Come to Jesus

This beautiful song touched me in a profound way the other day, so I thought I’d share:

I’ve been thinking how so often in this blog I vent my tears, frustrations, pains and sorrows–after all, I did title it “Valley of Achor” for good reason–but how few and far between are posts reflecting true joy and thankfulness. The truth is the last several years of my life have definitely been more sorrowful than joyful, more tinged with pain than with sweetness, and I often feel like God has given me the “short end of the stick,” so to speak, when it comes to the amount of pain He has allowed in my life, but lately He’s been convicting me about my attitude to this pain.

I came across this quote a couple weeks ago, posted above someone’s desk, and it really struck me:

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on my life. Attitude, to me is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstance, than failure, than success, than what other people think, say, or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home.

The remarkable thing is, we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.

We cannot change our past; we cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…

I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me, and 90 percent how I react to it.

And so it is with you… We are in charge of our attitudes.”

This quote is attributed to Pastor Charles Stanley, although that’s debatable–however, regardless of who said it, how true it is. And it reminds me of what James says in the Scriptures: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

I am no different than anyone else. When things hurt, when things don’t go my way, when my circumstances don’t make sense, when God seems a million miles away and callous to my pain, when He doesn’t answer my prayers the way I want Him to (and when I want Him to), I get angry. I get frustrated. I question Him. I justify my self-pity and my wrong attitude. I vent much of those feelings on this blog. And most would say, hey, that’s ok.

But is it? Of course, we all need to vent, and God would rather me be honest than mask my pain. He’s big enough to handle my anger, frustration and doubts. But I feel like I need to take a step back and reassess my attitude. I am, somehow, in the midst of my pain, my questioning, my frustration and my doubts, to “count it all joy.” Really, God? Joy? Joy when I’ve endured so much already? Isn’t that asking a bit much?

But it’s what He wants. Somehow. Some way. So often my attitude simply sucks. Let me just be blunt. But even though I know it’s still ok to get angry at times, to question, to vent–King David is my role model in being honest with God–I am not to remain in that place. I am, somehow, to count every hard, difficult thing in my life as joy.

So I’m going to endeavor to do that. By God’s grace, of course. I still don’t understand the why of so much of the pain, confusion and frustration in my life. I still ache, long, hope for intimacy in my relationship with God and others. I still know it’s ok to weep and shake my fist at God sometimes. But I’m realizing I can’t let my pain, my past, my failures, and every other negative thing in my life make me a negative person. Because the truth is that I am blessed. I may not have as much as some, I may not have the kind of fellowship and friendships right now that I long for, I may not have the future spouse I pray for, I may feel incredibly lonely most of the time, I may feel like my dark valley is stretching out to infinity, but I do still have so much to be thankful for. I have a few good, precious friends. I have a wonderful, large family, which now includes two adorable baby nieces. (I love being an auntie!) I have a roof over my head. I have food, clothing. I have Jesus. And, as Jesus said, with these I am to be content.

And when the pain and darkness seem overwhelming, as that song above so simply says, I must go to Jesus. Whether it feels like He’s there or not. I’m still figuring out how an intimate relationship with the invisible King of the universe really works, but to whom else can I go? And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes we have to be stripped of everything before we can see what’s right in front of us. Or Who’s right in front of us.

I know all this in my head, but hopefully I’ll come to know all this in my heart. And in the knowing, that my heart might be healed and made whole.

So, I come, Jesus. And may I somehow count all my sorrows, all my pain, all my frustration, as joy.

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I have a dream…

I have a dream.

A dream of a beautiful church. A church where rich, poor, black, white, prep, goth, beautiful, not-so-beautiful, broken, whole, American, Asian, African and every other nationality and ethnicity worship together. A church without partiality. A heterogeneous church. A church made beautiful by its diversity and yet made one by the indwelling Spirit of Christ. A church where the only head is Christ, not a single man labelled a “pastor”–a church where truth and love are not mutually exclusive–a church where no one is marginalized or “slips through the cracks”–a church where discipleship is a way of life–a church where the Spirit is allowed to move freely–a church that is neither hyper-charismatic nor cessationist–a church that doesn’t water down the Gospel–a church that is worship-driven, and not entertainment-driven–a church that seeks out the lost and broken–a church where, most of all, Christ is glorified, and not man.

This is my dream. But, sadly, in the worldly and divided church that makes up most of Western Christendom, I recognize this dream most likely will never be a reality. And I also recognize I am just as much a part of the problem as anyone else. But as I deal with my own issues, and seek to become the more godly woman God wants me to be, I’ve become more and more frustrated at my inability to find a church where at least a few of the above qualities are exhibited. I know, in this fallen world, and within a church made up of saints who still sin, there will never be such a thing as a “perfect” church, and I don’t seek a “perfect” church–but I continue to wrestle with so much disillusionment when it comes to the modern, Western church.

I realize my background of growing up in a nearly-cult-like church that left me deeply scarred still influences how I perceive the church, and what I feel it should look like, but in the thirteen years since I left that negative environment, I’ve struggled to find a church where I have truly felt at home. I have felt like an “outsider” within the Body of Christ for most of my life, and while I’ve questioned over and over if this is entirely my fault or not, lately I’ve begun to wonder if my perspective as an “outsider” is God’s way of giving me more of a heart for other “outsiders.”  Maybe, just maybe, instead of seeing my difficulties as a curse, I should instead see them as a blessing in disguise. Maybe I was never meant to “fit in.” At least not in the way that most homogeneous churches these days qualify “fitting in.” If fitting in means dressing a certain way, acting a certain way, and presenting a superficial spirituality to those around me, then I absolutely will never “fit in.” And I no longer want to. I’m tired of trying to live up to other Christians’ superficial expectations of me.

But even as I’m learning that feeling like an “outsider” is not necessarily a bad thing, and that hopefully God can use this “outsider” to reach out to other “outsiders,” I’m still frustrated at my inability to find a church home. Or at least a group of believers who would be able to provide me with safe, Biblical fellowship and discipleship. It seems every time I think I’ve found a group to “plug into,” there is at least one aspect of the group that troubles me and causes me to leave. I met with a group in a home for a short time, and while they were some of the most loving people I’d ever met, they were into some crazy, charismatic stuff that really disturbed me, and I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, participate in or agree with everything they were doing and teaching. So I left.

Then, just recently, I started attending a megachurch (much to my own astonishment, as, generally, I’m not a big fan of megachurches). It’s very entertainment-driven, with dance, rock-and-roll music, and watered-down preaching, but I liked the fact that it was full of the very sort of people I don’t see in most churches: the poor, the broken, the homeless, the “outsiders.” The kind of people I wish were in more churches. So I was willing to overlook the things I didn’t like about the church, all for the sake of being in a less stuffy, more heterogeneous atmosphere, until I found out, quite unexpectedly, that there were issues of immorality and spiritual abuse going on with the pastor and leadership. So once again I’m left with a stricken conscience, wondering if I should stop going.

The only ray of hope so far in all of this is another church service I’ve attended twice now. It’s a little Spanish congregation that’s affiliated with the megachurch, but meets in a different building and has a different pastor, and both times I’ve gone I’ve been welcomed warmly. The service is entirely in Spanish, and everyone but me are Hispanics, most of whom look as if they come from rougher parts of town, but so far I’ve really enjoyed my visits, and I’ve already been befriended and introduced to several people. They’re very enthusiastic in their worship, the pastor preaches fiery sermons that rouse loud claps, “Amens,” and other exclamations in Spanish, and I’ve been surprised at how much I actually understand, despite my rusty Spanish. I’m hoping that attending this church will, at the very least, give me an avenue to serve. I hope to begin helping out with their ESL classes–I sat in on one two nights ago and had a lovely time meeting some of the students and getting to know one of the teachers, a friendly and sweet Hispanic guy.

So I’m thankful I seem to have found some sort of fellowship for the time being, but my heart aches to be connected in a deeper way to other believers, and to receive the sort of discipleship and accountability I so desperately need. Going to church every Sunday is one thing, but I want so much more, and I continue to feel frustrated at my inability to find that “more” I want and need.

I’m tired of feeling like an island, but, so far, when I look around me at most churches, I find myself so disillusioned I want to give up altogether trying to find a place I can call “home.”

I’ll keep praying, I’ll keep searching, but maybe I simply have to lower my expectations and try to come to terms with the fact that my dream of the church, or anything remotely similar, is just that: a dream.

Trials and tears: gifts from above

It’s been over a month now since I quit my job. God has been very gracious to provide for me. I’ve been getting work, and not only that, He has flung open the doors to an opportunity I never expected to come my way so soon. Next month I am returning to Brazil. Only for three weeks—but it is truly a gift, and I am so aware of my unworthiness of His graciousness in bestowing this gift upon me.

I am still a shattered wreck, nervous, fragile, and faltering, but my prayer is that He will minister to me in Brazil. Perhaps nothing could be more healing to me at this point in my life than to be in the country I love and amongst the people I love. To be surrounded by smiling faces and warm embraces, rather than cold, hard stares and rude, condescending glares.

It’s strange, though. Looking back now on all I’ve gone through over the last few years (and I am by no means “out of the woods” yet), I realize that despite how utterly broken I feel, He has matured me in ways I probably never would’ve attained had I not gone through what I went through. It’s a truly humbling, painful thing to be disciplined by the Lord of heaven and earth, and He is still in the process of disciplining me; but in my saner moments—when my vision is not clouded by grief and agonizing darkness, pain, and despair—I can see what He has done in me, and I can see that as much as it hurts, it is for my benefit. And as Scripture says, those whom He loves, He chastens. So even though I don’t feel His love most of the time (that’s something I still struggle with), I can at least look at the evidence, and say with some sort of intellectual confidence, He must love me. For love seeks not one’s temporary ease and comfort, but one’s long-term good.

So here I am. I’m still a mess. I’m still meandering in my seemingly endless Valley of Achor. But no matter how tempting it is to give up hope, I’ve got to remember that Abraham didn’t receive his promise till the end of his life, Joseph spent nearly half his life in slavery, and Moses spent forty years in the desert before God used him. Perhaps I will be old and gray before I get out of my valley. Maybe I will never be completely healed. God’s timing is not my timing, and His ways are not my ways. Though He slay me—-and everything within me screams at Him, “Why God, why??” and “How long, oh Lord, how long??”—-I must trust Him.

One thing that’s been a little disconcerting to me lately is how much I think about the people I used to work with. Even the ones who hurt me excruciatingly. There is an incredible burden that is weighing down my heart, a grief even, over their lost and broken souls. I find myself crying over them sometimes. I feel a little self-conscious and pathetic admitting that, but I suppose I shouldn’t. After all, Jesus wept over others. I just hope the tears I shed, and the prayers I pray, are His tears, and His prayers. Otherwise they are in vain.

Yesterday I worked an all-day event with one of my former co-workers—it was good to see him, and he caught me up on all the recent goings-on at my former employment. The young man I wrote about in previous posts—the one I worked particularly closely with, and who had particularly wounded me—came up in the conversation. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he had been seen on a few occasions, and that his greetings had been extended to me. He’s been much on my heart, and I still pray for him as often as I can, as I had promised him.

So one never knows what God can do. I keep thinking, with almost a childish hope and excitement, wouldn’t it be amazing if God completely redeemed all the ugliness and darkness I went through at that job by saving a bunch of those calloused, self-absorbed, and god-less people that contributed to my pain? I mean, certainly, if He’s God, and as big as He says He is, such a thing is possible? Well, I can dream at least. And pray. The rest is up to God.

Praying for others is often the only thing that keeps me going. Focusing on others, instead of wallowing in self-pity (which I am so prone to do, unfortunately), has often prevented me from completely losing it and attempting to take my own life. So I thank God for the burdens He has placed on my heart. Shedding tears over another is nothing I ought to be ashamed of. It is a gift.

Being poor in spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” ~Matthew 5:3

“There are many servants of Christ who are given to prayer, doing good for the sake of others, fasting, and practicing self-denial so as to abstain from sin. And yet they miss the mark.

How quickly are you offended, scandalized, and stirred to anger by a single word—-all because you count it as a personal injury? How quickly are you offended when something you feel is yours is wrongfully denied you?

If you find this is true, then it simply means you are not yet ‘poor in spirit,’ counting nothing as your own—neither reputation, nor position, nor possession.

When you are truly ‘poor in spirit,’ you will despise everything that causes you to be selfish and self-centered. Soon you will become so free in God that you will take no notice of offenses, no matter how great or slight, so that someone might actually strike you on one cheek and you would not fail to respond in love.” ~Saint Francis of Assissi

Oh that I might learn this lesson of poverty of spirit. I read this passage this morning in a little devotional I have, one made up entirely of Scripture and Francis of Assissi’s writings, and I think it was simply God reminding me again about the importance of being poor in spirit. It was very timely, too.

To not take offense at sharp words, gossip, misunderstandings, and overt slights, is an extremely difficult and painful lesson to learn, but one God has been forcing me to learn of late. It doesn’t make it any easier that I am a naturally very sensitive person, and so I take offense (even though I may not show it) more easily than some. But the question always boils down to—-why am I taking offense? Is it my pride that’s been wounded? Is it my reputation? If, as Francis of Assissi indicates, taking offense really points to a love of self, then I have to examine, every time I’m offended, the root of that offense. If nothing is truly mine—if I know where my true security lies—-if I am truly poor in spirit—-then absolutely nothing in this world should personally offend me. I also read this morning, appropriately enough, in another devotional, the Scripture “If God is for me, who can be against me?”

Indeed—-if God is on my side, if my conscience is clean before Him, then what does it matter what others say or do to me? That is where the freedom lies that Francis of Assissi refers to. No one can touch me. I can be mocked, spit upon, scorned, rejected, slighted, and still turn to those oppressing me, and say, like Jesus did, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Oh for the grace to always respond in this manner! Daily I have to ask for the strength to have this kind of poverty of spirit. Because it doesn’t come naturally. My flesh and my pride war within me, wanting to harbor bitterness toward those who have been unkind to me. Especially those who have been unkind to me for reasons I can’t even fathom. And this past year has been full of these kinds of instances. I used to be naive enough to think if I was kind and civil to someone they would return the favor—-but that naivete has been shattered, as I have come to understand more fully the true range of human nature. To be hated without a cause, to be disliked without reason, to be misunderstood, to be slighted, to be the subject of cruel gossip…..I have experienced all of these over the last couple years. I feel like God has allowed Satan to buffet me in ways I’ve never been buffeted before, perhaps to test me. And the buffeting hasn’t just come from unbelievers, but believers as well. Which is hardest of all to swallow. For of course one has different expectations of those that know Christ.

But isn’t that where part of the problem lies? Why should I have “expectations” of anyone (even other believers)? As God began to show me with the young man I used to work with (see earlier post), I have to continually lay down my expectations of people. If I love them with a need-based love, I am not truly loving them. Loving unconditionally—-loving without expectations—-is what God offers me, and what I must offer others. And the only way I can love that way is by being poor in spirit.

So perhaps it is this poverty of spirit that God is seeking to instill in me, as He has allowed numerous “barbs” to inflict me over the last year or so. I just pray that He would, in teaching me how to be poor in spirit, also restore the immense mistrust that has grown in my heart towards people. I used to trust so easily—perhaps too easily—and now I find myself barely able to trust at all. So I hope and pray that, in time, He will restore this part of me that has been shattered to pieces.

But He is for me! No matter how others might hurt me or let me down, my God, my Rock, my Savior, is for me. And as long as I have Him on my side, I can let the winds blow, and the rains fall, and my house will remain standing. I have endured so, so much already, and perhaps the worst is to come, but as long as my anchor is secure, I need not fear what man can do to me. So continue to teach me, Father, what it means to be poor in spirit. To let go of my need to be accepted, loved, understood, and praised by men, so that I can truly love others freely and unconditionally and never take offense.

A different perspective

As much as I have whined, complained, doubted, and expressed anger toward God over my difficulties and trials in life, one thing that’s becoming increasingly clear is how beneficial these trials and hardships have actually been. Sometimes it’s hard to see through the gloom and feelings of utter despair, and so, caught up in my emotions and pain, I grumble at Him. Like the Israelites in the wilderness. I stupidly look back with fondness on the years when I was “living in Egypt”—-caught up in the things of the world, instead of the things of God, and though in bondage then, oblivious to it, because I was supposedly “happier” (mainly because I was in denial).

But going through the crucible of suffering does a marvelous thing to one’s character and  perspective. Lately, God is making me more and more aware of this. Going through the “valley of the shadow of death” helps one see the world, and life in general, with different eyes. I’m beginning to see more and more how selfish, worldly, and shallow I’ve been. And I no longer want to be so selfish, worldly, and shallow. Sometimes, as I stroll through public places like malls, I like to just observe the swell of humanity going by me. And what I see saddens me. People strut about, secure in their stylish clothes and outward appearance, chattering about meaningless, self-focused topics, and I wonder, do they really have any idea how lost they are? I ponder the same thing at my work-place. All day long I hear profanity and meaningless chit-chat, and all I see are shallow people who find their identities and security in their abilities and looks—incredibly shaky foundations.

Suffering, if allowed to do its work, can shatter every shaky foundation, rip away every tottering crutch, and open one’s eyes to see what truly matters in this life. It’s not one’s possessions. It’s not one’s achievements. It’s not one’s outward appearance. It’s not one’s intelligence. All of these are fleeting. And we are foolish to suppose they will bring us any lasting happiness or contentment.

So, as God strips away all the shaky foundations in my own life, He is helping me see that He alone is the one Sure Foundation. He alone brings true joy and contentment. All that the world values is actually smoke and mirrors. For too long I have thought as the world thinks, looked like the world looks, and valued what the world values. But as I have traversed this deep, dark valley of mine, my Father in heaven has opened up my eyes to see as He sees. And He is not encumbered by our illusions and self-imposed blindness. He sees reality as it truly is. And that is why I believe He has such special regard for the poor and broken of this world. In His upside-down kingdom, it is the “least of these” that have the most prominence. For it is in the valley of suffering that one is granted the privilege of seeing as God sees.

So I’m grateful. Grateful for the revelations, the depth and width of perspective, and the deep roots suffering has granted me. And I’m grateful too for being allowed my experiences in other parts of the world, where I have witnessed suffering far worse than my own. My own trials, and the awareness of the trials of others, have made me a more complete person. Not necessarily a better person—-for I am still a broken, weak, sinful vessel, totally unworthy of anything my Father gives me, but I’m beginning to see a little more clearly that His allowance of my “Valley of Achor” is a blessing, not a punishment.

This deeper revelation has begun to affect various practical areas of my life. One area in particular that the Holy Spirit has been convicting me about is my obsession with my outward appearance. Another big weakness is my vanity. I am a girly girl—-well, not overly girly, more earthy-hippie-girly—and I love pretty things. Pretty clothes, pretty shoes, pretty jewelry, pretty hair. I like looking as pretty as I can (without looking fake, that is—my obsession doesn’t go that far). Since I was such an ugly, dorky duckling as a child, and had a strict upbringing that forbid makeup, pierced ears, or any stylish clothes, I was like a kid in a candy shop as soon as I became an adult and gained some independence. I was all about transforming myself—-making myself as outwardly beautiful as I could by buying loads of clothes, makeup, shoes, and other accessories. Of course, this need to feel beautiful also tied in with the weakness I’ve already discussed—-my need to feel accepted and desired by the opposite sex.

But as God has been dealing with me in my shortcomings with men, so is He also dealing with me in my shortcomings in regards to my vanity. It’s been a gradual process, but one that probably began in earnest a couple years ago, when I went through all my health problems. It was then that I was literally forced to confront some of my insecurities.

One thing most people don’t know about me is that I was semi-anorexic for a good part of my adolescence and young adulthood. Not only did I not eat much, but I exercised like a maniac. I ran, I swam, I biked, I lifted weights—all in this effort to gain the kind of slender, toned physique I saw in magazines. Now, I am by no means “fat” in the first place, nor have I ever had a tendency to be overweight. I am naturally petite, naturally “small.” But I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted a certain physique, a certain figure. And the more men complimented me on my appearance, the more I felt the need to maintain it. And it drove me to unhealthy measures. But all that ended abruptly, when my body basically said “enough.”

So there I was, two years ago, nearly bed-ridden for a while, barely able to walk, let alone exercise, and forced to eat more. I gained weight. I completely lost that slender, fit physique I once had. I had to look in the mirror and totally change my thinking. I had to confront my insecurities.

And with God’s help, I have confronted and dealt with many of my insecurities since then. I no longer place unrealistic expectations on myself to look a certain way, and feel more comfortable with the body God gave me. In many ways I am far healthier now than I used to be. Maybe not as slender, maybe not as toned, but I am ok with that. I am just grateful that I can even walk again, and marvel at God’s grace in allowing me to even exercise once more. Walking/jogging two to three miles around the park is not something I take for granted anymore.

But lately it’s not just body image issues that God has been convicting me of, but how much time and money I still put in to looking “beautiful” or “cute.” It’s not that I feel God wants me to be frumpy and dress like a nun—I believe there is definitely a place for some outward beauty in a woman’s life. To a certain extent, God created us that way. We are meant to be the more beautiful sex, and to desire beauty is not necessarily a bad thing. We are simply being women by desiring to be beautiful. But that desire can become twisted, distorted, and overemphasized, especially in light of the culture we live in today.

What God has been gently prodding me with is, have I become so focused on attaining outward beauty, like the rest of the world, that I have neglected inner beauty? Especially as I get older, and realize my outward beauty is fading, I think, what is more enduring—my inner, or my outer, beauty? What should I be prioritizing right now? When I am gone, do I want my legacy to be that I was merely cute and wore stylish clothes, or do I want it to be that my life reflected the beauty of Christ? The obvious answer is the latter.

As that wise, well-known Proverb says, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.” That truth is hitting home to me more and more every day. I used to balk at that proverb, but now I understand it better, and desire to be the woman it describes. I am a long ways off, to be sure, and sometimes I wallow in despair and self-pity at the reflection I see of myself, but I just have to trust that God will continue to shape me into His image. And the way He’s doing it right now is through the valley.

There’s a beautiful song by the British band Delirious that addresses the hidden treasure of valleys in our lives, and I’ve found it comforting in many of my dark times. It’s called “Find Me in the River.” I think I’ll share it, as I think it is very appropriate, and a good way to end:

Find me in the river
Find me on my knees
I’ve walked against the water
Now I’m waiting if you please

We’ve longed to see the roses
But never felt the thorns
And bought our pretty crowns
But never paid the price

Find me in the river
Find me there
Find me on my knees with my soul laid bare
Even though you’re gone and I’m cracked and dry
Find me in the river, I’m waiting here

Find me in the river
Find me on my knees
I’ve walked against the water
Now I’m waiting if you please

We didn’t count on suffering
We didn’t count on pain
But if the blessing’s in the valley
Then in the river I will wait

Bearing one’s cross

A lot has been churning around inside me lately.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, a lot of pondering, a lot of praying, a lot of weeping, and a lot of repenting.

My spiritual life has been one heck of a roller coaster ride over that last year or so. I go from spiritual mountaintop, to abyss, to another mountaintop, back to abyss,  back to despair, back to doubt…..to wherever I am now. I wonder why God puts up with me and has as much patience as He does. If I were Him, I would’ve given up on me a long, long time ago. Most Christians I know seem to have such steady, even, ripple-free walks with God. Mine has been a long, rocky, very unsteady walk.

I’m not one of those Christians who’s happy all the time. I’m not one of those who has a mess-free, doubt-free, sin-free existence. If someone asked me, Do you love the Lord? I would answer honestly, No, but I’m learning to! Do I need Him? Absolutely. Do I believe in Him? Absolutely. But I would rather be sincere than to claim I love Him—at least, as I ought. Too many Christians I come across say a little too flippantly “I really love the Lord,” when their lives demonstrate just the opposite. If you truly love someone, your life should show it. And so, I’m very cautious about claiming to “Love the Lord,” when I know my own heart, and how desperately wicked it is, and how there is nothing in it that seeks after Him. It is only His grace that enables me to love Him anyway, and I’m in the process of learning just what loving Him means. If I’m going to love Him, I want to love Him the right way, with all my mind, spirit and strength. Right now my goal is simply to know Him. As the Apostle Paul said. For it’s not until you really know someone that you can truly love them.

So I’m working on getting to know Him. And I’ve made some observations, as, over the last year or so, I’ve been endeavoring to know Him better—-even amidst the mountaintops and the chasms. One thing that seems to go hand in hand with knowing Him is knowing oneself better. And that’s part of where my despair has so often come in. I’ve become increasingly aware of just how sinful, vile, and utterly wretched I am. Ironically, I never knew how bad I was until I became a Christian. It’s been a journey of self-discovery, in the worst possible way! But it’s really not a morbid thing—unless you’re prone to negativity like I am, which is why I so often have to fight sinking into despair over my failures, weaknesses, and sin—-it’s actually a positive thing. Seeing one’s true condition is a sign of growth. Christ can never change us, until we realize our true condition, and cling to Him with everything we have. It’s not until we come to the end of ourselves, and realize our absolute need of Him, that He can do anything with us.

For the last several years, Christ has been bringing me to the very “end of myself.” He has broken me in ways that at times I thought I could not endure. He has stripped away every shaky foundation I once clung to for support. He has let me go through “hell” at times. In fact, I could honestly say that much of my life, from childhood on, has been hellish in ways most people have no clue about. Sometimes I’m angry at God, sometimes I ask Him why over and over, sometime it just hurts so much I ask Him to let me die—-but in moments of clarity, He helps me see that everything I’ve been through, and continue to go through, is for a purpose. Ultimately, He wants to shape me into His image. And that never happens without pain and suffering. The chipping is what produces the diamond. The furnace is what refines the silver. The churning waves are what produce the smooth pebbles.

And so, I dare not ask Him to make things easier for me. I dare not ask Him to leave my conscience alone. I dare not ask Him to give me what I want. I ask Him to give me what I need. And if what I need is ten more years in the wilderness, or ten more years in this Valley of Achor, then that’s what I ask Him to give me. Make me. Shape me. Mold me. Break me. Fill me. May I decrease, and may He increase. May I learn to die to myself, and pick up my cross. I’m reminded of a quote from a preacher (can’t remember who) who basically said that “the cross is the only way God can get glory out of a man.” And as Eric Ludy said recently, “God builds us for crosses.”

So, as heavy as it might be, I must learn to bear my cross cheerfully and willingly. And pray that God can somehow use a broken, messed-up life like mine to bring glory to Himself. Sometimes I despair, sometimes I doubt—but, surely, if He could take people like cowardly, impetuous Peter, doubtful Thomas, demon-possessed Mary Magdelene, and murderer Paul—just to name a few—and transform them, He can do the same for me. I am so weak right now, and so aware of my weakness, and so utterly ashamed of it, but He is strong, even in my weakness.

These are just a few of my thoughts.

Lessons in weakness and in letting go

hopeSo what is this weakness in myself that I abhor so much?

It is my weakness with the opposite sex. As hard as I try to fight it, it seems to cling to me with ferocious tenacity.

The roots are in my childhood, of course. (Aren’t they always?) A strict, severe father that I was too afraid to get close to, a cold, aloof mother who overlooked me, an older man who took advantage of me when I was a little girl, a disease that made me feel ashamed and different—-it’s hardly surprising I became confused, mixed up, and desperately insecure. The love I could not get where I should’ve gotten it, I looked for in the wrong places. Even at a young age I noticed that what little acceptance and affirmation I received came from the opposite sex—however wrongly—instead of my own sex.

And so, that hunger for love and acceptance carved a huge hole in my heart, that I sought to fill with whatever male attention I could get.  And as I grew older, and the “plain Jane” and “ugly duckling” transformed into a more comely creature, the male attention I sought became more and more accessible. I learned to rely upon my “sex appeal” for my sense of self-worth. I was a natural at flirting. Where I clammed up around women, with men I felt at ease. I put up with all sorts of advances and behavior—some of which could even be called sexual harassment—-merely to feed the attention-seeking vacuum in my heart.

I am heartily ashamed to admit all of this now. Looking back, I cannot believe at how low I once stooped. But the heartbreaking thing is that the insecurity that once drove me to tolerate such disgusting behavior from men, is still very much alive in me. I recognize it now, of course, where I once did not, so I suppose that is a step in the right direction, but it is still this huge, ugly monster that I cannot seem to conquer. As all else in my life spins out of control, I cling to the last vestiges of my self-worth as resting upon the admiration of certain ones of the opposite sex. Whenever I feel low, I remind myself of all the handsome, much younger men I’ve had “flings” with (who, by the way, while good-looking, were all self-centered jerks), and see them as “trophies” on my wall. How sad and pathetic is that. Yes, I say to myself, you were a good girl and had the guts and morals not to give into temptation, but you must have been something pretty special to get such fine physical specimens of the opposite sex to fall for you!

Disgusting that such thoughts should float through my mind! And yet, though I try hard to suppress them, they still do. Even as recently as a few weeks ago, I faced temptation in regards to the opposite sex. A young man at least eight years my junior, asked for my number. It was immensely flattering. He was a very good-looking fellow, a Marine, and how well I could have justified myself in caving to his appeal. Oh how tempted I was to give in. But I steeled myself, and blew him off, reminding myself that, like every other young, attractive man who has ever pursued me, he was sure to want only one thing. And though it might boost my ego for a short time to be on the arm of a much younger, gorgeous Marine, it could only end in heartache. Besides, he was only attracted to a “mirage” of myself. Not the real me.

But my weakness in regards to the opposite sex has been mainly magnified in another situation, in another sphere of my life. I can honestly say that up until recently I never knew what “falling” for a man meant. Lust, yes. Like, yes. Infatuation, yes. But genuinely caring for someone so deeply that their happiness was more important to me than my own? This is a first for me. I never expected to fall for this person. And I actually tried very hard not to. But I was too weak. God’s gentle warnings stirred my spirit, urging me to “guard my heart,” and oh how hard I tried, but ultimately I failed. I saw him nearly every day, I had to interact with him nearly every day, and this proximity eventually led to my downfall. I knew better than to feel what I did for him—he was very much “unavailable,” an unbeliever, and a bit of a “bad boy” (not “bad-bad” in a “drugs-tattoos-jail” sort of way, just “bad” in the image he portrayed).

Perhaps it was partly the fact that I knew I couldn’t have him, and that he was, at least by my standards, a bit “bad,” that drew me to him. And it was hard to resist feeling something for him, when, at least for a while, it was obvious to me he found me a source of interest as well. It was not always a lop-sided affair between the two of us. But I was drawn to him not merely because of physical attraction, or other outward factors—-I was drawn to him primarily because he aroused within me what is both my greatest “weakness,” and perhaps my greatest strength. He aroused my compassion. My empathy. I am a sucker for the broken, the lost, the downcast, the oppressed, and those in bondage and pain. And he embodied these.

And that is why I grieve even more over my stupidity and foolishness in allowing myself to become entangled in romantic feelings for this young man. Initially, I wanted nothing more than to reach out to him, to show him the love of Christ, to be a witness to him. My intentions and heart were pure. I began praying for him. And God answered some of these prayers, in a beautiful way. But, like the fool I was, I let my heart become involved with this young man in ways it shouldn’t have. As he opened up to me more and more, instead of continuing to focus on what God was doing, and continuing to love him with the love of Christ, I allowed my own neediness, and desire for male affirmation, to get in the way. And I hate myself now, so much, for this! That my weakness should hinder anyone from coming to Christ is reprehensible.

Finally, in recent months, as I realized I was not winning the war with my weak flesh, and mourned over the fact that it was crippling me in my efforts to truly reach out to this young man, I told my Father in heaven that one of two things had to happen: for my sake, and for his, one of us had to go. So, a few weeks ago, he left. Without warning, without a word. He was gone. I had hoped I would be the one doing the leaving, as it would’ve been easier—for now, I am reminded of him every day, and cannot get away from the memories of him I have in the place we once shared as co-workers. But God knows what He’s doing, and I know He did what was best. And as much as I ache with sadness over this young man’s parting, I am filled with a strange kind of joy as well. Joy that God answered my prayer, and joy for the young man, that he is doing better things with his life (prayerfully!) and has a better chance of finding Jesus apart from me.

So if anyone reads this and feels led—-please pray for this young man alongside me. For all I know, I may be the only person that’s lifting him up in prayer right now. He needs all the prayer he can get. His name is “Michael.”

I miss him. But his life is completely in God’s hands now. And I am the better off for it. I am learning the hard way that true, agape love “does not seek its own.” It does not cling, but holds with open hand. It lets go. And I, if I truly love and care for this young man, with God’s love, instead of my own selfish brand of “love,” will not mind letting him go.

The dark night of the soul

I’ll never forget the day, sometime last year, when I was driving home from work, and in the midst of pouring my troubled heart out to God (as I often do when I am in my car), a huge billboard beside the interstate caught my eye. On it was a photo of a beautiful, dazzling diamond, and beside it were the words “Formed Under Pressure.” It was a dramatic illustration to me, and the words heaven-sent. I knew immediately God was using the sign to speak to me. (It’s so cool when He speaks to me through such seemingly ordinary means—-He seems to do this with me frequently.)

Anyway, that picture of the diamond and the words beside it have stuck with me through what I now call my “dark night of the soul.” Everything in my life hurts right now. I have never felt so helpless, so desperate, so crushed. But in the midst of my pain, God is refining me. Chipping away impurities, burning the dross, and challenging me to an ever deeper walk with Him. Calling me to a sanctified, poured out life to Him. It goes against everything my flesh desires, but I want, more than anything, to be that diamond someday, that reflects the glory and beauty of Jesus Christ. And if it means pressure and pain to become that diamond, then I mustn’t complain. Rather, I must embrace my suffering and hardship. Besides, as I constantly remind myself, what is my pain compared to the thousands of Christians around the world who know the true meaning of pain—who are being persecuted, tortured, and even dying for the sake of Christ. Oh that I should one day be counted worthy to stand amongst them!

I have simply been gobbling up books lately. Books that have been challenging me and stirring inside me a holy hunger. Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ, which tells the story of the persecuted, underground Church in Eastern Europe and Russia when they were under the Iron Curtain, brought me to tears. Just today I finished reading the biography of Amy Carmichael—-a woman who truly was a diamond in the rough, a rare gem. Her kind simply don’t seem to exist anymore. I’ve also been greatly blessed by the books of contemporary authors Eric and Leslie Ludy. Their passion for Christ, and the purity of His Church, has really convicted, challenged, and inspired me. I only own one of their books—being too poor to buy all of them—-but I’ve read most of them, the most recent one being Eric’s book The Bravehearted Gospel, in which he takes a bold stand against all the corruption, complacency, and heresy that exists in the Church today.

And, finally, I have just started reading Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Christian mystic. My interest in him was piqued after reading that he was among Amy Carmichael’s favorite authors. He went through a period of imprisonment and torture, and it was this dark time that led him to write his greatest works, Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, which describe one’s path to union and intimacy with the Bridegroom of Heaven. The theme resonates with me on a very deep level, as I’m realizing the truth of the correlation between darkness and spiritual growth. The greatest spiritual growth doesn’t come through ease and golden, happy days, but the deepest, darkest nights. Which is why I think most of American, or Western, Christendom is fast asleep. We’ve grown fat, complacent, lazy. The most beautiful, Christ-like Christians are the ones who truly know what the “valley of the shadow of death” is. I want to be like those Christians.

So, as painful as this “dark night of my soul” might be right now, I’m learning to embrace it. To embrace the Cross—-because it is only through death that life can come.

The joys and fruit of brokenness

Gosh, there is so much I want to write, that I hardly know where to begin. So much has been going on inside of me lately, so much in my relationship with God, in my relationships with others, that I feel I’ll go crazy if I try to write everything, and yet go crazy if I do not. I think I’ll regret not taking the former route more, so…..I guess I’ll take a stab, even if I’m incoherent and discombobulated in articulating myself (as I often am).

My Father in heaven has been doing major surgery in my heart lately. Teaching me, speaking to me, revealing Himself to me, and drawing me deeper and deeper in my walk with Him. It’s dangerous, it’s often painful, but it’s also liberating and exciting. I’ve never felt so broken in my life, my outward circumstances haven’t changed, some days I still despair even of life itself…..but Jesus is meeting me in my brokeness. I still can’t see Him with my physical eyes, as I long to, I still can’t feel His physical embrace, as I long to—-and I still struggle with this sometimes, and feel frustrated by it—-but I think He’s helping me to see more and more with the eyes of my spirit instead, and giving me the grace to simply “walk by faith.”

He’s convicting me too, of my sin, and areas where I fall so far short of what He desires to do in me, and through me. Never has there been such a war within me between the spirit and the flesh. It would be nice to wake up one day and not have this kind of struggle, to suddenly be “totally spiritual,” and have no struggle with sin and self, but I know such a thing is not possible in this life. As I heard John Piper say once, “Make war!!” Every day I’m making war against my sinful, selfish nature—-the old man. It hurts, it’s not fun, but oh the benefits it reaps! As Jesus Himself said, “The pure in heart shall see God.” The more I clear out all the debri and junk that inhabit my soul, the more I die to self, the more I am sanctified, the clearer my vision of God becomes.

But the neat thing I’ve realized is that this sanctification process is not borne out of a sense of duty or obligation I feel, but out of my hunger and desperation to know God. To really know Him. Not just in theory, not just in my head, not just as a correct doctrine—-but to know Him as He truly is. To relate to Him on a daily, moment-to-moment basis, to walk with Him, to talk with Him…..I want Him to be everything to me. This is what Jesus meant by exhorting us to “abide in Him.” He’s been teaching me this lately. Abiding, as Jesus used it, means to “remain stable or fixed in a state; to continue in a place.” There’s no coming and going, wandering, or changing one’s mind in abiding. It is, on the one hand, so simple a thing to do, and yet, especially for someone like me, who is, by nature very restless and full of wanderlust, so incredibly difficult.

But when I do abide in Him, what a difference it makes. I can’t face my problems—my life even—without this simple act of abiding in Jesus. When I make Him the intentional focus of every single day, when I rest in Him, He pours His grace out upon me.

I’ve seen His hand at work in so many areas in my life lately, pouring out that grace, that all I can do is thank and praise Him. I get excited, just waiting to see what He will do next. One area that I’ve really seen Him answer some prayers is in my relationships at work. I work in a very dark environment, with Goths, punks, “emos,” and other hippiesh, anti-establishment folk, who are, in general, very anti-God. The atmosphere is very negative, most of my co-workers aren’t the friendliest of folk, and from day one it was clear many people decided not to like me. But, despite the resistance I felt, the resentment even, I knew God was calling me to love them, to be His light to them. It hasn’t been an easy ride, and there have been days I’ve wanted to quit, but in recent months, as I’ve simply thrown myself wholeheartedly upon my Abba in heaven, I’ve seen Him come through over and over. He continually amazes me! I’ve slowly begun to develop friendships with people that I never imagined I would, and I’ve seen cold, arrogant, and resentful hearts soften toward me. My sincerest prayer is that God would use me, and be glorified through me in my workplace. I’m nothing but a broken vessel, poor, afflicted, and needy, but oh that His power might be made manifest in my weakness.

And, speaking of weakness, I close this lengthy ramble with the biggest revelation God has given me recently: that, apart from my trials, suffering, and brokenness, I would never even seek Him to begin with. As each day passes, I become more and more grateful for the pain He has allowed in my life. It was the pain that caused me to hate Him and run away from Him for a good part of my life, but it was the pain that ultimately drew me to Him. My suffering is actually His mercy.

It is my weaknesses, my trials, my state of brokenness, that force me to run into His arms. Otherwise, pride and my sinful, rebellious nature would never want anything to do with Him. I have wished and prayed in the past that He would remove every painful thorn from my life, but now I see things differently. Now it’s my prayer that He will leave a few of those thorns, so that I will never, ever forget how much I need Him. I need Him every moment, every hour, every day.