And if not, he is still good

January means something different to me this year. It is a reminder of the loss of my mother one year ago. It is also a reminder of something much more life-changing than loss. Loss is one of those things where we never know how we are going to respond when it comes. The anticipation of loss is nearly as cutting as when it finally arrives. We learn much about ourselves and our spiritual status when faced with it. We can become angry and halted by suffering or become strengthened and deepened. When my family and I were introduced to my Mama’s cancer, I was uncertain which of these I’d be. Would He heal her? If not, would I still praise him? Would I still call Him good?

After my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the next couple of years were full of ups and downs in her health. She gradually declined physically while maintaining her devotion to her Savior, there was no one she loved more. By 2015 Mama’s cancer was in her lungs. On December 9th, 2017 I got a call. The call I prayed would never come.

“It’s time to come home”.

When I got there, everyone was already gathered. I walked into my Mama’s room as they were preparing her for the ride to the ER and then later to hospice house. She looked beautiful, but she had always been remarkably good at keeping up appearances for her children, no matter how she felt. The last couple months she had been cared for, day and night by my brother and my dad. Her body had limited her to only moving from the bed to the recliner, while being aided by an oxygen tank. She was in constant pain and often would sleep for long periods of time. There she sat and her face told us she was ready for what was next.

That night in the ER the Lord started a work in our lives that my family came to call “Daily Grace”. When you go through something like this there is a strange marriage between the moments that you are “ok” and the moments where you struggle to just simply breathe. Every single moment was orchestrated by our Lord. Every time we would “lose our breath”, something amazing would happen. God would happen. The Lord would send a friend, family member, and even strangers to surround us with Love. They brought us food nearly every day, they made gifts and cards and came to say thank you and pray with the woman who lived life for her Savior in front of them. 

Many people followed Mamas story, pouring the love she had once shown them – back into her and her family. During these last weeks, like every week she lived before, Mama’s main concern was telling everyone about her Savior. To make them aware she knew where she was headed, and she that was ready to go. She made everyone else her ministry in whatever way she could. Mama would refer to the nurses at Hospice House as her “angels”. The closer we got to Christmas she insisted I find them each an angel, so they would know she was grateful and loved them.

The first night I spent with her there, she gave me a list of what she wanted to get the family for Christmas. I still keep it on my phone and look at it from time to time. Though her mind had started to fade, she was determined to leave us all with something special.

Looking back, I find it significant I could help fulfill these wishes. Beyond the gifts she had chosen for each of us, she wanted to get us shirts that said, “Nani’s Tribe”, and to leave us all each a clay cast of her fingerprint. My sister and I were both carrying her grandsons, and though she would never meet them, she left them each a stuffed animal with a recording of her loving voice inside.

Over the course of nearly a month, my family and I took turns being with Mama. She asked that each of us spend the night with her alone and it was a time my siblings and I will treasure. She was careful to have moments with each of us. To forgive us for the past, to hold and love us now, and encourage us into our future. This became such a time of redemption and beauty. Mama had weeks where she seemed like “her old self”. We laughed and cried but mostly she used the time to pitch us toward the Lord.

On Christmas Eve we went over to Hospice House and brought her “special gifts” from her to the grandkids so she could see the joy she had brought them through one more holiday. Truth be told, she was losing what little stability she had left and didn’t recall much of this night or the next day. We gave them the gifts we had for her and dad and for the first time in thirty or so years, they spent Christmas in a house apart from their kids. 

I knew this would be the hardest night, not just because it would be their last Christmas Eve together but because of the beautiful thoughtfulness that had gone into each of their gifts. My dad had prepared a photo album of every single year they had spent together. On the cover was a metal heart that read “fairy tales do come true”. The book started with their very first family pictures and closed with a beautiful collection of the last family photos we took of her first full day at Hospice House. For my dad, Mama had made him a metal print of her favorite photo of them with the quote “I wouldn’t have missed this dance for anything”, scribed on the side. It was so important to her to have done for him. I can’t imagine the tenderness of that night but I suspect it was the most beautiful depiction of selfless love. 

Christmas morning, our church family had prepared us an entire Christmas feast that warmed our stomachs and our hearts. There is something so remarkable about the love of God through his children.

New Year’s came and went. Mama was noticeably close to home. The Doctors told us that now Mama had lost consciousness, she wouldn’t wake again. But they were wrong. Mama had been different the last week or so. She developed a characteristic called “terminal agitation”, where unfortunately the person who is ill becomes angry and irritable. They develop ideas that the people around them are there against them somehow. This broke our hearts. We wanted her to know we loved her then and would always. Even though we were told it “wasn’t her” it was hard not to take to heart. Still the Lord was good. Despite the doctors saying she wouldn’t, my Mama woke up in clarity one day from a nap. I was holding her hand and talking to her with my oldest sister. She looked at us and said.

“I love you!” 

In the next moments the room was filled with the sound of Mama going down the list of “her people” and saying she loved them. We promised we would tell everyone, and we did. That was the last time my mother was conscious.

The next several days were bittersweet. We took turns sitting with her, rubbing her hands, reading her scripture and talking to her about the snow that kept falling. She loved snow. What a strange thing it was to get so much snow in North Carolina at that time and I remember thinking it had come to usher her home.

The night before Mama had passed away, most of us stayed over. It was like the Lord had given us a special insight. My oldest sister, my dad, and my brother and I took turns sitting with her. I had the first shift this night and I couldn’t seem to let it go. The Doctor said she couldn’t speak but there was a possibility she could still hear. I painted her nails, held her hand, and told her “I love you” a thousand times. I prayed all night.

The next morning, I woke to dad coming into the waiting room. Moments later my sister sent my brother in to tell us Mama was doing something different. Mama’s breathing was staggered. Sometimes several moments would go by before she took a breath. As the doctor came to my side of the bed and my brother returned to the room, Mama drew her last breath.

The Lord had taken our Mama into his presence and were honored to “usher her home”.

I find this part hard to write because my nature fumbles over the visions of my mother’s final moments. But my spirit rejoices because her story doesn’t stop here. There is hope because of Jesus and she is with Him, so very alive!

Our pastor walked into the room only minutes after Mama’s passing. 

He had no idea of his timing.

This was God!

The songs playing in the background for her last breaths were “Jesus I love thee” and “It is well”.

God!

An unexplainable peace overwhelmed us as my family huddled around her bed and thanked the Lord for her life.

God!

Always God!

God was in everything through this time in our lives. He still is. Nearly a year later, my family has not stopped feeling the ripples of His love. And more than ever we can see that they were there all along.

I don’t know your story. Your story may be nothing like this. Your story may be living this out right at this moment. Whatever the case, here is what I’ve learned.

He is still good.

He turned a time that should have been the worst in our lives, into a something incredibly beautiful. Every single day, God was there for us and He will be there for you too. Through loss, illness, and even death. Trust that He is there and still good.

Billy Rae Whittaker, a blessed child of the King, daughter, wife, and mother, lives in central North Carolina. Lover of people, all things design, and who spends the majority of her time dreaming big and planning her next family adventure. At the age of 14 she started her own business BRIMdesign. She specializes in branding, web design, and photography where she focuses on helping small businesses, organizations, and entrepreneurs realize their dreams by creating their professional image. When she isn’t building up her community of professionals, she enjoys partnering with churches and missionaries to create an online presence that glorifies the Lord and gets His message out.
www.brimdesign.com
iola magazine even in the deep

From deep to still

It is one of the most beloved and well-known passages of scripture:

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” Psalms 23:1

Conjuring up an image of tranquility, comfort, and assurance, it speaks to the Father’s love and care of his children. But it also makes me wonder: if God is leading me to still waters, then why am I so often in deep waters? How did I end up there?  

Instead of lying down in lush greenery next to the softness of a babbling brook, I am more prone to find myself treading water while a storm rages around me. I feel more like Jonah awaiting the arrival of a monstrous whale than I feel like Peter walking on the waves.  

We were not made to live in the deep waters, you and I.

In fact, our human bodies can only skim the surface of the ocean’s depth; an experienced diver may go as deep as 130 feet, but that is miniscule when we realize that the ocean is over 12,000 feet deep!  

Genesis 1:2 uses the Hebrew word, tĕhowm, to describe the ocean as a deep place, the abyss, the grave. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep….”  

The same term is used in Job when God berates him for his arrogance in Job 38:1 

“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” He carries on in verse 16, “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep (tĕhowm)?”

As the Creator, only God understands what mysteries the deep holds and has walked among its subterranean stage and its vast array of amazing creatures. This place is not for man. Our bodies were not designed to live in its cavernous space – we would be crushed long before we would reach our destination. The tĕhowm was a place mankind was not designed to live in or likely ever to see. 

Therefore, God does not call us to live in deep waters. When He calls us into the water, He either intends for us, like Peter, to walk on water, or, as He did for the Israelites, He parts the water so that we might walk on dry land. We may go over it; we may go through it, but we are not to go under. We were not created for the deep waters and to the deep we do not belong.  

We belong on the green pasture beside the water. So how do we get there? 

Katie Gamble

Firstly, we must follow. God can’t lead us to still waters if we are not following Him. Sometimes we are more like the prophet Jonah, than we care to admit: determined to follow our own path in direct opposition to what God has called us to do. When we wander off on our own, we inevitably wander into trouble. At some point, we find ourselves having gone further than we thought we would, our feet having drifted deeper into the wrong direction. The water seemed calm at first….the sun was shining…the waves were gentle and soothing…

but suddenly, the weather shifted, and we found ourselves caught in the middle of a furious storm without a life preserver.  

In these moments, the deep waters are a consequence of our foolish choices, and it might get worse before it gets better. A whale might not look like an answer to prayer, but it just may be exactly what God sends to rescue you. When we repent, God forgives. When we invite Him to lead us once again, He takes back the reins and leads us to safety.  

But we can’t assume that every difficult situation is a result of our disobedience. Sometimes we find ourselves in deep water with the best of intentions.

In Matthew 14, we read the story of Peter. After feeding a crowd of five thousand, Jesus dismissed his disciples and went to pray. The disciples gathered in a boat to take them across the sea. They had already sailed a good distance against the wind when they saw Jesus walking on the lake. They were terrified, but Jesus called to them, 

“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” Jesus said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (verses 27-29)  

It is in these rare moments, when our love and trust of Jesus outshines our fears, that we attempt to do the brave and the impossible. So focused and intent are we on gazing upon our Saviour that we forget who we are and where we are: we see only Him and He is enough. We step out in faith, forgetting for a moment that we are treading on dangerously deep territory, and for a split second, we are walking on water!  

Then, just like Peter, we notice the wind howling around us – the overwhelming set of circumstances we face – and we begin to sink.  One moment we are sailing above our circumstances and the next we are crashing in defeat.  

We cry out to God. And once again, He reaches out to pull us toward safety. He who walks among the deep also walks on the waves and knows we are unable to without His mighty hand.  

If you find yourself thrashing in deep waters of difficult circumstances, know that God is in the business of rescuing. He may part the waters, or He may enable you to rise above your troubles, but rest assured that when we call on His name, He will answer. 

 “The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in Him will be condemned.”  Psalms 34:22 

Maria Dyck is passionate about helping women stand on the Firm Foundation that is Jesus Christ. A writer, musician, wife, mother and occasional chicken farmer, you can find more of her writing at www.whenwallstumble.net
iola magazine even in the deep

Awestruck, Wonderstruck, Lovestruck

Niagara falls

I was utterly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by my smallness and God’s greatness. Deluge of water above and below, deafening roar in my ears, pummeled by pellets of moisture, and blinded by the glory of it all. Awestruck. Wonderstruck. Lovestruck.

As a couple hundred poncho-clad spectators huddled under hoods to experience Niagara Falls up close and personal, I was curious as to their reactions. In the moment, floating precariously beneath the avalanche of water, all were amazed. All screams and laughs and merriment. But was anyone else awestruck, wonderstruck, lovestruck? On dry land, on reflection, did anyone else consider the Creator and how He loves each tiny person in that tiny boat under His extravagant show of majesty?

I’m sure some did consider. How could they not? And yet…

What does it take for God to catch our attention? 2,600 feet of cascading water falling before our eyes? He caught my attention. It caused me to humble myself under His mighty hand, relishing the truth that He is God and I am not. He is Father, I am child. And oh, the comfort that brings. The warm blanket of peace that truth pulls over us, His children. The relationship between Creator and created, Potter and clay, King of Kings and his princesses—this is ours to treasure. How can we not be awestruck?

Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power

   and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,

   for everything in heaven and earth is yours.

   Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;

   you are exalted as head over all.” 1 Chronicles 29:11 (NIV)

This surreal experience beneath the falls reminded me that His mercies are never-ending—just as the overabundance of water at Niagara showers over the edge in torrents, so He showers us with His grace daily, never running dry. Looking up and knowing that powerful stream of water is endless, ceaseless, is a given. Such is the grace of God. He was, is, and ever will be. He is extravagant with His gifts and how can we not be wonderstruck?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

  his mercies never come to an end;

  they are new every morning;

  great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

Sometimes, God calls to us in the roar of the waterfalls. Sometimes He whispers in a still, small voice. Regardless, HE SPEAKS. But are we too busy to incline an ear? Too self-absorbed to even notice? Too fearful to hear the answer to our prayers? Think ourselves unworthy, unlovable, untrusting…? Friend, HE SPEAKS. Because He loves us. Not because of anything we have or have not done, but because He IS love. He loves us at our darkest when the waves are washing over us, and He loves us in our finest hour when all is rosy and right. His love is limitless. Our lifeline. How can we not be lovestruck?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls;

   all your waves and breakers have swept over me.

  By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—

  a prayer to the God of my life.” Psalm 42:7-8 (NIV)

What does it take for God to catch our attention? May our ears be inclined to hear His voice amidst the deluge of whatever is falling around and about us in our lives today. We can rest in the promise of His peace, and lift our eyes to see that everlasting waterfall of grace. It will leave us utterly awestruck, wonderstruck, lovestruck.

Laura Thomas is a published Christian author with a heart for inspiring and encouraging readers of all ages. She is a multi-genre writer with a published Christian teen fiction trilogy, marriage book, mmiddlegradenovel, children’s stories, devotionals for Union Gospel Press, articles in magazines and online, musings on her blog, and currently has a three-book deal for her Christian romantic suspense novels. Living in Kelowna, B.C. as an empty-nester, Laura is a mom of three, married to her high school sweetheart, and is passionate about faith and family—and chocolate. laurathomasauthor.com
iola magazine even in the deep

Seeking hope in deep sorrow

We got the call we didn’t want. It seemed to catch us from behind – in the comfortable normalcy of everyday routine. My cousin, with his full head of hair and port still intact, has cancer again. 

As my mother stood in the kitchen and delivered the news, I took the words in slow, divorced from emotion. Whatever I expected her to say, it wasn’t that. Only later, in the solitude of a morning drive, frost still evaporating off my windows, would the emotion match the message – tears reluctantly falling and wiped away as soon as I could manage. 

It was a weary sadness when the bad news came back. Anger and confusion mixed in as well, but the prevailing emotion was a haggard tiredness – a fresh healed wound broke open anew just when we thought the pain was over. 

With the wound open before our eyes, the emotions of the first diagnosis trickled back in. The fear and the sadness and the rush of unanswerable questions all sat in our minds. At the crux of it, we want to know that he will be okay. We want assurance that the story ends well, despite the darkness of the valleys. 

We can’t have answers to those questions. And that drives the pain deep.

Life can be so senseless. I can remember receiving a phone call a few years ago, hearing that my roomates’ family had been killed in a crash – a car flying down off the overpass as they rode to celebrate their first-generation college grad. It made no sense. There were no words to pad the blow. At the funeral, I didn’t have any to say. What could be said? What could ease her pain or give her comfort in the midst of the deepest, wracking grief a person can feel? She read a Psalm that day. Braver than I could ever be, she read Psalm 139:13: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” Her voice caught when “mother” passed her lips, too deeply grieved to fully say the word. 

There are no words for these deep grievances. And I offer none here.

We have all felt pain. Death, cancer, family division. Words from a loved one that cut deep. Family members who walked away from God, and walked away from us, too. 

It’s in these painful, disillusioned moments that the word “hope” feels like a bitter pill. Hope seems to mock us – a pure desire stained by a wretched reality. Hope, our greatest encouragement, seems to set us up for failure.

And it can. It does and it has. We know that “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” Proverbs 13:12, ESV. And too many painful things can make us never want to hope at all. 

We know, through our collective, painful experiences, that setting our hopes on a certain outcome may let us down. It might even be the ruin of us. Though we struggle to come to terms with it, we’re not promised good earthly outcomes. We suffer at the hands of a cursed earth, and we wordlessly cry for a better world. This is what we know, and what we rave against in our most raw moments: God doesn’t promise us cancer-free lives, death-free families, pain-free marriages.

We also know that we have to have hope.

The Bible speaks of it endlessly, and even the most downtrodden one of us knows we can’t live hopeless lives. So what do we do? Faced with the deepest pain, where do we turn? 

I can only say what He says. That our hope has to stand on a solid foundation. Earthly things can’t carry the weight of our hopes. They can’t sustain us.

It is Who we place our hope in that makes the difference. Placing our hope in God is not a platitude. There is a real rest there, which leaves us assured that our hope will not be in vain. Not ultimately. This hope doesn’t diminish the pain or dismiss the deepness of our sorrow. If anything, it validates it. It says – you were made for a redeemed life, and this senseless pain is the deepest reality of sin. 

Our God is faithful and constant. Though this life may let us down and leave our hopes deferred, He will not. We won’t always understand this. There may be long stretches of time where we won’t even believe it for the trauma of the pain.

But there is a certainty here that nothing else can give us.

There is, when we can receive it, a sweet cove to rest in, while the wind whips wild and tears our surroundings apart. He remains. He is our rock, our defense, our refuge.

Our hope in God fulfills us, satisfying our deepest longings. This broken time is filled with waiting. This world is cursed and thorn-stricken, and we’re left longing for the day when Jesus will return. When life gets heavy, when it’s confusing, when anger courses through us, it’s okay to mourn. We can sit with our grief. Our Savior sees us. It’s okay to be angry. Angry at the effects of sin and longing so deeply for restoration that all we can offer are white-knuckle prayers. We know He is eager for redemption. He weeps beside us, longing to wipe away our tears and give us eternal life. To fulfill our hope.

We wait, fighting to hope, knowing that in our deepest pain, He is there; in our deepest sorrows, He is with us. 

Mary Jackson lives in the little town of Lebanon, Ohio–home of the Golden Lamb, the Apple Festival, and the Horse Drawn Carriage Parade. Her favorite mornings are slow ones, sat in the wicker by the window, that melt into quiet times. Most often pegged as the shy girl, she’s found that it’s okay to be quiet, to listen, to speak up with love and gentleness. To sit in the tension of the quiet and the spoken. Though she fought it, she believes deeply that community is for the quiet folk, too. You can find her sharing thoughts at stilltraveling.net or on Instagram @maryreneejackson.
www.stilltraveling.net
iola magazine even in the deep

Explore, Dream, Discover – Charleston, West Virginia

Charleston West Virginia

How long have you lived here and where are you from? 

My entire life I’ve lived in Charleston, West Virginia. Not technically Charleston, but in a suburb of the city: Dunbar. We are only a fifteen minute drive from downtown. Recently a friend asked if I like living here. We were discussing different cities she had lived in. I told her that I loved it because no matter where I go, it is home. I’ve lived here my entire life, for 35 years. It is coal country here in West Virginia, even in the big city. You can see the coal trains run through on the outskirts of town; reminding you of the mines just a few hours away in the hills of the Appalachian mountains. 

What is it like in Winter?

Charleston Street. Erica Johnson Photography

My city is beautiful in the winter. The trees are bare of leaves, the windows and shops are all decorated for Christmas, and if we’re lucky, we get some snow. Because we live in what is called the Kanawha Valley (pronounced Ku-naw) the snow is sporadic at best. The city sparkles in the winter at night, but during the day it is cold and bare. The people hurry along the streets dressed in boots and coats and hats. The best time is when it snows. The sidewalks and streets are usually cleared with the snowplows, but the white lingers on window sills. Sometimes the streets are black with the touch of red and orange leaves left over from fall. 

Erica Johnson Photography

What are your favorite places?

Some of my favorite places are so familiar I forget they are so wonderful. One of my family’s favorite places is downtown on Capitol Street. There are lots of fun restaurants and shops. Most of the shops are locally owned and have an eclectic feel. We love Taylor Books, which is across the street from the best place to eat ice-cream. 

Taylor Books. Erica Johnson Photography

If you visit Charleston, you will find a lot of chain restaurants, bookstores, and shops. But the best part of living in a place for a long time is learning the local places. And Ellen’s is a favorite of everyone’s! It provides easy-going, counter-served, high-quality ice-cream, sandwiches, and wraps. There are seats and chairs for children with coloring supplies. Instead of lots of tables, they have couches and it feels like walking into a living room. With all-natural, high-quality ingredients and a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for more than 15 years, Ellen’s ice-cream serves up the best treats! My favorite is the homemade waffle cone with peanut-butter, chocolate ice-cream. 

Another family tradition we have is to eat at First Watch twice a month for breakfast. Serving up homemade waffles, pancakes, and fresh fruit crepes, everyone in our family loves eating there. The waitresses and staff all know us and our crazy kids because we’ve been going there for over five years. We even order things that aren’t on the menu. Although Charleston is a large town, it has a small town feel. 

Charleston Library. Erica Johnson Photography

What are your favorite memories of the city?

One of my favorite memories as a child, was going to the big downtown library. We had a small library in our town, but my mom would bring myself and my three other siblings to go to the main library every once in awhile. It was such an adventure. We’d park on the street, feed the parking meter with the spare change, and walk down the sidewalk to the main entrance.

As an avid reader, I loved all of the books, but the best thing I remember is there was an entire floor of the building just for kids. A whole floor full of books just for kids! It was a magical place. The building is still there, old and majestic. There is talk about re-doing the old library, but I hope they keep the structure and the look the same. It holds such wonderful memories for me as a child.

Another great childhood memory was riding the Trolley. One day my mom and sisters and brother and I climbed up on the bus and rode the familiar streets of Charleston. Although we had driven these streets, it was like seeing a brand new city as I felt the wind in my hair and heard the man ring the trolley bell. 

Charleston Trolley. Erica Johnson Photography

What would you miss if you moved away?

Next year our family will be embarking on a wonderful adventure to move to Central America. For the first time in my entire life I won’t be living in Charleston and the thought almost makes me sick with homesickness even now. I’ll miss so much. I’ll miss the change in seasons, and how each season reveals a beautiful  aspect of life. I’ll miss the familiar faces of people we know. I’ll miss the streets and their names like Summers and Randoph. I’ll miss the joys of trying out a new restaturant or coffee shop when it opens.

What are the people like?

Many of the people of Charleston are just plain friendly. Everyone smiles or nods as we pass each other on the streets. Men hold the doors for women and children.  The people are good, good people. Ask anyone for directions, they will immediately stop in the street, or pause while walking their dog to tell you how to get there. You might get directions like, “Turn at the Go-Mart” but you will find your destination. 

Just a short distance away 

Just a short distance away are various state parks and lots of outdoor activities. Kanawha State Forest is right in the middle of Charleston and has acres of land for fishing and camping. We love to visit there and take hikes on the various paths winding in and out of the forest. Just an hour away you can find a variety of outdoor activities like White Water Rafting, Hiking, Camping, and Fishing. One of the highest bridges in the United States is located about an hour away from Charleston. The New River Bridge hosts the annual “Bridge Day” where the bridge closes and people bungee cord jump off of the bridge, which is a staggering 876 feet high and over 3,000 feet long. All year around you can walk underneath the bridge on the “catwalk” and see the gorgeous view of the New River below. 

What has been the best discovery about your city?

The best thing about my city, for me, is that it feels like home. I don’t think it is just because I’ve lived here for 35 years, I think it is the people and the familiar places. The library, Ellen’s, and even Taylor Books (a local book store) look exactly the same now that they did 25 years ago. The shops have changed, and the landscape of the city has changed, but the people and the atmosphere hasn’t changed. If you visit, I hope you will feel like it is coming home. 

Sarah E. Frazer writes and lives in a brick house at the end of Thomas Road with her husband, five kids, a cat, a dog, and five chickens. Motherhood is her calling but her passion is to inspire focus and encourage deep-rooted Bible study for the busy mom. Life is full of seasons, but every season can be made more peaceful when time is spent in God’s word. Join Sarah on her favorite social media space: Instagram. Or you can find her on her blog, www.sarahefrazer.com

Walking home in the snow

I’m going for a walk,” I announce to my family, as I scrape bits of noodles and lettuce from our plates into the compost bin. I’m not sure the kids hear me; they have already scurried from the dinner table, and are now running down our short hallway, sliding into the living room in their sock feet. My husband nods as he fills the sink with soapy water. He knows that I need to get out of the house for a bit, knows that the day has worn me down. I stack the dishes next to the sink and gently lean into him for a moment. 

Minutes later, I slip my feet into my black, furry boots, the ones I splurged on a few months earlier in one last attempt to keep my toes warm when I walk my kids to school. I tug on my mittens, slip on my coat, and step out of my warm, brightly lit bungalow into the winter evening.

The dark sky is tinged with the grey, almost purple, hues that roll in with the snow.  As I walk down our front steps, the laughter and high-pitched squeals from my three young kids fade, absorbed by the quiet night.

The neighborhood is cloaked in fresh, fluffy powder. The hard-packed ice and the old, dull grey snow that has greeted me for weeks is now hidden, buried under this new blanket. 

My boots sink silently into the snow. With each step further into the neighborhood, I feel the quiet of the night seep into my body, into my very bones, hushing my mind, whispering, “quiet now” to my busy heart.

After the first few blocks, I let myself slowly surrender to that whisper, giving the frustrations of my day less and less space.

The houses I pass spill light from their windows and boast of life inside: a family gathered around a table, a couple reading in front of a fireplace, a man walking across his front room.

I cross the empty street, creating tracks where traffic hasn’t yet left its mark.

I lift my eyes to the streetlights, casting their warm yellows and pushing against the darkness. A twinge of joy weaves through me. This place, nestled on the cusp of the river valley, with its heritage Green Ash trees lining the streets, this place is beautiful. 

It has taken me thirteen years to think those words, to feel them, to believe them. Most days I fight against being here, fight against noticing any beauty this city might offer. Most days I compare the starkness of winter here to the breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains where I once lived, and this place always comes up short.

We aren’t supposed to still be here. 

As I walk, I let my mind wander back over the decisions that brought us to this place. 

We would live here for one year. That’s what we told ourselves. It would be an adventure, early in our marriage. That year would give us time to figure things out, decide what’s next, make a plan. But after a year, we decided to stay one more. Jobs were offered; babies were born. And now it’s been thirteen. Thirteen years. Thirteen years in a place I have never loved, a place I have always believed I am on the verge of leaving.

That first year we didn’t hang many pictures. Why bother when you aren’t staying? If I’m honest, that’s the way I’ve been approaching much of my life here, always thinking that we will probably move soon, hesitating to commit to things that would signal otherwise. 

It finally began to sink in a few months ago that we aren’t moving any time soon, if ever. One cold afternoon, I confessed all of my disappointments about being here to my spiritual director. 

“Have you told God how feel?” she asked. 

I blinked, then fumbled for a response. Surely God already knows, I thought. But I knew her question was more about my willingness to lay bare my heart before God, than it was about God’s knowledge.

A few days later, I sat on our plush, grey chair, alone in the house, and finally admitted to God that I was disappointed. Disappointed that we were still here, that God seemed to have forgotten that we hadn’t been planning on staying. I hoped, in that moment, that I would hear an answer from God, something along the lines of “Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you. I have better things planned for you.” 

Instead, I heard nothing. No sense of peace washed over me. No whisper of assurance.  Eventually, I stood up, threw away the crumpled tissues, and folded the pile of laundry that was staring at me.

It begins to snow again, and big, feathery flakes settle lazily on my lashes. I stop to pet an energetic puppy. While his person and I marvel together at the loveliness of the evening, he tosses the snow with his nose. After we say goodnight, I push my hands deeper into my pockets and notice how enchanted the spruce trees appear when they are frosted with snow. This place is beautiful, I think again.

On the heels of that thought, comes another: This place is loved by God. 

And then another: Who am I to declare it unloveable? 

I let these thoughts roll around in my mind for a few minutes, and they bump up against hard edges: my long held resentments, my stubborn determination not to love this city.

“Seek the welfare of the city.” Jeremiah’s words come back to me suddenly, and I feel myself smile as I remember how that verse ends: “where I have sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:7, NRSV)

I am not in exile, I remind myself, not even close.

I want to walk further, to drink in as much of this serene night as I possibly can. But I know there are kids to tuck in and kiss goodnight, a phone call that needs to be returned, lunches to pack for the morning. I turn around at the next corner, and find my own footprints stretching before me, deep wells in the snow, inviting me back.

I breathe deeply, filling my chest with the cold air. I silently celebrate that the air doesn’t burn my lungs, my eyes don’t immediately water, my fingers and toes don’t scream in pain from the cold. It is still winter, but the harsh deep freeze is over for now. My body feels lighter than it has in months, no longer needing to clench my jaws and hunch my shoulders against the biting wind.

As I head toward home, I feel a shift inside of me. Maybe it’s more of an opening than a shift. An opening to the depths of the beauty around me. An opening to be willing to see and name the goodness of this place. An opening, really, to God and God’s invitation to be present with Him in this place He has called me to be.

Linda Berkery

By the time I turn the corner onto my street, I find myself grateful. Not yet in love with this place, but grateful to be here.

I push open the door to our house, and the kids stop jumping on the couch to run toward me, throwing their arms around me like I’ve been gone for weeks. I pull off my boots, hang up my coat, and find I am glad to be home.

Julianne Gilchrist is a spiritual director, speaker, and blogger. She worked in campus ministry for over a decade, and now creates online spiritual retreats. A mom to three kids who keep her laughing, she lives in Edmonton, Alberta and tries not to complain too loudly about the cold. You can find her at juliannegilchrist.com 

Going deeper is a lot like coal mining

I asked God to take me deeper. I didn’t know what I meant in asking that, exactly, but I had heard others who were far more spiritual than I ask it, so I thought I should, too.

“Take me deeper, God.” 

I suppose I was asking for a closer relationship with Him, one that was more intimate and included more revelations about who He is and how He’s involved in my life. Perhaps I meant a different-looking journey with Him; a place of increased trust and reliance.

But I asked for depth, and that’s exactly what He gave. Perhaps I should have asked for smiles and laughter, because when you ask for depth and He gives it, you get everything that comes with deep places.

Darkness.

Isolation.

Increased pressure.

Disorientation.

Loneliness.

It makes me think of a documentary I saw once about coal miners in the heart of West Virginia. Men with soot-covered faces walk into a tunnel that leads to the mouth of a mine, carrying paper bag lunches and the prayers of loved ones that this won’t be the day of disaster. They travel thousands of feet down into the bowels of the earth, doing back-breaking labor that’s among the riskiest on earth.

Depth for them isn’t beautiful. It’s not a place of ease and rest, and it’s not a place without risk. Depth is hard. It’s dirty, risky, dangerous, and dark. It’s not a job many people want. 

Depth with God is very much the same.

I don’t know why I picture my walk with God like the one Adam and Eve had before the fall. I don’t know why I think it will be in the midst of lush beauty with unbroken fellowship and pure innocence.

I don’t live in the garden, and I do live in a world riddled with sin. I can have fellowship with God, yes, but fellowship with depth looks a lot more like coal mining than living covered by fig leaves.

When I asked God to take me deeper, I didn’t know His yes would mean everything changing. I didn’t understand that when I asked for more of Him, I was granting Him permission to take away anything that was less.

It meant losing relationships. Changing churches. Seeing myself for who I was and how that girl wasn’t truly following Jesus. It meant walking through the process of forgiveness – not just going through the motions of it.

It meant facing difficult truths. Realizing the gospel that governed my life wasn’t the gospel of the Scriptures. Asking how I needed to change and giving myself grace to do it. It meant stepping away from what I knew of the Holy Spirit and limping towards the truth of who He is.

The addition of depth also means the subtraction of shallow, and this is what we can fail to understand – shallow is comfortable. It’s manageable. It’s predictable. It’s less dangerous.

But it’s also, well, shallow.

God did not call us from death in order to live half-alive. He did not save us for safety and  predictability. He did not sacrifice everything for us to remain in shallow places.

When we ask for depth – and really mean it – he will take us deeper. And it will be far different than what we imagine.

Coal mining is, by nature, a dangerous profession. Men are often injured, and if a mine collapses, death is virtually guaranteed. Why, then, do miners go back day after day? More than that, why do they go back generation after generation?

They go back because it’s who they are. It’s in their blood. They are miners. 

Why do we believers ask for depth when we’re not even certain what that means? Why do we continue to chase closeness with God when it’s dark, isolating, and full of pressure? Because that’s who we are. We’re depth-chasers. Depth with Christ is built in to our spirits, and even though we don’t understand it, it’s a necessity for us. We instinctively know there’s more for us than just shallow places.

It’s in our blood.

I didn’t know when I asked God to take me deeper what it would look like. Now, on the other side, I know. 

Yes, it was dark. It was disorienting. It was not a place of safety.

But there in the depths, as in the mines, there was treasure. It was hidden, and I had to dig, but with time and tenacity, I found it. There in the mines, I found exactly what – Who – I needed.

We find treasure in deep places, and that’s why it’s worth it to ask, even when we’re not sure what it means. 

Jennie G. Scott is a former high school English teacher who now uses her love of words to share the hope of the Kingdom. A writer, speaker, and runner, she is a self-described deep thinker who can spend way more time than she should choosing the just-right word. She is a mom of two who has journeyed through single parenthood into marriage with the most patient man on the planet. She writes online at www.jenniegscott.com and encourages women to be OK with being themselves on her weekly Podcast, In This Skin.

I have a depth perception problem

When I moved from Canada to the UK, I was terrified to drive. Not because it was on the opposite side of the road, or because of roundabouts or traffic signs that were foreign to me, but because roads felt barely wide enough for my one car yet they were all operating as two way streets.

Eventually, I faced my fears, signed up for driving lessons and gingerly took to the streets with my instructor. Did I mention that next to nobody in London has driveways? As a result, cars park on both sides of the street, which only added to my driving claustrophobia. When I expressed my fear to my instructor, she asked me to stop, and she climbed out of the car. She then proceeded to open both car doors to show me that the space wasn’t as tight as I thought. It turns out I had a depth perception problem – my fear relayed one message to my brain, but the facts were quite different. 

While the above instance was an issue of literal depth perception, I’ve realised I also struggle with depth perception on a spiritual level.

I didn’t grow up in church, so I feel like I’ve always been playing catch-up in the spiritual depth department. There is so much I still don’t know, and for a long time I had the skewed perception that knowledge deficit determined my spiritual maturity, or lack thereof. I thought that serving and knowledge were the keys to achieving spiritual maturity. Looking back, I now realise that this striving ironically showcased the shallowness of my spiritual understanding, which was evident from my attempts to define growth on my own terms. While there was an undeniable emptiness to this Christian checklist way of living, there was also a safety in the shallowness that appealed to me. I knew what to expect, and didn’t have to face the uncomfortable prospect of letting go of control.

Yet I found myself longing to experience a deeper closeness with God, and simultaneously fearing it. If I released my tight grip, would God be there to meet me? Logically, I knew that he would. His Word says, “…I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) and “…I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5). But just like with driving, my fear can make me doubt the facts. The depth of vulnerability required for a genuine relationship with someone can feel like a risky chasm that’s too wide to cross. But I’m learning something about depth that’s changing my perception: it’s not arrived at in giant leaps, it’s something that incrementally builds;

– Through each word of Scripture I allow to soak into my soul that cements the certainty of God’s character.

– With each new care that I release to him, rather than cling to.

– Through recognition of the times I allow God space in my life to move, and through the growing pains I experience when I fail at this.

All of these daily decisions revolve around trust. We sell ourselves short if our perception of spiritual depth is measured through the false lenses of comparison to others, or by the merit of our own actions. Spiritual depth isn’t determined by what we do, but is experienced through the extent to which we trust that what Christ did for us was enough.

I’m finding that spiritual depth is less of a destination to be aimed for, and more of a continuous journey as I learn what it means to abide in Christ. Like any relationship, extending this type of trust feels vulnerable, and even awkward at first, but showing up for awkward beginnings is a precursor to familiarity and feeling more at home in someone’s presence.

May we be willing to show up for that awkward beginning.

May we be content to be present as we learn more of God’s character, valuing this getting to know you process one day at a time, rather than feeling the need to rush ahead.

And may we not let fear define our lives, but be rooted in the fact that the depth of God’s grace is sufficient.

Alicia lives in London. She writes at aliciaunger.com, documenting her journey as she learns to let go of perfect and embrace progress, and seeks to recognise God in the everyday moments of her life, not just the momentous ones.

Alicia Unger lives in London. She loves to talk all things faith, books and travel (bonus points if there’s brownies + good coffee involved). She writes at aliciaunger.com, documenting her journey as she learns to let go of perfect and embrace progress, and seeks to recognise God in the everyday moments of her life, not just the momentous ones. You’ll also find her on Instagram @navigatingnormal, sharing snippets of her current musings, her latest travel adventures, and last but certainly not least, her favourite reads.

Paper cut flower picture

bloom paper cut picture

In the winter, waiting for spring can seem never ending. We get desperate for bird song and blossom and tulips. Whilst we can buy flowers all year round there is nothing quite like seeing nature come alive in spring in glorious pretty colour. This paper cut flower picture is a way to get creative and adorn your home with a flower that won’t die. It’s a little mindful making project and we have the instructions and template below for you to make your own beauty.

“The earth laughs in flowers”

Emerson
bloom paper cut picture
Paper cut flower

Materials & Equipment

  • plain card
  • colour or patterned paper picture frame
  • craft knife
  • cutting mat
  • printable template below

Place your template on top of some white card. Place both on top of a cutting mat.

Tape the template down to the mat to avoid movement.

Using a sharp craft knife, follow the lines of the template. You may need to go over the lines a few times to cut through the paper and card.

When finished push the ‘petal shapes’ up away from the back card to create the 3d effect. 

Using a picture frame without glass or a box frame, place your dahlia card in the frame with a sheet of coloured or patterned paper behind.

Hang and admire!

Season of fruitfulness

Summer will soon become a distant memory, as we once again get out our winter clothes ready for the colder days and darker nights. The change of the seasons in nature is like a mirror to the changing patterns in our own lives.

Sunset through the trees from Nadine Haigh @thegildedleaf
Nadine Haigh @thegildedleaf

You may not know this but data collected from years of population statistics show that September is the most popular month for birthdays. A number of reasons for this seasonal baby boom have been suggested; it could be that Christmas spirit generates a rise in feelings of goodwill (or maybe it’s the after-effects of the festive mulled wine and mince pies!) Perhaps it’s the long, chilly, winter days which mean more time indoors – leading to early nights? For whatever reason, alongside the “mellow fruitfulness” of September, the fruit of God’s first spoken blessing over everything He made; 

God blessed them: Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth!”
(The Message) 

is evident.

Our experiences of the seasons are affected by and dependent on where we live, but God planned these changing rhythms of the world from the very beginning of time. 

‘Then God said, Let bright lights appear in the sky to give light to the earth and to identify the day and the night; they shall bring about the seasons on the earth, and mark the days and years.” And so it was.’
Genesis 1; 14&15. (NIV)

God’s blessing of fruitfulness and growth continued through history. His desire for an intimate, deep relationship with His creation remains exactly the same today as when He spoke into life the beauty of Eden. In spite of our desire to go our own way, separate from God, Jesus is our way back to that relationship with our Creator and His promise of life in all its fullness. Jesus is a blessing for fruitfulness and growth.

season of fruitfulness iola magazine
unsplash

Jesus spoke to His disciples about the way to fruitfulness. 

If you remain in me and I in you, then you will bear much fruit’ John 15;5 (NIV)

Whilst spending time with others as a birth and postnatal Doula, event organiser and in church, it’s been my privilege to hear many women share their personal stories of how even in the changing and sometimes painful, seasons of life, remaining in Jesus has born fruit. God’s love, joy, peace, and hope has brought them to a place of new life and growth. As a woman, I also see these changing seasons in my own life as I experience the hope of the promise of spring, the drought of summer, the changing harvest of autumn, and the long, cold days of winter. There are seasons of excitement and anticipation, doubt and loneliness, joy and celebration, and heartache and loss for all of us. In God we can experience fruitfulness and growth, regardless of the season we may be in.

We will see God’s fruitfulness in our lives bringing hope out of despair, joy from sorrow and peace even in the midst of the most violent storms of life. Jesus’ final spoken words to His followers before He returned to heaven;

And surely I will be with you always’ Matt 28. (NIV)

This is the unchanging good news. Whatever season we may find ourselves in today, 

He is with us. 

Thank God.

Charlotte Osborn

Charlotte Osborn is an evangelist at heart and she’s passionate about sharing the good news of God’s love & hope with the world. She is a speaker & event facilitator who seeks to encourage others to find creative ways to share their own stories.

As a qualified nurse, she runs her own home care business, supporting people through the many changing seasons of their lives. She has 3 fantastic grown up children who she counts as friends and she lives in the beautiful Cotswolds UK with her equally fantastic husband! 

www.livemovebe.org.uk

iola magazine the bloom issue