I recently sat down with Keri Wilt and recorded an episode for her “Well-Tended Life” Podcast. We had a lot of fun and focused on how we can grow through whatever we are going through.
I think you’ll enjoy listening. And I’m giving away a free book! Find my author accounts on facebook (Nicki Dechert Carlson, Author) and instagram (nicki_dechert_carlson_author) for details on how to enter!
Look for the Well-Tended Life Podcast on just about any podcast platform you use. Direct links are below.
Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, beginnings and endings. That statement has never felt truer than now, as I close out the year 2022 and open the year 2023.
For me, 2022 was a year of both slow and sudden change. A year of bittersweet endings and expected beginnings. A year of traumatic loss and surprising rebirth. Mourning and celebrating. A year of confusion, turmoil, twisted emotions, gut-wracking sobs, anger and frustration, pleading, and broken hearts strewn about like shattered fragments of glass. And yet, there was also blessing. Gratitude. The warm embraces of family and a few friends that carried us to the cross where we lay crumpled in a messy heap of surrender.
My thoughts about this last year spill onto the page in broken sentences much like my broken self. Emotions too overwhelming for words try to leak out of my eyes and down to my typing fingertips. 2022 was simply too much for me.
And yet, I’m still here to welcome 2023.
In my darkest moments last year, I was held by the One who holds the entire universe. When I couldn’t, He could — and did. When my emotions betrayed my faith, and my body couldn’t rest, and my racing mind just simply would not shut up … the Holy Spirit tended to my wounds that human hands and efforts could not reach.
I mourned so very many things last year — loved ones, friendships, dreams, and ideas. I am laying them to rest back there, in 2022. It is time to move forward. Not without them, but with a new understanding of them. Time will reveal the lessons that the hard work of 2022 has taught me. I don’t want the hardships to harden me. For now, I look ahead and welcome new days and new opportunities to experience God’s love and grace, and to share it with others. My mantra for 2023 is simple: keep your heart open. If that resonates with you like it does with me, I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
We really looked forward to this weekend … our first weekend in many weeks when there was nothing scheduled. Recently, we’d moved our oldest into a new apartment while she finishes college. We’d moved our middle child into her first dorm room at a different college. We’d gone to tennis tournaments while supporting our youngest child. We’d been deeply embroiled in grief and the business that surrounds a death in the immediate family. We’d been preparing for and enduring the growing pains and anxiety and busyness of going back to school, two out of three of which were new schools for our kids. We’d weathered bad news after more bad news after still more bad news. But this weekend, we looked optimistically toward an opportunity for rest.
But then a fresh crisis emerged. Friday afternoon, we learned that our precious first pet, our sweet lapdog Emily, has liver cancer and is dying. She doesn’t have months. If we’re lucky she has a couple of weeks. Most likely, she has days.
Calls were made and tears were shed and our newly-minted college freshman took the news the hardest. We agreed to meet her halfway in-between her college town and our hometown on Saturday, so she could spend some time loving on her dog, just in case it was her last chance to do so.
It was all too hard, though. The idea of traveling back to her dorm in an unfamiliar city with unfamiliar people she is living with and being alone in her room while others went out to have Saturday night fun just seemed impossible. So, she followed us home for the night. We talked. We cuddled. We watched funny shows on TV. We talked about our feelings and our God questions and our grief. We discussed the importance of finding God’s blessings in the midst of all this pain, and in His ability to bring good out of every situation. We held our sweet dog and petted her until she fell asleep.
That night we all slept, comfortable and safe in one another’s presence in our home. This morning we awoke to the Verse of the Day on our phones. It was the same verse we recited last night:
After our sweet girl kissed her pup, mustered her courage, and headed back to school, I cried in my husband’s arms and lamented, saying, “I just wish life would get a little easier for all of us. When is this awful season going to end? It’s about to get even harder!”
And within the next 10 minutes in our home, my husband, my son, and I all discovered hearts from God all over our house. One after the next after the next. Our own little signs that God sees us and loves us. We were not just safe in one another’s presence last night … we were safe in His presence. We are always in His presence. Thank God we are not alone.
I’m a super honest person. Lately, I’ve been struggling with feeling insincere when I casually run into people around town. I got downright nervous recently at the grocery store while waiting in line with my cart of items, anticipating the impending conversation. A typical, short greeting in a situation like this used to go something like “Hi! How are you?” To which I would reply, “I’m great! How are you?” And then we would carry on with casual conversation or other business. Similar encounters happen when running into friends in public places. I have to say though, these conversations are no longer working for me. They don’t ring true and leave me feeling icky.
You see, I’m not great. Hell, I’m not even good. If I were to answer honestly, I would say, “I’m having a hard time. I’m really sad. And I’m really tired. Grief is so hard. I’m overly-emotional and completely overwhelmed. I’m also a little anxious. And I’m really, really vulnerable, which makes me easily hurt and then resentful, which I absolutely hate. I’m tired of crying. And I’m so ‘over’ bad news I could scream.”
Cue the young, stunned cashier at H.E.B. with her mouth gaping open, running towards her manager for help with the crazy lady in the checkout lane. Boundaries are important in our society. Even my friends and acquaintances would struggle to respond to that emotional outburst, regardless of its truth.
What’s strange to me is that even though I myself am “not good,” God and I are good. We’re solid, in fact. My faith has not wavered. My face is still fixed on His.
So, as I struggle with social etiquette that coincides with honesty and faith, I’ve decided on the following for the time being:
“Hi! How are you?”
“I’m blessed. How are you?”
Because despite my erratic emotions, God’s blessings are consistent. Despite my hurt, God is still good. Despite my feelings changing like shifting sand with every new wave of grief, His grace still stands firm.
I had to retire my favorite pair of tennis shoes. For a tennis player, it’s a big deal. You see, the repetitive stops and starts on hard-court tennis surfaces wear and tear the soles of a player’s shoes. And if you play frequently, just about the time you get a pair of tennis shoes really comfortable and broken-in, you start to notice your feet sliding on the court more. Gone is the tell-tale squeak as you quickly move around the court. So, you check the bottom of your shoes and there it is … a smooth surface worn so thin it will render a gaping hole at any moment.
So, despite the fact that these shoes are just now feeling really nice to play in — no pinches or pulls or movement inhibition — I suddenly have to give them up for a super stiff new pair. Why? Because the old ones are no longer safe. Without proper traction, I could slip or slide on the court, injuring a muscle or turning a knee or ankle.
These shoes remind me of my life. Just when I feel like I’m hitting a pleasant stride, everything changes. Out with the familiar, in with the unknown. Whether it’s suffering like illness, or upheaval like moving, or expected but difficult change like children graduating and leaving home, nothing ever seems to stay the same. The only constant is change itself.
God is always pressing forward. Always pursuing us. He is never stagnant. So, if we are staying the same, we are by default choosing to move further away from Him. If we’re not seeking Jesus in our daily lives, we are actually seeking distance from Him. Where He leads, we must follow. Not doing so equates to disobedience.
I’d like to tell you that I embraced that new pair of tennis shoes, went out and played hard, never complained, and my feet felt great. But they didn’t. And I didn’t. My feet were aching after being thrust into their new environment. I moaned and groaned about it, too. However, I know my sneakers will adjust over time. A few more outings and they will begin to loosen up, and before I know it, I will refer to these new shoes as my old comfortable pair. And then I will have to start this process all over again.
My friends, we will adjust and loosen up with a little time, too. Don’t fight change, but look for where God is moving and join Him there. New environments may make us tense with anxiety or fear, but soon it will all begin to feel familiar and comfortable. And that’s when we know it’s time for God to stretch us with something new once again. Because it’s in the stretching where we grow in likeness to Him.
I hear the tell-tale sound of a text alert from one of my children, so I pick up the phone sitting next to my lukewarm cup of coffee that I haven’t had time to drink this morning. “Mom,” it reads, “I think I’m sick. Should I get a COVID test? Do I go to the health center on campus?” Another text alert. “Mom, the tennis meet today has been canceled. Can you pick me up from school, then take me home, then bring me back to the courts for clinic? And can you call and make sure clinic is happening? What’s for supper? Can you pick me up after clinic, because Dad may still be in his mediation?” A third notification pings, reminding me it’s time for my business meeting. I sigh as I realize I’m still in my nightgown. A fourth ping. A funny meme from the child I haven’t yet heard from this morning. I’ll read that later. The phone begins to ring now with an incoming call, and I realize it’s from one of the kid’s schools. Now the doorbell is ringing and the dogs are going berserk.
All this happened in a mere five-minute period this morning! To say we’re in a busy season at Casa Carlson would be a gross understatement. It’s tennis season, STAAR testing season, AP/Dual credit/final exam season, preparing for college season, moving home from college for summer season, scholarship application season, confirmation season, high school graduation season, prom season, and the list goes on and on. My mother-in-law asked me just a few minutes ago, “What’s keeping you so busy?” The thought of listing for her the things I had done just today was enough to overwhelm me!
For the record, all these “things” causing me to run around like a chicken with my head cut off are actually wonderful blessings. Also, for the record, I am tired. When life gets hectic, my brain overflows with an insane number of dates and details, and the calendar fills up so tightly I can’t possibly wedge another thing in — yet here come more surprise events, plans, and needs — how do I respond? How would you?
Well first, remember that cup of coffee? I warm that precious bit of bliss back up. I’m not even kidding. But second, I try to shift my perspective from “I have to” into “I get to.” So much of the busyness I could complain about is actually a direct answer to my heartfelt prayers. I must remember to offer active prayers of praise and thanksgiving. I have a healthy, active marriage and family. This season may be all-encompassing, but it’s just that: a season. And like all seasons, it will change. And when it does, I will miss this one in all its chaotic glory.
I never want to take my role as a parent for granted. As Mother’s Day nears and the end of another school year approaches, I want to stop in the middle of the hustle and bustle and embrace the joy of watching firsthand as my children grow and move from one phase of life to another. I want to soak up every moment of learning, accomplishment, creativity, and even struggle. So many people I know would give their own lives for this privilege, so I don’t want to complain about it.
One of my favorite familiar sayings is, “The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for.” That statement hits me in the feels every time. The world’s perspective says I should focus on self-care, and that all this “living of Life” amounts to stress and nothing more. But God’s perspective says, “Look at the lavish way I am pouring out my love for you. I am pouring out more blessings than you can hold.”
Whatever season you find yourself in right now, I encourage you to stop and seek God’s perspective in the midst of it. Change your mindset from “I have to” into “I get to”. And recognize God’s love and blessings all around you.
Famous philosopher Aristotle reportedly said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Although I do agree that our habits and activities characterize us, I do not believe they are the essence of our actual being. If Aristotle were entirely correct, I would be coffee.
If we want to truly know who we are, we must look to the One who created us. The Bible tells us God created all things and called them “good.” When He created humans, however, He called them “very good.” We are a reflection of God and His nature. So, if you question who you are, remember whose you are. Look into the face of your Daddy to learn more about yourself. You are the beloved child of Father God. You are the intimate, creative handiwork of the God of the Universe. You hold within you the same Almighty-God-power that brought Jesus back to life. And don’t ever forget, you are worth the gruesome, painful, suffering and death on a cross of your sibling brother, Jesus.
Identity crises don’t exist when we cling to the truth of who we truly are. We are God’s. Everything else is just details.
I looked out the window with groggy eyes and heard the familiar “whoosh” of the remaining water filtering through the coffee maker. I pulled the filter out and noticed a lone, whole coffee bean sitting precariously on top of the black, soggy mess of coffee grounds. It reminded me that the delicious, steaming, liquid goodness I was soon to drink was once just potential, held within the confines of this tiny, hard-shelled bean. We all know what those little beans must go through before they render that wonderful coffee elixir: planting, watering, weathering storms, harvesting, transporting, manufacturing, inspecting, packaging, and more transporting. After all this, we bring the beans into our homes, put them through a metal grinder, and pour boiling water on top of their remains. Sounds rather violent, does it not?
That small, whole coffee bean I found this morning serves as a perfect reminder of the link between suffering and potential. Jesus, too, had to endure violent suffering before He could reach His full potential and purpose. Just for a moment, try to imagine Jesus without the torment of the cross. He taught, He healed, He befriended, He led, He challenged—all wonderful, important, life-changing activities. But if there were no cross—no piercing cries of agony, no spectacle of unjust torture, no pleas for forgiveness for His crucifiers, no humble obedience to God’s will for Him—He would never have met His full potential of world-changing salvation. Would Jesus be well-known and revered? Probably so, as a great man of God. But would He be the promised Messiah, the savior of mankind? No, He would not.
Without the cross, there’s no mind-bending display of God’s power and authority over death. Without the cross, there’s no ultimate and final sacrifice allowing us to commune with God while still living in our filthy human bodies. Without the cross, there’s no redemption, forgiveness, and salvation offered to every person on earth for all time. Without the cross, there’s no Easter. No resurrection.
Sometimes, there’s no way around suffering. Sometimes we must endure the bean grinder and the boiling water so God can release something magnificent lying dormant inside us—our full potential in Him.
Two seven-year-old boys, sweaty and breathless from rambunctious outside play, came into the house for dinner.
“Would you like water or milk with your dinner?” the mom asked her son’s playmate.
“Milk, please,” the friend replied.
“Do you drink regular milk or chocolate milk?” the mom asked.
“Regular,” he answered, “because I gave up chocolate milk for Lent.”
The mom’s heart melted a little at the playmate’s manners and reverence. And then her own son spoke.
“I gave up girls,” he offered.
And after almost choking on her iced tea, the mom silently prayed, “Lord, help me with this one.”
Much like these seven-year-old boys, our ideas of what it means to observe Lent vary widely. As we enter this season, I am asking myself some difficult questions to guide me through this holy time of year. I pray this checklist may offer you some guidance as well.
1. Check for motive: If you have chosen to observe the Lenten season, what motivated you to do so? Is it tradition? Christian legalism? A desire to gain attention from others for being a “good” or “devout” Christian? Or do you desire to truly remember and reflect on the life, suffering, sacrifice, and teachings of Jesus, and to experience greater intimacy with God?
2. Check for posture: Giving something up for Lent is not the same as a New Year’s resolution. This practice is not about self-reliance or self-improvement. To fast from something during Lent means to humble one’s self before Him and rely on His grace and mercy to abstain from something that is blocking an authentic, close relationship with Him. The focus should be on Christ, not self.
3. Check for idolatry: Just like the Israelites, we erect all kinds of idols that have nothing to do with Almighty God. An idol is anything in our lives that takes precedence over our relationship with Him. Lent is the perfect time to eliminate anything that takes a position of importance above God in our lives.
4. Check for sin: Lent is also a time of repentance. The ashes we wear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday remind us of our sorrow and mourning over our sin, the same sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. Ask God to shine His light into every corner of your sinful heart and illuminate the dark places in need of His forgiveness.
Maybe you really do need to give up girls, or boys for that matter, for Lent. Or maybe you need to reach out to a girl or boy you know and introduce him or her to Jesus. It may look different for all of us. But I encourage you to take these next few weeks of the Lenten season and seek Him in new ways, in old ways, in proven ways, and in every way that may bring you closer to your Father in Heaven.
The familiar pop and whack of tennis balls hitting the strings of a racquet filled the air, accompanied by the high-pitched squeak of tennis shoes abruptly starting and stopping on the asphalt tennis court. My daughter, sweating profusely and after missing the last eight shots in a row, put her hands on her knees to catch her breath.
The tennis pro approached the net with his racquet in hand, and my daughter asked, clearly exasperated, “What am I doing wrong?”
He took another step closer and asked, “How many times have you hit a forehand?”
“Thousands,” she replied. “Maybe millions.”
“Exactly,” the pro said. “You know how to hit a forehand. Your body knows how to do this. But every time you see the ball coming, you fill your mind with dozens of details about what you need to do to hit the perfect shot,” he instructed. “All you need to do is relax. Stop over-thinking it. Stop trying so hard. Just allow muscle memory to take over. You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’ll try again,” she said doubtfully.
“Remember, relax. Don’t think. Just swing at the ball.”
And then, naturally, she hit dozens of perfectly placed, beautiful shots in succession, until they ran out of tennis balls in the basket.
I think of this tennis lesson often, partly because it reflects what I need to learn in my own tennis game, but also because it relates to my life generally. I am a classic over-thinker. A recovering perfectionist. A member of the “trying so hard it’s to my own detriment” club.
Just like a tennis ball, I see Christmas coming. This year, my family is recovering from illness, and work for myself and my husband has ramped up exponentially. Just like my daughter preparing to hit the approaching ball, my mind is filled daily with dozens of things I need to do — work tasks and “mom” tasks and tasks to accomplish my family’s perfect holiday.
But what if I just relaxed? What if I stopped striving and trying so hard? What if I allowed my body’s spiritual muscle memory to take over? Because the truth is, I already know what to do to have the best Christmas ever. We all know. God created us with this very thing in mind:
You see, all of creation groans to praise God in Heaven. We were created to worship Him. And that’s what Christmas is all about: worshiping the newborn King. Kneeling before the baby Messiah. Singing “Glory” and “Hallelujah” to honor the Savior of the world. We don’t need three different cholesterol-laden casseroles, or a tree bursting with presents, or a sparkly new party dress. We need to do what we instinctively know how to do already: worship Jesus.
Maybe this year, we will all rely a little more on our spiritual muscle memory, and less on our worldly plans. Maybe this year, we will assuage our aching hearts with what we truly long for: time spent worshipping the baby in the manger.