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)


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