I love hearing testimonies of the saints and often find myself wishing they were a more regular part of corporate worship in churches. Recently I was pretty excited when City Reformed in Pittsburgh asked me to share how God has worked in my life. Hearing people’s stories is always a great encouragement to me, so it was touching to (hopefully) encourage others with my own. I ended up being pretty nervous - it's not easy to be vulnerable about personal experiences in front of a church. But the chance it gave me to really reflect on God’s work in my life, having to process and articulate it, was invaluable. I’ve been doing a lot of that this past year – processing God’s work in my life – so I’ve decided to share some of my processing here on the blog. I’ll start today with the testimony I shared in church.
It might be obvious, but trying to sum up a lifetime of God’s work in my heart is really difficult. As I’ve thought about it over the past few days, though, I think it comes down to two significant things. First, my will. And second, my identity.
I’ve always been a very strong willed person, and while this can really be a great asset in life, it also means that I can often find myself in conflict with others. A lot of my memories from growing up involve fights and debates, not only with my parents, but also with my siblings and friends. Simply put, I don’t naturally like having to submit to a will that I disagree with.
I never really connected this aspect of myself with my spiritual life until I was eighteen, though. I grew up in a believing home and thankfully I had a lot of wise people around me with whom I could discuss my more intellectual questions about the gospel. By the time I finished high school, I remember that most of my big questions about the meaning and reliability of the gospel message had been answered. So instead of struggling with doubt, I came to a point of struggling with the call to submit to Christ.
I distinctly remember lying in my bed one night not too long after turning eighteen and realizing that I had no doubt about the truth of scripture and the truth of the gospel, but for the first time admitting to myself that I hated God. I simply just didn’t like the idea of needing to submit my life and my will to something above me. But admitting this to myself really terrified me. Because I didn’t doubt the reality of God or the truth of scripture, I knew that willfully rejecting God was an honest choice of damnation, and I didn’t really want to be damned.
After arriving at this conundrum that night, I spent one of the longest and most “emo” weeks of my life basically just sitting around on empty park benches trying to puzzle out this battle between my will and what I knew to be true. But if you ever find yourself going through a midnight of the soul like I did, don’t expect any sudden revelations or blinding light moments. It took me a long, slow year of processing to ultimately work through this conflict.
But by the end of that first week, I had arrived at a few conclusions at least. Most importantly, I realized that because God’s will is bigger than mine, he would have to choose to let go of me in order for me to really escape him; but, from what I knew from scripture, it didn’t seem like he would do that. I had a vision that God’s will kept me in his hands. I could shake my fist at him and I was free to express my anger, but I could not just loose myself of his grasp unless he desired to let me do so. My will was beat. I could now start the process of learning about and learning to love the God whose will would always be stronger than my own, and I consider that time my real spiritual rebirth.
The second main work God has done in my life involves my sense of identity. Beginning in my childhood, I have moved nine times across three continents. This may sound exciting, but I have always desired a sense of belonging and home. I think for some people, so much transition is pretty easy; but, for me it has brought about a lot of deep rooted struggles that are often expressed in the dual needs to belong and to prove myself.
These two issues came to a head, though, when I moved to China in my mid twenties to work for a campus ministry and within six months of arriving, I found myself so sick that I couldn't get out of bed for about half of every month. I eventually discovered that I was suffering from asthma, but all I knew for many months was that I had gone from being a successful student and worker in the US to what pretty much felt like failing as a missionary. To make matters worse, I was in a strange country and struggling to build community. My sense of identity was challenged to the core as both my feelings of belonging and my ability to prove myself were taken away from me.
But amazingly, that time was the closest I have ever been to the Lord. Having all of my supports taken away from me forced me to fully lean on Christ for my sense of self. All of the worldly things that usually shape my identity were gone, but I didn’t lose myself because I discovered that as a child of God, my identity is ultimately in him. I could lose everything while far from home and still be ok because I was at home in my identity in Christ.
I tend over analyze most things, but these two ways that God has worked in my life are not simply in my head. They have had serious practical results, namely, that I am a less contentious and less fearful person. That doesn’t mean I do not still struggle with these things, but when I look back to my earlier life, I can see a difference. Learning that there is a will larger and stronger than mine has given me a freedom to repent of my sins and to trust in the provision of God. Learning that my identity is completely in Christ has started to free me of my need to prove myself and of my fear of what people think about me.
Since getting married and moving to Boston, I’ve continued to learn and grow a lot. I’m learning about the holy fear that comes when God answers a prayer you were taught to pray from the time you started speaking. I’m learning that marriage demands more of me and gives more to me than I could ever have imagined. I’m learning that loving the church requires a painful level of humility and a supernatural level of grace. And I’m learning what it means to work hard for something you want and believe in without making it an idol. Ultimately, I’ve been learning about the amazing and sweet abundance of the Lord – that his blessings are unpredictable and incredible, and that he gives far more than I deserve.
And while all of these more recent lessons are good and have been so important, I still find myself needing to learn about finding my identity and home in Christ, surrendering my will to his. These are lessons I expect will continue with me all of my days. As I anticipate how God might keep working in my life along these lines, I find myself contemplating how he wants me to learn to rest in him, letting both of these lessons lead me to greater peace.
Our God is a good God, and I hope this testimony of my own relationship with him encourages you in your own.
Some weeks ago I came across something on Facebook that deeply saddened me. I realized that a friend's life is rapidly moving in a certain monumental direction, and while her announcement received the praise of hundreds of friends, this decision is something I'm pretty sure will be destructive. In the end only time will tell, but when I saw the announcement, I felt a lot of guilt. I've been out of touch with this woman for more than a year and we were never close to begin with. But there were times when she tried to bring me into her inner circle, and then there were times when I tried to befriend her. But the connections never really happened. It grieves me knowing that even if I started pursuing her now, by the time we could even start approaching the topic at hand in a context of trust, some things would be too late. It would be a very different conversation - how to deal with the results of the decision, rather than whether to go through with the decision.
I've worked in student ministry for the past eight years and I've faced these situations over and over again; but these things aren't relegated just to those who serve professionally. Everyone understands this dilemma - the guilt we inevitably face in attempting to love and serve others. Call it "ministry" or call it "loving your neighbor" or call it just plain old "friendship," but in my experience, the very act of engaging another person in the hopes of being Christ to her all so often leaves behind a hundred doubts. In the attempts at loving another person, how many times have you left thinking, "I should have done that differently," or "If I only I had noticed that." Often, it simply feels like a long series of wake-ups to other people's realities only a few moments, or days, or years too late.
After all of this news broke, I went for a walk with one of my dearest friends and I shared the situation with her. Because she loves people, she also understands this struggle and shared with me some of her own stories about regrets she has for not being there for certain people. We both have so many stories of times and situations that seemed to make sense, but in hind sight, as someone's life is falling apart, we look back and think about all we could have done to help them. Like me, "guilt" was the word she used over and over again to describe how it feels.
For a moment, let's be honest - more than fear or selfishness, I think it is guilt that actually keeps us from loving people as we should. Not guilt in the cosmic sense preachers and psychologists refer to, but specific guilt about specific people that we know we have failed in our attempts to love. It doesn't take long in trying to love people before you realize that you are your biggest obstacle in doing so.
In my attempts to be Christ to others, I have a body count. A long list of women that I tried to serve and whom I have utterly failed. Some of those relationships were from my work with students, some of those are just my personal friendships. Some of them are my family members. In some of the cases the circumstances were so murky and confusing that I am not really sure what happened. In some cases it is blatantly clear that I sinned against a sister. Or that she sinned against me and I simply couldn't handle it. And it is all of these cases, all of these people, that tempt me to disregard my fellow human beings moving forward. I mean, who doesn't think that they want to help and love people? Most people are taught some general idea of the rightness of that desire from an early age. But how in the world are you supposed to continue wanting to do so when it becomes abundantly clear that you often have just as much a chance at becoming their greatest stumbling block as their greatest blessing?
Loving people produces guilt. When we have all tried it and seen ourselves fail, we are left with a vortex of doubt and shame. In myself, I know that I generally trend in one or the other of two directions when that vortex arrives. I either become defensive - it was the other person's fault; no one could have known; the system is to blame. Or I cease to care - there isn't really a problem anyways; no one person can shoulder that many burdens; I need to take care of myself, too, you know. But all of these excuses are just covering up the real problem - I feel terrible that someone I know is suffering either from their own sin or from the brokenness of the world and I didn't do anything, or enough, about it.
For the last couple of years, I dealt with a good bit of burnout in ministry. Some of that was due to being too busy and the time of life. But a lot of it - in hindsight, probably most of it - was due to a really painful relationship. I failed a student miserably about three months before she moved away from Boston. Without a doubt, there was a lot that was her fault. But as equally without a doubt, I let so much pride and stubbornness rule my actions that my face burns with shame thinking about it. She wouldn't talk to me for three months because she was so mad at me and during that time I sank deeper and deeper into self-pity. I gave up on the possibility of me being able to be a blessing. I could list off all sorts of reasons why sometimes things just don't work out, but really, I was just seething with the guilt of a lost opportunity.
During that time, and in the years since, I came to realize more than ever that repentance must be a daily occurrence in the life of anyone trying to love another person. No matter what kind of advice or training is out there for people hoping to serve other people, there is nothing that will keep you going in ministry, whether professional or personal, other than repentance. Unless your heart is being drawn into open confession before the Lord, no amount of devotions, or fellowship, or team building, or strategy development, etc. can take the place of simple and consistent repentance for your failures before God. Otherwise, you'll either go crazy trying to defend yourself or you'll go dead with apathy. We cannot live with guilt - it chokes and kills any impulse within us to love others.
This is what you often don't hear from people ministering to others - from pastors and parents, from social workers and student leaders - that the people we are the most afraid of are ourselves. We try to talk about all of the ways God is at work transforming lives, but we rarely talk about how God is transforming our own lives. We don't openly talk about the times those we serve are so failed by us that they don't speak to us for three months.
But the gospel is real. And it is the only, only thing that can accomplish true ministry. The reason I can love people is not because I am that strong, but because I know that my love doesn't matter in the end. There is a bigger love and a bigger story for all of these people. For whatever crazy reason, God chooses to use small, unloving, broken people to demonstrate that. Maybe it's the only way to demonstrate it. We often talk about Christians demonstrating God's love and we usually mean doing so positively. But maybe the times we fail also demonstrate the love of God by demonstrating his patience and kindness to those he calls his own.
In the end, loving people is only ever going to reveal more of my own brokenness to myself. If that's the case, then I am going to need to learn to repent more. The good news is that through Jesus, that is possible. In him, I am free to repent and without fear. I can look at my friend on Facebook, name the ways I failed her, and freely repent of them. I do not have to hide, I do not have to live in guilt. Only then will I have the courage to love again.
(Artwork: "Two Part," by Patrick Fisher)
Last night I sat on my husband's lap and cried into his shoulder. I wasn't really sure why I was crying. In some ways it felt like I was crying over nothing. In other ways it felt like I cried because of everything. I wasn't so upset that I couldn't talk. It was one of those strange moments when tears are coming out of your eyes and snot is welling up in your noes, but you look significantly worse than you feel. All of my thoughts were still with me, and unlike the many other occasions when crying makes them murkier and more confusing, last night's cry put everything into focus.
It's been a weird week. It's been hard to even know why it's been weird. I've been stressed to the max with a Master's thesis I'm trying to write. Each day I've sat down and seriously doubted everything - my topic, my timeline, my brain. Which of course has led me to doubt so many other things about myself - life choices, financial situation, calling. And when I doubt those things, I tend to go on crazy power grabbing hunts. I set my eyes on the best schools I could possibly get into. I make crazy goals for myself like working five career advancing jobs and working out every day and publishing and eating only healthy food and loving everyone I meet and serving in every way possible in my church and getting pregnant right now and cooking more often and... and... and...
I recently read an article someone posted on Facebook about how women can't have it all and how we shouldn't be trying to have it all. Last night, what brought me to tears was realizing why I struggle with wanting it all. The question isn't whether I can or should try for it all, but rather, why do I even want it all in the first place? The truth is, more than anything else in life, I want glory. It's like lead poisoning in my soul. It's so much a part of my nature and a part of my environment that I don't even know it's there until I face these weeks when the sheer stress of it all makes the poisoning obvious.
I have struggled with this disease my entire life. In fact, I would even go so far as saying that a lust for glory is the single more basic thing for understanding who I am and the decisions I've made. It's been intangible enough that it isn't immediately obvious when looking at my life. But when I think of my youngest self and the way I wanted, truly thirsted after being a princess, movie star, or celebrity more than anything else, I see this desire for glory. Then I grew up a little and my pre-teen interests developed and I fell in love with ice skating and dreams of going to the Olympics, and still it was there. Of course those dreams didn't last, but by then I was a teenager and the definition of glory simply changed. The glory I sought after didn't have to be world-renowned. No, I was pretty content with seeking after the more localized glory of "coolness." I wanted to be cooler than everyone else, alone in my glory among the throngs of the "uncool" world. By college, this desire hadn't quite dissipated, but a different sense of glory was growing in competition. Romance. I wanted to find the one person who would bring me the more adult glory of marriage and sex. That was a long quest, and eventually it choked out the glory of being cool. It's amazing, though, how quickly everything changed once I got married. Almost immediately, my heart made the subtle shift from relational glory to the glory of a career. With one major thing checked off, the glory quest moved on to the next thing.
Sometimes I am just so damn tired of it. I have repented and repented and repented again of this thing inside me, but most often it seems like there is just so little to do about it. It is so far, deep, down in my soul that unless I am actively staring it in the face, it will resurrect. It will come back again, and then again in one form or another. It's not the whack-a-mole of sin. At least with whack-a-mole, the mole always looks the same and there are a limited number of spots where it can appear. It's more like the shape-shifting living dead - I can never tell it's there until it's eating me alive because it never looks the same.
As I've been struggling through all of this over the past week, a few images have been floating through my head. First, the funerary words, "She hath done what she could," spoken in memory and honor of a dead 19th century missionary wife. (If you want to know where in the world I got that from, ask my thesis.) Second, the image of Furiosa from Mad Max. These are two very incongruous images - there probably isn't anything more oddly juxtaposed than a meek and petticoated woman from two hundred years ago and a feminist icon who rips the bad guys' heads off. But they are deeply linked in my mind.
I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time last weekend. I had wanted to see it when it came out and I read all of the countless reviews raving about Furiosa. But I don't think I could have understood just how striking she is as a character until seeing the movie for myself. She is, hands down, my favorite portrayal of a heroine I have encountered to date. My favorite used to be Tolkien's Eowyn, but Furiosa cast a light on Eowyn I had never noticed before. I haven't read the books and or watched the movies for quite a long time, so my memory may be faulty, but I remember it being pretty clear that Eowyn wants the glory of battle. She is not allowed to go and so there is a lot of discussion about her desire to participate in something so honorable. She wants to protect her home and family, yes, but she honestly also just wants to be part of something so downright great. Eowyn wants glory. Furiosa, on the other hand, is not once portrayed as considering glory, or even herself, in her quest. She has a mission and she will do whatever it takes to complete it. Whereas Eowyn's desire for a glorious quest requires her to be secretive and cut off from the others, Furiosa's mission requires her to know both her strength and her weakness, enabling her to ask for help when and where she needs it. At the end of Eowyn's battle, she has done something remarkable and she has done something good, but there is much about her narrative that is clearly focused on Eowyn and her triumph as a victory for herself. At the end of Furiosa's tale, however, the clear narrative is that "She hath done what she could."
I think for my entire life, I have wanted to be Eowyn. I have never been able to look beyond the glory involved in the good things there are to do. I have never been able to truly escape myself in the various quests I've set out upon. But glory is not mine to seek. Glory is something that belongs to God alone. As my sweet husband reminded me last night while my snot and mascara smeared across his sweater, one day, because I am his heir and child, God will glorify me at the end of time as he promised. "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." But let's be honest, I don't even really know what that means - to be glorified with God one day. So while I may live in the hope of glory, I really can't seek it now, in this life.
In the end, I'm not even really sure what I'm trying to process in this post other than that I need Jesus. And I need whatever the anti-lead-poisoning equivalent for the soul is. Which is probably just more of Jesus. I'm really not a fan of the "just open to a certain page and find God's message for you" approach to life, but sometimes it is shocking how well it works. Most nights, I tend to just lie in bed gooning out on my phone while Trey brushes his teeth. But last night, for some inexplicable reason, I put the phone down and picked up Augustine's Confessions. I have it in my stack of books next to my bed as a hopeful "one day I won't look at my phone and will read this instead" reminder. I opened to wherever I had last left off and found the following words. "You have rescued me from all the evil roads I have trodden, and given me a sweetness surpassing all the pleasant by-paths I used to pursue. Let me have a mighty love for you; in my inmost being let me hold tight to your hand, so that you may deliver me from every temptation to the very end." (1.15.24)
All of the paths of glory are my lustful temptations, but God has rescued me from them. The cure for my glory-sickened, leaden heart is the same one Augustine sought - to hold tight, very tight, in my inmost being to the hand of God.
Trey and I just had the best weekend. We went on a "workcation" to an island off the coast of Maine. Trey took his homework and I took some personal projects I'm working on and we hung out in a beautiful renovated barn. Every morning we woke up to the sound of crickets and seagulls out the windows. We opened up the french doors to look out on our host's luscious garden while cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast. After dinner we drank wine and listened to jazz. It was great.
Now we're home and for the past couple of hours, I've been really struggling with disappointment. We're anticipating next year holding a lot of changes for us as Trey wraps up his degrees and works while I become a full-time student. For the past couple of months, I've been trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to study and where. But it's all so complicated and it seems like every day I have a new plan. And plans can be very dangerous things for me.
Part of the joy of this last weekend was that the seclusion and disconnect from reality gave me space to think and dream. I have so many ideas about my time in school and I think they are good ideas. A weekend of reading and contemplating and hashing things out with my husband was so exciting. My imagination could just run with its thoughts.
But coming back home and regaining cell service and unlimited internet access reawakens reality. I'm confronted with costs and time constraints and professors retiring and all I can feel is disappointment seeping in. Reality is not bad and I know it, but I still feel frustrated and let down.
As I descended into the pit of self-pity this evening, a thought occurred to me and challenged my disappointment with the situation. Here was my thought: I am going to be the same person after this degree as I am now. Such freedom accompanied this thought! Going back to school is going to be a really good thing. Getting to study and write about my particular interests would be a really great thing. But none of it is going to magically alter my life.
It's so easy for me to see these changes coming my way as something that will make me happier. I look forward to getting to do what I want to do and developing certain skills I believe I have. But none of that is going to change who I am at the center of my being. Wanting change is not a bad thing. It's just that I have to ask myself, am I wanting the right change? Maybe school will enable me to do certain things, but it's not what will make me a better person. If I'm tired of myself now, relief won't come through avoiding disappointing circumstances, but rather through changing my heart.
Going back to school won't somehow make me the person I've always wanted to be. It won't save me from let down and disappointment. Seeing myself through the eyes of Jesus will turn me into the person my soul longs to be. For in him I can find satisfaction not only with the ups and downs of sunrise in Maine and sunset back in my home office, but most importantly, with the person he has made me now and the person is making me to become.
"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.
"Who shall give me the gift of resting in you? Who will grant me this, that you come into my heart and make it drunk, so that I forget my evil deeds (Jer. 44.9) and embrace you, my only Good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, and let me speak. What, for that matter, am I to you? Why do you command me to love you? And if I do not, why are you moved to anger and threaten me with utter misery? But is my misery any less, if I fail to love you? Have pity, O Lord! For your own mercies' sake, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me! Tell my soul: I am your salvation (Ps. 35.3 [Ps. 34.3]). Speak, and let me hear your voice. Bend down to my soul's ear, O Lord; open it, and tell my soul: I am your salvation. I shall run after your voice, and catch you (Phil 3.12). Do not hide your face from me. Let me die to see it; for if I do not see it, I shall die."
- Augustine, Confessions, 1.5.5
"We have to keep finding new ways of saying the same thing: 'You are the beloved of God.' But it is important that we not become sentimental about this love. The Scripture makes it clear that God chastens and disciplines those who are loved... This is no ordinary lover we have; this one will be impossible to manipulate. It is God who molds us, and sometimes that hurts. Love isn't always easy on us, but it is always our salvation." - M. Craig Barnes in The Pastor as Minor Poet
"There's a wideness in God's mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God
Now I've seen no band of angels
But I've heard the soldiers' songs
Love hangs over them like a banner
Love within them leads them on
To the battle on the journey
And it's never gonna stop
Ever widening their mercies
And the fury of His love
Oh the love of God
And oh, the love of God
The love of God
Joy and sorrow are this ocean
And in their every ebb and flow
Now the Lord a door has opened
That all Hell could never close
Here I'm tested and made worthy
Tossed about but lifted up
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God"
- Rich Mullins, "The Love of God"
"He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
So Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets"
- John Mark McMillan, "How He Loves"
I don't believe in God's goodness towards me. It is something I want to believe in and an area of faith where I am progressively growing, but it remains true that at the core of my heart, I doubt God's goodness. It is easy for me to believe all of his other attributes and I consent rationally to his goodness, but the degree of stress, anxiety, worry, etc. that I keep around in my life shows that regardless of logical agreement and correct theology, there is a doubting disconnect between my mind and my heart.
Two weeks ago, God used some frustrating circumstances to give this disconnect a lesson. I was with friends in Siem Reap, enjoying the first delicious days of vacation and very ready to move on to the beach so I could completely unwind and let go of an exhausting semester's lingering stress. In a twist of events, though, my passport was stolen and I lost any chance to rest as I battled embassies, immigration control, crowded international buses, and sickness just to be able to return to start a new semester. The stress was almost unbearable, primarily because its roots lay in my anger that God wasn't giving me what I needed. I needed rest and he wasn't being good enough to give it to me.
As I sat on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok, I read something in George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind that has started to dissolve the head/heart disconnect. MacDonald tells the story of Diamond, a little boy who meets the North Wind and progresses through a series of adventures with her. North Wind is at times an allegory for God and in one particular chapter, MacDonald uses North Wind to give one of the best illustrationa of God's infinitely wild love and goodness towards us, even though it is often almost impossible for us to comprehend this kind of love.
Two keys aspects of the story stand out to me. First, being as close to North Wind as Diamond is brings pain with it. Diamond could choose to stay on the safe side of North Wind, benefiting from her and having relationship with her, but keeping a safe distance. Instead he desires to be close to the very heart of North Wind, regardless of the pain it includes. Being at the center of God's loving heart is simultaneously the best and most painful place to be. Diamond makes the statement, "I begin to think there are better things than being comfortable." Knowing God's love is a tremendously powerful thing, but there is nothing comfortable about it.
Second, it is only possible for us to doubt God's goodness when we think we have done anything for him; when we realize we have never done anything for God, that only he has done on our behalf, we can start to make sense of God's wild goodness. As North Wind holds Diamond in her arms, she sets out to sink a ship. Horrified by this, Diamond questions her goodness. He knows there can't be two North Winds, one good and one bad, so he is faced with deciding if North Wind is completely good or completely bad. Diamond admits he has never done anything for North Wind and therefore their relationship is based entirely on North Wind's goodness to him. Because of this acknowledgment everything about his relationship is based on North Winds desire to do good, Diamond has faith that sinking the ship is within North Wind's good character and they continue on their journey.
It's a difficult argument for me because at times I think I see God's goodness and at times I seem to see God's badness, for a lack of a better word. What is to keep me from deciding that God is entirely bad all the way through? When the ship is sinking in my life, why shouldn't I decide God is bad? And it can only be harder for others. It is one thing for me to flip flop back and forth on this issue because sometimes inconvenient things like stolen passports happen in my life. But what about the really bad stuff in this world? What about sex trafficking? What about people I love going to hell? What about starvation? What about earthquakes that kill thousands of people? Based on the collective experience of humanity, what is to prevent us from concluding that God is bad all the way through? Grace.
George MacDonald got it right when he highlighted grace as the evidence in our lives that God is good. If I think I have contributed anything in my relationship with God, or on the large scale, that people have contributed anything, then yes, there is enough in this world to think God is bad. But if I believe that I have not been able to give God anything, that even my best is worthless, that God is in my life simply because of his own desire to be in my life, then that is enough goodness for him to be thoroughly good. MacDonald's point is that if I accept God's grace in my life, then I also accept his goodness, even when I don't understand the sinking ships.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this. No, I am trying to wrap my heart around it. I want it to transform the way I see my life and my God, so that stress and anxiety don't define me. If I lived like God was good to me, fear would have nothing to control. I want belief in God's goodness to sink down into me, deeply and completely. And it will. Just as the North Wind's billowy and blustery presence changes Diamond and leaves her mark in his life, so will God's powerful and loving presence leave its mark in my life.
I just finished reading Chi An's A Mother's Ordeal and I couldn't recommend it more. During the first few chapters, I was bored with the typical tales of the Cultural Revolution. You can read a slew of other books, all full of horrible, dehumanizing descriptions of China's chaos. But by half way through, Chi An's tale grabbed me in the gut and I found myself waking up to an extremely personal admission of victimization and guilt unmatched by other such memoirs.
Chi An tells her story of growing up, finding a husband, and starting a family, all against the backdrop of China's population control policies. After suffering the cruel delivery of her first child and the forced abortion of her second, Chi An finds herself bitter and self-focused. Willing to do anything for the benefit of her own family and despite deeply suppressed ethical qualms, she takes charge of enforcing the One Child Policy within a local work unit. It is not until she accidentally becomes pregnant for a third time while living in the US with her husband that Chi An wrestles with her deepest longings and deepest guilt. The couple decide to fight to keep this new child alive and in the process are forced to separate all ties with their homeland.
Better than any educated argument or theological belief, Chi An's words from the heart reveal a universal longing for life and the guilt that ensues when it is prematurely ended. Growing up in a world where logical and practical arguments for abortion abound, Chi An continues to be plagued by the human desire to conceive and bare children and when in the end, she becomes complicit in the forced termination of a generation, she and her colleagues suffer from nightmares, recurring sights and sounds, and emotional torment all oriented around the "little hands" that will come after them for justice in the next life. There is no reason Chi An should suffer from guilt considering the positive environment towards abortion in which she came of age, and yet something inside her refuses to accept the actions both committed against her and by her as innocent.
What finally intrigued me most about her account lies within its closing chapters as Chi An retells her first experience with Catholicism. In a beautiful reflection on why people would worship a "dying God," Chi An simply and movingly describes the apologetics of the cross from an outside and Asian perspective. I am doubtful if Chi An took time to catch up on John Stott or Tim Keller's theology before writing down her thoughts on a couple pages (nonetheless predating Keller! ;-), and yet she sums up all of their grand arguments and thoughts through the layman's lens of a Chinese woman who has lived through hell and for the first time ponders what kind of God would be so real that no person could dream him up.
And yet, Chi An falls short of reveling in the grace that lies waiting for her. She senses that there is a vast significant meaning to Christ's death, but she cannot find what it is. Instead, she finds redemption and hope through confession and a new calling in life to set right her imbalanced scales of justice. She declares to have found redemption, but she dares not hope to have found mercy and grace.
The whole of A Mother's Ordeal is well worth reading, but if you never pick it up, at least read below. It will save you the gruesome operating table scenes, but fill you in on one woman's heart full of fear and hope. Fear of a Heavenly justice that she cannot understand and hope in the value of life that she has both betrayed and protected.
"Two hours later, after I had been moved from the recovery room to a regular hospital ward, my baby was brought to me. As Wei Xin looked on, I stretched our my arms to take her from the nurse, suddenly aware of the significance of the moment. It was for the sake of this tiny human being that I had endured so many months of long-distance blackmail and personal torment. I drew my infant daughter close to me, thankful that Wei Xin and I had chosen to defy the authorities, exulting in our triumph.
..."'You are safe now, my little 'illegal' daughter,' I whispered. 'Whatever happens now, no one can ever take you away from me.'
"By the time I returned from the hospital, the first article written by Steve about our case had appeared in Catholic Twin Circle magazine. It closed with an appeal for concerned readers to appeal the INS on our behalf. A surprising number did...
"I was moved to tears of gratitude by these letters, even as I struggled to understand what had motivated their authors to write. Why should these people, strangers all, care what happened to us and our baby? What did they hope to gain from such an act? I had grown up in a culture where only people who knew you well - kinfolk, coworkers, classmates, or close neighbors - exerted themselves on your behalf, and even they expected favors in return. And yet hundreds of Americans from across the country had taken time to petition their government on our behalf. I did not know what to make of such generosity of spirit. 'The American people have good hearts,' Wei Xin and I told Steve wonderingly.
"'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' Steve replied. 'Americans would not like to have their government forcing them to abort their unborn children,' he added, 'so naturally they sympathize with you.'
"This 'Golden Rule,' as he told us it was called, had a familiar ring to it. The Analects of Confucius contained a similar precept: 'Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.' But the more I reflect on the two formulations, the more I realized how different they in fact were. Confucius had merely forbidden people to wrong one another, not encouraged them to perform positive acts of charity. Living under such a rule, no wonder so many Americans had written letters on our behalf - and with no expectation of a return.
"The awareness of what others were now doing for me convicted me anew of what I had earlier done to others. Not just once but a thousand times I broken both this new rule and its Confucian variant. I had done to other women what I did not want, and had finally not allowed, to be done to myself. The horror I had hoped to leave behind me in China came back to torment me anew. What good is your regret? I sneered at my reawakened conscience. How does it help the troubled and despairing women, now forever barren, whom you tortured, aborted, and sterilized?
I abandoned myself to the care of my tiny daughter in the weeks following. Holding her in my arms, I could finally let go of the memory of the other little girl or boy who had been taken from me twelve years before. But the joy that my ‘make-up’ baby brought to me was not untempered by sorrow. She was both balm and wound, consolation and accusation, for her very presence seemed to speak to me of all those other children who were absent, who would never be. I had won my struggle to give birth, but how many hundreds of women had lost theirs? I was able to hold my daughter, but how many others would never hold theirs? What right do I have to this child, I thought bitterly, after what I have done?
“One day Wei Xin, looking rather abashed, told me that he wanted to go to church. ‘I know that we were taught by the Party that all religion is superstition, but a lot of my friends at work go, and I would like to find out what it’s all about. Besides,’ he said wryly, ‘if the Communist Party is against it, maybe we should be for it.’
“Wei Xin’s suggestion came out of the blue. There were no Christians in either of our families. My parents had been atheists, while Wei Xin’s had been Buddhists. I had been force-fed Communism, which was virtually the state religion of the People’s Republic, since I was old enough to talk. I was not about to submit myself to some new cult, however pleasant sounding its rules. I didn’t know whether the benevolent heaven of Chinese folklore existed or not, but trying to find out had never seemed to me worth the trouble. I thought Wei Xin foolish for even suggesting that we make the attempt.
“It was by appealing to my concern for Tacheng, who would be entering the sixth grade that fall, that Wei Xin convinced me to go. As far as I could tell, he was receiving no ethical instruction in the public schools at all. Teachers in China placed a heavy emphasis on learning right from wrong, even if it was confounded with Marxist ideology, but all that was missing here. Wei Xin told me that it was in America’s churches, not in her schools, that such things were taught.
“Walking through the doors of Saint Michael’s Church the following Sunday, I had a strong sense of trespassing on forbidden ground. Attending services in China was either discouraged or entirely banned. I had never before been inside any religious edifice, unless one counts the Buddhist temple I had helped a horde of fanatical Red Guards demolish during the Cultural Revolution. The only Christian church I knew of in Shenyang had been converted into a warehouse in the fifties by the government.
“I looked over the hundreds of people present with interest. Mixed in with the Anglos were Mexican Americans, Filipinos, Korean Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese, even a Chinese family or two. No one had ordered these people to come. Like Wei Xin and me, they were all here because they wanted to be. As we sat down I was struck by the realization that this was the first time I had ever taken part in a meeting not organized by the Communist Party for its own purposes. But for what purpose had these people voluntarily gathered here? To practice the Golden Rule? To improce themselves? To socialize? To adore the deity of love?
“I understood almost nothing of what followed. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be so much chanting and singing, so much standing and kneeling, and so much invoking and summoning in a religious service. I followed as well as I was able, which was hardly at all. I caught only the odd phrase. ‘As it was in the beginning, is now…’ What was in the beginning and is now? ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’
“I was fascinated by the painful figure on the cross that hung over the altar. Why would anyone worship a dead God, I thought to myself. Chinese god images were always robust and happy – fat, laughing Buddhas without a trace of suffering in their features, or sturdy figures of Guan Gong, a famous general whose body carried no scars from his numerous military victories. Of course they were also easy to dismiss as mere excrescences of human desires – happiness and success embodied in little wooden divinities. But the idea of a dead God was simply absurd. Surely the fact that this man had been killed proved that he wasn’t God at all. Who would want to kowtow before a defeated creature, I thought, unless he was not a mere creature at all but the Creator? But then why had he allowed himself to die?It was almost beyond belief, certainly beyond the human imagination. The wildest dreams of human beings, I was sure, could not have begun to conjure up a dead God. Perhaps there was something to all this after all.
“I remembered the hundreds of women I had forced to have abortions, how they had writhed and screamed and cried. And I remembered my own abortion, and how I had writhed and screamed and cried. If this tortured figure was God, then surely he understood the pain and suffering that I had felt and caused. Was there in his death some larger meaning?
“From the time I was a small girl, I had been eager to help others. It was for this reason that I had become a nurse. At time, I had allowed myself to be twisted by selfishness into acts that I regretted, but my one true desire was to serve, to love. How could I have gotten to be thirty-eight years old and not realized this? That I had hurt and injured others was a failure to love.
“Wei Xin and I enrolled in adult classes, Tacheng in catechism. Months later I made my first confession – and felt at peace with myself for a long time. The little hands that had been clawing at me could no longer reach me in the new place where I lived. My mind laid to rest the little-boy-who-wouldn’t-die to his rest. From now on the only baby’s cries that would wake in the night were those of my newborn daughter.
“I was forgiven, but justice demanded that I do more. I would spend the rest of my life doing good to others – a goal I happily adopted, for it corresponded to my own deepest wishes. I did not know which way the scales of justice would tip when I had completed the course; I would only try to weight them in favor of mercy. In caring for others, I would be atoning for my past crimes. But how could I help women still in China? I resolved to begin by telling my story to Steve, however painful that might be, so that he might write it.”
This world is just a shadow of a stronger, more real time to come;
In this lies my hope.
"I surrender all
to the promises you made
and I will give it all
to the maker of the day
No one knows your heart
and no one knows your fears
When no one solves the mysteries
or even wipes away the tears
Can you hear the sound of laughter
from the other side of life?
There are days when I feel like a stranger sometimes
Tell me, are there any other fools like me?
This reliance on another world
has a great effect on this world
This conscience of another world
has a great effect on
He doesn't love us 'cause of who we are
He only loves us 'cause of who he is
We all were children once
so will we return
So let those days return
let us all return"