TRADED: 2010

You're probably wondering how I can confidently say that 2010's file was marked "the year everything changed for the rest of my life." I tend to be intuitive, but even I surely can't know that things are changed for the rest of my life. But I won't renege on that one. Because here's what I'm not saying:

I'm not saying that things will never go poorly for me. I'm not saying that the void inside of me is filled, brimming over with love for others or myself or God. I'm not saying that there won't be more death or divorce or pain or depression or suffering in life, or that the doubt that plagues the deepest parts of me, clinging to me like packing popcorn to a pea-coat, will never come again.

What I am saying is that everything changed.

At the end of 40 days of fasting where nothing changed in my heart, my soul, or my mind, I was really ready to walk away entirely. But God is a God of small details and He began to line up small things that were imperceptible to me, but which now I see were acts of His grand sovereignty.

A book called The Reason for God. A sermon called Preaching the Gospel to the Dechurched. A best friend, who tirelessly fasted with me and walked through the bible with me. A spontaneous trip to the Dallas area. A card from my Mom. My car being totaled. Taxes that put me in the red. For four months, God was sure and certainly moving me into a place of absolute emptiness.

I had nothing in mid-June. Nothing.

But I had the inklings of hope that there was something.

People want to know what made the difference in me. What changed? Did I 'get saved'? What clicked?

And the truth is that I don't know. I don't have the answers to those questions. Here's what I know: we go from glory to glory, faith to faith, and my faith has taken a long, long time to get here. There was no On switch or Ah-ha moment. There was only the sweet, gentle, sometimes painful drawing of my eyes off of me and onto Him.

What changed is that I realized that I was not living my story, but that I was living His and that His glory was the only glory that mattered. All my hopes and dreams and righteousness and labors of love were filthy rags before Him. He alone was worthy—and as long as I competed with that, I would find myself in a false gospel.

What changed is that where God had been my genie God, who I would put in my debt, and then my caricature God, whose only features were the hell-bent, fury-filled, standoffish, or selfish, that God doesn't exist in my head or heart anymore. It's not that there are even recesses of Him remaining. I really mean it when I say that that God doesn't exist.

He never did, not really.

It is just the residue of what happens when I'm more set on my glory than His. 

So what changed is that He doesn't change.

Before I was concerned about my hopes and dreams, my righteousness, now I care about seeing His glory magnified, His righteousness glorified.

Before I was concerned about feeling loved and filling my void, now I am consumed with loving Him and filling my life with gratefulness for Him.

Before I would tally-mark my actions and keep score with all the "good" gifts I received and I always came up lacking, now I barely notice the good things I do (if they're there at all!), and I'm astounded at the goodness He puts in my life.

Before I dwelt on my doubts, now I seek refuge in His wisdom.

Before I gathered my goodness, now I am grateful for His.

Before I was desperate for love, now I am overwhelmed that He chose me.

Before I fretted about finances, now I ask Him to make me poorer and His kingdom richer.

Before I was prone to depression, now I understand that He made me to feel things deeply, but to find my deepest joy in Him—and to confess my deepest fears to Him.

Before I ignored the cross, despised my sufferings, rejected grace, now I cling to the cross, treasure my suffering, and receive grace daily.

Before I worried about life turning out okay, now I long for heaven more quickly.

The difference is that in 2010 a fullness of the gospel, the parts I'd been so blind to for so many years, was revealed to me.

And my life was changed.

 

EMPTIED: 2010

In 2007 I moved back to New York, where life had taken so much from me, but where I knew I was also loved deeply and known deeply. My church family there had adopted me richly and loved me so well. I put my hand to the plow and determined to love well in return. I served hard. I served long. I bit the bullet. I did it in the name of love. I felt as though I had been given the gift of love and the only thing to do in response was to love back.

The thing is, it is so easy for me to love that place.

It is beautiful country. The skies are magnificent. The mountains are near. The seaway is near. The college town is quiet in the summer, wrought with fun things to do and campfires to be had. It is bustling in the autumn with new and returning students, fresh opportunities. It is still and quiet in the winter, when the snow piles high and the only thing to do is drink tea and shovel the driveway. It is fresh and perfect in the spring, green, lush, and alive. It is so easy for my soul to write there. I find things to write about every day because there is always something to notice or some parallel to be made.

It is easy to love those people. They are loved, with their homes busting at the seams with children and whole foods, homemade things and hospitality. It is impossible to not love them. And I so deeply love them. I wrung myself out with love hoping that I would fill the void that was so present in me. I served myself dry in hopes that the prayers I was still afraid to voice would come true.

I was certain that if I could just love widely enough or deeply enough, then God would find that void in me and He would fill it with His love.

He wasn't my genie God anymore, but He was my caricature God and all I was beginning to see were the seeming flaws.

Someone said to me recently that they were afraid to leave some theological questions unanswered because what if that unanswered question was the question that kept the seeker awake at night and would render them faithless without an answer? I tell him to trust more, because it was those unanswered questions that led me to one February night in 2010. I was curled in fetal position on my bedroom floor and I was saying things to a God I wasn't sure existed about a salvation I was sure was never mine.

The thing about unanswered questions about God is not that they will all be answered here on earth, but that at some point it is the mysterious magnitude of a great God that leads us to trust that sometimes they are simply too wondrous for us to know.

At the threshold of questions about Church membership and tithing, liturgy and the Holy Spirit, I did not know that asking these things would lead me to question the very existence of God, but I would not trade those question marks for a host of periods.

There was a question posed to me a year ago: Recall a time when you were humbled by God?

And the answer was easy, it was that moment I was curled in fetal position on my bedroom floor, telling God what I really, deep down, honestly believed about Him. Not what I wanted to believe. Not what I was told to believe. Not what I knew I should believe.

But what I did believe.

To empty my soul of all my misconceptions about God, His character, His attributes, His glory, His church, His love; to say to God all the things I really believed about Who He Was and Who He Wasn't—this was necessary to pull out the file marked "2010, the year everything changed for the rest of my life."

 My front porch, seemingly perfect, 
but where I filled hours of time voicing 
my doubts, fears, and frustrations with God.

 

To be continued with TRADING: LIFE Part V

(be) (in) (am) loved: 2006

In 2005 I found myself again at a wilderness camp, coming home to a very different move. This time it was on my own accord. I finished out my work at the camp, left the next day for a trip to Nepal, and stepped off the plane three weeks later to drive 17 hours to a new life in Tennessee. I was ready to start something new. Both of my best friends had gotten married that year. I felt crushed on every side by everyone's life change but my own. So I invented life change. The south had always been a haven for me, I was ready to leave cold weather, finish my English degree, meet a man of my own, or, at the very least, have an adventure.

Within a few months in Tennessee I felt myself come alive. Classes invigorated me. Professors challenged me. I found a church. And most of all I found a posse of friends that still remain my favorite posse. I met a guy who was easy to be with, who made me laugh, who challenged and inspired me in every area of life. I had roommates who were healthy and happy. I learned to worship in quiet ways. I learned that life was worship. I learned that the Holy Spirit was a joy-bringer and that the lack of joy in my life was evidence that I wasn't walking in the Spirit and not evidence that God had left me.

I dwelt deeply in those years. 

I lived deeply. Loved deeply. Hurt so, so deeply. I conversed deeply. I drank deeply from the well of art, writing, worship, prayer, and communion. I felt like I finally stepped into my shoes and they fit! They fit!

I discovered that I loved color and color loved me. I painted. I wrote. I played the piano.

I began to realize that even orphans were people and I was a person. I began to love the other orphans.

I began to learn about how I was knit together, how I was purposed, intended, meant. How parts of me were meant to work in certain ways and how this would make me feel fully alive.

And I'll be honest, there were still some deep voids in me. I learned to love deeply in these years, but I remained staunchly doubtful of anyone's love for me, including God's love.

One night, a friend and I sat out in the back of his pickup truck and at the end of our conversation he said some words to me that I have never forgotten. He told me how much he loved me, respected me; how he loved the way I loved our group and the Lord. How he loved the way I dressed in creative ways. How I brushed my curls away from my face and how my eyes sparkled when we were all together as the Makeshift Family.

This might sound like an admission of love, and it was, but not the sort of love you may be thinking. Because he is the same friend who, in the absence of any of my family, stood as my brother when I walked magna cum laude across the stage to get my diploma. He is the same friend who, when he and his wife were expecting their first, called on me to pick Gideon Archer's middle name. In the bed of that truck that evening, he was the first friend who looked at my orphan soul and said, "No, we're not walking in that. You're beautiful. You're chosen. You're precious. You matter. You matter."

It was in this period of time that I learned that other people loved me. That I was loved. That wherever I went in life I would not be alone and I would not be lonely.

I might carry with me the scars of brokenness and the heaviness of depression for the rest of my life, I might never feel the love of God, but I knew in this period of time that I would not walk alone.

 Six years and counting, 
the Makeshift Family still loves each other deeply

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ORPHANED: 1999

In 1998 I came home from a summer working at a wilderness camp to my parents telling us that we were leaving that week for a trip to northern New York. And a mention of a possible move to New York the following spring.

Our family is the adventurous sort. We are made of soldiers and entrepreneurs, business owners and people on mission. None of us shy from risk; in fact, we are the opposite, running full-force into it, waiting for the cards to fall where they will. If there is possibility of failure and probability of success, count us in. But New York, just a neighboring state to our native Pennsylvania, felt too big of a risk.

It would be a seven hour trip from home—a move from comfortable suburbia, towering trees, and an area wrought with historic significance for us as a family, but also us as a country. There was nothing, that I could see, that New York could offer us.

Even now, looking back, New York did not offer us anything, in fact, it was a taker from beginning to end. Even in its giving moments, it was still a taker.

It took me far from everything I'd known. It killed my brother in an accident within that first year. It took me away from college. It took my parents marriage apart. It took every ounce of energy for me to make ends meet. It offered me a haven and friendships in my church there, but one by one, in those next few years, I felt taken from even in them as friends married and my homes never lasted much more than nine or ten months.

I remember vividly one freezing winter night, driving home to an empty apartment in 2003, my window wiper broke. It was snowing furiously outside, I couldn't see anything outside my car; I felt lonely, forgotten, empty, void of anything good and hopeless disillusioned with myself and God. I pulled my car over on the side of the road and wept furious tears. I pounded my steering wheel until my hand was bruised and I screamed, "I was good and this is how you repay me?"

I stayed there on the side of the road until my tears dried or it stopped snowing, I don't remember. All I know is that something broke in me that night.

I was orphaned.

I received something that night that until the past year I have lived with for a decade. I realized that all my goodness wouldn't result in anything good in return, so I would continue doing the right things because they found me favor with people, but I stopped expecting anything from God.

He could say He was my father, but I would never know that. And I would be okay with that.

Other people would understand love. Other people would understand affection. Other people would feel the move of the Holy Spirit. But me? Me? I was orphaned. Set aside to show people what happened when you were handpicked by God to show what his wrath here on earth looked like.

In a meeting with one of my pastors soon after this dismantling of everything held precious, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, "I don't know why this hand has been dealt to you, and I am so, so, so deeply sorry for that."

I grit my teeth then. I set my face like steel. I braced myself for earthly wrath and constant disappointment.

And He didn't disappoint.

GENIE GOD: 1996

If life is a file drawer and each year a file marked by bad haircuts, first kisses, diplomas, and good decisions, I would have a file from 1996 marked "the year things started to get better" and a file from 1999 marked "the year things started to get worse." One more from 2006 marked, "the year things started to get better" and another, from 2010, marked "the year things started getting really bad." Tonight a song comes on my car stereo and I am thrown back to 1996 when I first heard the album and where things seemed to start to get better. But first you should know that I made life a living hell for my family pre-1996. I have a mouth that will send any sane person running and a caustic sneer that deserved every length of discipline directed toward me. I honestly don't know how my parents ever let me out of my room, let alone let me interact with people outside our immediate family.

If I thought about it, I could probably come up with some seemingly legitimate excuses for my behavior, but I'm prepared to take full responsibility for the wretchedness of my heart and its impending actions.

Something changed in 1996 though. A few things changed. One, I met a family with a son several years older than me who took a vested interest in my writing, encouraged me, emailed me, corrected me, challenged me. Two, I attended a conference meant to stir lukewarm kids into radical, faith-filled obedience—though unfortunately resulted in a hardened legalism for most of us. Three, I discovered that my quick mind worked toward better causes when I kept my mouth shut and my fingers penning.

I remember coming home from that conference determined to make things different in my heart. I apologized to my parents for my despicable behavior, I cut ties with friendships that led me away from anything wholesome, I secreted my bible by my bedside and began to journal religiously. I made lists of everything bad I wanted to do and lists for how I would counter every bad behavior. Where sinful thoughts reigned, I memorized counter verses. Where selfish behavior manifested, I self-disciplined myself into modification. Where doubts arose, I squashed them down with a furrowed brow and a stalwart heart.

I did right things. I did.

I read the right books. I said the right things. I dreamed right dreams. I asked for right things. I intended toward right behavior.

I collected my righteousness, watching it pile up like sand in an hourglass, waiting for the right time for God to turn over that hourglass and start pouring his blessings like sand in my direction.

I was sure this would happen.

I had dreams, folks, big dreams. I was going to do things with my life and accomplish things and I was going to change the world with my words and my right acts. People were going to pass me on the street and smell righteousness on me. God would stand back, fold his arms, nod and say, "Well, done. Good, faithful servant. Very well done." And then He would answer the list of prayers that were piling up in my prayer notebook. Prayers, dreams, whatever you want to call them. They were my bribe. I would do this, and do it well, and He would give me everything I could imagine.

My genie God.

I rubbed that genie God for five years. I dressed modestly, meticulously. I kept my thoughts pure. I didn't date around. I monitored my friendships. I invested in my family first. I kept my mouth shut for the most part. I had cache of memorized scripture. Friends called me a walking concordance, the speed at which I could recall Bible verses was brilliant. I was a leader among my peers. I gave 200% at everything I did. Horse-back riding, lifeguarding, camp counselor, friend, confidant.

I rubbed that genie lamp until I shined. 

And then God started the file of 1999.

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