Ten years ago, in the summer of 2006, I had an opportunity, a rare gift, to spend some time in Montana at a weeklong art workshop, taught by my long-time friends, Barry and Saundra Stebbing of How Great Thou Art (HowGreatThouArt.com). Barry had been teaching mostly homeschooled children for many years on how to draw and paint and appreciate God, our Creator’s glory all around us.
I actually organized one of his workshops about 16 years ago, for my own and a hundred more kids in our church’s homeschool co-op, never realizing that I would ever become one of Barry’s students myself. I only dreamed about learning to draw and paint.
That summer of 2006, I was an incredibly busy homeschool mama, teaching several children and caring for my late husband Chris, who had had MS for 12 years. After his diagnosis in late 1994, just months before our twins were born, his health plunged dramatically and we didn’t know how long he would be able to walk or talk or work. We spent a lot of time praying about the MS, asking God for healing, and contemplating how we might glorify God in the midst of it, no matter where the disease went. We were joined by thousands of others who were also praying not only for Chris and his MS, but for my high-risk pregnancy with our twins, who were due in the spring of 1995, but were not predicted to survive.
God answered the many prayers for our twins, who were both miraculously healthy at birth, and who just celebrated their 21st birthdays this year. Likewise, for several years after his MS diagnosis, Chris did pretty well physically. In 2006, however, his MS really took a turn for the worse in several areas. Spending a week in Montana to do art, at Stebbing’s kind invitation, was the last thing I could imagine myself doing, no matter how much I wanted to.
You want to go paint for a week – are you crazy?!
I remember talking to the Lord about this art workshop in Montana, saying something like, “You know, Lord, how much I would love to learn to paint. I’ve taken one little class, my first ever, on drawing the human face last summer and I want to learn more! But I surrender. I give you my life – my heart, my desires, my dreams. It’s all Yours, because I know You are good and Your love is demonstrated in my life in only perfect ways, because You are perfect.” Of course, those weren’t my exact words because I don’t remember them all.
But I do remember the intent of my heart – to surrender everything to Him who loves me best.
I knew that taking this workshop was a near-impossibility, so I hesitated to even ask Chris if I could go. I wanted him to know, however, that doing this would mean a lot to me. I decided to ask, but also told myself, “I will let it go if he says no.”
Waiting for a moment when Chris was feeling well physically, and he wasn’t in the middle of work (he worked from home for HSLDA most of the time now because of the MS), and he wasn’t hungry (yes, wives, we all know that hungry husbands are grumpy husbands!), I quietly approached him and almost timidly told him about Barry’s invitation to join the class in Montana. My timing seemed good, but it didn’t help that the course was just over a week away (hey, that’s when I found out about it!)
When I saw Chris’s eyebrows go up with an incredulous look on his face, I knew what his answer was going to be – no way. I was right, but he told me ever so gently, appealing to my commonsense and nearly impossible logistics (both setting up the trip and preparing things at home so I could leave the kids with him for a week). “I know, I know, it’s just not practical. I just wanted to tell you about it because I really wanted to go.”
I tried to smile as I walked out the door, but promptly went to our bedroom, shut the door, and cried. Of course, I didn’t want to just up and leave Chris and the kids at the last minute, just so I could do some art in another state. “Aren’t you being selfish?” I chastised myself.
Yet, a door slammed on a dream still hurts, doesn’t it? Fifteen minutes later, I think I was okay, after talking to my Father some more, reminding my heart that God doesn’t withhold anything good from those who seek after Him. And I asked Him if He would store these tears in His bottle, along with the many others I had cried.
The next day started out unremarkably. I was up early, having my daily devotions, making breakfast with the kids, working in the garden for a spell. I had let go and surrendered my art workshop dream to the Lord, and that was that. About halfway through the day, Chris called me in to his office. I think I was bracing myself for a mini-lecture on how illogical I was to ask if I could go on this trip, and I silently prayed the Lord would help me receive my husband’s words in a gracious, faith-filled way.
He started by reminding me of his response to my request. “Honey, I don’t want you to go – bad timing being last minute, too expensive a flight, and too long to be gone. And I was a little jealous at the thought of you going off and having fun without me.” I felt badly as he said these words. I didn’t want to have fun without him. I really wanted to learn art with my friends Barry and Saundra, and go to a beautiful state I had never visited, but I knew he felt bad, so I just said I was sorry.
Then his next words took me completely by surprise, “Then God spoke to me, Tracy, and He told me to let you go.” What? Could I believe my ears? “We can’t afford the cost of a flight out there, but if we have enough frequent flyer miles and you can find a flight, you can go.” Despite the challenges of his MS and even though he would miss me terribly, he said yes. I guess this was an act of surrender to the Lord on his part, and I loved him for it. I was so excited, I jumped up and kissed him again and again!
After surrendering the whole trip to the Lord, He made a way for me to go. He moved on my Chris’s heart to say yes. He provided a flight that would get me out there late on the first day, but that was perfectly fine with me!
He even gave me a traveling companion for the long drive from Great Falls to Cutbank, MT where the workshop was. Another lady had signed up at the last minute and was flying in the same time I was. When God plans something, He sure takes care of every little detail. She ended up being my roommate, and became a good friend, godly, wise and kind to me in my challenging season of my life.
That week in Montana was life-changing for me – doing art all week and journaling for the first time since high school ministered to my heart and soul on such deep levels. Yes, I learned so much! I painted my first watercolor, my first acrylic, and my first oil painting. I sketched from life for the first time too. All of these experiences stretched me more than I thought I could handle, but Barry’s encouragement inspired me to press on.
Meeting with God in Montana
And I met with God there in a special way – in the early sunrises of the open plains of our host’s home, and in the epic sunsets of a big Montana sky each evening. I also saw Him in the joyful creativity of my fellow students, and in the beautiful hearts of our host family, Russ and Loraine Wahl.
I had more time to be alone and pray, read God’s Word, and write than I had ever recalled having for many years. What I didn’t know at the time, but would gradually realize, is that more than learning about art, God would use that weeklong workshop to prepare me for the even harder road ahead with Chris’s MS and eventual death just three years later.
I started art journaling all the time. It became my daily place to meet God – to meditate on His Word, and to find life and help and power as I recorded Scriptures, along with hymn lyrics, poems, and motivational quotes from authors I love on the pages of my journal. Reading back over my journals has been like a diary of the faith journey God has had me on the past ten years.
Living a new chapter of The Surrendered Life
It’s been ten years since I first started art journaling. Even though I immensely enjoy it, the last few years I haven’t written as much. Despite having recently graduated all seven of my kids from homeschooling, life hasn’t slowed down one bit for me. If anything, my life is busier than ever. Besides working at the Home School Foundation (now full-time, as of this week), I am running my home by myself, I am trying to stay connected to my precious children, and I am loving spending time with my grandchildren whenever possible.
My life is full, full of joy! It’s also hard. Personally, I’m in a place of brokenness, and sadness, and being alone. This chapter of my life isn’t one I would have chosen to write, yet God (for reasons still unknown to me) is writing it. His Word, as always, is my lifeline, my guide, my hope. His presence is particularly comforting when “sorrows like sea billows roll.” And “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, [His] consolations delight my soul.” (Psalm 94:19)
God is calling me to live a surrendered life in this place, as in every place of my life. It’s not easy doing this, and I guess it isn’t meant to be. But God is with me in every moment, and that is a very good thing. I’m also art journaling more, and that’s not such a bad thing either.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” -Galatians 2:20