Every day you wake up in a world that you didn’t make. Rejoice and be glad. – Jonathan Rogers
Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. – Mary Oliver
The trees invited us to pay attention today.
The kids set out with empty bags; I held my phone for photos and a plant-identifying app. We must have been a sight to behold, how they yelled excitedly and crouched in the middle of the sidewalk, shoving leaves into their Dr. Seuss totes. One man stood in front of his house and just looked at us. At one point I walked straight into my boy who’d suddenly dove between me and the stroller I was pushing. When I turned to help him up, I saw him sitting next to the red-yellow-green leaf he had spotted and gone for. The fiery red ones especially took my breath away, but we got them all, yellows, reds, greens, browns, and every combination of autumn’s colors.
We’d done a walk like this a few weeks ago, but this time, we learned names. So the five of us didn’t just collect “maple” leaves. We collected silver, red, amur, and sugar maple leaves. We didn’t just bring back “oak leaves”— but pin, swamp white, northern red, and scarlet oak leaves. I was so proud when at the end of one walk (we went out twice), my boy, with a full bag, picked up and showed me a leaf he noticed he didn’t have yet.
In the middle of a pandemic and election season in our divided country, leaf hunting might seem like just a nice kid-friendly, socially-distanced activity, a distraction of sorts. In a way it was a good break for me from heeding the beck and call of things that felt urgent, but it was more than that. I was glad when my son showed me his leaf-find, because it meant he was learning to pay attention not just to trees in general, but to each tree we’d stopped under, and to this one in particular. Our naming trees was a kind of noticing, and when we notice in God’s world, we gather kindling for praise.
We returned home, bursting with leaves and worship. I pointed out to them that God could have just filled the world with one generic tree. On that third day of Creation, he could have said “let there be trees” and filled the earth with forests of trees as I draw them– cartoon broccolis that vary only in size, with an occasional circle in the trunk as an owl’s perch. But, praise God, we don’t live in that kind of world. Instead, we emptied the kids’ bags into a box and pulled out green ash, black gum, sweet gum, and honey locust leaves. There were 15 or so species of trees they had gathered from, and these were only the ones with leaves already shed on the sidewalk we walked on. We even had a mystery leaf we’re not sure the app is right about, so the plan is to hunt down the tree again.
What kind of brilliance and creativity must it have taken to fashion all the trees we found within that two-block radius of our house, I wonder. What kind of power must God have to uphold the outermost galaxies and oversee every single tree we encountered today?
Sometimes it’s easy for me to imagine God using his power as brute force, accomplishing great and good purposes, but in an impersonal, blunt way. Knowing God flung planets into space by a simple word fills me a sense of awe at his strength. But studying the differences between types of oak leaves furthers my understanding of his power while offering insight about how he wields it.
Recently, I watched a painting tutorial where the instructor warned beginners not to focus too much time and effort on the first detail they worked on. The reason is that they’d probably get tired and end up with one section they loved that wouldn’t match the rest of the piece. That God doesn’t lose steam— that he is powerful and wise enough to pay attention to the smallest minutiae of creation— honestly stretches my faith. That he uses his strength and mind with precision and creativity in the world offers me comfort and hope. He is big enough to hear my small voice in a broken world (Matt. 6:6-7). He is precise enough to be trusted to handle the details of my life with care (Matt. 6:25-34). And he does not just write my days in a way that is utilitarian, but beautiful (Psalm 136:16).
One of my girls loved pointing out the different reds of the leaves today. I imagine the earth, resting on its axis as on an easel, and God joyfully painting our little corner with the touches of the crimson, pink, and peach that filled her with such delight. Our Creator’s heart must have been so filled with love of beauty as he generously paid attention to every detail of the place he was preparing for us to inhabit. Eden’s trees were not only good for food, but pleasing to the eye. East of the garden, the trees still are his handiwork.
After we labeled our finds, the kids burst out into a spontaneous song about the cherry plum leaf. Today they sang about a tree, but one day the trees themselves will lift their voices. From the cedars of Lebanon to the redwoods of California, the forests will sing for joy when Christ returns. If you listen closely now, you can catch the neighborhood trees rehearsing their doxology.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. – Psalm 24:1 (ESV)
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. – Psalm 96:11-12 (ESV)
Just from Jesus simply taking life and rest and joy and peace. I stand in my kitchen, listening as the words fall and flow like Isaiah’s waters in the wilderness. “The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water”, he prophesied.
God knows I am thirsty.
And, just from Jesus simply taking— this is living, gospel water.
My default, a combination of temperament, experience, and the general human condition, is to approach the Christian life ready to do, to strive, to work. I am not a Deist; I do not believe God just wound the clock and left us to run. But I can live as if I am the main force in my life, God having jumpstarted it by grace.
We sang Tis So Sweet at our wedding, hands raised, declaring God’s faithfulness and our need. These days, the old hymn ministers to me again. “Just from Jesus simply taking” does not come naturally, and has not been my posture as of late.
Just from Jesus simply taking— can it really be that simple? In the midst of all that is going on in and around me, life and rest, and joy, and peace are mine to simply receive? As I meditate on these words, the weight in my heart shifts a bit.
If we have eyes to see them, to listen for it, we will find Scripture replete with God’s divine invitation to simply take.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (Jn. 10:10).
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mt 11:28).
Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (Jn. 16:24).
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (Jn. 14:27).
Life. Rest. Joy. And peace. These are mine and yours for the taking. Not as mighty conquerors claiming a prize. No, not as the world gives does he give. Not by earning. Not with strings attached, only if you’re beautiful and smart and strong and good enough.
This is Jesus who gives. Precious Jesus, who said of his own body and blood, offered to sinners— Take, eat and drink. To those with no hope of making it on our own, he gave himself that we may freely receive what he has bought with his blood.
So come, weary ones, and find rest. Come depressed and despairing, find joy. Come, anxious and obsessive worriers, find peace. Come broken and dying, and find life. Take him at his word and rest on his promise. In simple faith plunge beneath the healing cleansing flood, and find grace to trust him more.
It hit me over Tex-Mex after a doctor’s appointment last week. I paused from my burrito, looked at Jeff and said, Can you believe we are going to have 4 kids? Can you believe we have 3?
I’m 37 weeks pregnant and baby girl could arrive any time. My doctor jokes about how I’m a “pro” going into my fourth labor and delivery, but the truth is, I don’t feel much more prepared for this baby than I felt 7+ years ago. If anything, three kids deep, I feel less sufficient for the task. Weeks (or days) away from meeting our fourth, I don’t feel as capable as I might have thought I’d be by now.
It’s not just the number of kids, really. (Though when I was pregnant with our first I couldn’t imagine how people made it past one.) I remember being discharged from the hospital with our firstborn and thinking, “That’s it? They’re just going to let us take her?” That we are allowed to be parents at all is still as shocking to me. As a mom of three, the enormity of the task of motherhood continues to dawn on me daily in new ways as does my inability to carry it out as I ought.
There is much more mystery in parenting than I had anticipated. I never expected to always have the right answers, to know what to do at all times, but I don’t think I ever realized how incredible it would be to be firsthand witness to a child’s life. As parents, there’s no one else who knows your children as well as you do and it’s easy to start feeling like you’ve got them figured out. At the same time, there is so much we are still learning about our children, so much hidden in the depths of who they are that we are only beginning to see.
It’s not just that each child has a unique combination of personality and preference, strengths and weaknesses. It’s been fun to watch these aspects of their personhood be revealed, to learn who’s good at what, to be able to anticipate their different responses to circumstances, and to know how to help them differently. But there is a deeper reality that has become more apparent to me these days. That is, the fact that my children are daily interacting with the world— and with me— as embodied souls.
It’s not that I didn’t know this before, that my children have souls, but the reality of it is becoming increasingly evident to me. I see it as we talk and they give me insight on how they interpret the world. I see it as they struggle to do good, as they grapple with their fears. I see it as they become aware of the brokenness in and around them.
I see it when one of them calls from the bed, “Mom, I have a question— it’s a Bible question!” It turns out she doesn’t just want to know some facts from Scripture, but what to do with her knowledge of falling short of God’s standard. We sit and talk through how difficult it is to be sorry and how hard it is to forgive.
The whole day, I have interacted with her primarily as caretaker and in-charge momma, now we speak as fellow struggling sinner-saints. We talk about how Paul wrote about the waging war inside us, of not doing the good he wanted to do, of doing the evil he didn’t want. I struggle too, I tell her, and we will continue to until we see Jesus. But he forgives us. He can change us. “I think I get it now,” she says sweetly. We hug and say goodnight. I have not been granted a chance to hear her thoughts and feelings, I have been gifted a chance to glimpse the inner workings of her soul.
My children are immortal beings with eternal souls. I would say this takes my breath away, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It feels less like witnessing a pretty sunset at the beach and more like standing at the precipice of a mountain. The view is incredible but my sense of helplessness at the top of sheer rock is almost overwhelming. To be entrusted with the care of souls is beautiful and terrifying at the same time. It is a holy task.
When I spoke to my daughter, we weren’t just interacting as thinkers. I couldn’t just operate out of my knowledge of religious truth, philosophy, or child psychology. Parenting is soul work. As she tried to make sense of what she knows and feels to be right, her own experience of being unable to carry it out, and her fears about the implications of her failure, her heart was making sense of truths with eternal consequences. My children are daily learning to live their lives before the face of God, of the reality of sinful nature, and hopefully, learning the wonder of the gospel.
Thus it is with fear and trembling that I prepare to welcome our newest family member into the world. I am not a pro. I could never wear any motivational mom gear because I am not #momstrong or a #bossmom by any measure. I don’t say this just because I know I should, but because I feel my own insufficiency more deeply and the weighty task of caring for these souls to be increasingly heavy. Yet I think there may be one thing I dare say I have grown in since not-so-baby-anymore #1, and that is turning to the one who is sufficient.
Many years ago, I may have crumbled into discouragement and fear at this growing sense of the enormity of motherhood, but by grace, I am learning to lean on grace. I have grown a bit, I hope, in running more quickly to my eternal refuge and help, to the one who welcomes weak moms and those who feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. I am recognizing more quickly that as I start feeling like panicking from the heights, that this is a call to trust. It is a call not to dwell on my lack but at his willingness to give grace, to finish my declaration of weakness with James 4:6’s but he gives more grace.
I have found there are one of two great temptations we are faced with when standing before tasks too great for us. First, the world would encourage us to turn inward at this point, to self-help and positive hashtags. But many of us have fallen enough times into the foolish self-confidence of Peter, who after declaring that he was different than all the other disciples, that he’d never deny Christ, found himself weeping at the end of the night. We have had enough of our own declarations of strength and subsequent failures.
The second temptation though, when we find ourselves trembling, is to try to pass off our unbelief as humility. Just as as soon-to-be-king Saul hid among the luggage even after God made clear his calling, we may walk in something that looks like humility, but actually is unwillingness to trust in his grace.
We, however, are called to a third way. To declare as Paul did, that though we are weak, our God is strong. As Christians we are freed not only to admit, but boast in our weaknesses and hear our God declare the sufficiency of his grace over us. His power is made perfect in our lack, so we stand confident in the strength he promises to give us to face the tasks he calls us to. Whatever your particular temptation in the face of God’s calling, know this — God gives more grace. He delights to show himself merciful to the humble and needy, and when you turn to him in your weakness, he receives glory by showing the sufficiency of his grace.
So here I am, in the last stretch of pregnancy, still learning to trust God with the life of my baby. Only instead of just wondering whether her heart will beat until we hold her in our arms (which I still grapple with anxiety about), I am trusting God for grace to care for her soul and the souls of her siblings.
I don’t know what you are being called to these days, whether it’s parenting or something else, but I do know that our sense of inadequacy and insufficiency often serves to remind us that God calls us to holy tasks too great for us. Maybe the reason why your particular task seems so huge is simply because it is huge. To live in obedience to God, to love as he loves, to trust and obey, to persevere through suffering– these are no small things whatever the context.
Whether in church, work, friendship, or family, we need not be strong on our own. We need not cower because of our inability. Though we may stand trembling at the precipices of God’s tremendous calling for our lives, we can trust. Fully aware of the beauty and enormity of the tasks he has granted us, we look to him. Truly, our tasks are great and we really are insufficient for them, but even so, he gives more grace.
P.S. I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been working on another writing project– but I hope to be posting more regularly again! They’ll probably be shorter posts so I can get them out more often, but hopefully they will be still be helpful.
P.P.S.At the advice of a friend, I’m starting an Instagram account for this blog that I plan on using more regularly. If you’re on Instagram you can start following @keepingheartblog.
A week ago, our family went to visit our alma mater with the girls. It was good to see our friends the Colvins & Wens, catch up and see how God is leading them in their lives. Jeff flew a kite on campus with our daughter, and it was crazy thinking that not too long ago, we were among the stressed out students walking by us, thinking about upcoming final papers and exams on the last week of classes.
It’s May, which means that many students are transitioning out of their campus ministries to go back home or to a new city for work. Jeff told me the other day about being in college and having a college graduate visit. He told them that his life just consisted of going to work, coming home, and playing video games. His point in painting this bleak post-college life was to tell them to make the best of what they had now in college because they’ll never get it again. Unfortunately, when I was a student, I heard people say things like that too. I am convinced though that this is not how God desires us to live our lives or “encourage” our college-aged brothers and sisters!
I understand that the post-graduation transition looks different for each person depending on the experience they had in college/ campus ministry and the places they are moving back to. At our church and the church Jeff interned at during seminary, many students commute to school or live nearby. These students are involved in the same churches they will be in after they graduate and the transition is more seamless (though starting to 9-5 job is a not a small change for them either). But for those who studied away from home, like us, or really experienced God at school learning to love, follow, and serve him first in the context of a campus ministry, I have noticed that the transition is often more complicated. I have seen some of my friends really take off spiritually and grow much more after college, and I have seen many others who have struggled.
Having been a college student myself away from home, staffed with a campus ministry, and talked with friends through their post-graduation experiences, I want to offer a few words of encouragement for those stepping into the post-college world in the upcoming months.
1. Prepare yourself to find a good local church, settle in, serve, and give your heart there.
This is the one thing that I have found makes the biggest difference between my friends who have graduated and thrived and who have really struggled with their faith after school. It’s not that the friends who found good churches were more spiritually mature or serious about their faith, but that the Christian life is impossible to live out alone.
While there are extreme cases where Christians may have to go through a time of isolation from other believers (being in an unreached people group, being jailed for the faith, etc.) and God is able to preserve them even in those circumstances, Scripture gives us stern admonitions to not neglect meeting with other believers because we cannot make it apart from them (Heb. 10:24-25). This isn’t because going to church proves our faith, but because we were never meant to make it on our own. Some college graduates mistakenly believe that their faith was never real and their spirituality was only an act of conforming to those around them. They think this because after they graduated, they stopped pursuing God. While there is something to be said about our faith being tested and God humbling us from our prideful view of our own spirituality, I think more often than not, it’s because these Christians believe that having true faith would have meant they would be able to continue to walk with God without being settled into a solid church. In reality, Scripture says that we cannot live the Christian life apart from the local church and the means of grace God has given us through the church. (I’ve written about some of that here for those interested: When You Don’t Feel Like Getting Up For Church)
I encourage all who are moving on from campus life to start looking for a church that is gospel-centered and is solidly committed to preaching the Scriptures, loving God and loving people. Learn a bit about what to look for in a church if you’re not going back to your home church and start praying about it even now. (You can start here: 9 marks of a healthy church). I know it’s easy to get discouraged when looking for a new church, and without people around you it gets easier and easier not to go, so I encourage you to even try to get connected with other Christians you know that are already in your new city before you go. You can also look up churches online for example at the Gospel Coalition Church Directory or Redeemer City-To-City churches.
2. Don’t try to replicate your college experience, but find out what it means to follow and serve God in your new stage of life.
College is a unique time and college ministry is a unique place. Life is different because as a college student, the amount of time you have, your responsibilities, and circumstances will never be replicated again. That’s one of the reason why in many ways, college is a special time many begin to experience God in fellowship with other Christians, serving him by making choices about what they spend their time doing, and sharing their faith with the students they have constant interaction with in the dorms, classrooms, and dining halls.
Life after college is different. There isn’t anything inherent better or worse about it, it’s just different. The responsibilities, opportunities, and day-to-day life routines will change– and that is a good thing because it is a God thing. God is the one who controls your circumstances, and you need to trust that there is no better place to grow to love him and love people than the one he has sovereignly placed you in. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek to change your circumstances (like if you’re in an unhealthy church, or in extreme cases like an abusive relationship, etc.), but that there is no “ideal” life season, job, or situation you need in order to love God, love people, and grow mature in. It will be really hard for you if you think that the only way to keep loving and serving God is by doing what you did when you were in college. Why? Because you won’t be in college anymore. So, as I did when I became a new mom and moved into a new stage of life and as I am still doing now, I encourage those transitioning to pray and ask God what it means to serve and love him now. The heart of what you learned and practiced in college will remain the same– treasuring his word, growing to know him more, loving people around you– but the way it looks will be (and should be) different.
I have found that many who think that serving God at work will look the same as what they did in college end up either feeling guilty about not being able to do the same things and/or not knowing what it means to do their God-given work in a Biblical sense. Some even give up, discouraged, and “settle”. I believe that many Christians struggle because they don’t know how to make sense of the mundane work that makes up most of their days. One recommendation I have is to read up on some resources about God and work that I’ve referenced before on this blog. (There are some at the end of this old post that can get you started: Why Does My Work Matter?)
3. Humbly bring back what you learned from college to the new (or old) churches you’re going back to.
I am so thankful for the work that college ministries do on campus. I was heavily involved in my campus ministry when I was in college and worked at one post-graduation. But I think that one thing that many college students aren’t prepared for is life in their local churches after they have had a really great time of growing and learning in the context of their campuses. This sometimes leads to major discouragement, discontent, frustration, and disillusionment.
This is where finding a good, solid church is so important because it will help you to see what it means to live out the Christian life in a fuller scope than just the college years. I also think that recognizing that serving and loving God will look different for different people in different seasons of life will help many to adjust to going back to churches or entering churches that aren’t filled with college students. At the same time, I believe that those who have experienced God in deeper and new ways at school can still bring back what they learned to the churches at home (or their new churches). This doesn’t mean necessarily starting or leading the same type of ministry that you saw in college, but seeking to see what the vision of the local church and the leaders are, coming on board with that, prayerfully considering and asking the church leaders how you can serve, and using all that you have learned in order to build up the local body of Christ. It is okay to recognize the unique experience you had or even see some of the things that may be lacking or needed in the local church. But rather than using your college experience as a measure to judge other places, see the experiences and lessons you have learned as entrusted to you by God. When you see them as a gift to be stewarded, you can humbly pray for opportunities to serve and use your gifts or perspective in support of your church’s vision, and in time they can be used and leveraged for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.
4. Direct thanks to God for your time in college rather than getting lost in nostalgia.
There isn’t anything wrong with missing friends or fellowship (or free time!) But nostalgia in and of itself often leads to a discontent that ultimately indicates a heart that says “God, you have placed me in a worse place than before. What you have given me now is not best.” In college, I loved taking long walks on our beautiful campus, sometimes hours at a time, praying, thinking, journaling. I remember such sweet moments of communion with the Lord as I prayed to him, sang to him, and reflected on all the things I was learning. Now, with two young girls at home, I can’t just take spontaneous breaks like that anymore. I can be tempted choose to react to these memories with a sense of loss (“Oh, I’ll never get that again. Those were the good old days.”), or dismiss them as not “real life.” But I don’t think either of these reactions is what pleasing to God.
Remembrance is one of the themes of the Bible, particularly remembrance of what God has done. But this remembrance isn’t empty nostalgia, longing for the good old days. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Rather, the remembrance we are called to is one that reflects on the way God has delivered and God has helped us already in a way that strengthens our faith in his promises for the future. This is seen most importantly in our remembrance of the work of Christ on the cross, and in smaller ways, in the specific works of God through our lives. In 1 Samuel 7:2, after God delivered the Israelites from battle, Samuel set up a stone, named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” in order to remember that “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” For me, instead of being sucked into longing for my college days, going to Cornell is sweet when this type of remembrance is in view. I remember who I was before college, how God worked powerfully in me at that time, and I give praise to him. I get to remember places I prayed, what I prayed there, and how he has answered since then. I am reminded of how far he’s brought me since graduation and how he is so good and so faithful to me.
I encourage upcoming college graduates who have experienced God deeply and loved their time at their campus fellowships to rather than look at what a campus ministry was able to do or at the “college life” with longing, to look to and give thanks to God who was the one who worked in your heart during the time there and through the people you knew there.
5.Resist cynicism. Trust him with your regrets, recognizing and clinging to the grace of God.
While there are some people who can’t stop longing for their college days, I know some who can’t look back without being dismissive of their college selves, campus ministry experiences, and anything college-related. I understand. It took a while before I could look back at my freshman self, full of zeal and immaturity, without cringing and just shaking my head. And then, there’s the mistakes I made, sins I committed, and people that I hurt that I feel regret for still, even after 10 years.
Sometimes, I see cynicism form because stepping into the “real world” from the “college bubble” was tough on the faith of some and they stumbled and fell. Sometimes it’s because people had rough experiences in their campus ministries and only after stepping out did they see how it impacted their view of God and the church negatively. I see some who question their faith, God, and Christianity and begin to question of whether or not what they had in college was “real” or even whether it was their “real self.”
There’s much I can say here and each person’s struggle is unique, so just briefly, I want to encourage you to look at the signs of grace in your life and consider that God knew completely what was in your heart and what was going on around you, and see how he was working in you despite yourself and despite imperfect Christians around you. As you go look back at your younger, less mature, more naiive, less sanctified self (which was really you at the time, just all those things–less mature, more naiive, less sanctified), don’t rest your gaze there. Let the grace of God bring you to a place of deeper gratitude, worship, humility, and grace. Gratitude for his blood that covers your sin and his patient perseverance with you in spite of yourself, worship for his immeasurable love and mercy with which he loves you now even though in a few years by the grace of God you will more mature and Christlike than today, and humility and grace towards others who are more immature and young in the faith than you. When you do this, you can be honest– both about the ways you fell and failed and about the ways he truly did work in and even through you by his grace and to his glory.
6.If you don’t end up struggling, praise God! And pray for your friends who are having a hard time.
Some of you already have a strong local church to go home to and a healthy understanding of work, God, church, and life. Praise God for this! I just encourage you to remember and be kind towards your friends who have a harder time transitioning. Instead of saying (or thinking) “what’s wrong with you?” I encourage you to consider that while you are strong, you have a unique opportunity to strengthen the weak. Pray for your friends, particularly those who became Christians in college, to find and settle in good churches. Listen to and lift up those who are struggling, and thank him for his grace toward you in your transition.
7. Lastly, consider the faithfulness of your God and look to the future with joyful hope!
I have always resisted a doomsday portrayal of college graduation. Why? Because it makes it seem like God is the God of the college campus and not of the rest of life! Or that his grace and the gospel which began a good work in you is insufficient to carry you through to the end (as opposed to Phil 1:6.) This is simply not true. In the same way that many of us may not have sought God as we entered into college, but he worked in us miraculously to bring us to himself and into a community of people who love him, it is not our faithfulness to him that will sustain us through the years, but his love and faithfulness to us in Christ.
Your life will change in the coming year, but look to him who has not, does not, and will never change. His grace and the knowledge of his mercy has not been exhausted in your 4 (or 3 or 5) years in college. He saved us so that in the ages to come, he may show to us the immeasurable riches of his grace! (Eph. 2:4-7) That does not end after graduation! He has worked in your life up until now, and he is able to keep you from falling– from the day you walk in cap and gown until the day of his coming. Be encouraged, looking to him who alone does not change, who has been with you up to now and will continue to carry you through to the end.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 ESV)