When Life Is Hard

It was today, February 2, six years ago, that Mark left. Disillusioned with life, God, people, the world, and marriage, he was determined to ride off in the sunset with another relationship.

It was today, February 2, four years ago that we both shaved our heads-me because it was falling out from my chemo treatments. Mark because of solidarity.

It was today, February 2, two years ago that our adopted son started another emotional spiral that would end up with him homeless, hospitalized, and unwilling to get the help he needed.

February 2 is a marker day in our lives. A day we will never forget for a myriad of reasons.

There are no perfect lives. In fact, life on this side of heaven is messy. Difficult. Challenging. Painful. Hard. If we expect anything different than that, we will be in a  perpetual state of discontentment.

I’m not saying we need to have an Eeyore “woe is me” perspective. We just need to have a realistic perspective. There are very, very good days. Good seasons. Good years.  And there are very, very hard days, hard seasons, and hard years.  I’ve found, however, that we can still learn to “give thanks in all circumstances” like we’re reminded to in I Thessalonians 5:18.

Big or small, the hard parts of life can suck the joy right out of our hearts. So how do we love our life when life is hard?  When life doesn’t go as expected?  When our best laid plans get turned upside down?

What I have learned is that we don’t have to love our circumstances, but we can love how God grows us through our circumstances. 

This is truth we find in Romans 5:3-4, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.

There is no growth without struggle.

My husband and I have five children. Many years ago when our oldest was in junior high, we got an incubator and some fertile eggs from our local 4-H program.  We watched and waited for those chicks to be born. One day we saw a little beak poke through the egg shell. We had been strongly instructed that once the chick started hatching, do not help them!  Their struggle is making them stronger. His hours and hours of pecking and resting and pecking some more strengthened his muscles. That little chick worked to get out of the egg for nearly 24 hours, but he made it!

And so will you and I.  Our struggles can bring growth if we’ll let God use them for His purposes.

When Mark left, I cried. Who wouldn’t?  But I’m not a highly emotional person so those initial tears were the beginning of growth.  God was tuning my heart to his heart. The Bible says that Jesus was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.  God grew me emotionally.

When I got my cancer diagnosis. I cried. Who wouldn’t? Again God grew me through that hard season. In addition to growing me emotionally by increasing my compassion for those going through physical illness, I also changed my eating and exercising. God grew me physically.

When our son spirals, there are always tears. Yet each time I learn more about addiction and helping but not enabling. More than anything I learn about control and my tendency to do it. Each time I turn over control to God, God grows me spiritually.

In these hard circumstances, my compassion for others going through hard times has increased.  My dependence on God’s Word has expanded. I’ve learned the power of rest and the value of being still. My faith has been stretched. Hope and love have been strengthened in my soul.

When life gets hard, it’s tempting to ask, “Why?  It’s perfectly okay to ask God why, but we won’t always get an answer to that question.  More importantly, it’s important to ask: What? And How?

WHAT do you want me to learn in this season?  HOW do you want me to grow?  HOW can you use this for your purposes, God?”

Where do you need hope in the hardship?  I’ll be the first to admit that life isn’t fair. Sometimes there are no answers that bring about understanding in the pain. You don’t have to love your challenges. But you can love what God can do inside of you while you walk through those challenges.

Just like a baby chick, He’ll strengthen your spiritual, emotional, and relational muscles as you peck out of whatever shell you’re trapped in.

I can truly say that I loved my life even in the midst of each of these hard seasons because I loved what God was doing inside of me.  I clung to the truth of Romans 8:28, that, “God works for the good of those who love him,” and I found my strength in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

Today, February 2, Mark is home. Our marriage is healed and I’m stronger emotionally.

Today, February 2, I’m four years cancer free and stronger physically than I’ve ever been.

Today, February 2, our son still struggles and life continues to be hard for him and for us with him. But I’m spiritually stronger and better able to navigate the disappointment and difficult circumstances we face. I’m letting go of control and letting God lead the way more often than not.

There’s not always a happy ending to every story. But there is always the possibilities of a stronger person at the end of every story. As the old adage goes, you can become bitter or you can become better. I choose better and I want to encourage you to do that as well.

I don’t know what you’re carrying today. Maybe your marriage is in crisis. Maybe one of your kids are in crisis. Maybe there’s more month than money. Maybe you’re in the middle of a cancer journey…either your own or a loved one’s. Maybe it’s a health crisis. We all face difficult times.

Whatever you are dealing with, I want to encourage you to grieve what isn’t and adjust to what is.  Then ask God how He wants you to grow and how He wants to use this for His purposes in your life.

Once you do that, stand back and watch God do His best work…because when we are weak, He is strong! 

Are You Feeling Conviction or Condemnation?

Dear Jill,

I deal with ‘guilty daughter syndrome’ as I don’t go visit my parents that often and they only live 25 minutes away. We see them a lot at my kids’ sporting events (but no sports during the winter months right now) and for some reason I still feel guilty.

Signed,

Guilty

**********************************

Dear Guilty,

When something needs to change, God uses conviction to move us in the right direction. Conviction is a red flag that says, “Somethings amiss,” (such as:  I need to be more intentional about seeing my parents) or “You missed the mark and you have a relational mess to clean up,” (such as: the tone I just spoke to my spouse was very short and impatient and I need to apologize.)  Conviction keeps us on the straight and narrow. It’s God’s loving way of keeping guardrails in our life that allow us to love well and live life to the fullest.

However, when conviction happens, the enemy often comes in and pushes us right out of conviction into condemnation.  Guilt can easily become condemnation.  Let the conviction move you to having your parents over once a month for dinner (every 2nd Tuesday of the month or something like that), but resist the lies of the enemy that want to label you in a negative way.

The Bible tells us in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Don’t let condemnation whisper messages that will steal your joy and keep you stuck.  But do let conviction motivate you to close this connection gap in your relationship with your parents.

 

What about you? Can you identify any place where conviction has slipped into condemnation? 

 

 

The Power of Perseverance

I saw the little square notice in our local newspaper. It stated basic information about a college scholarship available for Christian students. I didn’t have anyone in college at the time. My older three were young adults, my younger two were freshman and sophomore in high school.

I cut out the notice and tucked it into a file marked “Scholarships.” Three years later during Austin’s senior year, I opened up the file, pulled out that little slip of paper and prompted him to apply.

Several months later he was notified that he had received a $500 scholarship from the private foundation. It wasn’t a lot but it covered his books. We thanked God for that provision! A year later he was notified by the group that it was time to re-apply for this year’s funds. He applied and this time he was denied. No scholarship his sophomore year.

I tucked the denial letter away and marked our calendar for the next year’s application date. As he was finished up his sophomore year I reminded him to reapply. He protested that he’d been denied last year, but I encouraged him to apply anyway.  A few months later he received notification of another $500 scholarship. Again provision for his books!

As his junior year was coming to a close, I once again rang the scholarship bell. “Mom, it’s a lot of work for $500.”  “I know,” I responded, “but every little bit helps.”  He sent in his application.  This time the response was different. He received a $2000 scholarship!  We were all jumping up and down with excitement!

Perseverance paid off.

We live in an “instant” society. Technology teaches kids that if you have a problem, you just “reboot” to fix it.  Appliance companies no longer make washers and dryers to last 20 years…instead 2-3 years is the life of an appliance. It’s all throw-away. Give up. Quit.

As parents, we have to model perseverance and we have to help our kids learn the value of perseverance.

Romans 5:3-4 tells us to, rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope.

God uses perseverance to grow us and to grow our kids.

When my daughter Anne and I were writing our book Better Together: Because You’re Not Meant To Mom Alone, Anne shared this story about perseverance in friendship:

I began attending MOPS when Rilyn was six months old. I really didn’t have any “mom” friends and was craving same-season friendship. My mom was going to be speaking at a local MOPS group in a few months and I wanted to attend incognito
for a while. I wanted them to know me for me and not for who my mom was.

I was the only one with an infant at my assigned table and so at times I felt like I didn’t belong. I questioned whether or not I should continue to attend, as I didn’t seem to have much in common with these women because our children were in different stages of life. I decided to stick it out, and as the year continued I learned a lot from these women but never found a connection of friendship.

It took me three years to find my Strawberry Pink girls. Our table just clicked, all eleven of us. We shared tears, laughter, struggles, and encouragement. We rallied around the friend whose husband was deployed, encouraged the friend whose husband was living and working in a different state, and supported the friend whose son was killed in an accident. We prayed for one another, played in each other’s homes, and had girls night outs together. These friends held me up when my dad went through a midlife crisis and left for a few months. I had never experienced friendship like this and was relishing in it.

I’ve learned that connection takes time. In our “instant” society, we are often inclined to believe that great friendship happens just as fast as “Confirm” is pressed on a Facebook friend request. That’s not the way it is in real life. Friendships take time
to find and nurture. Then once we connect, it’s both the highs and lows of life that make us better together.”

Honestly most of us would give up after one year let alone two!  However, Anne’s story illustrates the value of perseverance.  And I love how she was able to see the positive even in the waiting as she kept herself in a place to learn from other moms.

For Austin, he learned gratitude in the persevering. He also learned the value of being responsible with the little things to lay the foundation for possibly being entrusted with something more (which is living out Luke 16:10).

I’ve learned there’s power in perseverance. In marriage. Parenting. Friendships. In my relationship with God. In family relationships. In work and play.

Perseverance strengthens our character and gives us hope that the future will look different someday. Missing out on perseverance causes us (and our kids) to miss out on growth opportunities God wants to use to mature us. That alone motivates me to persevere–and encourage my kids to persevere–when it sometimes seems like it might be easier to quit.

What about you? Where do you need to persevere? Where do you need to keep pursuing? Where do you need to keep waiting and trusting that God is at work? 

Lessons from a Day of Travel

This guy.

Last night he was a champ. When my flight was delayed leaving Florida and I texted him that I worried about making my connecting flight in Atlanta, he immediately pointed me to Christ with a simple text that said, “God’s got this. I am praying.”  I needed that reminder in that stressful moment!

Then when I got to Atlanta and found I did indeed miss my flight, he stuck by me. Delta gave me a hotel voucher and I asked about getting my checked luggage. They said I could request it and get it in 35-40 minutes. It was already 10:30 pm but I decided to go ahead and request it. It actually took a little over an hour to get it but I was never alone in the waiting. Mark stayed connected the whole time.

When I got my luggage and went out to catch the hotel shuttle, I watched it drive off before I could get there. When I went to the pick up area, I learned that after 11pm, the shuttles no longer came every 15 minutes but now every 30 minutes!  A kind driver from another hotel asked me who I was waiting for. I told him and he confirmed it would be another 30 minutes. He said, “I can drop you in the gas station right by the Crowne Plaza Hotel if you want to hop on my shuttle because I’m driving right by there.” He explained that they would frown on a Candlewood Suites shuttle pulling into the Crown Plaza Hotel, but dropping me off right next door would work and it was just a walk across the parking lot to the hotel. I was so grateful for his kindness and I could tell Mark was praying!

Sure enough, he dropped me off right next to the hotel and I just had to walk across the parking lot, arriving 30 minutes earlier than I would have if I’d had to wait for the other shuttle to pick me up and drop me off. Considering it was nearly midnight, I was grateful for this man’s generosity to add me to his shuttle when he had no other reason to do so but just caring for another person.

Just knowing I wasn’t navigating all of this alone really made a difference for me! Mark is usually asleep by 10pm so I knew this was a sacrifice for him staying up with me, supporting me with his “presence,” encouragement, and prayers.

When I arrived home today, he met me with flowers….my favorite, roses! I nearly cried!

This whole situation was a reminder to me of several things:

  1. Sometimes we can’t be physically present with a loved one, but our “virtual” presence can still be powerful. Just knowing someone is praying and staying engaged through a challenging situation can make a huge difference. I certainly felt that with Mark last night!
  2. Prayer is a powerful tool. I truly believe that kind shuttle driver was moved to generosity by the power of prayer.
  3. Flexibility is an important trait in this journey of life. All around me folks were getting so angry at the situation. However, we were delayed because of a tire with a cut in it! I certainly don’t want to land in a plane with a bum tire!  While I was disappointed in my delay arriving home, I found it much less stressful to be flexible than angry.
  4. Kindness can be key to getting good customer service. When I interacted with the gate agent today in a very kind manner she told me to call and ask Delta for a travel voucher for the inconvenience. I honestly would have never thought to do that since they put me up for the night in a hotel and rebooked me on the next flight out. Today when I kindly called the airline to ask about a travel voucher or they’re willingness to replace the award miles I had been traveling on, they very generously offered to put 9500 miles back on my account. I was very pleased with that!
  5. We need to keep an eye open for ways to serve. As we share in Better Together, “God will use you to help, encourage, and care for others if you’ll keep your eyes open to see the need and your heart available to meet the need.” I believe that shuttle driver did just that!

What about you? What “life lessons” have you experienced in a challenging situation?

When He Leaves

Three times this week I’ve received an email or Facebook message from someone who has a friend whose husband has left. Because I’ve walked through that horrible experience, each of these women are asking, “How can I help my friend?”

It is truly a precious friend who cares enough to ask that question.

Do you know someone going through a separation or divorce she doesn’t want?  Would you like to know how to help her through this hard season?  Here are 10 practical ways to walk with her through this crisis:

  1. Call her when you’re heading to the store to see if she needs anything. I had a friend do this for me and it was so helpful!  I didn’t want to be at the store because I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew because if they asked, “How are you?” I knew I would be an emotional mess.
  2. If she has young kids, offer to take care of her kids for her once a week or once every other week. She’s now parenting alone and probably needs a break.
  3. Just listen. Don’t offer trite responses or empty platitudes. Offer empathy instead in statements like,“I know that’s incredibly painful,” or “I can only imagine how that would feel.”
  4. Offer to spend time with her when she might have been used to her husband being around. Many women whose husbands leave find evening the hardest because they’re suddenly alone. Ask her what the hardest time of the day is for her and then see if you can occasionally spend that time with her.
  5. Text her scriptures that will remind her of truth. Just google “scriptures when you are brokenhearted” and share some of those with her. Here are a few:
    • “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory. This is my God, and I will praise him— my father’s God, and I will exalt him!” Exodus 15:2
    • “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” Psalm 9:9-10
    • “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” Psalm 32:7-8
    • “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Exodus 33:14
    • “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” Deuteronomy 31:8
    • “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Deuteronomy 33:27
    • The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18
  6. Resist the urge to say, “Let me know what you need.” While that’s a very nice offer, it’s rarely taken seriously because most people in crisis don’t really know what they need. They’re in pain, crushed, fearful, lonely, and in the case of a separation, divorce, or infidelity, they’re likely feeling rejected. Instead of a broad offer, be more specific by saying, “I have two hours Tuesday afternoon, what home project can I help you do that’s been bothering you?” or, “I’d like to take the kids to the park to give you a break, would Thursday evening work for that?”
  7. If infidelity is a part of the picture, you might get your friend a copy of my little ebook Your Next Steps: What To Do When Your Spouse Is Unfaithful. I wrote that book to help folks dealing with infidelity to find their spiritual and emotional footing when the rug has been pulled out from under their marriage.
  8. Offer to sit with her at church. If she attends church with you, invite her to sit with you so she doesn’t have to sit alone. (This is also a gift to a widow.)
  9. Stand with her. If she is choosing to stand for her marriage, believing that restoration can happen, stand with her. Even if you don’t want to see her hurt anymore, resist the urge to tell her to give up. Some people choose to stand even after divorce takes place, and there are certainly restoration stories that happen years later. If this is what her heart tells her to do, be willing to go the long-haul with her.
  10. Pray. Pray with her and pray for her. Text her prayers when God lays her on your heart.

Separation and divorce are very isolating experiences. One of the best gifts we can give is the gift of ourselves during this heartbreaking time in a friend’s life. This is a practical way for us to live out being better together.

What about you? Have you been through separation or divorce or helped a friend who was? Would you add anything to this list? 

Hospitality at Home

Why We Choose To Be Airbnb Hosts

We’d been married just about six months and lived on the west side of Indianapolis. Mark drove a delivery truck all over Indiana for his family’s glass and plastics business. He’d been in southern Indiana that day and I was waiting for him to come home to a spaghetti dinner I’d spent the last hour making. This was 34 years ago, before there were cell phones or texting or other easy ways to stay in touch when you were apart.

I heard Mark’s truck pull up outside our mobile home. I greeted him at the door with a smile. He kissed me and said, “Hey, I brought someone home for dinner.” Surprised, I asked him who it was. He said, “I picked up a guy at the truck stop in Evansville. He was trying to get to northern Indiana so I told him I could give him a ride as far as Indianapolis. We talked as we drove and he could really use a good meal before I run him up to the mission where he can spend the night. I hope it’s okay for him to join us.”

I was surprised, but happy to share what we had. Thankfully, I was raised in a home where there was always room for one more at the dinner table.

Mark went out and invited Foster to come inside and join us for dinner.  We added a third chair around our little table for two, making our dinner for two into a dinner for three. After dinner and delightful conversation, we all jumped in the truck and drove to the homeless shelter in downtown Indianapolis.  It was the middle of December and terribly cold. I remember noticing that Foster wasn’t wearing gloves. When he confirmed that he didn’t have gloves I took off my own pair–a black stretchy pair that easily fit a man or a woman–and handed them to him wishing him the best along the journey.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Those words in Hebrews 13:2 have always stuck with me.  While we never heard from Foster again, Mark and I were bonded together that day by our shared value for hospitality.

That’s why we decided six months ago to start hosting Airbnb. We’ve loved sharing our home and meeting so many wonderful people. So far we’ve hosted dozens of folks: a family coming to visit their ISU student on Parent’s Weekend, a businessman from China, a couple driving from Florida to their home in Wisconsin, a mother needing a break from everyday life and wanting a long weekend away, a family coming together to celebrate their son/grandson’s graduation from ISU, three families on house-hunting trips preparing for a move to our community, a father and daughter taking a trip down Route 66 before the daughter headed off to the mission field.  We even hosted a baseball team of free agents playing AAA teams like our local Cornbelters, each one living the baseball dream and hoping to get picked up by one of the teams they played (and one of the guys ended up getting picked up by the Cornbelters that day!)

Sometimes we get the opportunity to visit with folks and sometimes they arrive just in time to head to bed and head out early in the morning. Either way, we get the opportunity to give them a home away from home for the night.

We have a big, nearly empty home now that most of the kids are gone. Why not use it for hospitality? I can truly say it’s become quite a mission field as we’ve encouraged marriages, helped folks new to town, and even shared deep faith-building conversations when the opportunity has presented itself.

We set our own calendar and choose to approve each reservation request, always screening their reviews from previous stays before saying yes. We’ve had a few first time Airbnb users who didn’t have reviews, but our interaction with them through the Airbnb app or website always allows us to get to know them and their reason for travel before saying yes. All money is handled through the Airbnb app, allowing us to earn a little extra income on the side. We’ve been pleased with Airbnb as a company and they’ve set up a great plan for establishing trust and safety into their program.

If you have the gift of hospitality, you might consider joining the Airbnb family as a host. We’ve found it a wonderful way to meet people and provide a warm, safe place for folks traveling to or through our community.

We now use Airbnb in our own travels and prefer it over a hotel. It’s less expensive and we often meet wonderful people. Our first experience was in December of 2015 when we traveled to visit our son, Evan, who lives near Hollywood in Los Angeles. Every hotel in the area was $250/night and that was simply out of our price range. We found an apartment to rent on Airbnb for $85/night. The couple happened to be out of town so we had the place to ourselves, including a kitchen where we could make our own meals for the week. We caught the Airbnb bug on that trip and decided to start using it for other trips.

Want to use Airbnb on an upcoming trip? You can get $40 off your first stay of $75 of more using this linkAnd if you’re ever in Bloomington-Normal, come stay with us! We’d love to have you!

I am still amazed that a hospitality seed was planted some 34 years ago when Mark and I shared an impromptu spaghetti dinner with a man named Foster. Maybe he really was an angel and we didn’t know it. He certainly made an impression on us and we’re still living that out today.

What about you? Have you ever used Airbnb or any other home sharing experience? What do you do to reach out to those around you?

My Faith-Filled Friend

One of the hardest parts of having cancer is making new friends only to lose way too many of them in death. I don’t believe I’ve ever grieved the loss of so many friends as I have the past three years.

It happened again two weeks ago when my friend Angela passed away. Angela was about six months ahead of me on the breast cancer journey. She was one of a small group of women I fondly called my “chemo coaches.” They had gone before me and helped me know what was on the road ahead.

Angela wasn’t a new friend, though. She and I had known each other for a long time. We shared a love of music, we homeschooled together, we both served on the Board of Directors at Hearts at Home in the early years of the ministry.

When I saw her husband’s post on her CaringBridge page that she was now safe in the arms of Jesus, I bawled my eyes out. Another. Friend. Lost. To. Cancer.

I silently told myself I wasn’t sure I could attend Angela’s memorial service. It’s just too hard. I would probably uncontrollably cry the whole time. Then I got a Facebook message from her husband…. “Would you be willing to say a few words at the memorial service, Jill?”

How could I say no?  She was my friend.

This world is a broken place. It’s a place of joy but also a place of pain, brokenness, and unanswered questions.

If your heart is broken for whatever reason, you need to know you’re not alone. If you’re asking why and getting no answers, you can still trust the unknown answers to a known God.

Life is not so much about finding the answers but rather living with the questions.

I don’t understand why my friend’s life was cut short. But here’s what I do know: Angela’s faith never wavered in the midst of her four-year cancer fight. When I last visited with her and she shared such excitement about her new Bible reading plan, she challenged me in my faith journey. She knew God and couldn’t get enough of Him and His word. Even in the midst of cancer, Angela’s light shone bright.

Angela understood that even when it is not well with our circumstances, it can be well with our soul.

May it be the same for each of us.

Jesus Understands

Worn out? Jesus was so tired that he slept in a boat even though a storm tossed it about.

Up at night with a little one? The disciples, who were in the boat with him, were so afraid of the storm they woke Jesus up!

Feeling misunderstood? Even Jesus’ friend Lazarus couldn’t understand how someone could be “born again.”

Been betrayed? One of Jesus’ closest friends, Judas, betrayed him.

Feeling let down by others? When Jesus asked his friends to pray with them in the Garden of Gethsemane, they fell asleep.

Been falsely accused? The Pharisees made up false accusations to get rid of Jesus.

Feeling overwhelmed? Jesus was so overwhelmed with facing the cross that he was sweating blood.

Dealing with physical pain? He experienced spikes in His hands and feet, a spear in his side, and a crown of thorns upon His head.

Don’t think your God understands your struggles?  May you see Jesus truly as a Friend who understands, because that’s what Easter is really all about.

(adapted from Real Moms…Real Jesus)