The Time That Is Given Us

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One hundred and twenty-five. That’s how many days it’s been since my last post. I’ll spare the usual exclamations about how quickly time is flying by. (But seriously. How is it possible this year is close to halfway over?)

I only counted out the days because it feels like forever and I was curious as to how long forever really is. How do you measure the moments that make a life?

The weeks that have gone by have felt mostly the same. I went to work five times a week, church two or sometimes three times, met homework deadlines (some by thin margins), and didn’t get nearly enough sleep. Thanks to my English coursework, I did more writing than I had in a long while, though it’s not visible on the blog.

Within that pattern, though, change broke through. In the midst of to-do lists and deadlines came defining moments. While I was busy submitting assignments and filing paperwork for five months, my life changed in a few defining moments.

According to dictionary.com, a defining moment is “a point at which the essential nature of a character or person is revealed or identified.”

In storytelling, defining moments are no accident. Characters are positioned, trips arranged and stages set long before the moment occurs. If you’re truly perceptive, sometimes you can guess what’s coming before it grandly arrives. My favorite scenarios, though, are when the author is masterful enough to completely surprise me. A common rule is that defining moments should be both inevitable and unexpected. When we look back, we should see how everything led to this point, but when it initially occurs, we should feel a bit stunned.

One of the early defining moments of The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien is when Frodo is bequeathed the One Ring from his uncle. At first glance, this doesn’t seem terribly significant. Eccentric old uncle Bilbo leaves all his possessions to his nephew and decides to become a hermit and an author. Suddenly inheriting a home in Bag End shouldn’t rearrange Frodo’s life too terribly; after all, it’s his uncle Bilbo setting off for the unknown. As anyone vaguely familiar with the Lord of the Rings can tell you, though, this moment means more for Frodo than for Bilbo.

Frodo goes from leading an ordinary, rather unadventurous life to taking on a quest with earthshaking repercussions. His calm existence is derailed by a single object… a defining moment. The consequences of this moment are drastic, leading to many other defining moments and later causing Frodo to say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” Gandalf replies. “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring) 

The time that is given us… whether that is a time of upheaval or unexciting activities.

Maybe it’s not a moment we want. Perhaps it’s one where we feel stuck and it seems like the opposite of a grand, defining moment. Maybe this instant hurts, and feels like it’s going to hurt until the end of time.

Perhaps this is a big moment and it’s terrifying. Maybe this is a decision we don’t want to make. Maybe this is a change we never asked to face.

No matter what is happening, this is the time that is given us. We don’t get to choose our own time. For better or worse, this moment is all we have to live in. This is where God has placed us. All we have to decide… Is what to do with the time that is given us.

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Why Am I Doing This?

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Why does this blog post feel so flat? I scanned the paragraph again. Nothing was wrong, exactly. It just wasn’t right, either.

It was like tasting the batter for pumpkin bread, and realizing something is missing. Maybe there’s not enough sugar, or there’s too much nutmeg, or the pumpkin has spoiled. But something is off, and the recipe isn’t quite reaching its potential.

As I scanned the bland paragraphs on my screen, it dawned on me what was missing from the recipe of that post. Or rather, what there was too much of. The entire post was about one thing: me. My life, my schedule, my insecurities. My blog, my writing, my goals. Me. Just reading it left a sour taste in my mouth.

A single question crossed my mind. Why am I doing this? It was like a whisper into my soul, and it repeated again. Why are you doing this, Sarah? 

Typing that plain question now makes me uncomfortable. Why? Why am I writing this blog? Sharing these words? Why am I doing any of this?

I’ll be honest: when I first started blogging, my unspoken agenda was to build an empire centered on myself. How shallow and vain is that? But I found ways to justify it, using words like “platform” and “portfolio.” Those are good terms, when they’re used with good intentions. My intentions, though, were more prideful and selfish than I wanted to admit. Purpose can’t exist alongside those things.

Realizing that rocked me. It was like construction came to an abrupt halt, leaving me to stare at the half-built projects surrounding me. I had been hammering away without blue prints; baking without a recipe. What was really the point? Fame wasn’t happening. And even if I could make it happen, it was such a one-dimensional dream. I needed a deeper answer to the question Why am I doing this?

Three years ago, as a freshman in college, I had to answer that question about life itself. Over the course of twelve weeks, I worked through sessions about calling, vision, talents, and other aspects of purpose. By the end of those modules, I had written twelve statements defining my values and life mission. As a collection, those statements were called my “compass.” They were intended to guide me through my decisions, both big and small. They were the essence of why I got up each morning.

Then real life happened and parts of my purpose plan seemed better suited to paper. Mistakenly, without meaning to, I replaced those carefully considered statements. In their place, I let in other influences, ones that weren’t intentional or helpful. Rather than nailing my purpose to the cross, I ended up pinning it on myself.

That’s where everything fell flat. In order to live meaningfully, my meaning has to extend beyond me. True purpose on earth is something that can only be rooted in heaven. My prayer now is to live as a reflection of God’s glory and grace. I’m only a smudged reflection, one that needs lots of polish. Even so, striving to more clearly reflect Him is worth more than any dim purpose I could invent.

However it plays out, that’s what I want at the core of my existence. That’s the compass I need. At the end of the day, living well is about loving and serving well.

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From this point, that’s what I’m going to learn to do. When I sit down at my desk on a Monday morning, when I type up a blog post in my room on a Saturday night, when I step out of church on a Sunday afternoon… I want to live out that purpose. I want to be aware of the “why” behind every breath I take.

In a way, it seems that I wrote another blog post about myself after all. It’s hard to avoid, since I’m only an expert in the field of my own experience. If there’s only one thing to take from these imperfect words, though, I think it’s this: There is a reason why. Remember the answer to that little question. It makes a big difference. When we forget why we’re here, we struggle to figure out what to do, where to position ourselves or how to do this thing called life. When I lost sight of the “why,” I then lost my ability to figure out what to write, how to minister well, how to live well. Ignoring that question is part of the reason I’ve ignored blogging and writing for so many weeks. It’s why I’ve been struggling to connect in some way. I need to remember why I’m doing this in order to do it well.

Asking why matters. What’s your why? 

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What I Learned in February and the Beginning of March

February

I sat down to write this post on the final day of February, in a few snatches of time here and there. I barely had an opening before I was pulled away, so I left my laptop in hibernation and intended to come back later that night.

It’s the early hours of March 3rd now, and it’s the first time I’ve touched my keyboard since. In a way, I can barely believe I’m even typing these words now. I’m not quite sure why I’m doing it. This time, it isn’t because I have a particular point to make, or I feel witty, or even that the blog stats are down. I think maybe it’s because I need to empty my heart, but my journal pages are already tear-soaked and inky. Maybe it’s because even though my heart feels like it’s shattering, I believe someone will understand what little bits of it I scatter here. For once, I don’t know why I’m writing a post, and I don’t have the energy to figure it out.

February 28th and then March 1st were the hardest days of my life. I can’t remember what I learned in the other 27 days of February, because they seem so distant and blurred now. Anything I do vaguely recall doesn’t feel important anymore. On February 28th, I realized my dear grandmother wasn’t going to make it through the night. And then within the first hour of March’s first day, she was gone. After fighting a terminal illness for ten years, she was called home to Heaven. I know she’s overjoyed right now; I can imagine her running down gold-paved streets, smelling the most fragrant roses and breathing deeply at last. I can hear her telling me to be happy for her, and I am relieved to know she isn’t suffering anymore. But it still hurts. It’s supposed to hurt, because I loved her so much. That’s one of the things I’ve learned, I guess.

Usually, I make a list for this type of post, but there’s another lesson: Life doesn’t fit in lists. Sometimes, the smaller things do, but the desperate, gritty moments are impossible to pin down, or even fully understand.

In the last few days, I learned that words don’t always matter. The writer in me always wants to find the perfect ones, but they don’t always exist. The night Mom-mom passed away, I don’t remember much of what was said. I just remember the family gathering around; the way we blended sorrow and hope; and the moments when someone would hold me tight when I couldn’t hold myself together. The things I really remember, the things that truly mattered, I can’t put in words. They’re too sacred and raw to be contained in a few sentences.

Until this point, I had only watched true grief from the fringes. I had been the one trying to offer comfort for others’ losses; the one unsure what to say, if anything. Now the tables have turned, and I’ve learned what it means to grieve. I have learned we all process sorrow differently. I think it’s because we all love differently; we’re all created differently, and that spills into mourning and coping and going on. Yet despite doing it uniquely, we can’t do it alone. I’ve felt like being alone too much in the last few days, and so I’ve learned not to trust my feelings in this valley. Because isolation won’t help me heal. Yes, I need solitude but I also need the circle of people I can hold onto. Grief is dark and lonely enough as it is, and being constantly alone doesn’t make it any lighter.

I’ve learned that a little gesture can go a long way. Although words aren’t everything, the right ones can help. I shared the news of my grandmother’s passing on my social media first, and the comments and messages I received helped me feel a little less alone. It’s not always a big thing; sometimes the smallest things convey the greatest love. Like a friend sending me a text to make sure I’m okay, or getting me out of the house so I can get away from everything for a while; those things have been lifelines to me.

Something else I learned is that laughter is truly medicine. I’d always liked that Proverb, because I love to laugh, but it wasn’t until this week that I considered laughter medicine. I wondered if I would ever laugh again when Mom-mom passed away, but I have. Even until my sides ached. I felt guilty the first time, but she was a lady who laughed easily and often, so the sound of laughter makes me feel close to her again. And laughing seems to heal a little bit of the fracture in my heart. I think there’s a reason the Proverb compares laughter to medicine. Medicine isn’t taken unless you’re sick; laughter is needed most when you’re hurting.

The last lesson I learned was really more of a reminder: God keeps His promises. His Word promises healing, and my mom-mom has hers at last, in a place far better than this earth. She’s living the promise of Revelation 21:4-5 now:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. (Rev. 21:4-5, KJV)

And even in my sadness, I take comfort in knowing I will see her again.

One day, when all things are new.

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P.S. One last thing: It probably goes without saying, but I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly. February was an unsteady month as Mom-mom’s health declined, and I know March will be difficult for me as well. I didn’t take a formal “leave” from the blog last month, but I am for some time this month. Writing is therapeutic for me, and I do truly enjoy sharing with you here, so it may not be overly long. But I don’t have the emotional capacity to pressure myself, so I’m not setting an official timeline. I’ll look forward to sharing life again with you when I return! Thank you for being here, and reading this far. It truly means a great deal to me. ❤ — Sarah

What I Learned in January

januaryJanuary is always the month of newness. It inspires resolutions, and then demands readjustment. By the end of thirty-one days of trying to improve everything, I’m usually ready to hibernate. Forget the New Year. I need a new bedtime.

With that first month behind us now, I’m pausing to wonder where it went. What I accomplished. What I learned.

I’ll be sincere: January did not go as I intended. I had high expectations in several areas, and I didn’t live up to them. I barely wrote a few chapters in the manuscript I planned to complete; I haven’t figured out my future yet; what I want changes at the slightest notice; when I evaluate my actions from the last month, some of them make me cringe. This year already feels like it’s off to a choppy start. Outwardly, nothing drastic has happened, but I can’t shake my inner sense of unsteadiness.

I’m tempted to delete that entire paragraph, but I’m going to leave it because I promised myself something for this year: I am going to be authentic. It’s too tempting to create a perfect persona. It’s too uncomfortable to be vulnerable and real. Yet I’m learning that I connect most truly and deeply with others when there’s a sense of sincerity. In a world of photo shop and plastic, I think we want to know what’s genuine. We want to know we aren’t the only ones who feel messy and uncertain. Every intimate detail doesn’t  need to be spread. We still need a sense of privacy. But that doesn’t mean we need to pretend we’re perfect.

So in the midst of others celebrating their life-changing resolutions, their unstoppable success, and how 2015 is the best year ever, I’m happy for those people. But I’m not going to claim I’m one of them. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

January was not the triumphant month I imagined. It had ups and downs, but I can honestly say I learned along the way. I am learning. Here is a scattering of my humble findings for last month:

  1. Even when I don’t get the results I want, there is no regret in being brave. Courage is a choice I have to make with trembling limbs and knots in my stomach, but once I do, I am free. I no longer have to wonder what would have happened if I had stepped out. Fear doesn’t deserve the final word. Faith and freedom do. It’s empowering to type those words, even though it’s a little harder to breathe seeing them.
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  2. Patience is a process. Every time I think I’ve got it mastered, I have to learn it over. And then over again.
  3. Even loners can’t always walk alone. I am an introvert through and through, and I lean towards working by myself. I’ve recently discovered the true value of teamwork, though. I used to talk a good game about it, but now I’ve played it. And on a great team, everybody really does win. I’ve been able to watch this happen in ministry, at work, and recently in writing when I joined the fantastic team of The Fangirl Initiative(Which is a super fun, nerdy blog! Here are a few posts I’ve had the pleasure of sharing there.)
  4. It’s important to make time for what makes me happy and whole. A couple of weeks ago, I stayed up reading until 4 AM, something I hadn’t done in years. It actually felt amazing. I need books to read like I need air to breathe; I need to journal and clear my head often. And I need to make that a priority, not a luxury. Rest should be a gift, not something I have to earn by doing enough work.
  5. Speaking of books, we can no longer say Harper Lee published only one! In a bizarre twist of fate, the novel she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird is being released at last this summer. Decades later, the public will have something of a sequel to the beloved American classic… The beloved classic I have yet to read. Since To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, I kind of felt there was no rush. Now that the buzz is all about the sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I probably need to get a move on!
  6. Bookworms share a common problem: There are so many reasons to buy books! It’s impossibly hard not to give in to all of them! Dratted budgets. Thank you all for the brilliant response to my last bookish post- I’m so glad to know I’m not alone in my struggle. 😉
  7. Words have such power. In the last month, several people spoke encouragement to me, whether through texting, over Twitter or in person. They may never realize the light those words gave me, but I’ve clung to them. Speak kindly. Lift others. You never know how you’ll inspire them.
  8. Even the best intentions may go awry. I fully intended to have this post finished in time to participate in the link-up on one of my favorite blogs, Chatting at the SkySadly, I missed the deadline. I didn’t want to miss reflecting on January, though, so here it is. And if you’d like to see what other bloggers learned in January, here is the post I was *supposed* to add my link to. 

What did you learn in January? Is there anything you’ll change for February, or do the same? How has this month started off for you?

All the best for February!

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Thanks for Nothing

Thanks for Nothing

I have so much to be thankful for. It crosses my mind at random intervals throughout the year, but at Thanksgiving, it’s so much plainer. Towards the end of November, life seems to glow with gratitude. As the season crosses into Christmas, I want to sing and smile at strangers and express thanks for everything.

But there is one thing I’m not thankful for. I have trouble being thankful for nothing.

It’s an odd statement, and I’m pretty sure it’s grammatically incorrect, so let me explain.

When everything is going my way, when life is busy and bustling with blessings, it’s easy for me to be grateful. It’s second nature to give thanks for each good thing, for each answered prayer and successful step forward. When my dreams come true; when I get the job I wanted; when the words come smoothly, the “thank you’s” flow freely.

In the times when nothing is happening, though, when nothing is working out the way I planned, and I feel like I know nothingI don’t consider being thankful. How can I be, when there isn’t something to be thankful for? Who says thanks for nothing? 

I don’t. When nothing is going as I want it to and I feel stuck in that nothingness, my response is not to be grateful. It’s to sulk and mope about how nothing is going right. Nothing is happening. Nothing is changing. 

Although this year has been a whirlwind of change for me, it’s also been spaced out with empty caverns of nothingness. I’ve hated those “nothing” times. As difficult as change is for me, being stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of seemingly nothing, is worse. I’m only thankful when I get out of those places!

Yet looking back, and then looking ahead and wondering if I’ll be in another “nothing” stage soon, I’ve realized something. Those times of stillness, when nothing happens and I go nowhere, have been some of the most life-shaping seasons for me. In every long stretch of “nothing”, something actually has been happening. God has gracefully been teaching me patience. He’s been holding me back when the time isn’t right for something else. He has given me these pauses so I can breathe, and rest, and simply wait and be still. 

Those moments of nothing are when I should be most thankful. Rather than being anxious about what may be ahead, and when I’ll get to it, I should actually pay attention to the powerful words found in Philippians 4:6: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”

Every time I’ve read that verse, I’ve paid attention to the prayer and supplication part. Do you know which part I’ve ignored? With thanksgiving. 

Don’t be anxious; be thankful. Even when there is a cause for anxiety, give thanks.

In everything and in nothing, give thanks.

This Thanksgiving, I want to say thanks, even for those times of “nothing.” …Especially for those times of nothing.

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Happy Thanksgiving, my friends! In the times of everything and of nothing, I pray you’ll be blessed.

What are you thankful for this year?

Also, on a mostly unrelated note, what kind of pie do you prefer? The pumpkin pie pictured above gave me a craving, but there are some scrumptious apple pies in my kitchen at the moment too. How does a girl choose?

One last thing before I go for the pie and whipped cream: Thank you for being a reader and friend here! I can’t express my gratitude, and how much it means to share the journey with you. It’s another thing I truly give thanks for.

Happy Stuffed-Like-A-Turkey Day!

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