the days ahead || a reminder for the changing of seasons

I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

So when I see a trial
an unexpected struggle
an unfamiliar season
a potentially hard thing
anything new
anything I'm not used to

headed my way
and uncomfortably close,

when I see it and become
tempted
to hoard manna

I remember:

The Bread of life has been broken for me.
His future grace feeds me
and I am 
Full,
Kept,
Strengthened,
Sustained.

Those mounds of manna will rot
and crumble and mold--

And is not life more than food?

I pile high the stones
of remembrance:

I look behind and see
a mobile memorial--
goodness and mercy ever at my heels,
faithfulness following after:

Answered prayers,
Timely words,
Providential provision,
Needs supplied--
No good thing withheld.
No righteous forsaken.
No children begging bread.

I look ahead and see
a table
prepared for me:

I will dine on
Future grace,
I will feast on
Promised faithfulness.
The King beckons me
to a banquet of eternal joy--
Certain joy
in the morning
no matter what mourning
may await.

I will taste and see that the Lord is good.

I will feel
and be filled with
the hope and the truth
that He's always nourished me

more

than my bread of anxious toil
ever could.

guilt-free grace

Oh, the folly 
of claiming the appearance of wisdom,
of promoting self-made religion,
and severity to the body,
as though it provides value
in stopping 
the indulgence of the flesh.

Is the road to heaven not arduous?
Must I add trials of my own making?
Heave on more burdens,
Lay aside no weights,
As though the crown of glory I will cast before Him
Will be more bejeweled for my self-imposed sacrifice.

Oh, the folly
of unwavering devotion 
to things that are hard
but not holy,
to suffering which is endured
but not ordained.
Martyrdom worn like a heavy cloak-
initially comforting,
eventually suffocating.

Truths maimed and dissolved
in the acid of works;
Errant words are so hard to cling to:
Only in want,
Only in hunger,
Only in need,
Is that where Paul found
Contentment?

Never in the having
Or in the living
In plenty.
Never well fed,
I weaken
Where I thought I’d find
Strength.

The fatal flaw in my struggle?
Me, I say.
My sin, I say.
My cross to carry,
My burden to bear, I say.
My weak endurance,
My feeble attempts
of beating back the flesh, I say.

The fatal flaw in my struggle?
Standing firm when I should flee,
He says.
Enduring affliction in a place 
I’ve not be called to suffer,
He says.
Waving filthy rags for righteousness
Instead of a white flag of surrender,
He says.
Shackling myself-- 
Self-imposed imprisonment
in chains long broken,
He says.
Twisting His Words 
to ask
Is it finished? 
when He said
It is finished,
He says.

Bemoaning the futility of it all,
Living sacrifice is exchanged for
Penance;
Penance,
Penance I give;
I’m sorry that I am so weak.

I’ll
Try harder
and
Give more
and
Persevere longer 
and
soon
These works become my religion;
I render the sacrifices of my asceticism.
Death to myself
killing everything 
except the flesh.

Is the cup of wrath
Not empty?
Nevertheless
I waste away on
the devilish drink of unsanctioned self-sacrifice,
of unholy suffering.
I was never called to this.
Wake up from your stupor!
You were never called to this.

Already died
While still putting to death;
Already safe
While still seeking refuge:
Already.
Not yet.
No wonder grace feels so extreme.

Grace-
Mine for the taking.
Grace-
Mine for the receiving.
Simply seems…wasteful,
To lavish a gift
To lavish a gift-
Grace,
Grace,  
God's grace
On a confused and conflicted
wretch
Like me.

The mental
The emotional
The spiritual toll
The unending folly
of creating more cares than I cast,
of concluding that harder is holier,
of buffeting an already-bruised reed-
In vain I built the house;
The walls are sure to crumble.

Hindsight may be yesterday,
still I seek wisdom
in reflection:

When did prayers to endure
supersede
Prayers to overcome?
Why such shame for experiencing refreshment
When others received no respite?
But
What part of grace,
the salvation story,
has ever made sense?

Was grace ever merited?
Favor deserved?
Forgiveness my due wages?

Was the true cup drunk to the dregs
Or not?
Was the full wrath of God poured out
On Him
(not me)
Or not?

If it’s already done
And there’s nothing left to be done
then…
There is no penance to pay
No punishment to endure
No grace to resist--
I can’t, because 
in its pursuit
it’s already grabbed hold of me.
I relish this bountiful, extravagant gift;
And to think- 
It was here all along!
 
Why sip on old sorrows 
when there is new wine?
Fresh mercies,
Hallowed delights,
Freely given.

Guilt-free acceptance.

I will claim joy.

pep talks and promises

“I am a strong, capable Black woman.”

In many seasons, it’s been true. But life has consistently shown me that those first two adjectives are subjective and anything but consistent. I try to recall when I finally made the admission that “weak” and “unqualified” seemed more fitting.

Was it when our 3rd baby came along 14 months after his big brother’s birth, giving me the proud, yet very unexpected title of mama to 3 kids, ages 3 and under? Or maybe it was the perpetual aches and pains induced by my stretched and weakened core that never fully healed from births one and two before I demanded it expand once again. Was it the hormones that flushed my system and raged through my body, abundant and unregulated? Surely it was the sudden, explosive anger that made me spiral into guilt and anxiety; the subsequent panic attacks that left me gasping for breath and contemplating running out the door and leaving these cherished babies behind for a “better mom”?

circa 2016

I recall when I stood by the kitchen counter, gripping the cool, granite edge in sweaty palms, eyes closed, drawing in deep breaths and dragging, willing myself out the black hole of depression that threatened to suck me in, to never see the light of joy again. “Strong?” “Capable?” Those descriptors were in the far reaches of my mind, well outside of my present reality. The mommy blogger mantras and Instagram quotables of “I am enough,” “This too shall pass,” were irritatingly inapplicable as I wallowed in weakness. Even more frustrating? “He won’t give you more than you can bear” or “He gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.” (That kind of theological nonsense keeps you in the PIT, okay?) And the internet mommy winos who reminded  me that “It’s five o clock somewhere” only served to make me thankful I was only a moderate enjoyer of wine, otherwise I’d surely have been an alcoholic by that point.

Pep talks had no place here. There was no pulling myself up by my bootstraps and convincing myself that I could do this. There were no self care days and mommy breaks, no wine and certainly no Jesus jukes that could trick me into believing that the hardship I was experiencing was anything but that: hard.

circa 2016

But promises? Those were something solid I could cling to. In a season when the light and joy of good days were frequently overshadowed by the dark days, making it seem as though the good had never existed at all, I needed to grasp tightly to truth, not temporary, pithy mantras that disintegrated into dust when I reached for them.

I didn’t always or often read these promises in the midst of the spiral. It was typically beforehand, when I read them religiously, devoured them like food, and drank them down like a traveler at his last oasis for miles. I read them til I could recite them, and like pilgrim Christian who despaired of his captivity before realizing he had the key to escape all along, I put a lifesaver around my waist before I was ever thrown out into the deep end.

Preparation didn’t mean prevention though, and over time the repeated instances of doubt and despair withered my hope, and I wasn’t sure the roots would hold. But I’m living proof that a bruised reed he will not break. The Lord mercifully sustained me, and I have no doubt that I didn’t and don’t keep myself in the faith.

circa 2016

There is no spiritual bow to tie on this story. If I’m honest, in hindsight I now believe that some additional care via a medical professional would have likely been helpful and was probably necessary. It’s honestly one of my biggest regrets from that season, but that’s a conversation for another day. And while that particularly difficult year has come and gone, similar struggles have popped up in my periphery that I must actively been on guard against, not only with the Word but also by having people in my corner who speak truth and offer help.

I do sometimes give myself pep talks now. Encouragement does have its place! (And is it even possible to be a good parent if there aren’t pep talks peppered in?) But after experiencing the limitations of positive affirmations, I’ve learned that sometimes you don’t need positivity or pep, but a promise.

permanent.

He wrote his initial on my neck.

Yes, the back of my neck.

In permanent marker.

No, this wasn’t his attempt at helping me test out a future tattoo. Nothing that reasonable.

I was sitting in a folding chair in his home office, which doubles as a guest bedroom. My son stood in front of me, as still as he could, as I focused on weaving a piece of floss back and forth between his teeth.

So intent was my focus, that I barely gave a second thought to the strange, brief feeling of something brushing across the back of my neck. It came and went so fast, surely I’d imagined it.

Imagine my surprise when, sitting up, dental hygiene responsibilities completed, I turned to face my husband behind me—eyes bright, smile wide, permanent marker in hand.

I wrote on your neck, he said.

I made a face, confused.

He showed me the picture he’d taken while I was engrossed in cavity prevention.

There it was, a bold capital letter “J”, no line across the top, because he doesn’t do that.

J for Jeremiah. Written on my neck.

That meant war, of course, and as I warned him to watch his back, he jokingly sent a text to our group chat, informing friends of the incident. If I go radio silent, he teased, they’ll know who did it.

In the hustle and bustle of the kids’ bedtime, the mark was forgotten not long after being the center of attention. A couple hours later though, it came to mind once again.

As I sat on the couch after our pre-bedtime show ended, I remembered. Oh! I should probably wash this permanent marker off my neck. This thought triggers a memory, and suddenly I’m in middle school again.

*~*~*~*

There was a time during those middle grade years when, in my class at least, if you were really interested in or dating someone, you laid claim to them by marking their hand. Jane belongs to Joe, and you knew this by his name on her hand, and his on hers. The name of the one who currently held your temporary, angsty, teenage emotions branded their name across your hand, a bold and seemingly certain sign: TAKEN.

Even back then, this both fascinated and repelled me. Why in the world would you want someone to lay claim to you like property? Can’t you like someone and maintain your autonomy? But also.… Oh, to not only belong, but to be claimed. Already a believer, I was thankful to belong to Jesus, fully and forever. I was confident in this. I did (and do) belong…to Him. I was (and am) claimed…by Him. But at times He felt so…far and untouchable, which was hard when tangible relationships seemed just an arm’s reach away.

*~*~*~*

My mind zoomed back to the present. No longer in the classroom, I was on the couch, almost 2 decades later, cradling my 3-year-old 4th born who’d awoken from her sleep. I watched my husband as he emptied the trash for the night. I smiled to myself. What would I tell middle school Ashley now?

A song from those days popped into my head, and I smiled again. “Written On My Heart”!? Talk about a blast from the past. I had to Google to remember who sang it. It’s a pop-ish, boy band number, fitting for somewhat sheltered Christian kids in the early 2000s whose parents didn’t appreciate NSYNC. Written on my heart. That’s what I’d go back and tell myself. No, I wouldn’t say, Oh, just roll your eyes, Ashley. Ignore those middle school relationships. None of them will last, and you’ve got something even better coming down the line.

Though that would be true, that’s not the future hope I’d want to instill in middle school me. Instead, this: Continue to cultivate the love you already have, Ashley, from the One who set His love on you–yes, written His love on your heart–before the foundation of the world. His love is unchanging. It’s steadfast. And unlike those scribbled-on marks on hands, it’s permanent.

*~*~*~*

A week after we started dating, J told me he loved me, but he emphasized that it wasn’t simply that he’d fallen in love. More than something that happened, it was also a decision he made. I walked into love, he told me. A choice. An intention. He set his love on me, modeling the Love I’d already been cherishing for nearly a decade before knowing of J’s existence. And at that time I knew—forget having his name on my hand! I had his heart. And wouldn’t you know, not too long after, I’d have his hand too, not sealed with a marker, but with a vow, a kiss, and a ring.

*~*~*~*

It’s bedtime now, and the marker is still on my neck. I look at my husband, who’s patiently waiting for me to stop feverishly typing this “book,” as he put it, and climb into bed. I smile to myself. The marker will wash off just fine in the morning. Even then I’ll still have his last name.

if I live and the Lord bless me

Writing Prompt Inspired by Black Culture

If I live and the Lord bless me,

Let me live:

On fire, fully;

Engaged, in awe;

Unabashed, unafraid.

Open all the windows,

Let in all the air,

Breathe in mercy, breathe out grace.

An exchange of gifts,

Blessing for blessing–

“The Lord bless you and keep you”

As he blesses and keeps me.

If I live,

Let me bless you

As I bless the Lord,

As he blesses me.

death to insecurity.

Written July 11, 2018

I never published this when I wrote it a year ago, and to be honest, I don’t know why. Aside from some light edits for clarity and grammar, I’ve left it exactly the same.

Last month, I turned 29 years old.

God has been immeasurably gracious and kind to me, and He has shown Himself faithful over and over again. By God’s grace I have been a Christian for the majority of my life, and the good news of Jesus, God in the flesh, dying, resurrecting, and interceding for my salvation is sweeter with each passing year. Different occasions like holidays or a new year always give me an opportunity to reflect on my life, but for whatever reason this year, this last year of my 20s, the passing of time weighs on me heavily.

While I would love for Jesus to return right now, I can’t presume to know when that will happen. I also can’t predict whether I’m going to die in 5 years or fifty, or 5 minutes from now for all I know. (It sounds morbid, but it’s real!) All I know that is I have this moment, here and now, and each moment the Lord gives me hereafter, and I do. not. want. to. waste. it.

As I consider the past 28 years, I realize that not only has God used me in ways I never anticipated, but I’ve also missed opportunities that make me cringe. Many of the missed opportunities happened because of my fear of man. For too long I have borne the weight of insecurity, fearing man more than God. Too often my thoughts have become occupied with mental estimations and evaluations of how I am perceived in the eyes of my peers: wondering what they think; worried I’d say the wrong thing; burying my own personality in hopes of fitting in. I have used my gifts, but primarily within the limited scope of what I felt would meet the approval of others.

Quite a bit of this has been subconscious. It has only been in more recent years that I have begun to grasp the extent to which insecurity has dominated my life. Like so many other sins, fear of man can be especially insidious because it can cloak itself into something having the appearance of godliness. Fear of man or insecurity can dress itself up as “considering others above yourself”; I would attempt to justify my actions (or lack thereof) with this or similar misapplication of Scripture. The heart is deceitful! No where in Scripture can I find an excuse for my lack of boundaries, inability to say no, not speaking up for myself, assuming others have more important, intelligent, significant things to say than myself., etc! The fear of man truly is a snare, and I have been caught up in it for far too long.

There have been half-hearted attempts to address this ongoing struggle. But ya’ll, when you have walked in a lifetime of people-pleasing, the idea of facing yourself and your issues, and figuring out who you really, truly are instead of who you’ve sort of made yourself into based on what you presume to be the expectation of others, can be absolutely terrifying to change. Idolatry has this really ugly way of gripping hold of your heart and wrapping it up and twisting up reality so that when you begin to try to untangle it, you get so discouraged at the mess and impossibility of it all. And in my own strength, impossible it is. This is something I cannot handle on my own. While I do not count the small changes I’ve made over the years to be insignificant, by God’s grace and in His strength, I think it’s time for a complete overhaul.

To be clear, I count this as more of an internal, fleshly sin struggle than something that is the result of external treatment. I did deal with bullying and mistreatment to some degree throughout my growing up years, and the effect that the negative things people say to you or about you cannot be understated. At the same time, for everything that was said to tear me down, I heard 50 times as much positive, godly, encouraging input from my parents, family, true friends, and church leaders. God was so kind to place people around me that kept me grounded and surrounded with love. In this current season of life, I cannot say enough about my amazing, supportive, loving, encouraging husband who continually nudges me outside my comfort zone into greater Christ-likeness.

So that brings me to where I am now. What do I do with this growing awareness that life is passing by quickly and that my fears and insecurities are keeping me from glorifying God to the fullest extent that He desires with my life? I introduce to you The Year of Becoming. The following things are hardly an exhaustive list of things I desire to accomplish or pursue. I have so much I want to learn (and unlearn). Books to read, places to go, areas to grow… While I say this is for year 29, what I really mean is that this is for years 29+.

The year of becoming…

…less insecure, and aware of my insecurities.
…more senstive to areas in which I have internalized anti-blackness, and put that mess to death.
…bold where I once was timid.
…vocal when I’d otherwise stay silent (even if I find out later that I’m wrong).
…a self-learner instead of only asking other people and assuming they’re right.

I want to remember these thoughts I had the year before I turned 30. It’s a helpful hindsight evaluation to consider how I lived; was I successful in my goals? How have I grown? Did I fall back into old habits? What do I hope for the years to come? I hope to hash all that out in a future post.