My Cup of Thankfulness

How richly my cup overflows. (A very Happy Thanksgiving to you, my friends.)

With every year I age and mature, I seem to find a little bit more wisdom in what I find to be blessings. Each year I realize those blessings become things less and less. Instead, my blessings, for the greatest part, are the people in my life who love me, care for me, support me, and keep me grounded during times of turmoil and stress as well as achievement and excitement.

The last two Sundays at church have been quite the God-send for me. Last week the sermon was on a look into the beginning of Chapter 4 of Philippians, specifically verses four through six:

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.

One of my superpowers is worrying. I worry about my family, I worry about my friends, I worry about my car, my heat bill, the fight with my best friend in second grade… Heck, I come up with more plausible situations for the outcome of an argument in any given morning shower than there have been episodes of Survivor. It doesn’t truly take me a half hour to wash my hair; I’m actually dissecting every single direction the other party may go and my rebuttal so that I’m prepared! To quote Mark Twain, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

One might think that my biggest stress lately would be wedding planning. Yet in all honesty, it hasn’t been. As the holidays approach I find myself missing certain people in my life a lot and worrying over their absence more than is mentally and emotionally healthy. I’ve been using wedding planning as a detracting agent for this larger stress, and you know what, friends, covering one stress with another isn’t a great strategy. (Who would have thought!?)

These words in Philippians, along with a heavy dose of meditation this past week, reminded me though that anxiety will not help me through anything in my life. There is a reason God misplaced and/or replaced certain people in my life, and my path is in His hands. It is with this thinking that I wish to move forward with the remainder of 2017 and into 2018 and the rest of my life.

When asked if my cup is half-full or half-empty, I want my only response to be how incredibly thankful I am that I have a cup.

Not only do I want to remember this with the people in my life (which, as I’ve said, I consider my greatest gifts) but also with my other blessings such as my talents, my job, my home, my volunteering, and my possessions. There is so many things I forget to be grateful for throughout the day. Living with a grateful heart is only the beginning of greatness, after all. It is an expression of humility and of true thanksgiving to our Father for all He provides. It is a foundation for the development of so many other virtues such as faith, courage, contentment, happiness, love, and well-being.

A dear friend of mine has told me she makes a motion to begin every morning with a Movement of Gratitude. I think this is such an amazing approach to beginning the day. Though I am not positive her exact formula, I have been studying this theory and want to develop my own plan of action for the future.

So, before I get out of bed each morning and begin my day I will:

  1. Take five long breaths in and out
  2. Stretch every inch of body, paying attention to all my muscles and joints
  3. Express gratitude for waking to another day
  4. Smile for no reason
  5. Set intentions for the day
  6. Forgive myself for yesterday’s mistakes
  7. Compliment three things about myself

There are so many ways in which I could look at my younger years and not be grateful for the cup handed me. Within the last few years, I was not of the same mindset. I was someone who feared change, I held grudges, I criticized, and I was someone who thought she understood far more than she actually did.

Now though, I embrace change and roll with the punches. Even within the last few months I am amazed at how quickly I have adapted to changes I never saw coming — new job, loss of my best friend, engagement — all within half a year’s time. Sometimes I marvel at God and His plan. What does He have planned for me?

This thinking was reinforced with today’s Testimonial Service. The Sunday following Thanksgiving is always a service full of testimonies on how God has touched members’ lives at my church. It is one of the most beautiful services I have ever attended, and one which I was most grateful to witness this year.

Though all testimonies have a significant power in their own right, this year’s service was especially wonderful because G chose to give his testimony in front of the congregation. I’ve provided the video below so you are welcome to view this at your leisure, friends — he appears at about 36:20 — and his message is incredibly powerful. I could not be more proud to be marrying this man. G has gone through more trials in 29 years than most men do in their entire lives and he is still one of the most grounded, sincere, and upstanding men I know. His character was what initially drew me to him, and his quick-wit and humor, along with so many other amazing qualities, are what kept me coming back.

Following the service and witnessing the testimonies of multiple members, not only G, I was able to put my own life and situations into perspective. I am so incredibly blessed by God! He has guided me through some dark times this past year, in my own right, and brought me out unscathed and into a brighter and much more loving environment. It amazes me that I still allow myself to worry over trivial things when I know that He is always working towards the best in my life. It is time, again, to lay my worries at His feet and turn my face towards Him in prayer and servitude.

God is so good! 

This Thanksgiving was a great reminder of His blessings as well. Time was well spent with family and beloved friends. There were so many tears cried from laughter over the long weekend and far too much good food eaten — Wow! Do the women in our families know how to cook!

So as I move forward into the Christmas season, I am moving away from my worthless worries of the past and into a new gratitude spirit. Who would like to join me in my endeavor? You are all welcome!

 

Vices vs. Verses: A Testimony

There has been a lot of discussion in my church lately on the importance of personal testimony and how individual stories can impact the world. Giving testimony on one’s faith is empowering and gives honor and glory to God because we are relaying the story of how He saved us. Peonies ‘n Mint, though loosely based around random discussion on what Life brings to the table, has grown to include more and more discussions on faith and belief as well. I do not usually dive into topics that may cause conflict, as I’m sure anything centering around religion may, but when it comes to my faith, I’m going to choose not to be afraid and go there…

I was blessed to have parents who felt the importance to have me grow up in the Church. I was baptized two weeks after my birth into the Lutheran faith and attended church regularly every week following. I began school in a Lutheran day-preschool at the early age of four. From there on I was given Bible lessons every day up through senior year in high school. I had to memorize Bible verses on a daily basis, I attended chapel services at least three days a week, and I was taught the stories of the Bible as an academic course. To say I knew the Bible like the back of my hand is an understatement…

Having religion as such a central part of one’s education should be a wonderful thing. However, I’ve come to believe that growing up in such a fashion leads to two very different types of people: the one who centers all thinking on his or her faith OR the one who takes advantage of that education and rebels. I am ashamed to say that for a long time I fell into the latter category.

Upon entering my higher education years, I left daily catechism to begin studying in a public university. In a better world, I would have matured throughout my college years into a steadfast and faithful woman of God. I should have taken the time to read the Bible on my own, revisiting familiar passages in the Word. I should have pushed myself to dive into devotions and actively allowed prayer into my life. I should have searched and joined Bible Study groups on campus to share in fellowship with my fellow believers. Instead, I allowed my past knowledge to be enough and left my faith on the back burner.

It isn’t surprising, then, that when I was faced with my first real trial in Life that I turned my back on God. I experienced the first true pain in the twisting shadows of heartbreak. I should have clung to God and His encouraging words such as 2 Corinthians 12v9: But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Rather, I blamed God and played the victim saying He had turned His back on me.

To make matters worse, I not only closed myself to God, but I opened myself to many vices of the world. I was no longer Ashley, but some foreign wraith of the girl who once prided herself on reciting Bible verses in front of her church congregation. I began to drink heavily. I was well known at many local bars, finding myself on first-name basis with barkeeps all over the county. It was rare for me not to close down a bar on any given Friday or Saturday. I found any and all worth in the compliments I received from men I met at those bars. I tried every unhealthy diet in the book because I was solely focused on looking and acting the part of a good bar-fly. I began to associate with people of the same ambition. I swore, I lied, and I didn’t give a damn about my reputation.

Acting in this manner led me to be an extremely lonely individual. Feeling lousy, depressed, and of no self-worth, I jumped at the first opportunity granted me at a real relationship. Enter Army. I blamed all my hardships on life on that starting factor: my breakup with X. So, naturally, I believed beginning a new romance would provide me with the self-worth necessary to make me happy.

The one positive thing to come from this stage in my life is that I became an extrovert. When you don’t care what people think, you’re much more prone to talking to strangers and being more social. With an increased bravado, I agreed to a blind date where I met Army for the first time. In retrospect, there wasn’t much to our initial attraction past looks. I suppose he intrigued me because we seemed to have common lifestyles: we both liked to drink, we both liked to workout, and we were both lonely.

Those similarities worked for a while, until they didn’t.

God brought me to my senses in a very clear and pungent way. (Literally.) One day in early summer, Army and I attended a festival at a local winery. It was typical that our time together centered around alcohol, and the day started off well enough. We pitched lawn chairs in the winery’s vineyards facing their outdoor stage where several bands were set to play throughout the day and we headed to grab growlers of our favorite beverages. In a streak of pure brilliance on my part, I had stayed up late the night before, ran a 5k race that morning, and opted out of eating any food whatsoever prior to the festivities. So the 64 ounces of sangria was all I had in my system. Things only continued to go downhill from there and a series of very unfortunate events (points of which I am still too ashamed to divulge in public) transpired. Ultimately, the afternoon concluded with Army screaming obscenities at me while I bawled in front of over 500 people. It was, and remains to be, the single most embarrassing moment of my life.

Though Army apologized profusely the days following this horrendous event, things never felt the same after that festival. We became distant from one another. Looking back, its clear that was the beginning to our end.

It was also, blessedly, the start to my new life though.

It’s funny how deep and impacting embarrassment can strike you. I had dealt with other situations with Army, such as getting kicked out of establishments due to his temper and witnessing him want get into fights for as simple of a reason as someone not moving forward in line at a grocery check out… But nothing struck me quite like that festival. I realized that I was associated to such anger, and that didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t want to be the type of person who belittled strangers, who allowed others’ impertinence, who was arrogant and only cared about her own well-being. I no longer didn’t care…

With the feeling of utter shame, I began to reflect on my actions, and lack of action. I looked in the mirror and, though I no longer saw a crying, sniveling little girl, I still didn’t like my reflection. In the mirror I saw a girl who prided herself on her vices. She was vain. She was mean. She lied and swore and looked down on people because she somehow thought she was better than them. And something — buried deep, deep inside me — broke.

I knew I had to change.

Change, however, does not come all at once. Change is a process. I used to think my life change began when Army and I broke up, but now I can see it actually began at that wine festival. That was the moment I truly saw the kind of person I was becoming, and I was disgusted. I slowly began to drink less. While still with Army, I began to opt out of the bar scene, and instead chose to go to the gym or stay home. When he’d suggest going out, I’d order water to his beer. Once we broke up, I decided I wanted to take a hiatus from the dating scene. I no longer wanted to find my worth in a man’s perception. I wanted to find worth in myself. I worked out consistently, I created tighter friend circles, and I started to research new hobbies and activities available in my community. And somewhere along those lines that deeply buried broken girl pieced herself into a completely new woman.

Yet, even after I had grown past my vices, something was still missing from my life. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep pretending I didn’t know what that something was either: a strong connection to God. My faith had truly not been touched since high school. And even though I was molding myself into a new person, there was no lasting mortar to make sure I wouldn’t come crashing down again in the future.

I’m not a strong prayer. I feel ashamed to say that because I’ve had better instruction on how to talk to God than most people do throughout their lives. But, I’m just not. I forget constantly to thank God for His guidance, for His blessings, for His continued work in my life. Nonetheless, God still heard me that summer day when I was online browsing for something new to enter my life. At the time, I didn’t even know exactly what I needed, but He sure did!

I found House while looking for a Bible study group at First Church. Out of the blue, a Facebook friend had posted that she would be starting a Bible Study at the church come September. The topic she posted about sounded interesting, and since I was wanting to try new things, I investigated a bit further. I’m not sure if I actually even made it to the page with the Bible Study topics… all I remember is clicking a button pertaining to a “20 Somethings Group”. I jotted down the meeting location and time and made a mental note to try to join the group the following week.

It took me three weeks to find the House group. House is a Bible study group for 20 and 30-year-olds which meets at a local beach during the summer months. My first two attempts, the group had been holding fellowship in the actual lake, swimming and playing games and whatnot. So I spent the first two weeks walking up to random groups on the beach, asking if they were the House group, and receiving confused looks.

By the third week, I had pretty much given up, thinking the group either wasn’t considerate of newcomers or the group simply had no interest and didn’t truly meet! So there I was, on that fateful August evening, sitting at my parents’ house, staring into the void when my mom asks, “Why aren’t you going to that Bible study? I thought you were going to give it one last shot?” Since I honestly had nothing else to do, I shrugged and drove over to the beach. Luckily, my fears weren’t validated: House had regrouped on the beach and I was finally able to find them! And, the rest is history…

With every passing week at House, my faith grew a little bit more. Not only was I participating in studying the Bible, but I was able to have deep and impacting discussions on the Word’s content with peers of my own age. After saying goodbye to my bar lifestyle, I also ended up saying goodbye to quite a lot of “friends” who didn’t understand why I no longer wanted to be fun. So, House also provided me with a new friendship pool. Not only were the members of House fellow believers, but they soon would be my closest friends and confidants.

I dealt with a lot of loss since joining House. And whereas I might have once crumbled over that pain, the people I met in the organization were exactly the sort of people I needed. Each and every one of them has strength and compassion unparalleled to anyone else I’ve ever met. I honestly cannot express how blessed I am to have them; they are simply great, godly people.

And while being surrounded by such great, godly people, its hard not to also become godly. I feel excited to join House for church every Sunday, I eagerly await Wednesdays to participate in our weekly Bible Study, I even organized my own women’s Bible study group — something of which I NEVER thought I’d see myself do!

It’s amazing to think that little over a year ago I didn’t even want God in my life. I didn’t want to care about what He wanted from me. I didn’t want to change from my sinful nature. I didn’t want Him to see what I was becoming…

Yet God always has a way of knowing exactly what we need when we need it. It’s easy to forget and want to rush things to our own timeline, but that never truly works out in the ways we want, does it? No, God is the only one omniscient of our futures and what is best for us.

So, though I continue to struggle against my sinful nature on a daily basis, I gladly welcome God into my heart nowadays. Vices will always surface in a sin-filled world, but the Word’s verses hold me strong in His ways. Philippians 4v13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This I know is true.


 

God works in mysterious ways to bring us to His saving kingdom. As I said at the beginning of this post, testimonies are used to not only empower us to share His Word, but also to glorify God. If you are willing to share, I would love to hear your own testimony!