Choose to Sing Into the Darkness

Sun shining through trees - black and white. Choosing to sing brings light into darkness.

The last few months, I’ve been struggling in a dark season that has stripped away my joy. I feel as if I’ve been wandering in the wilderness. Change lurks on the horizon. Many of my friends are getting married and moving away. Death and suffering are wielding their blades on those around me. The world looks dismal, and my own sin nature is raising its ugly head.

After listening to me share where I’m at, a friend asked me, “Have you been singing? Find a way to put singing into your day—see if that helps.”

To be honest, when she said that to me, I felt like the Israelites who said, “how can we sing the songs of Zion when our nation has been captured?” (Ps. 137:3). How can I praise God when I feel like He has abandoned me? How can I praise the One that seems to take away everyone that I love? Where is the place of joy when I feel condemned to a life of perpetual loneliness?

Choose to Sing in the Pain

That’s when I found solidarity in the Psalms. The authors of the Psalms were not happy, go-lucky people with no problems. Rather, they wrote out of a heart of deep suffering and anguish. But despite their pain, a thread of hope runs throughout the book, a “no matter what happens, I will still hold fast to God” kind of hope. I can hear wrestling in their words:

“Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! . . . The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34: 9, 18)

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps. 73:25-26)

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . . . Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me . . . .” (Ps. 23:1, 4)

This is what I hear: “Fear the Lord, you will have no lack, but you may have a broken heart. God is your strength and fulfillment, but your body and emotions may give out on you. This is what is true—the Lord is my shepherd—but walking through the valley may also be real.”

In the midst of deep pain, the psalmists write songs to God. It’s not wrong to mourn, but we need to remember to sing, because God is always good—even when our hearts don’t feel it.

The Blessings of Choosing to Sing

Right now, I’m challenging myself to sing into the darkness. I can sing “Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy praise” through tears and “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart” in absolute desperation. Those songs have become so familiar, that at times, I forget that the hymn writers suffered too. The truth of their songs are for hard days, not just perfect Sundays. Their words can counsel our hearts in the midst of darkness.

So often, I stand in church, forcing myself to sing words that my mind and heart struggle to agree with. But hearing my Christian brothers and sisters singing encourages me. They believe the words. They all know the truth, even though the darkness is making it hard for me to see it. Whether they know it or not, they are holding fast on my behalf. They teach and admonish me in their praise to God (Col. 3:16). And I’m sure that my singing does the same for them.

Will you join me in choosing to sing in this new year? Sing while doing household work or in the car. Sing in church. Keep singing the truth—and maybe our hearts will catch up and choose to praise God.

“I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together!” (Ps. 34:1-3)

To the Friend I Lost

Dear friend,

I had a dream about you last night. Honestly, it took me by surprise, because I haven’t thought much about you in months. It used to hurt when you came to mind. You were a sister to me, and suddenly, our friendship just stopped. I grieved your loss like a death.

But when I woke up today, there was no pain, just concern for you. It was one of those night-visions that seems too realistic to not have truth in it. I know you are probably doing well and are undisturbed by the distress “dream you” was in last night. Regardless, the first thing I did this morning was to pray for you. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I asked God to bless you and your family.

C.S. Lewis describes friends as people who stand side by side, looking toward the same purpose. Reflecting on our friendship now, I realize that the purpose of our relationship never moved past the superficial. We enjoyed being silly together, eating the same kinds of food, and studying together. But we never went deep together. Our joint vision was not of eternal things. Perhaps that is why I lost you.

I see now that the shallowness of our friendship was my fault. In many ways, I set the tone of our interactions, and if I had truly wanted it, we could have had a better foundation. If I could do it over again, I would talk with you more about Jesus. I admit that He was a stranger to our conversations.

I pray that the smiling people in your online pictures help you grow in Jesus more than I ever did. I have blamed our broken friendship on them and on you. But I recognize now that had a role to play.

Though I cannot do our history over, by the grace of God, I can move forward. Like you, I have new friends. With the Lord’s help, I am trying to go deeper with them. I think they would agree: Christ is recognized and present when we are together. These are the people who help me love Him more and ask hard questions. I wish I had been that friend to you.

I thank Him for the time I knew you. Though that time could have been spent better, I know in God’s plan, none of it was wasted. He redeems the years the locusts stole. Thank you for fun times. The memories are beautiful. But more importantly, thank you for leaving me behind. It is teaching me how to be a more loving friend.

Your sister in Christ forever,
Hayley

Where I’m At

I often hold back from writing about myself and my life. I start typing, and the words refuse to come. It’s easier somehow to simply write about ideas and not make them personal. Sharing out of my own life is scarier. With it comes a feeling of vulnerability. Subjecting my life to the interpretation of others leaves me floundering at the lack of control. Hiding behind the wall and throwing out my thoughts is safer.

But Jesus doesn’t call me to a safe life, he calls me to a life of service. The past few years have been marked by that lesson, and I want my writing to be an outflow of what God’s doing in my life. To do that, I want to share some of where I am at in life, and how God brought me here.

Where I’ve Been

Three years ago, I was not the same person. The other me was in college, working hard toward a degree in piano performance. People knew me as a good Christian girl who excelled academically and held several leadership roles. They could see the outside. Perhaps a few who were very close to me could see hints that not all was as it seemed, but I never let anyone close enough to really see the truth. I was on the verge of a breakdown. My secret life, that only God could see, was killing me.

My addiction to immoral thoughts and habits affected my every moment. It was a vicious cycle that stole my sleep, hijacked my thoughts, and filled me with fear of being discovered. As I spiraled downward, I became consumed with bitterness toward people close to me and crippled by immense anxiety that took away my ability to handle normal stress or perform music. My body began breaking down, as I dealt with chronic pain, panic attacks, and mysterious symptoms. I questioned God’s existence, the truth of the Bible, and the rationality of Christianity, all while arrogantly arguing with those who openly did the same. I saw no hope, and often contemplated taking my own life.

Throughout this season, I could see God pursuing me. There were friends trying to encourage me, sermons that made a difference, and books that challenged my presuppositions. But the more I studied the Bible to try to find answers, the more confused I became. I was strapped to the idea that I had to work harder at this Christian thing for God to accept me. I prayed more. I studied more. I served at church more. But the answers I kept hearing didn’t make sense to me. I began to understand that accepting God’s grace meant that I had to admit that I was imperfect and needed help. This was unthinkable to me. My life was built on my “perfect” appearance, and if that foundation was taken away, I felt collapse was inevitable.

But my life was already collapsing, without me realizing it. In March that year, the Lord sent me a wake-up call when my car was rear-ended at about 60 miles per hour. Everything about that crash showed His staying hand. At a time when I wanted to end my life, God spared it in a wreck that could have ended it. I walked away from that wreck with only a back injury and an awareness that I was still alive for a reason.

By the grace of God, I completed my senior year and graduated. I still felt like life was pointless. The only thing that kept me from suicide was the knowledge that it would devastate my family. So, I went on with life, hating every moment of it. That summer, I had taken a job at an arts summer camp. While I was there, some friends of mine invited me to a church nearby. I went because that’s what I had always done. What I did not expect was that the Holy Spirit would use those few weeks of sermons to change my life.

The pastor was preaching through Luke 18: the persistent widow, the rich young ruler, the tax collector and the Pharisee. In the course of three weeks, all my defenses against God’s grace were torn down. I learned that my idol of appearance was keeping me from following Christ, and that a right standing with God was offered to me freely as a gift. It was not something I had to work for; I had only to believe in Christ. By taking the punishment I deserved on the cross for my rebellion against God, Jesus took my sin upon Himself, and in rising from the dead, He gave me His perfect record before God.

After hearing this good news, I broke down and wept–for the first time in two years. The Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see the beauty of grace for the first time. I knew Jesus, and He knew me. I confessed my sin, that I was a mess, and that I couldn’t do anything about it. He had forgiven me, and my life was beautifully wrecked.

In the months after, the Lord led me through a process of confessing my sin to others. Letting my parents and my friends in on what I had been hiding was extremely hard. But Christ gave me grace to obey, after a long time of fighting in my fear and pride. I was able to seek forgiveness and accountability. As my friend Chiree told me during that time, “You don’t know what grace is on the other side of confession.” I am here, on the other side, to say,–even though the struggle with sin continues–“Immense grace is here.”

In January of 2014, the Lord called me to full-time ministry work. I was working as a music teacher at the time, and although I loved my students, I was feeling restless, and no matter how much I tried, I wasn’t able to make a living doing music. I was faced with a choice: I could return to school and pursue a graduate degree, or I could take the jump I was always afraid to do. Since I was young, I wanted to be a missionary of some sort. As I got older and more entangled with sin, I drifted from that desire. Although I didn’t completely understand the gospel when I made a profession of faith as a child, I believe God did plant the seed of His calling in my childhood dreams.

My leap into ministry began with some questions from a friend: “What would you do if you could do anything, and money wasn’t a factor? What if you didn’t go back to school?”

I had not allowed myself to think that way. Every decision up to that point had been pragmatic. I had chosen my degree program because scholarships were available. I taught lessons because it was what I had skills to do. I was too content with the status quo to think big. But everything changes when you begin asking, “What can God do?” rather than, “What can I do?”

As I prayed and sought the Lord, He brought me to Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”

For the first time, that verse stuck out as a promise to build my life on. If I trust in God completely and acknowledge him in every way, He will give me direction. I wondered: was my confusion and lack of direction caused by not acknowledging the Lord in some area of my life? As I prayed, the Holy Spirit pointed it out. I wasn’t willing to trust God with my finances. I knew stepping out into ministry would mean giving up control of my own provision. I confessed that to Him, and asked Him to show me the next step.

That very afternoon, He opened the door to serve with a prison ministry I had spent some time around. I began volunteering in writing and editing, and that volunteer work turned into an internship that summer. I was learning and growing, both as a new believer and in skills I needed. It looked like I would spend some time with this group. But the Lord had other plans.

“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.” While I was doing my internship, the Lord brought to light immorality in the leadership of the ministry. The organization had to be suddenly closed down. It was a dark time in my life, and I questioned what to do next. I knew God had opened the door to serve with them, and I knew He had closed it again.

  Where I’m At and Where I’m Going

With much prayer, the Lord led me to another ministry: Revive Our Hearts. This ministry seeks to call women to freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness in Christ. Their podcasts and online resources had been crucial in my own discipleship, and the people of their ministry had been closely involved with the prison ministry. I knew their integrity, godly leadership, and message. They were reaching the people God had given me a heart to reach: those who were locked in their sin and needed God to revive them. My heart was drawn to pursue serving with them. Through many conversations and much prayer on both sides, I was invited to join the team working in editorial services.

In that role, I will be using my writing and editing skills to help the message of personal revival and biblical womanhood be communicated in an excellent, clear way. In a given week, I may be project managing a Bible study we are publishing, editing posts for or contributing to one of the blogs, obtaining copyright information for a pamphlet, providing administrative support for another staff member, or even helping stuff bags for a conference. I am elated and grateful to serve with this awesome team and be a part of what God’s doing in reaching women around the world (many of whom are just as lost and trapped as I was).

But, before I can move to Niles, Michigan and begin work, I have been given the task of building a team of people who pray and give toward my monthly financial support. You can help! Will you join with me in reaching women around the world? Any monthly gift, small or large, makes an impact for Christ’s Kingdom. To give a gift or become a monthly partner, click here and choose Mullins, Hayley from the drop-down menu.

On Facebook and the Incarnation

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We live in a unique age, where we are able to claim “knowing” people without actually building a relationship. By last count, I have 500+ Facebook friends and follow around 200 on Twitter. That’s not counting Pinterest or Instagram or LinkedIn. I am asking myself, “Realistically, how many of these people do I actually have the time or capacity to serve well?” And, “How is my ministry to those around me suffering because of the time I spend being ‘social’ online?”

When Jesus walked the earth, He had many followers. If social media had been around in 1st century Israel, He would have had quite the mob of “friends”. But though He showed compassion to the crowds, He did not spend the majority of His time and attention on them. Instead, He invested His life in 12 men every day, He had some women and men He spent extended time with occasionally (think Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), and He cared for His family.

Jesus did not come to be merely “God over us”–watching everything we do and keeping track of our every check-in; He came as “God with us”. As the omniscient Lord, He knows all the things we try to learn from stalking people on social media. He already knows how you take your coffee, the home you grew up in, and your secret desires and thoughts. Yet, He took the time and the pain necessary to come and live life among us. God didn’t just want to know about us, He wanted to know us, and He wants us to know Him. I believe that a relationship is built through conversation and through life, and God took the effort to do both. He gave us a Book telling us about Him, and He gave us Himself in Jesus–a person. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. While the Word communicates, the flesh dwells.

When Jesus called His disciples to “follow Him”, it was not a superficial connection He had in mind. He told one of his followers, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (John 1:42). When He says, “shall”, Jesus shows that He intended to build a relationship with Simon. He was going to be spending enough time with this man that Cephas (Peter) would become his name, not just among his small group, but also to all readers of the Bible for millennia.

Jesus also met a man named Nathanael. The Lord’s promise of a relationship with Him was even greater:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:47-51)

Essentially, Jesus said, “I know everything about you, but I want you to know Me. I am going to befriend you and welcome you into my world–which is nothing like yours.”

In the prison chaplaincy, we often talk about “the ministry of presence”. As we go into the barracks and visit with inmates, a large part of our ministry is just being there. We seek to build relationships, pray with people, and try to provide answers to their questions. I do not visit often, but when I walk into the prison, they remember me. I am ashamed to admit that often I do not recall their names or even their faces. But they remember because I was there, with them. Many of the women there do not have often visitors and they do not have Internet access. So when they see a familiar face, even in a photograph, it means the world to them.

I often take for granted that I can “see” people whenever I want. With the click of a mouse, I can find out a person’s favorite movies, where they ate lunch yesterday, and whether they are single. Yet, in knowing those things, I have gained little knowledge of that person as a person. It is too easy. I become content in what I think I know and settle for a digital substitute for real friendship.

Yet, Jesus did not settle for that, so why should we? What if following Him led us to take the next step? What if instead of just “friending” or “following” the next person we meet, we did something with them in real life? What if instead of just building our network, we took the effort to have a deep conversation over coffee? I do have a friendship that grew out of an online connection. We had met once in real life, and often saw each other, but aside from being Facebook friends, we didn’t know much about each other. I noticed that we liked a lot of similar things online, so I reached out and asked her to meet. That first meeting led to another and another, and now I count her as one of my closest friends. But that never would have happened if online “connection” had been the boundary of our relationship.

A true friend (not the Facebook kind) is someone who knows you take your coffee – or if you drink it at all. He or she is someone who walks through the tough moments with you and knows how you will react when the next one comes. They are the ones you run potential mates by for approval and you call when you want to celebrate. Real friendship is a beautiful gift, but it doesn’t arrive easily. Friendship involves work. It can be painful. Friendship often demands letting down the walls, taking off the mask, and showing your ugly scars to another person without knowing how they will react first. The journey to true friendship takes risk, and risk is something social media rarely cultivates.

These days, I’m prayerfully seeking to build relationships the way Jesus does with me. I am convinced: if I am not talking with people or living my life together with people, I’m not ministering to people. Social media can be a tool for relationships, but I often confuse the two. Throwing memes, quotes, blog posts, and play-by-play updates out on the Internet without investing time and energy in the people around me is not ministry. It is noise. And we could all use less of that. I’ve taken several social media fasts before (including one this past month), and I’m always amazed to see how my real-life relationships thrive when the noise is taken out. Am I going to abandon social media entirely? Honestly, I have considered it. I am not there yet, but perhaps sometime I will be. For now, I am simply pursuing faithfulness in the relationships God has given me, while Jesus graciously speaks to and lives in me.

The Sacredness and Wrongness of Christian Death

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A Christian’s death is such a wrong, but sacred thing. Life begins loudly, with groans, pain, a gasp, and a wail. But it doesn’t always end with such clamor. A life well-lived ends with sighs and closes with tears. The breathing slows. The heart stops. The believer opens their eyes to see their Savior for the first time. He no longer just tastes the sweetness of God’s presence; he feasts on it. She is never thirsty because Jesus has satisfied her forever. They no longer mourn, for their joy is complete. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, everything sad is coming untrue. The former things have passed away.

But even in the sweetness, the regrets come. For the life-liver, they arrive before the eyes are shuttered, for its lovers, after. We are haunted by time that has passed irretrievably, attempting redemption of yesterday through tomorrow’s plans. We pray for forgiveness and try to begin again. But the time has ended for what we could have done. The time has come for what must be done. We must gather the remaining shards and resume living.

Every little thing becomes significant–loose change, junk mail, denture cream, slippers worn once, hangers covered in yarn, matchbox cars, cassette tapes, pacifiers, the smell of cigarettes and heavy cologne, outdated cans of food–as they carry our remembrances for us into boxes and donation bins and storage lockers. We remember how she rinsed her Ziploc bags out, how he carried a ridiculous jug of tea everywhere, how they always ate boxed mashed potatoes, and how she sealed her packages with horrendous blue tape. The small moments loom large–ominous, but healing. We hear their whispers in the quiet; we feel their absence in good company.

As the hospital door closes or the coroner leaves and we say goodbye to the one we loved, we also say hello to the ones who love us. They claim empathy and silently sit. They make soup, overwhelm us with flowers, want to comfort, and need comfort themselves. In the crowd are the helpers, the moochers, the pastors, the questioners, the angels, the demons. Some words help; some words steal. Well-intentions wound while quiet embraces bind up. The tears in a friend’s eyes reflect and settle our own. Relationships lost are enfolded in relationships found.

In both the immediacy of the moment and the quiet moments after, the heart screams, “This is not how it is meant to be!” and whispers fearfully, “Why?” The sweetest moments in life now have a bitter aftertaste. Fun seems like a sacrilege. Conversations seem haunted by their memory. How can someone so alive not be?

Resurrection Hope in Death

Then He answers kindly, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

A gasping prayer replies: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Today, we feel death’s wrongness. Sin has had its foul sway. Our joy weeps in his presence, and our happiness feels bittersweet. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Today, our whole world cries out for redemption in the rawness of loss. But in the beautiful tomorrow, we will know in full, even as God knows us. The small but sacred moment of death draws us nearer to tasting it–the infinite freshness of life everlasting–as the gospel promises: because we weep now, the joy will be sweeter still.

The Body of Christ cries out together: come quickly, Lord Jesus! Let the sacred death lose its dark tinge!

And it will. As our eyes close in death, they open to life everlasting. The promise is realized, because the blood and resurrection of Christ have opened the gate. He sits at the right hand of His Father–resting, ruling, and rejoicing. We see with flawless vision what we have seen with eyes of faith. This is the sacred of sacred; this is the holy of holies. What is wrong in death has been made right again. Jesus and we, His people, live.