received multiple stares, and if my memory serves me correctly, the folks’ faces weren’t exactly reflecting support, encouragement, or brotherly love. Apparently I’d rocked the boat a little too much that morning and missed the memo outlining specific “don’t stand up during the Stand Up for Jesus song” instructions.

I recollected a time when I read a book about a native Indian man who proposed that if Americans truly want to assist in spreading God’s word to other people, their money may be better spent supporting native missionaries rather than foreign missionaries since native missionaries require much less financial backing; they’re already used to living in poverty-stricken places and can get by on much less. This book moved me and opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about things. I shared the book with my then-boyfriend. He read it, and when I asked him what he thought of it, he said, “I thought it was cute.”

Cute? A book about changing the world? His response brought tears to my eyes.

I reminisced about moments when I’d felt compelled to make choices based on my beliefs. I’ve walked away from movies and television shows, leaving friends confused over why I’d be offended at the content. I’ve tried to explain to people why I’m moved to tears over others’ addictions holding them back from the Light. I’ve given money and items to people–some whose names I don’t even know–when spurred by a strong, quiet voice instructing me to do so. I’ve visited and called and emailed friends to express my concern over something God revealed to me about their lives or current situations–each time, I really knew nothing about what was really going on; God just kept telling me to say something to them. So I did.

Acting on my spiritual gut feels pretty ridiculous sometimes. It’s often not dignified. It may involve making incredibly unpopular choices. It incites disgust, anger, and confusion.

But I can’t stop doing it.

I can’t stop dancing before the Lord with all my might when I know that’s exactly what He wants.

And I won’t worry about the Michals of the world who, sadly, may never get it.