Calm through the curve balls.

I sat there on the concrete floor of the tiny balcony, legs pulled tight to my chest, metal bars stretching up around me toward the enormous moon.

It was the holiday moon in that part of the world. It glimmered on the Middle Eastern sand, made the white stone buildings glow and illuminated the late-night parties happening on all the balconies in my neighborhood.

Every balcony, that is, but mine.

The same moon that lit up their religious celebrations cast a striped shadow of the metal bars against my legs, across my face. Even though I knew I was the free one, in that moment it didn’t feel like I was free.

I felt antsy. Caged.

Unable to be who I thought I should be.

It was faith — plus circumstances beyond my control — that had brought me here to this dusty city five months before. I wasn’t supposed to be here — not according to my plans, anyway. I’d packed everything I owned and shown up on England’s doorstep. I had a job waiting for me there. I’d lived there before. I’d been trying to get back for months — months that were building quickly into years. It was where I’d felt I was supposed to be, where God had sent me a few years before with a real sense of clarity and purpose.

And England said no.

I couldn’t get a visa.

It wasn’t the first time. It was probably the sixth time. I’d lost count.

But the door to the desert opened. It was temporary. Seemed right. As I prayed, God’s Word steadied my heart. He’d led His people through the desert before.

Daily bread.

A pillar of fire.

A pillar of cloud.

I go with you — just walk forward.

So with the promise of His presence, I walked through the open door with a suitcase packed just for one season, just a couple more months this time until we could get everything sorted out.

And I heard the key click in the lock behind me.

*****

Middle East

It definitely wasn’t bad.

In fact, it was good. Really good.

In the daylight, I had fond feelings for the country of sand and camels and tea so sugary you could stand a spoon up in it. The cool breeze swept through our white stone alleys with the smell of grilled kebab meat and fried falafel. I ate some of the best food of my life in the desert. The best fried cheese. Even the best chicken caesar salad.

I spent month after month trying to learn to speak and read their language — and laughed until I cried when I messed up really, really badly.

They laughed too.

At least once a week, I’d split a pack of brownies with a local friend, and from our second-story window she would pick out husbands for me on the street. Her Middle Eastern speed dating taught me a lot of words.

Like “rich.” And “ponytail.”

Behind the girls’ dark eyes and hijabs, I found a lot of good friends.

My heart ached as I saw their struggles, their hopeless eyes aching to be free of the heavy yokes around their necks. Through them, I learned to pray for the women of the Middle East by name.

And when the call to prayer crept into my house every day from the loudspeakers all over town, I learned to hear His voice louder.

I wouldn’t trade that.

*****
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But in the darkness of the balcony that night, the reality of how out of control I was caught up with me. I wanted to just get somewhere and stay there. I was going to have to move again. Temporarily. Indefinitely. Where, I had no idea.

My head spun.

My heart ached.

That night, I was tired. The walls closed in. There was nowhere to run. No car to drive out to the middle of nowhere, no big green hill to climb up and sit on, no open road to run and run and run on until I couldn’t breathe.

I was hemmed in. By people. By concrete.

By God.

The tears I’d been holding in spilled down my face and dripped onto the dusty floor.

“God, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I thought this was the path you were leading down. Am I supposed to keep waiting this out, keep moving around until it works? Or is this a door that you have closed and I’m just not listening?”

What do I do?

In light of this, who am I supposed to be?

Big questions. Big, big questions.

I leaned my head back against the concrete wall.

“Father, if this isn’t what you have for me, I’m going to need for You to dream me a new dream. Because this is what I’d thought You made me for.”

I closed my eyes and let the tears go. I knew that God saw me, that He heard me — that this night was no different from the other thousand times life had thrown a curve ball. Changes in plans. In careers. In dreams. Relationships started. Relationships ended. Years of singleness that stretched on. Move after unexpected move. A close friend’s sudden death.

So many curve balls.

Not one of them surprised Him.

Not even this one.

“I trust You,” I whispered. “I know You’ve never failed. I’m just tired. I wish I had some answers. Guidance. But You know what I need better than I do. Please give me what You know I need.”

I drew my legs in tight again, chilled by the desert breeze and the cold floor. Silence — at least the Middle Eastern kind of silence punctuated by car horns and firecrackers — engulfed me. I was restless. I wanted a hoodie from inside. A cup of tea. A friend. A little bit of relief.

But in that moment, I felt like Jacob wrestling with God in the wilderness. I was going to stand my ground on this balcony, not until I had answers but until my heart was steady again, until the remembrance of His promises washed over me and firmed up my trembling spirit.

Until I had more of Him.

That was life or death, and I knew it.

I rubbed my chilled arms with my hands.

And as I sat there, God began to whisper over me. At first it was slow, then over the course of the night it came as a rush — words that had been whispers, anthems, shouts in the past.

The words that steadied my heart when my friend Clare died, when the grief was choking.

“We are pressed but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair …  struck down but not destroyed …”

The words that showed me He is my home even — especially — when I don’t have one.

“These all died in faith … having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth … they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

He has prepared for them a city!

Some days it’s hard. But I remember. I look back over the mountains and the valleys, and I see His provision, His presence. My heart bursts with the promise that He loves. That He is for me. The God of the mountains and valleys is for me.

And He is good.

*****

A few weeks later, just in time for the next tenants of my borrowed flat to move in, I packed my suitcases again and said goodbye to the Middle East. I stood on that tiny balcony one last time and thanked God for what He had done there. How He’d stretched me.

How He’d shown Himself to be good. Again.

And then I landed in England without a real way to stay there, just temporarily until we could figure something out.

Deep breath. Remember.

That if He gives the sparrows what they need, how much more …

Remember, Grace. Remember who He is.

And remember that knowing Him is the goal. Not a place. Not a life. Not a home.

One night that week, a friend was chatting about trust. About worry. About why we struggle to keep calm when life throws us curve balls, when things turn out differently than what we expect.

And then he said it. So simple.

“It’s hard to trust a God we don’t know.”

*****

And in that simple statement lay the answer to my prayer in the desert.

“Please give me what You know I need.”

It’s Him that I need. Just Him.

The reason He’s able to wash my anxiety-stained heart with His promises is because of the mornings He poured His Word into my heart as the sun was coming up. The reason His goodness is vivid on the horizon is because it’s written on the doorposts of every place I’ve laid my head in the past.

The reason I can trust Him is because I’ve seen Him reach into my pain and soothe my wounds. I’ve seen Him take my curvy path and bathe it in the light of who He says He is, in the light of what His Word promises our lives are about.

For my good.

For His glory.

Like His people in the past, I remember who He says He is. Who He’s proven Himself to be. I remember His goodness in my own past. I read about His goodness since the beginning of time. I worship Him for it. I sing it to my heart over and over.

His steadfast love endures forever.

I’ve seen it. And I will see it again.

His faithfulness steadies my heart for the next bend in the road, the next mountain where my heart will burst with worship, the next valley where my soul will cry out in pain.

When life is sweet, I’ll turn back and whisper gratitude.

When it hurts, I’ll remember the depth of His comfort.

Both are for my good.

And when I look at how — with each bend in the road I live through — I know Him more deeply, see the outlines of His footprints more vividly in front of me, His loving gaze even brighter, I wouldn’t trade it.

Each morning in His Word, each step forward shows Him to be bigger. Stronger. More gracious than I ever could’ve imagined.

Remember, Grace. Remember who He is.

And make your life about knowing Him more.

The walk home.

The breeze ambled down the dusty street, breathing cool in our faces.

It felt like the pockets of cool mountain air that used to pop my face in Birmingham when we’d go cycling in the summer, the days it felt like we’d passed through a hot Southern kitchen with the freezer left open.

I never expected that in the desert. Even at dusk.

I love this time of day here.

The city’s sandy white buildings glow rosy at sunset, like the sun in its haste to get out of this part of the world spilt a glass of pink lemonade right over the top of them.

“I love not having to walk this road alone anymore.”

Abi made the comment as she and I ambled down the empty road toward home, casually dodging the occasional cat or garbage dumpster, or cat jumping out of a garbage dumpster.

It’s true.

It’s a totally different walk when you’re alone.

Your eyes take in less of the sunset, less of the fruit stands and the children playing and more of the honking cars, the men loitering around. More of how the eyes are all staring at you. More of how little you blend in. More of how the darkness is falling quickly.

But with a buddy, you can drag your feet a little in the dust and let the sunset wash over you while you stroll home, laughing at how you almost just got hit by that kid’s soccer ball or that erratic taxi, or how you bet that family would let you come to their really loud dinner party if you just knocked on the door. Five dollars says they would. I’m sure of it.

And suddenly … we’re home.

The keys clank in the double doors, and I smile just thinking about my living situation. I have a great flat. I have great flatmates.

And temporarily I have a broken bed.

Abi rolls her eyes at me because I like to dramatize the fact that I sleep on a sheetless mattress in the middle of the floor at the moment. It’s only been that way a few days. It’ll be fixed in a few more days. I try to play it up to get sympathy, but it doesn’t work. She knows that the reality is … I could care less about it. I sleep fine anywhere, and I love where I live.

But it’s so temporary. I’ll be moving again soon. What I do over here on this side of the world has a transient nature to it – a lot of changing plans, a lot of moving. The sheetless mattress mirrors my heart a little. Why put on the sheets when you don’t think you’ll be there very long?

Most days I don’t think too much about how transient and unpredictable life is at the moment, but today as I sit on the edge of the mattress, a wave of emotion rushes over me. A wave of anxiety about not knowing where I’ll be … again. About not knowing how long I’ll be there … again.

A desire for something even mildly permanent.

Looking forward, my eyes drown in the details of the coming months. Where will I live and work? When? For how long? Who with? Will all my stuff ever be all in one country again? All the questions loom big, loud, uncertain and unpredictable, like I’m doing reconnaissance as I walk alone, trying to anticipate what could be lurking a few steps up the road.

And the Father whispers again … “You’re not alone.”

He’s right.

I’m not alone.

So why do I walk like I am? Why do I walk like He’s left me by myself to hyper-focus on things, panic occasionally and bolt through the uncertain bits like I’m a contestant on “Wipeout”?

He’s not left me yet. He’s good. He’s loving toward me. He’s always seen the soccer balls and the taxis coming, and He’s planned the sunsets and their beauty.

So, I remind myself, just let those sunsets wash over you.

Breathe.

“He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

Walk slowly, for crying out loud, Grace. Enjoy each night on the bare mattress in this country. Don’t worry about where you’ll lay your head next.

Wherever it is, He’s there.

Real fear.

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The rain splattered hard against the window.

Just didn’t seem right for the desert.

I rolled the legs of my soaked jeans down and noticed the damp marks my feet were leaving on the tile floor. My friend laughed at me and clicked her tongue, the cultural sign of disapproval here. Kind of like a “girl, what were you thinking?”

It hadn’t rained since I arrived, and they’re just as unequipped for rain in this country as the South is for snow. A little rain, and full-scale rivers start flowing right down the middle of the street.

Hopeless. Hopeless for me … and for my Toms.

I’ve been visiting this country for a few weeks now, and what I’ve learned already is that there’s so much I don’t know. I’ve had to get comfy with diving out confidently on foot into fast-moving traffic and just trust that cars will stop. (They do.) I’ve learned what a forecast of “dust” is.

And I’ve learned what real fear looks like.

“Grace, are you afraid of thunder?”

She asked me that as I worked on drying out my shoes.

“Did you hear all the thunder last night?”

No, I didn’t. I told her as much.

“Really? It kept me awake all night. I’m so scared of thunder.”

Why?

“It reminds me of God.”

It reminds me of God, too, I thought, but I didn’t say it – mainly because I figured it reminded us of God for very different reasons.

“Why does it remind you of God?”

“Because it makes me think of how bad judgment day is going to be. And I am really scared of judgment day.”

In my friend’s beliefs, all her actions will be weighed out on judgment day. If she comes out with more good than bad, then she’s in the clear. If not …

“When I do bad things, I get afraid that I will die right then, before I have time to do more good things.”

As I looked in my friend’s eyes, all I saw reflected there was fear.

Hopeless.

Here she sat in front of me, concerned about buying the right dress to impress a guy she liked at a party … texting her friends … cruising Facebook …

And fearing eternity hard-core.

Oh, God. Please put the fear in me for the sake of your name among these people.

Every moment, every second, I feel ill equipped to be a bearer of hope to dark places. At all times of day, the darkness pounds against my window with the fervor of a desert rainstorm, threatening to wash away seeds planted, threatening to steal my joy or my confidence, threatening to distract me with stray thoughts or insecurities or concerns.

It’s loud sometimes. It shakes me.

And then I remember that the God who made the thunder loves me. He’s broken the scales holding my worthless rags. He’s clothed me as a daughter.

And He loves my friend.

What hope … for you, for me … for a world of people enslaved by darkness who don’t know the One who can calm the storm. For Him and for them, we trust His power behind the thunder, we remember He’s bigger than the darkness, we put our drenched shoes back on … and we press on.

In Him, we have nothing to fear.

sunrise

The roar of the darkness.

Candle

The power popped, and the air was warm, and 14 of us piled into the thick dark of my parents’ windowless bedroom.

We tried to keep the toddlers away from the one lit candle. We tried to keep our 16-year-old eastern European (and non-English speaking) guest from thinking the world was ending.

We didn’t know that my dad and some of the other men, watching the roaring blackness out the window, had quickly piled up the mattresses just outside the bedroom doorway.

Dec. 21 is always the darkest day of the year, but this was taking the cake.

“But I don’t want the power to be out. I want to play in there,” my 3-year-old niece said. “I don’t want to stay in here.”

We made it a game. We sang songs. But I could see on the faces of the men, who looked in on us every few seconds, that something a lot bigger was happening outside.

Power poles were snapping. Trees were bending. Shingles were peeling off roofs just streets away.

And then it was all over.

That night was supposed to be our “Christmas Eve” – everyone had in-laws and other houses to disperse to before the real thing. But as we stepped over the mattress piles and used up the last few matches for a candlelit dinner, even the little ones forgot about the presents under the tree.

“That could’ve been so much worse.”

“That was basically our entire family in one room.”

“Between you and me, the greatest danger passed over when we were all still running for the bedroom.”

We were fine. We were blocks away. But we all still trembled a little knowing death had passed over, and we all huddled around the light we had. Plans had changed.

What a great day for plans to change.

It’s amazing how much the trappings of the holiday, the trappings of life don’t matter when huge, black, consuming death comes roaring past your house.

That tiny flame – flickering humbly in the bedroom while we sit in our helplessness – it suddenly becomes so vital, so central – sanity and salvation and hope and peace all in one.

Like Jesus. Jēzus Kristus.

Sure, the tent that is our earthly home may be destroyed. Life as we know it could be drastically changed. Possessions splintered. The landscape of our family altered.

We tremble at the thought.

But as my mom started singing to the wailing littles in our family who didn’t understand the ferocity of the dark, “Jesus loves me, this I know … “

He does. He does love us. This we know.

And this is what we celebrate. The Light that came into the thick, deadly darkness. The Light that is our everything even – especially – when everything else gets blown away.

Something – Someone – much bigger.

Legitimacy in addiction.

(Photo courtesy of @travelwithchris)

(Photo courtesy of @travelwithchris)

“You’re in good company if you’ve struggled with that.”

I lay in the Papasan chair on the screened back porch. The breeze blew and stirred up the leaves on the ground outside.

Seventy degrees in December. I’m not in England anymore.

I looked up at the stark blue sky. I used to watch planes crisscross the cloudy sky outside my window every minute or two when I lived on the Gatwick Airport flight path in England. Here, not a cloud. Not even one jet trail.

My passport’s tucked in a drawer for the first time in two and a half years.

“Realize there is legitimacy in your addiction. What Christian who has a front-row seat to seeing God move the way you have wouldn’t want that to continue? When we pray, ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,’ you experienced a drop of what that will be like, and you want more – a LOT more.”

The words that a wise and understanding friend penned me when I got back to America resonate with me as I sit and watch the leaves rustle.

I do, Father.

I want a lot more.

And the more I put gas in the car, do the daily commute and sit at a desk, the more I realize … it’s not the travel I want.

It’s the concentrated time to see You at work, to learn Your heart. To really see You. To ask for more. Then to go where You go … or stay where You stay.

Before I moved to England, sure, I’d heard it. Sermons, Bible studies, etc. Do you get as excited about Jesus as you about a football game? Do you spend as much time reading the Bible as you do watching TV? Do you pray without ceasing? Do you love Jesus more than you love your stuff?

They’re all good questions … if we dare to deal with them at more than a surface level. Do I get as excited about Jesus as I do a football game? Um, that’d be weird and awkward to yell about Jesus. Do I love Jesus more than my stuff? Sure, I’ll put it all on Abraham’s altar … and expect it to not really be asked of me. Do I read my Bible as much as I watch TV? Is this like setting the egg timer for my preteen piano practice?

The real answers are a finger-smudged iPhone and a dusty Bible.

Or a finger-smudged egg timer and a dusty heart.

At this time of year, this kind of thought would normally lead into a New Year’s resolution for me. I’m gonna read my Bible more. I’m gonna get rid of some stuff. While I’m at it, I’ll lose a little weight and plan a trip to Europe.

Not this year. I don’t want resolutions.

I want Advent.

At this time of year 2,000 years ago, God’s people were waiting expectantly for the birth of the one Person worth everything. The only Man who would ever call out, “Follow Me,” and men would drop everything and run, only to find unspeakable joy. The God of the universe who would come and die a brutal death so that we could know Him and long for the day we’d be with Him face to face.

Jesus.

He’s not a tired Christmas song. He’s not a doll in a manger scene. He is the Savior our souls cry out for, whom we can know and want and chase after to the point that everything else truly fades away, not in an egg timer kind of way … in the kind of way that we forget the egg timer exists.

He’s a Savior who longs for us to push through the pat answers and know Him.

We talk about dreams (of travel, of marriage, etc.). We talk about plans (of being more disciplined, exercising more, reading the Bible more, moving away, etc.). But what of expectancy?

They longed for Him. He came.

And He’s coming back.

I want my candle trimmed and full of oil. (Matthew 25:1-13) I want my eyes trained on the sky, and not just for jet trails. Longing for the day He rips open the sky and sets everything right. The day we see His glory in its fullness.

I want more.

When we pray, ‘Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,’ you experienced a drop of what that will be like … and you’ll get it by the hydrant full when His Kingdom does come on this earth for good. So know that experiencing the goodness of God IS addictive and that part is okay.”

Only the Father knows when He’ll come again. Only He knows where He will want me in this life – travel or no travel, being used or not being used, family or no family. Only He knows how many times I’m going to get this wrong along the way (over and over), and how desperately I need Him.

But one thing I know … this Advent, this Christmas, I long for His coming.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev. 22:17)

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.'” (Rev. 22:20)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

****

(If you’re interested in a free downloadable book of short daily readings that John Piper wrote for Advent, click here. It’s really good.)