Jesus, the Enlarger of Hearts

It sounded like I was walking on Pringles. The tightly-packed snow, sitting above a layer of freezing rain, crunched with every step. Twenty-four hours was too short a time to spend here; in God-terms, the time was just enough.

I woke up in the fishing-hut-converted-spiritual-retreat-cabin with the sound of silence pressing on my ears. Dozens of acres were all solely mine and God’s to enjoy. A stirring in my soul prompted me that it was time to take a walk. We had already established that the time I spent at this place was for the purpose of finding peace in Christ. I was ready to go and do what He would have me do.

18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be eaten by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 
Isaiah 1:18-20

Today held my decision. I’d had quite enough of refusing and rebelling. I had never imagined it would have taken me this long, but oh – no one had told me how satisfying this food could be. All advised, “it will not last, it will not satisfy,” but au contraire, it filled me to the brim. I could gorge all day on the sweetness of its taste. If it made me feel a little sick, so what? That would go away in time, to be left with hunger again that could be beautifully and slavishly satiated. Some call it the cycle of addiction. I call it the cycle of satisfaction. They are, of course, one and the same.

I had made my home in the dumpster, both queen and slave of my own miserable, beautiful kingdom. My stomach longed to be filled with the richest of foods, but the forbidden fruit was realistically getting further and further away. Where once all I had to do was reach up and twist it off from the branch, I would now have to make a deliberate, anxiety-ridden trek to the tree, all the while fueling my bitterness and rage and sorrow to such a degree that I would eventually crash into apathy – and then, at last, I would take what was rightfully mine. I was almost ready to do it, too. Hardened by war, I had become a soldier ready to die.

But true Love will not allow its child to live forever in the refuse of this world, and it will do anything to prevent us from dying for our own personally-crafted gods.

It was thus I entered my spiritual retreat, returning from my war in the garbage dump as queen, slave, and soldier. It didn’t take long before I realized how very much I’d changed. I had wrestled with God and emerged with a terrible limp. I had fought my battles with this so-called handicap and by the grace of God had emerged alive each time – and the scars became my daring exploits of narrow escapes and crippling losses and victorious turning points where the love of God had been my bullet-proof vest all along, that the wounds I would receive would not be fatal, though many parts of me would die.

Walking along the snow-covered path around a lake, I was prompted to stop at various places to surrender different parts of my life: my work, my friendships, my family, my deepest desires . . . I thought it would have been more difficult, to be honest. But it was then that I realized I had already gone through the worst of it. Indeed, I had already died. God had already knelt down on the battlefield and breathed life into me and said, “Go and sin no more.”

All that was left now was to get up from the dust and start walking.

And so, at times crying and at other times laughing, I talked aloud with God, releasing my firm grip on all the people and things I so cherished, everything in which I’d placed my hopes and dreams of fulfillment thus far.

His Kingdom, my kingdom.

Both had always been there. For so long, I could not escape the first, yet I did not want to leave the second, so I scrambled to live in both. No matter how hard I tried, I had found that God would not bow to me and to my disordered loves. Long had I professed that my one goal was to love God and love people well – and long did I try to convince him of this.

I just want to love, I just want to love, damn it, I thought you were Love – just let me love!

Mercifully, perhaps my greatest revelation was brought to life in Till We Have Faces, a myth re-told by C.S. Lewis. Through this story, I finally was able to admit to myself that my greatest desire to love another person holistically was in fact a selfish desire to have someone who is mine, someone who I can comfort and cherish in boundary-less, obsessive infatuation.  I long to be someone’s savior, and to invite them to be mine. But it is not my place to have anyone. It is not my place to claim anyone as wholly mine, no matter how gentle and comforting and seemingly loving are my intentions. There is only one Savior, and it is not me. If I tried to step into a role I was not created for, it would only bring destruction in the end. Crossing the line and taking the forbidden fruit and living a love I have defined as good would only lure myself and the person I claim to love away from true Love, and that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

And so, my surrendering this weekend was really a plea to turn every part of my life from tragedy to triumph. It is only God who can do such things, and far more abundantly than I could ever imagine. I will still struggle with bitterness, envy, anxiety, and a countless number of other things in this journey as well as others. I am confident of this. But I am also confident that “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!” (Psalms 119:32).  My dependence on Him has been solidified only through this great and painful and glorious daily journey of Him enlarging my heart.

As Simon Tugwell puts it,

“The gift which God makes of himself in this life is known chiefly in the increase of our desire for him. And that desire, being love, is infinite, and so stretches our mortal life to its limits. And that stretching is our most earnest joy, but it is also our most earnest suffering in this life. So those who hunger and thirst are, even now, truly blessed; but their blessedness is that of those who mourn.”

Jesus, the Enlarger of Hearts, invites us to come along with Him on the journey. I encourage and entreat you to do the same. Dare to delve deep into your minds and hearts. Question everything. Start from scratch. Be honest. Be enraged. Be mournful. Be hopeful. Be humbled. Be in community.

Be whole-hearted, desire-driven truth-seekers.

The journey will stretch you. It will stretch you further than you think you can bear, but remember, the stretching is to make room for the greatest Love of all.

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Whose Line is it Anyway?

I love comedy. Comedy transforms the ordinary, the absurd, and sometimes even the tragedies of life, into a pleasantly uncontrollable physiological response: laughter. In the TV game show Whose Line is it Anyway?, a few comedians are thrown into various pretend scenarios and games and are asked to improvise. The end result is hit or miss, but when they play off a scenario well, hysterical laughter ensues.

Sometime between the ages of 8 and 12, I wanted to be a comedian. I had always been good at making my family and friends laugh. My best friend and I even had a game we would play, aptly titled: Make Somebody Laugh. We would take turns doing various ridiculous things. The goal was to make the other person laugh ten times (the person would use their fingers to keep track of how many times they laughed). I was always eager to be the comedian, so when I was in the audience, I would often force some laughs so it would be back to my turn in the spotlight.

I was so excited about making people laugh that at eleven or twelve I pushed past my shyness to join an acting class. The first class included an improv game called FREEZE! in which two actors would start a scene. At any time, someone from the audience can shout “Freeze!” and enter the scene. Heart beating rapidly, I watched in exhilaration as the actors started their scene. It was now or never–I had to enter the scene. I knew exactly what to do.

“Freeze!” I said, a little timidly. I tapped one of the actors on the shoulder, they moved out of the way, and I resumed their position, which was in the middle of wrestling a chair. “Crikey! She’s a big one!” I morphed into my best Steve Irwin impression, pretending the chair was a crocodile. A chorus of laughter met my ears, and I felt a thrill of satisfaction, a bolstering of my self-worth. My “co-star” said something to me that moved the scene in a different direction than I was expecting, and my train of thought derailed.

I had thought that once I had jumped in, the rest of the scene would come naturally to me. Instead, I felt an inevitable sinking feeling in my gut as the initial laughter died down and I scrambled for a response. The remaining thirty seconds of the scene was agonizing. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. Who am I kidding? I’m not funny. I’m shy. I’m scared. I don’t know what I’m doing! A mingled feeling of relief and embarrassment stirred when someone put me out of my misery and shouted, “freeze!” That was my first and last appearance at that class.

Sometimes life is a lot like an improv sketch.

Just like my first attempt at improv comedy, I jumped into my journey of self-discovery (approaching the year mark now) scared as hell but excited to forge my own path through a confusing scene. I knew the first couple lines to say. I even correctly predicted some of the dialogues and maneuvered my way around them with little difficulty. Like a good comedian, I delivered some one-liners that floored my audience. I’ve taken control of some of the twists and turns and used them as well as I can to my advantage.

But now, the thrill and the laughter has died down. I find myself thinking: Who am I kidding? I’m not equipped for this. I don’t know what I’m doing! And like a painfully awkward improv comedy sketch, I do not know what to say or do next.

I wait for someone to yell “freeze!” and take my place in this scene that I’ve messed up with my determination to force God’s will to align with my own. He isn’t budging on His part. And so far, neither have I. But I’m wearing down. Sometimes I’m worn down by bitterness, anger and grief. At other times, I’m worn down by faith . . . by faith in God’s goodness. It is a faith like Abraham’s, that makes no sense:

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.'(Romans 4:18)

Immediately when I feel a hint of that kind of faith, I recoil. Am I being duped? Am I succumbing to some kind of manipulative plan of God’s to draw me to Himself through suffering? Am I losing the wrestling match?  

The Spirit of the sovereign God lives in us (Christ-followers) to transform us into becoming more like Jesus for our good and for His glory. We are also told that we have the free will to reject the Holy Spirit’s leading. Even so, does it not seem at times as if we are pawns in this game of life? Sometimes I ask myself what is speaking to me, keeping me here weighted at the crossroads: my conscience, my shame, or my God? I find it so hard to resist Him . . .

19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)

In Whose Line is It Anyway? former host Drew Carey played a vital role. He introduced scenarios, stopped scenes in their tracks, and sometimes joined in the improv sketches himself. In a way, so it is with God. I’ve resisted Him as Lord of the game show, as Lord of my life. Like the time when I was derailed by how my fellow improv actor responded to my initial Steve Irwin impression, I am thrown off by a God who prefers to use the unexpected (and often the most painful) paths in life to bring about His good and loving purposes.

Room at the Table for the Ungrateful

We finally had too many ornaments to put on the tree this year. The family tradition is to decorate the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. Since 1998, my dad has given my sister and I each a blown-glass ornament that usually represents something significant from the past year. Mom, not one to be left out in the fun, joined in the tradition a year or two later, and we have been lavished with beautiful ornaments for the past 18 years.

This year, for the first time, we took some of our sparkling glass memories with us to decorate a tree in Nashville. A few random puzzle pieces of my life glitter on display. There’s the piñata that represents my love of all things Mexico. A tiger cub balances on a high branch, indicating my love of animals (especially cute baby ones). A s’more snowman wearing a cabbie hat and sporting an Irish flag hearkens to my study abroad trip in Ireland. Snoopy and Woodstock rock out with electric guitars (they
would actually play music, if I changed the batteries).

Typically, I get pretty excited about Christmas. This year, my attitude towards it has been borderline Scrooge. I never listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, but I found myself wanting to skip the music entirely for a year (an impossible goal). My excuse was that I wanted to be able to appreciate the holiday classics more when I finally heard them again the next year. But really, though I’ve already been swept into the Christmas cheer by default, I am not ready for Christmas. My heart is not ready for all of the joy.

I wonder, is there room at the table for me?

My list of things to be thankful for are countless. Just glancing at the three-foot Christmas tree reminds me of some of my blessings. Not to mention the greatest gift of all: God become man to provide a way for an eternal place at His table.

But this year, though there have been poignant, undeniable moments of joy and awe of God’s goodness, has ultimately been one of wrestling, struggle, and doubt. And here I find myself in the midst of the season of expected gratitude.

At church last night, I felt surrounded by people who seemed full of inexplicable joy and peace. I felt a lot of emotions, but joy and peace were not either of them. I sang “Good, Good Father” half-heartedly. I listened to the special solo piece, “He Wants it All”, in bitterness and exasperation that I would never be able to give everything to God, no matter how much effort I put forth. I found myself lamenting that I cannot love Him with my whole heart. If He wants it all, He is going to have to take it by force and how can I praise Him for being a good, good Father if it comes to that? I prayed multiple times last night for my heart to be turned from ungratefulness to worship.

It didn’t happen.

The service continued.

Worry and faith in God cannot abide together, was a main point of the sermon. My frustration increased as a chorus of amen’s followed this statement, because my life has been one permeated with worry. I felt further thrust into an isolated experience. In my reality, worry and faith must abide together. My life has been one of near-constant anxieties. However, my faith has been right there with me through the darkest moments, too. I longed for someone to say from the pulpit: “I worry so often. In fact, I’m worried right now. I’m glad God is with me, but I’m in a lot of pain right now.” That is something to which I could honestly have said “amen“.

Again I wondered, is there a space for me at this table of Christ-followers?

Someone wise once said that comparison is the thief of joy. Yesterday, I unfairly measured myself up to everyone in that sanctuary. I saw all their gratitude and their joy-amidst-pain and metaphorically flung up my hands in despair and had a pity party. By comparing, I not only did a disservice to myself and my own heart. When I unfairly project judgments on people I love and who I know love me, I am sure that my attitude reveals itself in subtle but hurtful ways.

Still, I wonder.

Is there room for the thankless at the table of thanksgiving?
Is there room for the hurting at the table of healing?
Is there room for the worried at the table of trust?

I sure hope so. Because I am thankless, hurting and worried. I am wrestling with God. I am bitter and angry. I am full of sorrow. I don’t want to sing His praises. I don’t want to celebrate His birth. I’m sick of all the the Kingdom of God is bigger than your problems talk. I’m fed up with church-as-school. I need church-as-hospital.

Still, I will come, though I am far from being neatly tied up in a bow of hope and peace. I come to the table because deep down I know what is good for me. I know that I will not find sustenance anywhere else. I decorate the Christmas tree, I sing carols, I sit at church in my judgmental, fearful, angry, bitter, sorrowful and prideful inclinations, because Jesus tells me that yes, there is room for me. Whatever season you find yourself in, Jesus says there is room here for you too.