Saying “Yes, And” To a Life I Didn’t Expect

In improv comedy, there’s a lovely little principle called “yes, and.” When you’re in the middle of a skit, you never question what your co-actor does. If he says, “I hate this Georgia heat,” you don’t say “Seriously, honey? It’s winter and we’re in Maine.” As an actor, you know that the best way to create an engaging story with believable characters is to go along with the reality your co-actor is creating. You say yes to the new reality and you build off of it. So when he complains about the Georgia heat, you don your Southern drawl and tell him you’ll be right back with some sweet tea. To refuse to say “yes, and” breaks the flow of the story and puts the focus on you, the actor, rather than on your character. 

The Office’s Michael Scott is a perfect example of what happens when you don’t follow the “yes, and” principle. In his improv class, he hijacks every scene by yelling “I have a gun!” Whether a little girl is skipping down the street or a fortune teller is reading his future, the invisible gun comes out. He thinks he’s bringing energy and excitement to the skit, but in reality, his scenes are boring, repetitive, and to top it off, his classmates can’t stand him. 

Michael Scott’s antics might seem to win the gold medal for bad improv, but I’m pretty sure I’m a worse offender than him. In almost every scene that God has started writing in my life, I’ve acted a lot like Michael. But instead of saying “I have a gun!” I say, “Am I finally going to get what I want?”

In junior high school, I wrote obituaries for me and my friends. In bubbly cursive on wide-ruled paper, I inked stories in which our every hope and dream was fulfilled. Dream job. Check. The perfect spouse. Done. That dog you’ve always wanted. You got it. 

Mine read something like this:

“Hope Johnson lived a truly adventurous life. She majored in youth ministry in college and fell in love with an aspiring youth pastor named Jeremy who loved Russia just as much as her. Immediately after college, at age 22, Hope and Jeremy got married and moved to Russia to do mission work. They had three beautiful children on the mission field. After 10 years, they were called back to Hope’s home church in Hampden, Maine, where Jeremy became the senior pastor. And they lived happily ever after.”

You can probably tell by now that a.) I was a strange child, and b.) the obituaries didn’t spring from an obsession with death, but an obsession with life.

Life on my terms, that is. 

From age 13 on, I lifted this story I’d penned up to God again and again, asking him to bring it all to pass. And my dreams were good, I reminded God the closer it got to “crunch time” (i.e. the end of college when there was still no husband in sight). I wanted to do missions and ministry with a godly man, for heaven’s sake! Of course God could get on board with that.

But He didn’t.

I didn’t meet the love of my life in college.

I did go to Russia the year after I graduated, but it was the loneliest year of my life.

I struggled with depression for 3 years after I returned from Russia and wondered if I would ever feel “normal” again. 

Things in my twenties were clearly not going according to that obituary I had written years before. My response: clench my fists and deny reality. Each time a self-imposed milestone passed, I would lift up the story I had written, a story as tired as a crumpled, yellowing piece of wide-ruled paper, and beg God to tell me that the reality I was experiencing was just a dream. 

At the same time, I knew at my core that God himself was truly better than any plans I could imagine, and that he deserved my trust and allegiance regardless of what happened. And I have followed God in this crazy journey full of the unexpected, and let me tell you, He has done amazing things! He’s given me precious friends, brought me to places I’d never imagined, carried me through depression and walked me into joy. He’s orchestrated opportunities for me to speak the truth and grow and change that I never would have had if my plan had worked out. But still, until now, I’ve never quite let go of that “perfect plan” I had outlined for my life. 

This unexpected pandemic and all that has come along with it reflects this battle that I, and so many others I know, fight daily. We all had plans that seemed, good, very good, yet we were pushed into a reality that we hadn’t imagined or planned for. Weddings, postponed. Jobs, lost. Parties, cancelled. 

And it struck me that perhaps I’ve been living a little bit like I’m in quarantine, hunkered down, waiting until everything is over so that my real life can begin. 

A beautiful pattern in Scripture recently leapt out at me. The lives of so many who were intimate with God and saw Him do amazing things in their generation had this common denominator: they had a plan for their lives, God called them to something radically different, and they said “yes, and.” 

Here are just a handful of these amazing stories:

Daniel His plan: live out his life in his homeland.

God’s call: be taken captive by a pagan nation, learn the language and literature of his captors, face a grisly death (being eaten by lions) for refusing to stop praying to the one true God, see God’s power in a miraculous rescue from that death, and by God’s power, interpret the king’s dream, and prophesy about the coming of the Jesus. 

Joseph His plan: enjoy a life of comfort as his father’s favorite

God’s call: be sold into slavery by his brothers, gain the respect of the pharaoh only to spend years in prison, but ultimately be a huge part of saving not only the nation from famine but the very brothers who had sold him into slavery. 

Noah: His plan: live a godly life with his family in an ungodly world; be a witness to those rebelling against God.

God’s call: be a witness, for sure, but do it by building an ark for and having those around you think you’re crazy.  

Ruth: Her plan: live out her life with her foreign husband in her homeland of Moab. 

God’s call: go to a foreign land widowed with her mother and law, work long hours gleaning in the fields to make a living, be united with a kind, godly husband, and ultimately, be part of the line of Christ.  

The list goes on and on-Paul, Esther, Moses, Samuel, David, Jesus’ disciples!

And as this beautiful pattern has come into focus, for the first time in my life, I feel the courage to give that open-hearted “yes and” to God whatever comes. It’s true, each person I listed above experienced more pain and suffering than they would have had their life gone according to their expectations. But the reward was so much greater than the pain: they were swept into the epic story of God’s love and redemption, and they knew Him personally with ever-growing intimacy. I don’t think they would have traded that for anything. And I don’t want to either.

One of the key reasons behind the “yes, and” principle is that if I take over the scene with my own reality, the focus is now on me, the actor, rather than on my character. This metaphor extends to the Christian as well. If I refuse to say “yes, and,” I’m going to obsess over self rather than reflecting Christ. I will spend my days walking in ineffective, repetitive circles when God is offering me the chance to join him in the great adventure of His kingdom work. 

The most beautiful “yes, and” to me in Scripture is that of Mary. I imagine she had a simple, peaceful plan for her life. Marry Joseph, live quietly, and raise lots of children. But when face to face with an angel who told her she was going to bring the Messiah into the world, she said yes, and her life was never the same. She spent day after day in the presence of Jesus, saw him fulfill the prophecies she held so close, watched him brutally murdered but gloriously resurrected. She surrendered the life she had planned willingly, and God gave her meaning and joy and abundance that made those plans pale in comparison. 

So I’m setting that old obituary on fire* as a 29th birthday gift to myself, and if I try to go pawing through the ashes, remind me of how two-dimensional and lifeless it was, of how quickly it burned up, and then remind me that real, vivid, colorful kingdom life is right in front of me. So year 29, here we go… and God, you have my “yes, and.” 

I’d love to hear from my readers: What’s your “yes, and” story? What was your plan, how was it changed, and what did God do? 

*Not really, I’m not that dramatic, but I liked the metaphor 🙂

Rebellious Hope

Last month I attended the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was an incredibly inspiring weekend where I was able to meet some of my favorite authors, learn more about the industry, and connect with other Christians who have a similar fire in their heart for writing truth. One writer who I’m so glad I connected with is Carley Reinke. Carley writes about the hope we have in Christ with an exceptional clarity, and I’m so thankful to have her as the very first guest poster on my blog!

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I am a person shaped by stories. I think we all are in some ways. We love stories as children, and our favorites shape us and stick with us into adulthood. 

My dad raised me to be a Star Wars fan. Now, I am married to a man who is even more passionate about these stories. While I was raised on the original trilogy, one recent addition to the galaxy far far away spoke truth to my soul that I was unable to shake. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was a fun ride with characters I fell in love with and themes of love and sacrifice and with a bittersweet end to the movie, there was one thing left: Hope.

After all, “rebellions are built on hope.”

There is great truth to this. I need hope in my life, to believe that the best is yet to come; That we as human beings and as followers of Jesus, can tell a better story. There is power in hope. I believe this. Hope proves to be a greater force for change than the power of anger, hatred, war, political endeavor or suffering.

I have been struggling with anxiety for years and will freely admit that I far too easily see only the negative in the world. Knowing this makes it is so important for me to hold on to any thread of hope I can find. I have been to a very dark place of hopelessness. I need to be honest: I know that the darkness is real, but so is the light. 

In hope, I look to Jesus. I don’t know where else to look for it. The wood-working man from Galilee, who was also God’s greatest self- revelation to this world gives me hope. God made so many statements in Jesus about himself, about us, and about this world.

On the cross, God said that he would rather suffer and die than live without us.

In Jesus, we have a glimpse of the kingdom of God. He established it with his teaching and presence here on earth as a human who was also God. Jesus displayed the power and love of God on the cross, declaring that violence and destruction and sin had had too much power over those he loved enough to die for. He secured this upside-down Kingdom’s final victory in the resurrection.

God’s Kingdom is here. It has already won.

And yet. Even those of us who have embraced this marvelous truth still struggle with darkness. With fear.

Satan is still playing his game. He knows he has lost but wants to make sure the end of the game stings just a little bit. So Satan lies, he tempts us to hopelessness. And when we look around at the world, yes, it can look dismal. There is violence, conflict, injustice. We need to grieve this. 

We can be angry but we can’t stay there. We need to move. We are the light of the world, so we need to be the beacon of hope that the world so desperately needs.

We start by embracing hope for ourselves. In this world, hope really is a rebellious act. Hope is resistance to the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12) that would love to see those who love and follow Jesus paralyzed by anger, guilt, fear or apathy.

Hope is not just a nice idea that we embrace in private. No. Hope breeds action.

So here is my declaration of HOPE: Jesus has already won. He will win. This victory is not won from militaristic might or violence but by winning the hearts and minds of human beings from our own willful rebellion. That rebellious tendency in all of us can be redeemed to a rebellion fighting vehemently against hopelessness. Jesus will come again and set things fully right. In the meantime, Jesus calls us to kingdom-building work. Good work. The rebellious work of shining a light and declaring to a world tempted to hopelessness, that there is hope.

Where do you find HOPE in this life?

Carley Reinke is a self-proclaimed Jesus-loving misfit, a middle school youth director in Fargo, North Dakota, a blogger, and aspiring author. She has a degree in communication from Bethel University and an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology and cultural application) from Bethel Seminary. Carley blogs about faith, Christian life, and theology in an effort to encourage readers in their faith in Jesus Christ. A native of Minnesota, she enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband, camping, hiking, kayaking, riding her motorcycle and downhill skiing. She also enjoys time spent indoors with a big mug of pour-over coffee or tea and reading books with her two cats. Check out Carley’s blog here.


The Lord Will Fight For You

There’s a fine line between acting in faith and trying to gain freedom in my own strength. I tend to think that if I talk about a struggle enough, if I analyze it from every angle and dress it in different words, I’ll be able to finally discover some insight that will set me free once and for all from thought patterns that keep coming back to haunt me. Now don’t get me wrong, there is responsibility on my part to be proactive in setting my mind on what is good and true, the way that I’ve been approaching it until now hasn’t been effective.

I’m reading a fascinating and insightful book by J.P. Moreland, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace. Moreland, a theologian and professor, recounts his experience with mental illness (he had two anxiety-induced nervous breakdowns 10 years apart) and practical steps we can take to replace toxic thoughts patterns with what is true. One of the most enlightening things I’ve gotten from the book so far is that fighting our toxic thoughts by camping out with them and analyzing why they aren’t true actually reinforces the thoughts and keeps the neural pathway that these thoughts reside in well-oiled. Moreland writes:

“The key is not to ruminate about the message, arguing with yourself why it isn’t true or drawing out horrible implications of it. Such rumination, even telling yourself why the message isn’t true, actually depends the brain grooves that trigger the message and makes it harder to get rid of. The goal is to dismiss the message…” (71).

My strategy, so far, has been just this, to ruminate, gritting my teeth, determined to kill the negative thoughts. But I see the irony, trying to fight the battle against distorted thinking with the logic of the mind in which the distorted thinking resides is foolish. Instead, I need to “dismiss the message,” as Moreland says, by acknowledging that the thought is a lie and refocusing my attention on something solid and true.

A good friend recently said the same thing to me, that redirecting my thoughts rather than dwelling on them will play a huge part in experiencing freedom. She used the analogy of a dog being trained, a mental image which stuck with me. When the dog acts out, a smart owner redirects the dog’s attention rather than reinforcing the action through long, drawn-out punishment. So instead of punishing myself every time I have a thought that I think I should have grown past, maybe the wisest thing to do is to submit it to God, refuse to self-flagelate, and redirect my attention to something that I enjoy, whether that’s writing a blog post, listening to Susie Larson’s podcast, taking a trip to the Russian grocery store, or watching Jim put Dwight’s stapler in Jello.

When the Israelites found themselves surrounded on all sides-the Egyptians ready to strike and the Red Sea blocking their way, no human battle strategy could save them.

No human battle strategy could save them, but God could, and he did. Moses told the people, “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.” (Ex. 14:14)

And God fought for them in a way only He was able: he parted the sea and His people walked to freedom. They had to step forward, yes, but it was the Lord who led the way.

In the same way, when freedom seems impossible to me, perhaps it’s because I’m trusting in my mind rather than trusting God to lead me to mental victory. No amount of analysis on my part will lead to freedom; instead, my victory will only come when I rest my weary mind, submit my thoughts to him and say, “Lord, only you can fight this battle.” So may I trust His healing process, may I rest my mind, and may I take joy in the fact that He is fighting my battles, and that He always wins.

When You’re Struggling to Believe God’s Promises

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Psalm 13:1-2

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Sarah had had it. She was done. The promise of that long-awaited child had been nonsense, a joke, perhaps a figment of Abraham’s imagination.

For far too long, her “how long?” had only been met with silence and the steady aging of a finite frame.

So when the visitor brought it all up again, she laughed.

It was a cynical laugh, as dry and bitter as this childless life she’d been living for ninety years.

What else could she do?

Cynicism was safe, and when she compared it to God’s track record with this teasing of a son, cynicism could at least be trusted to provide what it promised: realistic expectations for this dusty, aching life.

“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

A son. Next year.

Hope jolted her for a split-second before the laugh spoke reality over the cruel fiction.

Who did this visitor think he was to stir things up again?

She couldn’t open her heart to hope one more time. If her hopes were dashed again, she would crumble right into the grave.  

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The older I get, the better I understand Sarah. Following Jesus truly is joy and meaning and life! Yet there is a tension between this eternal life Christ has saved me into and the current life on a dying earth where things are not what He meant them to be. Because although the longer I live the more I see the goodness and love of God, at the same time, my pain has become sharper, my questions bigger, and my desires deeper. There is a vivid history of God’s faithfulness in my life, but too often, instead of retelling that story, I look behind and despair that I haven’t received the things I’ve longed for or fully shed the chronic struggles that keep me small-minded and self-conscious.

There are so many “how longs” that test my faith in God’s goodness and love for me:

“How long, O Lord, will I feel this way?”

“How long, O Lord, will I struggle with this sin?”

“How long, O Lord, will I yearn for what you haven’t given me?”

And like Sarah, I’ve let the “how longs” scratch at my throat until all that comes out is a dry, cynical laugh.

When the “how longs,” consume me, I question His promises, desperate to understand:

“You say that if your child asks for bread, you won’t give him a rock, so why are my teeth cracked and my mouth full of grit?”

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“If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:1

In the not-yet, with blurry human eyes, His promises may seem untrue.

But the beautiful thing is, the fulfillment of God’s promises is not dependent on our ability to grasp them. God did not take away his promise because Sarah laughed. Not only is he patient with our “how longs” and cynical laughs, but He still plans to fulfill His promises in a way that exceeds what we could imagine.

God not only gave Sarah the son she had longed for, but drew her into a story so much bigger than herself, making her the first woman in the line of Jesus Christ.

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“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Ephesians 3:14-15  

There’s a fascinating parallel between Sarah and followers of Jesus.

Sarah laughed even after God gave her a new name embedded with His promise. Sarai became Sarah because God wanted her name to mean “mother of nations.” But even with her identity heard each time someone spoke her name, she struggled to believe.

As Christ-followers, we’ve been given a new name, a family name, derived from the very name of the One who saved us, but we, like Sarah, still struggle to believe the promises embedded in this new identity. I’m finding that no matter how much evidence I see of God’s goodness, I still question, I still doubt, and I still cry, “how long?”

I want to be a woman who laughs at the future and not at God’s promises.

But in my heart of hearts, I want to be a woman who laughs at the future (Proverbs 31:25!) and not at God’s promises.

So I’m praying that I would believe the promises embedded in my new name more than I believe my human eyes.

That I would read the truth and speak the truth with conviction regardless of how I feel on a given day.

And that I would remember Sarah and take heart, knowing that God’s promises will be fulfilled in a way so much broader, sweeter, and more eternal than the ways I’ve cried for them to be.

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Genesis 18: 1-15 (NIV, emphasis mine)

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

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Genesis 21: 1-2

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.

3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help

Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts made a lasting mark on Christian culture, and rightly so. In her “dare to live fully right where you are,” she recounts her transformation from despair into joyful gratitude through the simple practice of counting her gifts, blessings from God that are all too easy to miss unless we commit our eyes to intentional sight.

“Morning shadows across the old floors,” she writes.  “Jam piled high on the toast. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce” (p. 45).

I read the book when it came out in 2010 and was captivated by Voskamp’s poetic writing and fresh expression of a timeless truth. And today, healthy and healed, when I count God’s gifts, a gloomy demeanor on an off day is put into perspective, an inward focus turns upward and outward, and joy begins to diffuse the despair.

But when I was severely depressed, this practice backfired. In the years of the deepest depression, I fought back with Voskamp’s advice. In a tear-riddled journal, I etched my gifts hard into the pages day after day.

And all I felt was shame.

Shame at how God had given me so much, yet I still had a perpetual lump in my throat.

Shame that the hopelessness I felt outshouted the hope I had in Christ.

Shame that God had given me so much to live for, yet, on some days, I wanted to die.

If the same has happened to you, you are not alone.And if the same has happened to you, remember this:

Faith and feelings are not synonyms. Continue reading “3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help”