Knees to the ground, eyes to the Lord

/ Hello, it’s me / I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet /

Remember when Adele sang us those words? I’m wondering if I can borrow them now. It’s been so long since I’ve shown my face around here that maybe I need to reintroduce myself. It’s not that I didn’t want to be here. I’ve done some writing in the last several months, but they’ve been busy months. Most notably because I’ve been growing a baby! 

Aaron and I announced on Instagram a few months ago that we are expecting our precious little baby in September. It’s hard to believe that we are halfway through this pregnancy already, but the calendar says it’s true. Twenty weeks down and only twenty more to go.

A lot of things have been on my heart over the course of these first 20 weeks – many I want to share and many that will just stay in my heart, maybe forever. I have felt guilty for not coming to this space – for not taking the time to share like I have in the past – but then I read a quote recently that said, when it comes to God and our individual calling, “It’s not about production, it’s about transformation.” Transformation of heart – of life. Of looking more like Jesus. And while I have produced exactly zero posts for this blog, I can say definitively that my heart has changed. It has been strengthened and softened and forged in fires requiring deep faith and trust. Because, to be honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a more anxiety-producing, full-faith-required, knees to the ground, eyes to the Lord in prayer kind of situation than being pregnant after suffering a miscarriage.

Aaron and I found out we were expecting our first little one last summer and then lost that sweet little soul only a few weeks later.  It was devastating for both of us. My soul was crushed under the weight but held fast to the promises of God. And then we waited several months before we decided to try again. My heart just couldn’t handle it – the grief and anxiety were too overwhelming at first. When we finally decided we were ready, I was certain I was not pregnant. Nothing about how I felt in those first few weeks felt like it did the first time. I had no indications that I was harboring another little soul. And even when I was two days late I was still sure I was not pregnant, but we decided to take the test anyway. Aaron could tell you how I was a wreck. There was nervous laughter that bordered on tears because suddenly I didn’t know if I could handle a positive.  

We flipped the test over and it said ‘pregnant’. And I burst into immediate tears. I want to say they were happy tears, but they were scared tears. They were tears of, “Oh no. This could go badly. I could feel that same pain again. No, I can’t do it.” Of course the joy came - the shock and the disbelief and the rejoicing again at new life. But I was still scared that I had opened myself up to that same level of loss once again. And I don’t speak as one who knows what it is like to experience infertility. I don’t speak as one who has endured months of waiting and trying and waiting some more. I don’t know what it’s like to suffer multiple losses. My heart breaks for all of those moms and dads who are still in a season of waiting. But I do speak from a place that has experienced grief and walked in that wilderness with arms outstretched to God in the deep agony of never knowing why. So my heart was certainly tender in those moments after reading that test.

Now, I’m hesitant to tell you this because you might find this odd, but the goodness of God came to me in that very first day we found out I was pregnant. As I stood in front of my closet that morning, I felt a very real knowing from God, a voice that sounded like my own, a thought that fluttered through my head that just said, “It’s going to stick and it’s a boy.” Um… what? It was such a weird thought to have, but I also knew exactly what it meant. Because in the midst of my miscarriage last summer, I always thought, “Why couldn’t that baby just hang on? Why couldn’t it just stick?” Was God really promising me that I wouldn’t have another miscarriage? And that we would have a son? Was I just hopeful and talking to myself?

In the days following that thought from him, I told God out loud, “Okay, well, I’m not going to doubt like Zachariah and have you close my mouth for the next nine months. I’m not going to doubt like Abraham and laugh at your promise. I just want to trust.” If that thought was from God, I wanted to trust. I wanted to be like Mary who said to the angel, “Let it be as you have said.” Let it be, God. Let it be. And in the weeks since we announced our pregnancy, when people asked what I thought we were having, I would say, kind of sheepishly, “Well, I think it’s a boy… because I feel like God told me it was.”

So while I’ve had this seeming promise from God the whole time, I have still battled anxiety and fear. I’ve been excited and nervous, overjoyed and overwhelmed and every range of emotions - usually all in one day. And when I felt the worries of, “Oh no, what if…” I tried to come back to that thought – that understanding that God had given me. But because He knows me and my propensity for worry, God dropped another little reminder into my heart one day.

Last fall I came across a mama on my Instagram explore feed. She had posted a picture of her sweet little girl in the hospital and I clicked the photo because children in the hospital just wreck me. Through reading her post and then subsequently scrolling all the way back through her story (as one does, obviously) I found out that her three year old daughter was suffering from heart failure for, basically, no reason. She just one day fell sick and through a couple of ER visits for what they thought was a cold, they found that her little heart was in failure and she would need a heart transplant. Just the thought of that being one of my nieces or nephews or my own child crushed my heart. So I followed her account, not because of the tragedy of it all, but because of the way this mama so fully poured her heart out in her posts and trusted that God was good through it all. It was inspiring to watch her, though clothed in grief, bring praises to Jesus. By the grace of God, sweet Rowen lived through her heart transplant and is thriving. But it was one of her mom’s posts that I later recalled in the midst of my anxiety over this pregnancy.

Amanda (I don’t think she’d mind that we’re on a first name basis. Ha!) posted a photo of Rowen and went on to explain how one of the popular verses we love as moms is 1 Samuel 1:27. It says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.” You’ve heard this before, I’m sure. Or seen it printed on the front of a baby book or in a nursery somewhere. For this child I prayed. Gosh, how true it is for mamas everywhere. But the part that really Velcro-ed itself to my heart is what Amanda went on to say regarding that verse. She wrote,

“So many people cling to 1 Samuel 1:27 - “for this child I have prayed”... but they don’t go into verse 28 - “so I will give him back to the Lord.” It’s because that one sounds scary. That one doesn’t sound so good at all. But the truth is... THIS is the calling of Christian parents. Gotta give them back. If we believe we are His, then we must believe they are. They’re lent to us, not Him. We are to steward them well here... to train them up in the way they should go so that they can be sent out prepared to raise their own; to pass on this strong lineage of His love... For these children, I have prayed. And the Lord has granted me what I’ve asked of Him. So I will give them to the Lord. For all of their days, they are the Lord’s.” 

So I will give him back to the Lord. The weight of it still stings me and comforts at once. This baby growing inside me is His. I can trust him with the life of this baby. It was His very idea at the foundation of the world - just like I was, just like you were. This baby has been in God’s mind from the start. He knows its days and I can trust Him to care for this baby the way I trust Him to care for my own heart. I don’t have to control this – I CAN’T control this. As much as I feared experiencing the pain of another miscarriage, there was very little I could do to prevent it. If that’s what God had for us, we would walk the road again and He would be there in it. I have had to speak this truth to my heart almost daily.

As the more calm one of our pair, Aaron also reminds me, “There will always be something we can worry about if we let ourselves.” Always. Even after I pass the 12 week mark in pregnancy and the chances of miscarriage decrease. Even after this baby is born and held in our arms. Even when it is a grown adult! This doesn’t go away. It is the outflow of giving your heart to someone else. So I will choose to give my heart and this baby’s tiny 20-week-old heart to Jesus and let Him be the author of life just as He always has been and always will be. I will praise Him for the chance to be this baby’s mom and let gratitude flow for all the days of my life.  

When anxiety starts to creep in, I have to choose to remember, “This is not mine to control or worry about. Give it back to God.” Oh, this baby is mine to care for, protect, love, shepherd, hold and rock to sleep at night. But, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” We know that verse, right? I will do what I can to help this baby grow strong and healthy, but ultimately, it is the Lord’s and not mine. I can’t knit this little body together the way God is doing even now inside me. I can’t breathe air into baby’s lungs when it is born the way God will. I can't sustain its life the way the Lord will. This baby has been given as a gift to me and Aaron and I am so grateful. But I don’t have to be filled with worry or anxiety, wondering every second if it is okay, because I know God’s in control.

This is true for all of us - no matter our circumstances. Maybe you need to give your children back to the Lord - to trust Him with their lives and release that anxiety. He cares for you. He cares for them. Maybe you need to give your own heart over to him and let him lead in your life. Release your grip on the control you think you have because you don’t have it anyway. Remind your heart daily to lay all your cares at His feet. He is good. He can be trusted with all your dreams and hopes and hurts. With all your pain. With all your struggle. He will carry it for you.

I wish I could say that this is easy, but it’s not. It’s a journey - a daily walk of faith from now until eternity. But that’s where my heart has been these last 20 weeks. Knees to the ground, eyes to the Lord. Waiting. Learning. Listening for the voice of God. Holding on through that first trimester nausea (yikes!) and doing my best to feel thankful even in those moments.

At four weeks and two days pregnant, God gave me the knowledge that, “It’s going to stick and it’s a boy.” And last Monday, at 19 weeks and 2 days, we received confirmation that we are expecting a baby boy! What a precious gift! God is so good. Through it all He has strengthened my heart and my faith and grown my belly to hold this precious baby boy for a little while longer - another 20 weeks or so. What a sweet blessing it has been so far.

baby.jpg

Finding Favor.

I’m sure you know this by now (maybe you already have yours chosen!), but we’ve reached the season where we all pick our word for the new year - the word we want to focus on, the intention we want to set, our keyword for the next 365 days. I’m not sure where the idea originated or how long ago. I feel like it’s kind of a new thing, or at least new to me. But I think we all tend to want something new each time we close out December – new focus, new intentions, fresh start. Here we go again with a new chapter in our lives, the one labeled ‘2019’, so why not set the aim of our heart at the start? I’m into it.

I didn’t write about my word this past January because I felt like every other post I saw was someone writing about their word for the year. I’m not knocking it - I’ve done it, here and here. And I loved reading about what others were going to focus on when 2018 was just a brand new baby adjusting to the light in her eyes. I just find myself now wondering how it went and what you all learned! I wish those posts were as plentiful as the ones about our intentions. Anyway, January came and I tucked my word away in my journal and in my heart, thinking I’d wait to share.

The other reason I didn’t share immediately is because I didn’t really know what my word meant! I know that’s kind of weird to say, but I really didn’t understand why God had put this word on my heart. I don’t like to choose my word. I try to just pray through it in the month of December and see where God might lead and what he might want to teach me - it’s what I’m doing right now as I prepare for 2019. But I started an Advent study last December and over and over again the word favor kept being pressed deeper into my heart and I thought, “Favor? What are you talking about favor, God? What do I know of favor?” I looked around in the Bible for examples.

Genesis 6:8 “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”
Luke 1:30 “The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.” 
1 Samuel 2:26 “Now the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favor both with the Lord and with men.”

I journaled,

“[Mary] found favor with God. What kind of life was she leading to have found favor? One of trust? Belief? Faith? Certainly not perfection. I don’t want to live a life of striving, but favor with God - who speaks to the wind and waves, the power who raises the dead and brings sight to blindness, light to darkness, certainly that is something worth living for. Did Mary question her favor when she snapped at Joseph? When she was rude or short or disappointed with her husband? Did she wonder her whole pregnancy if she was still carrying the One who created the world? Did she wrestle with doubt? Was she so secure in her faith so as to be untouchable to us all? Can we find that same kind of favor?”

So these giants of the Bible found favor with God and yet there I was thinking it was supposed to be my word for the year. Hilarious. Specifically because the four months leading up to December had been difficult. I haven’t been shy about how moving to Hawaii was like getting the rug pulled out from under me. I struggled through feelings of homesickness, panic, loneliness, embarrassment, and despair. I was reading a book last fall, which was a compilation of letters from Henri Nouwen, and a quote I hung on to was,

“Well, no wishes, but much hope, no big plans, but trust, no great desires, but much love, no knowledge of the future, but a lot of empty space for God to walk in! There is a deep sense of uselessness, but maybe that is the kind of soil God needs to sow His seed!”

If I felt anything at the end of 2017, it was certainly useless. God had a lot of empty space to walk around in my life and I was trying to let him have it all, but favor didn’t seem like the kind of thing I should be seeking in 2018. ‘What about peace or mercy or sanity, God?’ Regardless, I listened to his leading and leaned in to it. I looked around online and chose this background for my phone for the year as a reminder of my word.

IMG_4183.JPG

Favor means showing kind regard, support, approval, preference. My prayer became, “Find favor with me God, as you did with Noah and the Israelites, with Ruth and Mary and Samuel. Find favor with me, God.” And when January came, I tried to look for ways it was true - that I was surrounded with favor - because if the Bible says it, we know it can be trusted. But favor still felt like too high of a promise – reserved for the mother of Jesus, the survivor of floods, ancestors in the lineage of a Savior.

The thing about having a word for the year is that I don’t always remember it. It’s not something I think of constantly. It’s not always at the forefront of my mind. Sure, I saw that verse on my phone every day, but there were still times in the last year when I felt like it wasn’t the word for me. Sometimes it felt like I must have misheard what he wanted to show me and that maybe having a word for the year was dumb anyway, so who cares, right?

But on my birthday this year, I looked back through my journals to read what I wrote last year on the same day. Last year on my birthday I was a wreck (and that’s putting it lightly). I didn’t want to be a substitute teacher – everything about the very idea was stressing me out and at that point I hadn’t even done it one day! I didn’t know the schools here or the kids or even where to park my car. I hadn’t been in a classroom in seven years! But more than that, I hated living in Hawaii. I wrote that so many times in my journal I could laugh at my own self right now! The bottomline is, I was not myself and the stress I brought into my home was felt by me and my husband.  

But now! Oh, you guys, now! How great is His faithfulness to pull us through to where we are now! I can look back on the year and say that God has lavished his favor on me, my heart, and my family. I can pinpoint all the places where I felt truly surrounded by his favor. It was in coming back to Hawaii in January and finally feeling like I had my feet under me again. It was in a biopsy result I had been fearing that came back benign. It was visitors coming to see us and joy being shared with them. It was a surprise trip home to see my mom run her first full marathon. It was the excitement we felt when we found out I was pregnant and the comfort of being surrounded by family as we mourned our loss. It was warm days and safe flights and good friends and laughing again after the fog of grief. It was making our house a home and celebrating one year of marriage. It was felt in the changing of my heart. God grew me up, strengthened my bones, and set me on fire in new ways. I was drowning last year, feeling completely useless, and this year at my birthday I am approaching what’s next with great joy. And it’s not because circumstances have changed. I still live in Hawaii and I’m still subbing (in all the middle schools in my district!). God just spent the year polishing my heart. He picked me up, held me close, told me, “DO NOT BE AFRAID!” He walked into all that empty space and led me through fear, grief, joy, and all the emotions in between. That’s kind regard. That’s favor. That’s deep love.

2018 is rolling to a close but God is still showing me new ways he lavishes favor. Like perhaps the fresh reminder just last week that the definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” Of course it is! So then it is his favor, his preference, his support, his high regard for each of us that was lavished on the whole of the earth in the coming of a baby at Christmas. In the giving of his son on the cross. In salvation for all of us. “For by [unmerited favor] you have been saved through faith…” It’s his favor that draws us to him and bids us to stay near. So even if the sum of the year was heartache and pain, even then we would still be soaked in his favor because we have Jesus. And it’s not about getting stuff from him and being #blessed, it’s about having him and it being enough no matter what.

I didn’t spend the year striving to earn favor because I know it’s impossible. It can’t be earned. We can’t do enough stuff to earn his favor. He gives it freely and I finally opened my eyes to where it was all around me. He delights to show favor and does in so many ways. I think we can easily overlook it because if we don’t get that big thing we’re hoping for – a promotion, a house, a baby, a first date, a car, that dream job - or if everything falls apart right in front of us - we think we’re forgotten or he must not care. If we lose someone we love or feel pain or grief or sadness of any kind, we cold shoulder God and scoff at the idea of his favor. Years ago I used to tell myself, “Well _____ happened because God hates me.” But He doesn’t and He didn’t then, I was just too blind to see that maybe it was his sweet favor to withhold something from me. Maybe you know this feeling. Maybe you’re deep in it now. But just remember, you are not forgotten. You are not unseen. You are not left behind or left out. Draw near to him and he will show favor to you, surround you with it, soak you to the bone in it, in ways you least expect and probably without even changing your circumstances. He’ll walk around in all your empty spaces too and fill you up with unmerited, unending favor.

Ask first.

I’m turning 34 tomorrow and I’m really glad about it. The kids at school the last couple of weeks have guessed me to be 20 and that’s so nice because who doesn’t want to look younger, but at 20, I was a striving, self-loathing perfectionist who just wanted to find a husband, so I’m not at all interested in going back there. They also guessed that I had not yet graduated college (bless them!) and that’s nice too, except that in college I was aimless - wandering into a major I had no idea what to do with while dating and messing up and trying to date again and messing up more and complaining that no one liked me while not giving the good ones a chance and chasing after the bad ones who were not emotionally available. So, no, thank you. That was exhausting. When I told the kids I was actually going to be 34 they said, “You can’t be 34! My MOM is 34!” It’s true, little 7th grader. I’m old enough to be your mother.

But I’m glad to be turning 34. I feel like I’ve fought for 34. I’ve earned 34. When I turned 30 I rounded a corner in my life that really changed a lot for me. Like Iris says in my favorite holiday movie, “I think what I’ve [found] is something slightly resembling gumption.” Indeed. When I turned 31, I started dating Aaron and when I turned 32, we got engaged. I turned 33 with a new last name, in a new city, practically on a new planet (mentally and emotionally). I worked and worked and worked on the house we’ve made into a home. I carried a baby until God said it was time and then grieved for months over the loss. When I was 33 I came home with a kitten that honestly pulled me out of sadness.

So I’m turning 34 now and I feel good about where I’m at in the world and in my body and my heart. I hope that’s something you can say at every birthday. There were many birthdays I couldn’t say it. There was one that I woke up in the morning and stood in the mirror and cried - I think I was 28. But that was before I found my gumption to say yes to some things and no to others. So I hope you can say you’re glad with where you’re at in your body and in your heart and if that’s not true, that you are working on becoming that person you’d be happy to be. Even if everything else is out of your control in your life, you are always in control of the kind of person you want to be - if you want to walk in integrity, honesty, whole-heartedness, love. A question posed in my Bible study recently was, “Who are you becoming before God?” and that stuck out to me because I realized I never considered it before – not when I was 20, not in college, not until about five years ago. I felt like an entity that the world acted on and around with no power of my own to create or form it – only to react as it came at me. This is all very untrue and the minute I realized I had some agency in it all is the moment I started working on the person I wanted to be and inviting God into the process. He was already there anyway, but at least I started to acknowledge him.

Last year I wrote a list of things I learned over the last 33 years. I still think all of them are true – I’ll stand by all of them this year too. But when I think about the last year and when I think about the year ahead, the lesson I want to remember the most was taught by a five year old on an airplane.

Aaron and I flew to Arizona in September. I’ve told you this before but I’m a nervous flyer. Some people can fall asleep on a plane in an instant but I’m pretty much wired to 220 from the moment I step on the plane to the moment I walk off, taking in all my surroundings, observing people, their demeanor, the flight attendants, the pilots - whether they seem competent (as if I could ever judge that. Ha!). So Aaron and I take our seats on this flight to Phoenix and as we’re settling in, I notice that behind me is an older couple and across from me is a man with a child on either side of him. The boy across the aisle from me was probably only four or five, but he sat back in his seat with his seatbelt on, visibly excited, and trying to look across Aaron and I to see out the window. His little flip-flopped feet shot straight out from the end of the seat and occasionally kicked back and forth, but he never made a sound, just content to be with his dad and wait for takeoff.

Shortly after our departure, I noticed that the older gentleman behind me was reaching forward to offer the little boy some candy. A wrinkled hand held out three wrapped candies – among them the little butterscotch ones that are like a rite of passage into the world of being a grandpa or something – but he held them out to the little boy, nudging him on the arm so that he would notice. The little boy turned to look at the man, and then looked down at the candy, his ears perking up a bit like an excited pup. He turned to his dad to ask if he could have it, but his dad wasn’t paying attention. “Dad,” he said, and then turned back to see if the candy was still being offered. The boy didn’t reach for it. He didn’t take it. He just looked at it again. When he saw that it was still there, he turned back to his dad with urgency, in case the man was about to withdraw his offer. “Dad,” he whispered again, this time tapping his dad on the arm. His dad finally turned to look at him and the boy pointed to the offered candy. Looking back at the man holding out the candy, the father smiled and nodded his head with approval. It was only then that the boy reached out and chose a piece of candy and gave another to his sister, unwrapping it with delight.

I turned to Aaron to try to tell him the story, but I started tearing up. Is there something about your thirties that makes you cry at everything? No? Just me? Cool. So I’m trying to relay what just happened because I thought it was so sweet. Doesn’t everyone just want their dad’s approval? Dad, can I have this? Dad, is this okay with you? Dad, will this make you proud of me? I think it’s early in our lives that we learn to want this kind of approval – partly because it’s disciplined into us for our safety, but also because it’s wired in us. We’re relational, we want connection, we desire affirmation and approval.

What does this have to do with turning 34? This year I want to approach my decisions the way this little boy approached the offered candy. He asked his dad first. What if we approached our life decisions by asking God first? Before we make a move, before we take a step, before we make a decision, I want to run it by God. “Hey, dad, can I have this? Should I do this? Would this make you proud of me?” I think that’s what it means to have a relationship with him. I think that’s what it means to come to him - to ask what he thinks and then seek out the answer in his Word. So often in my 20s I was asking, asking, asking, but not waiting for an answer – not listening for an answer by searching it out in the Bible. I just asked in vain, listening to my own voice, and then going my own way. “Can I have this? No? Too bad, doing it anyway because I don’t see any other options.

More than anything I’ve learned lately, it’s that I don’t want to take a single step, take anything offered, move toward anything in my path unless I have first tapped God on the arm and asked if it was okay. “Is it okay if I do this? Is it okay if I say this? Is this from you?” I don’t want to move unless he gives his approval. We should want to please the heart of the father with our words, with our actions, with our lives and not move toward it, whatever it is, until he says it’s okay.

And if he doesn’t say okay, I want to learn to accept it and move on. If I don’t get the nod to go ahead, I don’t want to reach out. So often I think I know better, planned better, have better ideas. I think my feelings are more important than what he thinks. But if he doesn’t approve, I don’t want it. I’ve done enough my own way in life to know it leads nowhere good. As Lauren Daigle sings on her new album, “I’ve searched the world to find my heart is Yours.” I really have. I feel that lyric in my soul. So even when it doesn’t feel good, even when I don’t agree, if it’s not what he has for me, I don’t want it anymore.

Thirty-three was a big learning and growing and changing year for me. It was high highs and really low lows. But one thing that remained steady was the faithfulness of God to walk with me in it all. He is faithful and trustworthy and his plans for us are good. If he promises goodness, then why would I not want what he wants for me? Why would I not seek that out first?  

I want to turn my heart in that direction – away from selfishness and self-centered decisions, away from going my own way and making choices that might feel good in the moment but don’t lead to lasting joy. I want to turn to God first and let him direct my steps – in what I say and do, where I go, how I shine his light into the world around me. Like it says in Proverbs, “She opens her mouth in wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” That’s what I want for my 34th year. Wisdom and kindness. I want to know the heart of God more. I want my awe and my wonder to be aimed up at him. I want my eyes to be bright with hope and wisdom to shine out of my face, a reflection of him who gives it out to those who ask. But there it is again, it’s in the asking. It’s tapping God on the arm and saying, “Is this okay?” And accepting his answer. The good news is, I think the heart of our father is like the heart of that father on the airplane. He wants to say yes to good gifts.

Walking into 34 tomorrow, I feel confident in the faithfulness of God to answer me when I ask. I just have to remember to ask first.

 

Pruning.

When Aaron’s mom came to visit us last fall, she helped me around the house with a lot of painting, but she also gifted us with some beautiful plants - a couple of hibiscus, croton, bougainvillea, and a bigger tree item whose name is escaping me right now. She planted them all in new pots and we set up a little corner in front of our house creating this little "Garden of Eden" as I called it, I guess because I think everything needs a name or a nickname of some kind.

I’m not really good at keeping plants alive. Several years ago my sister and I planted little terrariums of succulents because the whole internet says succulents are impossible to kill and yet, somehow, I have managed to kill many of them. The whole terrarium was dead in short order. I think it would be a lot easier if they would just speak audibly to me and let me know that they needed some water or some light, otherwise I get overzealous and water them too often, or I get lazy and never water them at all. All this to say, Joyce gifting us with the Garden of Eden was so nice, but left to my gardening talents probably wouldn’t last very long.

There was a short window last fall where these plants were gorgeous. I don’t know if it was the constant rain we had here in Hawaii, or if she just picked good plants but the blooms on our hibiscus were huge. We had a new yellow or red flower almost every day. And I get that there are seasons for plants, but Hawaii is pretty even-keeled – never too hot or too cold (all you need is a light jacket! Ha!). So we had these big amazing blooms on both the hibiscus and the bougainvillea. The tree was standing tall. And all of this with very minimal effort on my part. I just kind of walked by it every day and marveled at how nice it looked and then walked away. If it felt particularly hot or I realized it hadn’t rained in a few days, I would drag the hose over and throw some water on them, never knowing how much was too much, of course.

It was earlier this spring that I noticed the plants start to change. It was a slow change – at first I noticed that we weren’t getting any big blooms. We had a couple small flowers here and there, but not as often and not nearly with the same brilliance. I noticed some kind of white stuff on the end of one of the hibiscus branches, but everything else looked fine so I didn’t pay it much attention. Over the course of the next weeks or maybe even a month, I noticed how our plants were looking more sad. The leaves on the tree were all drooping. We had no blooms on the hibiscus or bougainvillea. The branches of both hibiscus were completely bare except the tops where there were some green leaves, one single tiny flower bud, and then a lot of this white business I mentioned earlier. Except now the white stuff was on most of the plants.

So I went outside one day with the intent to handle the plants. I was going to figure out what was wrong with them. I got closer and inspected the white stuff. I still didn’t know what it was – it looked fuzzy, like a mold. So I went to the internet and asked it what kind of white fuzzy mold grows on plants in Hawaii and it turns out it wasn’t mold, it was FLIES. White flies! Gross! Apparently they attach themselves to your plants, attracted by bright colors, and then suck the sap out of the branches – essentially sucking the life from your plants. And they’ll spread to all your surrounding plants because they are not content to simply destroy one.

I went to the garden center at a local hardware store to figure out how to get rid of these white flies. Tell me what I have to spray on them, immerse them in, cover them with to make these flies go away and the hibiscus can get back to blooming! I was directed to a weed killer product which contained a massive warning that basically read, “DO NOT LOOK IN THE GENERAL DIRECTION OF THIS BOTTLE BECAUSE YOU WILL BE POISONED.” So I left empty-handed, because I have a will to live, and went back to the internet to see what I could learn about pruning.

Pruning is cutting back what is bad so that the good can flourish - so your plants can get back to health. I've never pruned anything before but after a five minute, elementary-level reading about pruning, I headed out to our garden with a rusty pair of shears – the only ones we have. The internet told me I could do a hard prune, which is basically just cutting off all the branches down to nubs, as long as you leave a few buds left on the branches. I also read something about scratching the branch to see if it was green underneath. So I scratched my branches to see that they were bright green – ALIVE! – and then went to hacking away at the tops that looked dead. I didn’t discriminate – I just cut off what looked bad. White fuzzy flies, be gone! By the time I was done, I had some bare sticks growing out of our pots. Aaron got home and I told him I probably did a bad thing and showed him how our garden was now just potted sticks. Whoops! But I watered them anyway and I waited.

If you’re wondering what this story is about it’s not about hibiscus or white flies, it’s about your life and it’s about God. It’s about sin and cutting it back. It’s about the necessity of community.

The pastor at our home church in Nebraska always says, “No one wakes up one day and decides to ruin their life.” They don’t look in the mirror and think that today is the day it all comes crashing down. Rather it is a series of choices – habits that creep in, start small, and take root. It is an action that is rationalized, a feeling that goes unchecked, a bent of your heart that remains unquestioned. You don't just wake up one day to dead plants. It takes lack of care and attention to the small things. 

I recently read, You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith and in it he discusses how humans are liturgical beings – we participate in love-shaping rituals that then become habits that inform our lives. It’s far too much to explain here, but the gist is,

“To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life – a picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing’… We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions of flourishing, not usually because we ‘think through’ our options but rather because some picture captures our imagination…”

So our imagination is captured by a story of what it means to live well - what it means to flourish - and sometimes those stories are lies masquerading as truth. So if we’re not careful our loves, and therefore our lives, will be shaped and molded and influenced by sin, lies, and the devil, all the while we're thinking we're leading ourselves into flourishing. So we have to be cautious about what we allow into our lives – who we allow to shape our hearts. 

White flies start small – just one little fuzzy dot that you hardly notice on your plants. Your choice starts small – I’ll just look at this one thing, read this one thing, watch this one thing, participate in this one thing, look at this one profile, scroll this one hashtag this one time. But before long it can become habit. And our brains love habits. They love to push actions to our subconscious so we can do them without even thinking. So we make automaticities out of actions and then we do it without thinking and we are influenced without thinking and we suddenly love without thinking and before long the sap is being sucked from our lives by an influx of white flies.

Who do you surround yourself with? What influences do you allow in your life? How are you speaking to others and influencing their lives? Who speaks to your heart and what are they telling you? What vision of flourishing are you believing and living toward? We’re teleological beings – our relationships are teleological meaning they’re always moving toward a certain end. To what end are you moving? Which way is your social media, your friend group, the news directing you? Are you letting white flies move into any area of your life without even acknowledging it?

Proverbs bids us to guard our hearts for from it flows the wellspring of life. Sometimes in order to guard our hearts, to take it back from what has hijacked our loves, requires a hard prune of our habits. Our very lives depend on it. I hacked away at our plants until they were sticks. They looked stupid and bare for a week or so. I thought I would probably have to throw away the whole garden. Well, it took some time but you know what is happening? Every single one of those sticks is growing new leaves. Both hibiscus plants are growing new leaves and new blooms. The bougainvillea, which never had white flies but was only suffocated by their nearness, is blooming again. Even the leaves on the tree that looked dead are standing up again and new leaves are forming. I had to cut it down to nothing in order that health might return.

Since the prune, I watch the plants every day. I check the leaves and branches for white flies. Just this morning I pulled a single white fly off one of the leaves. I water the plants every other day. I check their progress. Maybe we need someone like that in our lives to check in on us, to move in close and make sure we’re okay. To see if there are any areas of our heart where bitterness, anger, jealousy, wrath, or lust has moved in and is attempting to suck the life out of us.

Sometimes our lives require a hard prune. This probably means you'll have to stop hanging out with people who negatively influence you, stop visiting those websites or watching those movies or going to those same places you've always gone. It might mean cutting off people or ideas or thoughts or feelings. I guess I just don’t want you to get overrun by white flies. I don’t want something to come into your life looking harmless enough and then one day you realize that it’s sucking the life from your soul and you don’t know how to stop it. Sometimes our friends can help us prune back what’s bad in our lives. Sometimes God will do it for us. But pruning is for our good – for our health – and I think we all want that for our lives. I just completed Gracelaced, a beautiful Bible study by Ruth Chou Simons. One of the sections was about pruning and she said, “It is merciful and good of our loving Father to prune what chokes us.” It might suck for a little while - it might hurt and make us look like stupid sticks for a minute - but it's ultimately for our good so that we might bloom all the more. 

Don’t get choked out by little habits you think are harmless. Look at your life, at your heart, and see what needs to be cut out. See if you have any white flies hiding in your heart. Ask friends to get around you and pray for you – to check in on you. To move close and make sure you’re on track. Do the same for them. We need community that pushes us on toward goodness and holiness. In fact, I think that’s the only way we really have a shot at living well.