Weeds (Part 1): No Vacancy

 

Last winter we moved into a new home that had been vacant for some time. When we purchased the house in February, the property was completely covered in snow. We had no idea what surprises the grounds might hold for us. As spring emerged and the snow melted, I could see where old flower beds had been. And where plants had accidentally been moved when the yard was bulldozed! And as you can imagine, I could see how overgrown the beds and yard were with weeds because no one had lived there to tend them in some time. We began working on our flowerbeds last spring, and they have come a long, long way. It has been rewarding to see the transformation this spring as all my new plants have sprouted stronger and larger than last spring.

Unfortunately, along with them, the weeds have also sprouted. There is one particular flower bed that has been my nemesis. It rests mostly on a steep sandstone hill. Did you know there aren’t a lot of plants that like to grow on a sandstone hill, or in soil comprised heavily of sand? It’s been a battle finding things to grow in this large hillside flowerbed. An expensive battle. I’ve spent hours clearing weeds out of this bed, only to have them come right back because this is a huge flowerbed, and it would take me hundreds of dollars to fill it up with desirable plants that enjoy growing in desert like soil. So we’re in the long game with the weeds. I can’t put plants into all the places where the weeds were removed, so the weeds find their old home vacant, and they return.

When I was weeding this past week, God reminded me of the story that Jesus told to the religious leaders in Matthew 12 about the vacancies that impure spirits leave when they are cast out of a person.

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”  (43-45)

What in the world does this have to do with me and my weeds? Or my life?

Lately I’ve been battling some anxiety and fear. I’m not a person given to anxious thoughts, but there have been seasons where I have felt intense anxiety, especially when it comes to my kids. Maybe you don’t think of anxiety or fear as “impure spirits,” but if you think about it … Where do they come from? Certainly not God’s kingdom or his heart! Fear and anxiety were crafted in the pits of hell to keep believers immobilized and ineffective. So I think that classifies them as impure spirits. I firmly believe that the enemy uses these forces to wage war on my mind and to keep me from being effective as a wife, mom, friend, and kingdom worker. Anxiety can be immobilizing. You’re just frozen in life because you’re so afraid that the wrong thing is coming down the pike. When anxious thoughts send me spiraling, I know I need to cast them out, just like the impure spirits Jesus is describing in Matthew 12. But how do I ensure that I don’t encounter the problem Jesus describes in this passage? How do I avoid having the house of my mind “unoccupied?”

When I am battling the forces of evil in my life (not just the weeds, friends), I cannot simply cast those things out and leave the mental space empty. Because the evil will try to come right back. Just like my weeds come right back to the empty spaces in my garden, the fears and anxieties that I struggle with return to the empty spaces in my heart and mind.

If I want to effectively battle fear and anxiety, I need to not leave the empty space available in my mind for those things to return. How do I do that? My weapon of choice is the Word of God. On my own, I cannot stand up to and defeat the forces of evil in my life, but with God’s Word in hand, I can. During a particularly intense spiral last week, I simply repeated over and over in my mind verses and words from the Psalms about trusting in God and about God’s protection. What I’m choosing to think about matters greatly, and I don’t want the forces of darkness that are searching for a place to land to check out my mind and find a vacancy where they can reside. I want my mind so full of God’s truth that there is no room for the lies of the enemy to dwell. 

(As a side note, please understand, I know that there are many people who struggle with crippling anxiety at all times. My heart goes out to you, because my MOMENTS of anxiety can overwhelm me. I can’t imagine living with it all the time. And I understand that this is a clinical, medical, brain balance issue that sometimes needs much more than what I’m describing in this blog. What I’m describing here is my own battle, which I believe has spiritual origins.)

The other thing about weeds is that they have roots. Sometimes the roots are deep, and sometimes the roots are strong. When I think about the anxieties that seem to plague me – they’re always the same ones, and I’m willing to bet you have your same set that plagues you too – I know that they have roots in my past. I’ve experienced things and the enemy has lied to me in those situations about who I am and who God is. It’s the lie I’ve bought into that has rooted itself into the current weeds of my life. Weeds can’t be destroyed in the flowerbed or in my life unless I get to the root. I need to be honest with God about the lies I have believed and ask his Holy Spirit to show me those lies and help me choose to believe the truth instead. When I can discern the root and deal with the lie, then I am on my way to healing. And when the flowerbed, or my mind, has been cleaned out, I need to fill it up with God’s truth to ensure there is no vacancy for new “weeds.”

We need to realize that we are not victims or captives to our own thoughts and minds. We do have control over what we think about and what we choose to believe. When I feel fear rising up, I can replace those thoughts with the truth about God’s goodness and trustworthiness. Choosing to trust God instead of giving way to anxiety brings peace, freedom, and lightness to my life.

Maybe someday I’ll have my hillside garden completely free of weeds and full of only great big, beautiful plants. But every time I weed, you can be sure it will be a reminder to think about what I’m thinking about and what I’m making space for in my mind!

 

Love my patio flowerbed!
Andrew rebuilt this retaining wall area and flowerbed this spring!
I spy a few weeds in this bed!

The Easy Way Out

Have you ever tried to take the easy way out? I have a doozy for you! About a year ago we moved to a new house, and with the house came a dishwasher! All the angels sang and heaven rejoiced with me! For 12 years I went without a dishwasher while I was at home with my three young babies. To say I was delighted about my new dishwasher would be the understatement of my life. I was thrilled. It made kitchen clean up so much easier and so much faster! Just pop those dishes in, press a button, and voila! – clean dishes! Unspeakable JOY!

Until one day I tried to take the easy way out, and I made a horrible error.

Since we have 5 acres now, I was able to plant a much bigger garden last summer, and I branched out in my canning selections. I made tomato sauce for the first time this summer. (And boy wasn’t THAT a learning experience!) It sure does make a mess! I have this nifty little machine called a Victorio Strainer – just put the tomatoes in the top, turn the crank, and sauce comes down the shoot, while seeds and skins funnel out the end into a waste bowl. It makes sauce as easy as sauce can be (which, to be honest, is not terribly easy, but it sure helps!). As you can imagine, the strainer is a mess when I get finished putting the tomatoes through. There’s tomato puree stuck in every crevice. The BEST remedy is to use a stiff bristle bottle brush to push the remainder of the puree, seeds, and skins out of the places that it shouldn’t be into the trash, then to do that again under running water. But this process is still messy, and can make a bigger mess of the sink and counter, and my HANDS. It’s not my favorite part of the job.

So, after a particularly grueling and difficult sauce making session, I decided to take the easy way out. I shook the strainer pieces out into the trashcan, and then I threw them all into the dishwasher. To my delight, it came out pretty clean. I cleaned up the areas that needed a little attention and put the pieces way, not giving another thought to what I had done, and secretly delighted at how much easier the clean up process had been.

But, OH, what a horrible error. 

Soon after, I began noticing some residue on my clean dishes coming out of the dishwasher. I noticed little pink or red flecks on glasses, sometimes in bowls, and then in the kids cups and plastic dishes. I thought to myself, “What is going on? This dishwasher is not very old… Is it just less efficient than I thought it was? Is this really what having a dishwasher is?” My hopes were dashed and my spirits sank. It’s not the miracle machine I thought it was going to be. I tried various soaps and things, asked friends about their dishwashers, meanwhile I did not make any connection between the red residue and the horrible tomato mess that I had placed into the dishwasher when I tried to take the easy way out.

This went on for months.  Finally, my husband Andrew asked me if I had put something into the dishwasher that could perhaps have made a mess, which was now being sprayed all over our dishes every day. And that’s when the light went on. My tomato-covered Victorio Strainer. I knew then what the answer was: I had to clean the dishwasher. My fifteen-minute quick fix cost me (and my amazingly gracious husband) over four hours of cleaning. We had to disassemble everything inside the dishwasher that we could. We had to clean inside inaccessible pieces and parts that were now coated with a thick rubbery pink substance. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to clean the inside of a dishwasher sprayer, but wow. It is long, relatively flat, and hollow on the inside, with one hole for the water to be pumped in, and a dozen or so tiny holes on the other side for the water to be sprayed out onto the dishes. It’s all one piece, and the inside was entirely coated with the goo. Oh, and there are two of these, one for each rack of the dishwasher. We swished water around. We blew in the holes. We covered certain holes to create pressure in the other holes to blow the gunk out. We took tweezers to the tiny holes to pull out strings of pink goo. And then we used them on the tiny in-between spaces that were filled with dried red gunk too. We cleaned the drain. We scrubbed the walls. We took the racks outside to spray them off (in the winter!). Oh, the horror.

It is safe to say that I will never do that again. I mean, I may need to clean out my dishwasher in the future, but I will never again put that kind of mess into the machine. I took the easy way out, and it ended up costing me months of dirty dishes, not to mention frustration, plus hours of cleaning the machine.

Why do I tell this harrowing tale today? Because I think we often try to take the easy way out with our faith. We maybe don’t want to put the work in initially that we ought to, and we pay for it with nasty residue on every surface of our life afterwards. When I’m tempted to take the easy road, I often tell myself, “Tomorrow’s Catherine will thank you for doing this today.” It helps me with tasks that are less than desirable, but truly need to be accomplished for the best outcome.

In learning to yield to the Holy Spirit, I’m finding there are many times he asks me to do things that seem hard. Maybe it’s exercising self-control when I’m ready to blow. Maybe it’s choosing faith when I’m being swallowed by fear, standing up to the devil when he wants to keep me immobilized through fear. Maybe it’s stepping out of my comfort zone into new ministry or a moment of ministry I wasn’t expecting. Maybe it’s true repentance and freedom from a sin I’ve been entangled in for too long. Sometimes these things feel too hard. And it feels easier to continue in my sin or spiral. It feels easier not to leave my comfort zone. But the easy way, the path of least resistance, isn’t always the best path. When we take the easy road, there’s always a cost.

A friend of mine recently shared this on social media: “Strangely, life gets harder when you try to make it easy. Exercising might be hard, but never moving makes life harder. Uncomfortable conversations are hard, but avoiding every conflict is harder. Mastering your craft is hard, but having no skills is harder. Easy has a cost.”

Whatever hard thing you are facing today, please know that you can do hard things. One of my favorite verses to dwell on when I’m feeling powerless for a situation or task comes from Romans 8:11. It reminds me that the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead is now living in me. There is nothing too difficult for my God (Jeremiah 32:27), and he has placed his Spirit inside of me. With the help of his Spirit, we can do all things (Philippians 4:13).

I’m exceedingly thankful today that Jesus did not take the easy way out. In the garden when he prayed before his arrest, he asked his Father if there was any other way. God’s love for humankind was so incredible that he did not spare his own Son. There was not an easy way out. And so Jesus walked every excruciating step of his hard path. He did it for me and for you. The next time I want to resist his Spirit’s nudge in me to do something out of my comfort zone, I will remember that my Jesus did the hardest thing for me, and so I can do hard things too when I walk with him.

 

Rooted

I came into this Easter season feeling really heavy. We were dealing with sickness of all kinds in my home (my kids and myself). The weather has been ridiculously uncooperative – is it ever going to get warm!? How many snows have we seen this April?! The grief triggers I wrote about last month seemed to restart my grieving process all over again, and none of the aforementioned circumstances have helped my mood. I haven’t been able to shake the heaviness. The characters in the Easter story that I could relate the most to this year have been the disciples on the day after Jesus’ died. Confused. Disappointed. Grieving. Doubting. I wasn’t experiencing the usual joy that accompanies the spring season and especially the Easter holiday. I’m not sure why I feel so compelled to put all this out there. It’s personal and not particularly fun to expose or dwell on. But it feels necessary because I suspect I’m not alone. I know very few people who haven’t been affected by loss, deep and personal, over the last two years. Maybe I’m not the only one who is still feeling heavy at times? Once again my little plants spoke to me in my heaviness.

I was moving some sunflower sprouts with my youngest daughter because they were needing a taller container to support their stems. (Note: sunflowers do not love growing in a greenhouse tent as much as they love growing in the SUN. But that’s a whole other blog post.) As we moved the little sprouts, Hannah was amazed to see that there was as much plant under the soil as there was on top of the soil. There was actually probably more under the soil than on top. She exclaimed, “Woah, Mom! Look at that long stringy white part” as she saw the root emerge completely from the soil during one transplant. I was even amazed at its length! I explained to her that while we saw the stem and the leaves emerging on top of the soil, that the important work was really happening under the surface. When we watered the transplant, I told her that the roots needed the water, not the leaves, and I explained how the leaves’ job was to draw in sunlight for energy. But just like the water, it was the roots that needed the sun’s energy to grow the plant. Foundation is everything.

The same is true for you and me. Our foundation is everything. We need to have our feet firmly planted in the truth of God’s Word so that when the difficult times comes, we can stand through the power of the Holy Spirit and not crumble to our doubts, emotions, and circumstances. So I thought on what Scripture would speak to my grieving heart.

Here is what I am standing on, and if you are grieving, I invite you to join me in standing here:

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25)

Me and my daddy just before my baptism on Easter Sunday, 1995

Jesus was speaking to Martha, a grieving sister and close friend of Jesus, about the death of her brother Lazarus. I’m especially struck by Jesus’ question to her at the end of the verse. “Do you believe this?” That’s the key. Jesus is plainly stating the truth, but the choice us up to Martha, and up to you and me, to believe or not.

Death and belief feel like oil and water to me right now. Death is just a tricky topic to process. Our eyes tell us one thing; and our spirit wants to tell us another. When I lost my dad, I certainly came to a full stop at a canyon in my faith. I’ve come to a lot of these canyons in my life – when my mom battled cancer, quitting my teaching career to stay at home with my babies, the season when my husband was unemployed, many different doctors, tests, and diagnoses for Sophie. But none gave me pause the way my dad’s death did. I’ve always been able to take the leap of faith required, but this time felt different. My reality is that he is gone. There is loss, there is a hole now in my life. It has taken a much bigger leap of faith to look at that gaping chasm, that death, and to say, “Death is a lie. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.” But I believe – yes, I believe – that this is the true reality, beyond what my eyes can see.

In the last 18 months I have prayed many times the prayer of the father in Mark 9 who desires healing for his son, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v 24) Without my foundation being God’s Word, I know that I would be truly lost right now. But because of it, I can continue to stand on the truth, even when my feelings (and my eyes!) tell me something else is true.

Not only do the sunflower roots remind me of my foundation, they also remind me that there is much going on that we cannot see. Even in the seasons where we feel heavy, where we mourn, where we doubt or lose hope, God is still busy growing and building things in us. It’s ok for us to feel our losses and have seasons of mourning – they do not negate our faith.  There are many accounts in the Bible of times of mourning.

The day after Jesus’ death, I feel certain that the disciples had, for the moment, lost their hope. Our pastor pointed out on Easter Sunday that evidence of this is seen in the fact that no one shows up to the tomb on the third day waiting for Jesus to rise from the dead, even though he told them plainly that he would. They were confused, lost, doubtful, and hopeless. Because they didn’t believe what he had said.

But this did not negate what Jesus was accomplishing while he was in the tomb! Even in their doubts, he was still at work! Even in our dark times, Jesus is still working, still growing those unseen roots.

This brings me back to Jesus’ question to Martha: “Do you believe this?” By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can choose belief, we can choose faith, we can trust God’s Word, even when all seems dark, lost, and hopeless. This is our foundation, our roots, our firm place to stand when circumstances are falling out all around us. Just like those sunflower roots growing under the surface, we can know there is spiritual work happening even in the dark times if we keep standing firm in what we know to be true.

I don’t know what heaviness you are carrying with you today, but I encourage you to find out what the Bible says about it and to choose belief. Choose to be rooted in the truth of God’s Word, and trust that he is doing much in the unseen places.

 

Leaning Toward the Light

Spring, as they say, has sprung here in Ohio. Although it is currently 35 degrees with snow flurries, the trees are budding, the daffodils are up, and new life is sprouting everywhere. I love spring. I’m a gardener at heart – I love digging, planting, growing, all of it. So when the ten day forecast starts showing warmer days and nights, I get excited about starting seeds. This year my hubby (bless him) encouraged me to purchase a greenhouse tent so that I could start seeds earlier. Perhaps he also did not want our bay window converted into a growing space? Either way, back in February I purchased my little tent. I counted the days until I could start my seeds. I even loaded up the cart inside the tent with soil-filled seed trays so that I could gauge the temperature fluctuations inside the tent from the peak of the day when the sunshine beats down, to the chill of the early mornings in spring. My research told me to keep biding my time, that it was too soon to start seeds in the tent. So I started some inside my house.  Just three little pots to keep me going until I could load up those readied seed trays. Every day I’ve checked them and made sure the soil was damp. I’ve moved them around on the bay window throughout the day to ensure optimum sun exposure. I feel a little crazy now that I write this all down. But two of my three little pots rewarded my gardening addiction and sent sprouts right up! (Here’s looking at you Zinnias and Bachelor’s Buttons! Lavender, get your act together please!) One day when I was checking on my sweet plant babies, I found the most spectacular sight. They were all leaning towards the light. Check it out!

These little guys are leaning with all they have to get closer to that sunshine. I love it! Besides being adorably cute, it also hit me on a spiritual level.

I’ve had kind of a dark week or two. There were some triggers this week for my grief over my dad’s death. Grief is weird and hard to talk about and different for every person carrying it. There have been some new losses to carry, too. I’m also in a really poor sleep pattern right now (because… kids) and it’s catching up with me. Plus, we have had to make some difficult decisions regarding Sophie’s therapy, medication, and care. Just heavy stuff. I’ve felt heavy.

But part of the way I’ve chosen to live my life (which may stand in stark contrast to the way the world operates) is not to let my feelings dictate my life or what I perceive to be truth. Despite this perspective, I could feel the tailspin coming as I battled my feelings. (For the record, I’m not suggesting that anyone ignore or stuff their feelings. Feelings are valid. And it’s fine to feel them. But I do not wish to live my life controlled by my feelings.) I’ve been desperately seeking, in the midst of a whole mess of feelings, to fix my eyes on Jesus and to plant my feet on the truth of His Word.

Those little plants remind me: Lean towards the light.

In John 8:12, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Yes to this. Let me follow Jesus’ light every day over the darkness of my feelings. I know that Jesus, the Light of the World, is the source of my life, just like those plants know that the light is what will help them keep on living.

I am not seeking Jesus just to feel better; I’m seeking him to be better, to grow better. Through the mess and muddle of my feelings, I’ve heard a few truths quite clearly that maybe some of you need to hear in your current mess and muddle.

1 – God sees you.

2 – God sees your children.

3 – All the mess, God has it. He’s in control.

4 – He chose YOU for “this” (whatever that may be for you)

5 – God will ONLY do what is GOOD for you and me.

Let’s let those truths shine on us and penetrate the dark places where we feel heavy. Lean towards the Light. Jesus is constant, unchanging, always ready to bring his life-giving power to our lives.

Lean into the Light and breathe easy, friend.

 

 

Around the Mountain

 

I have a four-year-old in my home who is struggling greatly with obedience. I’m realizing that obedience comes easily for some people, but not as easily for others. I am fully confident that God created her strong nature in preparation for the life he has planned for her. It will serve her well. But it must be harnessed.

One of the daily battles we have with our spitfire is at mealtimes. She does not want to eat. She wants to be babied and be fed. She has figured out that there is a system of rewards and consequences in our home, and she often tries to barter for rewards at mealtimes. Unfortunately, she has not yet realized that she doesn’t actually hold any bargaining chips in the family. Obedience would be what would actually yield the result she is seeking.

One recent conversation went like this:

“Mom, can I have hot chocolate for lunch?”

“If you show me that you can eat your food then maybe you could earn some hot chocolate.”

“But Mom, I promise that I will be good, and I will eat my food.”

“That’s not the way a reward works, sweetie. First you have to show me, then you get the reward.”

This of course was followed by pouting, and subsequent whining at the table. So you see, had I given her the reward right away, before the proof of her behavior, I would have been duped. Because she did not intend to follow through on her promise. I mean, she is four.

But this got me thinking. There are certain regards of my relationship with my children that are non-negotiable. I will always love them. I will always do my best to provide for them. I will instruct them. I will help them grow. I do these things regardless of how they are behaving. But there are other aspects to our relationship that vary based on them, based on what they show me by their actions.

The other day, my son, seeing that I was once again cleaning up the house all by myself (he watched me do this a lot over Christmas break), decided that he was going to help me. He put away toys that he hadn’t gotten out or played with, he offered to sweep both the wood floors and the carpets. He wasn’t asking for anything or trying to earn anything from me. But his actions, which were so kind and thoughtful, did return a reward for him in the form of a handful of gummy bears in the bottom of his snack cup.

When my children demonstrate obedience, along with trustworthiness, respect, care for another, love, etc, I love to reward them.

When I think of this in terms of my faith, I know that there are things about my relationship with God that are the same non-negotiables as I have with my kids. He will always love me, protect me, provide for me, and care for me, no matter how I am behaving. My salvation is secure in him because I chose to believe. However, as a growing Christian, I have to realize that my actions, not my promises to act, return rewards. This is the essence of living by faith. Faith in action unlocks the door to more abundant blessing God longs to unleash in our lives.

But we have to DO it.

Sometimes there are things that I feel God asking me to do, and I tell him I will do them, but then I don’t follow through. It’s like Hannah at mealtime. There’s one thing in particular right now that I’m feeling him nudging me to do, but I keep making excuses about how I don’t feel I’m capable, or especially that I don’t have enough time. It will stretch me too thin, thinner than I’m comfortable with. That, I suppose, is exactly the point. It will be action taken in faith, the assurance of something hoped for but not seen (Hebrews 11).  God will have to supply the result if I begin by taking the first steps.

As I consider obedience in this area of my life, I hear God answering my excuses: “You don’t need more time; you need more trust.”

I don’t know what thing God may be calling you into, or what your excuse to put him off has been. But whatever it is, you probably don’t need more of what you think you do – time or resources or whatever. You probably need more trust. God’s going to come through for us when we take that step of faith. He longs to reward us when we act in obedience to him (with more than a handful of gummy bears in our snack cup, enticing as that may be for some of us!).

One of my favorite stories of obedience in the Bible is of Philip in the book of Acts when he’s told to go and talk to the Ethiopian eunuch. Acts 8 says this: The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’ Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet” (29-30). The story ends with Philip explaining the gospel to this man, who receives salvation and is baptized. Philip’s obedience resulted in a life changed for eternity!

What about this ordinary passage has always impressed me? Philip RAN. He felt the Spirit of God nudging him into something, and he took off running in that direction. I may not struggle with obedience like my four-year-old, but I also don’t RUN into it like Philip. If he hadn’t run, he would’ve missed the opportunity. And this is what I feel like I’ve been doing lately – missing a bunch of opportunities because I’m waiting on my life and my circumstances to make something easier for me to accomplish. I’m running alright, but in the wrong direction! Just like my little Hannah, I’m bartering, promising, and excusing. But I’m not doing the one thing I really need to do – and that’s obeying. I feel a little like the Israelites in the wilderness: “Then the Lord said to me [Moses], ‘You have been traveling around this mountain long enough. Turn…’” (Deut 2:3). It’s time to turn. Quit spinning my wheels. Quit wandering around and around the mountain. It’s time to obey, to take the step of faith. I don’t know what your mountain is, but I hope you are ready to join me in taking an active step of faith into obedience.