More Than a Game of Chess

The first chapter of the book of Esther irritates my former slightly feminist heart with frustration and defensiveness.

The leader of Persia, King Xerxes, throws an extravagant party for all his nobles and officials. The festivities lasted 180 days (that’s quite the party!), and finished off with a week-long banquet for all the people who were in the fortress of Susa where he ruled. He pulled out all the stops for this banquet, complete with gorgeous and opulent decorations, amazing food and a never-ending supply of wine for the people to enjoy.

The Bible tells us in verses 10 and 11 of chapter 1 that “on the 7th day of the feast, when King Xerxes was in high spirits because of the wine, he told the eunuchs who attended him… to bring Queen Vashti to him with the royal crown on her head. He wanted nobles and all the other men to gaze on her beauty, for she was a very beautiful woman.”

For whatever reason, Queen Vashti refuses. Maybe she didn’t feel like being the subject of the hungry gazes of the nobles and other guests at the party. Maybe she was tired of doing whatever the king asked of her, whenever he wanted. She says no. And honestly, I don’t blame her.

But the king isn’t happy, not one bit. He gets his trusted advisors together and they realize that the queen could set a bad precedent for the respect of husbands everywhere, so she must go. And just like that, Vashti is no longer the queen.

As I was studying this chapter and trying not to curse authoritarian men everywhere, I realized some things about this passage. Even though God isn’t mentioned, we know He is at work in this story. And in case you don’t know the ending, God brings a lowly Jewish girl named Esther into the palace to be the next queen, putting her in a position to save her people from annihilation.

Sometimes, God has to get us out of the way. While I feel sorry for Queen Vashti, she wasn’t the one who could save the Jewish people. In His sovereignty, God took her out of the story and put Esther in.

I like to see myself more like Esther. I want to believe that God has put me in this place, in the position I have and the culture I am in for a purpose. Do I trust Him though when His purposes might include taking me out the story? Or when someone I care about or respect leaves in order to fulfill God’s plan? It is not something I like to think about, and yet God has a purpose. He desires for His glory to spread throughout the earth, for His name to be proclaimed and His message of hope and grace to be shared among all peoples. He doesn’t move us around like chess pieces in a cosmic game. He loves us, desires good things for us, but above all desires to fulfill His sovereign plan. This stretches my faith in Him, my trust in Him. Yet, it also increases my desire to be obedient, even if it means getting out of the way for whatever He might want to accomplish.

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A Granddaughter’s Reflection

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I lost my grandma, Violet Hilkemann, 25 years ago today. At almost-6,  it was hard to understand death and funerals and cancer, to process loss and grief. My memories are few, but I know she was a neat lady. I know that I loved her, that I am living part of her legacy as her granddaughter.

My favorite memory is of a simple supper over macaroni and cheese. My grandparents lived just down the hill on the corner of our family farm. I have no clue how we got there or what we did the rest of the evening, but I can picture my grandparents’ old kitchen table, and heaping plates of mac and cheese in front of us. I naively took a big bite right out of the steaming middle of the plate, and suffered the consequences. “It’s too hot” I can hear myself complaining as the memory plays across the big screen of my brain. I’m sure I said it in a “this is the end of the world” sort of voice, resigned to leave the mac and cheese on the plate. But my patient grandma showed me a little trick, one I still think of even to this day. “Spread it out, Sarah, and let it cool just a bit,” she said. “Then start at the edges because they cool down the fastest and work your way in”. I would have just quit, given in to grumbling, but my grandma showed me that there are options. We can choose our attitude to tough situations and allow for creative solutions covered with joy.

My grandma loved to read Agatha Christie mysteries and sew her own stuffed animals. She loved to help people. I thought of her a lot last August, after surgery as I waited to find out if the tumors the doctor had removed were cancerous or not, the same kind of cancer that took my grandma away. If it was cancer, would I be able to fight with the same courage and strength she did? Would that be part of her legacy to me?

The tumors were not cancer. That wasn’t part of my story in this season anyway. But in some ways all those reflections brought me to a place of remembering, of allowing memories to float to the surface. I didn’t cry at my grandma’s funeral, I didn’t cry until last fall. There’s a fresh grief awakened in me, but now I can remember and ask questions and soak up stories. I can admit that I miss her, and celebrate this day, March 29th- her birthday and death-day.

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I Am From: A Poem

I am from fresh, frothy milk straight from the cow, my dad’s early mornings and late nights on the farm.

From Bob Jones curriculum and Trix cereal as a special treat at Christmas.

I am from rolling hills and sandy valleys, open spaces, fields for miles and the fresh scent of alfalfa in the summer time.

I am from ear corn, bright green turning to brown at harvest as the leaves explode in colors and the combine sits ready for just the right time.

I am from “soup for Christmas” and Hilkemann family stubbornness.

From Paul and Violet, Donald and Lorraine, Mark and Chris; Hilkemanns, Andersons, Severas, Millers.

I’m from Thanksgiving rounds of Spoons and trivia, ice cream cakes for birthdays and summer sleepovers complete with orange sherbet.

I’m from Wednesday night AWANA, tucking verses away in my heart, from Sunday kid’s choir, BRICK class, youth group and praise choruses.

I’m from Nebraska, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sweden; kolache and potato pancakes, manicotti, and cran-apple juice.

From family vacations to western Nebraska, my mom as my teacher and my dad as the principal. From the land my great-grandpa purchased for all his sons within a few miles of the place I grew up, legacy left in Pierce county soil.

I am from the photo albums filling the buffet in the living room, old birthday cards and baby clothes tucked away in a tote upstairs, stories echoing through the generations.

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  • Learn more about how to create your own I Am From Poem by heading here. 

Hold My Hand

5 Ways to Walk Alongside a Friend Dealing with Depression

 

Life is hard. Can I get an ‘Amen’? We all deal with stress and the burdens of life. Our brains are amazingly complex and resilient, but sometimes, like other parts of our bodies, they break down and need help.

Depression has been part of my story. I remember in college having conversations about why we never see prayer requests in church bulletins for people who are struggling with depression, why we feel the need to hide it. It makes me sad that we can’t feel safe with our stories and struggles, including the way that our brains function, or don’t.

I can’t speak for everyone who has ever struggled with depression, but here are a few ideas for ways that you can love and support someone you know walking this journey right now.

1. Be honest

“I think you might be dealing with situational depression.” A friend just said it plainly, right in the midst of a Skype conversation as she listened discerningly as I shared. She said it with the utmost compassion but I needed that, I needed to hear her when I couldn’t see it myself. If we care about each other, and know the signs of depression, let’s be kind enough to gently ask questions and find out what is going on in the heart of our friend who is struggling.

2. Be present

We don’t always take the time to understand what is different. One of the best gifts that a mentor gave me while I was under the heavy blanket of depression was an invitation to help her understand. “What does it feel like?” We sat over coffee and I tried to put to words the daily experience of this journey and she listened with grace and a desire to hear my heart. Sometimes it just takes showing up, letting our friends know they are not a burden because they are struggling. We are all broken and we can give each other a gift by allowing that brokenness to be shared.

3. Take me out

I always made it out of bed but sometimes the biggest struggle was to get out of the house. Motivation can go right out the window in the middle of depression, and we can offer help for our friend by getting them out into the sunlight. Energy levels might not be at their highest, so plan a short coffee run or quiet stroll through a botanical garden. If they say no, offer to bring a chai latte by the house or to come help with laundry. Be persistent but gracious.

4. Speak truth

When I was struggling emotionally, it affected my spiritual health as well. Everything felt cloudy including how I saw my Father God. When friends would send emails with promises from Scripture, or stories of how God was teaching them or working in their lives or their favorite worship song, it reminded me that He was still good. Even if I couldn’t always feel it or didn’t have the motivation to spend long hours with the Lord, they spoke truth into my life and reminded me of who God was and who I was in Him.

5. Don’t give up- believe that healing is possible.

For some, depression is a significant chapter in their lives and for others it spans decades and is an ever present reality. It can be tough to stick with someone through the ups and downs, but please don’t give up on your friend who is struggling. Fight with them. Believe with them and for them that healing is possible. There are amazing medications available that can kickstart the chemicals that stopped working, there are essential oils and supplements and other natural ways to support our minds and bodies. There are counselors who can provide professional assistance to work through trauma or past issues that might be deep below the surface. Ultimately, we serve a God who holds the power of healing in His hands. He doesn’t always answer our prayers to take away the struggle, whether it is cancer or the flu or depression. But sometimes He does. Pray with your friend for God’s healing, and celebrate the ways He does work even if the depression doesn’t go away forever. Be with them on the good days and the hard days.

We need each other. No matter what we are going through, having good friends who invite us into their lives and to share our stories empowers us to keep going.

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Dear Single Sister

Dear Single Sister,

I have a confession. Or maybe three or four.

Sometimes I don’t like being single. I know I should be content, should count the gifts. And I do. But then I come home to an empty house, or wrestle my way through a tough financial issue or google how to fix a leaky sink. I kill a ginormous spider with an entire can of Raid and think how nice it would be having someone to walk with me through those things, to be strong when I’m not, to care for me, and to challenge and teach me.

Sometimes I wrestle with the collision of my relationship status and my calling. My heart bursts when I think about how much I desire for the people around me to love Jesus. I want so desperately to see the harvest the Lord has in store here, for His glory to burst forth like water overflowing. I want to be obedient, to keep tasting of cultures and languages and passport countries other than my own. Yet the desire to get married often equals needing to leave the field in my mind. What would I choose? Can I somehow have both dreams?

I have a wedding board on Pinterest. I love weddings, partly the thought of my own someday, and partly because I still hold on to the dream of being a wedding and event planner when the door opens for a career change. But sometimes I realize that the dream of getting married is more than just a dream. It becomes an idol in my heart, something I demand from God and hold against Him for not giving me. Marriage is an amazing gift from God but it will not ultimately satisfy my heart. Then I step back, delete that Pinterest board, or at least stop looking for the latest fashion trends and color schemes. I spend more time with my first Love, letting Him remind me of the depth of His love for me. Yet I still hope. I believe that God is the author of the love stories I see around me every day, and that it isn’t wrong to keep asking Him, to surrender the dream and desire and ask Him to fill me up with His desires.

Despite only receiving a card from a boy once in my life (and that not until college), I love Valentine’s day. Maybe that’s weird. Yeah, just a bit. I think it’s because I have a much bigger picture of love and think we should celebrate it. I’ve had amazing friends through the years. My parents and siblings are simply the best. I love getting a day to tell them in fun ways through cards and special meals and flowers or chocolate. (Plus it was my grandma’s birthday. So it always meant a party and cake!)

There are parts of this single life that are painful- things people have said to me, the lies I’ve believed about myself, being left behind. I grieve those parts, but they do not define me. My hope for you, single sister, is that you do the same. Be sad about the hard and messy parts, but find the joy too. Singleness itself, like marriage, can be a gift but there are gifts to be found in the midst everyday ordinary of our singleness too. God’s love for you, for me, is so completely beyond my comprehension. Can we just rest in that for awhile? His kindness in sending Jesus to purchase our freedom is a gift undeserved and yet made available to us. His power is at work within us to do far more than we ask or imagine. This life and our relationship status is temporary, yet His love is everlasting.

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The Power of Little Things

This is the chair where I meet with Jesus, morning light peeking through the leaves of the jackfruit tree outside my window. I’ve dreamed about this spot for a long time, my own little space where I can curl up and sing softly praises to my Savior, let His Words of Truth cleanse my soul. It is the perfect chair- cozy and wide and sturdy, rattan to remind me of Asia.

There’s a spot on the ledge for my coffee mug, my memorial stone from the week in Thailand last August when ‘tumor’ and ‘surgery’ and ‘benign’ became part of my vocabulary, part of my story. In those scary moments when I felt so alone, God took me to a place of complete dependence on Him because I had nowhere else to go. Now when the fear threatens to grip my heart as I stare into the foggy future, I sip coffee and remember to hope, to trust, to hold tight.

I light my candle and let the gentle scent rise as incense to my King. It reminds me that Light pierces the darkness, always. Light breaks through victorious, our All-Consuming Fire is working, refining, drawing. In the nations where it feels like the darkness is winning, He cannot be conquered or extinguished, even in the places where it feels like the faintest flicker can’t keep going.

The picture frame was a rare find in the little dollar store in the mall. It holds a memory, a moment I treasure with my little nephew tucked in beside me with a new book, my just-born niece cozy in my lap. I can’t help but smile and thank God for the gift of my people, those dear ones He has placed in my life.

Most days, I fight to understand, fight the ugly that keeps pushing through in my heart. I wrestle with the brokenness I see around me, despair over lack of fruit and lack of energy and the fear of all the rest of me that might be lacking. I question and doubt, allow faith to rise in my heart and then wonder yet again. Sometimes I listen and sometimes I’m too quick to speak, to fix or control. Deep joy and deep sorrow reside together, one overpowering the other depending on the day.

Yet, in this spot, with all these precious little things, I get to pause. I get to delight yet again in all of these small gifts undeserved, and feast upon the true source of joy and hope, my firm foundation in the midst of the chaos.

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Do You Pray for Your Tuk-Tuk Driver?

We’ve worn a path between the guesthouse and my sister and brother-in-law’s apartment, walking the same familiar streets every morning the last two weeks.  There’s the corner grocery store, aisles bursting with special imported goodies and all the staples. There’s the little roadside cart; the scent of fresh coffee grounds invites us from afar. Near the last corner we greet an elderly couple as they sit outside their home with bowls of soup and rice. Their son The Barber just invested in the little carts we call Tuk-Tuks so he can transport customers around the city. If he’s not busy when it’s time to run an errand or see the sites, we’ll all pile in his Tuk-Tuk for a ride.

He loves to chat as we weave our way through traffic. “This person was very old,” he informs us as we pass the black and white funeral tent. He always seems to be in the know. He’ll practice his English and ask clarifying questions. “You really only have one word for all the forms of rice?”

One day on our way home from an outing, he wanted to know more about what I was doing in Cambodia. I gave him the easy answer first. “We teach English at a local cafe.” But then I added the true reason, why we deal with hot season and constant rains and ants and the nitty gritty hard and messy of life here. “We are people who love Jesus and want to share about the hope of Jesus with the people here.”

He turned back to look at me. “Jesus?” I realized he probably had never heard the name before, he was learning of Jesus for the first time. The traffic picked up and he had to focus on the task at hand. But my heart stirred as I realized all the people who are along those worn paths in my life, the streets I walk every day. Do I pray for my Tuk-Tuk driver, the cashier at the little corner grocery store, my favorite barista? Do I care enough to stop, to know their name and their story, to share my heart and the heart of the Savior?

Who are the people you see daily? Let’s take time to pray for them today and share the hope that we have. 

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Top 5 Books of 2016

I LOVE to read and somehow managed to consume 45 morsels of (mostly) delicious literary goodness in 2016. How that happened, I’m not totally sure, but I promise you I did work and do other important life things.

Hey, I use Goodreads to track all the books I read. I would love to have you join me and feel free to share your recommendations and favorites.

Here’s a roundup of my top five favorite books in 2016.

In no particular order:

These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This was one of my favorites growing up when my dad used to read the entire series to us. It had been a long time since I read this particular gem for myself, so when I saw it at the bookstore in Phnom Penh I splurged. So worth it.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

Montgomery didn’t write many books for adults but I fell in love with this one. Maybe I could identify with the heroine- an old maid who allowed others to dictate who she was and her worth. I laughed often, something I don’t usually do when I’m reading. It was perfect for indulging in right after I turned 30 and had a crisis in my singleness. 🙂

Looming Transitions by Amy Young

It is not often that I get to read a book by someone I know. I love Amy and her blog and posts on Velvet Ashes and this book did not disappoint. I have to admit I was a bit afraid to read it because I thought maybe that would mean changes were coming (something I’m not a huge fan of) but this book is an excellent resource for anyone going through transition or preparing for a change. It is helpful even when everything feels pretty stable, because, hey, change is pretty inevitable.

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

Shauna has a really poetic writing style and I identified with so much in her book. It is probably one of my favorites because it was exactly what I needed in the season in which I read it.

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

This has been on my to-read list for a while, so when I saw it was available from the local public library while I was in America, I snatched it up. It was a fascinating and in-depth look at the making of the atomic bomb, and I enjoyed learning about this aspect of World War 2.

Honorable mentions (it is hard to pick just 5!):

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

VERY long (672 pages) but interesting.

Rome 1960 by David Maraniss

I love sports stories and anything having to do with the Olympics. This isn’t one of the more well-known Olympic games but it was a great look into some of the stories and what was happening in the world at that time.

Afton of Margate Castle by Angela Hunt

This medieval fiction book was set in a time period I don’t often read about, by an author I have liked for a long time. And it was free on Kindle.

What were your favorites in 2016?

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Return to Praise

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the year my teammate and I spent living in a rural border village. In many ways, it was one of the hardest years of my life (except perhaps 2016), and it is only by God’s grace I survived. I had a lot of unhealthy emotional patterns, and the Enemy of our souls was out to kill and destroy. There were so many daily frustrations and challenges that, individually, would have been stressful but combined drained much life out of my soul. That maybe sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I was in pretty sorry shape when we finally made the decision to move.
Every day my teammate and I would brew coffee and sit on the tile floor of our shared bedroom to pray. Sometimes (maybe often) we would cry together, broken-hearted over Cambodia and our own hearts, completely devoid of energy and saddened over the lack of fruit, or just plain homesick. We cried out to Jesus in those prayer times, speaking words of Scripture and claiming those promises for this village and our own lives. We clung to the gifts, even when it was difficult to see them, turning them into words of praise. We turned on music when it felt like the words wouldn’t come, soaking and listening and allowing the lyrics to speak our prayers for us.
There are many painful memories and hurtful things from our time in the village, but those prayer times are actually a precious memory to me. God was teaching me about worship. He was teaching me to draw close to Him in the pain, to keep my eyes on Him because He is worthy of worship even from the wilderness.
Jesus is reminding me of these memories and bringing me back to a place of worship. I’m not musical by any stretch of the imagination (my family normally ends up doubled over in laughter over our poor attempts at “Happy Birthday”), but I’m starting to incorporate singing into my daily time with the Lord. I’m beginning my list of the things I’m grateful for each day after a stretch of pausing that practice, and my eyes are opening even more to the tender ways God cares for me in the littlest of things. He is drawing me into a new place of worshiping Him no matter what the situation is around me or whether I’m “feeling it” or not.
I’ve been challenged recently by these two quotes:
“The stability of the world depends on the rejoicing in God’s works…. If on earth, such praise of God does not come to pass…then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion”.
– John Calvin
“Praise Him in the midst of the darkness. Praising God while the tumult swirls is true spiritual warfare. And wait in anticipation for the day you see God more clearly”.
– Mary Demuth, Beautiful Battle
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The Gifts I Didn’t Want

My grandma used to make things easy and give the same gifts to all of the granddaughters at Christmas. One year when I was about 6 or so, all I wanted was a Barbie doll, and I was so looking forward to the fun I was going to have after unwrapping this gift on Christmas day. We had gathered in my grandparents’ living room and wrapping paper already littered the floor. I watched as my younger cousin opened up her gift and it was exactly what I had longed for- that Barbie with the fun clothes and long blonde hair. But the gift I opened up first? A Barbie coloring book. No, I thought, this isn’t what I asked for! I’m embarrassed to say I burst into tears in disappointment and jealousy. My grandma was kind and patient and said with a twinkle in her eyes, “Sarah, just wait! There’s another present for you to open”.

I do this too with my Heavenly Father and the gifts He gives to me. This year I have been far more likely to throw a toddler tantrum as I unwrapped less-than-ideal situations. I have stomped my feet as I watched others around me get the answers to prayer or their longed-for desires- a spouse, a baby, successful ministry opportunities, good health. I have cried over my singleness, my brokenness, my loneliness and the silence. These are the gifts you are giving me, Jesus? NO, this isn’t what I wanted!

Yet, these are gifts, if I can pause long enough to see them as such. In my singleness, God is slowly, slowly teaching me that He is the tender warrior and protector of my heart. He is slowly, slowly chipping away at the thick walls of my soul, coaxing me out to know His deep love. He waits for me to finish my whining, and reminds me that I can trust Him with my whole being, with the places I have kept in the darkness because of shame or fear of rejection. Oh, the pain still tightens its grip on my heart, the anxiety rises up until all I can do is breath in and out, but He patiently reminds me that this too shall pass. He knows this pain intimately and sits with me in it, even if He doesn’t take it away like I want Him too.

did get that Barbie I so desperately wanted that year. But you know what? I should have been just as grateful for a coloring book given in love, for a grandmother who forgave my childish outburst and the family gathered in that living room. Jesus, keep teaching me to say yes and thank you to the gifts you give me.

Musings inspired by this post on Velvet Ashes: Unwanted Gifts