5 Lessons I’m Endeavoring to Learn

As most of you know, I am now in my last semester of undergrad, and as such, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time reflecting on what God has taught me during these past four years. For those of you who spend extended periods of time with me, these five lessons won’t be anything new because I talk about them frequently, but I’m realizing that they’re good enough to bear repeating.

1. Growth is circular.

Whenever I learn something, I have this silly expectation that I will master it the first time around and then be able to move on. In reality, I often learn a lesson, and then a situation comes up in my life that tests whether I’ve actually learned the lesson I’m claiming to have mastered, at which point I quickly discover that I have so much more to learn. Take, for example, last Friday. In my Christian Discipling class we were discussing emotional authenticity, and I was patting myself on the back for having mastered the art of tapping into my true emotions. Three hours later I found myself upset and confused about a situation with a friend that drug up old wounds, but incredibly unwilling to allow myself to press into what I was truly feeling. It took my roommates asking if I was okay (and not taking yes for an answer) for me to acknowledge that I was hurting. At which point I had two choices – be frustrated with myself for failing to be true to my emotions, or recognize the circular nature of growth. Growth is like a moving bike. If you are a speck on the wheel of a bike, it feels like you’re making progress as the wheel moves forward, only to be drug backwards over and over again. But, if you look at the bike as a whole, it is consistently moving forward. (This analogy is much easier to describe with hand motions, but I’ll trust you to get the idea). In the same way as we grow, if we only focus on our current situation, we often feel like we’ve backslid and lost all we’ve learned. However, if we take a step back and look at how far we’ve come since we started, we can no longer deny our growth.

kelly-with-hannahPretend to be a speck on the wheel of my tricycle and then you’ll hopefully understand my analogy. 🙂 

2. God has room for your full range of emotions.

I am known for giving people this advice all the time, and until last summer, I thought I believed it. But last summer, for the first time in my life, I found myself feeling angry at God, and I suddenly wasn’t so sure He could actually handle ALL of my emotions. Being angry at God is scary, and it’s not a place I would recommend sitting for a long period of time, but unless you are willing to engage that emotion, you won’t be able to move beyond it. In her newest book called Present Over Perfect Shauna Niequist talks about oil and vinegar prayers. She says that we want to get to the oil in our prayers – the beautiful, rich, intimate times with God, but that in order to get there we must pray through the vinegar – our fears, frustrations, and really anything that is bitter in our lives. And you know what I’ve found in mining though the darkness within me? That God truly does have room for my full range of emotions. My questions and doubts don’t scare Him because He knows that no matter how hard I push back, He will come out true.

img_1957Sometimes my emotions feel as strong and reckless as the ocean, but God is faithful to never let me drown. 

3. Prayer is never powerless.

During my freshman year, one of my dear friends and hallmates used this phrase, and it has stuck with me ever since. This phrase usually comes to mind when I’m in a situation where I feel powerless and God is asking me to pray, which is endlessly frustrating to me! I want to fix, answer, do, but God says, “wait, trust, pray.” Over and over and over again I have seen the power of prayer at work in my life. In response to my prayers God has provided housing, mended relationships, drawn people to Himself, stirred hearts, and healed in miraculous ways. Sometimes I feel like I’m just flinging words at the sky, but lately God’s been reminding me that He hears me. It blows my mind that we serve a God who wants nothing more than to listen to us, and takes into consideration the things we have to say.

imgp0180Sweet Bree gets all the credit for the “prayer is never powerless” line. 

4. Should is a dangerous word.

If we are doing something because we feel we should, that is a warning sign that we are not being authentic to who we were created to be. As I look back over my time in college, I realize how many decisions I made out of a place of should. It is only in the past few months that I’ve been truly able to look at my life and say, “Yes, this is who I’m meant to be.” Not that I’m living in full authenticity by any stretch of the imagination (see #1) but lately I’ve been marveling in how much joy it brings me to do the work that I was made to do. When you find those things that make you come alive, everything else pales in comparison. Sometimes that means being quirky or different. So much of college is not only learning who you are, but coming to terms with what you’ve learned about yourself. My encouragement is this – if it brings you joy, don’t let it be stopped or silenced. In the words of Howard Thurman “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

img_1181Experiencing other cultures makes me come alive!

5. God is trustworthy.

This sounds simple, but truly believing this changes everything. If God is trustworthy, then my future is secure. This is probably the most important lesson I continue to learn – life-altering enough to get it tattooed on my arm. Sometimes my roommates ask me to name a time when God has failed me, and I can never do it. The ways of God are not my ways, and He loves to surprise me, but He has never failed me, not once. One of my current favorite songs is “Seasons Change by United Pursuit, and the chorus, though simple is profound. “Though the seasons change/Your love remains.”

imgp2410Father, since you are a God who loves me unconditionally, help me become a daughter who trusts you no matter what.

Discipline

Christmas break is always a time of intense reflection for me. Not only has the fall semester ended, but a whole year of life, according to the calendar we follow, is coming to a close. I usually spend much of my time at home processing what has happened in the year that passed, and dreaming of what the new year may hold.

Around this time last year, I started thinking about what I wanted 2016 to be about. Some years I’ve made New Year’s revolutions, but they’ve never been particularly helpful for me, so I decided to instead pray for God to give me a word for the year. As I began to pray, I secretly hoped God would give me a word like joy, or adventure, or whimsy.

Instead God told me that my word for 2016 would be discipline.

And much as I wanted to push back, I knew, with complete certainty, that the word fit.

Most people I know (myself included) flinch a little at the idea of discipline. It just feels like such a rigid concept. But the overwhelming sense I got from God was of Him spurring me on to greater things than I had previously attempted, or in the words of my roommate Ellisa, shloving me (shoving me with love). In telling me that my word for the year was discipline, God was not being heavy-handed, but He was very clearly saying to me that in order to get where I wanted to be, I was going to have to be willing to put in some hard work.

When God gave me discipline as my word for last year, I knew it was relevant to January Kelly, but I had no idea just how relevant it would continue to be as the year progressed. I’ve never had a theme so completely follow me and shape my life for such an extended period of time. January Kelly often failed at discipline, but God said, “It’s ok, just pick yourself up and try again.” And then God told April Kelly, “Discipline, my daughter, is your word for the year because I am preparing you for the immeasurably more just over the horizon.” July Kelly was frequently reminded of Eugene Peterson’s words about faithfulness (which takes immense discipline) being a long obedience in the same direction in an age of instant gratification. And October Kelly continued to run into situations where discipline, or continual choosing, was incredibly important. It never stopped being important.

Here are a few of the many situations in which discipline played an important role in my life:

  • It took discipline to stick to food restriction after food restriction after food restriction as my body continued to reject various food groups.
  • It took discipline to read from Leviticus into 1 Chronicles.
  • It took discipline to wake up at 5am and clean dorms for 8 hours a day all summer in a job that got progressively more draining as the summer wore on.
  • It took discipline to stay while so many I know got to go.
  • It took discipline to not walk away from two friendships that almost completely crashed and burned.
  • And ultimately, it took discipline to sit still instead of running away while God took me to new depths of surrender and trust.

But hard as each of those things were, they produced incredible fruit. Here’s what I saw as a result of my discipline:

  • Because I listened to my body and cut many foods out of my diet, I’m eating healthier and know more about my how my body works than ever before.
  • Because I dug into the Old Testament instead of reading easier to understand passages of scripture, I’ve been able to find surprising solidarity amongst the characters of the story of God.
  • Because I stayed in a job that, to be totally honest, ripped me apart emotionally, I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
  • Because I stayed in the states instead of traveling internationally, I’ve been able to plug into the prayer room at my church – an experience which has blessed me beyond measure.
  • Because I continued to invest in friendships that appeared to have ended, I’ve seen breathtaking revival and renewal in our relationships that still leaves me speechless.
  • And ultimately, because I’ve dug into God instead of running away, I am currently holding my future more loosely, and feeling more peaceful and content about my life than I have in a very long time.

All of this (and more) because I chose discipline.

But the purpose of this post is not for me to brag. None of these things came easily. Just this month it took me embarrassingly long (20 days if you must know) to get through the first eight chapters of 1 Chronicles.There were the two cussing phases I went through (before this moment I don’t think anyone but my housemates and coworkers knew about these) where my go-to response for strong emotions was swear words.  I almost walked out on my summer job and both of the friendships I had ceased to hope could be restored. And there were intense periods of time where I questioned the goodness and faithfulness of God to an extent that scared me.

As you can clearly see, I’m not there yet. Something tells me that the need for discipline won’t magically disappear at the end of 2016. However, sitting where I do today, I can see progress that seemed completely outside of the realm of possibility at this time last year.

One of the most surprising things I learned this year was how much joy can be born of discipline. Think of a child learning to walk, or a man climbing a mountain – both accomplishments take immense discipline but produce immeasurable joy!

To be completely candid with you, 2016 has quite possibly been the hardest year of my life. And yet, looking back I see a year that ripped me to shreds, and a God that is putting me back together, more whole, and complete, and who I’m made to be than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

And that is something worth celebrating!

Occasionally in this life we get to zoom out and see the bigger picture, and wow, the view is stunning!

So as the sun sets on 2016 I am overwhelmed by gratitude for a God who has the creativity and foresight to give me a word that had the power to shape an entire year of my life, and helped me dig deeply into the circular process of growth in order to launch me into what this next year of life will bring my way.

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Tickled Pink – A Poem

Although I just shared a blog post two days ago, I stumbled across this poem today that is so beautiful, and feels so fitting as I wrap up this summer season of life, that I couldn’t help but share it.


Tickled Pink
by Kevin Kling

At times in our pink innocence, we lie fallow, composting waiting to grow. And other times we rush headlong like so many of our ancestors. But rush headlong or lie fallow, it doesn’t matter. One day you’ll round a corner, your path is shifted. In a blink, something is missing. It’s stolen, misplaced, it’s gone. Your heart, a memory, a limb, a promise, a person. Your innocence is gone, and now your journey has changed. Your path, as though channeled through a spectrum, is refracted, and has left you pointed in a new direction. Some won’t approve. Some will want the other you. And some will cry that you’ve left it all. But what has happened, has happened, and cannot be undone. We pay for our laughter. We pay to weep. Knowledge is not cheap. To survive we must return to our senses, touch, taste, smell, sight, sound. We must let our spirit guide us, our spirit that lives in breath. With each breath we inhale, we exhale. We inspire, we expire. Every breath has a possibility of a laugh, a cry, a story, a song. Every conversation is an exchange of spirit, the words flowing bitter or sweet over the tongue. Every scar is a monument to a battle survived. Now when you’re born into loss, you grow from it. But when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it. A slow move to an embrace, an embrace that leaves you holding tight the beauty wrapped in the grotesque, an embrace that becomes a dance, a new dance, a dance of pink.

I Want My Life to Matter

(Written on June 21st.)

One year ago today I rode an elephant.

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We awoke at dawn, sleepily dressing in big headbands or hats to keep the spiders out of our hair, and donning our comfiest pants to avoid unnecessary chafing. After a quick ride in the van with our quirky driver, Krishna, we used wooden platforms to climb onto the backs of elephants, four girls per animal. A Nepali man guided our elephant for an hour and a half through the jungle, pointing out deer, boars, storks, peacocks, monkeys, mongooses, rhinos and even a tiger footprint! It was a magical and utterly unforgettable morning.

Fast forward one year.

I yet again awoke at dawn, routinely dressing in an old t-shirt and my zip-off pants. After a ten minute walk to the heart of campus with my housemate Kaylee, I spent eight hours vacuuming hallways, scrubbing toilets, and wiping out drawers. Our custodial team was lively per usual, joking and singing, but you could tell that, just beneath the surface, many of us were either stressed by life’s conundrums, or nauseous from the smell of the new carpets in the otherwise decrepit dorm. It was just another day in the life of a summer custodial worker.

When you put June 21, 2015 side-by-side with June 21, 2016, the contrast is startling. And I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t wake up this morning and wish that the 5:00am alarm meant it was time to ride an elephant.

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I’d also be lying if I said there haven’t been days this summer when I have absolutely ached to go back to Nepal. As I watch six of my Nepal teammates travel internationally again this summer, the comparison bug bites hard.

However, in my moments of discontentment, God is always faithful to remind me what I most need to hear. A few days ago I was wrestling with not being back in Nepal, so I decided to look at my journal from last summer to see what I had been doing on this day one year ago. I flipped through the travel-worn pages to find the right entry, and when I did, this is what I read:

“Today was a hard day. I spent most of it in bed with a  fever. I’m fighting to give myself grace, still feeling some numbness, not wanting to eat ever, and am so overwhelmed.”

Hmm, on the day when I’m feeling most discontent, God chooses to remind me that Nepal was not all roses and sunshine or peaches and cream. I tend to romanticize travel, I know I do. But in recalling that day in Nepal when I was so dehydrated that I couldn’t even get out of bed, I also remembered a fundamental lesson that I far too often overlook.

In the words of Ben Rector “life is not the mountaintops – it’s the walking in between.”

Every life has big days – the day you graduate from college, get married, run your first marathon, have a baby, or move across the country. However, in between these big days are hundreds of seemingly insignificant little days. Days when the most exciting event is receiving a letter from a faraway friend; days when you wake up running, and don’t stop until you fall into bed; and days when life feels like an endless cycle of go to work, do the laundry, prep food, take a shower, repeat.

And yet, in the midst of the mundane, life is bursting with purpose and beauty, if only we have eyes to see it. Learning to cook alongside my roommates, having vulnerable conversations with my custodial teammates, singing as I clean, helping a new housemate feel welcome in our home, praying for my missionary friends – all of these things feel so small in the moment, and yet, when I step back and view them together, these are the patches of fabric that piece together to make the beautifully rich tapestry that is my life.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Shauna Niequist, an author who has taught me so much about celebration in the midst of the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

“This is it. This is life in all its glory, swirling and unfolding around us, disguised as pedantic, pedestrian non-events. But pull of the mask and you will find your life, waiting to be made, chosen, woven, crafted.

Your life, right now, today, is exploding with energy and power and detail and dimension, better than the best movie you have ever seen. You and your family and your friends and your house and your dinner table and your garage have all the makings of a life of epic proportions, a story for the ages. Because they all are. Every life is.

You have stories worth telling, memories worth remembering, dreams worth working toward, a body worth feeding, a soul worth tending, and beyond that, the God of the universe dwells within you, the true culmination of super and natural.

You are more than dust and bones.
You are spirit and power and image of God.
And you have been given today.”

A Holy Dark

This morning I woke up early. And by early I mean 5AM, which I know is not as early as some of you greet the day, but in my neck of the woods, on these late October days, 5AM is two hours before the sun rises, and therefore, early.

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Although the rest of my house was still asleep when I cozied up in our living room, far from feeling alone I felt surrounded by a comforting crowd of early risers. I thought of my friend Anna who lives in Pennsylvania, and routinely rises before the sun to go to her seamstress job. I thought of my grandparents who have always lived by the motto “early to bed, early to rise!” I thought of all the mothers awake before the dawn to hold their precious, fussy babies who refuse to sleep through the night. And I thought of my own mother who has always preferred the peaceful morning hours to other, faster paced moments of the day.

Now, I don’t normally get up at 5AM, but last night I had a stomachache, and chose to go to bed by 9 o’clock, which meant the only way to complete my homework was to wake up before the sun. But although my purpose in getting up early was to work, I found a holy stillness in those pre-dawn hours. I took great joy in my steaming bowl of oatmeal, the twinkly lights in our living room, and listening, for the first time this year, to the Thanksgiving music my mom and I so deeply enjoy.

For the past two years my life has been full of really exciting experiences. First I moved out of my childhood home to a new city, then I ventured to Eastern Europe, next I entered and exited my first serious relationship, and then I spent an exhilarating six weeks in Nepal, with plenty of smaller excitements in between. These experiences have been good, and hard, and stretching, and beautiful, but most of all, they’ve been big. After returning to the states from Nepal, I distinctly remember thinking, “I could use a season of quiet, simple, undramatic everyday life.” And that’s exactly what this season has been. Somehow the big experiences have helped me better appreciate the little beauties hidden in every day. The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t want to take any blessing for granted, no matter how small. As a sweet 92-year-old woman reminded me yesterday, every day is a good day because I am alive!

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So Father, thank you for the Holy Dark I experienced this morning. Thank you for using it to energize me, refresh me, and remind me that your mercies are truly new every morning.

Looking Up for Affirmation

It’s dusk when we walk into the garden of the Gethsemane House of Prayer in Kathmandu. We are greeted by several barking dogs and two rambunctious Nepali children. As we go inside the house, the children eagerly follow, running circles around our legs. We settle into the prayer room for the worship night, and one of the missionaries tells us that the young boy’s name is Arun and his sister’s name is Nisa.

The worship night begins, and Arun asks to color in Courtney’s journal. She obliges, handing him her blue highlighter, and watching as he proceeds to draw simple pictures on the lined pages. As those around me began to sing, I start to write in my own journal. I write in deliberate, looping cursive, not writing to get my thoughts on paper as I normally would, but taking time to truly listen to God.

Nisa

After running around the room for a while, Nisa comes over to me and crawls in my lap. She watches me write for a minute or two, and then she motions for my pen. With incredibly deliberate strokes, Nisa draws circles and squiggly lines on a page of my journal, and I sit and observe her attentiveness. As I watch her, I feel my heart swell with appreciation for this tiny human being, this beautiful daughter of God who has crossed my path. Every once and a while, Nisa looks up at me for affirmation, and I smile at her. And as I sit there, feeling her warmth on my lap, God reveals a piece of His heart to me.

Once Nisa finishes writing, I turn the page and write this reflection:

Dear God,
Thank you for revealing your heart to me. Those scribbles on the preceding page have helped me see your character. They’re from Nisa at the Prayer House, and as I watched her draw, I saw your heart for me. I am the little girl who takes the pen and meticulously draws on the pages of my life. But no matter how hard I focus, or try to imitate you, my scribbles will never be as beautiful as yours, And yet, as I scribble, you look on with love. When I look to you for affirmation, you smile. And then you gently take the pen from my hand, turn the page, and continue to write a beautiful story. Sometimes I say you laugh when I plan, but tonight I see that when I plan, you smile the most genuine and loving smile. You don’t condemn my plans, you just ask me to surrender them. In the image of the Creator, I create. And then I submit. So Father, take my scribbles and do what you will with them. I know I can trust you because you love me more than I can fathom. I love you!
Kelly