Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reflections on Gentleness

When I was 21, I lived in Spain for a few months while attending a Bible school. To this day, it remains the most renewing time in my walk with the Lord. It was a season of rest, of reflection, and of turning aright with God. He allowed me to spend time in what is very possibly the most beautiful place on Earth coming to understand Him more.

While I was there, an instructor told me that I was “so gentle,” which has stuck with me since then. When I thought of gentleness, I thought of someone who was generally soft-spoken, mild-tempered, quiet and submissive. I had never before been called gentle. This instructor absolutely meant it as a compliment; he spoke with a twinkle in his eye and a smile of kindness on his lips. So what did he mean?
Seven years later, in the midst of a deployment, I found myself studying Colossians 3:12-13:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you… (New American Standard Bible)

These verses offer a clear list of characteristics that ought to describe one who belongs to the Lord. Most are fairly straight-forward; compassion is the seat of emotion, or pity, kindness is moral goodness expressed in action, humility is a sense of one’s moral littleness, or modesty, patience is perseverance and longsuffering, and bearing with is  holding up or enduring.[1] It is gentleness that piqued my interest.  

Gentleness and meekness are synonyms, and they have a beautiful definition. According to Strongs (2001), gentleness is mildness of disposition and a meekness “not of outward behavior only…it is an inwrought grace of the soul, and the exercises of it are first and chiefly towards God. It is that temper of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting… it is associated with humility and self-control, and the opposite or self-interest.” This is grace of the soul that enables one to accept the actions of the Lord as good, without a view to one’s own self-interest. It is gentleness that enables one to “cease striving and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10, NASB).  

This deployment is certainly not what I would have chosen for my life. To live apart from my love for a year, missing anniversaries, birthdays and holidays is painful. God knows I have bouts of anger, exhaustion and sorrow over the situation. But throughout this year, He has consistently reminded me that He “will make known to me the path of life, and in [His] presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11, NASB). He has put in me that “inwrought grace of the soul” that allows me to accept God’s dealings with me without dispute.

When I was in Spain, we had a sort of “anthem”: the hymn How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.  This hymn exemplifies a gentle heart, and consistently reminds me of the deep trust I can have in my Father’s arms, regardless of the circumstances of my life.

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

His wounds have paid my ransom.

Jesus went to the cross without disputing. He allowed himself to be sacrificed without resisting, with a heart of compassion for those mocking Him, with eyes only for the interest of His Father in Heaven (Isaiah 53). Jesus is the model of a gentle spirit, and the One who can absolutely understand the desperate struggle to accept one’s circumstances when they cause heartbreak.

So this season, I’m thankful for my God who cultivates gentleness in me. God’s will is perfect, though often a mystery. My prayer is that He helps us to remain faithful, hopeful, persevering and protected from Evil. I know that there is joy ahead, for me and for my husband.  

[1] http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Col&c=3&v=2&t=NASB#conc/12

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on Conflict

I don’t think any married couple likes conflict. It’s a part of being together that seems to cast doubt and negativity over the entire marriage. If we argue, are we destined to fail? Is he going to get fed up with me and leave? Will we always have this same argument? Pretty soon, the thought of bringing up a hurt brings on heartburn.

I remember our first argument after my husband deployed. It was bound to happen; we’d been together for almost four years… occasionally, we have a tiff. But a tiff feels infinitely more manageable face to face in the living room of our cozy home rather than over the phone from a distance of thousands of miles and several time zones. I think I was even driving when it happened.
As a counselor, I see a lot of clients who have trouble with conflict, particularly in their intimate relationships. I used to think I was good at conflict; until I had to start learning how to navigate transatlantic conflict. Suddenly, I felt as inept as my most clueless clients. Thankfully, the Lord is faithful, and is my perfect Counselor, consistently growing me in to a more honoring wife.
One of the most convicting things I’m learning how to practice is the eliminating of what relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: Criticism (a more global character assassination than a specific complaint), Contempt (the mean cousin of sarcasm), Defensiveness and Stonewalling (pretty straightforward). If marital conflict is consistently made up of these bad habits, the marriage is on a slow road to failure. Fortunately for me, I don’t see all of these horsemen in our marriage. I do, however, feel like I struggle with Defensiveness. For whatever reason, when conflict begins, I feel the need to defend myself; each complaint is a personal attack. I find that this distracts from the actual point of conflict, which is resolution. Getting defensive brings in an unnecessary level of emotionality, which then seems to send the conflict spiraling into other directions.
I’m also a big fan of the apology .A sincere apology can go a long way to extinguishing conflict.  There’s a reason we teach our children to “say you’re sorry” as soon as they can speak. That said, something else I’ve learned is that tone matters. If someone says, “I’m sorry I hurt you” in a bored tone with a sense of obvious obligation, it grates. It hurts more. It doesn’t say, “I love you more than myself, and that’s why I’m sorry I hurt you.” It says, “I didn’t do anything wrong, but since you won’t drop this until I apologize, I’m sorry.” Our wedding vows were a sort of re-write of Philippians 2:1-4, which says, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” On our wedding day, we committed to humbly treating each other as more important than ourselves, to loving each other as selflessly and sacrificially as Christ loves us. That means that when we do or say something to hurt each other, an apology should come naturally and willingly, because it is a truly awful thing to hurt the one you love.
Finally, I’m learning how to forgive the way Christ forgives me: unconditionally and completely. He sets our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12, NIV), and demonstrates the same mercy to us that He did to the Israelites when he promised to “forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Who am I to offer any less to the man to whom I’ve given my heart?
Deployments have the ability to suck the energy out of a vital marriage, and conflicts seem far worse than they would within the ease of a face-to-face relationship. So working through conflict during a deployment demands higher levels of patience, humility, mercy and sincere apologies than one might expect.
There’s nothing else to say… just, “I’m sorry, my love”.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reflections on Loneliness

Every significant other, spouse, parent or sibling of a military member is all too familiar with loneliness. We’ve all used similar words to try to offer a just description to the feeling that life just isn’t right when our loved one is gone. I think it’s a pain unique to everyone- sometimes it’s a dull ache, sometimes it’s sharp and quick, and sometimes it’s suffocating. Whatever it feels like, it’s inescapable.

The morning my husband left for his deployment, we read a devotional together in our favorite chair, and got to pray holding hands one more time. It was a perfect morning, full of hope and promise for the things we’d do when he got home. He said goodbye to the puppy, and we left for the airport. When I returned from the airport, my dog looked around expectantly for her daddy, and laid staring helplessly at the door for almost two hours after I returned home while I sat in our chair and cried. My puppy’s hopeful expectation to see my husband come through the door again was bittersweet; I knew it would be 52 long weeks before her wish, and mine, came true.

Eventually, we all start moving again. I found a love note hidden in my sock drawer, which still makes me smile. I went to work. I went to church. I had dinner with friends. I worked out. I did what I could to fill the time and keep the loneliness away. And yet, each night, I was forced to face it.

I think the most challenging part of being alone was sorting out what to expect from other people. At first, every conversation seemed to start with a concerned, “How ya doin’? You okay?” accompanied by a pitying head tilt and pat on the arm. It grated, because each time someone asked that question, it undid all of my efforts to set aside my loneliness for the day. But later, I was hurt by those same friends because they stopped asking. Everyone else forgot that I was missing half of my heart, a fact which was ever-present on my mind. I was hurt because I felt like those people who were closest to me didn’t care enough to offer comfort during this most difficult trial. My loneliness was a pervasive ache, felt only by me.

Then, about eight months into the year, I came upon this passage from 2 Corinthians, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, New International Version).

This passage brought me some much needed perspective. God is my comforter. The word comfort can also be translated “solace, that which affords refreshment”[1]. My God and Father can bring me solace and refreshment during my time of trouble. Not my friends or family, God. I cannot explain why this thought was so… comforting. It relieved me of expecting others to take away my loneliness, which means I wasn’t disappointed in them when they couldn’t. It also gave me a Person to turn to who wasn’t susceptible to the waves of chaos life brings. God isn’t going to be caught up with kids, or stuck at work, feeling preoccupied with graduate school or the latest argument with a family member. He is the one Person who is always available to me, who is always concerned with my heart, and who absolutely loves my husband more than I do.

Even though this bright spot came eight months into the deployment, I’m thankful for the few months of relief from the ever-present loneliness I’d been feeling. Nothing else is different; only my perspective has changed. I still miss my husband, and there are still some days that seem to drag on forever. There is still no one else who makes me feel quite right with myself like my husband. But I understand the comfort of God in a deeper way than before the deployment, and I have to wonder… would there have been another way for God to become this Comforter for me if I wasn’t so sick with loneliness? Maybe there is a purpose to this deployment after all.

[1] http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3874&t=NASB

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reflections on Busy-ness

When Kevin prepared to deploy, I got a lot of advice. One of the most common pieces of advice I heard was, "Get busy, and stay busy." The implication was that if I was busy enough, I wouldn't have the time to laze about eating copious amounts of chocolate, weeping over every bite in misery. And while that may be true, I've found that busy-ness isn't really an ideal way to live life, in any circumstance.
When I am busy, I tend to have a single track mind. Eyes set on the goal, blinders up. So whether I'm at work or running errands or shopping with my sister, I'm focused on the task at hand, and possibly evaluating the next task to be conquered. Suddenly, I'm accomplishing an entire week's worth of events in one day! After about a month of this, I have a headache most of the day, my stomach is in constant rebellion, and sleep is elusive. Well, this is not better than desperately missing my husband.

The problem is that we were not designed to live in such a state of constant movement. As Dr. Archibald Hart, author of The Anxiety Cure puts it, "your mind and body were designed for camel speed. Your life is moving at the speed of a cheetah. No wonder you're having anxiety attacks" (Hart, 2001). Cheetah speed is not sustainable without doing significant damage to one's mind, body and spirit. We need to be quiet, to be still. We need rest, even when we are afraid of might come out of taking such time to rest.

The question then becomes, what can I do while I'm resting in order to be sure I don't slide into that dark abyss of loneliness, fear, and general self-pity? Even though doing while resting seems contradictory, I'd contend that not living like a cheetah does not mean ceasing to move altogether. The comparison is camels and cheetahs; just move a little slower. I appreciate the reminder of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. So even in this circumstance, the endeavors of my life ought to be to glorify God and to enjoy Him.

With the risk of sounding heretical, I've revamped a few of the passages that help me to focus on the truth and have true rest in my spirit: 

Glorify God:
"For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things, even this deployment: to whom be glory for ever. Amen." (Romans 11:36). "For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.... Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, even though you are without your husband, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 6:20; 10:31). "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, including me and my husband, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Revelation 4:11).

And enjoy Him forever:
"The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot during all seasons of life, including this deployment. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel, even though I don't love this situation: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons. I have set the LORD always before me, and particularly during those lonely nights: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore" (Psalm 16:5-11). "Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the LORD, because this truth extends beyond circumstance" (Psalm 144:15). "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid of being alone, of losing my love: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation ( Isaiah 12:2) "Rejoice in the Lord alway, even if this doesn't seem like a season full of joy: and again I say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4).

So instead of getting busy, I allow myself to rest. I am enjoying the blessings of the Lord, because I enjoy the Lord, and trust Him with my heart and my husband. And I believe that even in this simple shift, I glorify God.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Reflections on Contentment

On the morning of February 16, 2011, two days after Valentine's Day and five days before my husband left on his 365 deployment, I read this devotional by Charles Hadden Spurgeon:
" I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." - Phillipians 4:11 (KJV)

"These words show us that contentment is not a natural propensity of man. 'Ill weeds grow apace.' Covetousness, discontent, and murmuring are as natural to man as thorns are to the soil. We need not sow thistles and brambles; they come up naturally enough, because they are indigenous to earth: and so, we need not teach men to complain; they complain fast enough without any education. But the precious things of the earth must be cultivated. If we would have wheat, we must plough and sow; if we want flowers, there must be the garden, and all the gardener's care. Now, contentment is one of the flowers of heaven, and if we would have it, it must be cultivated; it will not grow in us by nature; it is the new nature alone that can produce it, and even then we must be specially careful and watchful that we maintain and cultivate the grace which God has sown in us. Paul says, "I have learned... to be content;" as much as to say, he did not know how at one time. It cost him some pains to attain to the mystery of that great truth. No doubt he sometimes thought he had learned, and then broke down. And when at last he had attained unto it, and could say, "I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content," he was an old, grey-headed man, upon the borders of the grave - a poor prisoner shut up in Nero's dungeon at Rome. We might well be willing to endure Paul's infirmities, and share the cold dungeon with him, if we too might by any means attain unto his good degree. Do not indulge the notion that you can be contented with learning, or learn without discipline. It is not a power that may be exercised naturally, but a science to be acquired gradually. We know this from experience. Brother, hush that murmur, natural though it be, and continue a diligent pupil in the College of Content." (Begg, 2003, p.16).

These words came at a significant moment in my life. Three months earlier, my husband came home with news I'd vainly hoped I'd never hear: it was his turn for a yearlong deployment. When I married him in 2007, I had a vague awareness that someday we would be forced to weather a deployment. When he left for two months in 2009, I felt like that was good enough; I didn't need any more experience with marital separation. But in November 2010, the process of preparing for a year apart began, despite my best efforts to convince God that there were better ways for us to spend our time.

In the months leading up to my husband's departure date, I came to appreciate Spurgeon's exhortation that "We need not sow thistles and brambles; they come up naturally enough" (Begg, 2003). As I adjusted to the reality of a year without my husband, thistles of bitterness and brambles of discontent sprouted and began to grow in my mind, without any prompting or encouragement. Every time my husband had to work late, I grumbled my way through the evening, thinking, "As if they can't do without him. He's so critical to the mission. What about me?" In my mind, I was becoming like a petulant child, whining over every little thing that didn't go her way. As we got closer and closer to that inevitable day, it became more and more difficult for me not only to deny his departure, but also to enjoy our remaining moments together.

We took a vacation in January 2011, one last opportunity for us to be alone and focused entirely on each other before he left. As we lay on the beach in Cozumel, I somehow felt awashwith peace. Despite the thicket of bitterness that had been growing, I was reminded of all of the reasons I married my husband, and all of the ways he matched me like a perfect puzzle piece. We began to discuss how we could stay close while we were physically so far apart. God used those days to begin showing me what contentment really is: a choice.

In Philippians 4:11, the Apostle Paul says he has "learned to be content in whatever circumstances" he encountered (New American Standard Version). The word content means "to be independent of extrenal circumstances." I started to see that my contentment in life didn't have to depend on my husband being in the same room with me. My contentment didn't have to hinge upon where I lived, who I lived with, where I work or didn't work, or any other external thing. My contentment is sourced in God's constancy. My husband's love is a shadow of the love God has for me, which means it is reliable, deep and lasting.

And so, on February 16, 2011, as I faced the final days of time with my love, I could appreciate the truth that I was in the process of learning to be content. It wouldn't come without endless nights of tears or days that seemed to never end. It wouldn't come without endless nights of tears or days that seemed to never end. It wouldn't come without painful reminders of what I was missing. It wouldn't come without a constant ache of loneliness present in quiet moments when the knowledge of being apart from my husband reverberated through every part of my body. And yet, somehow, it would come. Even though it certainly felt like the deployment experience was going to be a cold, dank dungeon, lingering just beyond the present moment was the promise of warmth, comfort and joy.  

Begg, A. 2003. Morning and Evening: A New Edition of the Classic Devotional Based on The Holy Bible English Standard Version by Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reflections on Yoga

In the last four months, I have learnd that I love yoga. I love going to the studio when it's dark outside, breathing deeply, listening to the plinky-plunky music as I start the week. Now, I don't really get into all of the third-eye-chakra-light-within-you parts of yoga, but I do appreciate its focus: yoga is all about strength, flexibility and balance. However strange a source yoga practic is, these have been themes in my life this year.

I have felt a desperate weakness more than once since my husband left for the desert. There is no control for military families. I can't call up the Colonels or Generals and let them know how I really feel about them taking my husband for a year, or to enlighten them on the actual benefit of their morale programs. And letting my husband know how awful it is on my side of the ocean is only advisable on occasion, because he can't do anything to change the situation either.

It is in these moments of desperate weakness that I am reminded of my El Shaddai, my All-Sufficient God, who has "said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am well content with weakness, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong," (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, New American Standard Version).

It is comforting to me to know that not only does God cover me with His strength when I am weak, but that his grace, the undeserved favor he offers me, is apparently the source of that strength. Sufficiency has as its meaning not only the idea of being enough for something, but also an element of defense, warding off that which would threaten resting in the arms of the Almighty (Strongs, 2001). I am daily being stretched beyond what I thought were my limits, constantly needing to rely on the strength of the Lord for the patience, joy and comfort to not only survive this deployment, but to enjoy the days the Lord has made.

When I was in high school, a new pastor at my church gave a sermon entitled, "Keys to Authentic Christianity". I don't remember anything from that sermon, except that he emphasized the need for believers to have "joyful flexibility" in all things. I fairly certain he was preaching through Philippians at the time, and if I had to pick a passage that represented joyful flexibility, it would be Philippians 4:11-13 (my apologies, Tim, if this is wrong):

       " Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any        and every circumstanc I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (New American Standard Version).  

I know that these circumstances of my life are teaching me the secret of being satisfied in the Lord. Not that have it down, by any stretch (ha) of the imagination, but God is faithful to complete the work He's started in me. I know I can rely on the strength of the Lord on lonely nights and fearful days. I am learning to be joyfully flexible whether my husband is home or away, whether or not my family is two minutes, to hours, or two days from me, whether I have a job or not. I know I don't sit at the controls of life.

At the end of practice, my yoga instructor leads us through easy, slow stretches. As we slowly lower into the position, she says, "Be good with where you're at." In spite of the poor grammar, it struck me as profound. Be good with where you're at - don't push beyond what you're able, but make sure you can feel the stretch.

"Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10, NIV). This is how I will truly find strength, flexibility and balance in my life.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Honey from the Rock

I chose this blog title because of a Psalm referenced in Warren Wiersbe's book, The Bumps are What You Climb On (1980). The Lord is speaking to the nation of Israel, reminding them of  who He is and what He's done for them, imploring them to listen to the Lord and follow His ways, as "with honey from the rock I would satisfy you" (Psalm 81:16b, New International Version).

It doesn't take a great theologian to understand the juxtaposition of the sweetness of honey and the painful hardness of a rock. The idea that because of His love and devotion to His people, however fickle and forgetful they were, the Lord would bring sweet blessing from hard experiences is a profound reminder to me in this season of life. Since my husband deployed eight months ago, I have experienced a pain akin to stubbing my toes on stones as I hike through the woods and twisting my ankles on rocks that litter the path. It's a constant, pulsating pain, and just as soon as one goes away, I encounter another rock. And yet, I'm reminded of the Presence of my Lord, who I truly believe will satisfy me with "honey from the rock".

I'm endeavoring with this blog to share some of those moments with you, in the hope that maybe as God teaches and encourages me, He'll also speak to you.

So here's to the journey! Let's try not to get fixated on the rocks, and instead, hope for the honey.