Overcoming Darkness

Her name was Bec. Small in stature, with shoulder-length, sandy hair, a face free of make-up and an unpretentious manner, there was nothing to give the impression of authority or passion as she took her place at the lectern. But when she opened her mouth, I realised she had the heart of a lion.

Bec had been living for several years in Cambodia, a nation where trafficking of women and children was common—and many nationals viewed it as a way to survive financially. Fathers sold their young daughters into prostitution. Some children were rescued and returned to their families, only to be sold again. The blindness and injustice of it made my stomach churn. Yet Bec’s tone held steady as she shared. How can she be so calm? I wondered.

After reading some sad statistics, Bec lifted her eyes to her listeners. ‘Because of this, many people view Cambodia as a very dark place. When we look at the darkness in our world, we can shake our heads in despair, fearing the darkness will grow so large that it snuffs out the light.’ Her voice grew louder. ‘But that’s because we have the wrong idea. We think darkness and light are equal and opposite forces. They’re not. Darkness isn’t a force at all. It doesn’t have a power of its own to do anything.

Darkness is just the absence of light. To overcome darkness, all we need to do is turn on the light. Even the tiniest flame can cut through it.’

I sat in my seat, stunned, as Bec’s words cut through the shadows in my mind.

She opened her bible and read from John chapter 1 verse 5. ‘”The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”’

Hope stirred inside me. Light overcomes darkness. Darkness—no matter how black it is—cannot overcome light.

Bec continued, ‘This principle is the foundation of our work in Cambodia. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.”’ (Matthew 5: 14-15) She smiled. ‘To overcome darkness, we need to find the highest stand—the highest platform—we can and shine as brightly as we can, so our light reaches as many people as possible.’

Photo by Pezibear on Pixabay

For Bec and a team of Cambodian nationals, that meant working together to shine the brightest light they could into arenas which held the greatest sway over young people’s minds—music and media. The team formed a band, wrote music and worked with some media experts to produce albums and advertisements that challenged popular views on issues such as drink spiking, date rape, prostitution and trafficking. As they shone their light, they were changing mindsets, little by little.

It’s been fifteen years since I heard Bec speak, but her words have stayed with me—and they came up again a couple of months ago. In fact, I woke with them echoing through my mind.

It’s so easy for us to be overwhelmed by the darkness we see in our world, especially in this COVID season when there’s upheaval almost everywhere we look. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that we can overcome darkness—if only we’ll turn on the light.

So, how do we do that?  

We fix our eyes

First, we shift our gaze from the darkness—all the doom and gloom around us—to focus on God. The bible says He is light and darkness has no place in Him. It’s only through His light, His enabling, that we can overcome.  When we fix our eyes on the pure brightness of His light, everything else is put into perspective. He gives us hope. He exposes any darkness residing in our hearts, washing us clean and setting us free to move forward and live at peace with others.

‘If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.’ 1 John 1:7

We act in the opposite spirit

Darkness cannot be overcome by more darkness. Instead, we live in God’s light and let it shine through our lives.

Where there is hatred, we show love.

Where there is division, we build unity.

We offer hope in the face of doom, truth where there is deception, comfort where there is pain, peace amid turmoil, acceptance where there is rejection. Enabled by God’s overflowing love, we press forward, relying on the wisdom and power He offers.

‘Do not be overcome by evil,

but overcome evil with good.’ Romans 12:21

We let the Light guide our steps.

As we choose to walk with God, He shines His light on our path, revealing His specific purpose for each of us. As we give ourselves wholeheartedly to that purpose, His light emanates from our lives, dispelling the darkness around us.

He may lead us to do something as small as smiling at a neighbour who’s struggling, or as large as funding a programme to help those who are homeless. For each of us, the path will be different, but we all have a part to play.

‘A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.’ 1 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)

Our light may seem small to us. Insignificant, even. But think of a flickering candle. The tiniest flame still penetrates the darkness. And if we all shine together, think of how bright the light will be. Together we can overcome.  

Photo by Irina Anastasiu on Pexels

‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 8:37-39  

Made Beautiful

What do you see when you look in the mirror?  

Really.

Where does your wandering gaze land?

What emotions rise in your heart?

What thoughts run through your mind?

And where have they come from?

More than likely, they stem from the world you’re immersed in. The people you mix with—face to face and online. The celebrities you follow. The Instagram feeds you scroll through. The Netflix series you binge-watch. All the forms of media that spark comparison and whisper that you’re not enough. Too many times, you’re barely awake before discouragement kicks in. Sometimes even despair.

Please let me tell you a little story from an autumn morning a few weeks back. It might bring some fresh perspective.

There was a wintry chill in the air that day, so I pulled the covers higher on my waist and draped my dressing gown around my shoulders. My eyes, still blurry from sleep, narrowed to slits as I tried to make out the numbers on the clock in our bedroom. It was five past six—early for me. Still, I knew the next precious moments would be worth the sacrificed sleep.   

I needed to connect with my Maker before launching into the day. 

Yawning, I reached for my bible and journal in the bedside drawer, trying to sift through the fog in my mind and recall what I’d been reading the day before. It was something so intriguing, I’d wanted to study it further. I opened my bible, those strange words from the previous morning drifting through my mind like an echo. Grasping the wafer-thin pages in wads, I flipped towards the back till I reached Romans 8, then skimmed down to the verse I was after—number thirty. There, once again, I found the phrase that had me baffled.“. . . those he justified, he also glorified.”

My eyebrows rose as I read this. What on earth did that mean—God glorified us? Weren’t we supposed to glorify Him? There had to be more to this than I could understand.

I opened the lexicon on biblehub– an online tool I’d just discovered that unveils the meaning of words in their original language. Surely in this case ‘glorified’ meant something different to the way we usually understood it. Carefully, I pored over the detailed information the website provided about this confusing statement, taking note of key points and filling pages of my journal with my hurried scrawl. Before long, I was so engrossed, all sense of time and cold faded.  

Once I’d finished reading, I slumped back on my pillow, awe-struck.

Here’s what I learned. Those words about us being glorified by God? Their meaning in the original language was exactly the same as usual. God, our creator, glorifies us. And He does it willingly. When we put our faith in Jesus and surrender our lives to God, He doesn’t only forgive us and set us free from our past.

He honours us with dignity and worth.
He exalts us to a rank and condition far beyond what we deserve. That was certainly my story.
He imparts His own spectacular glory to us.
He declares us excellent and glorious,
adorns us with lustre (that’s shininess, in case you wondered)
and clothes us with splendour.

Yes, God glorifies us. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?  

I understood this a little. God had lifted me from the depths and given me a whole new life, with dignity and purpose.

But ‘glory’? That was so hard to fathom.

And what about that word, ‘splendour’—so unique and rich in imagery? In the Cambridge dictionary it’s described as ‘great beauty that attracts admiration and attention’. Again, the original language conveys the same meaning. The Hebrew word for splendour relates to ‘beautify’ and ‘glorify’. When God clothes us with splendour, He beautifies us. In that beauty, He glorifies us. That means, even on our frumpiest, very worst hair days, by God’s grace we are clothed with great beauty that attracts admiration and attention.  Imagine that!

When we focus solely on the image in our mirror, we are robbed. The pictures we’re swamped with every day narrow our view, convincing us our outward appearance is the only measure of our value. But God made us so much more. And this beauty He gives isn’t something we can attain through our own striving efforts.

It’s transcendent.

It begins in our spirit—where God comes to dwell by His Spirit. As He fills us with His beautiful presence, His splendour wells up and flows out of us . . . so clearly that others see it and marvel.

“Those who look to Him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.” Psalm 34:5

I stilled my pen and closed my eyes that morning, trying to grasp these ideas in their fullness.  A fresh sense of joy welled inside me as my perception of myself grew a little closer to God’s view. Every day, no matter how I look or feel, whether I’m upbeat or melancholy, conquering or struggling, I can walk with dignity, knowing God Himself has clothed me with His splendour. It can be the same for you too—if you put your hope in Him. Regardless of how anyone else may view us, the Creator and ultimate authority says we are His beloved, His treasured possession , wholly accepted.

Who would dare argue with Him?

It’s easy to wonder why we’ve been given such stand-out glory, such splendour. Is it intended to set us strutting, eager for everyone to notice how brightly we’re shining? In reality it’s not only about us.

Look at these words.  

“Then all your people will be righteous
and they will possess the land forever.
They are the shoot I have planted,
the work of my hands,
for the display of my splendour.”       (Isaiah 60:21)

“Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendour.”  (Isaiah 55:5)

Even while He lavishes so much love and favour on us, God is also looking beyond us to those who don’t yet know Him. He’s pursuing others just as He pursued us, ready to lift them, too, out of their tangle of sin and shame and failure—and He wants our hearts to beat as strongly for them as His does.

We are like a myriad of precious, sparkling jewels—each unique in colour and cut, all reflecting the goodness of God to those around us. The attention and admiration sparked by our splendour is intended to point people to its source—the light—our gracious God.

Next time you stand in front of the mirror, pause and look beyond the outward. God loves you so much He offered His very best to rescue you. He wants to fill you with His goodness and lead you in His eternal purpose. Let that understanding propel you into your day with joy, your eyes looking right to the hearts of people around you, not merely their appearance. As you walk in step with God’s heartbeat, letting His glory shine through you, others will also be stirred to seek Him—the one who leads us into life in all its beautiful fullness.  

 

“She is clothed in strength and dignity;

She can laugh at the days to come.”

Proverbs 31:25

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On Christmas Morning

On Christmas morning, my husband and I were up well before our children—not so unusual now they’re all teens and young adults. The weather was cool, so I pulled my robe from the cupboard and wrapped myself in its warmth. While my husband busied himself in the kitchen, I made a hot drink then moved to the lounge, where I sank into the couch closest to our Christmas tree.

Up till that point, my days had been full of activity. Finishing the year at school, sorting final details for the design of my book, making gift lists, shopping lists, lists of things to cook, shopping then chopping and baking and creating in the kitchen—all the while my mind whirring with everything I needed to remember and consider and organise.

Finally, on this special day, there was time to stop all the activity and savour the moment. 

Coloured lights glowed in the semi-darkness, drawing me in and slowing my mind and heart. I wrapped my hands around my mug and sipped, smiling as my eyes drifted between the decorations adorning our tree. There were felt stars and hearts and stockings, odd-shaped and lumpy with stuffing, sewn by eager little hands so many years ago. Nearby were wooden figures, large and small, painted by the same hands a year or two later. Red and white tasselled triangles took my thoughts to a visit from old friends, missionaries to Tibet. There was a swirly purple bauble I’d received from our mothers’ group and a red satin chilli given by friends from New Mexico when we celebrated Christmas together, in Taiwan, thirty years earlier. There were baubles and beads and sparkly stars, each looped over the ends of bristly green branches.

Our tree wouldn’t be chosen to grace the pages of a Home Beautiful magazine. It didn’t stand especially tall or impressive. In my eyes, though, it was a treasure trove, covered with emblems of life and love and the beauty of relationships.

My heart was full as I gazed at the display before me. Truly, we were blessed. Those decorations represented relationships I’d cherished over the years. The time and effort that went into making or choosing these ornaments was an outflow of the love we shared. A prayer lifted from my heart. Lord, thank you! Thank you for all the people you’ve brought into my life and the special times we’ve shared. I’m so grateful. Far beyond any material gift I could be given, I valued the gift of relationship.

My thoughts moved on to Jesus, the reason for Christmas—for the carols we sang, the gifts we shared, the feasting and goodwill to those beyond our home.

How could I put into words my gratitude for Him?

God gave His very best, His own Son, to show the world His love and power. When Jesus lay down his life on the cross, He offered forgiveness and rescue from all our failings and invited us into God’s family, with all its privileges. The most astounding gift I’ve ever been given is to belong to God and have Him walking with me through every day, every season—even the unexpected challenges of the past year. I can’t imagine facing any stage of life without Him.

My relationships with people would wax and wane as time and movement affected our level of connection. But God’s presence with me would be constant, bringing deep peace and security to my heart. He knew me. He loved me. He would never stop loving, even for a second, for His entire essence was love.

Whatever the days ahead would hold, whatever surprises the new year would bring, God would be there. He would lead me through every season, all the way into eternity, and through the process our relationship would grow stronger.

I pulled my eyes from the tree, climbed off the couch and strode to my phone. It was time to put on some carols. There was so much joy bubbling up from my spirit, I couldn’t help but sing.

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God!”

1 John 3:1

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20

Living for God?

Sometimes, early in the morning when I’m drifting from sleep to waking, God shows me something important. Sometimes I see a picture. Sometimes I hear words in my mind. Last week, a sentence came with such weight, I knew it was from Him.

Our focus should be less on living for God and more on living with God.

Such a simple phrase, but oh-so-powerful. I’ve been mulling over it ever since.  

When our primary goal is to live for God, we can take on the mindset of a servant, seeing God as the Master we consult with in the morning to receive instructions before heading out to fulfil His commands. With this perspective, it’s easy for us to be performance-focused, always monitoring how we’re doing and getting discouraged if we fall short. After all, we’re striving for perfect obedience.  

In one sense, this is our purpose—to serve God with all we have. Paul said it so well: We are not our own. We were bought with a price. Therefore, our lives should be set on honouring God. (1 Cor 6:19-20)

But that’s not the whole picture. It’s missing the foundation.

When Jesus walked the earth, He immersed himself in the everyday lives of people, transforming their mundane days with words of truth and tender acts of love. Some were invited to join Him in His travels, to share meals and sleeping quarters and have a close-up view as He taught and healed and performed miracles. Sometimes He sent them to do important jobs, always giving clear instructions on how to proceed. He made time to speak to lonely individuals, to small groups and to pressing crowds of thousands. Every time, He showed profound insight into who they were and exactly what they needed.

Jesus was able to walk steady—all the way to the cross—because of His close relationship with His Father. He spent time with God before dawn and their connection continued all through the day. The oneness of heart they shared was so complete, Jesus said His every word and action flowed directly from His Father (John 5:19-20, John 12:49-50).

Jesus was named ‘Emmanuel’—God with us. Through His life, He revealed God’s deep desire for relationship with us. Through His death, He opened the door for us to enjoy the same oneness with God as He has (Hebrews 4:16). When Jesus returned to the Father, God’s Holy Spirit was poured out to dwell with—and in—each one of us who love Him.  

We are not only servants. We are sons and daughters, fellow-heirs with Jesus . And we’re friends of God. He offers us full and constant access to all His wisdom, provision and power. And when He gives instructions, God doesn’t expect us to head out and fulfil them on our own.  

He goes with us.

If Jesus relied on the Father to lead and enable Him every minute of every day, why would we think we need anything less? Every moment, God is present by His Spirit, ready to show us the way, to give us the heart and words to do good to the people around us. He offers wisdom to deal with difficult situations, power to overcome the enemy’s onslaughts and hope and strength to sustain us when we think we’ve reached our limit. It’s all there, available to us through faith in Jesus. All we need to do is enter in.

When we seek to live for God, our focus is firmly on ourselves—our own efforts, how we’re performing and where we fail to measure up. If we seek to live with God, our attention shifts to pursuing Him. As we become familiar with His heart and His ways, a unique rest brings quiet to our hearts—a confidence that He really is with us and will show us how to walk in His plans, no matter how challenging. Then living for Him comes as a natural outflow of living with Him—just as it did with Jesus.

I don’t know about you but for me, the phrase ‘living with God’ brings a deep sense of relief. Perhaps it’s because that’s what we were made for—just like Adam and Eve in the garden, back at the beginning. I long to live with God, as Jesus did, and there are many times I’ve known Him leading me. But there are far more times my mind is so full of my own thoughts and ideas and ambitions I miss the things He wants to show me.

Thankfully, He looks beyond my performance to my heart. He knows my desire to walk close with Him and beckons me to keep following, keep learning and keep relying on the sacrifice Jesus already made for my failings.

I’m expecting this growing-closer process to be a stretching, wonderful, lifelong one—worth every step for the reward of knowing Him.

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom

or the strong boast of their strength

or the rich boast of their riches,

but let the one who boasts boast about this:

that they understand and know me . . .”

Jeremiah 9:23-24

What If?

Do you ever hear a voice whisper, “What if . . .?”

What if things don’t turn out the way I hoped?

What if they don’t like me?

What if the test result is bad?

What if our money runs out?

What if we lose x? y? z?

I wonder how many ‘what ifs’ we’ve allowed to tromp through our mind, bash and crash their way through our dreams, keep us tossing and turning all night, stealing every trace of peace . . . only to come to nothing, like a rolling storm that evaporates to reveal the sun.

Some days what ifs simmer under the surface, quietly unsettling our soul. Other times, their voice is booming and powerful, drowning out all other sounds. In our mind’s eye we see the what ifs’ predictions playing out, our emotions surging as if they were already a reality. At their worst, what ifs bind and cripple us, making us unable to function at all.

The crazy thing is, as convincing and real as they may seem, what ifs are merely that—what ifs—figments of our imagination, with no real substance. The only hold they have over our mind and heart is because of the time and attention we give them.

A couple of months back God cut through my time of prayer and reflection with these words: You’re forming a habit of listening to what ifs.

He was right. I was.  

What if I fail? What if things don’t go to plan? What if? What if? What if? Unknowingly, I’d been letting my imagination run off on negative tangents, even though I knew they would do me no good. So subtly had the what ifs crept in, I hadn’t noticed them building, bringing heaviness and tension to the way I worked, the tone I used with my family, my mood when I contemplated the days ahead. God had shone His light on these recurring questions, exposing the load of doubts I’d taken on—and I was grateful.

Once the truth was out, His remedy was swift, His instruction clear. Stop it now.

Okay, God. I will. Please show me how to break this pattern.  

He planted a new word pairing in my mind—one so minimally different to ‘what if’, the change seemed almost insignificant. Yet, unlike the fear and anxiety ‘what if’ provoked, the new duo pulsed with truth, security and authority.

‘Even if.’

Even if . . .

Even if things go wrong . . . God will be there. He will be enough. His love will stand firm.

I scribed His words in my journal as He worked this truth into my heart.  

Even if plans don’t turn out quite as you’d imagined, even if something terrible happens, even if circumstances turn upside down or you fail at something, My love for you never fails, My presence still offers you rest and I will show you the way through.

Photo by nicollazzi xiong on Pexels.com

In Isaiah 43 God doesn’t shy away from the reality of tough times in our lives. If anything, He hints they are inevitable, the only question being ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. In the face of this hard truth, His accompanying promise gives a firm foundation for hope—when we pass through the waters and walk through the fire, we will not be overcome, for He is with us. We will not drown. We will not be burned. He will bring us through. (Isaiah 43: 1-5a)

And how about Paul’s declaration in Romans 8?

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,

Neither angels nor demons,

Neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation

Will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-39)

Did you notice the first obstacle Paul mentioned? Even death—what we may view as the most devastating ‘what if’—cannot separate us, or those left behind, from God’s powerful presence or His tender love.

We can’t predict what the days ahead will hold. This year full of strange happenings has taught us that. But the one who already sees our future is with us and He will never let us go. When we drag our thoughts away from what ifs and fix our eyes on His loving face, we find a peace and strength that holds us steady—even if the unexpected happens.

 

Overcoming Anxiety

Of course I was worried. Anyone would be in my situation. There I was, five months pregnant with our fourth child. Our house had been sold. Soon we’d need to hand over our keys. We’d made a good profit in the sale, so I should have been excited. But one fact loomed large in my mind, casting its shadow over everything else. We didn’t have anywhere to go.

For weeks we’d been scouring the internet. Rental houses in our target area were few. Those we found were either too small, too expensive or were snapped up before we could pursue them. Now we only had two weeks left.

I stood by the stove, turning sausages in a frying pan and trying to imagine the weeks ahead—where we’d end up and how we would we get there. Through the kitchen window, I watched our children, bouncing in rhythm on the trampoline—up, down, up, down, so carefree—and terror gripped my heart. God, what’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to them? What if moving day comes and we still don’t have a home?

Fear clutched at my throat and my eyes brimmed with tears. I pictured us standing on the footpath, surrounded by all our belongings, our children’s faces covered with confusion. Frantically, I tried to think of words from the bible that offered hope for our situation, but nothing came to mind. All I could hear was, What if? What if? What if? My heart thrummed in my chest and my stomach began to churn.

Then God opened my eyes . . .

If I let this fear control me, I’d be no help to my family through all the upheaval. I needed to find hope. We all did. Later that evening, I sat in bed, my bible on my lap, and searched for every verse I could find about God taking care of His children. It took a while. The next day I printed six of my favourites in large letters and placed them in key locations around the house.

Every morning and afternoon, with our children in tow, I walked from room to room and we read those words together. Every time, between readings, when fear whispered doubts in my ear, I turned to the nearest page and repeated the truth.

God’s children would never be forsaken (Psalm 37:25).

We need not worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:25-34).

He would supply all our needs (Philippians 4:19).

In those final weeks, while we packed linen and crockery, books and toys into boxes, I felt my faith grow steadily and my heart settle to a place of deep assurance. Those words we’d been reciting weren’t merely nice thoughts. They were promises—straight from the mouth of God to His children, unchanging and unbreakable.

bible page re God not forsaking His children

Moving day arrived. We still didn’t have a home to move to, but I was anchored by a peace so strong, it passed understanding (Philippians 4:7). My Father knew what we needed and He had a plan. We decided to accept an earlier offer from friends to stay in their home for a week while they were away. Another couple provided temporary storage for all our gear in the vacant unit of their grandfather. These two homes ‘happened’ to be sited in the same suburb as a house we’d applied to rent two days earlier.

Big-bellied and weary beyond words, I relished the chance for a few days rest in our friends’ very comfortable home. Midway through that week, we were told our rental application had been approved. The homeowner had chosen our family of five (almost six) as her new tenants, rather than the professional couple with no children who also applied. Miraculous! Three days later, we began moving in—an easier feat this time as the unit where all our belongings were stowed sat just around the corner.

Hand feeding lorikeetsLooking back, I was awestruck. God had kept His promises. Things hadn’t happened according to our desires or time frame, but I could see His tender fingerprints everywhere—from the proximity of all the houses to the luxurious rest period between moves. We even discovered our new landlady had lowered the rent significantly from what we were originally quoted.

What a life-changing time that was for me! I discovered God’s word truly is our sword, our key weapon against every negative attack. With the word, we can cut down the lies that try to destroy us and find peace, hope, rest and direction.

Every believer has been provided with the same powerful weapon. The question is, are we using it? Or is it sitting in its sheath, rusting, while we try unsuccessfully to deal with daily assaults on our own?

Sometimes, our emotions are so intense, it can feel too hard to pull our sword out of its sheath. That’s when we need to make a decision to start, even if it’s a tiny step like opening our bible and finding one relevant verse. As we seek to push through those negative feelings to the truth, God will show us the way and strengthen us for the battle.

I’m not immune to struggles. Sometimes anxiety starts shooting its fiery darts before the sun is even up. Intimidation snarls, telling me I’m not strong enough, brave enough, wise enough for the things God has called me into. Those emotions often taunt me—but I don’t have to agree with them. It may take a while for me to recognize what’s happening and pick up my sword. Sometimes the feelings are so entrenched, I need to persist over a period of days or even weeks. But as I choose to fix my eyes on the truth, as I wield my sword again and again, God always brings the breakthrough.sword-790815_1920

“You will keep in perfect peace

Those whose minds are steadfast

Because they trust in you.”

Isaiah 26:3

 

                      Image by azboomer from Pixabay

 

 

You Are More Than a Body

Have you ever felt it—that rush of excitement when you receive an invitation? Whether it’s for a wedding, a ball or a lavish birthday celebration, your mind swirls with images of beauty and music and celebration, then leaps to the vital question—“What will I wear?”

Last time I went through this routine, something about it bothered me. I felt honoured to be included in the guest list for a family wedding and I wanted to look my best. But my dreams of how I might dress were marred by sharp prods of anxiety. Will everyone approve of my outfit? More importantly, Will everyone approve of the way I look in that outfit?

My body is changing. Skin doesn’t spring back the way it used to. Weight is shifting to new locations and clothes don’t sit like they did before. After years of having little concern about my fitness, I need to work harder for the same results. And I am. But there’s a new body-consciousness simmering under the surface, a fear of judgement by others—and I’m annoyed. I’ve been in that place before and I know it does me no good.

Many years ago, I learned the compulsion we feel to fit a certain mould is based on this lie—our worth is measured by the size and shape of our body. Every day, through all sorts of means,  we’re bombarded with perfectly crafted images telling us how to look, what to wear and how much we should weigh if we want to measure up—and they suck us ever-downward into a spiral of comparison, discouragement and striving. Even when we know the truth, those messages can still creep in and warp our thinking. If we let those lies take root in our souls we sell ourselves short—way short.

We are more than a body. Much, much more. And, deep down, I think we know it.heart-shaped hands

God gave us our bodies as a powerful instrument to help us express who we really are. The way we treat people, the things we throw our energy into, what makes us happy or angry or sad all reveal to others what’s in our heart. And it’s our heart that truly defines who we are—not our appearance.

The world’s standard of beauty changes all the time and from culture to culture. To spend our days running after an ever-shifting ideal is like a dog chasing its tail—lots of energy expended but very little reward. Real beauty, God says, comes from a heart at peace with Him and with others—and it doesn’t fade with the passing of years or the trials of life. How much better would we be to focus on that kind of pursuit?

So how about we shake off the lies? How about we lift our sights higher than the mirror, to the One Who looks straight to the core of our being and says we’re worth dying for? That kind of love sets us free to flourish. And it gives us the desire to appreciate the beauty in the women around us.woman-girl-freedom-happy-39853

Instead of comparing and competing, let’s cheer each other on as we learn to be the best versions of our unique selves. And let’s get busy pouring all God has put inside us into lives well-lived.

When we focus on what really matters, there’s a joy that goes far beyond skin deep.

“Your beauty should . . . be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” 1 Peter 3:3-4

“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

B and W four young women laughing

Photo credits:
1. Hassan OUAJBIR ( https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-doing-hand-heart-sign-1535244/)
2. Jill Wellington (https://www.pexels.com/photo/dawn-sunset-beach-woman-39853/)
3. Hannah Nelson (https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photography-of-four-women-wearing-clothes-1065081/)

 

 

Rescued

Tuesday 23rd July, 2013

“Do you think we should go to the hospital?” My husband’s gentle words broke through the haze that clouded my mind.

I dragged my head up and sighed. For hours I’d been lying on the bedroom floor, mostly face down, trying to find a position where my body didn’t hurt so much. It had taken all my strength to pull myself up and vomit into a bowl. The noise had woken Mark and he’d climbed out of bed to come to my side.

I had hoped this sickness – whatever it was – would have settled through the night. Surely after almost two days I should have been improving? Instead the mild nausea of Sunday afternoon had developed into violent retching, diarrhoea, shaking fevers and overwhelming weakness. Tightness under my ribcage on one side made breathing difficult and my head spun.

Mark had already suggested I go to hospital – several times. Each time I’d refused. The thought of spending hours in that condition in a waiting room full of people was unthinkable. This time, though, he was determined. “I think we should pray about it.”

“What time is it?” I breathed.

“Four o’clock.”

“Okay. I’ll try.”

We spent a few moments waiting quietly. Meanwhile, unknown to us, my mum was suddenly awakened in Sydney with a strong urge to pray for me – she already knew I was very unwell.

“So, what did you think?”

With eyes closed, I mumbled, “I just keep getting the word ‘appendix’.” Low in my abdomen a sharp pain throbbed on the right. “Maybe we should just go and get it checked.”

“Okay.”He stood up, slipped his hands under my arms and helped me to my feet. Every movement was agony. Once I was dressed he informed our oldest son what was happening and we shuffled together out to the car. Our breath formed puffs of steam in the icy night air.

When we reached the emergency department, I slumped over the sick bowl, my head resting on my arms. The waiting room was strangely quiet, almost empty. A thought ambled through my mind, Am I just being a drama queen?

“Hello Susan.”

The calm, professional tone of a nurse’s voice broke me out of my musing. I lifted my head a little.

“Your husband explained what’s been happening. Can you sit up so I can take a few vitals?”

I pushed myself up off the bowl and tried to bring my rolling eyes to meet those of the nurse. My hair fell back from my face and she gasped.  “Oh, I think we might just take you straight in.” She scurried away and dashed back with a wheelchair.

As she returned I breathed, “Sorry. I can’t remember your name.” The woman was a regular at our MOPs group – a support programme our church ran for mums of pre-schoolers.

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” she answered briskly. “Let’s just see if we can get you better.”

She wheeled me into a curtained cubicle then returned to her station at the counter. Two other nurses changed me into a thin hospital gown, hooked me up to a heart monitor and supplied medication to stop the vomiting. Soon after, my bed was wheeled to a large room at the far end of the emergency department. Another four nurses gathered around me, making a team of six, while a doctor drifted in and out. IV trolleys were set up and bags of fluid stacked nearby. The nurses took blood, gave me morphine, inserted a catheter and introduced a drip to each forearm. The doctor threaded a picc line – a long, narrow, five-stranded tube – through one of my major neck veins almost all the way to my heart. I was given an oxygen mask. Large, soft blankets – so many blankets – were brought from the warming cupboard and draped one atop another over my shivering body.

Sepsis clearer

The strange sensation of pain and pressure in my abdomen began to spread up into my lung area. I told the nurses. A couple of them exchanged concerned glances.

A doctor came to my side. “Now Susan, you seem to have some kind of infection but your pathology results won’t come back for a while. We’re going to start you on five different antibiotics to make sure we hit whatever bacteria is at work. Then once we get the test results back we’ll narrow them down to the right one. We’ll also be giving you IV fluids to try to get your blood pressure up.”

“Okay.” I nodded.

“Do you have to use so many antibiotics?” my husband asked. I’d just finished taking a course of tablets for another condition and was run-down because of them.

A nurse’s voice snapped from the other side of the room, “Your wife is in a state of septic shock. If we don’t give her antibiotics she’ll die.”

I heard her words but could barely make sense of them. Die? Really? But I was in hospital – surely that meant I was safe? Lord, I’m in your hands, I prayed.

Hours ticked by while antibiotics and fluids flowed steadily into my bloodstream. The staff hovered, watching closely for any improvement in my vital signs. The bag attached to my catheter remained empty, revealing that my kidneys had failed. Many times I was asked, “What’s your full name? When were you born? Where do you live?”

Mark’s presence beside me was calm and constant. He sent out a prayer request in the morning which quickly reached hundreds of people across the nation and beyond. Several friends have since said that the moment they got the message, they understood the intensity of the battle I was in and got straight to warring in prayer.

Six hours passed with no significant change. Various doctors wandered in and out of the room, along with teams of interns, to discuss my case. One supervising doctor told my husband, “It’s good you came in when you did. If you’d left it even one hour longer, it may have been too late.”

Finally, the medical staff resorted to using a very high dose of noradrenalin to bring my blood pressure back to a safe level. A CT scan and laparoscopy followed. My appendix and lower bowel were inflamed but neither had to be removed. A drain was put into my abdomen to remove the large volume of fluid which had built up there and remained in place for the next few days.

Later we were told that I had sepsis, a severe response to an infection which causes inflammation throughout the whole body and attacks the tissues and organs. In about one third of cases, the cause of the infection is unknown. I was one of those cases. Septic shock is the most extreme stage of sepsis and leads to death in fifty percent of cases.

Sepsis walk with drip

I spent the following week in Intensive Care. Collapsed lungs and pneumonia slowed my recovery.  After two days of forced bed-rest and constant oxygen I was allowed to attempt walking with a frame.  It took a few more days before I could move around without support. My whole lower body swelled so much my skin hurt. I wore long pressure stockings and shuffled slowly around the ward, trying to improve circulation. All the toxins which had flooded my system caused ongoing muscle pain and weakness; even the simplest of tasks caused major fatigue.

 

home from hospital

Once I returned home, we were flooded with offers of support. My mum flew down from Sydney followed by one of my sisters to help keep our household running. Dozens of friends provided meals for our family. It felt strange to be so frail. Every little milestone was cause for celebration – sleeping on my side, walking to the mailbox, squatting to get something out of the cupboard and managing to pull myself up again. After three months, I could last a whole day without sleeping in the afternoon. It took nine months before I could manage without a lie down.

Several doctors had tried to tell me how severely ill I’d been but I found it hard to fathom. It was my surgeon who finally opened my eyes at a follow-up appointment a month after the illness. For a fleeting moment he stopped his medical reflections, dropped his professional tone and told me, “I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘We had a mother of four in today and she nearly died.’” My eyes brimmed with tears. I knew I could have died but didn’t realise I’d come so very close.

Today I celebrate five years of ‘bonus life’. There are so many ‘ifs’ in my experience which could have led to a very different result:

If we hadn’t opted to go to hospital. . .

If I hadn’t known the admissions nurse . . .

If emergency had been very busy and there were less people available to help. . .

If the staff had taken longer to form a diagnosis (many people have died from such a delay) . . .

If people hadn’t bothered to pray when they heard I was sick . . .

Yet the God Who reigns over the ‘ifs’ put everything in place to make sure my life was spared. He knew the days on earth He had planned for me and made sure they were not cut short.

The words in Psalm 31:14-15, “My times are in Your hands,” are a tangible reality to me now, a source of clarity and focus. Every day is a gift to be received with thanks and lived to the full. God had a specific purpose in mind when He created me. My greatest desire and joy is to fulfil it.

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

 

 

Letting Go

The girls were barely out the door, heading off to school, before tears began falling. I padded through the empty house, my anguished sobs echoing in the silence. Worship songs played through my mind, reminding me that God was my rescuer, the one who sent His Son to die for me.

Yet, at that moment He was asking me to face a kind of death.

Bleak, grey clouds hung suspended over our paddock and the sky wept freely. I pulled a door wide open and breathed deep. The air pressed cool and moist against my skin, thick with the fragrance of grass and animals and a million happy memories.

God, does it have to be this way?

Like drops of rain, my words of protest fell, silenced, to the ground. Already I knew the answer. It was time to let go.

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“I think God wants us to move,” my husband had said. “To Sydney.”

Sydney. The place of my birth, of schooldays and family celebrations, mild winters and long, hot summers. Sydney, where I’d spent the first twenty five years of my life – till God had led me to the remote island of Tasmania to study. For two years, I had thought. Just two.

But two had stretched into more than twenty. And slowly my shallow roots had lengthened and spread till my soul was firmly embedded in the rich loam of this land and my heart was knit with its people – some who I counted as ‘family’.

Now, once more and despite my resistance, God was pulling me away.

At first I discounted my husband’s thoughts but a vivid dream came later that evening. God spoke to me clearly, confirming His direction and infusing me with inexplicable confidence and joy. This move was His plan – for all of us, for our good.

Over the following five weeks He continued to assure us, even in the most unlikely ways – yes, a new season was imminent and we would be richer for it.

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Words of challenge flowed steadily in those weeks as well. He spoke of surrender, of being uprooted and pushed out of the nest to free-fall. Part of me felt like wildly flapping, yet my heart was strangely at rest. He would catch us.

Then came the leaflet – a printed page dropped in our mailbox by a family seeking a home in our area. A home just like ours. Couldn’t I have more time, God? Yet again He nudged me in a direction I didn’t want to go. In a mere ten days, the deal was sealed. Our house would soon have new owners.  Instantly the tone of life switched from earnest prayer and contemplation to gathering boxes and sorting treasures. Oh, what a time of sifting!

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There are days in the midst of this season when faith soars and images of exciting new ventures fill my mind. And there are times – like this – when the pain of separation seems unbearable, even impossible to endure. That’s when I draw near to my Father once again and listen to His whisper.

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You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.

Later.

Later I will understand why He sold our house so swiftly.

Later I will see why we had to leave so much – and so many – behind.

Later I will be glad we took the risk and followed His directions, for we will be savouring the new life He has given us.

With red ink I recorded His words in my journal, adding them to the many revelations He’d been giving. As I put down my pen He draped a new layer of hope over my heart.

Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

I cannot see all that will unfold in the months ahead. But one thing I’ve learned from the  past – God can be trusted. Though this is a time of grief and pain, we will rejoice again. Perhaps, like sunrise after an especially dark night, joy will burst forth sooner than I think.

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Credit for first photo – Shaun Morrison.
Watercolour painting by E Brown, 2016.