It’s the most wonderful time of the year! At least, that’s what the songs tell us, but maybe for you, it’s not. Maybe it’s a time when you are reminded of all of your inadequacies as you scroll through stunning photos on Instagram. Maybe your heart is breaking in two as the grief over losing a loved one threatens to overwhelm you. You thought that you had worked through it, but then you pass an older gentleman at the grocery store who smiles at you and the ache over missing your Daddy returns full force. Maybe money is tight this year and as friends talk about the big ticket items they scored on Black Friday, you are left feeling sad as you consider the Dollar Store items that will most likely be under your tree. Or maybe you long for a family of your own, but your finger remains bare, a reminder that you will once again be alone as you welcome a new year.
The holiday season can be an amazing time, but it can also be an awful time. What I have learned through the years is that my experience of this time is not based on the circumstances as much as it is determined by my expectations.
I started learning this lesson late in my high school years. My sisters were both in college at the time and I could sense that Christmas would never be the same as it had always been. I was having a hard time letting go. One of our family traditions was to go to a Christmas tree farm and pick out a tree, but this particular year, we were unable to find a time when we could do this. So my Dad decided that he would pick out the tree. I felt deeply sorrowful over this seeming loss of my childhood, but was trying to be mature about it. But then! My mom and I returned home from the event we were attending to find the ugliest tree I have ever seen leaning against the front porch. We were both upset as we stepped out of the car. How could my Dad do this to us?!! And then, my laughing Daddy walked around the side of the house carrying the real Christmas tree. Turns out, the other one was for my Mom’s wreath making.
It’s a funny story now, but it was a time when I was confronted with expectations and how tricky they can be. My feelings surprised me and I realized that I was holding tightly to an ideal instead of being willing to accept the changes in our family.
The next time I came head to head with unmet expectations was my Freshman year of college. My parents had moved to a new town the summer before I entered my Freshman year, so it didn’t feel like coming home. My bedroom was unfamiliar and my childhood friends were no longer close by. As I opened the gifts in my stocking, it began to sink in. Christmas would never be the same. I pulled out a potato peeler and other kitchen utensils and felt like my heart would sink. I wasn’t dating anyone and I hated cooking, so how did these gifts make sense? Then I opened a package containing a pink blouse and another that was a book for storing window clings. For a girl who was most comfortable in flannel shirts and sweatshirts and who had no intention of ever putting window clings on windows, these gifts were painful. As I opened each one, I felt a growing sense that my parents did not know me any longer or they were trying to fit me into a mold that I had no desire to fill.
And so at the age of 19 on Christmas morning, I found myself trying to hold back tears. I was deeply disappointed, not quite ready to close the book on childhood expectations.
That Christmas was pivotal for me. In order to embrace the holidays and focus on the things that were important, I would need to let go of my expectations and instead be grateful and content despite the circumstances.
Letting go of expectations has been a recurring theme in my life ever since. The past few months have been a particularly stretching time for me. My husband has been working since the beginning of June to finish our basement. At the end of this project, we plan to use the basement as our family room and convert our current family room to a homeschool room. The process has been tough on our family. We have not been able to travel or make many memories together, because the basement is full of seemingly endless projects. Our bikes have been unusable, because they all need air in the tires and have been covered in sawdust, because our garage is also my husband’s shop. Our storage room is filled to the brim with desks and shelves and a fooseball table and tables- all awaiting their future homes, but this makes it difficult to get to the boxes of books and seasonal decorations. Every time I need something in storage, I have to go through a challenging obstacle course. In addition to the difficulty of finding anything, every surface is covered in a fine dust from the drywall installation. I have to wash everything I find in storage AND wipe off my clothes that will inevitably be covered in dust as well.
Every day, I am met with a new challenge and what I have learned is that if I hold tightly to how I want things to be, I am disappointed constantly. But when I am willing to embrace each moment and be grateful for it instead of longing for what isn’t, I find that I am able to be joyful for the blessings. There will always be difficulty, but this perspective has changed everything for me.
As adults, we know that the pictures that others share on social media are not the complete story, but it can be easy to believe that everyone else has a perfect little life, while ours is far from it. Grief creeps up in at the strangest moments, but if we can be thankful for the ways our lives have been enriched by knowing our loved ones, we don’t have to be overwhelmed by the loss. We can be grateful for their love and live to share that same love with the ones entrusted to us. When we can’t afford all of the things, it’s a good reminder that stuff is not what brings happiness. Playing games together, putting together a puzzle, looking at Christmas lights, making paper chains, stringing popcorn, making homemade gifts- THESE are the kinds of memories that make a lasting impression on a child. The new Lego set will be forgotten in a few months, but making Christmas cookies with Grandma will be a treasured memory that costs nothing. If you long for a family of your own, let your focus be on the ones God has brought into your life and seek to love them well. The truth is that God loves you more than you can imagine and He knows what is best for you. Are you willing to trust His timing and His plan?
This holiday season, seek to let go of expectations and instead embrace the challenges and the joys, finding the blessings that await you!
The best relationships are a bit like a see-saw on a playground. They are reciprocal; returning love for kindness shown, empathizing in times of trouble, and carrying each other’s burdens. At times, one friend might be stronger than the other and that strength will be shared in order to help their friend. But this will often flip-flop and the weaker friend will become the stronger in a different situation or under other circumstances. This beautiful give and take in friendship is dependable, steady and true. It is the result of loyalty and a mutual appreciation for one another. It is consistent and back and forth, a you give-I give relationship that benefits both friends.
Reciprocity in relationships develops trust, strengthening a friendship over time and allowing the relationship to go deep.
Ministry is more of a lopsided relationship. It is giving with no expectation of return. It is a pouring out and a laying down of “rights”. It is holding others up and caring for their needs, often without receiving anything in return.
The longer my husband and I serve in ministry, the more I realize how important this lopsided nature of ministry is in God’s upside-down kingdom. Jesus said, “The last will be first” (Matthew 20:16, ESV) and “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35, NIV). When we pour out our lives for others in this upside-down kingdom living, God pours into us.
Have you ever noticed that God is not reciprocal in His love for us? He lavishes His love on us! He doesn’t wait for us to love him perfectly before He pours His love into our lives. There is no stinginess in His love, no holding back. And when we experience that kind of love, we want to share it with others.
I don’t always minister well to others. I want relationships to be reciprocal and sometimes I insist upon it, withholding my love like a stubborn child, because I am not feeling loved in return. It’s in those times that Jesus reminds me of his lopsided love for me, of his faithfulness that is not dependent on my response and of His grace that he keeps pouring out on me and over me and in me and through me. All undeserved and all so freely given!
There is a beautiful sweetness in friendship when it is reciprocal and I believe that scripture admonishes us to be this kind of friend (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Ephesians 4:32, and James 5:16). But there is a suffering in lopsided ministry that causes us to rely fully on Christ to be our strength.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5, ESV
I cherish my relationships that are reciprocal. I see them as a gift from God, as one of the ways He lavishes His love on me. But I am also grateful for the lopsided nature of ministry, because it causes me to fall before the throne of grace where I along with many others “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16, NIV).
I believe that God is honored when there is reciprocity in relationships AND when there is faithfulness in lopsided ministry!
One of my most difficult days in ministry was when my husband preached soon after I miscarried our first baby. He was a youth pastor at the time and we had only been married for three years. At that point in our lives, he didn’t preach very often, but God had already preordained that time and that day.
And so, it was a difficult day, watching as my husband cried his way through a sermon, trying to hold back my own sobs, but it was also a beautiful day, because I have never forgotten that sermon and the comfort it brought me then and still brings me today.
Dave preached from John 11, specifically verse 35, “Jesus wept”. Knowing that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus wept. Aware that in just moments, he would perform a miracle and that there would be much rejoicing, Jesus wept. He was moved by the mourning of those gathered and he wept.
Losing my first baby was so unexpected. Everything was fine and then it wasn’t. I had just barely discovered that I was pregnant and then a few weeks later our doctor was handing me a box of tissues.
It was a surreal time for us. On top of our personal loss, our country was reeling from the tragedy on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t sure how I could go on breathing. The devastation was deep and while I knew that God would prove himself faithful, and while my hope and faith never wavered, I wept and I didn’t know if I would ever stop.
Dave’s words on that Sunday were exactly what God intended for me to hear. “Jesus wept” and Jesus still weeps with us in our sorrow. “See how He loved him!”, the Jews said when they saw Jesus weeping (John 11:36, BSB). See how He loves my baby! I could trust that He knew what was best for my baby. Even though I longed to hold that little life, to watch it grow, to be it’s mother, I could trust that Jesus loved my baby more than I could imagine. He mourned with me when I mourned and I knew that He would rejoice with me when I rejoiced.
For a year after I lost our baby, I had to be tested every month to ensure that I wasn’t pregnant. My miscarriage was not a typical one, but a rare partial molar pregnancy. It was a painful time for me as each month I had to schedule an appointment and tell the office workers (again and again!) why I needed to be tested. I didn’t know if I would ever have children. Imagine being in a waiting room with happy, expectant mothers all around you, harboring your heartbreak every month for a year.
It was a tough year, but Dave’s words rang true. I could feel God’s comfort, I could sense His presence and I knew His faithfulness. It was through that year that I learned to hold my family and my future with open hands. I could not control my story, but I knew I could trust the Author.
We named our first baby “Hope”. Our four beautiful children are blessings beyond what I could have imagined. There have been tears of rejoicing with each birth. With our last baby, “How Great Thou Art” was playing while I was in the final stages of delivery.
We had a work day at church today, and as we arrived there were many cars in the parking lot. It made me smile.
Several years ago, while we were serving in a different ministry, a church work day was planned by the leadership. As the day approached, my husband found out that the leaders in charge of the day would not be there. On that day, our family showed up and we were the only ones there.
Sometimes ministry is like that. It’s disheartening. You work hard, but feel like you are all alone. And sometimes you don’t just feel it; you actually are the only one working. This is one of the reasons why “burnout” in ministry occurs.
And so, on this day, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s an incredible blessing to be involved in a church where we are serving along side so many others. As I observe the faithfulness of our congregation, I see the selflessness with which everyone serves and it encourages me to work hard as well.
Twenty years in ministry. It’s a long time and there are a lot of stories to tell. Today, the story is one of gratefulness. We know what it’s like to serve alone and we know what it’s like to serve with many. I’m grateful to be where we are at today.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Colossians 2:23,24