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.

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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.