Friday, March 20, 2020

A Prayer Haven

Some have called it a War Room, like the one in the movie. I call it my prayer haven.

Around the time I started my new job in November, a group of friends pooled together some money and gave me a gift card with instructions to buy some clothes for my new job and anything that made me happy. Before I bought clothes, I made this little vision come true. 

It is true that God is not impressed by fancy prayers and no one needs a special place to pray (Matthew 6:5-14), but this space brings me so much peace. So when I woke up at 4 a.m. today, my mind swirling with the current state of the world, the losses all around us, and the uncertainty ahead, this is where I ended up. 

Not right away, mind you. First, I tried to go back to sleep. When that didn't work, I checked the news. Anxiety fully triggered, I craved the quiet peace of my prayer haven: the gentle glow of the starry twinkle lights, the soft comfort of the blanket a former student gifted me, the visual reminder from a favorite hymn, the sturdy anchor of the glass prayer beads, the solid Truth of God's Word in my lap...and this:

It's my memorial lantern. Instead of a light or candle inside, I keep a record of miracles, provision, and answered prayer. The idea stemmed from a blog by Linny Saunders years ago where she told us about her Memorial Box

The truth is, I ran out of rocks, so my memorial lantern is not as full yet as I'd like it to be. The other truth is that I have journaled far more provisions and answers to prayer in the past two decades of my life than could ever fit in this lantern. This is for the big ones. 

I don't know a whole lot, theologically, about prayer. I do know that I don't think that "prayer works." I don't believe that if we pray hard and long enough, we will get everything we want and hope for all the time. First of all, that's not Biblical. Also, if that were true, no one would ever die or get awful, debilitating illnesses with no cure. There would be a lot more rich people in the world and a lot less suffering. Covid-19 would have never existed.

That said, I absolutely believe that prayer matters (Ephesians 1:18; Matthew 26:41). Prayer makes a difference (Psalm 145:18; 2 Chronicles 7:14). I know that we are called to pray (Ephesians 6:18; James 5:13, Philippians 4:6), and that our prayers are like incense to the Lord (Psalm 141:2). He delights in hearing our prayers and supplications (Jeremiah 29:12-13). He desires to bless and comfort us and provide for us. He also sees the big picture that we cannot see. I believe that the absence of prayer can have tragic results, and I believe the act of prayer to the Lord always yields blessings. 

Sometimes, the blessings are so incredible, I am undone:

The adoption of our children following infertility.
The unexpected money at a time of dire need.
The healing of our daughter's cancer.
The sparing of a life that had almost certainly been lost.
The prophetic words of a stranger that came to pass.
The prayers answered in unimaginable ways.

Those are the things I record on the stones. One side of each stone holds the memory; the other side, a related Bible passage.

Sometimes, and this is where faith gets hard to explain, the blessing is found in the closeness to God that prayer yields. The strength He supplies when it feels impossible to start a new day and face what lies ahead. The comfort He pours out when words are inadequate to express a deep wound of the soul. His tangible presence, a constant reminder that somehow, Christ in us is enough, no matter what this life may throw our way. 

Life has thrown a lot of nasty stuff my way, and in the words of Elisabeth Elliot:

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to get wrapped up in the alarming news reports and give into fear. This disaster may not have surprised God, but it sure as heck has thrown the entire world for a loop. In America, where we have come to take for granted incredible healthcare and free education and reliable jobs and toilet paper on the shelves and milk in the see that all crumbling before us is indeed a horrifying experience.

Practically overnight, the illusion of control has slipped away. Fear encroaches. Some respond with denial of the problem, staying away from the news and making broad assumptions to assuage their fear. Some respond by hoarding and preparing and forgetting that we actually need each other for the best outcome. Most of us, I think, feel a little lost and a lot confused. All the things we were sure of yesterday? All the things we had planned for tomorrow? We're not so sure of any of those things anymore. 

Stuck on pause, we are faced with new thoughts and realizations that we have been too busy or distracted or scared to consider before. And, little by little, as entire states shut down all nonessential activity, we find ways to contribute. We pick up groceries for elderly neighbors and for parents of littles. We sew masks for medical personnel, babysit the kids of those who must still go to work, and donate supplies from construction companies and cleaning services. We share resources and words of solidarity and comfort. We sing and create and research and bake and give of ourselves in the very human way we were created to give.

And we pray.

My dad has told me many stories over the years about prayers God answered...The time when my sister almost died of appendicitis. The time when my brother was kidnapped, but found unharmed before it was too late. And the many times when my father was faced with a difficult problem at work that, seemingly, could not be solved. 

He would work on a problem for days, weeks, maybe months? He would try new ideas and they wouldn't work, and he would continually attack the problems, praying for a way to resolve them. More than once, he told me, he woke in the middle of the night with the knowledge he needed to solve the problem. He could hardly wait to get to work on those mornings to see all the toil pay off, to witness what had at first seemed impossible...suddenly become a reality.

And so this is one of the prayers I'm praying during this worldwide health crisis: Lord, wake up the researchers, the scientists, the inventors, the suppliers, the producers, the medical personnel, the government leaders, the educators, the business leaders, the money holders. Wake them up in the middle of the night or in the middle of a press conference or in the middle of a phone call or interview or conversation - and show them solutions. Show them how to contain the spread, expand the testing, multiply the supplies, find the cure, stabilize the economy, establish new and better procedures, provide for the disadvantaged. And then give them the courage and resources and persistence to accomplish what lies before them. 

And for the rest of us? Show us how to love each other well and trust You more.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Brave in the Dark

Blogging about bravery and the morning I woke up to find my van was missing over at The Craftie Ladies of Love Inspired Romance today:

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Sacred Getaway

Holy ground. 

That was the thought that seeped deep into my soul last weekend as I walked the grounds of Laity Lodge, a retreat center in Leakey, Texas, situated along the Frio River.

Granted, "holy ground" was far from my initial reaction when I arrived on Thursday afternoon. I'd spent the last hour or so of my five-hour solo drive listening to real-life murder mysteries on the Crime Junkies podcast - just enough time to thoroughly creep me out when I pulled off the highway onto a deserted dirt road high up on a hill where cell service was non-existent. Miles prior, I'd laughed nervously at signs along the highway that read: Hitchhikers may be escaped convicts. Now, no cell service. If I'd had anyone in the car with me, we would have been giggling nervously as we drove along the silent, windy road. But, I was alone, so I talked to myself.

As I approached a sharp turn in the road, I saw another sign I'd never seen before...

"Slow! Slow! Steep hill. Blow horn. Low Gear."

I came to a full stop. I stared at the sign. Low gear? What even is that? Oh boy. Okay. *Shifts to low gear, slowly eases up on brakes, considers blowing horn but decides to break those rules, prays for life.*

I made it down the steep hill and followed the path a while longer until I came to yet another sign I'd never seen before in my life - a sign directing me to drive through a river. 

Not gonna lie. My first instinct was to take a picture and text it to some friends. But no cell service, remember? Instead, I braved the river alone. It was only 2-3 inches deep, so no big deal. But it felt like a grand adventure.

Once I finally turned onto the Laity Lodge property, I was met at the parking area by an attendant who directed me to my accommodations and suggested I take a nap if I'd like. That suggestion truly made me smile. When had someone last directed me to take a nap? Ironically, I was too excited to take one. To my utter surprise, my room was stunning. Not only that, but I did not have a roommate. I had this spacious cabin all to myself. This was a true gift, and I'm not sure how it worked out that way. As far as I could tell that weekend, most others had roommates. Since I really needed some serious quiet time, this little cabin was beyond perfect for me.

Check out the shower, by the way. Glass walls - even to the outside, where daylight can filter in through the open ceiling of a small fenced-in area beyond the shower. Side note: super pretty during the day; ultra creepy at night if you have a vivid imagination. More on that in a moment.

I tried to figure out how to describe this place and what it did for my soul, but there are limits to words. Some things must just be experienced, and this was one of them. Never in my life have I had an opportunity to sit within the quiet places in my heart for such a generous length of time. No cell phone. No wi-fi. No television. Only nature, God, my thoughts, beautiful meals, and the strangely delightful companionship of total strangers. I filled half a journal with my thoughts and prayers over the four-day weekend, but for now those thoughts and prayers are tucked away between the covers of that journal. Still, I feel compelled to record and share the beauty of my experience through a few memories and photos.

Day 1: Thursday
After settling into my cabin, I journaled until it was time to grab my name tag and mingle with the other women attending the retreat. I was not looking forward to this part, but I had decided that I would not let my own insecurities keep me from seeking new friendships. Within minutes of putting on my name tag, I noticed a pretty little pathway down some stone steps, and I decided to follow it.

I knew I was walking the right path when I noticed the prose inset along the walls and the quaint little library I would want to explore later.

Then, I turned the corner.

First of all, rocking chairs. Happy sigh. Second of all, the clearest river water I've ever seen in my life. Double happy sigh. Third of all, a mother and daughter duo who welcomed me into conversation and sweetly adopted me for the weekend. :) Karen and her mother, Mary, are the kind of people you immediately love and feel comfortable with - genuine and kind with super senses of humor. After chatting for quite some time, we headed to the dining hall for dinner. 

I forgot to grab a good pic of the dining hall, but it was lovely. Large windows showed gorgeous views of the canyon and river, and around 8-10 family style tables were set up in the room, glass carafes of water and tea at each table. We seated ourselves and were welcomed to the lodge, and then the chef came out and explained what was on the menu. I don't remember what anything was called, but it was Korean food and it was out of this world. The servers brought serving dishes to our tables, and we passed the food family-style, conversing and eating and all very clearly delighted to be experiencing something so unique. 

After dinner, we met for a session where we learned about Laity Lodge and what was to come for the weekend. We also met the vocalists who would be leading us through the weekend, and we sang together with that homey fireplace all aglow.

Once the evening was over, I decided to head back to my cabin. But I was chilly and saw lots of people walking around with mugs of coffee. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I wanted something warm, so I decided to investigate my options. To my sheer delight, I discovered hot cocoa.

All weekend long, coffee, tea, and hot cocoa were available 24/7, clean mugs and stirring spoons always at hand. Touches like these made Laity Lodge all the more fabulous.

Back in my room, I had big plans. After all, I have a lot of writing projects I've been wanting to get cracking on. Instead, I got ready for bed, journaled for a bit, and then realized I could not keep my eyes open. Night owl that I am, I fell asleep by 10 p.m. or so and got one of the best night's sleep of my life.

Day 2: Friday
At 8 a.m., there was an optional prayer time. I managed to get myself there with a mug of hot cocoa in hand, and I was so glad I did. The women who came to the retreat were from many walks of life and all denominations. The prayer meeting felt sacred. It was simple and quiet - scripture readings, responses, a couple of hymns, and a five-minute silent prayer time. 

After prayer time, a bell rang throughout the property signaling breakfast. It became apparent quickly that meals here would always be delicious and beautiful. I could write pages on the meals alone, but I will spare you.

After prayer time, we met for the first of four sessions with a wise and inspiring speaker who taught us the spiritual benefits of list-making. I admit that topic sounded strange to me - but it also made me smile because if you know me, you know I am a list-maker. 

After two sessions and lunch, we had free time. I went back to my cabin and discovered that housekeeping had come and had made my bed with an incredibly sweet touch. You see, I had brought the softest blanket I own (a gift my mother-in-law bought for my hubby but that I frequently confiscate) and my fuzziest pillow. I had also only packed leggings and hoodies, in case you were wondering. I was determined to rest and be comfortable on this trip. Look what housekeeping did with my stuff:

I was tempted to sleep! But instead, I decided to go on a hike alone. This is not normally something I would ever do in a million years, especially without cell service or mace! I felt compelled, however, so I traipsed over to the reception office and asked how to get to the trail head. One of the kind ladies at the desk asked if I would like to take a radio with me. Before I could even answer, the other receptionist informed me, "If you're going on a hike alone, you must take a radio. Nonnie's rules." I laughed and happily took the radio. The hike was invigorating and full of interesting sights.

Note: This Quiet House would be an amazing place to retreat alone as a writer and get a ton of work done! But I think I'd be a little uneasy out there by myself. :O)
After a couple hours of hiking, I reemerged back at the lodge and met Karen for kayaking. We were hopelessly amused that we were expected to put kayaks in the water by ourselves, put on our life jackets, grab oars, and just go. Her mother, who was just about to turn 75, helped me get my kayak in the water and held it steady for me as I got in. I admit that I was tired after my hike, but I was so glad that Karen had suggested we kayak. We didn't see a soul on the river. The water was calm and clear, and we kayaked as far as we could go and back within an hour.

After kayaking, I went back to my cabin and journaled a bit, and then I checked out the kitchens near my cabin, discovering a wood burning fireplace, fridges filled with glass carafes of water, and plenty of snacks available.

Everywhere I explored at Laity Lodge, I was in awe. After another scrumptious dinner, good conversation, and an evening session where four ladies from different walks of life gave powerful testimonies, I went back to my cabin and decided I was overdue for a shower.

Only, when I turned on the water and stared at the shower, I couldn't quite bring myself to get in. I wondered if the fence beyond was really protective enough, or whether I was about to really embarrass myself in front of all the other attendees. I searched for a hidden button that perhaps lowered shades outside and made the shower more private. I found no such thing. I finally put my shoes back on and walked outside. I circled the cabin and stared hard at the fence that bordered my shower. Convinced that no one would be able to see me showering, I decided I could go through with it. It's a shame that my imagination tends to run away with me. I took the fastest shower of my life. Then I promptly fell asleep.

Day 3: Saturday
By now, I had settled in and only wished I could have a full week there! Prayer time, breakfast, sessions, lunch, and more free time. Karen had the idea that we should walk down to the part of the river where we'd driven in - and wade in it. What an adventure that was. The water was cold and clear, cars occasionally driving by as we chatted and laughed and looked for pretty rocks. 

I just love the heart-hole the river made here.

After our river adventure, I grabbed a book and headed for the hammocks where I read and then slept until it was nearly dinner time again.

After dinner, we attended a sweet concert. I stayed up late that night, journaling and praying and outlining my writing projects until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

Day 4: Sunday

We met for our final breakfast and final session, then brunch before saying goodbyes and heading home. I had five more hours to process my time on the way home, and I arrived back to my brood feeling more refreshed than I can ever remember feeling after a trip.

Here I am, a week later, and I'm still basking in all that unfolded there. What a sacred, holy place. What a gift. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Ringing in the New Year - a Hawaiin Vacation!

We recently got back from a trip I never imagined we would be able to take: 10 days in Hawaii! 



Before you start thinking that we have become rich off my writing (ha!) or that we won the lottery, let me give you the backstory.

During the time of Aaliyah's diagnosis in late 2016, my brother, Jonathan, was readying his family for their next move. As an Army chaplain, he had received his orders, and they were off to Hawaii! It was, I'm sure, an exciting time for their family. Knowing that they wouldn't see family here on the mainland for a while, they traveled to Maryland to visit everyone. At the time, they were living in Kentucky, and instead of going straight home after the Maryland trip, their family of seven drove out of their way all the way to Houston, Texas, just to spend one day with us. I'd asked my brother to bring anointing oil, and I still laugh when I remember this. He brought a little glass jar of oil, and when I asked jokingly if it was the highest grade of anointing oil, he laughed and said he'd stopped at HEB and picked up some olive oil. 

Anyway. He visited with us, prayed over Aaliyah, anointed her with oil, and we spent time at our house together as well. Then, he was off, shortly after to move to Hawaii. When we said goodbye in the hospital parking garage, I don't remember much of what we said. He and I were never much for deep conversations with each other, but I knew he felt the gravity of the situation. It was still early in the diagnosis stage, and we didn't yet know if Aaliyah had DSRCT or Ewing Sarcoma. The prognosis was terrifying. 

Some time after my brother and his family moved, he sent me a message. He told me that he wished he could be there for us while we were going through everything, but that once we got through it, they wanted to help us with airfare, and they would welcome us to stay at their house for a Hawaiin vacation.
At the time, it was just a dream. I couldn't imagine going without Aaliyah, and she was so sick. But when she started getting better, he sent a reminder, and we finally decided that this winter was the best time to go. I was so busy this fall, and I'm normally a mega-planner when it comes to vacations, but I didn't have time to even look up what to do on the island. By November, all I had done was purchase the airfare, reserve a rental car, and schedule a pet sitter. My brother told me not to worry. They would have a list of things to do, and we should just come and enjoy. For the first time in my life, I gave over vacation planning to someone else - and I'm so glad I did.

Jonathan and his wife, Val, brought us on an epic adventure we never could have planned on our own - or afforded, actually! Just staying at their house and mooching off their food saved us enormous amounts of money. On top of that, we were able to use military discounts for some of our adventures, and we visited several quiet military beaches that we never would have known to explore. 

Here's a little photo essay. The entire trip was packed, and the timeline is a blur, so I'll just pop in the highlights, in no particular order!

Posing in front of a cool tree aside Waikiki Beach after a long stroll down the main shopping strip and a beach-front lunch.
Waikiki Beach.
My brother and his kids built this cool boat! We brought it up to a beach (can't remember where) and paddled out pretty far
(see below).

Waimea Falls. Three of our kids got in the frigid water and swam out to the falls for the experience.
The girls got a kick out of watching my brother's waterfall train of kids.

Paradise Cove Luau. Kai got a chance to learn a luau dance on stage - hilarious. He was a good sport.

Wild roosters and chickens were everywhere. This one cracked us up because it seemed to be hosting this Espresso station.
The kids were thrilled to try these famous cocoa puffs from the Liliha Bakery they'd seen on Hawaii 5-0. 

We followed a cliff-hugging trail off Kea-au Beach Park. Gorgeous views.

Visited the historic town of Haliewa on the North Shore and delighted in some magically yummy shaved ice.

Caught this gorgeous sunrise the morning we rose early to snorkel at Hanauma Bay. One of my favorite memories

View from the top of Diamond Head.

Emoting over the stairs up Diamond Head - ha.

Boys at the top of Diamond Head.
Exhausted after the hike.

Dole plantation - pineapple float after a lovely train ride.

Food trucks. The boys tried one of the famous shrimp trucks.

Mokolii (or Chinaman's hat) at Kualoa Regional Beach Park.

Bellows Beach - so quiet, and super fun waves.

Bellows Beach.
Bellows Beach

Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

The place behind us has some kind of significance to Hawaii 5-0, but I can't remember what. :)

We stayed one night in beachfront cabins on Pokoi Bay. So peaceful.

Like I said, it was an epic vacation. I took 1,100 photos. Maybe a little excessive? I couldn't stop myself. Everything was just. so. lovely. 

And now, well, it's back to reality! Kids are back at school, hubby is back at work, I start teaching again next week, and my line edits are due at the end of the month. I always love the start of a new year, and I'm looking out on 2019 with hope and gratefulness.