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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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!
In the civil affairs office in Zhengzhou, China, they handed us our daughter. After fifteen months of paper chasing and the agony of waiting, we finally had her. With four layers of clothes on, she was huge. So heavy. I tried to look into her face, but she wouldn’t focus or make eye contact. I handed her to my husband, and we studied her. Smiling with relief, I thought, “It is over now, right?”
A horrible feeling crept into my soul while we waited to fill out more paperwork. The room with no heat felt suffocating. She would not look at us. Her body was limp, like a rag doll. The weight of her head was too heavy. Only a soft meow sound escaped from her parched lips. In that moment, I realized our lives would be different. Our normal life at home would change forever. Her medical needs were more significant than we had anticipated.
We had anticipated her to be minor-special needs. Her only diagnosis was “high muscle tone.” When she arrived to us with extremely low muscle tone, I knew something was wrong. In fact, she could barely sit, crawl, or even hold her head up. The drool poured from her mouth. While playing, she never looked at the object, she only used her peripheral vision. While we were in China, I struggled. My plan for our family was slowly coming undone. Fear began to plant a seed in my heart.
After arriving home, I was just trying to survive with four children seven and under. Our new daughter needed as much help as a newborn. I had to struggle through the pain of losing my dreams, the guilt of attachment struggles, and the crying. She would scream for hours in grief, frustration, and for reasons I never knew. I felt so helpless. Was I supposed to be her mother? I felt like a stranger and the babysitter. Fear turned to grief and I wept through the pain. When I thought about the past, it brought guilt and shame. The future only held uncertainty. What would her quality of life be? Who would take care of her when we were gone? I hated myself for resenting the whole situation, but God showed me that all of my grief, anger, and frustration stemmed from fear. My mother bought me a little sign from Hobby Lobby a few weeks after returning home. It said: Practice Courage Every Single Day. I wept in exhaustion and maybe a little jet lag. Courage was the very farthest thing I felt, and it seemed utterly impossible.
A seed of fear was planted in my heart which led to a season of debilitating anxiety. Before fear grows into a weed, I needed to learn the daily process of cultivating courage. The secret to growing courage? God’s Word.
Through the process of studying God’s Word, specifically the Psalms, I found a seed of faith to plant in my heart instead of fear. By cultivating this seed, through daily Bible reading, a sign of new courage has bloomed in my life. Many of our fears are mirrored by the authors of the Book of Psalms. Daily reading can help us find God faithful, even in fear.
Do you struggle with finding peace? Does your life feel crazy? Circumstances out of control? Life won’t slow down to let you breathe? Join me as I dedicate ten minutes a day to pray over a verse, answer some questions, and write out a prayer for peace.
I have a seven-day challenge that walks you through a journey to peace. When you join me, you will receive a free workbook, pocket truths from psalms, and prayers to pray each day. Sign up here: sarahefrazer.com/prayer
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.
It’s still dark when she gets up. Laura feels it like a heavy blanket. The weight of it is oppressive. She’s methodical in her tasks: she finishes her coffee, gets the kids breakfast, makes lunches, and sends them out the door to the bus.
She knows there are e-mails to respond to, phone calls to return. She knows that if she gets dinner into the crockpot early, it will make life that much easier when the kids are home from school. But she goes back to bed instead. She thinks perhaps another hour of sleep is what she needs to get back on track.
Later, a friend invites her for coffee and she politely declines. The thought of doing her hair and makeup to go out is overwhelming. She dreads the prospect of putting on a smile and making small talk for an hour.
By the time the kids arrive home, shortly after 4 p.m., the sky is already dusky. Lights in the house blaze as dark falls by dinnertime. Her husband notices her lack of energy, her subdued responses; a silly child may elicit a smile, but not much more.
He asks about her day. She gives him a monotone, “Fine.” They are all the same.
Day after day, the story is the same.
Does Laura’s story sound familiar?
It’s easy to ignore the warning signs of depression. Symptoms identified in isolation are easy to justify away. We tell ourselves, “It’s just PMS.” or “I had a bad night.” “It will get better.” “I just need to snap out of it.”
And while it’s very possible that low energy or a bad day is a one-time occurrence, sometimes it’s more pervasive than that. Seasonal Affective Disorder—also known as SAD or winter depression—if left unchecked, can have a devastating toll on individuals and families.
Regardless whether your low mood is circumstantial or something deeper, it’s important to know that you are not alone. In the UK alone, experts estimate one in 15 individuals are affected by SAD between the months of September and April, with women twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression than men.1
Despite much discussion about mental health in public spheres, many women simply don’t feel empowered to speak openly about their depression. There is a tendency to withdraw from relationships because we don’t want to be a burden, we think we can figure it out on our own, or it’s embarrassing to admit that we don’t have it all together.
And because of that, many aren’t finding the support they need, both in the community and in the church. Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, writes, “There’s an assumption among many people that if they were honest about what they experienced, it would be rejected or they would be shamed.”
This rings true in light of a 2011 study on prescription usage in the US which revealed that one in four women in the US take some sort of prescribed medication to treat mental illness—that’s 12 million women. And yet, a large percentage of those are still not talking about their issues.2
An enlightening 2015 Christianity Today article titled, Depression:The Church’s Best Kept Secret, shines a spotlight on the lack of support that generally exists in the church regarding mental health. In the article, Dr. Archibald Hart, a licensed psychologist and senior professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, recalls asking a room full of women attending a seminar on depression, “How many of you are on an antidepressant but have not told your husband?” At least half of them stood up, he says.3
Clearly, the church has a long road ahead toward dispelling the stigma of mental illness but that doesn’t mean there isn’t help and support available right now. If you think you may be suffering from SAD, an important first step is to reach out to a trusted friend or family member. Knowing that there is one person who sees you and knows what you’re going through can be a literal lifesaver.
Scripture reveals that depression has actually been part of the human experience for a long time. But it can be easy for well-versed believers to gloss over the passages because they make us uncomfortable or, on the surface, they seem irrelevant.
Hannah was “reduced to tears and would not even eat. . . . [She] was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:7, 10)
Elijah asked God to take his life. (1 Kings 19:4)
Job described his life as ebbing away. “Depression haunts my days,” he said. “At night my bones are filled with pain, which gnaws at me relentlessly” (Job 30:16–17).
The human condition is not a surprise to God. There are real physiological changes that occur in the brain when depression begins to take hold. If a loved one had a broken leg, you wouldn’t hesitate to seek medical help. By the same token, depression should not be minimized as something that will pass.
What exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a specifier—or subtype—of major depression. People with this type of disorder commonly experience symptoms during the fall and winter months. During the lighter and warmer spring and summer months, the depression often goes into remission.
Though researchers haven’t pinpointed the specific cause of SAD, we do know that several factors may come into play:
The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and circadian rhythms, leading to feelings of depression.
Reduced sunlight may cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, which may trigger depression.
The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or far south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter or, conversely, unnaturally long days during the summer, which impacts the internal body clock.
If you are suffering from SAD, there are a number of things you can do to change the trajectory of your mental health. First of all, talk to your doctor, he or she can help rule out any other possible causes for your symptoms, such as thyroid problems.
What are some of the symptoms?
Not everyone will experience all the symptoms listed, but if more than one of these resonate with you, you might want to consider looking into some treatment options.
* Sleep problems – usually oversleeping and difficulty staying awake but in some cases disturbed sleep and early morning waking
* Lethargy – lacking in energy and unable to carry out normal routine due to fatigue. Heaviness in the arms and legs
* Overeating – craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, which usually leads to weight gain
* Depression – feeling sad, low and weepy, a failure, sometimes hopeless and despairing
* Apathy – loss of motivation and ability to concentrate
* Social problems – irritability and withdrawal from social situations, not wanting to see friends
* Anxiety – feeling tense and unable to cope with stress
* Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities
* Loss of libido – decreased interest in sex and physical contact
* Weakened immune system – vulnerability to catching winter colds and flu
* Mood changes – for some people bursts of over-activity and cheerfulness (known as hypo-mania) in spring and autumn.
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
Common treatments for SAD include:
Daily exposure a special light for roughly 30 minutes has proven very effective. The light mimics natural sunlight and can effect brain chemicals that improve mood and relieve symptoms. Sixty to 80 per cent of people with SAD find significant relief from light therapy. Make sure you talk to a medical professional about obtaining the right type of lamp.
If symptoms are particularly intense, medication might be the best course of treatment. Different kinds of medications work in different ways, so it’s important to discuss with your doctor which is the right type for you.
Counselling (or Talk Therapy).
Working with a counsellor can be very effective in identifying possible triggers for depression, as well as teaching skills to help break negative patterns associated with depression. Altering thoughts, attitudes and actions that perpetuate negative patterns is instrumental in bringing about change. Counselling has proven to be beneficial alongside other treatments and medication.
Low energy and mood often means that there are only so many resources to go around. And, for many women, these are often spent on kids and family, which leaves very little left for self-care.
The Catch 22 is that regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep habits, managing stress and staying connected to others are all an important part of navigating SAD in one piece. A good church community can also come alongside if they recognize the wisdom in encouraging these things along with meditation, prayer, and Scripture contemplation.
According to Dr. Hart, “there’s a healthy and healing synchronization that occurs when we realize that our bodies, emotions, and beliefs aren’t separate entities but all play an integrated role in shaping who we are. While the condition of our faith may not play a role in the onset of depression, it is certainly vital in treating it.”4
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NLT)
“You, LORD, are my lamp; the LORD turns my darkness into light.” (2 Samuel 22:29)
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.” (Psalm 40:1-3)
“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
“He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)
Janine Dilger is a Canadian writer who loves Jesus, her family, and a steaming mug of coffee in a quiet kitchen before the day begins. God wired her with an eye for beauty: nature, art, photography, design and words—these things whisper refreshment into her soul. She is as broken as they come and has way more questions than answers. But after a life’s worth of hard lessons, she is realizing the trick is to just keep her feet moving. To that end, she’s doing her best at navigating the twists and turns of this life with faith, hope and humour. You can Janine blogging about her journey at janinedilger.com
When you find yourself tangled up in a mess you cannot free yourself from, or in a place of utter despair and hopelessness, it’s good to remember that you are not alone.
It’s even better when that truth becomes a reality.
She was 17. A junior in high school.Wrapped up in an unhealthy dating relationship that went awry. Dreams of graduating from high school and becoming a fashion designer were replaced by abuse, fear, guilt, and shame.
This was my crossroad reality.
And yet, my sin and brokenness became the very instrument God would use to demonstrate his above and beyond grace in my life.
Grace, mercy, and love came to me through various acts of unconditional love shown to me by a loving mother and father, and friends who genuinely saw past my shame and celebrated the life I was carrying inside me.
My struggle of personal torment prevented me from seeing the future God had planned for me. My personal failure held me in a place of hopelessness and despair and unworthiness.
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners,Christ died for us.” Rom 5:8
“While we were yet sinners!”
While I was clueless of God’s plan of grace for my life – he had already put his redemptive plan in motion; to rescue me from a life of pain and regret.
God used the kindness of one particular woman in my life to show me what unconditional love and grace looked like.As a very young child, she had suffered at the hands of an abusive father. And there she stood in front of me, extending the sweetest kind of kindness and love – the one that Christ had given her in her own story of faith, grace, and healing.
In her kindness, I felt as though I was being adorned with a white scarf of beauty and grace.
God’s personal love also came through his Word in a place of desperation.
Betsy…sweetheart…I wrote these words for you beloved daughter:
“I know the plans I have for you (my daughter). Plans to prosper you.
Not to bring you harm. Plans to give you a FUTURE and a HOPE.” Jer 29:11
I was undone.
My friend and God’s Word.
But Jesus did not stop there.
I was learning to trust the One who made me and the child within me. I began to embrace and trust God’s plan for my life not knowing what the future held…but trusting the One who held it. I was learning to walk in the hope and forgiveness I had found in Jesus.
I was unmarried and two weeks away from marrying the father of my child. A relationship that was marked by drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Through a series of events, I knew God was telling me to let go and that he had something better in mind for me. By God’s intervening grace, I broke ties with this person and put my life, my unborn child life, and my future in God’s hands.
During my pregnancy, I began to gather things I would need.
One day, I went to an old fashioned church “rummage sale” and spotted a small white silk scarf that I fell in love with. It was a custom made child’s scarf that had an “S” monogrammed on one side near the bottom.
The only problem was that my last name began with a “D”.
I almost left the scarf on the shelf where I found it because it didn’t have the initial of my last name.
But I loved it. So I bought it. And I took it home and tucked it away.
I imagined myself bringing it out and placing it around my little-one’s tiny neck on the very first, cold, Cleveland, winter day.
Fast-forward a year and a half later. Through a blind date, I met the man I would marry.
We married the winter my son turned two years old. My new last name, of course, begins with an “S”.
This scarf is one of my most treasured earthly possessions because of what it represents. Little did I know then, how God would use this white scarf of grace in my life.
Blessing me with the task of raising eight kids.
Leading a ministry for teen moms. And now, at this season of life as an empty nester, writing to offer the gift of grace to midlife women experiencing a major season of change.
Who is that woman that God has brought into your life to offer his White Scarf of grace? Or has God placed someone in your life that has made a profound difference in your life? Why not offer them a gift of the white scarf of gratitude?
It’s just one small way we (who were once found, lost, hurting, and hopeless) can bless and serve the beautiful hurting women God brings into our lives.
Elizabeth Duncan Stretar, (Cleveland, Ohio) is the mother of 8 married adults, grandmother to 16, and enjoys spending her empty-nest time with husband, Frank. She is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (MACL), Young Life’s first national director and currently working as a major airline Flight Attendant. Stretar’s passion is to help others live an above and beyond kind of life, by encouraging them realize their untapped potential, discover their life-purpose that strives to make a difference in the lives of others.
She’s a published author of children’s book, Acorn Gert & Brother Bert (Halo Publishing, 2016) and blogs at Elizabeth Duncan Stretar: Above and Beyond Mid-life (betsystretar.com)