Part of the Journey

Desert-Tracks

I’ll be the first to admit that I am often unsure of where I am going in my spiritual journey. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m wandering around in darkness, hands outstretched, feeling for something tangible. Sometimes standing in a lonely room, blindfolded, just waiting for a nudge. Sometimes hearing a voice from somewhere beyond and running toward it, stumbling, bruising myself on random shadow-covered objects but embracing the obstacles that guide me to Him.

I know everyone has those times. But geez, I feel like it’s happening to me all the time! Am I normal? As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium, God reveals something else that sends me off into a crazy tailspin. Part of this is that I question. A lot.

And doubt. A lot.

But I’ve also learned to trust. A lot.

And, paradoxically, to trust in the midst of doubt and uncertainty.

I used to hate this about myself. I wondered why I was always going through these crazy cycles. I get tired sometimes. I just want to rest. I feel like my lungs never completely fill up before the next wave of uncomfortable revelation breaks over my head. And I used to panic and hold my breath, hoping I could pretend I wasn’t being swept out to sea. But when I was submerged in the unknown long enough that I gave up and took a breath, expecting to drown, I found that the enormity of God fills my lungs and sustains me. It’s okay to breathe in the realm of spiritual uncertainty.

Journal excerpt from June 2013:

I want so badly to surrender everything to Christ and to stay in that place of passionate abandonment. My heart cannot cry loud enough for a life that pours out everything. But I’ve been so confused that I’ve become apathetic, unable to find the joy of complete certainty in my Savior. My Bible has been closed and put away, my prayers infrequent and empty. I think I’ve been afraid of what He’ll show me. But today I cracked open the door for Him to speak to me, and in rushed His demanding love like a tidal wave, like a battering ram. He’s calling me again — up and out. It’s time to go; I can’t stay here anymore. I don’t know where I’m going, but it’s time to start following again in faith. Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders. I want to come to You on the water, the things of the world blocked out by the blinders of my love for You.

My professor Dr. Lavender is an incredible man. In addition to the fact that he was born and raised in Italy, built a model space shuttle in his basement, once ran 100 miles in a day, and has the beautiful gift of sarcasm, he is the biggest spiritual role model in my life. For one thing, I feel like he can handle my crazy thoughts — and for another, God uses his calm and gentle reminders of the Story to bring me back down to earth, to ground me, more than anything else. Last week I was in his office talking about some of my latest inconvenient questions. In the course of the conversation, he made this statement: “Most Christians tend to be satisfied with what they’ve always known.”

And in five words I blurted out my entire life story: “I have never been satisfied.”

He smiled a little. “I don’t think you ever will be.”

I pondered this somewhat horrifying, somewhat exciting, thought for a moment, and he continued: “This prophetic calling you have from God — this restlessness, this searching — will be something that He uses to draw people into the bigger story, into His Kingdom on earth.”

If this is a prophetic calling — being yanked out of your comfy chair and then being called to yank others up as well — no wonder the prophets were pretty miserable. Yet there is a sort of untamed beauty in it too. And maybe that’s why, over the past couple of years, I’ve developed such a love for Old Testament prophets such as Hosea and Habakkuk. Prophets can be perceived as obnoxious and rude, but they only speak from their own brokenness. Hosea was doomed to constantly pursue the love of an unfaithful whore — probably not his idea of a super cool calling. Habakkuk asked for deliverance and God was like, “Tell everybody that a foreign nation is going to come destroy you.” He had his own struggle to cope with this unwanted reality, but in the end, he was still able to say, “Though there are no sheep in the pens and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). He and Hosea learned to breathe underwater, learned to rest in the tension of doubt and spiritual longing.

And while I can only hope to attain a sliver of the incredible faith that they had, I too am a spiritual nomad, a theological wanderer. I am always on the move, unable to stay in one place too long. But I’ve learned that the in-between times are not true crises. They’re only part of the journey.

The first few times I was uprooted, it was disconcerting and painful. There was a lot of kicking and screaming involved. “I don’t like this! I don’t have time for this! I don’t want to want what You want! I want You to be who I always thought You were!” But I feel as though I am beginning to find my rhythm in the lack thereof, and learning to embrace the wilderness with a sigh of, “Hello wilderness, old friend, what devastating and beautiful truth will you teach me this season?” Faith wouldn’t be faith if it wasn’t a stretch, if it didn’t routinely push us out of our comfort zone, if it didn’t call us to that which we cannot see or understand.

So, resigned, my prayer has lately become something along these lines:

God, reveal to me as much of Yourself as I can handle in my present weakness…and increase my capacity for more.

A Beautiful Guy In the Image of a Beautiful God

In my life, I have met three men whom I could only describe as beautiful.  I couldn’t really think of any other way to describe them — handsome wasn’t exactly what I was talking about.  They were just stunningly, unbelievably, breathtakingly beautiful.  Here is how I described one of them: “In him, God has created a masterpiece.  It’s not just his looks — it’s everything about him.  It’s the depth in his eyes when he’s thinking.  It’s the way his heart shows in his actions.  It’s the way he responds to God in worship.”

Beauty has become a descriptor which we attribute only to women, or to delicate and feminine things like flowers and sunsets and snow.  We don’t typically think of men being beautiful…

…or two perpendicular beams of blood-stained wood…

…or the God that died there.

But one day I was reading Psalm 27 and noting all the characteristics of God that were mentioned.  I paused for a moment when I came to verse 4 — “that I may gaze on the beauty of the Lord.”  God? Beautiful? I had to think about this.  In a world where “beauty” is constituted by a sexy body and eyeliner and perfect hair, I wasn’t sure how to process what it really meant as a description of God.

But as I thought about it, I remembered God’s declaration of His creation: “It is good.”  It was…beautiful.  Because God created beauty, I realized, maybe He’s the only One who knows what it really means.  Maybe beauty is some kind of mysterious, intangible concept, inseparable from the reality of being fashioned by the hand of a beautiful God.  Maybe beauty is simply the quality of being made in His image.  Maybe beauty is everything God is, and everything He desires us to be.

This began to make sense to me as I thought about the three guys.  The first time I ever thought a guy was beautiful was when I saw a picture of him holding a baby goat.  Kinda random, but there was something about the gentleness and simplicity of it that was attractive.  The second time I thought a guy was beautiful, it was a pretty ordinary setting, but a powerful moment.  He was sitting on a couch across the room from me during a time of worship, and his faraway gaze happened to catch my eye.  It was like that line from the Benjamin Francis Leftwich song, “I know if I find what you hide in your mind, I’ll get lost in it.”  There was something beautiful going on behind that contemplative gaze.  The third time I thought a guy was beautiful, he was literally on his knees on the ground crying out to God.  It was so raw and…well, beautiful.  However, the word “beautiful” has never crossed my mind for a shallow, lazy, or arrogant guy.  Ironically, I never find guys attractive when they try to prove their worth or impress girls.  Beauty comes from who they are in the little moments, when the rest of the world is forgotten.

Last Wednesday when I was leading small group, my junior high girls and I were talking about the description of Jesus in Revelation 1 and the unlikely aspects of beauty.  I briefly shared with them about the concept of beauty being the image of God, and one of the girls commented, “I think it’s so beautiful to see a guy worshiping with his eyes closed and hands raised, not caring what anybody else thinks of him.”  Several other girls agreed: “Seriously, the most unattractive thing ever is when a guy thinks he’s too cool to be in love with God.”

Thinking about all of this, I came to realize what “beautiful” really means:  Guy or girl, we are beautiful when we become what we were created to be and do what we were created to do.  When we can return to the ideal for which God designed us, when we realize our full potential as His creation made in His image…that is when we truly attain beauty.  Beauty is in the intricate workings of the mind, in creative expression, in a surrendered heart, in unconditional love.  Beauty is in everything that reflects the very heart of God.

Girls, two lessons for you here:  first, beauty isn’t what the world tells you it is.  They distorted the definition.  They got it wrong.  Chasing after things that will make you attractive by the world’s standards only draws you away from true beauty.  Chase after God and His beauty, and when you become the woman He designed you to be, that is when you are truly radiant.

Second, never marry…or date…or give a second thought to a guy who doesn’t have beauty that takes your breath away.  They’re few and far between; in 20 years, I’ve only met 3.  But trust me, you want a man who is seeking God’s highest potential for him, and a man who will amaze you for the rest of your life.

Wait for a beautiful man, in the image of a beautiful God.

Ribbet collage

Ruled By Peace

About a month ago, on choir Sunday, I was eating breakfast in the consecration room between worship services and talking with one of the guitar players.  As we got to know each other, he said something that surprised me and really made me think.  Before he met Christ, he said, he was into playing heavy metal, but he gave it up because he felt like it was no longer compatible with his faith.  I asked why that was; couldn’t he begin writing songs with a positive message instead and reach out to the same demographic as before?  He shook his head. “Christian music is an entirely different genre altogether.  I don’t like it when artists take a worldly genre and try to slap a Christian label on it.  You see, even if I were to give Christian lyrics to my music, heavy metal is not Christian.  It’s angry music.  Not peaceful music.”

This idea intrigued me, but I didn’t think too much about it again until recently when I came across a couple of passages in Colossians and Ephesians.  I encourage you to read the whole section to better appreciate the context, but I will paraphrase below:

Colossians 3:5-15.  Rid yourself of anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language, because you have taken off your old self with its practices and put on the new self.  As God’s chosen people, clothe yourselves instead with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.

Ephesians 4:22-5:21. Put off your old self and be made new in the attitude of your minds.  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger. Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity.  Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

When I read that, I started thinking about it in big picture terms.  What characterizes a life of peace?  Let me add a little disclaimer that I don’t get offended or “judge” people who drink or swear.  Because honestly, when looking at these concepts, using euphemisms for swear words means the same thing; and I don’t think alcohol is necessarily wrong, but I think it can be, just like comforting yourself by overeating or numbing yourself by — I don’t know, compulsive shopping, or whatever it is you depend on instead of allowing yourself to be filled with the Spirit.

It’s not a matter of doing something wrong, but of having the wrong mindset.  Thinking about it in terms of what my guitarist friend said, I realized that the reason Paul condemns “filthy language” and “unwholesome talk” is because profanity is a language of anger, not of peace.  The same goes for yelling any kind of euphemism in anger.  It’s not the swearing that shouldn’t be there; it’s the attitude.  Likewise, he speaks against drunkenness because it often leads to debauchery.  We all know how the crazy parties go: blaring music, strangers hooking up with strangers, people puking all over the floor.  Later, it turns into hangovers and unproductivity.  At best, it’s an artificial way to relieve stress other than allowing the calming peace of the Spirit to rule your heart.  At worst, it’s disorder and confusion — not the fruit of the Spirit or the outward expression of His reign.

Those of you who think you’re golden because you don’t drink or curse, don’t consider yourself exempt from this.  Look a little deeper into your heart.  What are you ruled by?  Do you show evidence of the Spirit’s presence?  Or do you freak out when you’re late for work, or when your kids track in mud, or when anything else goes the slightest bit wrong that you can’t control?  Do you choose stress and anger?  Or do you choose peace?

The other day, I came across this post by Joanne Kraft that neatly tied up the package of my wandering thoughts and put a bow on top.  You can read it here. In the post, she talks about how her home and family have always been surrendered to the Spirit, and people can literally feel His presence in the place that they have dedicated to Christ’s rule.  I teared up as I read it, remembering how every week that I worked at Deer Run, on Sunday afternoons before the kids came, I would walk around my cabin touching every bed frame and praying over the cabin, asking God to bless it as a safe space and inviting His peace to rule there.

And thinking through all of these things, I want to live a life of peace wherever I go and wherever I settle down.  I want to create a home where, in the midst of the chaos and disorder of this broken world, broken people can tangibly experience the spiritual rest and calm that Christ offers.  A home where no voices are raised in anger, where stress is cast away and confusion has no place.  A home that is ruled by peace.

Dear Grace: On Wrestling With God

There is nothing more intimidating than being asked a deep theological question by a 13-year-old who looks up to you.  But there is also nothing I love more.  Sometimes I flounder a bit, and sometimes I have to admit that I don’t have all the answers.

Tonight, in the middle of a crowded and noisy restaurant with the youth band playing Christmas carols, struggling to be heard over the noise, Grace asked me one of these questions.

“I just learned the story of Jacob wrestling with God.  Was that…okay? I mean, is that a sin?”

Instead of answering, I simply asked Grace this question: “Have you ever wrestled with God?”

She thought about this for a moment. “You mean mentally? Yeah…yeah, I have.”

“Do you think that was a sin?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure,” she answered. “If it is, I guess I’ve sinned a lot.”

“Do you remember from the story what Jacob said to God?  Why he wrestled with Him?” I asked. “He said he wouldn’t let go until God blessed him.  Sometimes we have to doubt before we can believe, and sometimes we have to wrestle with God before we can receive blessing.”

She considered this. “I feel like the concept of doubt has been showing up in my life a lot lately,” she responded. “My mom and I were talking about it the other day, and now you just mentioned it.”

I shrugged. “We all go through doubt.  Some of the greatest people of the faith are the ones who have wrestled with the hard questions. Try reading through the Psalms and see if David didn’t do some of his own wrestling with God.”

Long after the Christmas party was over that night, I continued to think about her question.  Is it a sin to wrestle with God?  I pretty much told her no, but do I act like that’s true?  I’ve done a lot of hiding the past week because I’m afraid to voice some of my frustrations.  So my Bible has sat in my backpack for a few days, sadly neglected, because I can’t seem to read it while ignoring the elephant in the room.  So Grace’s question made me do a lot of thinking.  And praying.  And wrestling.

So, Grace, if you ever get a chance to read this, here’s my answer.

Dear Grace,

It’s okay to wrestle with God.  Don’t be afraid of messing up by wrestling with Him.  Sin is a far deeper problem than just messing up, than thinking or saying or doing the wrong thing.  Sin is disconnectedness from God.  Sometimes we have such a tiny view of sin that we think it’s something we do, something that we think we can manage or fix, but we can’t.  The very second that humanity chose to turn away from God, we lost the beautiful intimacy with Him that we were meant to have.  Sin at its core is just the gap between us and God.  So sometimes I think we try to pretend that we have a relationship with God by doing everything right, but pretending can’t bridge the gap.  We don’t want to get into fights with Him because that must mean we don’t love Him, but that’s not the way real relationships work.  Real relationships don’t pretend like there aren’t problems or miscommunications; they work through them. They wrestle with them.

You see, sin is anything that keeps us away from God.  And if you wrestle with God, you’re closer to Him than you’ve ever been.  You’re making physical contact, skin on skin, looking Him right in the eye, saying that you’re not letting go until He blesses you.  When you grapple with the God of the Universe, you’re being more open and transparent and vulnerable than ever before.

But if you leave your Bible in your backpack and hide because you’re ashamed of your feelings, the gap just got that much wider.  God bridged that gap by sending Jesus to experience life the same way we do.  He understands our feelings.  And He’s big enough to handle our questions.

So I think it was okay that Jacob wrestled with God.  And I think it’s okay if you do too.

Love,

Lauren.

No Agenda. Just Relationship.

A guy plans an elaborate proposal for the girl of his dreams. He spends a fortune on a beautiful ring, buys her a dozen roses and takes her out to a nice restaurant. He has spent hours making this super cute scrapbook of their whole relationship together.  When she turns the last page, there is a small scrap of paper that reads, “Will you marry me?” He smiles a hesitant smile as he gets down on one knee and opens the little box, faithfully declaring to love her for the rest of his life no matter what happens.

Unless, of course, she says no.

Because she does.

And he returns the ring and burns the scrapbook and they never talk to each other again.

The relationship ended because there was nowhere else for it to go.

Relationships end when a goal is not met.  If a girl likes a guy and then realizes he’s not interested, she stops talking to him and cuts him off altogether.  What’s up with that?  If she really liked him, you’d think she would enjoy talking to him whether or not they were together.  But too often it seems like relationships have to be “going somewhere” for us to invest time in them.

Or what about being somebody’s friend so you can “fix” them and lead them to Christ? Then one day you approach the topic of faith, they turn you down, there’s nowhere else for the friendship to go, and they realize that they were only part of an agenda for you. What good does any of that do?

As human beings, we want to control everything.  We have our little secret agendas for the way we want things to work out, and we try to manipulate relationships into the outcome we want.

I propose that we forsake agendas and create relationships simply for the sake of relationship — simply to love another person and give of ourselves. Let go of the expectations, stop trying to control the outcome, and just see where it naturally leads.

Be intentional about forming relationships with broken people that may not end in them accepting Christ. I’ve heard the quote that Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to make converts, he told them to make disciples.  And that’s a totally different process.  It requires that we invest in people whether or not we see a return. Those sorts of relationships don’t end once you get a person baptized, feel great about yourself, and forget about them.

Even within the realm of your love life, don’t fixate on one person and exhaust yourself trying to “make it work.” Create relationships for the sake of relationship, because you truly care about another person more than you care about yourself and how it will benefit you.

Live fully and love everyone. No agenda, just relationship.