Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Pain and Grace

I feel like I am on the cusp of learning something. That this hard thing called life, is one big exercise in teaching me something vital about obedience and faith, love, hope, and peace.

The women’s Bible Study at my church is slowly going through the book of Ruth. The guide we are following is very thorough and garners rich insight from just a single phrases of Scripture. As a woman, I really appreciate being able to look at Ruth and Naomi’s struggles, fears, and faith, and imagine what I would do or feel in the same situation. In the face of loss, rejection, and loneliness, they were women of enormous courage. As I compare my life to theirs I recognize that I live with much fear. Fear of loss, fear of loneliness, fear of pain. These things were real to Ruth and Naomi. But their obedience to God carried them through to the other side, into the Lord’s provision, care, and peace.

What would it look like for me to take steps of faith like that? In what area of my life is God calling me to obedience? Am I living in the freedom of Christ?

I used to think that I understood the meaning of faith, obedience and freedom. It’s not very difficult when one leads a clean, quiet, safe life. But those seasons never last very long. Life is more often messy, clamorous, and vulnerable. I am learning that these things are not the absence or silence of God, but His way of getting our attention. I recently heard a sermon by Charles Stanley about listening to God. He emphasized that God often speaks to us in our restlessness. If we are willing to respond to anxiety, discomfort, and pain with prayer, God is there to guide us in whatever way He knows will get our attention.

I am in a season that could definitely be described as messy, clamorous and vulnerable. But through God’s grace, I also feel an underlying string of hope shifting into place. I’ve shared before about my church. It is a small church, with a uniquely blessed community all living within the same few zip codes. This tight community makes life decisions and struggles about so much more than just me. Living in such a transient neighborhood and city, the largest struggle has been the loss friends who move away. When this happens, I react with great sensitivity and empathy. I can feel my anxiety bubbling up, just thinking about how many things their leaving will impact. But this unease and hurt is a gift from God. It is a wake-up call. C.S. Lewis wrote about it in his book, The Problem of Pain:Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

One of my favorite Christian writers, Catherine Marshall, fills much of her books with this concept. Throughout her lifetime she experienced great loss, affliction, and loneliness, yet she records a distinct moment when she traded
resignation for acceptance through a prayer of relinquishment. In her book, Beyond Ourselves, she describes it this way:

“Resignation is barren of faith in the love of God. It says ‘grievous circumstances have come to me. There is no escaping them. I am only once creature, an alien in a vast unknowable creation. I have no heart left even to rebel. So I’ll just resign myself to what apparently is the will of God; I’ll even try to make a virtue out of patience submission.’ So resignation lies down quietly in the dust of a universe from which God seems to have fled, and the door of Hope swings shut.” 
“But turn the coin over. Acceptance says, “I trust the good will, the love of my God. I’ll open my arms and my understanding to what He has allowed to come to me. Since I know that He means to make all things work together for good, I consent to this present situation with hope for what the future will bring.’ Thus acceptance leaves the door of Hope wide open to God’s creative plan. This difference between acceptance and resignation is the key to an understanding of the Prayer of Relinquishment.” (Chapter 6, p. 104)
This is the kind of truth you cannot come to without pain leading the way. I would much rather not have to deal with the grief and loneliness of departed friends, but I am also realizing that I would not trade away these times of God’s deep grace. He has gotten my attention. Now to the challenge of listening for what He is saying, walking where He is leading, and watching for what He is providing.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

This is What Vulnerability Looks Like

One of my favorite things about Sunday evenings is donning my apron, laying out all my ingredients, and making soup or stew for the coming week. It is a ritual that I prepare for with research and imagination. It is a creative endeavor with a practical outcome. It both excites and calms me. And it is something that I enjoy doing alone.

As you read this, I wish I could turn your attention to previous posts I’ve written on this topic. But the problem is, I haven’t posted them yet. I’ve written them, yes, even added to them, and questioned them. I just can’t seem to find a good starting point. And every story, essay, or article must have a starting point. When it comes to thoughts, however, they don’t often have a clear beginning. Thoughts, and even dreams, wind themselves around and around in our minds. By the grace of God, something concrete begins to form.

So, last Sunday evening, I was extremely grateful when I began cooking and had this tangible thought: cooking is something I enjoy doing alone. Here is the reason I bring this up: sometimes it is very hard for me to be alone. I have wrestled with this truth. I’ve tried to ignore it, push it aside. I’m tried to wrap my mind around the science of being an introvert who struggles with loneliness (this should be an oxymoron, right?). Even in the midst of solo activities that I enjoy, it is so easy for me to turn my thoughts to feelings of loneliness and dejection.

This I know: I am good at being alone. I am not good at being lonely.

I could wallow in this unfortunate fact (and I often do), or I can acknowledge it, and seek Truth to fill in the gaps. My head knows that as a follower of Christ, I have the freedom to be content in His love. But why is it so hard for my heart to feel the same?

I am confident that I am not the only one who feels and experiences this. It has taken a great amount of vulnerability for me to get to this point where I can share my struggles, but I do so because I know that healing and growth is often sparked when one person’s openness  begins to resonates with yours. I can only write about these things today because countless others have gone before me, trusting that the way God designed their minds and hearts was not a mistake. I have chosen to “dig deep,” to seek out Scripture and the life-giving perspectives of some of my favorite Christian authors. Their writings and memoirs have helped me gain perspective and assisted me in forming a theology of loneliness and belonging. It is their words that I will reflect on. 

I am by no means done with this journey, but I am finally at a place where I can share what I’ve learned, and in the process, etch these truths deeper into my own soul. I cannot tell you how long this “series” will last, but I know it will take some time to hash out all I want to share. I invite you to join me along the way. If something resonates with you, copy it down, bookmark it, tag it, store it for a time when you will need to be reminded of it.

There are times when we will all feel lonely, but we are never alone. For the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. He mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, great is His faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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