Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Nesting Cups

Have you ever played with nesting cups? Sometimes, there are Russian nesting dolls. It’s the whole concept of opening the largest to find a smaller one with still a smaller one inside it until you can’t get any smaller.
They can be fun. They can make us giggle. They can also show us a parallel for our lives.
I am not unlike a set of nesting cups. On the outside, there is my body. When you strip that away, you find Christ. Christ dwells in me; the Bible says as much.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)
Peel Christ away, and you’ll find another version of me. Because as much as He dwells in me, so I must also dwell in Him. The Bible says that, too.
“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)
In fact, it is a Biblical command that we stack up this way.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4)
Christ and I do not live side-by-side; we dwell within one another. That is beautiful. More beautiful than I first imagined.
Because when you get down to the bottom of the nesting cups, the smallest doll, you find it different than all the others: it is solid, and it does not come apart.
When you get down to the bottom of my spiritual nesting cups, you find the smallest self dwelling within Christ – a self that is solid, confident in its position, and unable to come apart.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Blessed Frustration

Life these days has me more than a little frustrated and a lot scared. It’s been hard to wrap my head around why these things are, but as days pass, I get a clearer and clearer picture.

Everything is changing, but it is the million tiny changes each day that are making the biggest difference. The new space I’ve created in my life by simply living in discipline and obedience is astounding. No longer do I shield my heart by keeping the external bustling, busy, and loud. I live by day in the light of the sun, whether bright and beautiful or covered in clouds. I’m content to shut off the television, log off the computer, and simply sit and listen to the ticking of the clock. These quiet moments sill my heart. They enable me to know where my life is working and where it still needs work, where things are going well and where they should well get going already!

It’s freaky, though, and tough to swallow when I notice the changes. The new space creates a void – or does it? That void has always been there; that’s why I kept my world so packed with stuff, so that I wouldn’t have to notice or deal with the very real ache in my heart.

A couple of weeks ago, God focused my mind on my strength, on the places in my life where power prevails. I never really got the sense that it was just my power. There is something supernatural about the source of all that, but I couldn’t help but smile at the way it shows itself in my life. It is the step of faith that steps back and watches my body heal itself before my very eyes, something I could not have dreamed of in recent years. It is the sudden realization that I am thinking before I speak, calming myself before I fly off the handle, re-thinking that curse word in favor of gentleness, and acting in love. Not as a pushover, lovey-dovey, and blinded by grace, but as one who can speak assertively without aggression, without excuse, and in true love. With true concern for others, which surprises me because so many of them, I hardly know.

It is only God’s mercy that gives me this strength, and I repeatedly find myself in awe of it.

Then, He focused my mind on love and on the effects of this strength. I noticed relationships truly changing, morphing into those I’d always dreamed of. Oh, how my heart longs for that connection with people where we speak to each other in love, know more of one another than a simple greeting, care deeply about each other’s hearts, and enter into this sacred kinship where one life bonds into another in the way God always intended. My relationships, finally, are getting there. It’s the smile from someone who used to scare me or who I always thought never liked me. It’s the greeting from someone who has never talked to me before (or who I have never risked talking to). It’s the arm around the shoulder, half-hug, encouragement of someone I respect. Yes, God says, people notice the change in me, and they are nurturing it just as He is.

In this area, I am not complete. I long for that completion! There are still too many times I feel like there’s no one to talk to, not really talk. The weight of the world rests on my shoulders, and it is in these times that I look around and find no one to turn to, no one who truly knows me well enough to be there, to be strong. This, I believe, will come in time as I trust more and step outside of my own comfort level – long-established by the ways of darkness and the bondage of the past. Right now, I reflect on those everyday encounters that elicit this love from me, stir my spirit, and prod me to tears. Yes, I have cried more than a few as I have noticed these small changes. They are tears of both hope fulfilled (or becoming fulfilled) and yearning stirred.

It is only by God’s redemption that I am able to experience this beauty.

Beauty and wisdom, these too are coming to me in new ways. Down to the minutiae of the universe. Did you know that if you took a single atom and blew it up so you could see it, so that the nucleus was the size of an orange, the nearest electron would be over four miles away? That’s astonishing! What fills that four miles? It isn’t air; air is something, made of molecules and atoms itself. It must be wisdom. THAT is the beauty of God in this world.

Mercy. Redemption. Wisdom. Beauty. You’re seeing that; so where is the fear and frustration?

The fear is what holds my heart through all of this. The problem is not that the voices in my head are wrong; it is that they are right. They just don’t know the whole story. Why is all this stuff new to me? Why am I taken by the strength He’s put within me? Why do I cry at His hints of love? Why do His beauty and wisdom take my breath away?

Because they are foreign. These were not the stories of my old heart, my old life, my old ways. The voices in my head remind me that this is what creation was, this is precisely what I was made for – until I already had that chance and put my life in my own hands and destroyed all of that. And these voices are right. I have always gotten in God’s way. Not just in my own life, I fear, but in my community.

So I fear this may be unsustainable. I fear it might be too late or too impossible to truly change my heart. My head screams “No, it is obviously possible. This is God’s plan!” but my heart wavers. Is it within me to let go forever, to give up whatever control I thought I had or tried to take by force over my own life and live in this new way eternally?

I really want to believe it is. And if God is Who He says He Is, and if I am who He has created me to be, then absolutely! It most certainly is. To be honest, I am often surprised at how easy it all is, and that is what makes it so difficult.

Should we believe holiness, sanctity, discipline should be so simple? We’re taught by our parents, lectured in our schools, and preached to from the pulpit (in many, but not all churches) that a righteous, God-centered life is somehow harder than the way we already do it. We’re taught that if we’re not on our toes, constantly fighting the battle second-by-second, we will lose and fall victim to our own flesh.

I can’t buy that any more, not after the change in my heart that is not yet complete but is astounding. Righteous, holy living is not harder. It is not a challenge. It is not a constant fight. For me, at least, it is the simple letting go and the end of the fight. By instinct, by nature, perhaps by wisdom, my heart reaches out in the right ways, does the right things, thinks the right thoughts. When I notice a fight brewing in my Spirit, that is not the Light fighting against the darkness; it is darkness coming against the light. It is darkness that puts the pressure on me, that makes life harder than it needs to be, that pushes me out of my instinct into the realm of conscious choice that then makes my mind waver between flesh and Spirit.

Instinct is easy. And holy. And righteous. And good. Why do we still believe it is the other way around? What does it say about what we believe about God that we still think this way, talk this way, live this way?

My fear is unfounded. I know in the depth of my spirit that this is the only way I will ever be able to live again. My mind, too, knows that. But sometimes, those weird little voices get the better of me, and I have to figure it all out again. And again. And again.

But in this void, this new space, this new heart, this life I am building, there is also frustration. Frustration that the little things are changing, but not the big ones. That this work is not complete. In a sense, this is holy frustration.

It is the idea that my relationships are changing, which is enough to torment my heart with its goodness, but they are not all transformed yet. And they are not completely transformed. They are….growing. It’s like watching paint dry. Blah.

It is feeling my body heal itself and rejoicing in strength, only to have something completely unexpected knock me off course and question the power of healing. Like yesterday. I was completely fine, but I have been fighting some kind of weird something in my body. It was cool as I sat back and watched my body take care of itself. Then, without notice, a sharp pain shot through my neck that brought me to my knees, flushing me hot with nausea, and disorienting me with dizziness. Right in the middle of serving communion, on the first Sunday that communion finally meant something to me.

Could my body heal this? I was doubtful. By the time I drove my car the few miles home, I could barely stand and spent the rest of the day crying in pain and falling down. That pain in my neck, I cannot shake. It gets worse by the passing hour, and there is no known cause for it, no treatment to improve it. So in this moment, does my new heart prevail…or my old one? Do I trust God to strengthen my body for this fight, or do I give in to something so small as a single nerve and let that be the crack that crumbles my cornerstone? Both are equally tempting. But oddly, the former is most natural.

It is the recognition that I am surrounded by old wineskin, by people, places, even material possessions that just the mere thought of them makes my body heavy. In the past several weeks, I have given many items away to charity, packed many more into boxes (which in itself is a mistake because that only creates room for the old heart to reclaim them), but there is so much more.

Yet, the more I pray and yearn and cry and hope and pray some more for the big things to change, for opportunities to step out and live anew, the more God moves others forward and rather than lifting me to new life, He takes them for a journey and strips them away from me. How in the world is that fair?

The big thing right now, of course, is my job situation. I have been looking for two years with very little interest from employers. They don’t even contact me back, let alone ask for an interview. A few days ago, after becoming very excited about a couple of different opportunities, all but a handful of jobs I’ve applied for this year were re-posted in that single day. There’s no feeling in the world quite like being rejected en masse…by employers who don’t even have the guts to tell you they are rejecting you, but instead pretend you don’t exist.

Granted, the handful of jobs still open and available, a few of whom have contacted me with updates, are the ones I am most excited about, the ones that will best use my gifts and my heart. That buffers the rejection a little bit.

Just a little. No matter the circumstances, nobody really likes rejection.

All this frustration really is mis-defined. It is not frustration so much as pained yearning – for that completion that God says is coming, for His promise to be fulfilled. It is longing for the day when He stops saying, “I’m working on it” and instead says, “I did this for you,” though I know that even the waiting is His gift.

I’m just not all that great with patience.

My impatience, coupled with the pained longing in my heart, the pain of which grows deeper every day, has me honestly on the brink of despair. And watching Him as He has blessed and gifted others to move away from me, instead of blessing me to move forward, has only intensified this. I spend too many nights (and mornings and afternoons and evenings) crying at the ache in my heart, questioning my faith, begging God to show me what I’ve done that offends Him, what I’ve neglected that is holding me back.

There is nothing. Nothing that He’s shown me anyway. He is not going to answer my prayers or fulfill my hope if I pray harder, go to church more, volunteer more, give all my stuff away, live in a cardboard box, or kill myself. (At one point or another, I’ve thought of all those things…and more.) I am not going to earn His favor by shouting in His ear, by making myself loud, by becoming the troubled disciple who requires “special attention.” That’s not how God works.

Nor how I would want Him to work.

But it would be so nice if He would hear me. Funny, I was going to say “answer me,” but it just didn’t feel right. Isn’t that the way it goes, though? We long for an answer for so long until we realize that we don’t even feel like God hears us any more.

Does all this mean I am unhappy with my life? Quite the opposite. I have never been happier in my life. I have never been more centered, more at peace, more full of faith, nor more sure of my path than I have been in recent months.

God wakes me up too many mornings already laughing before the day has begun for me to truly despair. He keeps me giggling and sometimes, when the world gets the darkest, He does something so awkwardly ridiculous that I can’t help but laugh. And when I laugh at God (or with Him, since He responds to my joy), I feel all of that heaviness melt away from my heart once more, and I can relax. Just relax. Just sit. Just be.

I may not have all the gifts I want right now, but I am not poor. He has blessed me over and over again – with the healing of my body, the restoration of my heart, the redemption of my life, and all the millions of little things that make me smile. This fear and frustration? They seem overwhelming; I cannot deny that. But when I look honestly into my heart, they are but a speck. Small shadows in the realms of pure joy, faith, hope, and trust. These four pour forth (and are returned to me) in great love. And that’s awesome.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Butterfly

I wonder about the butterfly. As a caterpillar, does she know? Does she have any idea what life has in store for her? She crawls along the ground in filth, covers herself in dirt. Only occasionally, she tries to climb up – along the trunk of a tree, the side of a house, the stem of a flower. There’s something up there! Does the caterpillar know that she can have it, if only she will wait?

Perhaps the cocoon is the exhaustion of waiting. Perhaps she wakes up one morning and realizes this is not her world, that this is not where she wants to be. She wants the flowers and the trees and the clouds. She wants the freedom to wipe the filth off her belly and escape the ground. But when she looks down at her legs, she knows she cannot. For legs are not wings. Legs are just legs. They are just there to keep her grounded, to keep her where the dirt seeps in between her toes and she’s reminded of her place in life – the bottom. The dirt. The muck.

So she walls herself off. She creates the darkest of dark places, the protection of the cocoon. If she cannot have it all, then she wants nothing. If there’s more out there, something that draws to her, it isn’t fair to make her look without touching, to hold her down.

She wasn’t made for this, Lord! She wasn’t made to be taunted mercilessly by the things she cannot touch, all because she was born with legs and not wings.

In the cocoon, she is safe. There is nothing to tempt her, nothing to remind her that she is destined to crawl along the ground. Nothing to say, “You can never be any more than you always were.” I wonder if she hears anything in that cocoon. Does the world seep in around her? The constant buzz of a bee’s wings? The wind rustling through the trees? The sound of a storm? Can she even tell any more whether that world she thinks she hears, outside of her darkness, is real or just a voice in her head? Does she know?

Can she feel herself changing? Does she wonder what’s going on outside of her shell? The world – is it the same as before or is it, too, changing? Moving on without her? Does the world remember the caterpillar? Is there some marker set up, some cross along the side of the road that says, “This is where the caterpillar gave up and closed herself into darkness”?

Maybe there’s an ant somewhere who stumbles upon the cocoon and doesn’t know what it is. Maybe the ant pokes around, prods the thing until it turns over or starts to break apart. The ant takes a piece to the hill for whatever highly sophisticated engineering project the colony is taking on, then leaves the cocoon toppled with the caterpillar still inside.

Great, the caterpillar thinks with a sigh. Now I’m upside-down and still nobody knows I’m in here. Nobody pursues me. Nobody cares. They probably don’t even miss me. I’m better off here, just where I expected.

In her effort to right herself, to at least re-orient her body in the darkness, her leg pokes through the weak place in the cocoon, the place where the ant has picked apart her home, her protection. A toe hangs out. Her darkness is ruined.

Light spreads through the hole and invades her space. Her darkness is flooded with the tiny speck of light, which expands to fill the void. Her eyes sting from the brightness, from the realization of all she has missed. The world, it has so many colors, so much life. There are worse things than spending it crawling across the ground or futilely climbing in the trees.

She remembers the flowers. She remembers the sky. Oh, how she used to long to touch those things! Why did she ever stop longing? Where did her wonder go? Was the pain of her bondage, her legs, so great to bear that she was better off living in her darkness?

But no matter. Her darkness is ruined now. Even if she were to want to repair the defect in her cocoon, there is no convenient way. She must get out and start over, re-gathering the raw materials to shut herself off again.

As she bursts the hole open further…further…further, her body emerges into the fullness of the light, into life. Does she know right away it has changed? How could she not?

She tries to crawl out, to move along the ground in the way she’s so accustomed to, but something is not right. Her body! Her legs! They’re…they’re…gone! It’s hard to stand, to even move. Her body weight, no longer spread along the ground, bore by the weight of many legs, now shifts awkwardly on just a few. Something on her back changes her balance, toppling her over with each attempt to move. She turns her head slowly and discovers…


Oh, they are beautiful! she cries, taking in the colors. Reds, pinks, yellows, purples, blues! They are all there, just as she’d always imagined! Not that ugly, textured body of the caterpillar, but the wings of a butterfly.

She wonders if they are steady, if they work, if the slightest damage will cause them to break. Could the wind rushing through them tear them to shreds? What are her wings made of? Where did they come from? She certainly didn’t remember packing wings into her cocoon!

So still she walks, crawling along the ground, taking delicate care to protect her new wings. How could something so light and airy lift her body weight off the ground? She knows she could never fly. She wouldn’t want to do anything to risk her new body, her new experience.

Then she sees a flower glowing in the sun. A cloud passing by overhead. These were the things she’d always dreamed of touching, of keeping within her reach. She’d labored to climb, to touch them, just once. Now, seeing them again, she cannot contain herself.

Without her body’s permission, without her conscious thought, the sheer excitement and joy of her surroundings sets her wings aflutter. Slowly, her body lifts from the ground. For a moment, she fears and tries desperately to stop it, to land. But the flower is now within her reach, the water vapors of a cloud surround her as she soars higher, higher, higher. She can see the world from here! It is full of wonder, life.

She wonders if her wonder was really wonder at all, and she knows she never considered there was more beyond the flower. All she ever wanted was the feel of those soft petals against her face; she’d never dreamed of this.

Now, she can dream of nothing else. The tenderness of her wings no longer concerns her. They are more than enough to lift her off the ground, for she realizes it is not her wings that carry her; it is the wind. The same wind that howled through her woven darkness now holds her safely as she soars. She glides. She turns and flips and flutters, even as other creatures look up at her in wonder.

She is beautiful. And she is free. And when she lands, though her wings are weary, she knows she cannot stay there. Her legs provide the strength to ground her, to give her rest, but she is meant to fly. That is what she’s been created for! That is it!

In the reflection of a pond, she sees herself sitting atop her much-prized flower, and she realizes: I am beautiful. Something happened to me in the darkness, when all I heard was the wind and the life around me, when I couldn’t see because I didn’t want to see. Something happened to me there. And now, I am beautiful.

At the base of the flower, a caterpillar struggles to climb. She sees it in the reflection, and she cannot help but wonder about the caterpillar.

Does it know?

Friday, March 12, 2010

When Striving Ceases

There's not a day that goes by any more without the stark contrast between old and new self. Perhaps more accurately, they should be described as the true self...and something less.

I have to admit: it is all surprising, even to me.

It's weird to go through what I own and see the defense in it. To see the striving and the many ways I've tried over the years to protect myself - from others, from myself, from my darkness, from God. Even in something so simple as the decor of my room. It used to be bright in color, blinding almost, with images all over the walls and junk piled high on top of dressers, bookshelves, even next to my bed. You couldn't walk two steps without finding something to pick up to distract yourself.

Maybe that's where I went wrong.

Don't misunderstand me. This brilliant distraction served its purpose for a time, when I was stuck in the pits of Hell fighting the issues of abuse and abandonment, struggling with worth, questioning God, and trying desperately to stop the voices that ruled my life by simply distracting myself from them. I said a few days ago that as I've been going through this purging process this week and clearing out the distractions, I've felt like I was clearing out a girl who neither trusted love nor knew beauty.

That could not be more true.

So I woke up early this morning and heard the ticking of the clock. Not just the big clock, which I've heard the ticking of since I was a small child, but two other clocks I'd never heard before. Just regular old hanging-on-the-wall, battery-powered clocks. I didn't know why they bothered me this morning, why they were so loud. Until I opened my eyes and looked around.

There are no distractions any more. Nothing to see but the stillness. It is very cool, but it's still unsettling...slightly. I'm still timid about where God is leading me and what He might be up to, but I cannot ignore His peace. My faith. The silence. It's really cool. The more it takes hold of me, the more I wonder what I was so afraid of for all these years. What was I running from? God? Why? I can't answer that.

Freedom is a very cool thing, and I can't believe how it transforms my life just to live in the simple things. To live surrounded by stillness, opportunities for reflection, nothing to distract my hands or my heart so that I'm no longer running from relationship with Him or from prayer. He knows my heart; our talks are only facilitated by the nakedness.

And I can't help but laugh at the easy way this has all happened. I can't help but think about dresser drawers overflowing with baggy pants and ratty T-shirts that now have room to grow a new wardrobe (I'm gonna have to hit the Goodwill soon, I think, because I own maybe TWO warm-weather shirts), video games to keep my fingers busy and stop me from thinking, stuffed animals scattered about for those moments when the feel of my own hands on my face could not stop the crying, and so much stuff hanging on the walls that it's no wonder my mind raced at night! I was surrounded by so much to keep me from thinking about darkness that I couldn't stop thinking about how much stuff I had and how much it weighed me down.

Those now-roomy dresser drawers, as small a thing as that is, make me feel entirely different. That is only intensified when I look in the mirror and see a smile, a sparkle in my eyes, or notice that I'm carrying myself differently, thinking differently, talking more softly.

I still have a long way to go, and I'm still trying to figure this all out. It's a hard transition to make after spending my whole life taking care of myself, working hard to get what I think I want, trying harder, pushing and pushing and pushing myself to the limits because that is the only way to be the kind of woman I thought I wanted to be.

It's just not true.

This process is not as difficult as I thought it would be. It's emotionally taxing. Spiritually freeing and demanding at the same time. But it doesn't work the way I tried to make it work for too many years. I don't have to get up in the morning and spend the first two hours of the day berating myself, scolding my old behaviors, or constantly reminding myself to watch my language, hold my head high, walk in love, live in freedom, or anything else that's beautiful.

I just have to stop.

I have to let the natural tendencies of my God-filled heart take over. It surprises me every day that it's not really forced at all. It is so simple, so natural a way of living that it really puts my fight into perspective. I thought this switch in lifestyle would make me tired; I am only tired because this freedom makes me realize how hard I've worked for too long. Every once in awhile, I hear and old thought creep up or an old pattern trying to take hold, and I'm able now to stop and realize that it is THOSE moments that require the energy, it is THOSE ways of living that require effort. They just aren't natural; they aren't my heart. (Sadly, I still follow through on some of them, but immediately realize that it's just not who I am, not who He has made me to be...and I am able to make that the last time.)

I don't beat myself up any more over the little things. Yeah, I slip up and try too hard and labor in the ways of old. I just have to laugh those off, apologize to my heart and to God, then move on and don't make that mistake again. I'm learning. and I'm growing. And it's cool.

All I had to give up was my striving. My "wisdom." My "plans." All it cost me was the lie.

The lie was this: that if I'm just good enough, work hard enough, try enough, pretend enough, put on a happy face, and push forward, everything will work out precisely as I want it to.

The truth is: I just gave myself a headache. And heartache. And intensified my loneliness.

No matter how hard I tried, I could never control my circumstances. No more than I could ever control the weather or what time the sun sets. Then I realized, life is not about controlling circumstances. It is about responding to them. And responding in anger at life's disobedience, at it not following my plan, and tightening my grip on every little detail wasn't doing anything but killing me. And killing relationships. And killing life.

Love and freedom provide the avenues for the appropriate, Godly response to circumstance. That is beauty.

Perhaps most surprising of all, even after surrounding myself with so much for so many years, my stark room holds more of my heart than I ever expected. I didn't have to give up who I was or the things that mattered most to me; instead, I find they are only more profound and prominent in the stillness.

That's why though most things have gone away, been placed into storage or out for the trash or ready for Goodwill, a few things remain:

Photos of Aeris and Damien, my loves, with a sincere hope and prayer for their foundation and their futures

A whimsical squirrel faithfully guarding my door with a curious welcome

Praying hands illuminated at night by the soft bulb in a floor lamp

Light in the darkness

Hope in my heart

Peace in my hands

Stillness in my mind

And a small statue of Jesus that has been on my dresser for over two decads, a Jesus who long ago ceased to be held to the cross by nails but is supported by gobs and gobs of hot glue at His feet.

This freedom is beautiful. I cannot wrap my mind around it, around why God would give me such a wonderful gift. I still have questions, still worry about my worth or need a few moments here and there to make sure I am responding in love and heart, but that's all part of the process.

A process that began only when striving ceased.