i wrote again today

Happy Tuesday kids!

It’s been an action packed week for me; after being at the salon full time this week, I also had my first weekend doing overnight with the girls at the safe house and I think it went well. When I came in on Friday afternoon all done up in my salon alter-ego, the girls told me I looked like I belonged on the ‘bad girls club’, which I’m choosing to believe means something positive.

As usual, I’m really enjoying my day off, which is only in the very beginning stages at 11 am, curled up at a corner table in Starbucks, sitting still and thinking.

I’ve been writing almost every day this month, whether it’s little nothings on my computer, or my journal, but it’s a different sort of feel than my usual blogs. I’ve really come to love expressing myself this way. It’s gotten to the point where I’d almost associate myself as being a writer sooner than I would a film student graduate.

“We write for the same reason we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone – because we have the impulse to explain who we are.”

Maya Angelou

There’s something powerful about images though, especially when paired with words. This week I’ve been revisiting favorite photos from last year, in all the difference places I had a chance to spend time in. I think that’s something that really keeps me grounded—I never, ever want to forget how easy I have it here and I never want to take for granted all the privileges I have. Beyond that, I just miss it.

I feel really annoying on Instagram especially, because I’m constantly posting pictures of Africa or the kids and how I miss it. I don’t know how I could react any other way. I can’t pretend I didn’t live there for a year. I can’t hide the fact that it was almost a year ago now that I came back, and that my heart still yearns for that life, even though God is mercifully allowing me to be content exactly where I am.

It was a big deal to me, and I don’t know when it’ll stop being a big deal. I don’t know when everyone will be tired of hearing about it, but I’d imagine that after a year being back in America everyone is probably pretty done with my nostalgia.

But when I’m sitting here in stylish little boots from Forever21 that I bought with my own money, looking at the remainder of my iced caramel machiatto, listening to ‘Ballroom Blitz’ by Sweet and checking my iPhone every few minutes the days of dirt in everything I own, and freshly butchered chicken remains and my littles climbing up to peek in my window to ask for biscuits feels achingly far away.

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It’s hard for me to be here, some days.

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Right before I started working at the salon, when I realized I wouldn’t be going back to Tanzania, I spent an afternoon sobbing on the couch with my dad about how I didn’t know how to forgive myself for being here and having what I have, when I know so many people that don’t have. How are you supposed to adapt back to standards of living like they’re the only ones or the most desirable?

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It’s not bad to have a few cute pairs of shoes, but living in Tanzania I was ashamed to have more than one pair of sandals because all my friends there lived with one or none at all. It’s not bad to enjoy cute outfits, but living in Tanzania taught me that your clean shirt is for church on Sundays and you wear your one other each day until there are holes in it—and even then you’ll still wear it. It’s not bad to ‘not feel in the mood for more chicken’, but in Tanzania chickens are expensive and kids don’t usually get any, because it’s all for the adults and if you get it once or twice a week, you are affluent. It’s not a bad thing to make decisions based on what you personally need in situations, but Tanzania taught me that if something affects you, it affects your family, your friends and your community… so make sure you think of them when you make decisions.

I can’t undo my experiences, and I wouldn’t for anything in the world.
I just can’t turn it off and compartmentalize it sometimes.
I can’t forget my little ones.
I can’t forget their faces, and how much they taught me about a new way to live.
I can’t accept that the American way of looking at the world is always going to be the best.

And I just miss my kids.
A lot.

the feelin’ that makes me do wild things

Tuesdays are glorious for me, mostly because it’s the only day during the week where I’m totally free to do anything I want to do and also do nothing if that’s what I feel like.

I haven’t stopped running in the past week or so.

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Besides working, I’ve also been trying to get more involved with people still in town, and more involved at the church I’ve been attending the last two months. It all somehow culminated this week and in the past week, after work I’ve gone to a bible study, out to South Street, to a dancing class, caught up with an old friend from college who was in town, went Baby shower registering at Target and then gone to see ‘Gone Girl’. I was totally wiped by the time Sunday night rolled around… I’m pretty sure I went to bed at 9:30. I turned down for my sanity.

I very recently discovered that despite the fact that I’m usually quite good with people and don’t have a problem expressing myself, I have introverted tendencies (which would explain why all the people-ing this week wore me out). I’m now trying to respect myself in that and have since spent the past 24 hours totally alone and resting and it’s been so unbelievably therapeutic for me.

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I spent some time writing at the library today, both in my journal and for future blog posts. I made sure that I went to the Headquarters library which is larger and more inspirational as far as the environment goes, and snuck in one of those Starbucks Coffee glass bottles I found in our fridge somehow, so I had some extra incentive to create. I also picked up a few books there, one of which being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Babylon Revisited’.

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I finished ‘Brave New World’ last week and so far I’m enjoying Fitzgerald’s two characters named Harry and Sally in this new story, and the irony of their two names is not lost on me.

Afterwards I went to my dance lesson at Fred Astaire studios. I went to the free group lesson this past Friday and they offer two private lessons for $20, so I snagged that opportunity and today got to do the hustle, salsa and the tango. I’m almost eighty percent sure that the instructor was just being complimentary because he wants me to pay for normal lessons when my discount ones expire (my inner cynic emerges), but he kept telling me that I was progressing really quickly and well and he asked me if I’d danced before or played sports, because I seemed so athletic.

I’ll take it.

At any rate, I feel like a stick bug or a giraffe sometimes with my twiggy appendages and it would be quite a thing to control them in a graceful and beautiful way so I’d really like to continue pursuing these lessons. We shall see. I do things once and by the second trip or attempt (with anything really) I’ve already got the next five years planned out and I’m an expert in the matter. I have one more lesson on Thursday morning this week, which I’m really looking forward too.

Finally, I took myself to Vineyards Park hoping that the thrift shop rollerblades I bought myself for $10 a few months back were still in my trunk. I was pleased to find that the case, so I strapped myself in and went around the little lake a few times, just reveling in the sunshine. Sunshine! I’ve been inside working for weeks (which I thank God for), and my poor freckles haven’t had so much as a flicker of rejuvenation.

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I’m a different person when I get to be outside. Something about sweating, physical exertion and the combination of a perfectly punk Pandora station (“The Maine”, judge me not, we were all teens in late 2000s) made me feel more alive than I’ve felt in weeks. Every sense was heightened, from the feel of the sunshine on my skin to the subtle fish smell wafting through the air from the lake to the sight of a large white heron swiftly descending near the waters’ edge.

I finished up this wonderful day of solitude by cooking quesadillas with Christina, who kept making me laugh as she deep fried her homemade chips in oil and I mashed up avocados for guacamole. We managed to pull off a decent meal for our ‘family night’, which has been a Tuesday night tradition for a few years now. No one is allowed to be out, at work or on their phones at the dinner table and we’re really only able to pull it off once a week, but I really cherish that time with my family. After spending so much time away from them, I jealously guard every second I get to be with them because this whole me living-at-home thing won’t last forever (so they say… ).

I don’t have anything particularly deep or insightful to share about my day. I just think it’s nice to appreciate wonderful days when they happen and celebrate the fact that there is so much good to be found in just resting. Jesus rested, didn’t he? He knew when to draw back so he could again draw near. I can’t explain it to you all, but somehow me being alone under the sun listening to some good music or taking an hour to write all the thoughts flying around in my head somehow makes me a better conversationalist and a better empathizer, so I’m going to need to keep that up–for everyone’s sake.

Meanwhile, my feet hit the ground running starting tomorrow, and I work straight through to next Tuesdays, so there’s a good chance I won’t be heard from until then. I have several blog ideas cooking up in my head, so we’ll see. For now, it’s time for me to turn in for the night; please enjoy some of F. Scott’s lovely words:

“Clark,” she said softly, “I wouldn’t change you for the world. You’re sweet the way you are. The things that’ll make you fail I’ll love always–the living in the past, the lazy days and nights you have, and all your carelessness and generosity.”
“But you’re going away?”
“Yes–because I couldn’t ever marry you. You’ve a place in my heart that no one else ever could have, but tied down here I’d get restless. I’d feel I was–wasting myself. There’s two sides to me, you see. There’s that sleepy old side you love; an’ there’s a sort of energy–the feelin’ that makes me do wild things. That’s the part of me that may be useful somewhere, that’ll last when I’m not beautiful anymore.”

Normalville, USA & still not missing the mark

I live!

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Since I started this when I was on the mission field, and now finding myself not on the (same) mission field, I’ve kind of been at a loss as to how this little blog can still be a thing. Ideas of re-branding and changing the look to somehow make it fit more with my life now come to mind, but ultimately, I’ll probably write this blog, promise to write more frequently and then just pretend that’s the same thing as doing it.

(Side note, this article embodies the struggle of my entire life: Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed”. Sound familiar to anyone?)

Upon my realization that I wouldn’t be going back to Tanzania, I was struck by a second upsetting realization: I need to get a job. I need to take care of my bills (few though they are) and occupy my time while I’m here at home (for however long I’m here), so I started looking for jobs. Through a series of favorable circumstances, I had and good connection at a high-end hair salon in town (read: my little sister has been working there for two years and helped get me the job) and so that’s where I’ve been close to 40 hours a week for the past almost two months.

It’s a nice feeling to make money again, mostly just because I feel like less of a burden to my parents when I’m not panhandling over dinner for gas money (my appeal ever grows, guys). My pride loves the illusion of self-sufficiency when I can take care of my own responsibilities, like my phone, car insurance, gas, students loans, and, as a new addition, an embarrassing medical bill that I procured back in July after fainting in a nail salon and being rushed to the emergency room for no reason.

Working at the salon has been an interesting place of growth for me. The general response from my closest friends was almost unanimously, “Does that mean you have to do your hair and makeup everyday?” to which the answer is yes, and to which we all had a side splitting good laugh because I kind of view myself like this:

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Someday I’ll write about my thoughts on how I got so funny about trying to look pretty, but today is not that day. For now, let’s just say, I looked like Pete Wentz for the first few weeks getting used to using all the eyeliner, but I’ve mastered it and now and I own three lipsticks, so life is full of surprises and miracles happen every day. I’m enjoying working there and getting to know my coworkers, which is good because that’s about 40 hours of my week.

I’ve also gotten the chance to start working with a local safehouse for girls, which is really exciting for me because I’ve wanted a chance to do this kind of ministry for a long time. It’s easy physically, because it’s just essentially hanging out with teenage girls, but can be exhausting emotionally because it’s we’re all people and people are messy and people have hurts that we’re meant to help with living people who say Jesus can save anyone.

I can’t say much more about it for safety reasons, but I’m thoroughly enjoying a chance to be front and center with people who need the love and kindness that Jesus brings, here in the good old U.S. of A.

—————–

That brings me to what God has been working on with me the past few weeks.

It’s all too easy after spending time on the mission field to come back and nurse this sort of unbiblical worldview that the only people really serving the Lord are the people who are sacrificing in a “radical” or “big” way overseas. For me, this was not how I spent my year in Tanzania; I genuinely believe that I was meant to be there, and there was nothing wrong with the joy that I got from being with and teaching the kids and living how we did. That’s what life is meant to be like for someone who says they know Jesus.

And so it never started out in an unhealthy way. I mean, some of the people I respect the most (like my parents) function as spirit-filled believers creating disciples and ‘pouring out’ their time and resources are doing so here in America. I didn’t come home with that much disrespect for others.

What I did come home with, subtle as the subversive thought may have been, was this staunchly held belief that my particular life would only matter if I was doing something “radical”. That may be okay for others, I reasoned with myself, raising my faux-hipster banner high above my ombre-d hair, but my life is going to be different. I’m going to make the uncomfortable sacrifices. I’m going to be adventurous. I’m never going to settle. I shouldn’t have to. I am Generation Joshua (whatever that means). I’m in this world to make a difference and stand out… for Jesus.

If I could just jump on the bandwagon of disillusioned twenty somethings who create their identity by blaming all their character flaws on their upbringing, part of that mindset comes from having read a bit too much from the Harris twins in high school, and the other part from graduating from a university where I’ll only make it into the alumni promotional pamphlet if I get my own TV show, but not if I move back in with my parents and work a job outside my degree in order to pay off the loans I amassed from such an establishment (we are the 99 percent).

Now I’m going to be an adult, jump off that bandwagon and say that this attitude is obnoxious, that it reeks of self-adulation and that it is my responsibility to take that to the Cross and deal with it with Jesus.

God forgive me.

Forgive me for all the times I’ve confused obedience to you with ‘making a name for myself’ (Genesis 11:4). Forgive me for all the times where I’ve missed the mark by returning to my last point of obedience, instead of asking you daily how you’d have me serve you (Matthew 15:8 – 9).

(The silver lining is coming, guys, don’t give up on me now.)

I believe part of, if not the entire reason why God has delayed my overseas trips at this point is to free me from that that mindset that I have to do ‘big things’ for my life to matter. The reality is that I didn’t do anything more grand in Africa than I’m doing here: I am living, I am seeking to know God more, I am trying to serve others around me and ‘be a light’ exactly where I am. Just because I had no electricity and less food choices there doesn’t mean that the people and places here in the Western, developed world are less valuable to the heart of Christ.

This past Sunday at Summit, we touched on a passage of scripture that has freed me from the tireless circle of “am I in God’s will/where I need to be/doing what He wants me to do” that I’m so prone to fall into:

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.

Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work. And live peacefully with each other.

Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.

See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people.

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
– 1 Thessalonians 5: 11- 18

While there is obviously more scripture to follow this about how we can live in a way that’s kingdom valuable, it’s a really good point to start at.

Let’s just talk about how none of these things depend on a particular location.

If I live my life in Normalville, USA for the rest of my life, but still engage the people and world around me in this way, I am okay. This is God’s will for me, because I belong to Christ Jesus. I can live in a way that honors Christ no matter which world I’m living in, whether it be first or third.

I do believe my future involves more overseas excursions, still, by the way. I just (clearly) have some things to learn first.

And so, I am thankful–thankful that God delays in giving us what we want, in order to show us what we really need. I am thankful that He removes dreams for a time, only to restore them in the future, when we aren’t in danger of exalting them higher than He himself ought to be exalted. What a marvelously kind, exceedingly patient, and good Father He is to do this for us.

helpful, nice & heretical

I had an overwhelming sense of patriotism as I walked into church today. 
Well, not exactly patriotism, but just a distinct, unapologetic pride when I heard the name: Jesus.

It was such a feeling of re-centering after what felt like a week of almost missing it–trying to be understood and to understand, to share and to encourage, to be present and to empathize with others, sans one teeny, tiny detail. I’m at a place where I so desperately want to give what I have, whether it’s time or kindness or bits of truth and I’m trying to, but it’s all felt funny and forced and fabricated somehow. I didn’t understand why until I heard the name as I walked into the doors of the Baron Collier auditorium where Summit Church meets. 

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There was such a swell of love in my chest as I made my way in and a sense of relief washed over me. No matter how many times I try to do this whole “lifestyle gospel”, being a living example of the love of Christ (which I’m all about, and I believe Jesus himself is all about), I do others and myself a major disservice when I try to minister and miss the name, and the purpose attached to it. 

There was an “a-ha” moment I had in my head as I was on the phone with one of my best friends last night. I heard myself say something along of the lines of “I’m just trying to give helpful advice wherever I can” in the same breath as talking about how we all can be witnesses to Jesus wherever we are. And I caught that. It was unsettling. Why was it so unsettling? Where had I heard that before?

I love hearing the Holy Spirit talk to me and as I stood to join in worship, I heard His still, small voice with all the familiarity and certainty that He’s been revealing to me over the past few years.

Everything you are and everything you stand for is inexplainable and has no value when you take me out of it, Stephanie. You want to show hurting women how valuable they are and how to respect themselves, but you can’t make them see how without them knowing that I see them as valuable first. You want to hold and feed and love all the babies of the earth, but it doesn’t matter if you aren’t doing it to honor me and show me to them. You want more to life than just punching a time-card and you want to impact people, but why? Why do it all in the first place? You and I both know it’s not the whole “triumph of the human spirit” thing. 

You don’t make any sense without me.
What you have to say, what you believe, how you love…
All the elements are present without a catalyst, without ME. 
I am vital to you.

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Something else, which was so gentle that I knew it was Jesus, was this realization that maybe most of my frustrations with the Osteens this week was because I subconsciously see too much of myself in his ‘ministry’. I’m not a prosperity person really, but this whole thing about an extraordinary, above-average life and the wonders of a world and love and peace and beauty and truth–it’s too easy to talk about and too easy to sell instead of the one thing that makes all the pieces actually mean something: Jesus. In that, in my own way, isn’t it possible that I’m just as guilty as anyone? Isn’t it possible that the things that frustrate us the most are simply reflections of our own hearts?

And so, here I am, back where I always find myself and typing words I feel as though I have typed a dozen times over: it’s all about Jesus, guys. I must have the memory retention of a goldfish, but I’m thankful that Jesus himself is always willing to remind me what’s what and that he doesn’t leave me floundering in my humanity for too long. 

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
    but to your name goes all the glory
    for your unfailing love and faithfulness.

    – Psalm 115:1
 

when God exists to make you happy (and other myths I’ve had to wrestle with)

Christianity is pretty divided sometimes.

Whenever I talk about it I usually make sweeping generalizations saying something along the lines of “there seems to be two camps of thought” when a particular issue or scripture comes up. Truth be told, there’s probably more along the lines of a million camps, but that idea is a bit overwhelming to try and process so I simplify for myself. 

One such set of “two camps” has been going at it in my subconscious for a few months now, if not years at this point are the “God exists to make you happy/God doesn’t exist to make you happy” camps.

In high school I was a hardcore “Psalm 37:4/Jeremiah 29:11″ Christian. You know the type, and if you don’t, the short way to describe myself from that period is that I read the bible as a book about me, and my favorite verses talked mostly about how God was going to give me want I truly wanted out of life if I put Him first. I loved “plans to prosper me” and “abundant life”, and expectantly looked to the future where I was sure God would honor my ‘True Love Waits’ ring and give me a really hot husband who played guitar and looked like a young Adrian Greiner and wanted to have about 10 kids with me. All my decisions were more or less motivated by “honoring God”, but under the microscope of any scripture other than my hand chosen, semi out-of-context pluckings, somehow seemed to be fall pretty flat from a vibrant life following the Spirit.

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The years went on and I came to realize there were a lot of other people that seemed to go by more or less the same thing. It wasn’t (and isn’t) uncommon to hear things about how coming to Jesus would better our lives and would result in living a more blessed life. I’m totally going to pull an overly-used card and cite the whole “Joel Osteen” type thing, but maybe that will more or less encompass it. It’s the sort of clean and shiny, all-American, all-Republican, orderly, blessed, “shaken-together-and-running over” affluence that was a result of good choices and a lot of naming, claiming, grabbing and bagging people who had all the best intentions and hearts once you talked to them. 

I didn’t discover the other camp until about college, honestly. I could even go as far as to say that I didn’t truly immerse myself into it until I got a crash course in ‘Perspectives’, which can be briefly summarized as a jarring but clarifying revelation of how the Bible is a book about Jesus, where I am a supporting character and this idea that “missions exists because worship doesn’t”.

The second I realized the bible wasn’t written about me (though there are certainly passages that speak directly to me), I remember I felt a weight lift off my chest and could almost see all the pieces falling together in front of my eyes. I didn’t have to scan my bible for verses about me or to justify my feelings on issues–I could read it as an expose of God Almighty and who He is. Scriptures I’d never been able to explain in relation to myself suddenly were full of new meaning as I realized they were talking about Jesus, not about me. After years and years of reading the bible the same way, having a new perspective released me to actually understand it in its fullness. And it wasn’t about me, or about me having everything I wanted, or about how I deserved it because I could recite verses about plans to prosper me. It was about Jesus, his heart, his love for the nations, his personality, and yes, even his relationship with his people (hey, that’s me!). The entire thing made me feel strangely more valuable than ever, like I had a intimate secret with Him after years of trying to “get into the club” but somehow feeling like I was still missing it.

It was a wonderful time for me. 

With this came the death of a lot of cliches in my life and vocabulary. With the belief that Jesus ultimately mattered more than me having what I felt I wanted out of life, I couldn’t bring myself to apply familiar phrases like ‘God wouldn’t let that happen to me’ or ‘God wouldn’t want this for me’ when I was faced with something uncomfortable in my life or my relationship with Him. Things about “if we’d only have enough faith” being our tickets out of things made me think of David Livingstone dying of dysentery in Zambia after years as a missionary, fervently serving the Lord. Would any of us dare say that he was living outside the will of God? Suddenly there was story after story of people serving Jesus with their lives who actually died on the mission field–people with faith greater than mine, or at least my estimation of my faith. 

There were more than just missionary stories that ended in heartache and sickness (at least on a physical level). There were suddenly books on how marriage exists to make us holy, not happy. You better believe it was tough to kiss the years I’d believed “When God Writes Your Love Story” goodbye. I suddenly realized that God might ask something of me that made me uncomfortable or interrupted my own plans for my life, if it suited His plan.

And so this change grew in me. What started out as a relief to discover that my life as a Christian was about more than my comfort and a sexy instagram account and 401k subtly descended into a skepticism that God actually cared about me at all. 

Fast forward to the now (read, a few weeks ago).

It’s been said that I’m an extremist, which is probably a pretty honest assumption about my character. If I’m in something, really about it, I’m 150% in and no one can change my mind. 

All of these experiences, revelations, false assumptions and the ultimate annoyance at the “It’s all about Me” Christianity blended together into a massive cocktail of frustration that resulted in me rejecting actual passages of scripture because it might associate me with that which I’ve come to passionately renounce. 

“Stephanie, you can’t ignore verses about my goodness and my love for you and my ability to work all things for good just because you feel other people abuse them. These passages are still true of me, and still true towards you. My ‘will’ may not be what you envisioned for yourself, but it will still be good things. You are allowed to believe that. When have you ever regretted my movement in your life when you were fully surrendered to me?”

Psalm 16 is a wonderful example of the Lord’s goodness towards David and has become something of an anthem for me in recent weeks. 
I said to the Lord, “You are my Master!
    Every good thing I have comes from you.

Lord, you alone are my inheritance, my cup of blessing.
    You guard all that is mine.
The land you have given me is a pleasant land.
    What a wonderful inheritance!

You will show me the way of life,
    granting me the joy of your presence
    and the pleasures of living with you forever.

And context: David wrote this stuck in a cave hiding out from King Saul. Things really sucked for him on a human level at that point in his life. And yet, he was confident of the Lord and his inheritance. He believed God despite his circumstances and recognized that the ultimate prize of his life had never left him, because his inheritance was the Lord Himself.

—-

So I guess you could say I’m neither/nor, both/and camps now. God doesn’t exist to make me happy, but my relationship to and with him contains great joy that isn’t dependent on the physical. And I’m learning to rest in the fact that God actually does have good things for me, and they may even be material blessings at different points of my life. Who am I to say how, when or to what extent God is able to bless me? But I never want to wield scriptures as some celestial “you owe me” flag, expectant of this or that specific raise or relationship or opportunity.

I just might hold on to it as a gentle reminder that Jesus is with me, and Jesus is working, and Jesus is supremely valuable and that is enough to make me to fill me with joy that surpasses what we call “happiness”.

“The man who has God for his treasure has all things in One. Many ordinary treasures may be denied him, or if he is allowed to have them, the enjoyment of them will be so tempered that they will never be necessary to his happiness. Or if he must see them go, one after one, he will scarcely feel a sense of loss, for having the Source of all things he has in One all satisfaction, all pleasure, all delight. Whatever he may lose he has actually lost nothing, for he now has it all in One, and he has it purely, legitimately and forever.”
    – A.W. Tozer