2021 | A Year in Review

The last time I did a year in review was at the beginning of 2020, and apparently 2020 was crazy enough I never felt like doing a year in review following it. I was rereading a few posts from that timeframe, the beginning of that year, and had to chuckle to myself. 2020 began with so much optimism, and a few short months later the world was turned upside down. We can plan and dream all we want, but if we aren’t planning and dreaming with the heart conviction that God is the One Who is ultimately ordering and ordaining everything, we are bound to be disappointed. Massively.

But if, on the other hand, we look ahead with eagerness to embrace whatever it might be that God brings about, we will be ready for that time of growing and challenge.

This March 1st marked seven years since we drove up to this little cabin I’m sitting in now, unpacked ourselves, and called this place home. Seven years. In Biblical contexts, the number seven is associated with perfection and completion. How fitting.

As I think about the seven years since moving to South Dakota, it occurs to me that every year has been fraught with challenges. This last year has been, however, the year of the most stark extremes, sometimes the extremes interwoven and indistinguishable.

The year began with massive change and ended with massive change. It began in a sense of chaos yet confidence, and ended in a sense of…well, a different kind of chaos and confidence. My world got turned upside down a year ago, and got turned upside down again in December. But the year that began with a knuckling down and facing the future head-on has ended in a peaceful and optimistic outlook on the coming years. Loneliness and contented resignation have been replaced by companionship and peace. A lonely heart warmed. An empty hand clasped tight. Unkissed lips tasting the sweetness of a kiss. The future’s uncertainty no longer looks bleak. Emptiness has been filled up.

I began working fulltime as a firefighter-medic for a city fire department in January of last year, while up to my ears in paramedic school. Talking about one’s world being turned upside down. Although I have it on good authority that others have had it much worse in paramedic school, I’m honestly not sure how I managed to survive those months, other than because “you can do anything short term.”

All too often, a 24 hour shift on the ambulance (probably not sleeping) would be followed by 24 hours to recover and hit my books hard, followed by 12 or 24 hours of clinicals or ambulance ride time, and then back to my regular 24 hour shift. At times I was driving an hour and a half to start a student shift at 6:30 in the morning, dealing with the uncertainties of weather and bad roads. Also, as I was able, I was also responding to calls for the volunteer department I serve on. Incidentally, it was on one such fire in February, a cold, nasty haybale fire, that I learned the important fact that a certain rancher (another volunteer firefighter) I’d always admired was as single as I was. Whaddya know.

I finished up paramedic school in June, and went into the summer with a sense of relief that that was over, and already bracing for the next thing, a three-month long fire academy that would take me out of my routine, away from my colleagues and partners, off the streets where I was becoming very comfortable as an EMT and new paramedic, and put me through the ringer physically and mentally. I braced for that and prepped physically.

As my summer rolled to a close, those sparks from the haybale fire in February finally kindled a flame. God brought into my life in the most timely of ways the kindest and most supportive man I’ve ever met. Never in a thousand years had I expected to find someone so well suited for me, or to whom I was so well suited. We enjoyed roughly a month of almost uninterrupted courtship, with my every-third-day 24-hour shift the only interruption. We made the most of that time. We enjoyed beautiful weather, coffee before my shifts, hiking, working cows, and countless other things, and in three weeks our relationship had deepened beyond what I would have thought possible in months or years. In a matter of a few weeks, I had a best friend, a favorite person, and I knew without the shadow of a doubt that I’d marry him. And I mean without the shadow of a doubt. I’ve never known something with such certainty.

The fire academy started at the end of August and finished up at the end of November. It was three intense months that left me exhausted in more ways than one, and during which I am so thankful I had a kind, compassionate man to lean on. I went back on the streets as a paramedic in late November.

And in December, into all of the work-related craziness, that sweet, simplest love turned into a beautiful ring on my finger and a wedding to take place in June.

As I write this and think back over the last year, my mind is spinning a little. How very much can change in a year’s time! What exactly was I doing a year ago? What were my dreams, my hopes? Did I have any anymore? Or had I effectively sidelined many hopes and dreams for a career that often leaves people rung out and used up? Where did I picture myself, five years down the road? Was I excited? I know I was exhausted, exhausted but resolute, and determined to face the future head-on and conquer it. That’s not really the same as excited, or optimistic. Occasionally in conversation I refer to having made some “survival decisions,” and although that sounds a little dramatic, that was my frame of mind. The hope and optimism and peace that God has blessed me with through our courtship and into our engagement are balm to the soul. I’m no longer looking at the bleak-seeming future and trusting God for survival. I’m looking into the future, thanking God that I’m thriving.

And then I look back seven years and my mind spins a little more. But standing that far back, I can begin to see the bigger picture of God’s unfolding plan, the seeds planted then that have begun to bear fruit, the dreams and desires that have stirred in my soul for decades even, just now poking their little leaves above the soil of the garden of my life. Glancing back through pages of this blog, I see that again and again. I see hopes and desires spelled out or hinted at from 7 years ago, when I first started this blog, just now being answered and brought to life. Everything happens for a reason, and that reason ultimately is that we have a sovereign God who loves us and loves to do that which brings good to His children.

If you had told me a year ago that right now I’d be counting down the days until I marry the love of my life (88 days!), planning a garden, learning how to drive a tractor, eagerly waiting for an order of chicks to get here in April, helping my rancher in this calving season, buzzing around on four-wheelers with him checking cows and doing chores, and caring for little calves needing extra TLC, I’d have called you crazy. And yet.

One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia is when Susan, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, asks Mr. and Mrs. Beaver if Aslan is a tame lion. The Beavers laugh and say to the children that of course he isn’t tame! But he is good. And then like Martin Luther’s chastisement of Erasmus, “Your thoughts of God are too human.” Our God is neither tame nor human. But He is good.

And so, what a crazy year it was. What a crazy, wonderful year.

A Hand to Hold

My heart has always been drawn to and touched most by those simple things. Those moments of pure sweetness. Those sights of pure beauty. A flower just so in the sunlight. An arrangement of old lanterns and colored glass on an end table. One single brightly-colored autumn tree in a sea of pines. A summer hike. A starlit snowy night. A warm cup of coffee and a cat on my lap. Wild fruit on tangled branches. A shelf lined with bright, sparkling jars of hand-harvested, homemade jam. The smell of sweat or the pages of old books. A well-lived-in home. The comfortable, worn seats of a dusty old work truck. A simple, nourishing, homemade meal.

Sin has complicated our existence. It complicates everything. It complicates love.

Compromise complicates love. Selfishness complicates love. Desperation complicates love. Fear complicates love. Mistrusting God complicates love. We strive and weep and lust and wallow in our loneliness, and think that a relationship born out of those things will bear good fruit.

But this is key: God is a God who loves us. And He is a Father who gives good gifts. He doesn’t always provide what we want or think we need. And He often uses waiting as a tool to cultivate our dependence upon Him and His goodness. He tests us with loneliness, with waiting. Will we thank Him for what He does provide, or will we be angry for what He doesn’t provide? Will we trust Him in joy and not in sorrow?

God is a God who loves us. He is also a God who doesn’t owe us anything. Any good we receive from God is good we haven’t earned, given by a Father who loves us. And any pain we receive from His hand is meant to make us more like Christ, from the hand of a Father who disciplines those whom He loves. And that pain of waiting, the pain of loneliness, the growth and humility and triumph of contentment and Christ-dependence, all serve to make God’s blessings, both the expected and the unexpected, that much sweeter. I wouldn’t know how to truly appreciate the sweetness God’s gifts if I didn’t also experience the bitterness of want. The best things wouldn’t be recognized so clearly if I hadn’t also seen those hard things, loneliness and isolation and disappointment and heartache and loss.

And so when God withholds something, we are to rejoice, and trust that He is withholding the desired object out of love for us. And when He provides, we rejoice…And then marvel at His provision.

My heart is so thankful. I am thankful that God saw fit to replace my loneliness with companionship, and my longing with love. What God provided, He provided in lavish simplicity, in abundant peacefulness. Without confusion, or question, or complication.

And it would make sense, wouldn’t it, that this simple country girl would love a simple country man?

God brought love in those best things, those simple things. Seven gallons of chokecherries picked together. A freshly cemented stock tank and a little sunburn on a hot August afternoon. Countless home-cooked meals on chipped dishes. Laughter over a game of cards. Bushels of apples from my grandpa’s apple trees. Baking pies for a pie auction. Arms wrapped around me and a peck on the cheek while I’m washing dishes. A hasty cup of coffee together out of his battered Stanley thermos, with the sun just cresting the horizon. Lively banter. Tears of sorrow and of joy. Companionable, comfortable silence. Tuneless whistling from under my car as he changes the oil. His smile at me over the backs of a hundred cows. His voice beside me singing hymns in church. The warmth of his strong hand in mine, that calloused, work-weathered hand.

So this simple country girl said Yes.

Yes, to a simple rancher man. Yes, to the best and kindest man I know. Yes, to a strong, gentle man. To a peaceful man. To a Godly man. To a flawed man with a perfect Savior. To a man who offers me his shoulder to cry on, his arms to hold me, his heart to love me, and his wisdom and faith to lead me. To my favorite person. To my best friend. To a hand to hold.

What simple love. What a kind God. What undeserved abundance.

The Copybook | On Love

From the book Practical Religion, by J.C. Ryle, 1878:

Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. – 1 Cor. 13:13.

“Charity (love) is rightly called ‘the Queen of Christian graces.’ …. It is a grace which all people profess to admire. It seems a plain practical thing which everybody can understand. It is none of ‘those troublesome doctrinal points’ about which Christians are disagreed….If men possess nothing else in religion, they always flatter themselves that they possess ‘charity.’….But I am bold to say that in many minds the whole subject seems completely misunderstood.

“He that would take down ‘charity’ from the high and holy place which is occupies int he Bible, and treat it as a matter of secondary moment, must settle his account with God’s Word….[T]hose who despise the subject are only exposing their own ignorance of Scripture.

“The charity of the Bible will show itself in a believer’s readiness to bear evil as well as to do good. It will make him patient under provocation, forgiving when injured, meek when unjustly attacked, quiet when slandered. It will make him bear much and forbear much, put up with much and look over much, submit often and deny himself often, all for the sake of piece. It will make him put a strong bit on his temper, and a strong bridle on his tongue.

“True charity is not always asking – ‘What are my rights? Am I treated as I deserve?’ but, ‘How can I best promote peace? How can I do that which is most edifying to others?’

“The charity of the Bible will show itself in the general spirit and demeanor of a believer. It will make him kind, unselfish, good-natured, good-tempered, and considerate for others. It will make him gentle, affable, and courteous, in all the daily relations of private life, thoughtful for others’ comfort, tender for others’ feelings, and more anxious to give pleasure than to receive. True charity never envies others when they prosper, nor rejoices in the calamities of others when they are in trouble.

“And yet, be it remembered, our blessed Master never flattered sinners, or winked at sin. He never shrunk from exposing wickedness in its true colors, or from rebuking those who would cleave to it….He called things by their right names. He spoke as freely of hell and the fire that is not quenched, as of heaven and the kingdom of glory. He has left on record an everlasting proof that perfect charity does not require us to approve everybody’s life or opinions, and that it is quite possible to condemn false doctrine and wicked practice, and yet to be full of love at the same time.

“Charity, such as I have described, is certainly not natural to man. Naturally, we are all more or less selfish, envious, ill-tempered, spiteful, ill-natured, and unkind….The heart in which charity grows is a heart changed, renewed, and transformed by the Holy Ghost.”

Yet another beautiful and thought-provoking (convicting) chapter in J.C. Ryle’s book. I really appreciate his brotherly manner of addressing his readers, and the sense of his true heartfelt concern for the spiritual wellbeing of his audience.

Sweet, sweet fellowship

DSCN0596.1Sunday is my favorite day of the week. Hands down, it is my favorite day. What better way to spend a day than in fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ as we revel in our relationship with God and in the joy of companionship with His followers? What a privilege!

As we got closer to the moving date last year and early this year, I feared that we’d move out here into the middle of our 800 family acres and suddenly be lost from fellowship and friendship. What a petty and faithless fear! I read a quote recently that said “Worry is the worship of circumstance.” How profound. For a Christian to give in to worry is for a Christian to momentarily believe that a circumstance is stronger than God Himself. What a pathetic witness and a waste and misuse of energy. But worry I did. Yet God was gracious, and as I learned to trust Him more, He has provided against that fear in so many ways.

DSCN0576.1He has provided us with a wonderful church home, a welcoming body of Believers who are a living example of the sweetness of the Saints, and He has provided us with friends with whom my sisters and I can share meaningful friendships. Leaving Illinois and the friendships we’d developed over the years was hard–It is hard to leave friends behind, friends who have invested in your life and whose life you have invested in. Separation hurts. But God knows. He knows and He provides.

DSCN0577.1In church for the past few months, we’ve been studying through the Olivet Discourse, the last group of teachings of Christ before His crucifixion. The passage we studied today was Matthew 25: 31-46, in which Jesus talks about love among Believers, ministering to the “least of these”, and we talked about what genuine love looks like. Genuine love for one another is a direct result, a fruit, of our love for Jesus Christ. Then, as our love for Jesus grows, our love for the Saints will also grow. And as our love for the Saints and our love for Christ grows, we become easier to love. A dynamic, thriving church is a church where love for Christ is causing radical, otherwordly love for one another, a love that spans class differences, racial differences, cultural differences, temperament, personality, interests, education…A love that defies everything that “pop culture” calls love.  What a life-changing, culture-changing, overwhelming thought. We get to experience here a little piece of Heaven, a glimpse, a mere glimpse of what perfect fellowship will look like on the other side of death.

DSCN0579.1All that is to say, God has provided wonderfully for us in our new life here in the Black Hills. I wish I could personally share some of these adventures and experiences with friends back in Illinois–You are missed, and greatly. But I am in awe (why should I be surprised when an awesome God does wonderful things?) of how He has provided. Today after church, a bunch of us were going to go hiking. It ended up just being me and Sarah, and two of our friends, Hannah and Jacob, but we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon in God’s creation, a hike up to Lover’s Leap, and a lovely view of the Black Hills. We reveled in a fellowship that only our mutual love of Christ could make as sweet as it is. What a sweet, sweet fellowship. What a great, great God.

Laura Elizabeth