Friday, February 28, 2014

An August 2015 Update

            It is August 20, 2015 right now, early in the morning before all the kids wake up.  It’s quiet and peaceful as I sit here on the stairs by the window, looking out on the reblooming lilac that has exactly one blossom left, typing this update.  It is my favorite kind of morning.  Last night, some very chilly air blew in, pushing out the hot and humid days we have been having.  And when I took my coffee, my homemade chocolate-chip breakfast scones, and my Bible outside to the backyard swing this morning, I had to wear a jacket.  I love that!  I love jacket weather.  I love it that the sky is dark and cloudy and it looks like a storm is on the way.  This kind of weather makes me feel alive!
            We have actually been quite blessed this year with the weather.  The spring was really long, with many, many cool, rainy days, right up into June.  And there have been very few really hot days.  And now, fall has come early.  The weather has been so mild that my fall mums started blooming in mid-July.  All the plants are confused.
            Anyway, I decided to write an update about this year’s gardening experience, about life.  Life can be interesting. 

            If you read the “Reprint of 'Hunting for Tomatoes'” post, you might remember that last year was an awful gardening experience for me.  (And I have included this update in one of the last posts on this blog, too, since it also relates to life.)  My neighbor’s moldy garage, which was just feet from my garden, was a huge blow to my gardening joy and enthusiasm.  And this was after a couple years of already fighting off depression and working through difficult faith issues.  The moldy garage was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I went into such a funk over it that I gave up gardening last year.  I just didn’t care anymore, didn’t have any fight left in me.  No strength or desire to hope or try.  And so I let the garden rot. 
            Yet even then, God provided us with so many tomatoes to dehydrate for winter that I am still using them.  And He taught me a valuable lesson about finding and being thankful for His gifts in the midst of all the disappointments, no matter what form they take.  Even if it’s just a bunch of tomatoes.  And so, to remind myself of that, I taped up a picture in my kitchen of a child holding a bunch of tomatoes.  And all through the winter, whenever I would look up and see it, I would smile and remember that God is good.  Life is good.  Even when it’s not.
            During the 2013-2014 winter (right before the “moldy garage summer”), I was in a huge depression over many things that were discouraging me and my faith, over issues that I had been working on and depressed about for a couple years.  (That’s pretty much what this whole blog is about.)  And so I was really looking forward to the 2014 summer, to the garden and life and a fresh start.  And then came the neighbor’s moldy garage which kept us indoors all summer and ruined my gardening for that year.
            And then, winter approached again all too quickly, without my family and I ever enjoying summer.  In fact, I remember thinking, I can’t wait for winter to get here.  Then I will have a reason to be forced to stay inside like we are now, hiding from the mold.  And that garage will go into a deep freeze, killing off some of the smell and the spores.
            But I also remember thinking that I was a little afraid that winter would trigger another depression.  I had just gone through a deep one the winter before, and add to that the fact that I now felt robbed of my summer, too.  Would every winter plunge me into deep discouragement and hopelessness from now on?  Could I expect my mood and outlook to get darker along with the days? 
            But oddly enough, I actually found the 2014-2015 winter enjoyable.  Whereas it used to be bothersome and depressing, this last winter was like a cozy blanket that someone wrapped around me.  It was refreshing in an odd way, letting me get away from all the discouragement of the garden and life, etc.  I found it very comforting.  And I think I am going to like winter from now on in a new way. 
            And it gave me just the fresh feeling I needed to give gardening a try again this year.  I seriously contemplated giving it up for awhile.  I mean, the neighbor never did clean up the garage.  At least they had the broken window replaced, so it lessens the smell.  But they never did clean it up.  And it makes me so angry to have to accept that someone else’s laziness and uncaring attitude should be able to ruin our use of our yard, our enjoyment, and my favorite hobby, gardening. 
            Well, I decided to give it a go anyway.  I don’t know if I could let a summer go by without having my hands in the dirt.  I would probably bust out of my skin if I wasn’t making plans for what plant goes where, if I wasn’t raising my tiny seedlings in the house all spring and then on my knees in the warming dirt, tucking them in with my bare hands when the time was right.
            I have to garden because . . . well . . . because I have to garden!  It’s a “God and me” kind of thing.  Working side by side.  Spending quiet time together.  Enjoying each other’s company.  I couldn’t not garden, even if I wanted to.
            And so I did it again this year.  I made the plans, grew the plants, tucked them in, and did what I could to give them the best start.  And I got a little excited again.  The tomato plants were off to a good start, despite the really cold, wet start.  The peppers were a little slow but were hanging in there.  (I ended up putting foil underneath them to reflect more heat and light.  The cold, wet start was really stunting them.)  And the beans were growing nicely.  As were the kale, chard, parsley, peas, strawberries, and raspberries.
            Ah, the raspberries! 
            What a year for raspberries!  I was able to gather and freeze about 40 cups of black raspberries from our plants this year.  And our new red raspberry bed (Caroline) was growing very well, lots and lots of unripe clusters of berries.  I heard it was going to be a banner year for raspberries, and I could see it.  I envisioned oodles of frozen berries all winter, with lots extra to give away.  (I love sharing from the garden, letting the neighbors come over and enjoy picking them, too.) 
            And so I carefully tended that raspberry bed.  I shooed out the bunnies and squirrels that kept making it past the chicken-wire fence that surrounds the garden.  I tied up the fence in places to make it stronger.  I removed mulch from the raspberries when they began to die off because of all the rain they were getting.  Some sort of root rot, I guess.  And I prayed that they would spring back alright. 
            And they did!  Oodles and oodles of blossoms!
            And I carefully picked off and squashed each disgusting Japanese beetle I could find on them.  And in one heat wave, I finally got out the hose and spent an hour watering them, along with the whole garden.  Because of all the rain, I hadn’t had to water it yet, except when I first planted the garden.
            It was going to be a good year, even if I was beginning to smell the mold again.  But I wouldn’t let it bother me this year.  I gave up my whole summer because of it last year, and I couldn’t do that again.  I would accept it and fight through it.                 
            And then . . .
            The night after I watered the garden for the first time this year, we had a storm.  It wasn’t much of a storm, but enough to make you look up in the sky every now and then and say a prayer that something bad didn’t happen.  And it only lasted a little while, so that was good.  All clear!
            But early in the morning, I happened to glance out the bathroom window.  And . . . what is that?  What is in the garden?
            I threw on my shoes and ran outside, still in my pajamas.  And there – across the entire length of the garden, knocking down the chicken-wire fence on three sides – was a giant, dead ash tree!  From the neighbor’s yard!  The one with the moldy garage!


            I stood there, rather dazed and stunned!  Amazed, actually, at how things turn out.  The tree was so large that it made it all the way across the garden, crushing rhubarb, chard, beans, kale, dill, potatoes, and peppers, and finally ending up at . . . the raspberries.  This one tree succeeded in destroying half of the raspberry bed, tearing off oodles and oodles of canes and taking most of this year’s blossoms along with it.  It also succeeded in crushing my heart. 
            The raspberries! 
            I stood there, in the early morning light and the freshness that comes after a storm, shaking my head in disbelief.
            In one tree-fallen swoop, my dreams for the garden this year were crushed, as were my hopes for a huge harvest of homegrown Caroline raspberries.

            Throughout that day and the next,  my thoughts were all over the place:
            Maybe I’m not supposed to garden!  Maybe this is God’s way of saying, “Give it up already!  You are not supposed to have this thing that delights you so much!  You are supposed to go without it!  Life is not about delight and selfish hobbies; it’s about struggle and pain and heartache.  And the sooner you just accept that, the better!”
            How unfair!  We already had to deal with the neighbor’s moldy garage, and now we have to deal with their dead tree!  The owners don’t care what happens because they don’t even live there; they just rent it out to someone else who doesn’t care how we are affected.  But if this was happening to them, they would definitely do something about it!  But us . . . well . . . who cares about us?  We can get crapped on, and it doesn’t matter.  Why do we have to be the nice ones, who put up with all this kind of stuff, who get taken advantage of and are too nice to make a stink over it all? 

            Is this what we get, Lord, for praying that tree would fall on their garage or that a lightning bolt would hit it?  (Oh, yes . . . we did!)

            Is this just going to be my life?  Always having hopes crushed and dreams shattered?

            Not only did the raspberries take a blow this year (as have I) but so did the strawberries.  They took a real hit this year.  I have counted seven strawberries enemies so far this year: chipmunks, birds, mold (from too much rain), a late frost which ruined some, pill bugs (which I didn’t know ate strawberries until I saw one curled up in a little hole it was chewing), slugs, and moths.  It has been most disappointing.  I have had to toss aside most of the berries.  The worst part was seeing all the half-eaten berries that the chipmunks left.  If they would have just eaten the whole thing, it wouldn’t be such an insult.  But no, they have to take a bite or two from every one and then just leave the rest to rot, to mock me!
            But I guess I am better armed with knowledge now for next year.  And I have new fencing plans to at least keep the chipmunks and birds away.  The other things I really can’t do anything about.  It’s just part of life.  But even in the midst of all that disappointment, I managed to get a measly 9 cups of berries and make my first homemade strawberry jam ever.  And it tasted wonderful!  So I guess that was a blessing!

            This year, my biological father died.  The end of June.  A week after my birthday. 

            We don’t know what he died of.  He wouldn’t go to the doctor.  But we knew he was sick and that his time was close.  And so it wasn’t a surprise when it happened.  He was buried in his own handmade coffin, on his own property, without any kind of service.  Simply vanishing without any contact.  Pretty much like my life with him.  Thankfully, my half-sister, his other daughter, was there with him at the end.  They had a really good, close relationship, so it was only fitting. 
            But him and me . . . we never really had a relationship.  My life and my family hasn’t been what it “should have been.”  Four dads, but no “daddy.”  When my husband told me he was sorry about my father dying, I said, “Well, I guess the only good thing about not having your dad all your life is that it doesn’t really hurt when he’s gone.”  I had to learn throughout my whole life how to be without him.  His death didn’t change much.  And that’s sad.  It’s sad that I wasn’t sad.
            But even though I ache over that, I have never been bitter or resentful towards him about it.  It’s just the way life is.  It is what it is!  And I have done my best to learn to thrive in spite of it.  (It’s taken me decades to work through the damage done by divorce and by not having my biological father around, but the pain has reaped some wonderful, bittersweet spiritual growth.  So I am okay with it and thankful for it.  I try to look at most difficulties as spiritual lessons in the making . . . “What can I learn from this and how can I grow from it?  I can’t change it, but I can choose to grow with it or be stunted by it.”) 
            And even though he hasn’t been there for my life and I haven’t been there for his life and his health battle (he never even told me he was sick), I wanted to – in a small way – be there to cheer him on at the end. 
            Isn’t that something we all desperately want?  To have someone encourage us in our darkest, loneliest moments.  To have someone say, “Hang in there, you are doing great.”  I guess I have gone through times when I have physically ached for that and it hasn’t really happened, and so I am quite sensitive now to when someone else might need that extra shot of encouragement.  I know how it feels to go without it . . . and I wouldn’t want that for anyone else. 
            And so, I sent him a last Father’s Day card (probably only the second one I ever sent him).  There was nothing mushy or overly-sentimental about it.  I simply said that I wanted to wish him a Happy Father’s Day and that I was praying for him.  And I encouraged him to finish the race strong with this verse:
            “I have fought the good fight,  I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”  (2 Tim 4:7-8)
            He had a very strong faith.  He was looking forward to the end.  So it wasn’t a sad death.  And maybe we can have the kind of relationship in eternity that we missed out on in this life.
            But for now, I plug along through life, having already learned (and still learning) how to be without the fatherly support that I so badly want.  The kind you can lean on.  The kind that gives you a safe place, that gives you help, rest, or some much-needed encouragement.  Or just a hug.  The kind that wraps itself around your shoulders and says, “It’s going to be okay.  You matter to me.  I’m so proud of you.  Hang in there; you are doing great!”  It’s been a life-long journey, and I know it’s not over yet.

            In so many ways, it’s been a long, lonely, emotionally-exhausting life, with a constant deep ache for a place to belong, a father to lean on, to be my protector, encourager, and supporter.  Life has been a long race.  An exhausting fight.  Just like the garden. 
            But like I encouraged my father, I cling to the hope that I might run this race well.  That I fight the good fight, no matter how weary I get.  No matter how many times I am knocked down – in life or in gardening or in homeschooling or in relationships or in whatever - I pray for the strength to pick myself back up again and to face the discouragements, disappointments, fears, doubts, anxieties, and the negative self-thoughts head-on. 
            Actually, the biggest lesson I have learned over the past decade or so is not to trust myself to have to strength to do that.  Because I am weak and human and scared.  My first instincts are to hide from the trials, to curl up in a ball and groan over my circumstances (as you can tell if you read this blog), and to wallow in my Eeyore-like attitude of “That figures.  It’s how my life always goes.  Oh, woe is me!” 
            Instead, I have learned – am learning - to trust God to carry me, to help me make it through, to be my strength when I am weak.  I am learning to pour out the ache that I feel to Him, instead of holding it inside and acting like I can do it all with a saintly, martyr-like attitude.  I am learning that it’s okay to hurt as long as we go to the One who can heal our hurts, who holds us until the hurting stops, and who turns the hurts into something beneficial and beautiful.  It’s okay to be broken, as long as we lean on the One who knows how to fix us.
            That morning, as I stood there in my pajamas, staring at the damage from the tree, I noticed a little flutter in one of my flowers.  Right alongside the dead tree was a tiny hummingbird in search of food. 
            And I had to smile. 
            Because to me, hummingbirds have always been “whispers of God’s presence.”  Glimpses of His grace and wonder and goodness.  If you have a natural garden (and not those hummingbird feeders), when hummingbirds visit, they are often hidden in the plants, barely discernible.  They do not announce themselves in any way.  In fact, unless you are paying attention, you will often miss them.  And by the time you see them, you get only a moment to hold your breath in stillness and gaze upon them before they dash away like lightning.  It is all too easy to miss them if you do not stop to notice, if you do not take the time to enjoy them.
            That is how I see God.  He is always here, hidden in plain sight.  But if we do not stop and notice, if we do not take the time to bask in His presence or to enjoy His gifts (no matter how small or momentary), we will miss Him every time.  Like a hummingbird.  And all we will see are the dead trees that crashed across the gardens in our life. 
            The thing is, He never forces Himself on anyone.  He lets us discover Him.  He lets us decide if we will cherish His goodness and gifts and grace and presence or if we would rather lament the dead trees and crushed plants and dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams.  
            Life will beat us down at times.  Many times.  But I pray that I can always find the hummingbird in the midst of the dead trees. 
            And I pray that I finish this long, exhausting race well.  I pray that God grants me the wisdom to stay on the path that He has marked out for me.  I pray for the wisdom to know when I don’t have the strength to hold myself up, when it’s time to let Him carry me for a while.  I pray that, when I do have the strength, He helps me keep putting one foot in front of the other.  One foot in front of the other, jaw set in determination, eyes straight ahead.  Until I cross that finish line.    
            And then I can rest.  Then I can find the peace and joy and fulfillment that I am craving.  Then I can find the Father that I have wanted all my life.  The One who has always been there and who will always be there to protect, encourage, and support me.  And a crown of righteousness sounds pretty nice, too.  And if that is awarded to those who long for Jesus’ coming, there is definitely one with my name on it. 
            Someday, it will be my turn to finish the race.  And I look forward to that,   I really do.  Of course, I want to finish my job here first.  I want to raise my children into adulthood, to meet my grandkids, to be a help and blessing to as many people as possible, helping lost people find hope in Jesus.  But I really do long for Jesus’ return.  For Him to come back and right all wrongs and to usher us into eternal rest and peace. 
            I had a friend ask me if it bothers me to turn 40 this year.  I used to be bothered by birthdays, always feeling like it was one tick of the clock closer to the end.  But now, after realizing how long and discouraging life can be, I really don’t mind getting another year older.
            While there was much to be thankful for and much good that happened, my 30’s were not great, full of more strife and stress and sadness than I would have liked.  And I realize that I am happy to put that decade behind me.  I am determined to have my 40’s be about contentment and finding my joy in the Lord, whatever comes.  Whether it be bug-infested strawberries, giant dead trees in the garden, moldy smell from a neighbor’s garage, or the loss of someone who I never had a chance to really get to know.  I am not bothered anymore that every year is one tick closer to the end.  The way I see it, the best is yet to come.
            A couple of days after the tree fell in the garden, I was surveying the damage.  I looked at the broken raspberry canes, the crushed pepper plants, the mangled fence.  And I did the only thing I could do . . .
            I laughed. 
            I laughed because of the absurdity of it.  I laughed because of the ironic-ness of praying for a tree to fall on the neighbor’s garage only to have the neighbor’s tree fall on my garden.  I laughed because of the contrast of the discouraging dead tree and the bees, birds, butterflies, and tiny hummingbird that were delightfully unaware of the discouraging dead tree as they danced around it, just living life as they were created to do.  I laughed because of the consistency of Murphy’s Law, how something bad always seems to happen when things are going good, how we can always expect the two to go hand-in-hand in this life.  I laughed because I realized what a great story it makes, another colorful splotch on the painting of life.  I laughed because I wanted to cry.  And I am tired of crying.  What else can we do sometimes but laugh! 

            The best advice that I could offer anyone who wants to garden but who is afraid they might fail or that things will go wrong is this:  “Don’t let your fear of failure stop you from gardening, because the fact is . . . you will fail.  Every year will be full of mistakes and disappointments and set-backs and things you wish you did differently.  But if you never tried for fear of failure then you would never do anything, never accomplish anything, never grow, never learn.  Sometimes it’s the failure and the lessons learned that make it worth it.”
            The thing is, failure is a part of gardening.  Pampered plants unexpectedly die.  (Good-bye five tomato plants.  I really liked you but Verticillium Wilt liked you more.)  A favorite perennial does not come back after a really harsh winter.  (RIP, pretty purple Butterfly Bush!)  Deer and bunnies eat everything they can get to.  (Stupid tulips!)  Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, bugs, and mold eat whatever the deer and bunnies don’t eat.  (Strawberries and blueberries and beans, Oh my!)  Best-laid plans fail to give the results you were looking for.  (Note to self: Never plants other things with the bush beans.  Put them in their own bed.  And tear out the blackberries that I carefully planted in the ground in pots to contain the roots.  They have escaped the pots and are spreading out in every direction, creeping into the neighbor’s yard.  My worst gardening nightmare!)  And sometimes, everything conspires against you, no matter how much effort you put in.  (The temperature, the humidity, the bugs, the animals, the neighbor’s moldy-smelling garage that is right by your garden and makes it hard to be out there . . . and giant dead trees from a thoughtless neighbor’s property.)
            Everyone who gardens fails every year in some way.  Something always goes wrong.  But it’s still worth it.  As is life!
            Maybe things are not turning out the way you hoped in life.  It’s still worth it.  Because God is in the business of turning trash into treasure.  Turning messes into masterpieces.  He leads us down paths that maybe we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, but we can trust that He knows what He’s doing.  He can see the end from the beginning. 
            We, however, were never meant to see the end.  We only get to see one step at a time.  We only get to know what the very next step of obedience is.  And I’m going to guess it’s because that’s all we can be trusted with.  It’s all we can handle.  We can’t and shouldn’t necessarily know more than that.  But that’s okay.  All we have to do is keep following after the One who knows it all.  Daily listening and obedience.  And eventually, we will see failures turned into fruitfulness, weaknesses used to do God’s Will, heartaches leading us into humility, tears of pain becoming of offerings of praise.
            I think we complicate God’s plans for us.  We add more bunny trails and goals than we are supposed to, with all of our “Must do this” and “Must be that”  and “Must accomplish or buy bigger and better.”  “Must be someone special!”  “Must try harder to please God because there is no way He can be pleased with me as I am!  I have to do more, have to be better!  Then He will be happy with me and I will be happy with myself!”
            And yet, all this does is usually leave us feeling like bigger failures.  The more goals we give ourselves, the more we have on our plates, the thinner we spread ourselves, and the more we fail to do it all.  And the worse we feel.
            But God doesn’t complicate it.  His plan for us is very simple.  He wants us to live life with Him.  To walk closely after Him, to obey daily as He leads us into the next step, to love Him and let Him love us, to care for others, and to delight in Him and His blessings and to pass it onto others.  And as long as we do this – no matter what our job or role in life – He is pleased with us.

            He doesn’t say, “Get a degree and a high-position job and then I will be proud of you.”
            He says, “the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in His unfailing love.”  (Psalm 147: 11) 
            ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ ” (Micah 6:8)
            “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 12:7)
            He doesn’t say, “Seek a bigger house, more money, and more friends.  Because the more popular and wealthy you are, the more I am pleased with you.”
            He says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (Matthew 6:33)
            “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:19-21) 
            “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”  (1 Cor 10:24)

            He doesn’t say, “Do more and be better, because you are not enough.  The bigger and flashier your role, the more I like you.  The more intelligent and accomplished people think you are, the more I value you and the greater your position in my eternal Kingdom.”
            He says, “I so love you that I sent Jesus to die for you so that I could have a relationship with you.  Will you let Me love you as you are?”
            And He says, “It’s not about what your role or your position in life is, but “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”  (Colossians 3:23)
            “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ . . . ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”  (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)  
            “ . . . whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  (1 Corinthians 10:31)

            He doesn’t say, “You have to know it all and be able to do it all and be self-confident and self-sufficient . . . or else I will mark you down as a failure.”
            He says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:6-7)
             “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  (Psalm 46: 10)
            “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:6-7)
            “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and he will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)     
            “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (Psalm 51:17)

            It’s really easy to get overly discouraged in life . . . when you are not where you thought you would be . . . when you don’t have the support and encouragement you desperately want . . . when your role is tiny and easily-overlooked . . . when your accomplishments pale in comparison to others . . . when you have had to give up dreams that are very dear to you . . . when God has put you on the side-lines for a long time . . . when He has allowed you to wander a dry, barren desert for way too long and you are aching for more.
            I know.  I have had to work really hard at learning to be okay with myself and my role in life and my tiny, weak pathetic-ness and the things that I don’t have.  I have had to learn to stop viewing myself through the world’s eyes, through my own eyes, and to begin viewing myself through God’s eyes.  I have had to learn to find contentment when I wanted something else that I thought would make me happy or fulfilled.
            But . . .
            The things that the world thinks are important and worthwhile are not necessarily what He thinks are important and worthwhile. 
            The things that we think will make us happy are not necessarily what will bring us joy or contentment or spiritual growth. 
            He defines “accomplishments and successes” far different than the world does. 
            The world looks at the body; He looks at the heart. 
            The world looks at what we gain and accomplish on the journey; He looks at how we walk with Him on the journey. 
            The world sees who we are on the outside and loves us for what we do for them; He sees who we are on the inside and tremendously loves us anyway. 
            The world – even our own family and friends - might not value us much and might abandon us; but He never will.  He values us simply because we are His.  We matter to Him because He wants us.  We are worth the cost of Jesus dying on the cross for us just because God thinks we are. 
            We don’t have to do more or be better or get more in order to be more valuable to Him or to please Him.  We just have to draw nearer to Him in thankfulness for His love and live this life with Him and for Him.  And that’s a lot simpler and more possible than we make life out to be.
            Too often, I feel like life has let me down and like a failure.  I mean, I am “just a mom” who stays home raising kids.  Who never gets as much homeschooling or cleaning done as I want.  Whose house has been an under-construction mess for 5 years, making it hard to enjoy it, to feel good about myself as a homemaker, and to invite people over.  Who writes things that family and friends don’t read.  Who accomplishes and contributes little compared to others.  Who fails at gardening year after year and is considering giving up (that dead tree – along with the moldy garage - really crushed my heart).  Who has felt “benched” by God and stuck on the sidelines for a long time.  Who has wanted to give up on prayer at times because of feelings of hopelessness and futility.  Whose own father never really wanted a relationship with her.  (It dawned on me today that I don’t even know his middle name.)  Who has no contact with her first ex-step-dad.  (Funny thing: I went by his last name until I tried to get a passport as a senior in high school.  But I couldn’t get one because apparently it wasn’t my legal last name.  My mom simply started calling me by it but never changed it legally.  So at 18, I had to go and change my license and get my legal, original last name on it, in order to get my passport.)  Who has no contact with her second ex-step-dad, the one who was most like a father to me (for about 20 years) and then who vanished from our lives about 10 years ago and is supposedly now on drugs in another state far away.  Who also has virtually no contact with any of her brothers or cousins or aunts or uncles or nieces or nephews (insert sad instrumental violin music here).  And who has struggled severely with loneliness and feeling invisible and who has only a friend or two.  (Can you see why the garden means so much to me?) 

            But despite all this, I am learning to rest in Him and to trust that He will take the little that I am, the little that I can do, and multiply it for His glory.  I am holding out hope that He will make something beautiful out of all the messes in my life.  I know Him too well now to expect any less.  And I am learning to focus more on walking with Him and being with Him than working for Him and doing for Him. 
            And even when life is disappointing, and He seems silent and far away and like He’s left me dangling out here all alone, I am learning that it’s better to wrestle with Him, with faith, instead of retreating in pain and confusion.  Because it’s the relationship that matters.
            I used to think that it wasn’t proper or right to wrestle with Him, to pour out your hurts and frustrations, to be disappointed with circumstances, to come to Him with our questions, fears, and doubts.  It wouldn’t be showing faith, would it?  Surely, the great God of heaven wouldn’t look kindly upon mere humans expressing dislike of what He has allowed into their lives, right?  Surely wrestling with Him instead of laying down in humble submission would anger Him, wouldn’t it?
            But watching my 8-year-old son wrestle with my husband one day changed that.
            I watched as my son would throw all of his weight into my husband, giving it his all, laughing the whole time, delighted to simply be rolling around on the floor with his dad.  Of course, he knows he can’t really win against his father.  He’d get pinned to the ground in a heartbeat if his dad wanted to win.  But it wasn’t about winning for my son or my husband.  It was about the relationship.  About interacting and creating something real between them.  About the younger, weaker son throwing his all at his dad, with zest and passion, not about pulling back in shame or self-pity or being afraid of how he interacted with or approached his dad.  What mattered is that he passionately interacted with his dad in a real way, bringing who he really was – his all – into the ring. 
            And as I delighted in watching my son throw everything he had at his dad, it dawned on me, This is what delights God, too.  Even though He could win in  heartbeat, it’s not about winning.  He doesn’t want us to timidly pull back from Him in fear or confusion, to be afraid of how we interact with Him, always concerned with if it’s “proper and pleasing,” laying down in martyr-like submission when our hearts are hurting, saying “It’s okay, God.  Whatever You want.  I’ll be okay.  I’ll take it, with a smile on my face because I want to please You.” 
            He wants us to throw our all at Him, like a lion cub throwing himself at his lion daddy.  He wants us to get real with Him, to interact, to share life with Him and all the things we keep locked inside, holding nothing back.  Even if it means we have to wrestle with Him to get to the point of acceptance and being okay with letting Him be God.  I bet if God were wrestling with my son like my husband does, He’d be laughing, too, enjoying the interaction, not upset that it seems ‘improper’ or too forward.  It would delight God to wrestle with my son like that. 
            Yes, He wants us to live lives that please Him.  Yes, He wants us to get to the point where we can trust Him and praise Him and follow Him, regardless of disappointing circumstances.  Yes, He demands our obedience and that we seek righteousness.  But mostly, He just wants us to relate to Him honestly instead of being more concerned with our “Christian performance.”  And sometimes that means wrestling with Him - giving it our all, throwing everything we’ve got at Him, bringing who we really are and what we really think and feel into the ring, not pulling back or hiding -  in order to get to the point of willing submission, contentment, humility, and joyful trust even when life hurts.  Because it’s the relationship that matters. 
            I think this is why David had such a special place in God’s heart.  Yes, David failed terribly, committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed.  But David always threw himself at God passionately.  He didn’t hold back or shrink back or play the “nice, proper, pleasing Christian” part.  He drew near to God with zest, giving it his all.  And this pleased God.
            It’s okay to be frustrated with life, as long as we go to God with those frustrations instead of pulling back from Him.  It’s okay to wrestle with Him as Jacob did, as long as we keep clinging with all the strength we’ve got.  It’s okay to pour it all out to God, as long as it’s honest and with a heart that really wants to understand.

            Did you ever see Forest Gump?  It’s been a long time since I have, but there’s this part where Lieutenant Dan rails at God from the boat, fist waving in the air, shouting all sorts of angry things at Him.  And I don’t remember exactly what he said, I just remember that it was with an attitude of “I’m angry with You.  Let’s get it all out in the open now!  We’re getting in the ring, gloves off!  Bring it on, God!  It’s You and me!  Let’s do this!” 
            And I used to think, How horrible and disrespecting toward God.  God must hate that!  Lieutenant Dan would earn himself some serious punishment with that kind of displeasing, impolite outburst.
            But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about God and learned to be more transparent with Him and let Him into the sealed-off parts of my heart, I now realize, Lieutenant Dan is doing it right!  That’s what pleases God more than quietly shrinking away from Him, hiding the hurt parts of our heart in order to be “pleasing” to Him, nursing our wounds in private.  He’d rather have us rail at Him in all honesty than pull back in a false form of trust and humility.  He wants us to wrestle with Him if wrestling is what will create a deeper relationship and stronger faith, to give it our all, to cling to the very end, to passionately throw ourselves at Him and not let go until He blesses us.
            I think wrestling with God is something we will all have to do at some point in our lives.  In the trials and heartaches and unanswered prayers and unfulfilled dreams and shattered hopes and the failures and doubts and fears and questions.  It’s okay to wrestle with Him.  To grab on and say, “I won’t let go until You bless me, either with an answer or with wisdom or with peace and joy in You alone.”  He’d rather us grab on and cling to Him, even when we are angry or in pain, than have us turn from Him and grab on to something else. 
            We will wrestle with Him for different reasons throughout our lives.  I definitely have.  But if we cling long enough, we will be blessed.  Either with the answer we want or with the grace and peace that comes from Him to accept the one we don’t.  And sometimes the greatest blessing that comes from wrestling with Him is just having been near Him, having been in His presence, letting Him walk with us through our hard time and yet learning to find our joy in Him and not our circumstances. 
            Among others things, wrestling with Him helps us . . .  
            - learn that He is God and we are not, and to be okay with that
            - put down burdens that we were never meant to carry
            - learn to need Him; not just want Him, but really, desperately need Him
            - understand what it means to “walk by faith, not by sight”
            - learn to recognize and listen to that “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit
            - let go of the control we desperately cling to and to cling to Him instead, in trust and reliance
            - root out self-sufficiency, pride, expectations, misconceptions, demonic footholds, selfishness, laziness, lukewarm-ness, weak areas, ungodliness, hidden sins, etc.
            - learn to rest in Him and to wait on Him and to be faithful no matter what
            - become more honest and transparent with Him and with ourselves
            - uncover any lies we might be living or believing
            - learn to accept God’s forgiveness and to forgive others
            - learn to see Him as He really is and ourselves as we really are
            - open our eyes to other people’s hurts and needs
            - prioritize our lives and goals as He wants us to
            - live with eternity in mind
            - get back on the path He wants us on
            - learn humility and obedience and to seek righteousness
            - trust His love, and learn to love others and let ourselves be loved
            - learn genuine thankfulness and contentment
            - learn to praise in the pain, to find our joy in Him, and to learn that His grace is sufficient
            - to rely on God’s Word and prayer and Jesus’ name
            - make peace with the life we have and the things we don’t understand and the unclear future
            - grow through the trials instead of just whining about them
            - learn to hold things loosely so that we can allow Him to do whatever He wants with what we have
            - lighten up and not take things so seriously, as the tree across my garden taught me. 
            A couple days after it fell, I realized that it was making me upset to keep counting all that it destroyed, to look at what I lost, and to think of it as a personal slap in the face.  And I decided to just let it go.  With a sigh of peaceful acceptance, I shook my head and said, “Very funny, God.  I get it!  I need to relax and just go with it.  I need to remember that whatever comes my way, You are still on the throne and You still bless us incredibly.  And You are still trustworthy and good, and so life is good.”       

            I guess for me, this whole disappointing gardening experience represents life.  The problems will come.  Things won’t work out as we hoped.  We will have to adjust our plans and accept less in some areas and make changes in others.  We will have to adapt.  We will have to “hold things loosely,” letting God be God, letting Him do what He does and use whatever He wants to use in our lives for His purposes and His glory.  We will have to learn to be thankful for the blessings in the midst of the heartache.  We will have to look for the hummingbirds among the fallen trees. 
            And we will have to look at each trial as an opportunity for growth.  “What can I learn from this?  How can I grow because of it?” 
            In gardening, we do this by going, “What have I learned from this year’s failures and how can I do it differently next year?”  And in life, we do this by going, “What is God teaching me through this about myself, Him, faith, or life?  And how can it deepen my relationship with Him and help me grow spiritually and in righteousness?”
            There are seasons in our lives.  And while every season has its problems and failures, every season also has its own blessings.  It is so important to look past all the disappointments and to notice and count the blessings of the particular season you are in.  Every season holds something new to be learned, to be appreciated.  And sometimes the problems and the blessings go hand-in-hand, making the blessing unique to that particular season because of the particular, frustrating problem you are facing.  Be deliberate about looking for the blessings and learning the lessons and wrestling with God in the hard times.
            Usually when we talk about what God is doing in our lives, we want to talk about exciting things.  Flashy, fun, new experiences.  Great, inspiring answers to prayer.  And deep down, we feel like if the fun, flashy things are not there and if God is not giving us great answers to our prayers then we must be out of God’s favor.  But sometimes God puts us in the discouraging, boring, “lifeless” deserts for a reason.  And it’s not that we are out of His favor; it’s that we are right where He wants us to be. 
            When it feels like He isn’t doing anything in our lives and we are struggling with “fruitlessness,” He might actually be trying to teach us valuable lessons that we cannot learn during the flashy, exciting times.  He might actually be calling us to wrestle with Him so that we can learn the lessons that come with wrestling with Him and with ourselves and with our faith.  All those things that I listed above . . .
            . . . to cling to Him, even in the heartache,
            . . . to embrace humility,
            . . . to learn that He is enough,
            . . . to reprioritize our lives,
            . . . to learn to put others first and to feel true compassion,
            . . . to live for eternity and not the temporary,
            . . . to learn to praise Him and be truly thankful, no matter what,
            . . . to find our contentment and joy in Him, instead of in our possessions and accomplishments, 
            . . . to see ourselves for who we really are and how much He loves us anyway,
            . . . to see Him for who He really is, apart from the exciting times and flashy blessings and prayers answered the way we want,
            . . . to learn to follow Him instead of trying to lead Him,
            . . . to learn to listen more and talk less,
            . . . to glorify Him in even the small ways and small things,
            . . . to be concerned only with our obedience and let Him be concerned with the outcome, with the future,
            . . . etc.
            I know that I have said these kinds of things before.  But if, like me, you have been in a long, discouraging season of life and you are struggling with all kinds of disappointments, you need to keep preaching these things to yourself.  It’s all too easy to let discouragement overwhelm you during the hard times.  So I am constantly reminding myself of the truths of God’s Word and His love, that He never leaves us even if it feels like it and that there are great lessons to be learned during the hard times.  One of the most difficult, valuable lessons that I have had to learn has simply been to cling to Him in trust.  To “be still” before Him, even in the pain and when He has been so quiet.  And I cannot learn this during the fun, exciting times.  I have only been able to learn it (along with many other valuable lessons) during the “desert” times. 
            (However, if our own rebellion and disobedience and pride has pulled us from God, then we cannot claim that His silence is part of our spiritual growth.  In these cases, His silence is discipline for our hard-heartedness, and we need to confess it and humble ourselves before Him if we want to draw near to Him again.)    

            During those particularly hard seasons, ask God daily, “What anxiety do I need to give to You today?”  And pray it over to Him.  Ask Him to trade you, to give you His peace, joy, and wisdom while taking the anxiety and problem into His hands.  Ask Him if there is anything He wants you to know or if there is any Bible passage that He wants you to learn.  His silence may be because He is waiting on you to be willing to learn something that He wants to teach you.  And every day, ask Him to open your eyes to the blessings of that day.  Have a blank list, numbered 1-5, ready and waiting in the morning so that you can write down whatever blessing you can find.  (Or pick 3 blessings or 10 blessings.  But the point is, deliberately keep your eyes open and watch.  You might be delightfully surprised.)  Problems and failures and frustrations are going to be there, but do not fail to grab onto the unique blessings and lessons of that time.  Do not give up early and let go of God.  Cling!  Until He blesses you in the way He knows you need to be blessed.  If you don’t, all you are going to be left with is disappointment.  Nothing to show for all the frustration you went through.  Never waste a trial or “desert” experience.

            A side note: I have a technique that sometimes helps me get past certain frustrations and disappointments.  I ask myself, “At some future point, will I have been able to put this behind me?  Will I have moved past it and gotten over it?  Yes, of course.  So if I know that I will someday get past it and not let it bother me anymore, why not just save myself all the energy I would put into stewing over it and letting it upset me, and just get over it now.  I know I am going to get over it someday soon, so just do it now and save myself the headache of being bothered by it.” 
            It doesn’t help with deep hurts and wounds (those take a lot more time and thought to work through, and sometimes outside help or counseling), but it does help with some of the minor, daily annoyances and frustrations, the ones that threaten to drown us daily.  I know I am going to get over it someday anyway.  And I know that stewing about it or worrying over it isn’t going to make it better.  It’s just going to waste my time, energy, sanity, and ruin my peace, joy, and contentment.  So why bother?  Why not just skip right to getting over it!  (This is for the frustrations that we can’t control or do anything about, not the ones that we can fix or control or the ones we should do something about.)

            As I stood there chuckling to myself, looking at the dead tree across the garden and saying, “Very funny, God,” I felt the stress and discouragement melt off of me.  And I noticed something that I failed to see in the two depressing days just after the tree fell.  The tomato plants were untouched, growing strong (as strong as can be after losing a lot of branches to early blight).  And they were loaded with ripening tomatoes.  Tomatoes that I have been drying for this coming winter. 
            Thank You, Lord, for the tomatoes! 
            Life is good!  Because You are good!   

            I guess I’ll give gardening another try again next year. 
            Why not?