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.

What He makes me do.

I stood there, the sea of grass rippling against my ankles, chest heaving like I was trying to suck in the entire chilled sky all at once.

I’d sprinted. I’m not a sprinter. But sometimes that’s the only way to get to a place where you can yell.

“Why is this so hard sometimes?”

“Why don’t I feel You?”

The questions flew out over the pasture without anything to bounce off of except the rabbit bouncing into the bushes, the wind waiting to carry my words away.

I gasped for air.

The wind tousled my ponytail.

He makes me lie down in green pastures. He restores my soul.

Of course.

Of course that’s the truth that would drift through my brain as I stood there in a horse pasture, restless legs stamping down the tall blades in the spot where I’d stopped.

“God, don’t you know all I’d like to do is rest? And be restored?”

For weeks I’d been living in the desert — literally and figuratively. When I moved there, I’d packed a mixed bag of excitement and nerves.

In return, the desert packed a punch.

The desert is a hard place to live. This I knew.

But my feet were barely sandy when His promise to just walk forward, I’ll lead you got shaken out of my pockets like lunch money by a playground bully.

The adventure was gone. Fast.

I felt like I’d been beaten up on the dry, dusty road, so like a bloody-nosed kid with cut-up knees, I ran back to the last place I remembered seeing my Father’s face.

Where things were green.

And like the walking wounded, I paced His pasture, asking Him to explain Himself. I let it all out. Questions. Indignation. Tears. Hurt. Exhaustion.

He makes me lie down.

I didn’t feel like I needed Him to “make” me.

But at the same time … I did.

I needed Him to tell me to rest, to remind me again that He wouldn’t leave. In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, though He was there, I’d lost sight of Him somehow.

The dark closed in.

For You are with me.

He was.

Even when I felt desperately alone in the dark, when the weight was crushing, He was with me.

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

It wasn’t always what I wanted. But in the moments I needed Him most, He was there, providing the exact thing I needed to get me through the night.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.

No matter where I run. Valley. Sand. Pasture.

If I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

My feet came to rest.

And as I sat down, not in the bed I’d made for myself but the one He’d made for me, He reminded me who I was.

A daughter.

His sheep.

And like a sheep, I’ll need to remember — and need reminding — again tomorrow.

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

Ticket day.

I look back on that day, and I think there’s only one thing she could’ve thought.

Lunatic.

There I was, fingers buried up to the knuckles in my little bedroom’s fairly industrial carpet, tears forming a river formidable enough to make Justin Timberlake proud.

Meredith was standing in the hall, and her eyes were huge.

She was unpacking her suitcases. She was new to England.

I wondered if she was taking in the scene and thinking in horror that she might be looking into the mirror at the ghost of Christmas future.

#whathaveigottenmyselfinto

#toolatetoturnback?

#thedamageisdonesoiguessillbeleaving

Expats sometimes call them “ticket days” – the days that if you had a one-way ticket, you’d probably get on the plane and fly back.

This was my first ticket day.

It seemed everything had imploded in a split second. I’d prayed over several things, then botched them all in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed up. I’d hurt people I love when I meant to do the opposite. All in one day. It felt like I’d been dead-legged so suddenly I didn’t feel it until my face hit the industrial carpet.

It was awful.

Later that week, I was on the schedule to give an encouraging talk at my office, and I don’t remember saying much that fit the bill of encouraging. I think it centered around clinging to God in the midst of pitch blackness, when everything goes up in flames.

#dropsthemike

#yallhaveagreatweek

Admittedly I have a deep well of emotions, but this plumbed it and kept digging. But in the middle of it, something unexpected happened.

I started learning how to learn.

A few days later, after I’d moved from the carpet to the couch, I found myself in 2 Corinthians 4.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal bodies.”

My weak, frail body – exploding with tears and messing things up even with my best efforts – is nothing but a jar of clay.

The stuff that matters is the treasure that’s on the inside: “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

I may feel hard-pressed on every side, but I’m not crushed, all because of His strength, strength that is super visible in my clay-like weakness.

That passage dead-legged me, and I remember yelling down the spiral staircase at Meredith how much I LOVED THIS CHAPTER.

I read it. And read it. And read it. Until finally one day I felt God prodding me to do something I hadn’t done since my sixth grade Christmas program.

Memorize it.

Oh, no.

It was hard. It took time. It took turning off the radio to say it to myself while I drove. It took getting up early to have some quiet hours before work.

But eventually it got in there.

And just in time.

When my friend Clare died last February, my face hit the carpet again, and this time I wasn’t sure how to get up with the weight of pain that sat in my gut and radiated through my pores. But something else came spilling out, too.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen.”

I couldn’t read. I couldn’t pray. Everything hurt so badly I couldn’t see.

I wanted a ticket out of this one, too.

“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Scripture came pouring out. Praise God. He knew my need. He supplied His Word. It got me through some hard, hard days. Sleepless nights. Tear-filled showers. Days doubled over my desk.

I started wishing I had already put so much more in my heart, because it didn’t take long to realize that when this jar-of-clay heart gets shattered, His Word spills out everywhere.

If I’ve put it there.

sheep

“My sheep know My voice … ” through His Word.