“Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.”
A group of our friends gathered on a cold New Year’s Day in Wisconsin for the final goodbyes. We gathered the last of our belongings and loaded them in the moving van. We chatted for a few minutes, stalling for time. My preteens giggled with their friends, but the laughter echoed hollowly in the empty house. I stood looking at these kids as memories swirled in my head: babies crawling, toddlers learning to share, elementary children creating worlds in their imaginations, preteen sleepovers with pancake-eating contests in the morning, swimming at the lake, and sledding trips to the parks. I remembered these were the kids that worshiped together at the altar, performed together in Christmas programs, and Bible quizzed together. They were lifelong friends; they had always known each other. And now, two of them were leaving.
I then looked at my own lifelong friends. This was my group, some of them family by blood, others family by relationship. We had spent most of our holidays together, celebrated each other’s accomplishments, stood by each other’s side during weddings, and rejoiced with each other when our babies arrived. We shared each other’s sorrows and griefs. As tears flooded my eyes, I hugged my friends hard! I knew we would always be friends, but the distance would forever change the daily nurturing nature of our friendship. I got into our van, held my husband’s hand, and took a deep breath. Even though I did not look back, my mind was racing with memories as we headed to Pennsylvania.
It is hard to believe that pivotal day in my life was ten years ago. To be totally transparent with you, it was a tough move for me. For the first few months, I put on a smile, but inside I was battling depression. I forced myself to keep a routine when I desperately wanted to hibernate under the covers. I, who loved adventure, struggled to find the energy to explore a new grocery store. As spring thawed the frozen ground, I determined to snap out of my depression and for the next few years I lived on experiences. We did a lot of traveling: New York City, Vermont, Maine, North Carolina, Washington DC, and Williamsburg, Virginia. The sightseeing provided a temporary band aid for my grief.
Yet, the novelty of the experiences wore off, leaving me battling depression once again. I did find things that I really loved about my new home: the mountains, the warmer weather, and the longer springs and autumns. But when I contrasted it with the things I had lost, I felt like my emotional bank account was always in the red. I remember about seven years ago, my daughter asking me a straightforward question: Will you ever be happy in Pennsylvania? I honestly did not know. This question prompted me to spend time in prayer asking God to help me to learn to be content. I chose to focus on my blessings and not on my losses. I stopped measuring my life in Pennsylvania against the life I had in Wisconsin. I also stopped trying to understand why God had moved my family to Pennsylvania and, instead, focused on what God was trying to teach me. The depression lifted and my perspective started to change. It has been a slow process, and I know that God has used this time to teach me about myself and, more importantly, His unfailing love for me.
Like most of you, I am so ready to start a new year! My new calendar was hung up on December 30, in anticipation of 2021. For the first time in years, I stayed up until midnight to welcome in the new year. Yet, if you look at the political climate, the numbers of COVID-19 cases increasing, and the advent of a new strain of the virus, it is easy to look at the new year with pessimistic, even cynical eyes. I know that when I sat down with my husband to discuss plans for our 25th anniversary, it was with the caveat, “if restrictions are lifted.” It is easy to look at the surface of our current situations and lean into despair for the upcoming year, even though flipping the calendar sparked a moment of joy.
In his book, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Wendell Berry wrote, “For quite a while it has been possible for a free and thoughtful person to see that to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable is to reduce it. Now almost suddenly, it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever ‘Model’ we use) is to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale. That is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity to despair.” In other words, when I moved to Pennsylvania, or flipped the calendar to 2021, it was easy to look at what I can see, such as losses, COVID-19 numbers, and restrictions. But when I focus only on what I can see, I reduce life and the capacity of hope.
For the past two years, I have asked God to give me a word or a phrase as a theme for my life. This year, I felt like God gave me the simple two-letter word “up”. I looked up synonyms in the thesaurus to try to make the word seem more sophisticated, but nothing else seemed to resonate with me. “Up”, as an adjective, is defined as “moving toward a higher place or position.” I am sure, as the year progresses, God will unpack that simple word with even deeper meaning for me. At this moment, I feel like God is telling me to look upward, to look towards hope! Things may seem bleak in the news, in the hospitals, and on my calendar, but my hope is not fixed on what I can see! If I look up towards God, I can be confident that God has things in control.
Abraham, the first person called into a covenant relationship with God, was challenged to trust God with his future by being willing to sacrifice his promised son on an altar. God saw Abraham’s faith with the raised knife and told him to stop, declaring to Abraham, “I know that you fear God”. According to the Bible, Abraham then lifted up his eyes and saw a ram caught in the bushes near the altar. His words, spoken earlier to his son, that God would provide a sacrifice, were fulfilled. Abraham had no idea how things would turn out as he walked up the mountain to sacrifice his son, but he did know that God was in control.
I have no idea what 2021 has in store for me. I don’t know if my anniversary trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons will happen. But I do know that God has already ordered my steps, and that if I look up and trust Him, I can have hope!