For me, 2016 started with fireworks. On January 16, Shawn and I celebrated our wedding – a true redemption story after losing my beloved Ericlee to cancer in 2014. That year was a journey of finding God’s glory even in the darkest hours. Then 2015 was a year to redeem, to witness God bringing new value to all that had been broken and lost for our family. As I stood at the altar with my bridegroom, surrounded by more than 500 friends and family, I felt like I was stepping into a new and spacious garden ready to bloom. I was eager to flourish.
I chose FLOURISH as my One Word to focus on for 2016. At the start, flourish sang to me of bright colors and new beginnings. The dictionary tells me that flourish is a verb, meaning to thrive; to grow luxuriantly; to be in one’s prime; to be at the height of fame, influence, success; to prosper. I marched into 2016 with a spirit of newfound joy and fierce hope.
Of course, just as in past years, I had no idea how that one word would shape me, challenge me, break me and remake me from the inside out.
A few months into 2016, I started to feel overwhelmed. I had way too much on my plate. I was still leading in several large capacities, while adding a new husband, new family situation and a giant new speaking/writing project to my list. Something had to give. In a conversation on one of our regular date nights, my hubby gently suggested I clear my plate of commitments so I could really focus on the new projects God was calling me to.
Clear everything from my plate at one time? Who does that? I loved everything I was involved in. Every piece felt important and meaningful. What could I possibly get rid of or step down from? They needed me, right? I hemmed and hawed. I strategized about ways I could keep certain things and be more efficient with my time.
One afternoon, I overheard my mother-in-law giving my middle daughter a lesson in keeping roses. The two of them were on the front patio of our new home with huge garden clippers. I saw the sad state of our rose bushes. The one in the middle had two thick, root branches that were so heavy they were making the whole bush topple forward. As Grandma directed, my 7-year-old went to work pruning branches. Even some of the prettiest roses on the bush had to be clipped for the good of the entire bush.
The lesson was not lost on me. I knew deep in my heart it was time to prune.
These familiar words echoed in my heart: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15: 2-3, ESV).
Did you catch that? It doesn’t say he leaves the branches that are thriving, the biggest branches, the ministries that look the most successful, the activities that bring in the most people or seem to depend the most on you. The verse says every branch – even the ones bearing fruit – must be pruned.
Hadn’t I already learned enough about pruning? After all, in the past year and half I had sacrificed my husband to cancer, my position working for a non-profit in Haiti, several circles of friends, and so many of my life-long dreams for our family. Letting go of those things was excruciating. Why would God ask me to give up more?
This time it was about obedience. Looking back, I know He was asking me to let go of some good things that had become so big in my life they defined me. These were the thickest branches of my rose bush weighing me down. He wanted me to lean into His present calling on my life so my identity was re-defined in Him.
This spring I surrendered my teaching job at the university. I passed on my role leading a thriving moms group (MOPS) at our church. I stepped out of some other community groups and said no to a bunch of invitations to speak and attend events that had become regular on my calendar through the years.
At first, it was much harder than I thought it would be. I thought I could just move on to the next thing but I discovered even when God prunes us for the good we need to give ourselves time to grieve. I missed the communities and circles of friends. I missed the sense of purpose I had felt in those spaces.
I also discovered something scary about myself. I didn’t know how to rest.
After more than a decade operating a non-profit with my husband and working in highly-demanding leadership and ministry places, I didn’t know how to sit in the quiet. In those months, my branches felt naked, bare, no sign of green or color. I had to learn to wait and listen and trust.
During the summer, I chose to focus on a few things to nourish my soul and my body. I chose to read more books and signed up to run a full marathon. This was important not just to fill the time but to deliberately and intentionally take time to learn and be quiet. As I logged lots of miles and hours, I started to feel alive again. Especially when I was running, I carved out time to listen and pour out my heart to God. And when I would come home from long runs, I was exhausted and ready to rest. Naps were unapologetically part of my day.
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. (John 4:13-14, ESV)
Like my thirsty rose bushes, my soul needed water. I needed to let this living water seep deep into my soul soil and nourish my roots. For years, I had only afforded myself quick drinks at the drinking fountain. This summer I drank deeply from the well. I gave myself permission to rest, to run with my Father and spend time investing in my husband and daughters. That nourishing phase was important to helping me recalibrate my heart and all of us to bond as a family.
When September rolled around, our family rhythm changed again. My girls went back to school and for the first time in more than a decade I had at least three full days a week to focus on my writing. For years I had dreamed of this time but it was finally here, and it felt revolutionary somehow. I had the time to work on editing and sending out several of the children’s book manuscripts I had written. I also had brain space to work on a bigger book and bible study project.
One day as I was slipping in our front door, I stopped in my tracks before the rose bushes. Huge pink blooms the size of my 5-year-old’s head were on multiple branches. I had never seen roses this big. We clipped half a dozen to put in a spacious, glass vase on our dining room table – a reminder that God often allows us to bloom in unexpected ways in His perfect timing.
In November, I received an email from a children’s book agent that she was interested in representing my work. Then I heard from another and another agent. After 10 years of receiving rejection letters and wading through the discouragement of having so little time to devote to my writing, I had choices. For such a time as this I am stepping into a new season of writing, publishing and sharing my stories for His glory.
This fall, Shawn and I also signed up to help coach the cross country team at our daughters’ school. We decided this was something we could invest in as a family and could provide a door for us to develop relationships with more families in our school community. Just before Christmas we hosted an end-of-season celebration at our house. As kids jumped on the trampoline in the yard and the kitchen and dining room were spilling with parents and coaches, I felt a deep joy welling up inside. I flushed with the color of this new garden we found ourselves flourishing in.
If I had not gone through the process of pruning, resting and nourishing, I might not have the chance to experience these surprising blooms.
I am returning tonight to the words of John 15, this time in verse 8: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (ESV).
In a year’s time God has taught me much about the process of flourishing. I cannot become a flourishing garden overnight. In fact, I have to prepare myself to be pruned in every area at one time or another. And most importantly, I need to cultivate my time to have space to help others flourish so my Father – the Master Gardener – can be glorified. I know the process of flourishing will circle back around. He will continue to ask me to prune, rest, nourish and bloom in various seasons.
I am looking to 2017 with expectancy. My One Word chosen for 2017 is BEHOLD. This word has allured me for a few months now. I believe it is about BEing, pausing and living present in His presence. I know it’s about allowing Him to HOLD me close, to hold still and to savor each moment. I’ve already started a treasure hunt through the Bible. I’ve discovered that word BEHOLD is used in many ways. Most prominently, it’s used as a call to fix our eyes upon, to observe with care, and to reflect God’s glory. Sounds like the perfect banner to hold boldly overhead as I enter into 2017.
What are some of your reflections on 2016? Have you chosen One Word for 2017? Please comment below and start the conversation.