Unclenching the Heart

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

The Holy Spirit has been a puzzle to me, despite how I know he’s a living presence of God in my heart. I want him to make grand announcements and lead me in absolute certainty through life’s twisty choices. I want him to point his finger and say, “There” when I ask for any answer. But he doesn’t do that.

I wouldn’t begin to box up the Spirit and say he can’t speak in those ways. God moves all things for His glory, and if it takes a loud shout to accomplish that, He will shout. It’s just that me, when I expect His obvious direction, it’s typically for the sake of my glory and to give me an easy out. Tell me where to go, Lord, so I get what I want and don’t have to make choices – the sooner the better.

Turns out the Spirit isn’t in the business of easy outs. In fact, you can find these verses in close proximity: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16-17) Then, two chapters later: “In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33) Well. So much for personal convenience.

But as Jesus promised, the Spirit IS a help, and he IS constant. His help just isn’t always what we expect. I’m sure there are ways to theologically or Biblically prove this point in an intellectual manner… But all I have for you is this story:

It’d been a long day at work. Walking into church that Wednesday evening, I hadn’t quite sluffed the cantankerous attitude I’d been building the last few hours, and I wasn’t particularly willing to release my sour temper. Still, I’d recently determined to let God work through circumstances in spite of my mood, so on my way across the parking lot I said a prayer that went something like:

“Okay, Lord, fine, I’m going in with a ‘tude, but that doesn’t mean You can’t use this time to change me. I’ll give it over and trust how You manage the evening. Just…gimmefivemoreminutestogrouseokay?”

I actually expected to walk in on a sermon preaching gratefulness not-so-subtly to my reticent heart – again, supposing holy intervention on a grand scale. Instead, as I sat down, two cohorts I knew through volunteer service stepped out of their way to greet me. That’s it. Two people, two quick hellos. But suddenly my mood flipped around. They were simple gestures, yet I knew they’d served the Spirit’s purpose to me.

The Holy Spirit, I believe, is the unclenching of the heart. He’s a chance encounter with churchmates, the prompt that tells me to sing praises when I’m uncertain, the communion with a fellow believer that changes my perspective. He nudges me to step out in faith, even when I don’t know the outcome. These are small, almost imperceptible ways in which he works. A whisper instead of a megaphone.

I’m learning to change my expectations for how God chooses to speak to me. One day He very well may take the direct approach, if that’s what it takes to grow our relationship. But it seems at the moment I’m better-shaped by the subtle nature of detailed adjustments.

A Bachelorette Reflects on Growth

I endeavor not to post frequently about my singleness, because it’s only a slice on the pie chart of who I am. Still, it IS the month of romance, and I’ve recently had some thoughts brewing related to my current “relationship status”.

There are many who use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to be thankful for all forms of love: not just eros, but also phileo, agape, and storge. This is a beautiful treatment of the holiday, but I confess I’m not one of those types. Nor am I the type who mopes by a vase of wilted roses on Feb. 14th, mourning like my love life needs a vigil. I typically celebrate friends and family at random (I’m even bad at birthdays…); and if I get lonely, it can’t be pegged to a predictable day.

To me, Valentine’s is just a holiday I can’t observe. I don’t mean that pitiably, but only in the sense that it doesn’t mean a great deal to me. It’s off the table, in a sense. I haven’t ever been in a mutually romantic relationship; I don’t think I could tell you what it looks like. I could tell you how I’ve seen married friends behave, but me personally? A solid blank.

can tell you that in the years I’ve been single, I certainly haven’t missed out on God’s intention to shape me closer to His image. I’ve had to surrender expectations to Him out of white-knuckled hands; I’ve ground my teeth in anxious trials of patience; I’ve been bowed out of my stubbornness to accept a new attitude of humility.

So, basically, a lot of the same character growth married people have probably had to experience. Just without, you know, the bedroom benefits.

*remembers that her parents are reading this*

ANYWAY, MY POINT BEING – It’s God’s design to mold us through our circumstances, be that in a relationship with a spouse, or adapting to a life lived solo. We are humans living in imperfect flesh; it’s our choice to be made holy by our Creator or not, wherever we happen to find ourselves.

In the past years, I’ve already seen MUCH change in my own perspective. Where I used to rail at God for circumstances, thinking He should snap his fingers and change them, I now approach Him as my Comforter. If I go through a time feeling lonely, I’ve learned to say, “God, I’m grieving right now. I miss someone I don’t even know. You are steady, though. Please lead me through this.”

I’ve come to concede that this time living single has raised my level of trust in Jehovah and made me seek Him as a very real presence in my life. Would I have experienced that if marriage had been thrown my way? I’m not one to assume the outcome of alternate realities. I only know that ten years ago, I knew God on a mostly head level, and now He completely fills my heart.

I still learn. Everyday, whatever I miss or don’t miss in relationships. Even this Valentine’s, I’m sure Christ will use the time to pull on my soul. His love is the point no matter how you celebrate, right?

Through Darkness to the Light

At my work, I sometimes host a StarLab program, at the start of which I make a speech on the etiquette expected from attendees while they huddle inside the dome. It’s a great big inflatable semi-circle of synthetic fabric, easily torn by rough-housing or a careless shoe. Also key: the dome must stay inflated through a constantly-running fan, and if the entrance tube is held open too long, the air rapidly escapes.

The littler children frequently freeze on first entering the tube. It’s pitch black for the first few feet, and that’s a long way for tiny legs to crawl without light. The problem here is, when you hold up the line, you hold the entrance open, which causes the dome to deflate. So I give the wee ones (and their parents) a pep talk before we head in:

“Now, it’s going to be a little dark when you get inside the tunnel, but I need you to keep going so others can come inside, too. As soon as you round the corner, you’ll see the light of the projector and be in the nice open space of the dome.”

After doing this spiel roughly four times in a row, the symbolism dawned on me. It probably helped that during this particular hosting of the StarLab, I was in the throes of medical trouble and about to start a somewhat worrying rehabilitation process. I thought about that dark tube and couldn’t fault the children for crying while they were led through it. I’d had my own share of fits when faced with personal darkness.

But God gives His own reassurance: “The dark part is brief. I need you to keep going, because in time you’ll see My light is up ahead.” My own corny interpretation, I’ll grant you – and maybe clichéd. But I will add that it’s never quite what we think when we round the corner and emerge on the other side.

In the StarLab dome, there’s only enough illumination to find your seat. Just two pinprick lightbulbs on either side of the projector. No blinding flash, no angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus in assurance that you’ve finally made it out all right. (That’d probably frighten the little ones even more, come to think.) All that greets you is a glimmer – not striking but steady. Enough to bring comfort after a frightening journey.

The children always forget the darkness as soon as the stars spread around the dome. How funny that it takes so little to reassure them. I suppose that’s the sort of appreciation time spent in pitch black will teach you. I’d like to have that sort of faith, too.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5

The Christmas Miracle

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Eric Metaxas, in his book Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life, describes a miracle as “when something outside time and space enters time and space, whether just to…poke at us briefly, or to come in and dwell among us for three decades.”

Something about this time of year makes society think more about miracles. At my library alone, there are over 70 items with the words “Christmas” and “miracle” somewhere in their title or description. There’s of course Miracle on 34th Street, a festive picture book titled A Christmas Spider’s Miracle, and Thomas Kinkade’s on-the-nose DVD release – Christmas Miracle. No beating around the bush on that one.

Of course, this holiday passion for the miraculous is very likely rooted in the original “Christmas” miracle we now celebrate every December 25th: when an omnipotence and omniscience far beyond our comprehension stepped into the world with a mission of hope.

Me personally, I’m not sure I’ve experienced a miracle. I believe I’ve been protected from harm in several instances, but a full on miracle? Visions of angels, sudden and incomprehensible healing, come-to-Jesus moments? I’ve lived a fairly steady (if medically interesting) life of faith. Complete with all the ups and downs.

The songs and lights and nativities have got me thinking, though: even if I never experience the miraculous in my own life, wouldn’t the miracle of “God with us” be enough? We seek quick fixes for life, microwave solutions for slow-cooker problems. We want the easy out when difficulties loom. Isn’t that the appeal of miracles?

But Jesus stepped into time. He aged and suffered for us to bring a lasting fix for every hurt and sickness. The feel-good books and movies of the season could never supply something so whole. Our brief difficulties – so brief, in the light of where our souls belong – may not end in this life, but one thing is guaranteed: Jesus among us has given meaning to what we endure.

Even true miracles, though they show us the power and character of God, can’t save us in and of themselves. Only a holy babe, born in lowly status, could fulfill that sort of promise.

Merry, miraculous Christmas, everyone.

Thanks in All Circumstances

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Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.

Have you ever practiced the advice to write 3 (or 5, or 10, or whatever) things you’re grateful for at the end of each day? It’s said to boost your attitude, change your thought patterns, and help you see the good in life instead of everything that might go wrong.

I’m no pessimist, but even so I’ve never really gotten into it. Oh, I’ve tried before, but after about a week I begin to think: “I could be writing something so much more interesting right now. Where’s that character sheet I was working on…?” So in a hodgepodge of journals I have these intermittent lists of thankfulness mingled with scraps of character development and fiction snippets. (I pity anyone who tries to make sense of my notebooks after I’m dead.)

I also believe that these lists, while helpful, never brought me to meditate on the goodness of God. They were two separate worlds to me: life’s pleasant surprises didn’t mean God was good. They just meant I’d had a nice day. I also tended to watch for the other shoe to drop – not necessarily in the vein of karmic balance, but more the belief that God was always ready to teach me a hard lesson through pain or grief. And that certainly never felt “good”.

I’ve since left that philosophy behind, but in its place I’ve needed to instill a new way of thinking. What does it mean to be thankful to the Lord, beyond everyday circumstances? (And does it require more lists? ‘Cause I don’t know if I can take that kind of commitment.)

Paul said to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18), and he had the credentials to make such a command. Stoned, imprisoned, mocked, ship-wrecked – I could go on. Circumstantially, he had days where you’d laugh to hear him be grateful. And yet, he was.

He already knew what’s only recently been my personal lesson: you can always be thankful, because God’s got this. He is who He says He is. He is good. His love endures forever. Have you ever stopped to consider this love that sticks to you through everything? It blows my mind after giving it just two minutes’ thought.

And you know what? I stand by my creed: life’s pleasant surprises don’t mean that God is good. God’s character means that God is good. What does that mean when our years are a mix of happiness and difficulties? That kind of theology is still too deep for me to comprehend.

But until I figure it out, I’ll keep saying thank you, no matter what happens.

Living the Psalms – Psalm 73:21-26

When my heart was grieved

and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant;

I was a brute beast before You.

Yet I am always with You;

You hold me by my right hand…

Whom have I in heaven but You?

And earth has nothing I desire besides You.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart

and my portion forever.

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How many times have I been senseless and ignorant before God? I think I cycle into those sentiments at least once a month, when my own strength to believe has depleted itself.

I used to believe that His love for me was as capricious as my trust was for Him, and so when the doubts and confusion and bitterness reared up I transplanted those feelings onto God and became certain that He felt nothing for me. Apathetic, like an imaginary friend whose personality was subject to my whims.

That isn’t what the Psalmist knew. His relationship with God was a relationship of person-to-person, not person-to-imagined-idea-of-a-person. And because he knew God’s personhood, he fully acknowledged to Him his times of stubborn anger; there’s no pretending in the presence of an all-knowing Being. I, on the other hand, typically try to convince God that I’m not upset about the turns of life: “No, Father, I’m fine. Really. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t care, I don’t care. I’ll just muddle along.” Passive-aggressive much?

But the Psalmist flat-out says, “I’ve been a jerk in my grief. I’ve been unable to compose myself, unable to present a clean and upstanding front. I’ve been like a dumb animal before you.” There’s only honesty between him and the Lord – something I commonly forego in the hope of presenting a disinterested front. “Let’s keep our relations cordial, God, what do you say?”

What blows me away even more, is that after the Psalmist admits his attitude and emotion before God, he holds fast to God’s steady response: He doesn’t leave us. He holds our hand, he guides us along, even when we’re petulant little children digging in our heels. The Psalmist’s raw need allows him this revelation.

“[He] is the strength of my heart.” I have had days where – for all logical reasons – I should have despaired my situation. Yet somehow there was inexplicable strength and hope. To put it in the geekiest way possible, it was like I had some super power imbued to me, a gift of resilience going into the fray.

It’s my greatest proof of God’s existence, because if it had anything to do with my whims I’d be up and down all over the place. He is not subject to my personal feelings. He is not my flighty imaginary friend. He is powerful, near, and involved. He is my “portion” as the Psalmist would say – or as I would like to say: my super hero.

Living in God’s Favor

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I’ll be up front with you: I absolutely don’t get it. I’ve asked God, “Why did You give that person success and happiness, but You gave me disastrous skin lesions?”

It’s a useless question – we’ll never know the depth of the struggles others are facing and only ever see how much better their lives are than ours. Maybe that’s why the covetous nature is such a danger: it takes away our empathy for another human being.

Still, in a culture where prosperity and beauty translate as achievement, it’s hard to maintain perspective. I’ve been stripped of what the world values (you can’t imagine how ludicrous cosmetic commercials are to me now), and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my self-perceptions.

I’ve always known that God doesn’t see success where we finite humans seem to tack it; but to live that knowledge is another thing altogether. Can I really still claim to be “doing well” when I look like a burn victim?

The answer I strive to accept is: yes. I can claim it with confidence.

Over the past few months I’ve been pointed again and again to the Biblical idea of God’s favor. I’ve read Job’s story (he had bad skin too, y’know), and I’ve buried myself in the Psalms. The concept that’s emphasized throughout each book is that God’s favor has little to do with physical circumstance. Whether Job had all his land, his family, his livestock – or whether he was destitute and scraping himself with pottery shards: God favored him. Isn’t that crazy? Job’s friends sure thought so.

The Psalmists also processed this dichotomy: “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” (Ps. 34:19) It struck me, those words “have many troubles”. We aren’t exempt from pain, and yet Jehovah is still our rescue.

What does that mean for the times when we suffer? What about my uncle, who’s survived a stroke – and my aunt, who bears up under the emotional strain of watching him hurt and heal? Do they have God’s favor? Absolutely, all the time. What about my friend who struggles to find somewhere she can use her God-given gifts, but seems thwarted at every turn? Does she have God’s favor? You betcha she does.

Because once we’ve said, “Jesus, you have my life. I love you most over everything,” then we are his family, we’re in his care. Skin disease, stroke, or struggles be hanged. The world has trouble, and the Devil plays like it’s his sandbox; but “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

The verse is harder to live than it is to recite, but maybe skin lesions will show me what it really means to belong to the Healer.

Waiting for High Tide

Waiting for High Tide

I looked into the bowls scooped out from the rocks: small barnacled baths. They were way stations for little crabs and tiny ocean life pounded shore-ways by the waves. My mom said, “They just have to wait until high tide comes to draw them back out to sea.”

“There’s something metaphoric in that,” I replied, teasing at first – but then the idea began to take shape.

Do crabs recognize when they’ve left the open ocean for a cloistered tide pool? Debatable. They likely don’t think much of it. But for me, exchanging glances between the green-foamed ocean surges to the stagnant puddles muddied by algae overgrowth, the preference was clear. I would rather remain where the excitement is.

I mean, I’m not a big adventure-seeker, but in my own way I enjoy when the world is my oyster (pun maybe sorta kinda definitely intended). When my carefully-planned and thoroughly-mapped-out risks result in success and new horizons, I still feel the thrill. I would rather endure the possible troubles of opportunity than tap my foot in a waiting room where circumstances never change.

And yet…sometimes God does push me into the tide pools.

It always seems to be right when I think my breakthrough is sure, too. So I rail at Him, “I took a leap of faith! I followed Your call and chanced a big decision, and now You have me stuck in limbo. Thanks SO much for the confirmation.” To make matters worse, I discover that while I’m buried in the rocks, I can’t see when the tide is coming back for me. Like the little crabs, I just wait without knowing.

But let us not forget: the tide is always on time.

Literally speaking, it runs on a schedule of gravitational pull, but even the tides of life must draw in and retreat according to our Maker’s preparations. It’s my choice to recognize whether there’s a purpose in each.

Maybe God gives us rest when we don’t think we need it. I’m not sure; I still mull it over. But in the tide pools I have learned that there’s very little to distract me from turning to my Savior. It’s a time of immanent intimacy, where God must be all or I have nothing. Just bits of algae for recourse.

There will be time for oceans. Life is not all about opportunity. Sometimes it’s about us little crabs understanding that in plenty or scarcity, there is still always Enough.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;

You make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

Psalm 16:5-6

Staying Focused

“In all your ways acknowledge Him…” Proverbs 3:6

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Too many days I forget to adjust my lens. I don’t wear contacts; I don’t need glasses. But each morning, from the moment I open my eyes, I’m seeing the world with a distinct perspective.

As a Christian, I’m admonished to view everything through a Godly lens, but too often I’m more self-focused: what’s easiest and most convenient, what I don’t want to surrender, what I want to believe despite my commitment to seek out Christ in everything.

Proverbs lays out the challenge – “In ALL your ways”. Not just the convenient ways, or the ways that don’t matter as much. With every hobby I enjoy, with the work I do, with the people who enter my life – acknowledge Him. Let the parabola of Scriptural perspective spread to every corner of life.

When I scrabble to reconcile the bombardment of worldviews in this Information Age:

Acknowledge Him.

When I’m tired and would rather not love the difficult people who carry God’s clear mark of value:

Acknowledge Him.

When I’m enjoying creative works and immersing myself in characters and worlds:

Acknowledge Him.

When I fall into a season of doubt, wrestling with faith and purpose:

Acknowledge Him.

It’s both easy and difficult, but I think everything worthwhile is that sort of paradoxical jumble. And in the end, it is freedom for the human soul.

Breaking

Seedling

I’ve had a fight with anxiety/panic attacks the last couple of years. Full-blown, out-of-nowhere alarm seizes my body at any given moment, and it feels like my brain’s being squeezed between two lemons. I affectionately(?) refer to the sensation as “licking batteries”. Remember how that felt when you tried it as a kid? Imagine that sensation going on and on for sometimes hours at a time.

The attacks started because of a possible myriad of things, but at their core was a basic belief system: I believed in a God of apathy.

I was 28 and watching lives around me move forward, mark accomplishments, get blessed with new adventures. And there sat I, flat-lining through the days and wondering if maybe there was something the matter with me, being so left behind.

To cope with this feeling, I began to create embittered excuses for why I wasn’t given grace to move ahead. “God doesn’t care about me,” I said to myself. “And that’s fine. I don’t expect Him to. I already know I’m not worth all that much.” I nurtured these thoughts almost gleefully, because this quiet self-harm was the only thing I’d really felt in a long time. Plus, it was almost like justice, demonstrating to everyone that they better be thankful for their lives, because mine certainly sucked.

I didn’t expect this mentality to manifest the way it did one weeknight: throat constricting with the feeling I might throw up, certain that something in me had decided it was time to die. My doctor, a Christian woman of uncanny insight, took a look at me and didn’t even need to conduct any medical procedure. She saw that I was alone and pulled me into her arms. I cried.

She took my hands and said that I was like a seed, hardened and stubborn under the dirt. But now it was time for me to break, so that Life could sprout through.

Around that same time a friend dared to give me the realest love I needed, and told me to seek counseling before my outlook got worse. She doesn’t know this, but her admonishment was the first moment I began to think that maybe I wasn’t so abandoned after all. She had genuinely noticed the pain that I firmly denied.

It was only the start to a long path of healing, but this is what I learned:

God doesn’t always take it away. The discomfort, the sadness, the anxiety – at least not in this life. Even though I’ve improved by miles, there are still some days where I start “licking batteries” again.

God is always THERE, though.

It’s the most basic yet essential realization. Every time my body seized with the mental poison I’d poured into it, and I just had to lay on the floor in my apartment until the feeling passed – it didn’t take long for me to learn that when nothing whatsoever is in my control, God reveals Himself in an unquestionable manner. I couldn’t fall back on anything except Him.

I sometimes wonder if anxiety was the only opening I’d left for Him to reach me. My refusal to pray got trumped by sudden, desperate cries for peace. My refusal to believe in love got negated by a need to cling to Someone stronger than I. All my defenses had been violently broken.

Now the seed could sprout.

This marked the start of a life I never knew I could live. The rest of it – well, that’s another story for another month.