This piece was first published in the SURRENDER issue of The Joyful Life Magazine.
My childhood summers were synonymous with lazy days by the beach, getting lost in the pages of a good book and jigsaw puzzles. Not just any jigsaw puzzles, mind you, but giant jigsaw puzzles with hundreds of pieces that required hours, if not days, to sort and deliberate over which section of the puzzle they belonged to. I constantly referred back to the image on the box for clues. Once complete, I was reluctant to ever return the pieces back to the box, wanting to somehow enshrine the puzzle and my achievement.
The feelings of frustration when I couldn’t get a piece to fit where I was convinced it belonged, remain vividly etched in my mind. I would turn them and then turn them again, trying over and over to make them fit, until eventually, I would walk away or work on a different section before attempting to place the piece again. Positioning just one piece wrongly could skew the whole picture, affecting all the surrounding pieces.
I’ve spent much of the past few years trying to figure out where various pieces of my own life ‘puzzle’ belong, wrestling with the tension of old and new, of past and present. With how to "forget the former things and not dwell on the past" (Isaiah 43:18), no matter how precious or painful that past might be, in order to have the capacity to fully and freely hold the new things God has for me. At times, I’ve found myself getting stuck holding on to pieces I’ve desperately wanted to make fit in my current season, even if they weren’t meant to—pieces God asked me to surrender and trust Him to rightly position.
A NEW BEGINNING
“You’ve been holding your father’s dream in your hands for a really long time and perhaps it’s time for you to hold some dreams of your own.”
The words of my mentor arrested me, inviting me, forcing me even, to evaluate the life I was living.
In my late teens, my now-husband and I helped my parents plant a church. It was a labor of love that we poured our hearts into for nearly eighteen years, nine of which I served on staff, eventually becoming a credentialed minister and associate pastor to my father, a role that truly felt like a desire fulfilled. Those years abounded with rich vibrant community and deep disappointments simultaneously.
Ten years into the church plant, this small faithful congregation had sacrificially sown of their time and finances to enable us to lease and renovate a building we could call home. Our days of setting up and packing down every week appeared to be over and we were going to put down roots in our community. At first, the church flourished and grew. All felt right and promising. But then, abruptly, we started hitting roadblock after roadblock, and entered a season marked by financial challenges, sickness, loss, and death. These challenges culminated in us deciding to return to renting a community facility to help relieve the financial pressures. We made the painful decision to assign our building lease to another local church and move on. But the reality was I could not simply leave my grief behind. Many of the losses in this period had touched me personally—I was amongst the women in our congregation who lost babies that year; it was my father who had suffered a series of strokes, and my dear friend that we had buried too soon.
In the latter years of this journey, lingering health issues made it necessary for my parents to step aside from being the Lead Pastors. They relocated an hour’s drive away to live by the beach and recover. Their absence, as well as the birth of our youngest child, caused me to question the various hats I had been wearing. I couldn’t shake the feeling God was calling me to something new, that He was asking me to let go of how I thought my life and ministry should look in order to allow Him to reshape and redefine my dreams.
At the suggestion of our leadership, I took a few weeks leave to pray and determine what I felt God was saying. I returned from my leave and offered my resignation, fully intending to remain a committed member of our church community. Yet only ten months later, it became apparent that to remain was not what God had planned for us. After a period of prayer and fasting and seeking counsel from trusted advisors, my husband and I sensed that God was inviting us to a new beginning and asking us to release the Church we had poured our lives into to a new beginning of their own.
It was hard to believe that after eighteen years of community, we were starting over. The picture that God was forming looked nothing like the ‘box’ I had been referring to, and I no longer knew where all the pieces belonged.
STRAINING TOWARD WHAT IS AHEAD
The old and the new are often indelibly entwined. I couldn’t amputate my past—it had formed me. But I also couldn’t keep grasping at what had been or even what I had hoped would be for the future. I needed to loosen my grip and shift my focus. In the words of the apostle Paul, it was time for me to "forget what was behind and strain towards what is ahead" (Philippians 3:13).
The motif in this and the surrounding verses is of an athlete running a race and all the time keeping the finish line firmly in sight. Paul knew well that we cannot take hold of all that Christ has for us if we are continually looking in the rearview mirror. Like the athlete he envisioned, we have to choose to press forward—to stop tilling the ground of our past and put our energy and focus into straining towards what is ahead. In the Greek, the word ‘strain’ is an athletic word depicting a runner using every muscle to stretch forwards. And that’s the truth. Sometimes it is a strain and a stretch to look toward the future and believe that something new is possible. It can take every fiber of our being to change our narrative and accept God’s perspective—to believe His truth, His promises, and His Word over and above our circumstances or past experiences.
As I began to press on and look ahead, I found the past to be a hurdle not only because of its disappointments, but also because of its highlights. As my disappointment whispered that it would never get better, my treasured memories spoke the same lie—that my future could never be better than my past, could never live up to what I had previously known.
I couldn’t bypass these hurdles. In order to keep running my race, I needed to clear them. I needed to allow God to show me how He saw these pieces that I could no longer place.
REVISITING THE PAST
In His infinite grace and wisdom, God took me back to a place of past disappointment to remind me that He wasn’t finished with my story yet; that if I could trust Him, there was still more to come.
As we hesitantly stepped away from the old and began to look towards the future, we decided to join the congregation led by my spiritual director and her husband. Her gentle and insightful wisdom had been invaluable in helping me work through all of the change and loss we had experienced, and they and their congregation felt like a safe place to sit while we continued to process our journey and build new community. The great irony of this decision was that they were the same church who had taken over our former church’s lease and premises. I found myself worshiping again in the same building that once embodied my dreams, yet now symbolized loss and failure.
At times, it felt overwhelming to be in this familiar place. I kept expecting to see my father pop out of his old office or to be greeted by someone I knew at the door. I knew every inch of the building—its history, its quirks and smells, the stories the walls could tell—and yet everything about it had changed. The old and new collided in my mind and grief would well up within me as I remembered the faces of people I had once stood shoulder to shoulder with in this very space. I felt the sting of disappointment afresh. Why had our old church not been able to enjoy the fruit of our sacrifices? Why had our story not had the ending we had believed and prayed for, and labored toward? Why did we have to start over? Why could I not have continued doing life and ministry with the people I had come to love so completely? If I was to be in this space again, why couldn’t it be with them?
Ever so gently and slowly, God gave me a different perspective, His perspective.
I had been viewing my life with a somewhat finite lens, so focused on the current part of the puzzle that was forming that I had lost sight of the big picture, the eternal picture.
In the scheme of eternity, our labors had not been futile. God did not see wasted efforts, He saw faithfulness. We had partnered with him to establish something in our community that was still extending His love and truth, even if we no longer inhabited it.
Where I saw a scattered people, He saw a people sent out. He planted these mature seeds of disciples in new ground to keep building and strengthening His wider church.
Where I saw barrenness, He saw pruning—areas of my life and heart that He was preparing and cultivating for greater fruitfulness.
This new perspective didn’t completely undo my disappointment, but it did help me to stop dwelling on it. I realized God wasn’t asking me to forget the past as much as He was asking me to reposition it. To frame it with His Kingdom purposes and then allow it to fade into the background so He could bring a new section of my ‘puzzle’ to the forefront. Ironically, the only way I could regain my focus on His faithfulness was by looking at my past. The very things I needed to no longer dwell on also held the key to my being able to press on.
In the same way, when Isaiah called the Israelites to forget the former and see the new thing God was doing, he first recounted the ways in which God had previously worked on their behalf, reminding them that He had made a way for them out of slavery and through the Red Sea, into a new beginning. If He had done it then, He could do it now. He encouraged the Israelites to allow God’s prior acts of faithful provision to fuel in them an expectation for something new again—no matter how impossible that might have seemed.
THERE IS ALWAYS MORE AHEAD
I have often contemplated the stark contrasts found in the life of Paul. He was a man who miraculously and dramatically encountered God. He planted churches and wrote much of what we now call the New Testament, witnessing healings and countless conversions. And yet, he was also a man who prior to his conversion, persecuted believers and had to live with their blood on his hands. He was shipwrecked, rejected, imprisoned, and beaten. This man, who had much to celebrate and much to wrestle with, tells us not only that he presses on to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of him, but that he does not consider himself yet to have taken hold of it (Philippians 3:12-13). Paul understood that no matter how much of God’s grace and favor he had already experienced, there was still more for him to lay hold of and live out. His past had convinced him of it.
So he pressed on. Not out of obligation, nor of drudgery, but fuelled by his passion for Jesus.
“I run with passion into His abundance so that I may reach the destiny that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfil and wants me to discover” (Philippians 3:12, TPT).
We sat in our old building with a new congregation for just over twelve months. In that time, God not only used the precious people there to minister to our weary hearts, but even allowed us the tender grace of witnessing some of the fruit that was growing out of the seed we had planted in that space. He showed us the truth of Isaiah’s words—that He provides water in the desert and streams in the wasteland so that we might be released to proclaim His praise (43:20-21). As we allowed ourselves to process our past, to voice our questions and grieve our losses, entrusting them to Him, He turned a place of disappointment into an oasis of delight demonstrating to us the depth of His redemptive power.
Like Paul, I’ve come to realize I will never exhaust the riches, the abundance that is found in Jesus. Jesus is my finish line. He is the picture on the box that I look upon to determine where the pieces of my life rightly belong. He is the One who brings perspective, beauty, truth, hope, redemption, and the promise of something more, something new. In Jesus, I find the grace to honor my past, to acknowledge both its beauty and its pain without getting stuck. My past is redeemed, and my hope for the future revived. In Jesus, all my ‘pieces’ find their meaning.
Even as I write this, I still hold pieces in my hand that are yet to be placed. Perhaps they will be positioned imminently, perhaps it will be some time before I know where they belong. When frustration begins to rise, I take a step back, I look at how much of the ‘picture’ God has already formed, and I allow His faithfulness to frame my ‘pieces.’
“But our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious one” (Philippians 3:20-21, NIV).