Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Leaving Perfect Behind

Last weekend I was on my way to the beach, two hours from home, when my sister announces she has left her swimsuits at home. 

My brother-in-law tells her to buy new ones when we arrive at the resort.

My sister says these are not just any swimsuits. It took her weeks to find them and they were perfect. She says it will be impossible to find a new swimsuit. 

I tell her not to worry, I have three in my suitcase and offer to loan her one of mine.

She is exasperated. “No offense, but honestly I don’t want to wear any of your swimsuits. I want to look cute.”


My sister is beside herself, wondering how she could have forgotten to pack swimsuits for a beach weekend. 

My brother-in-law offers to drop us off at the resort and drive back home for the swimsuits.

I wonder about leaving perfect behind. Because I’ve done it. I’ve left behind what I thought was perfect. More times than I thought was possible. And I wondered if anything could ever take the place of perfect. 

I once had the perfect job. I coordinated education courses across the country and got to travel too. I enjoyed my coworkers and loved the work. I thought this was the perfect job for me. Until my boss left the company, my department was dismantled and I was unemployed.

I felt afraid that I couldn't pay my bills and unsure I’d ever find another job I liked as much. 

I once had the perfect friendship. When I was a newcomer to Florida, I met an exuberant girl who welcomed me to her circle of friends. She was a kindred spirit and we planned to share an apartment. I thought this was the perfect friend for me. Until she found a job and a boyfriend in Tennessee. 

I felt alone and lonely and wondered if I’d ever find another good friend.

I once met the perfect date. We had so much in common. Our life goals and direction were perfectly in sync. I thought this was the perfect man for me. Until uncertainty set in. And perfect went in a different direction. 

I felt disappointed and wondered what God was doing in my life.

I once lived in the perfect house. After my sister got married and left the condo we shared, I worked with a builder on a new house in the historic district of a charming town. I loved its hardwood floors and arched doorways. I chose the paint colors, counters and the flowers that lined my front walk. I thought this was the perfect house for me.

Until the housing market crashed and my neighborhood’s home prices dropped fast and furious. Acting on the wise advice of my brother-in-law, I reluctantly sold my house and moved to the other side of town.

I felt unsettled and wondered if I’d ever have a place to put my feet up and feel at home again.

But I discovered something surprising. 

Every time I left perfect behind, I found something far better. Beyond compare. Unequaled. 

I discovered God’s perfect gifts for me.

Instead of the perfect job, I found perfect strength and confidence I didn't know I had. 

It was a grueling season but I eventually found another job that offered me better opportunities to write, learn new skills and take me in directions I never dreamed.

“For my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor. 2:9

Instead of the perfect friend, I found perfect grace and peace. 

Eventually I formed new friendships. Some of these connections offered me amazing opportunities to volunteer professionally and personally, moving my career forward and providing me with mentors and sisters in ways I couldn't imagine.

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” Is. 26:3

Instead of fearing I’d lost the perfect date, I found the perfect love of one who created me and loves me unconditionally. 

It was a time that stretched my faith and allowed me to see that when I don't know where to look, when circumstances around me get the best of me, I will fix my eyes on God alone.

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us  . . .  for perfect love drives out fear.” I Jn. 4:16, 18

Instead of leaving behind the perfect house, I found the perfect shelter and refuge. 

God knew better than I did where I should live for this season of my life to watch my niece and nephew grow up.

“As for God, his way is perfect: the Lord’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.” Ps. 18:30

The closer my heart gets to God, I realize that perfection is only found in him, not in my circumstances, friendships or relationships. Instead of feeling like I've left perfect behind, I'm filled with hope and anticipation and excitement. Because from broken and flawed, incomplete and imperfect come rich truths and promises that are beyond comparison.

Finally the swimsuit debacle is resolved. My brother-in-law asks his mother to get the swimsuits from their house and overnight them to the resort. 

The perfect swimsuits arrive by 10:30 the next morning. 

I think another perfect day is just waiting to unfold.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . . who does not change like shifting shadows.”  James 1:17

I'm linking up with Holley Gerth today at Coffee for Your Heart and with Bonnie Gray at the Faith Barista.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Surrounded by Sisters and Friends

My grandmother's photo album is filled with crumbling pages of pictures of her family and friends. Part of a big Italian family, she always had someone around to share her life with. I never got to know her since she died long before I was born. But as I look at her photos, I know that she was surrounded by her sisters and friends.

I am too.

For the past few months, I've been meeting up with a friend who is wondering if she should leave her full-time job to start seeing clients at a counseling center. She’s been working diligently toward her God-sized dream of being a counselor and now she says she feels like she’s standing at a precipice, a little scared but excited. 

I tell her I think she should close her eyes and jump.

I tell her if God placed this dream in her heart, then she should follow where he’s leading, no matter how scary it is. 

I tell her that this opportunity may just be the next place of promise God has for her.

She tells me that my words have encouraged her. She tells me my friendship and acceptance have given her hope during this difficult season.  

But I realize these encouraging words I’ve shared with my friend aren’t really my own words. They are words that at many stops along the way, have encouraged me.

Because I’ve long been convinced that my personality quirks hinder my friendships, I'm continually read books that tell me how to work with my weirdness instead of against it. How to appreciate how amazing I already am. How to find the unique and beautiful purpose that God created in me. 

I've always attributed some of my quirks to the family of passionate, outspoken Italians I come from. I grew up listening to my dad's extended family tell dramatic stories and give a candid running commentary on everything around them. Even knowing where my mannerisms and characteristics come from, I haven't always appreciated them.

But now I think this is all a part of God's design for my life.

What if the very things I have so wished to change in myself have been the training ground for absorbing words of hope? 

What if the paths of disappointment and discouragement I’ve walked have given me insight and understanding to pave the way to encourage others? 

What if what I considered imperfections to banish from my life were the perfect way to connect with those who come into my life?

Sometimes opening my heart to share isn't the easiest thing for me to do since I worry what others will think about me. 

But I know God meant for us to encourage, connect and share our hearts with each other.

This summer, I'm co-leading a group on Facebook with the website (in)courage. My co-leader Sara and I met through an (in)couragers group last year. When the group needed new leaders, I wondered if I could do it. 

I think participating in groups on Facebook is the perfect irony for me since I have long resisted joining Facebook. But I felt that I should give it a try and noticed that Sara had posted the most recent update to the group. So I sent her a message, explaining that I was a Facebook novice but would she consider co-leading with me? 

To my amazement, she said she'd already been praying about it and was excited I had reached out to her. Together, we shared encouraging words and offered our friendship to the ladies in our group. 

It's risky but rewarding to open my heart but I realized that being an encourager with all of the friends in my life, both in real-life and online, is part of God's purpose for me. Sara was like a sweet sister God had connected me with just when I most needed her encouragement. 

Now Sara and I will again co-lead a group called (in)couraging Vocations and there are 70 more groups to choose from on a variety of topics if you want to check them out over at (in)courage

Registration is through (in)courage and open for this week only. We'd love to meet you there!

You just might find yourself surrounded by friends who could become like sisters.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I'm Giving Up Waiting for Hope

I keep checking my watch, looking toward the door. I’m at the service waiting area of a car dealership, one of my least favorite places. For years my dad has spoiled me by taking my car for service. He says he doesn't mind it since he likes talking to the guys at his neighborhood car shop. He buys them pizza and they joke that he's there so often they've named a car bay in his honor. 

Car businesses are a little intimidating to me because it seems that everyone who works there speaks a language I don't understand. I hear them talk about boots and belts and clutches, but all I can envision are the cute ones they sell at Macy’s and TJ Maxx.

Language differences aside, I think the time has come for me to handle my own car repairs. So on a Saturday morning I arrive for an oil change just as my neighborhood car business opens. 

In less than an hour they tell me my oil is changed, the tires are rotated but something is leaking from somewhere that I really should have the dealer check out.

 While I'm still feeling brave with a successful oil change under my belt (the fashion kind of belt, of course) I decide to drive straight to the Honda dealer. 

The service staff warns me that it could be a couple of hours, but I'm determined to settle in and wait. After an hour, they tell me my car is next. Two hours later, they tell me it’s out for a test drive. Three hours later the problem has been identified but it will still be another hour to fix it. 

Although I’m tired of waiting, I'm hopeful that the finish line is in sight.

I wonder why waiting is so hard to do. Why does it cause such anxiety and disgruntlement? Maybe the routine short-term waits for stoplights and drive-through food and check-out lines seem a little easier because I know they'll eventually end with my goals accomplished.

Is waiting longer so much harder because it requires patience and perseverance? During different seasons of my life, I've waited to hear about a job or business opportunity or an offer I've made on a house or even now, a promising possibility for my blog. But what makes waiting so difficult is the uncertainty. This unpredictability is hard to push aside.

But I'm convinced there are some things in my life that I just can’t force into my own predetermined timeline. If I try to move forward and it doesn’t seem to be working, then that’s where faith steps in. And I take a step back.

To wait. To pray. To ponder. To seek God’s heart for me in every situation. To wait for direction, opportunity, and clarity. And often that's what takes time. 

But that's why I wait. I wait to see what God will do when what I'm praying for looks impossible, seems daunting or appears insurmountable. So often in the waiting, I lose heart. I lose hope. I don’t have the stamina to hold on. I feel worn out and I let my faith falter. 

But I’ve realized that my purpose isn’t found in a goal I'm pursuing, a project I'm working toward, or a dream I hope will come true. It's about knowing God better than I ever have before.

So I’ve given up waiting for hope.

Not as in relinquished, but exchanged. 

I am exchanging waiting for hope. 

It's true that perseverance and persistence bring hope. Despite challenging dilemmas and difficult circumstances, I can still be hopeful. And what if I started living hopefully like God just might answer the prayers on my heart? Because I know he can.

My hope waits for me in the confident faith that God is overseeing the entire blueprint of my life. 

So while I wait I’m leaving a few of the unrealized desires of my heart gently fluttering in the breeze so that they’re open for God to do the impossible. They're unfurled and ready to take flight if God chooses to create beauty from ashes in this very sacred place. 

And in that possibility waits the hope that God could do so much more than I could ever imagine. 

At the car dealership, the technician finds me just 30 minutes after his last report and says he worked as fast as he could and would I care to wait a few minutes more for a free car wash? I certainly love a clean car. I smile and tell him I am happy to wait.

I think I better understand this car lingo now. Who knew the world of fashion, where I know my way around, was so similar to this unfamiliar world of cars?

So let's see, the next time I need a new serpentine belt (snakeskin, right?) and some dust boots (this must be what I wear to be ultra-fashionable while cleaning?) and want to see what the latest models are sporting for the season, I might just swing by the nearest car dealership instead of TJ Maxx. 

I hope there's a car fashion week. I'll be waiting for it.

My aunt Audrey poses atop a car bumper in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

I'm so excited to be one of 100 bloggers chosen to help launch author Bonnie Gray's new book, Finding Spiritual Whitespace. Click here for a sneak peek!

Today I'm linked up with Bonnie Gray, the Faith Barista, as we share our whitespace moments.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Seeking Moments of Soul-Rest

I've been feeling a little restless lately. I do laundry or load the dishwasher or clean out my desk. I can’t decide if I want to go out or stay in. I think about going for a walk but grab a snack instead. I have blog posts to write and photos to shoot but it's hard to keep my focus. I have plenty of projects to keep me busy but my mind flutters from one thought to the next. 

So I'm beginning to think that it's my soul that's restless these days. I keep looking for moments of rest. But I’m not finding much. My life feels a little stale. 

Maybe it’s because spring is morphing into summer and that makes me dream of faraway vacation places. 

Maybe it’s because I’m yearning for something new and different. More than a change of furniture or paint color. Maybe a new hobby or a new class or a new friend. Maybe even a new life kind of change. 

I notice an ad pop up on my computer screen for a job that requires immediate relocation to Saudi Arabia. I let my mind wander halfway around the world and it feels exhilarating. So I announce to my cubicle colleagues that I am relocating to Saudi Arabia.

No one takes me seriously except for my colleague Ben. He sounds excited for me. “Wow, Valerie! You’re going to Saudi Arabia?”

My friend Bree almost rolls off her chair, she's laughing so hard at the idea of me living in Saudi Arabia. She says I certainly couldn’t wear high heels there. She says I wouldn’t need most of my jewelry and probably not much makeup either. 

She says she can’t imagine me living in a place less suited to my style than maybe  . . .  Mississippi. 

Mississippi? I ask her what's wrong with Mississippi. She says it’s so hot and humid there. 

I’m not sure if she’s forgotten that we live in Florida, but I tell her I’ve visited antebellum homes in Mississippi and I think it is a lovely and charming place. I tell her I can certainly picture myself living in Mississippi. 

Saudi Arabia, maybe not. But certainly Mississippi.

Saudi Arabia. Mississippi. Maybe I don’t need to make such a drastic life-change. Maybe I could just try to find a few moments of soul-rest for my unsettled soul. These moments are harder to find when I'm restless and distracted and feelings of discontent hover nearby

But what if God is right here in the middle of these restless moments? What if he's trying to whisper to my restless soul? Will I trust him with my restlessness to see where he leads me, even if I have no idea where that might be? Could I even rest in the restlessness? 

Maybe this is the place that I unload what weighs my heart down. Maybe this is the place that I look no further than the moments of soul-rest that this day holds.  

I don’t know anyone who lives in the moment, appreciating every day to its fullest, more than my mother does. I’ve watched her create artful moments of soul-rest my whole life by enjoying exactly what she’s doing at the moment.

She wouldn’t call herself an artist, but I think she is. 

It’s an art to enjoy what’s in front of you. 

It’s an art to take one day at a time. 

It's an art to savor every moment, every experience, everything that happens, even the not-so-happy times. 

It's an art to always see the glass half-full of the lemonade she's made out of life's lemons.

When I was in grade school, she sketched a drawing out of a book I was reading on Robert E. Lee’s daughters. I have it hanging in my house to remind me of her artful way of looking at life.

Growing up, her plan-only-for-the-next-hour style of life drove me crazy because I wanted to know what we'd do next or what was up ahead. She would always tell me to just enjoy what I'm doing right now.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying not to think about tomorrow’s meetings or next week’s appointments. I’m appreciating today’s moments of soul-rest. They’re small. Easy to miss sometimes. Unexpected. But always right in front of me if I'm looking for them.

I’m savoring my cup of blueberry vanilla coffee out on my courtyard as dark turns to early morning and the birds begin to sing.

I’m relishing living a few streets away from my sister, just as we always dreamed of when we were little girls, because life changes and someday we might not.

I'm adoring my nephew as my brother-in-law's truck drives by my house and my nephew leans out in his baseball uniform and yells "Hi Auntie!" as they spot me on the sidewalk.

I’m treasuring nights at the grocery store with my seven-year-old niece as she eats chocolate chip cookies from the bakery and hangs off the back of the cart, because it will be all too soon that she’ll want to shop for clothes at the mall with her girlfriends instead of shopping for groceries with her auntie.

I’m basking in the circle of friends in my life right now because as the circle whirls around, it will be broken -- releasing friends to new ventures and adding new ones to take their place -- but never staying the same.

So my soul is resting here for awhile. While I appreciate the life-moments that are right here in front of me. Until one day when it will be time to move on from this restless place. 

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll surprise my colleagues. And off to Saudi Arabia I’ll go. 

Or at the very least, maybe to Mississippi.

On the steps of Dunleith in Natchez, Mississippi
I'm linking up with Bonnie Gray at the Faith Barista to share what feeds our souls.