The Hidden Beauty in the Barren Places

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I dug my toes into the cool sand and closed my eyes, the salty spray whipping my hair against my face. The peach-hued sun was just slipping into that fuzzy line along the horizon. We had the Mexican beach, scattered with driftwood and seaweed, all to ourselves. After months of grueling school load, Daniel’s semester had ended and we came up for air, several hours west of Cancun, Mexico.

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It was God’s gift to us, really, because we aren’t the type to be able to take yearly vacations, especially ones that involve international flights and ten days lodging. But last year when American Airlines mixed up our flights, we got a lovely stack of vouchers that nearly covered all flight expenses to get our entire family to Mexico. So we packed our bags, boarded our flights, and headed for the Yucatán. Traveling internationally with children is never an easy thing, but ever so worth the sacrifices.

The land of tacos and mangos and pineapples, I had no complaints.
Our beach house looked out directly onto a private pool and then a couple yards farther, the ocean. We had dropped our bags, and headed straight to the back yard, to our own beach, and buried our toes in the sand.

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I always feel tiny as I stand at the edge of the waves.
The wind swirls around me, whipping my hair and words get lost in the wind.
The waves roll on and on, and palm trees nod and dance in the breeze.
And here I am, lost in the vast mysterious wonder of it all.

Somehow, the ocean is written deep in my soul.
Here the land and sea kiss, and here, my mortality looks hard into the eyes of the eternal. My needs are embraced by a God who is ever abundant and never gasps in horror at my brokenness. My prayers and longings are hushed on my lips, and God demonstrates who He is.

Much like Job, who laid out all his woes and accusations against God after such horrific losses, God held up his finger and silenced him. Instead of responding to the allegations, God stood tall and reminded Job of who He WAS. His creations and character were rebuttals enough.

And Job felt it.
The God who created us to long for justice and perfection also created our hearts and our need to lean back into a sovereign Creator.

I need this place of vastness to remind me to quiet my heart.
To look above the shattered shells of my life and see the beauty in miles and miles of sand, stretching farther than my eyes can see.
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Sometimes God lures us into the vast land of barrenness, where the sun glares hot and sand grinds between our toes. The dessert spreads wide around us and we wonder why we are here. Ill-prepared and oh so thirsty, no one hears our sigh. 

Or so it feels. 

Sometimes God calls us to seasons of stepping back. To saying “no” to lots of great things, so He can do a deeper, unseen growing in us that looks dry and lifeless to all external eyes. Perhaps that means saying no to a promising business opportunity. Maybe it looks like falling off the social bandwagon and all your followers wonder if you are still alive. Sometimes it means hitting “publish” less often or setting down a dream that warmed your heart and got your heart beating with excitement.

It often feels like trading something for nothing.
Like a sacrifice with no return.

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While we were on our vacation, I passed the long miles of driving by reading aloud “God’s Smuggler” in a delicious European accent. We rollicked along as Andrew sought the fulfillment to his quest for meaningful adventure in life. After his wild and belligerent escapades on the battlefield that should have landed him quite dead, he came home wounded and disillusioned with life.

“We must pray,” his wise neighbor, Mr. Whetzra simply said, “that you find that adventure.” Even now, after his careless and intentional dives into a life lived belligerently, God had a purpose. With the wind knocked out of him, and a badly injured ankle and life over as he felt it, at long last he was in a place where God could begin to write HIS story through Andrew. And what follows on the pages of his story is truly staggering- miracle after miracle done at the hand of an awesome God at the request of a simple and humble man.

Years ago we lived in a small adobe house that was perched on the hill overlooking the cobblestoned village, I remember my husband wrestling with the tug of war in his heart. He had long dreamed of doing mission work in a particular unreached area, but now, God was asking him to lay it down.

Lay down a mission opportunity, a dream that was etched on his very soul?
How could God ask a willing man to lay DOWN a missionary dream?
Why does God bring us to places that require us to choose between Him and His work?

It was a salty battle, but I remember the unexplainable relief radiating from my husband once the dust settled.
God was the purpose and calling, not His work.
If God said no, that no was best. 

Later God would open doors that looked hopelessly padlocked, and I would learn from the sidelines that sometimes God’s no is the best thing for us, bitter and acrid as it may taste at the time.

When I think over age-old Bible stories that are etched into my soul, a couple stand out in oddly vibrant colors, always catching my eye and forcing me to pause. One of these scenes is Hagar, who went from being a faithful servant for years to a rejected and abandoned mother. Her whole life had been poured out for her masters, and now she sat in the middle of the desert, everything around her dying of thirst. Even her dear son was draped under a brittle and parched bush, waiting for death to end his misery. Where was God in all this?

But the angel appears and pulls back the curtain from her eyes. God HAS a plan, a long-lasting plan for this child of hers. Death is not here. She summed it up so well, while her toes were still in the baking sand and her problems were not yet resolved,
she said,

“He is the God who sees.”

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When the flesh struggles hard, and the children fight and squabble till your very brain rattles. When the job ends, and the demands loom, and you step back and wonder where the greatness is, hold your words because this is the place of opportunity.
We must not underestimate the power of God in these in-between seasons.
These moments that look so unimpressive are His canvas of opportunity.

Someone asked me recently if I still blog. I laughed and shrugged, “Sometimes! I’m a wife and mommy first, sometimes a writer.” Truth be told, I’ll always be a writer, but sometimes the day in and day out of washing dishes and cuddling little people hones and seasons my heart in ways that conferences and degrees would not. Someday there will be time for those. And somedays we pop up in the middle of real-life to share a kid bit of wisdom we gleaned in the nitty-gritty of life.

But never ever should we let the outward pressures lure us into presenting a life less than real. We are called to be genuine and humble.
Press past the filters and presets, and let people see into the real you.

More than perfection, God created us to need honesty.
True fellowship is found in our broken places, where our needs exceed our abilities.

“I was growing to understand,” writes Sarah Haggerty after one such time, “that this season that felt stalled was not one for me to despise. It was one that He not only loved but orchestrated,” in her book “Unseen.”

I too am coming to detect some of that sweetness that has filtered through these seasons of no, of loss, or of simply waiting. In a world scrambling to be at the top of the pile, to have the most followers or get the most “likes,” seasons of stepping away are deeply enlightening.

Instead of being Pinterest Perfect, our souls need space to breathe, to look unfiltered into the face of God.

Being just another small shell lost in the millions at the edge of the ocean is a powerful realization, a humbling and beautiful reality of our God’s omnipotence, who cares deeply about each one of us.

“God was bringing a glory out of this barrenness and a great hunger for Him out of our longing.” -Sarah Haggerty

My heart still carries burdens, unanswered prayers, and places where I know I need deep healing. I am human and deeply flawed- I have never been more aware of this. And while it leaves me feeling so lost and undone, I find being completely needy is actually a place of complete safety.

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Sometimes I lift my eyes to the hill to be reminded where my help comes from.
Other times I feast my eyes on the emerald green-gray water,
always moving and never the same,
and am drawn to the Maker of heaven and earth.

And in this drawing, I am found, not lost.
In His presence, in His care, no matter what the storms may threaten and lies whisper,
I am safe. Always safe.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. C says:

    “It often feels like trading something for nothing.
    Like a sacrifice with no return.”

    Just having endured my fourth miscarriage, (one that might have been prevented had the Dr ran the right tests) your description of barrenness resonates clearly with me. Thank you for the reminder of God’s sovereignty even (especially) in my desert.

    1. Oh I’m so very sorry! I’ve lost 5 little ones, so I know that pain. May Jesus carry you so gently…

      Here’s a post I wrote after our last miscarriage.

      https://danilissa.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/where-no-offering-is-wasted/

  2. jrnhofer@gmail.com says:

    Dearest Melissa, Oh my! I think God created you for such a time as this, with your beautiful writing . Your honest heart, your gift with words, your choosing life instead of wallowing in the pool of bitterness, your quest to find God fresh and real in the everyday; so very refreshing. Somehow this illuminates the beauty of our Almighty God, and the comfort that Jesus can be, if we allow him that privilege in our weak moments. In a season of new pressures, you have nudged me back to the simplicity of real worship. The surrender of our circumstances to his glory, instead of caving to a fear based perspective or selfish Grace fighting for our rights and comfort. Blessings to you dear Sister. Robyn

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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