Don’t Push!

Last Saturday was a day for celebration. Late in the afternoon, as the heavens opened and released a torrent of rain outside, I sat with my computer in the quietness of our study and emailed the final documents for “Skinny Girl” to my publisher. Finally, the work was done! The fact this event took place almost two months later than planned was sure to mean the book’s release date would be delayed. Yet, I smiled as deep peace and satisfaction flooded my heart—more than I would have felt, I’m sure, if I had sent the documents on time.

Often, when we set goals, we have a clear picture in our minds of how we want things to play out—what will happen, how and when the goal will be achieved. Later, looking back, we measure our success by how close the reality was to our imaginings.

But what if there was a better route to achieving our goal than the plan we’ve created? And what if we switched our focus from the outcome to the process? How would that change our understanding of success?

When I was asked to consider changing some crucial points in my book manuscript just five days before the due date for submission, my whole mindset had to shift. Already—numerous times—I’d sought feedback from a range of people, discussed necessary changes and prayerfully gone over the material again. To be told I needed to retrace my steps once more, and at such a late stage, had me feeling like a marathon runner plunging towards the finish line, only to be intercepted and told I must turn around and run the last two kilometres again. The loss of momentum felt awfully like defeat—until I was able to quiet my heart and listen to my Father’s still, small voice.

I was reminded this book was God’s idea, not mine. I needed to yield to His process, even when it didn’t make sense to me. Over the next few days, I was able to lay down my expectations and time frame and release myself from the drive to ‘just get it over the line’. I explained the situation to my publisher, who offered an extension for however long I needed. Her grace released me to yield completely to God’s plan.

Several weeks in, I felt Him remind me, Rest. Don’t rush. If you push ahead for the sake of expediency, you are no different to Saul.(1 Samuel 13-15) An image of  King Saul impatiently taking things into his own hands, disregarding God’s command and consequently losing his crown sent a shudder through me. I didn’t want to be like that! Be like Mary, the Lord continued. Sit at My feet. Worship. And know that the practical things that need to be done will be—if you truly put Me first.”

Those words transformed my perspective on the setback. Suddenly, it was no longer a hindrance but a gift. Rather than being blocked from achieving my goal, I’d been given an opportunity to rest, listen and allow God to add new dimensions to the story, to make it even better. He dropped a picture of two pieces of fruit into my mind. The first was fuzzy and pink with a sweet outer layer, but a firm, sour centre that made it difficult to digest. The second was plump and fragrant and richly-coloured, dripping with flavour and lasting, life-giving nourishment. To give readers an incomplete book simply because I felt it had been ripening long enough was like picking a piece of immature fruit and offering it to someone I cared about. Its benefit would be limited and some of its effects could be unsettling.

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Image by flockine from Pixabay

With renewed desire to let things develop according to God’s plan, I spent long periods studying my bible, poring over verses on trust, submission and rest and scrawling long prayers and notes in my journal. I consulted with key contacts and asked for prayer from people at church, all the while keeping my eyes and ears open to see what God would do. There were moments I felt Him draw my attention to particular words spoken by someone in conversation. Another when a phrase I heard uttered in prayer echoed in my heart for days afterwards. Each little piece I recorded in my journal, and as I did, I noticed a gradual shift taking place in my thinking. Slowly, beautifully, as days and weeks ticked by, God put each piece in its place to create a clear picture showing me what I needed to do to bring the book to ‘maturity’. The changes were not difficult—they took only a couple of hours to write—but they were significant to the message of the story. Even more precious to me, though, were the hours I spent resting in His presence (Psalm 91:1)

King Saul’s grandson, Solomon, showed greater wisdom than his grandfather when he said,

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”(Psalm 127:1)

Esther Wine Glass Bay lookoutI often hear God whisper a simpler version of this proverb to my heart. Don’t push. We may try to build good things—very good things—through our own efforts, but it’s only when we yield to God and His plan that we can produce something of real value. There is a time to work hard and put energy and effort into our task, but we need to be mindful of the motivation for our effort.

It’s easy, even when God plants a dream in our heart, for us to begin with Him then run ahead because our eyes are so firmly fixed on the finish line. But there’s more to the story than the endpoint. The journey has a richness of its own. If we disregard the value of the process, we’ll miss the beautiful things God wants to do in us and for us along the way. The process is what prepares us for the time of the project’s completion. It makes us ripe and ready for what comes next.

Esther holding flowersSo, if we’re not to push, what’s the alternative? To rest and be led—by the one who sees the whole picture and whose way is always best—in timing and in process.

On Saturday, as I pressed ‘send’ on the email to my publisher, I marvelled at the way God, who began this venture so many years ago had sealed it by directing, in such intimate detail, my final steps. Truly He is the Alpha and Omega—the first and the last—the one who brings the first gleaming rays of dawn and plants the sun’s final kiss on fruit-laden branches at day’s end.

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Proverbs 16:9

“. . . the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace . . .” Romans 8:6b

 

 

Be Still and Know

There’s something special about buying a new diary. Every time a year draws near its end, I head to the Christian bookstore, eager to get ready for the next one. I ponder all the diary options—their size and themes and layout—and flick dreamily through the hundreds of pages, wondering, What will these be filled with? What will the new year bring? Usually my heart dances in anticipation.

Except last time.

Last time, I already knew what lay ahead. 2020 was going to be punctuated by multiple major events, each of them God-ordained and exciting when considered on their own. Crammed together within a twelve-month span, though, they felt overwhelming.

At heart, I’m a girl who likes stability. Balance. Breathing space. This year loomed as one packed so full, I knew it would drag me out of my comfort zone and hold me there for a long time. There would be new responsibilities at work, an overseas holiday with extended family, several months involvement in a course at church, a three day writer’s conference in Queensland, the release of my first book,  launches of that book in two states and a journey to Thailand to meet our sponsor children. Phew! All of these lined up in my mind as though they were a series of wild waves I was about to ride, exiting each one just in time to turn around and ride the next. It wasn’t only the events that stressed me. It was all the organization required to see them run smoothly.

So, my diary-shopping trip last December was far more serious than usual. If I was going to survive the coming year, I knew I’d need something to remind me of the truth—often. My diary was something I looked at every day, at least once a day. It had to provide something that would help me keep perspective. Around and around the display table I circled, picking up one book then another, reading, flicking, thinking. Finally, I settled on one with a cover inscription that instantly quieted my anxious heart.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10.

That was it. I needed to fix my eyes on the One who ordained all these plans. He was God. And He was more than enough. If He had directed that our year be full and hectic, He would give me all the grace I needed—not only to survive but maybe even to thrive.

Grey diaryThat was December. Now it’s May. Five months have passed since that moment and I’ve found myself referring to those words many, many times. Just a few days ago, I sat on the edge of our bed, staring again at the curving letters on the cover. Again, I was struck by the first instruction. ‘Be still’.

This year is turning out so differently to what any of us expected. Most of the big events we planned have been cancelled or postponed. With each cancellation, I noticed myself breathing easier. My world was settling down, becoming more manageable.

Then, everything changed again. The ‘Stay Home’ policy brought drastic changes to my work as a teacher’s aide.  Suddenly, I had to acquire a whole new skillset so I could support students while they learned at home. I’ve spent countless hours in front of a screen—learning how to use new technology, creating timetables, scheduling Zoom meetings, sending emails, talking with colleagues and children and recording everything in detail. I’ve scrawled pages and pages of notes to help me remember what I’ve learned and remind me of all I need to do. Every day has had a long list. Sometimes, particularly in the early weeks, my mind was so busy, it was hard to switch off. Stillness came only when I made a very deliberate choice.

When I was still, as often happens, all that was building in my heart came pouring out. I told God how desperately I needed His help, how hard it was that everything at work changed just when I’d adjusted to my new role, how much I missed my life in Tasmania where there was time and space and quiet. As my eyes ran again over my go-to verse, I felt God emphasize the second part. ‘And know that I am God.’

He is God.

You thought you needed this diary because of all the plans you had, He whispered. But I knew you would need it for this. He was God. He was still in control. None of these restrictions or demands were a surprise to Him. His plan—as always—was to grow me through them.

Most of the time, when I’ve pondered those words— ‘know that I am God’—I’ve been comforted by the assurance that my God is powerful, able to protect and provide for me. Psalm 46 describes Him as refuge and strength, a mighty fortress, the one who holds us together, even when everything around us is crumbling. But there’s another aspect to the psalm, where the writer speaks of God as ‘the Most High’, greater than any ruler or kingdom, the one who will be exalted over all the earth.

Wow.

When I see that reality afresh, I am humbled. He is God. It’s only when I acknowledge who He is that I see more clearly who I am. It’s a privilege to belong to Him. A privilege that brings responsibility to also honour Him as ruler of my life.

Who am I to question His wisdom in allowing me to go through times of stretching? He is God. None of the changes in my life, in any of our lives, have taken Him by surprise. He is God. He has a plan and is able to work it out through all the challenges of this time—and the process goes far more smoothly if we choose to yield rather than wrestle. That day, I sensed God’s encouragement to fully embrace this season, to allow it to refine, grow and strengthen me for His purposes. The clincher came when I felt Him speak to my heart, If you shrink back, you’ll miss out.

What a challenge! I don’t want to miss out on the growth and plans God has for me. I’m sure you don’t either. We can’t always see what lies ahead in our lives. This year has made that clear. But God can—and He wants to get us ready. If we’re willing to make time to be still—regularly—we’ll see clearly again both who we are and who He is. This knowledge gives us fresh confidence to walk forward in His plans, whatever they might be, knowing He walks with us every step.

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This Won’t Last Forever

Pacing in my hospital gown, I gazed out the window to the park below. In the distance a woman strolled along a winding path, her young child toddling beside her with his tiny arm upstretched to her hand. I watched them for a moment, musing. She must’ve given birth. Her baby was once growing inside her and now lived on the outside, brightening her days.

Another contraction hit. My strides to the nearby bed were quick. I stooped and pressed my hands into the mattress, flicking my TENS machine to high and breathing deep through the pain’s sharp peak and fall. More than fifteen hours had passed since we arrived at the hospital.  I’d been walking, rocking, breathing all through the night and into the following day, trusting it was for a purpose. Yet my contractions still hadn’t kicked into a steady rhythm. My waters had broken earlier that afternoon, but four hours later the doctor said there was still little progress towards delivery.  My husband and I were exhausted. How much longer would this go on? Would our baby ever be born?

Thankfully, he was. Several hours later, with a little medical help, our beautiful son arrived—and our suffering was overcome by joy. When I reflected on the experience later, I had much to ponder. The labour, with all its sleep deprivation and pain, had been so drawn out and confusing, there were times I questioned whether it would end. But it did. And that experience left a permanent imprint on my heart.

Many months later, my husband and I lay in bed, talking through the details of a different kind of struggle. I don’t recall now what the issue was, but I know it was hard. I can still remember burying my face in his chest and whispering, “Just tell me this won’t last forever.”

He kissed the top of my head and echoed, “This won’t last forever.”

He understood what I meant. The day our son was born we began to understand that trials have a beginning and an end. In our darkest moments the battle can seem endless. Unbearable. If we lose sight of the endpoint, despair can set in and the pain is magnified. In saying, ‘This won’t last forever’, we were reminding ourselves there was more to the story than the moment we were in. We were in a process, not at a destination.

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In God’s word we see trials likened to seasons we pass through. They come for a while, then they go. Grief and tears may endure, but joy has the final say. Some problems plague us for so long, we wonder whether God has forgotten us—and yet His loving presence is constant. God promises, in His lavish love, to bring His people through every hardship they face. There are times, too, when in His mercy He scoops up one of His children to lift them out of their hardship and take them home—to a world free from sorrow and pain.

Amazing Grace bears the line, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come. Twas grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.” Over the twenty-three years since our son was born, we’ve seen those principles play out more times than I could count. Relationship strains, financial difficulties, parenting struggles and illness have all come to darken our days for a time. But they haven’t lasted forever. Always, there has been movement, a ‘going through’, even when it felt like there wasn’t.

Now we find ourselves dealing with COVID-19. Fear has its gnarled fingers wrapped around many in our nation. Businesses are closing, schools are emptying, weddings and parties and holidays have been cancelled. Precious friends and family members have passed away. People have lost their jobs, their sense of purpose and their income. We’ve been told to keep our distance, to shut ourselves away, to sterilize everything in sight. It feels like a death of sorts, this shrivelling up of life as we’ve known it. We wait and watch and wonder, How long?

This pandemic too is only for a season. Despite its intensity and spread across the breadth of the earth, it will pass. How we come out the other side will depend on how we choose to go through this time. God is not the cause of COVID-19. He understands the battle we’re in, sees it with perfect clarity and wants to lead us through it—and do us good in the process.

Trials like this sift our priorities. We realise what really matters and how far our lives have drifted. With so many of our usual comforts and distractions stripped away, we see more clearly what’s in our hearts. In the supermarket. In our homes. In the times of quiet when we’re alone with our thoughts.

We may try to drown out the gentle whisper of conviction with activity and noise. But Easter reminds us oh-so-vividly how great a price was paid to save us from our mess. If we’re willing to admit our failings and lay them before a gracious God, He’ll wash away all our mistakes and breathe new life, lightness and compassion into our formerly preoccupied hearts. Then, as we continue to walk with Him, what He’s birthed in us can grow like a newborn babe, bringing joy and blessing to others long after the trial has ended.Tree at Winbourne

1 John 1:9 (GOD’S WORD translation)

“God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, He forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong.”

1 Peter 5:10 (New International Version)

“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”