My one little word for 2015 was FOCUS. By about month three of 2015 I felt like I was doing anything but focusing; instead, I felt like I was splitting into so many pieces I wasn’t sure how I would find parts of myself back.
Looking back on the year, though, I realize that in so many ways God really brought my life into focus for me. And as I started to see more clearly, I did start to eliminate certain things that were draining me and drawing me away from God.
Three months into 2015 my world felt like it was being turned upside-down as I realized my photography business as it was at that moment was just not working out. In the drama of the moment I felt like I was being torn apart – I felt like my heart was breaking. I felt like a failure wrapped in a constant state of sojourning. I was wandering, and I could no longer see the destination. I didn’t know what to do or how to fix it. I was placing all of my hopes on the financial success of my photography business, expecting myself to reach a certain measure of success, and I allowed that condition to define my happiness. I got confused about what joy was and where to find it. I realized I was living in a perpetual state of despair and separation. I was going to church every Sunday, reading the Psalms, and looking in on it all from a distance, expecting to change me in all of the ways I wanted to be changed. I wanted it to follow my agenda. I wanted to put the right pieces in the puzzle of my life so it could all come together and I could feel and look successful.
After a trip to Kentucky where I had life-altering conversations my dear friend Shareese and met the painter Marjorie Guyon, I struggled against change for a good month. I struggled, deep in my self-imposed trenches, trying to figure it out. I was trying to make the right to-do list, to find the right routine – anything to get what I wanted. I assumed that what I wanted was what God wanted.
In mid-March I found myself surrounded by a string of particularly low days. Those days had stretched into weeks, and I started to find myself realizing I wasn’t just feeling down, or a little depressed. I was in despair. The logical part of my brain, seeing all of my blessings, wondered how I had the audacity to be in despair. Wave after wave of shame washed over and intertwined its fingers with my despair until I felt like I could never break the hold they had on me. Amid all of this, I started to experience this strange sensation that I had never felt before. Looking back, I see it for what it is: joy. God drew me into him so fiercely during the 2015 Lenten season. On a cold and dreary morning, I cracked open my bible and found Psalm 3, a Psalm I had studied in depth a year earlier. I saw David’s words and started to feel this deep joy within me, a realization of what God has done for me, and it wove its fingers in with my despair and shame, loosening their hold. My despair and shame didn’t retreat fully, but the hand of God and the joy that rests therein began to cover them. Here is Psalm 3. I bolded some of the text because it is my favorite part:
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God.
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill.
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O Lord!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
your blessing be on your people!
This deep realization wove itself into my work all year. My obsession with using metal leaf in my work is not just an aesthetic choice, though I do love shiny, pretty things. My obsession comes with seeing that joy intermingled with everything else. It is in the unexpected places, like a mid-March Monday when my eyes are puffy and my heart is heavy from sobbing because before I was out of bed my mind was already racing with thoughts about how the world would be better without me. And yet that joy persists, it tugs, it whispers the truth to me (I am enough for you, you are precious, you are mine) and it is far more compelling than those shouted lies of the enemy (you are a failure, you will never succeed, you might as well give up). That joy rests amid the dirty, the dingy, the sadness, the colorful, the beautiful, the happiness. Our sermon at church last night helped to bring it into focus for me. My joy is Jesus, and the communion I get to experience with God because of him. My joy is not circumstantial, it is not happiness. My joy does not depend on my success, my house, my looks, my fitness level, my bank account, my marriage, my friendships, my family. My joy is Jesus. Jesus is there in everything, intermingled, prevalent, shaping everything and re-framing my entire worldview. The suffering, the sadness, it doesn’t vanish like magic. It is still there, and it still hurts. But it is colored differently, somehow, and I can see it revealed as what it is: temporary.
My 2015 journey to focus was not a straight line, and I am still not totally in focus. But looking back, I marvel at the work God did in me. Because he helped me to realize how much worth I was placing on success in my career, I was able to open up to new possibilities. I took on more voice students. I got the opportunity to teach at a local community college, an opportunity I had resolved to turn down previously because it didn’t fit into my plan of how my business success was going to go. I started painting almost daily, which was a huge commitment of time and a big risk. That obedience and willingness to walk into his vision for me has helped me to stop white-knuckling my future. In the midst of it, I made new friends, I drew closer to my community, I have gotten in touch with parts of myself that God made but I buried because it didn’t serve my vision. I took risks like painting 17 illuminations of the Brahms Requiem.
This process of painting work that is true to my spiritual journey and experience has not always felt easy. I have been very afraid of what others will think of me. I still catch myself filtering my faith at parties. When talking to a friend over Christmas that I hadn’t seen in awhile, I wanted nothing more than to say, “What must God be like? He has helped me to see myself for who I am without him: incomplete, totally flawed, searching, endlessly wandering–and who I am with him: joyful, still totally flawed but with a heart being made new, overflowing with new mercies and graces that I get every single day! He has upended my life all because he wants me to know him and he wants me as a person, and I don’t even deserve it!” But that still feels awkward (especially because I would probably cry and really weird them out), so I water it down and start sentences with, “Not to get Jesus-y, but, I just am starting to see more and more what God wants for my life.” Could I be more vague or sound more like an alien? Jesus is the reason for all of it. What’s particularly strange is that I was saying it to get Jesus-y, and then I disclaimed the very source of my joy. It is humbling and beautiful to see the work God still has to do in my heart, but it is just as humbling to see the work he has already done in me. This has enabled me to be more deeply present in all friendships, I think especially with those who do not share my faith. For those of you who are reading this who do not share my faith: I am so grateful for you, and you are so precious to me. I feel the same way about those of you who share my faith: I am so grateful for you, and you are so precious to me.
Looking back, I am grateful for the focus that the Lord brought to my life. When I set out in January, I think I hoped this focus goal would help me smash my to-do list and that I would look like a total #girlboss by December. God gently brought me into a different direction, though. He helped to draw me to him, thereby giving my life the only real focus I can hope for. This focus led me to quit hoping in the next thing, the next fix, the next business seminar, the next product, the next idea: instead, in the best moments of 2015, I found myself totally focused on hoping in him. I wasn’t always happy in those moments, and in fact I was often very sad. It is difficult to describe this sensation: joy woven into the fabric of sadness, but it is one of the most deeply fulfilling and beautiful things I have yet experienced. In those moments of hoping in the Lord, the joy came spilling through the cracks in my life, more valuable than gold, more fulfilling than any business success or life-goal crossed off.
I am so excited for the year to come. I will be posting about my 2016 one little word at some point this week. Thank you to all of you who have helped me this past year by reading this blog, following along on Instagram, purchasing or recommending my artwork, listening to me process all of this, writing me encouraging notes, spending hours with me on the phone, giving lots of hugs, and hugging me amid the tears. You are such a tangible provision from God and my heart aches like the grinch’s heart: it just keeps expanding.