JD and I went on our two-year date last week. That’s literally insane! It seems like time has been flying by in my life recently. But anyways, we always do this fun thing for our yearly dates where he blindfolds me and takes me to different surprise destinations. This year we went to our favorite place to eat (Nhinja yummm), ice skating & then to see Christmas lights! It was great. As we were ice skating (well while he was skating and I was falling), I felt a sense of joy seeing everybody out having a good time. Children were laughing and practically just walking on the ice with their skate helpers. People were flying by JD and I, and others were slowly making their way around the circle holding the wall for dear life. But one group of people stood out to me. There was a group of teenagers all gathered in a circle on their phones. They would take pictures and then all stare at their phone screens. This honestly was the way it was the entire time we were there. They talked to one another, but the attention was always truly on their phone. If I were to guess, I assume they probably were posting the pictures they had taken on social media. While there is nothing wrong with that, it made me kind of sad. Because instead of enjoying the moment that they were in, they were consumed in something other than the reality surrounding them.

But isn’t it nice to escape this reality? This world has blown up this year. I’ll say it a million times over again that I’m not the same person I used to be before this pandemic. It’s as if my eyes have been open to all the hurt, pain and struggles present in this world. And I don’t always know what to do with all of these feelings. This year has been a year I never expected to experience. I specifically remember a year ago from today thinking, “Tomorrow starts the best year yet. I can feel it.” And as I was dancing with my friends in downtown OKC as the clock turned to 12:00 A.M., I felt excitement. I was genuinely happy and eager to see what 2020 had in store. And then before I knew it, everything just seemed to fall apart. First of all, let’s just talk about the uncertainty. I hate uncertainty, and I think we can all say that each day this year has been packed FULL of it. While the uncertainty has been terrible, I think I can say for many of us, the worst of it all has been the loss. The death, the sickness and the unexpectedness of it all feels like a deep, sharp pain. We, ourselves, and the people around us are struggling mentally. People are fighting depression and loneliness. It’s pretty easy to say that an escape from this reality wouldn’t be the worst thing ever.

I found myself trying to escape reality more than ever this year. Things would get hard, and I would play the distraction card. Whether that be getting on social media, trying to just push the hurt deep into an untouched part of my mind or binge-watching a Netflix show, I would find ways to escape my reality. I didn’t like the idea of addressing all that was going on in the world. But I will say this. In escaping my reality, I didn’t focus on the good that was present within my life. I just tried to numb it all by not thinking about really anything. In fact, I feel that I lost sight of all I had to be thankful for in my life. I was consumed in nothing but negativity.

This year, I almost forgot about the blessing of life. Life is packed full of low valleys and high mountaintops. The blessing of life is not only found in the high mountaintops but also in the low valleys. And you know what? THANK GOODNESS for that truth. Who would you be right now if we took away all those times that you’ve been in the valley? I wouldn’t be near the person I am today. I wouldn’t have any sort of perseverance. Any sort of thing that goes unplanned would leave me broken. But not only would I lack perseverance, I also may not have made as many mistakes. Because in the valley, you will most likely mess up, but you have the opportunity to come out even better. I don’t know who I’d be without 2020, and you know what? I don’t want to find out. I have decided that I’m going to accept this year as a part of life that has made me better than I was before. And part of this blessing of life is that God is not only with us in the good times but also in the really really sucky times. If you were like me in this past year, you forgot that. There were a few times I literally remember thinking that I would go to God once I fixed myself. I would go once the hardships weren’t consuming me as much. But my friends, God was with me in those times. I may have turned down God’s loving hand, but that doesn’t mean God ever left my side. God is ALWAYS with us. What a blessing of life. God didn’t leave you to face 2020 on your own. Maybe you chose to push Him away, but God never stopped being with you. That moment when you lost someone who meant the world to you, God was with you while the tears were rolling down your face. That moment when your depression was all-consuming, God was with you as you wondered how you’d keep going. God never left (even in 2020) and never will.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4

I think many people misinterpret the saying “God is with you” as something that Christians just say. But these four words are powerful. They remind us that God’s love for us is unconditional. Some of you all may not have anyone in your life who has always been “with” you so it’s hard to imagine this kind of love. But it’s real and powerful. Some people in your life will leave you when things get hard, but God never will.

You know what else I learned this year? The world doesn’t revolve around me. Throwing a pity party every second of every day isn’t going to fix my problems. Yes. 2020 was hard. Yes. Life is hard. But do you really want to spend life always feeling sorry for yourself? Now, don’t get me wrong. There are times we need to give ourselves time to be sad. But sometimes we need to get out of ourselves in order to care for ourselves. I was not the only one who had a hard 2020. Many people did. And many of the people lost people who meant the world to them. Yet, a lot of times, it makes us feel better to believe in the notion that we’re the only ones that have it bad. This year I was constantly wallowing in all the sorrow I had in all of my situations. But you know what I realized? That didn’t solve anything. It actually made things a whole lot worse. It made me more bitter towards people and unwilling to love. It also pushed me farther away from my relationship with God. Instead of spending genuine time with God and being thankful for all He has given me, I only complained about my situations. All the concentration was on myself and not on my relationship with God at all. When we concentrate on only ourselves and our bad situations, we forget how to love others and even love ourselves.

In escaping the reality of 2020, these lessons would not have been learned. These lessons may not have come from the easiest experiences, but sometimes the hardest times yield the most promising lessons. My biggest challenges for you all in 2021 is to not try to escape to another reality. Don’t run to your phone when things get tough. Don’t binge-watch a show to numb the pain. Accept what you’re feeling and try to grow. Accept the low valleys that come your way. Enjoy the high mountaintops. And have joy in both the valleys and mountaintops. When joy is rooted in you, it persists even in the darkest times. I can’t tell you what 2021 is going to bring. Do I hope it’s better? Yes. But let’s not go in with the expectation that everything is going to be solved and all better. 2021 will bring its own challenges. Let’s go in with the notion that both hard times and good times will come. But through it all, we can know our God will be with us, we’re not alone in our situation and there is no need to escape the reality we are in right now. This is where you’re supposed to be even if it’s not where you saw yourself being. 2021 we’re coming for you stronger than ever before!!

 “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” – Romans 5: 3-4

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