Remember when you were a kid, and you'd stick your hands into gooey mud in a sandbox, or pull them through stretchy silly putty or playdough? It was fun, right? But to step onto a sticky piece of gum, or walk through thick mud, carrying a mess on your shoes the rest of the day was disappointing. These two sides of stuck - one positive, one negative, are real, and if you're like me, you want the happy one.
Maybe you've felt a little stuck in this first month of the new year. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe the beginning of the year brought the newness and hope you were longing to find when you said goodbye to 2020. For me, it’s been a month where I’ve had to step back, reflect, and find a way to be at one with a new year that doesn’t really feel new, but one in which I’m still hopeful to find a little something new.
It’s taken me a while to share my New Year thoughts, as evidenced by the fact that I’m sharing this at the end of January. When January came, I was as happy as everyone else I knew to say goodbye to 2020, but as we all know, the turn of a calendar page doesn’t bring magical change.
When the first week brought political turmoil at our nation’s capital and the news of a former student losing his battle to COVID, my hopes diminished, and my thoughts were all over the place. Being a writer, I wanted so much to write something beautiful and meaningful to wish everyone a happy and blessed new year, but I felt stuck, unsure of what I could say that would really help or make a difference.
Stuck. One of the definitions of this word is “to remain in a place, situation, or environment; to hold fast or adhere resolutely.”
That definitely described how I felt, and while sticking to some things can be good, the feeling of being stuck in other areas can be discouraging. So while feeling stuck as a writer, I decided to write without sharing, knowing that I needed to write, not for anyone else necessarily, but because it's the way I seem to find myself, and more importantly, find God. I chose to spend a lot of time simply writing to and with God, hunkering down and sticking to him, the only good thing that could unstick me from any muck inside me. Through this, I clarified my whole purpose and goal for the year in one simple word: Abide.
Ironically, one of the definitions of abide is “to remain stable or fixed in a state.” This sounds remarkably close to the definition of stuck, but rather than being fixed in a negative, confining space, it is being stuck in the right place. As I share my journey with this word, I hope you hear an invitation to abide as well.
I suppose my desire to abide came from the same struggle all of us had this past year with extreme change and loss. One of the most difficult parts of the pandemic has been the inability to see or be with some of the people we love, and that has been compounded for many of us by the loss of loved ones. For me personally, there was the tragic death of two young boys who attended the school where I taught, followed by the passing of my closest friend to cancer, and then right as 2021 started with all its promise of better days, the loss of a former student who died from complications of COVID at the tender age of 15. These losses are those of only one person, me. Others have lost even more, and these losses can make life feel heavy and hopeless. Of course, none of us enjoy those feelings, and when they hit, we yearn for a way to feel better.
On the day I went to speak for the memorial service of my friend, another dear friend and pastor said something that reminded me of the only real solution for my heavy heart. As a pastor, she is often given the difficult responsibility of being the bearer of bad news. She told me of several recent conversations she’d had with people struggling to find joy even though the Bible clearly tells us to rejoice and be glad in the Lord. She admitted having difficulty herself in maintaining joy in all that had happened recently. As she spoke, I was reminded of my own intentional and diligent search for joy over the course of the year, in which I was led to reread Philippians, a book known to contain a prominent joyful theme.
One of my favorite verses I spent a lot of time on was Philippians 4:4-6:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This passage clearly tells me to rejoice, and when I read it, I am reminded of how to do it. It reminds me to give my requests and worries to God, and then I will receive peace. This passage still helps me, as it always has, but I have to admit, even with this passage in mind, finding joy can sometimes be a struggle. So when I heard my faithful, God-loving friend and pastor admit that joy was difficult for her as well, even though the Bible tells us how to find it, I knew I wasn’t alone, and that feeling of togetherness, being friends in Christ sharing the same struggle, brought more comfort than I know how to describe. Perhaps that was where I found joy – in the love God sent, through her, straight to my heart. It was as if Jesus was saying, “It’s okay, Dianne, I know you are sad, and it’s okay. I’ve been sad too. I’m with you.”
She also shared with me that day something a fellow friend had told her. This friend had said she considered buying one of those shirts with the words “Choose Joy” printed on it. But when she realized that claiming to choose joy might not actually bring joy, she decided it would be better if there was a shirt that said “Choose to Abide” because even when she can’t feel joy, she can still abide in God. These words were exactly the way I felt and exactly what I needed. I walked away with the word “abide” repeating over and over in my head.
Interestingly enough, when I looked in my Bible for the word abide, I came across a passage I had reflected on and gone back to multiple times. I had underlined it and written in bold letters above it the word “Remain.”
The passage is John 15:4:
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
My Bible is the NIV (New International Version), but other translations, such as the English Standard Version and the King James Version use the word abide. Without a doubt in my mind, I knew my word for the year needed to be abide. It is the thing I can do, and it is truly the only thing that is going to help me get through whatever comes my way, both the good and the difficult.
So, with that, here is my plan for the year and an invitation for you as well:
1. Do the things that will keep you close to God. For me, this means continuing to read God’s word every day, write these words down, meditate on them, pray them, and keep them at the forefront of my thoughts throughout the day. As I said, writing is where I feel God’s presence, so I will continue to write with him and to him. For you, it might be art, music, exercise, getting outside, or gardening that brings you closer to him. Wherever you feel God’s presence, go there. I also plan to continue studying and talking about God with others – you, my friends, students, husband, family. I want to hear how God is working in all of us.
2. In all you do, remind yourself that you are doing it with God at your side. When I’m writing, exercising, cooking, cleaning, doing either the fun or the mundane things of life, I am doing them with the almighty, loving, powerful, gracious, merciful, faithful God at my side, and so are you. Anything we do where we remain in him, and stay true to the words he has spoken, he smiles upon us and promises his love and help and protection – always, and when we forget, he is still there anyway.
3. On the days you feel like you haven’t done or accomplished what you’d hoped, simply ask if you've found time to be with God. Have you tried to be closer to him? If that is all you manage to do each day, it is a win.
So how about you? How do you feel about abiding this year? If being closer to God and finding peace in spite of chaos is something you hope for, I hope you will join me in simply abiding and drawing closer to him, and feel free to reach out and let me know how you're doing that, how you're finding God in your days.
In the next few writings, expect to see how I'm abiding. Don’t expect to see me doing it perfectly; that won’t happen. But expect me to try, and in seeing me try, I hope you see how Jesus abides in and with you too. That’s exactly what happened to me. My friend shared her willingness to abide, in and through her struggles, and through her, Jesus reached out his hand and said, “Come, abide with me too,” and I couldn’t resist the love and peace offered me there, that was in me all along, and will continue to be present through all of us willing to grasp his hand firmly back.