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The middle.

What does the middle look like to you? A lot of times we feel like the middle isn’t very pretty, or fun or enJOYable. We’re usually so excited for the beginning of something. The start of something BIG, or the beginning of a new journey. We love the dreaming stage and how the ideas come flowing out at the beginning, right? Oh the dreams, ideas and “inspiration” boards we can put together at the beginning of things. Just look at any Pinterest Board to see the INSPIRATION that we all are bombarded with! Or what about the cute little baby stage. Having a grand baby on the way is so exciting! Beginnings are so FUN.

But the middle… well, that can be messy. Get past the inspiration, the dreaming, maybe even the planning stages and arrive in the middle… and things are different. The middle of something can get stalled, we can lose our way or motivation, and things can just feel hard. The middle makes us feel like there’s still so much to go. Have you ever decided to re-model your house, or build a new one? Ya, you know how messy the middle is then. ;)

Well, enter in Italy.

In the Fall… when the leaves are falling.

Not the beginning or end, but the middle of things.

With a group of women the Lord brought together for “such a time as this.”

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I recently returned from one of the most amazing weeks in Italy I have ever had.  (we’re missing a few in this photo though) If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I have a heart for Lake Como, Italy and Bellagio specifically. I love to share this beautiful place with people and in a way that hopefully connects them to the Lord as well. I think I’ve brought over 14 different groups of people here over the last 7 years! I have LOVED each group and each time it is a new and exciting journey that I have enjoyed with all my heart.

It is such a beautiful time when I get to bring women who love the Lord and desire to draw closer to Him to this incredible location.  I feel BEYOND blessed to have this calling on my life. But this time of year is extra special because it’s my FAVORITE time of the year on the lake, I turned that “middle age” of 50, and this group got to see Bellagio in all of it’s “middle” splendor.

And that wasn’t by accident.

There was something so special about this week together and I think I felt that deeply, before it even began. There were so many stories from beginning to end of how each person felt called to come, how the Lord provided in AMAZING ways and how it all came together for each one (and for one it was literally last minute!) This week was truly ordained by God for these women and I saw the Lord working in ways that I didn’t even imagine! Each story is such an amazing testimony of what Jesus does and I will try to share some of those stories here…

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Fall on Lake Como is simply stunning.   I mean just look at these photos!  There are hundreds more where these came from.  But to top that, the Lord really showed up in BIG ways for each woman that came.  This is what AMAZES me each time… but it shouldn’t.  He is a BIG GOD and can do anything! 

My prayer for each retreat that I host is for the Lord to bring the women who need to be there and for them to be able to step away from life for a bit and be RENEWED and REFRESHED.  How the Lord does that each time is different.  But it’s NOT different in the sense that I am seeing Him work in each persons life…  every. single. time…. and I am still blown away by that! It’s not always some huge revelation for each person either. It may be that, but it is also may sometimes be just simply a time to “be still” and He allows them to PLAY. To connect with others and be reminded of His goodness and beauty.

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What I didn’t realize is that in the MIDDLE of this retreat, when I’m busy making sure everything is running smoothly, that everyone is being loved on and taken care of, and where I don't really have time to “be still,” the Lord would speak so clearly to ME. But more on that later…

As you can gather, the theme of the week was “Joy in the Middle” and as I’ve explained above, that’s not always easy. Sometimes the middle can feel more like this:

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Isn’t this GREAT?!  I love this statue we saw at Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo.  What a perfect representation of a woman going through the “middle” of things.  I see this woman who is exhausted, who is needing rest and asking herself “Really??  Come on… Do I still have to...”  You fill in the blank _________. Let’s say she’s in the middle of life, or in the middle of something hard, some trial. That middle season of change.

Doesn’t this statue speak to you?

It sure did to the women at our retreat.

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Like my beautiful friend Sheila Atchley said in her devotional time, “Lots of emphasis is put on beginnings and ends, but almost nothing is said about the middle.”   Isn’t that so true, and why do we think that is? We love beginnings… a new romance that brings all the butterflies, or brand new babies that smell SO good. We even can find the good in endings. The end of a great book. The end of a beautiful life lived, the memorial to a person’s life where we honor and remember them. The end of a movie.  The climax and ending are so important to how much we fell in love with the story.   As a believer, we obviously put much emphasis on the ending.  “Finishing well” as the bible says in 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 

So as we think about the beginnings and endings, we wonder why much is not talked about in the middle?  

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But guess what… these two women you see above are definitely in the “middle” of life.  Sheila Atchely and I are admittedly in our 50’s.  Technically that may not be the exact middle of our lives, but definitely the middle stage of life.  Let me tell you, our hearts were deeply woven together during this week teaching together.  Our talks and prayers before the retreat even started were a great indication that I would love this woman whole heartily.  Well, spending a week with her was even better. Her heart is so deep… so deep I really have to dig DEEP myself to understand what the Holy Spirit is speaking though her… and I LOVE that about her!  She is feeding us the MEAT… not the milk.  I adore that about her. Her desire for each woman there was to find true JOY, to celebrate JOY “in the middle” and then to build upon it!  To find a deeper creative spirit within us and truly see the connection ART has with our FAITH. 

Hello… God is SO good! Because what she was speaking is my desire for each person who comes to these retreats!  My heart behind these retreats is for you to find the Joy of the Lord, to make the connection between our desire, (or need) to be CREATIVE, and see that it is because we are created by the Ultimate CREATOR of the Universe!  These things are already deep inside us because we bear the image of God.  It looks different for each person, but it’s the same everywhere.  When we find this connection and stay “plugged in” to it, this is where we will find true joy in our lives.  Our JOY comes from the Lord and guess what… He does DESIRE us to have joy! (If you’re not sure about this, stay tuned. I will be sharing the devotional I put together for the retreat that goes in depth into the subject of JOY.)

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Romans 15:13 says: “May the God of all HOPE fill you (up) with all JOY & PEACE in believing, SO THAT… by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope!”

That’s the verse I put on the little abstract name holders in the event room.  It’s always so fun to plan the event room and add little pieces of art and personal touches to each person’s work space. The little tin above was the start to Sheila’s Art Tin Class that everyone LOVED!

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Getting back to Joy in the Middle though… True JOY (not just being happy) is from the Lord, and it is ALREADY ours!  Did you know that? We don’t have to work for it, we don’t have to try to muster it up… We have this joy deep down in our hearts by faith in Jesus Christ. It is the fruit of having the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Joy from the Holy Spirit is our truth, and we need to REMEMBER that.

It says in John 16:7 “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to YOUR advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.” When Jesus told the disciples this, He was speaking of giving them the Holy Spirit; who is our helper, our counselor, and our teacher. No matter if you’re in the beginning, the middle or the end… THAT should bring you joy!

That TRUE joy is already ours and it doesn’t change with our circumstances.  It is always there even through our hardest days. 

So how do we tap into this fullness of joy?

I believe there is much to be said on this subject and this post will become a book if I add it here. So I will post the devotionals from the retreat after this post. Each day’s devotional came with a photo from Lake Como (like below) that I’ve taken over the years, and then a two sided devotional to go with it. If anyone would like a set, you’re welcome to have one as well. I’ll make that available for anyone and you can just send me a message via the contact page.

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Getting back to the women who came and the Lord really moving in our hearts… I want to say a few things.

First, I know this is not a cheap endeavor to come to Italy for a week’s retreat. There is a sense of responsibility in that for me because I want to provide the most beautiful week you could ever imagine AND give you all that you dream about! I also pray that you do feel the Lord’s presence in this week. That is my heart’s desire. I know the Lord is in these retreats and has given me this calling to draw people closer to Him, and my HOPE is that you are moved because of it. I want you to know I don't take this lightly and I know it’s a huge deal for you to prayerfully decide to come.

Secondly, what I saw this past retreat was MORE than that… more than what I hope & pray for. But it was “more” in simple ways. Yes, I saw the women in awe of the beauty of Lake Como. (that part always makes my job easy :) What was simple, and profound, was how I witnessed everyone opening their hearts and lives to each other so quickly. BECAUSE of the bond of Christ in all of us I truly believe we come together and instantly connect because of it. I also heard the stories… oh the stories. There is such beauty in our stories. The only way I know how to describe it is this odd sense of joy and sorrow mixed together. (C.S. Lewis describes it as “Stabs of Joy”) There is sadness in our stories for sure. But there is also joy and beauty in them… because we have a God that loves us SO much, and He wants to restore us through our stories. He WILL restore us… and I saw it happen. I think we all saw and felt JOY come alive again.

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I always try to sit by each person throughout the weeks meals. I love to hear and listen to their stories. I heard unbelievable stories, stories that would move you to tears, that moved the story tellers to tears, and I am honored by that. That they would share them with me and let me into their personal journeys is very humbling to me and I don’t take it lightly. But what is even more amazing is I saw their stores expand that week. Because this week WAS part of their story and the LORD knew that, and put this retreat on their heart.

That’s the WHY of all of this…

And it’s part of my story as well.

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Lastly, what I learned this past retreat is so simple, yet so profound for me. Like I said, there is a sense of responsibility I carry. You see I know a little about each person’s story before they come because we’ve communicated online for a long time. So in my own mind I’ve made part of my retreat “mission” this need to want to help them in some way. I want to sit and chat with each one over coffee and let them talk. I want to pray with them. And all those things are good things, right? There’s nothing wrong with that…

But what the Lord quietly showed me through these women, at this moment in time, is that I am just the FACILITATOR to God’s will. I am to “Set the Table” and He will do the rest. I always thought “Oh I need to find time to talk to this person or I need to do this or that…” But He showed me this time how He sets the appointments up, not me. I saw conversions happening, people connecting and friendships beginning. I heard stories of how someone shared their story over dinner and they cried together. It was so lovely to witness first hand, and also so wonderful to hear. It wasn’t like this was the first time that happened, it happens every time! It just finally dawned on me THIS time that I don’t have to be directing conversations, or trying to make sure it’s ME that has to say the right thing, or spend x amount of time with each person. No, it’s the LORD who brings the people together for what His will is. He connects the dots… I don’t have to. (So I’m just the “middle man” in all of this. lol)

That was what He showed me this time and it was HUGE for me.

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Isn’t it is so freeing when we see that we are only asked to open our hearts to being USED. We aren’t asked to do it ALL. Man, we think if we follow God’s will/His calling on our lives it’s going to be NO FUN and HARD… He’s going to send us to the outer edges of the universe… but what we really find in the Lord’s will is this amazing sense of FREEDOM!

It may take time to see this, to see what His will is in our lives. I sure had NO idea that when I went up to the event room in 2011 and asked if they had a space for classes that I would be back almost 20 times since then! I just knew I LOVED Bellagio and my husband said if I wanted to come back, I needed to find a way. (because it was too expensive to keep coming back) I can see now that this desire in me to come back again was actually the Lord prompting me to something He knew already was going to happen… WAY before I was even born.

He has given each one of us gifts and abilities. He also desires us to use them…

So what is that for you?

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Look at this beautiful sculpture “The Repentant Magdalene” by Canova. My dear friend Rita came with us and explained the beautiful meaning behind this sculpture and we all just fell in love with her. What’s different about this sculpture from the one above? We all were touched by this one as well but in a different, more meaningful way I think…

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Look at her hands. Her hands are what spoke volumes to us. These hands open, repentant, maybe we could even say willing? Willing to let go of pain, or willing to let the Lord have His way in her life, willing to be refined? Desiring to feel the love of God wash over her? I don't know… What do these hands speak to you?

Are your hands open?

I found this song called “Open Hands” by Laura Story and thought it was fitting here. Take a few moments to listen and reflect on the words.

I love the words in this song: “Our Greatest Joy is Finding You”

Ok, I know I need to wrap this up here because if you’re still reading this, I’m in awe of you! hahaha

All I can say is that YES, the middle can be hard, but it can be so beautiful as well. The Lord loves us and He is going to refine us, most likely in those middle moments. But He uses those “hard middles” in us… to help others see Him. And when we are ready for that, ready to be used for His purposes…

He will use all of those things; our sorrows, our joys, our desires, and our giftings for BEAUTIFUL things! (I wrote in depth about this on my blog here)

So I hope you take this away from todays very long blog post:

It doesn’t matter what stage of life you are in… God is in the middle of it. He IS the CENTER and in the midst of whatever you are going through. Reach out your hands to Him. Open them and let Him work His will in your life. And when you are ready, He is going to use it for GOOD.

THAT is where HOPE & JOY collide my friends!

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If you’d like to join us on the next retreat:

Summer 2019 Art & Faith Creative Retreat will be in Venice AND Bellagio, Italy! 

The dates for that are June 12-22, 2019 and I will be announcing the teacher very soon!

We will also be doing a fun GIVEAWAY when announce the teacher, so make sure you check back for that in the next week or two.

Have a GREAT week!

Hugs,

Laura McCollough

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