Sunday, July 8, 2018

Holding My Breath . . . Holding My Faith

“I held my faith like I held by breath. . .” *

Those were not my words, but they could have been. It’s the feeling of holding on so tightly, trying not to loosen ones grip, for fear of . . . well, something immaterial and vague, yet terrifyingly close.

In the last few weeks I’ve made these my words. And they have slowly helped name that which I could not name; brought clarity to a season I was not expecting.

Last month I made myself go on a mini, home-made retreat. I didn’t go far, but just far enough that I wasn’t home, and didn’t have any home or work obligations. I went because I needed a space to let out my breath; to open my hands. But I didn’t know it until I read those words.

Some of you may already know that this has been a very hard season for me. Not because of any one tangible thing, but because of a million indefinable thoughts and circumstances that have left me both unsettled and insecure.

Knowing is important to me. I already know this about myself, but having just begun to dive into an understanding of the Enneagram (I’m a 5), I know this even more. It seems like months since I’ve been able to really pray, think, process, or write. I didn’t understand where I was. I couldn’t name it.

In some ways, it’s a near cookie-cutter of my early years in Rogers Park. I’m seeking belonging, health, a career, purpose. But in other ways, it’s different. For one thing, I’m not the same person. That was over 10 years ago.

Back then, I grieved over my not-yet-friendships; questioned undiagnosed ailments; agonize over the uncertainty of what to do with my life and career; wondered if my place at a small community church was purposeful. Today, I mourn rich, deep friendships that have slipped away for one reason or another; falter at yet another non-diagnosis; yearn for the fulfillment of a clear (and I believe God-inspired) desire to work as a children’s librarian in an urban environment; and wonder if I’ll ever belong to a purposeful community again.
Will the fulfillment of this take place in Chicago? I don’t know.
Will I be without pain? Probably not.
Will there be significant by my side? I know that even less.

One thing has remained the same. Something that’s the same for every human that walks this earth: The need to belong and be understood. And that, my friend, is exhausting.

These seasons of waiting have carried for me a deep weight of grief and suffering. But something about this chapter feels different—after all, some of these things were my decision. I was the one who decided to step away from my church of ten years; I chose to pursue baby-steps towards becoming a children’s librarian instead of a full time position I wouldn’t like. These were all supposed to be good things, right? Doesn’t that mean I should have some control over this season? Well, the answer to that is a resounding “no.” While humility is always something to seek after, this was a horribly fragile place to be in—the position of being affirmed in a step of faith and then faltering at every step after.

Without an identity/a purpose/a name, these past four months have sucked away my ability to stand on faith’s shoulders and soldier on. I had the desire to pray, but no words to pray. I had all the resources to read and process, but mental and spiritual focus kept spiraling away in the opposite direction.

So I made myself go to a place where the only thing in front of me was a book, a notebook, a pen, and time. I read. I went for pondering walks. I sat in stillness. And then the words came. Slowly, but heart-felt and freeing.

Quite by happenstance, in the American Library Association lunch room, amid advanced readers copies (ARCs) of mysteries, self-help books, graphic novels, and historical biographies, I picked up a copy of Rebecca Reynold’s Courage, Dear Heart. If you know anything about C.S. Lewis, you’ll know the title is a quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It also happens to be a quote from one of my favorite Narnia scenes. Some day, I want to get a little tattoo on my wrist that says the very phrase: “courage, dear heart.” It will be a pillar. A testimony, of sorts. I don’t want to get it now because I want it to be a reminder of what God has done and is still bringing me through. It doesn’t seem time to mark that pillar yet.

Finding this book was completely providential. Deciding to pack it for my mini retreat—more than providential. Reynolds wrote her book as a reflection on her own suffering and letters of encouragement to those still treading through the hard season. It is both a testimony of the work God has done, and the work He is daily continuing in our messy lives.

In the first chapter, she sets the stage. These are her goals: 1) “to offer clear and strong words to describe painful experiences,” 2) “to be a presence of a friend who won’t freak out about the magnitude of your exhaustion,” and 3) “to speak hope over the reader.” Reynolds says that she knows people like me would be reading her book. She understands that naming suffering helps us see boundaries and find healing. “When sorrow knocks us flat, it’s hard to find the energy and focus to unpack out our hearts.” Naming, she says, helps us “transition from paralysis to praise.” (p. 10-11).

I’ve written a lot about sustaining grace, but in this veiled season, I could not grasp the truth of it. Reynolds doesn’t try to theorize the end of this mess and muck. “The gospel,” she says, “can still refresh our vision in the midst of a difficult journey” (p. 13). Put another way, we don’t name our suffering and grieve over it, and then get to a point where Jesus can heal. Jesus see the ruins of our faith, picks us up, and carries us in grace—in the midst of it all—demonstrating His power made perfect in human weakness.  How many times have I heard that? It doesn’t make sense until the only thing you can see around you is the weary world.

This is the perfect image of what the passengers of the Dawn Treader were experiencing just before Lucy heard those wonderful words from the voice of Aslan.
Reynolds, the friendly presence for the journey, speaks the very words I need to hear:
“So courage, dear heart. I know you are tired. I know the darkness is thick and that the way is longer and harder than you ever expected it to be. But God sees you, he hurts with you, and he welcomes your honesty. Even to the ends of the earth, He will lead you on” (p. 14).

Yet this isn’t a recipe, it’s the promise of a journey. There will still be seasons where we feel alone, rejected, forgotten by everyone, and by God. Ingrained in us is a desire for belonging. When God is silent, our gut reaction is to feel abandoned. Here, Reynolds points to a pivotal concept found in the eighth chapter of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: “God can be intentional about His silence ‘trough’ seasons that seem to contain no sign of his existence” she says, because He has special plans for our growth (p.96).

After reading this, I began to wonder, how many of these “trough” seasons I confuse with my own silence and reticence? A mere page later later, Reynolds asks, “how many times do I want to rush to embrace my King, and yet, I hesitate?” (p. 31).

Hesitate. Like holding your breath?

My mind spins in circles. I hesitate because all I can hear is a silent God. And I’m beginning to remember why. Fear is pretty high up there on my list of human flaws. It encapsulates my anxiety of loneliness, rejection, and insufficiency. And in these “trough” seasons, my fears appear the most realized—about both God and those around me.  

The key here is appear. Time and time again, in Scripture we are promised that God will never leave nor forsake us (Deuteronomy31:6, Hebrews 13:5), yet, I am fragile and weak. All the energy I have, prays, “your will be done.” I can’t bring myself to seek more, to hash out my deepest desires, to open my hands any wider. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid my prayers/questions/requests won’t be answered. Maybe the miraculous answers just aren’t for me. I won’t lose anything if I don’t ask. I’ll just never have received it. It’s a way of coping. And that is sadder still.

Reynolds says, “For a long time, I wrestled with all of these angles on fear and God’s intervention. Then one day it hit me—dissecting the miraculous from the mundane isn’t the primary goal of a believer.” (p. 91) She gives the example of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana. The apparent miracle was Jesus turning water into wine right there before the very noses of the host and guests. But the other miracle? It is the natural long-suffering process of grapes turning into wine over time. “Both exist on the continuum of divine creation,” she notes. “Both testify to our Father’s involvement in the universe.” And his divine timing.
It is this timing that I find to be one of the most wonderful and awesome characteristics of God. But where is this awe on my very lowest days when I’m in the midst of wondering if I can trust Him? How do I rest in Him and not on my own seeping strength and reasoning? The other day, I was telling someone, “I think I need a million sticky notes to help me remember all these truths each and every day.”

It’s too much to remember. It is so easy to forget. But the same God who created us and knew our names before the foundation of the world, spoke to us saying, “do not fear.” I love what Reynolds says about this. She digs deep into the physical transformation our bodies undergo when we experience fear, and then concludes:
“When the Bible speaks about fear—which is often—it speaks into all of this complexity. God knows your defaults. He knows your instincts. He knows your biology, your chemistry, your genetics, your experiences, and your intellectual capacity. Every connection that occurs in your nervous system, every fluid released by every gland, every physiological reaction—from the lump in your throat to the drop of your stomach—is see by the God who made you.”

This means that when Jesus comes to the believer saying, ‘do not fear,’ he’s not like humans who tell you not to worry. He knows that for some of us, this is a command to walk on land, and for others, it’s a command to walk on water. He understands what others cannot understand about us because he knows us back and forth, inside and out” (p.93).
So why am I holding my faith like I hold my breath? Is there some spiritual or intellectual technique that will help me master my fear? Again, Reynolds steps in with the words I needed to hear:
“Mastering fear is not a proverb or a spiritual equation. It’s accepting all of our limitations of chemistry, personality, and environment while moving deeper and deeper into God. This God has let me come to the ends of my human courage and religious determination so many times, and as I stare over that precipice, I always see how much I need him.” (p. 104)
The silence matters. How very elementary! Could it be that the name of this season is silence? Could it be true, what Screwtape’s words to Wormwood in the eighth chapter of Lewis’ Screwtape Letters?
“It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.”

Would I not shatter into a million pieces if I courageously prayed my real heart needs into the seeming void? If I let out my breath, and slowly opened my hands?

I’m not there yet, but I’m glad Reynolds has walked this road too. This journey of feeling fear and learning faith at the same time. It’s a reminder that my feelings are just that—feelings. Real, deep, and emotive. But not stronger than God. And Jesus is strong enough for my fear, too.

I am ever thankful for the saints who go before us, and alongside us. Fellow sojourners who have wisely given words to the achings and yearnings of my heart. I’ll close with this, because I could not say it any better than she did. Courage, dear heart:
“If you feel weak right now, I hope you won’t be ashamed of your weakness. Life can be scary, especially if you love big, and it can be difficult to see how frightening times will ever be purposeful.

So if you read this letter trembling, I hope you will know that ‘do not fear’ isn’t a hoop for you to jump through; it’s a reminder that God hasn’t abandoned you. It’s a whisper from a loving parent who may sometimes use silence to grow us, but who is always as close as our own breath” (p. 106).

NOTE: each page reference is for Courage, Dear Heart.
* (p. 55)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Patience In Between

It’s times like these, I wish I were a poet.

That the hundred thousand thoughts on my heart could succinctly transform themselves into a dozen or so lines on a page. A cathartic way to juxtapose the beauty and the pain of the things I see and feel every day.

This thought has been mulling around in my mind for quite some time. Not quite ready to land. But today seems fitting. On this misty winter day, when Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday converge.

But this is not a post about Valentine’s Day or about Lent.

Two Sundays ago I said goodbye to the church that has been my home for the last ten years. It astounds me that I’ve lived in my neighborhood that long. I can close my eyes and am instantly transported back in time. Memories of both the plentiful and the scarce.

My decision to leave was not made lightly. It was a long time coming, really. A mixture of burn-out and grief.

The burn-out, first. I have this fault. My love-language is service. And when I am where I am supposed to be, I serve. . . to a fault. Even when I begin to sense that I am not where I am supposed to be any longer, I keep going. Week after week, day after day. What began as love, seeped into duty. Through the gentle guidance of friends, I finally realized this was a leap God was indeed nudging me towards.

And grief. It’s such a strange thing to grieve that which was. Even if it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, the gap between a once full community and the now simple few is great indeed. As I walked out the doors for the last time, I realized that grief had been meeting me at those doors for a very long time. A sense of relief washed over me. Not giddy relief, or even enough to bring a smile. But it was a clear lifting of a burden. Of routine service offered seemingly in a vacuum. Of clung-to memories and faded faith.

When I first made the decision to step down from my roles at church and find a new place to worship, I imagined what the time after would be like. A time of re-connecting with God in a meaningful way, without the distractions of “making Sunday happen.” A time of refreshment, connecting with a new church. But it turns out I need a little bit more time to heal. Time for my heart to catch up with my mind.

For with this courageous step, I am again left with a gap. It is a fragile place between that which was, and that which will come. Some may find that exciting, but for me, it is a scary place to be. Blogger Addie Zierman puts it this way:

The space between two solid landscapes feels like water, and sometimes you feel like you’re being baptized, and sometimes you feel like you’re drowning, and it’s all just very hard to pin down.

So where does the beauty come in?

Another water analogy: I feel like a little child near the sea-shore. Gently collecting stones in my pocket to take back home. Some days, the beach is calm and serene. I am at peace. Some days, the waves are crashing too high to get near the smooth small stones. And I must stand back and wait. Both scenes hold beauty. But one is far easier than the other.

I want to plunge ahead and gather so much from this season, but I am at the mercy of my own emotional short-comings and mental wellness. And when that is not enough to hinder, sin always has a way of creeping in.

If, like Aslan, Jesus says to my soul, “Courage, dear heart,” why am I constantly stumbling against my own anxiety and fear? I think patience plays a part. I yearn to overcome these hurdles in one fell-swoop. But that is not how it works. Like faith, the casting out of fear is a journey.

Last week I began listening to the audiobook of Hannah Hurnard’s, Hinds’ Feet in High Places. It is a tenderly simple allegory of the faith journey, yet each time I listen I am pierced by its profoundness. The main character is named Much Afraid. I can equate with that. For her journey, the Shepherd gives her two seasoned companions: Sorrow and Suffering. At such names, it is easy to recoil, but I have learned, companions such as these are indeed gifts from the Lord. Sorrow and suffering can be such helpful companions on the ups and downs of valley roads.

I am slowly seeing this: each new encounter with sorrow and suffering has a way of shedding layers of fear and replacing them with the certainty of Christ. But it takes patience. For,

“the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
(2 Peter 3:9)
If I were a poet, would this lesson be any easier?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Gifts of Grace, Falling Like Leaves

I love fall. It is my favorite season. It contains the perfect temperature, the most beautiful colors, the richest smells, and the most brilliant light. When I think of fall, I can imagine a warm hug from my Creator.

But personally, fall has also been a season of great loss. It has become a time of year that good friends have moved away. This could appear as some great cosmic prank. But with the right perspective, I am beginning to understand that God often uses dichotomies like these to teach me more about His holiness and my humanity.

Love and loss. Joy and suffering. The tree cannot bud again in Spring without losing its leaves in Autumn.

I just finished reading Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s book The Scars that Shaped Me. I’ve been following Risner’s writings on her blog and the Desiring God website for a few years now. So when I saw that she had written a book, I bought a copy right away. It is a phenomenal work of wrestled faith. And I find such encouragement from her writing. Not only is her story compelling, but her renewed perspective is truly a gift the Lord has given her.

Multiples times throughout the book she refers to our need for two kinds of grace: delivering grace and sustaining grace. She says, “they are both essential for the Christian life. And they are interconnected” (p. 164). I want delivering grace in many areas of my life. So much so, that sometimes I forget that I am being showered by a grace that is intended to sustain me. 

It is this kind of grace that we often complain about. Risner quotes a Bible study teacher who once said, “You never hear anyone in the Bible complaining about the parting of the Red Sea. Everyone loves the grace that delivers us. But the Israelites, like us, were dissatisfied with daily manna.” Yet that is literally what sustained them in the desert for forty years. I echo Risner’s question: “Were there times when my prayers for deliverance were answered with the gift of sustenance?” (p.161).

There are so many ways to approach the concept of God’s “No’s” and “Not yets.” But one way is to look for the sustaining grace in God’s closed doors. The times when He loves us enough to say “no” to our desires or requests to be rescued, in order to administer the sustaining grace of His presence.

As Risner encountered pain after pain (in the form of a crippling disease, the loss of a child, and a painful divorce), she learned the very important lesson that seeing God’s glory was a far greater gift than being rescued from her suffering. And she began to see that God’s “no’s” in her life were actually His mercies—for they were what shaped her.

I can take great comfort in that. And I too am beginning to see—with the perspective of “Jesus colored glasses”—the truth that I would not trade my sufferings for ease. They are gifts. For God meets us in our pain, and He draws us close to Himself in our needs. “Suffering and sorrow,” Risner says, “are God’s invitation to know him better” (p. 49).

Paul refers to this when he talks of the thorns in his side. In 2 Corinthians 12, he says,

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

In that same vein, Risner refers to George Matheson, a Scottish hymn-writer and preacher, who admonished with these words about his sufferings: “Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn. Show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.”

I read these words months ago. Yet God has an amazing way of hammering home an idea when it has begun to burrow into my mind. Last Sunday evening I was pretty much ready to post this article on my blog when something (and pure exhaustion) prompted me to hit pause. I could finish it later. The next evening at Bible study, the group was discussing Philippians 1:12-26, and I found myself very glad I had waited.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents another perspective on suffering. In verses 19 and 20, from prison, he says, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. Paul understood that the grace being bestowed on him daily might not be physical deliverance. He was most concerned that he would maintain the ability to honor God with his whole life (or death).

Our Bible study group spent some time pondering Paul’s revolutionary mindset. What would it look like for us to live like Paul, with God’s heart forefront in our minds? And aside from the thorn passage from 2 Corinthians, do we ever catch ourselves asking to be delivered from something that Paul wouldn’t?  I honestly haven’t thought much about the great apostle, but this week, these aspects of Paul’s character and faith have astounded me. I can safely say that Paul had and embodied a beautiful theology of suffering. I have much to learn.

So back to what I’ve learned as God keeps nudging me towards this topic:

A few months ago, some dear friends encouraged me to listen to podcast from the Allender Center. I’ve had the page bookmarked on computer ever since, but when I began commuting out to Des Plaines every day for an internship, I knew I needed some good podcasts and sermons to listen to during the ride. One particular podcast, “Restoration of the Heart, Part 1,”  stuck out to me. Referring to the shame of our brokenness, the speaker said, 
“There is this idea that there’s a point in your Christian walk where you get better and better... but the Christian life is actually a life of greater need and dependence. It is so counter intuitive. We can’t do anything without God. It is not shameful that we need God more—that we haven’t gotten this ‘Christian thing’ down. That is the design. Deeper and deeper need. And in that, we find restoration. We are becoming more and more what we were intended to be.”
I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before. Maybe the wording just came at me from the right direction. But it was if lightning had struck. My need for God’s grace will only increase as I continue to walk as a Christ follower. Seeking God for the same things over and over again is not a sign of spiritual immaturity, but a recognition of my continual need for Him and His presence.

And this is also a reminder that I need both types of grace. “Both [graces] showcase God’s glory,” Risner says, “but in different ways. In delivering grace, we see God’s glory. Everyone can see the miracle he has wrought for us. And usually our lives are easier as a result. . . but with sustaining grace, people can see the miracle he has wrought in us. Our lives are easier because our perspective is different. With sustaining grace, we must continually go back to God. It is not a one-time thing.”

God is continually humbling me with His sustaining grace. While I yearn for deliverance from the pain of loss, loneliness, and fear—these things all hold a purpose. Just as the leaves must fall in order to bring new life, God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. It is in the asking, the seeking, that I am sustained by grace, to press on with the presence of my living God. 

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