A taste of life

It’s been a while. And it’s amazing I’m finding time, even now, to write anything on here. My workload this semester with school has been intense, not to mention the stress of my job and certain personal issues in my life, so I doubt I’ll be contributing much on here over the next few months.

But I thought I’d share something quickly that happened to me the other day. Something that gave me a taste–just a taste–of what the author of this blog post shared in his reasons for leaving the institutional church and instead joining a more organic expression of church. I will preface what I’m going to share first by saying I’m thinking of leaving this thing called the “institutional church” as well. I’m just so sick and tired of the superficiality, the ritual, the deadness, the lack of real community, the social club atmosphere…pretty much most of what the author of the aforementioned blog post said. I’m just so disillusioned right now and consequently no longer regularly attend church services.

However, in an effort to find some sort of spiritual community, I recently started attending a small group unaffiliated with any particular church, and geared toward people seeking emotional and relational healing. I wasn’t too impressed at first, even though the people I met were welcoming and friendly. To be honest, I thought at first it just seemed like a navel-gazing session, where everyone rehashed all their child-hood traumas for the umpteenth time. But, because the people were nice, I decided to go back. Well, this past Wednesday evening, as I sat in this brightly-lit room in a basement, surrounded by only four other women, I just spilled some of the things I’ve been struggling with, and instead of the condemnation and judgment I expected, all four women decided to spend some time praying for me. Me, and only me. I protested at first, but they insisted, so I let them pray for me, and afterwards the leader of the group said she felt God wanted her to hug me, because I needed it. So I let this woman hug me, and as she did so, something in me just broke. I sobbed. Hard. Tears of pent up frustration, of loneliness, of despair, of pain, of every negative feeling that has been oppressing me for so long, fell on that woman’s shoulder as she held me close. And as she held me, I felt, in a way, that God Himself was hugging me. Letting me know He understood. That He really did care. That He loved me, despite my brokenness. It was a powerful, cathartic few minutes, and after this woman let me go, the other women took turns hugging me as well, while speaking words of encouragement over me.

When I left that meeting, I felt so much lighter than when I went in. And I felt I had experienced, for the first time in a very long time, a taste of what the Body of Christ is supposed to look like. What the true church ought to look like. People ministering to each other. People being real with each other. A place where the broken, the lame, and the sick can come, just as they are, and be made whole. A place where plastic smiles and superficial spirituality are not allowed. A place where the love of Jesus is not just talked about, but actually seen and experienced. A place where rivers of life flow, in place of stagnant pools of dead doctrine and dogma.

I think it’s sad that most of my experiences of this type have been found outside an institutional church. And apparently I continue to find these pockets of life outside the four walls of a church. But I’ll take what I can get. For however long it lasts. If I must go outside of “church” to find church–real church, that is–then so be it.

I think I’ve had enough of the institutional church. But the other night gave me hope. Hope that not all is lost, and that perhaps, as far away as God feels most of the time to me, He is closer than I think, and just waiting to hold my broken, fragile self close to His heart.

Sad

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I’m not sure why, but tonight a wave of sadness so overwhelmed me, that directly after dinner I put my pajamas on and crawled into bed. And, as I did so, tears began to trickle down my cheeks. Maybe it’s partly PMS. Maybe it was my grandmother’s snappy attitude toward me when I walked into the house earlier this evening.  Actually, I do know that had something to do with it. But I’d been feeling inexplicably blue all day, and after encountering her bad mood, I just wanted to disappear.

I only dozed off for a little bit, and then I finally sat up in bed to force myself to work on a paper for school. As I sat there, I sort of listened to a sermon being preached in the background on the radio, and when the preacher talked about the Body of Christ being a place to find healing and accountability for our brokenness, tears once more cascaded down my cheeks. Oh, if only, I said to myself, or God, out loud. If only that were true in my experience.

I’m not in a good place right now spiritually. Disappointment and disillusionment, with church, with myself, and–dare I say–even God at times, have hardened a once soft heart. I’m grieved over this, but I also don’t exactly know what to do about it. My counselor has been visibly frustrated with me lately, because, for the last few months I’ve found myself stumbling backwards. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try, she told me. You have to keep trying. No matter how many times you fail, you have to keep trying.

So, I’ll keep trying. I’m going to a Christmas party tomorrow evening, for the singles group at the charismatic church I’ve been attending, not really because I want to, but because I feel like I have to. I’m also hoping to join a women’s group at another church I’ve been attending. (Yes, I go to two churches now.) I’m seeking fellowship. I’m trying to put myself out there. And yet, my experiences so far have been so damn frustrating, that I don’t have very high expectations anymore.

It’s the seemingly never-ending source of frustration for me: finding meaningful relationships and accountability within the Body of Christ. I’ll keep trying, like I said. But sometimes I’m flat-out exhausted from trying. From dealing with disappointment after disappointment. So when preachers, or anyone else, claim the Body of Christ is where we’re meant to find healing and accountability, I just break down and sob. Because, apart from a few short-lived experiences in my life, that has not been the case for me. The Body of Christ is where I’ve been hurt the most, disappointed the most, rejected the most. And it shouldn’t be any wonder I have such a difficult time trusting and connecting with other Christians. Of course I blame myself. And then that just heaps more guilt and shame on top of the burdens I’m already carrying.

I am a broken, broken person. I have no problem admitting that. But I’m sick and tired of trying to make myself whole. All alone. I am too weak to keep carrying these burdens alone. While I’m definitely grateful for the few Christian friends I have, none are the sort I can just casually meet up with, or pray with, when I’m going through a rough time. Most live too far away for one thing. And so far I’ve been unable to really connect with anyone at either church I’m attending. (Unless you count going to lunch with a guy and then practically being stalked by him as “connecting.”)

So maybe my sadness today really does have a source. Maybe I’m just so weary of living in this place of brokenness and having so few people–if any–to turn to for support. Maybe I’m tired of hearing “healing only happens in community” when that community has been so hurtful and/or elusive for me. Maybe I’m tired of hearing God is enough, when He hasn’t been enough for me, and I feel incredibly guilty that I even think that. Maybe I hate the person I’ve become…indifferent, selfish, spiritually cold and cynical. Maybe, even though I’m disappointed with God, I still miss Him. Maybe all I want is to believe again all the nice, warm and fuzzy things about God that I used to believe. Maybe I’m so disillusioned with church–at least the way it’s done in America–that I feel like throwing in the towel and giving it up altogether. Maybe I just need to get out of this narcissistic, materialistic, self-centered culture I live in and go live with and serve those who have nothing–to remind myself of what truly matters.

But for now, I still feel like crying.

Pressing on…no matter what

This past Saturday I had the opportunity, via my community college, to visit and take a brief tour of the university I intend, Lord willing, to transfer to next fall. The visit excited me about my future goals, but was also a much-needed wake-up call to the realities of the possible major life-changes I am facing in the near future.

I am not your “typical” college student. It has taken me sixteen—sixteen!–years to figure out what I want to do with my life, and so here I am, in my thirties, pursuing a bachelor’s degree. I don’t regret many of my life choices over the last eighteen years or so–I’ve spent nearly a year living abroad, I’ve traveled to other countries, where I’ve done missionary work and volunteer work such as teaching English, and I’ve had many other life-enriching experiences. I’ve also worked at various jobs, some pleasant and rewarding, some very stressful, unpleasant and unfulfilling, which I think have made me a pretty well-rounded, versatile person. All of my experiences since graduating high school oh so many years ago have shaped who I am and have helped me discover where my passions, interests, and strengths lie, so that, finally, I can say with some degree of certainty: THIS is what I want to do with my life. I am definitely a late-bloomer. And I am ok with that.

Part of my late-blooming journey can definitely be attributed not only to my indecisiveness, but to not-so-pleasant life circumstances beyond my control, such as a major health crisis in 2007 that not only sent me spiraling into debt from medical bills, but into a mental and emotional breakdown which I am still trying to recover from. My life has not been easy. It has been characterized by setback after setback, and many physical, emotional and mental struggles, to the point where, even now, if I don’t see things improving in a very dramatic, immediate and tangible way, I am so tempted to give up. To give up on life, to give up on trying to get better, to give up believing anything good, happy, or ultimately lasting will ever come of my turbulent existence.

So my visit to the university this past Saturday left me with mixed emotions. I absolutely loved the campus–it was beautiful, with grand, old buildings, steeped in history (the university was founded by one of our first presidents), and full of a lively academic atmosphere that got my pulse racing with excitement. I could just imagine myself poring over my books in one of its spacious libraries with vaulted ceilings, strolling along its green lawns to my various classes, and just generally immersing myself in this whole new experience known as real college. I know, for most people my age, such feelings of excitement are long over, but having only attended community college so far, going to an actual, four-year university is both daunting and exhilarating at the same time to me.

But even as I pondered the exciting part of possibly going to this university, I also let myself face the inevitable challenges that would await me. I am no stranger to hopping on a plane and traveling half-way across the world completely on my own, to a place where I know no one—I’ve done it more than once, and I enjoyed it. In fact, I’d be doing it now, if I had the money. I was born a wanderer and explorer, and I love immersing myself in new environments and seeing new places. So the idea of moving to another city, only about an hour away from where I live now, to attend a university, shouldn’t frighten me. Admittedly, part of me can’t wait to move to a different city, to get out of the boring, hum-drum place I live now. But, strangely, another part of me is a bit frightened. Even with all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve never faced something quite so daunting as college. On my own. In a city where I know no one. For some reason, this intimidates me more than trekking across the globe on my own (which I’d do in a heartbeat, if it was safe, and I had the money). I know part of it is that I know how awkward, alone and out-of-place I’ll feel, at least initially, amidst a throng of preppy, much-younger, partying-type college “kids.” At least at the community college I currently attend, I am not the only “older” student, and there is much more diversity over-all in the types of students that go there. So I blend in rather well. But I know the environment will be far different at the university. And I wonder how I will cope with trying to connect and form relationships with many of my fellow students. I wonder how I’ll find community in a city where I don’t know anyone. I wonder where I’ll live. If I’ll have roommates. If I’ll like my roommates. Suddenly, all these “what if” scenarios start floating through my mind, filling me with fear.

I have come a long ways from where I used to be. But I’m still struggling. I still feel fragile, faltering and unsure of myself much of the time. So this prospect of going off to a university, in a new place, while exciting, also scares me. Somehow, facing the pressures of a university environment and college life frightens me more than going to live in a country I’ve never been to before. Consequently, over the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling a bit emotionally, as I ponder not only the realities of the challenges ahead of me, but of the continued issues and hurdles I’m dealing with in my everyday life. And that’s when the dark thoughts start to push their way into my mind. You’ll never get better. You’ll never succeed. Your life will end before it’s even begun. Why bother trying. Why bother trying to get a degree. Why bother trying to change your lot in life. If you have trouble finding meaningful relationships and friendships where you are now, what makes you think it’ll be any easier in a different city? Why bother with anything? You are a failure. Yes, despite all the positive things you’ve done in your life, you are still a failure. And that’s all you’ll ever be. So give up. Just give up.

Fighting such thoughts has been very depressing. I try to give myself pep-talks, but they’re only so effective. I try to quote Scriptures to myself, but they seem to only give me temporary relief. I admit shamefacedly that I am tempted, very often, to simply listen to all those dark voices and give up. Give up on myself and give up on life.

But I’ve got to press on, no matter what those dark thoughts tell me. If there’s one thing that frightens me more than any of my other fears, it’s living a wasted, completely self-absorbed life. No matter what those familiar, dark voices of despair tell me, and even though, yes, most of the time all I can see is how far I have to go instead of how far I’ve come, I know I was meant for more than this broken life I’ve lived so far. Somewhere deep in my spirit I know. And it’s this fear of not becoming who God intended me to be that drives me forward, even when it feels like hell itself is standing against me. Perhaps one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from my current counselor, who told me I was “remarkably resilient.” This came after she discovered, in greater detail than I’ve told anyone before, exactly what I’ve been through and continue to deal with. I wonder myself sometimes, why, God, am I still here? And that’s when I know, if there is any resilience in me, I certainly can’t take credit for it.

I am super excited about the prospect of attending a university and hopefully one day acquiring my bachelor’s degree. I hope, and pray, with all my heart, that if I get that degree, I can use it to serve God on the mission field. That’s my goal. That’s my dream. But the reality of the difficulties that will cross my path as I go in that direction is ever present to me. I just hope I don’t finally cave to the feelings of discouragement and despair that so often hound me. I’ve come so, so close to caving.

I don’t want to waste my life. No matter how difficult the terrain, I must keep trekking. One foot. In front of. The other.

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.

Imprisoned by the past

“Why can’t we just sweep all of that under the rug and let the past be the past?” So says an old man, pleadingly, angrily, to his daughter, who has, once again, unintentionally embarrassed him by reminding him of his past life.

A little while later, after being confronted by someone from his past, he is seen collapsing into a chair, his body convulsing with heart-rending sobs.

Both these scenes are from a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “Little Dorrit.” I am a huge Charles Dickens fan, and I just recently watched this masterpiece of a drama for the second time. However, this time the movie touched me in a way it hadn’t before, as I suddenly realized how much of myself I saw in one of the drama’s main characters–old Mr. Dorrit.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, “Little Dorrit” tells the tale of a man, and his family (the Dorrits), who, after being stuck in a debtors’ prison for over twenty years, suddenly find freedom and wealth when they learn of an unclaimed inheritance. Transitioning from the bottom rungs of society to the very top proves to be a challenge for all of the Dorrits, but most especially for the father, Mr. Dorrit, who, having been accustomed to prison for so long, finds his newfound freedom, wealth, and “respect” exhilerating at first, but eventually more than he can handle.

Even as he moves among the elite in society, travels Europe, and does his best to “fit in” with those of the upper-class, he is continually reminded of his humble, painful days in the prison. Mostly by his youngest daughter Amy–known affectionately as “Little Dorrit”–who finds it difficult to give up her humble ways and become a proper “lady of leisure,” but also by former friends and aquaintances who knew him during his stay in the prison. Finally, toward the end of the story, his mind begins to crack, as paranoia sets in and he begins to imagine everyone is mocking him and talking badly of him, and at last, he loses his mind completely and then he dies.

There are other happier parts to the story, thankfully, but Mr. Dorrit’s storyline, as tragic as it is, is what struck me most profoundly, for although I’ve never been in an actual prison, I, like Mr. Dorrit, know what it’s like to live daily in the prison of my own mind, which, even once it finds freedom externally, can never forget the past–especially when people from the past continually return to refresh painful memories and reinforce old lies. It’s like an analogy I once was told about elephants: once they are trained via chains to remain standing in one spot, even when those chains are removed, they still stand there, unwilling to run away, convinced in their scarred minds that the chains are still there.

This, unfortunately, is the reality of anyone, like myself, or a fictional Mr. Dorrit, who has gone through tremendously painful, humiliating, and/or traumatic experiences. As Richard Lovelace put it so eloquently in his poem “To Althea, from Prison:”

“Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.”

So much, at least externally, has changed for me for the better recently. Like Mr. Dorrit, I’m tasting freedom for the first time in many areas of my life. Outwardly, most would say I am doing well. But true freedom is never found in external circumstances. True freedom only really happens in one’s mind and spirit. The cruelest, darkest prisons are not physical ones, but the ones imposed in our own minds. As Lovelace says, a mind “innocent and quiet” could take even an actual iron-barred prison and find peace there. I envy those with such unscarred, peaceful minds. Minds not continually haunted by memories of a painful past. Minds not tormented by a past that one wishes every day one could forget. Minds not continually reminded of the person one used to be by people from that past who continue to reject and turn a cold shoulder, seeing you always as “that person.”

Like Mr. Dorrit, there are days, especially after running into people I used to know, when I retreat somewhere and simply weep. Weep in agony that, no matter how hard I try to escape my past, no matter how much I change, no matter how affirming close friends and family are, no matter how well some aspects of my life may be going, all it takes to send me spiraling downward is a confrontation with those who hurt me in the past and continue to hurt me with their coldness and disregard. I know I shouldn’t let these people get to me. I try to remind myself of all those who have built me up instead of torn me down, but my mind much more easily believes the negative over the positive. Like the elephant, I know that, in reality, my chains are gone. But in my mind those chains are never really gone. And when others treat you as if those chains are still there, it’s even easier for the mind to believe that somehow one can never truly escape. That one is forever imprisoned by one’s past.

I know in Christ I am supposed to be free. I know all about “renewing one’s mind.” I know, at least intellectually, that I am loved by Christ–that no matter my past, no matter how others perceive me and treat me–I am who He says I am, and not who others say I am.

But still I struggle. And I believe I struggle because my painful past involves a cult-like church and many hypocritical Christians who, instead of loving and reaching out to a lonely, broken, hurting outcast, contributed to her pain. And who, even to this day, when I should come across them, turn away from me as if I somehow have the plague. Like Mr. Dorrit, I just want to say, why can’t the past be left where it is? In the past? Why must it continually thrust its ugly face into my own via the voices of those whose looks alone tell me all I need to know about myself? “You’re unloveable.” “Something’s wrong with you.” “You’re wicked.” “You’re not godly enough.” “You’re messed up.” “Once an outcast, always an outcast.”

The mind is a cruel prison. A cruel prison I long to escape from. And I keep trying to escape. But, like Mr. Dorrit, I’m so accustomed to my imprisonment, that freedom itself is a scary, overwhelming thing that I’m not sure I would know how to handle.

I hope I don’t succumb to paranoia one day and lose my mind completely (though I’ve felt I’ve come close before)–I hope the end to my story is a happy one and not a sad one–but, as of now, I don’t know how to break free of my mental chains. I don’t know how to handle those reminders of my past (mainly people) that keep me locked up behind bars thicker and stronger than ones of actual iron.

I can only hope and trust that the grace of God will somehow do what I cannot do. And that someday I will possess a soul, and mind, that is completely free and, with the angels soaring above, able to “enjoy such liberty”…

We never suffer alone

Sometimes just knowing one isn’t alone and that others have it even worse than you do is enough to bring comfort and hope in the midst of the deepest of deepest agonies.

Two weeks ago, feeling overwhelmed with despair at my situation, I sped down a darkened interstate after midnight, just driving and driving, crying my eyes out and pleading with God to speak to me. To at least let me know He understood and cared about my pain. I drove for over an hour to a nearby city and finally turned around and headed home, feeling sleepy…but God was silent. Or at least it seemed He was. Although I heard no voice from heaven, I did see two curious sights on my midnight journey. I drove past two crosses beside the highway. One, on the way, was lit up in front of a building; the other, which I passed on my way back, was simply a string of lights in the shape of a cross sitting near the highway. I don’t know if these were “signs” from above–God’s way of simply saying “I’m here”–but I wondered. I especially wondered the next day.

The next day I went and saw my counselor, still feeling down, and I confessed this spur-of-the-moment emotional collapse that propelled me down the interstate in the wee hours of the morning. Of course, she wanted to know what caused this breakdown. I felt that tugging again, to spill one of my deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets–one that I have borne in silence my entire life, and one that has caused me excruciating pain. I told a few other people a while ago, including my last counselor, but none of these people seemed to know how to reach out to me or help me deal with it. So I feared spilling my guts once again. But, as scared as I was, I agreed to share what was troubling me one more time. Via writing. I’ll take another chance, I thought.

So I took the chance. And her reaction, like those before her, took me by surprise. There was no rejection. No judgment. Only compassion. And even admiration that I had been able to cope as long as I have with this incredible source of pain. She called me “resilient.” But more than simply showing me kindness and being a listening ear, she has begun to give me practical ideas and suggestions on how to deal with my pain. No drugs were pushed on me. No magical prayer that would supposedly “heal” me. For the first time, someone has given me more than “fluffy” or “overly spiritual” advice. She tends to be very practical, and I really like this about her. So, at her suggestion, the first thing I did was some searching on the internet, and I discovered that, wonder of wonders…I am not alone in my pain. This shocked me. It also saddened me, because, after reading some people’s horror stories, I now realize, as bad as I’ve had it, some have had it even worse.

This was such an eye-opening experience for me. To simply no longer feel alone in one’s pain–to know there are others out there who can empathize–is such an amazing comfort. One of the things that has driven to me to such feelings of despair is feeling like no one else out there could possibly relate. And it has been this feeling of “aloneness” that has led me to hide my pain for so long. I’ve always thought I was the only one. Now I know I’m not.

God hears. He sees. He knows. And for the first time in my life, I feel He has given me a concrete source of hope. I can’t explain how liberated this makes me feel. I don’t know what the next steps for me are, and I’m still a bit frightened, but I have a courage to face this I’ve never had before.

Maybe there is a way out for me. It won’t be easy. I still have many obstacles to face. But, praise God, I am no longer in this fight alone. To suffer is one thing. To suffer alone–completely alone–is a million times worse.

No matter how “scary” or “intimidating” or “shameful” one’s secrets are, what I’m learning is that holding onto one’s secrets and not bringing them into the light is far more scary. It is only in the light that healing comes. Not everyone will understand. Some won’t know how to deal with your pain. Some will reject you for it. Some will give you bad advice. But persevere. Trust God. Let it into the light. Own it. Accept it. Face it.

It’s only there that healing comes. Never, ever feel like you must suffer alone. Because, in reality, none of us really does.

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.

Asking & not receiving

I wept in agony last night in my bed.

Overcome by pain, shame, frustration and despair.

I’d been doing relatively well recently, until, over the last several days, certain triggers sent me into a downward spiral.

Last night’s breakdown was triggered by an event earlier in the day. A happy event. An event that at least made me happy for someone else. I attended the wedding of a friend, and it was one of the sweetest, most beautiful weddings I’ve ever been to. I was genuinely happy for my friend, for if anyone deserved the kind of happiness she’d attained, it would be her. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest, godliest women I know, and she’s been through a lot, so I could never wish anything but the best for her, and seeing her happy, with a wonderful man, made me happy as well.

But as happy as I was for her, seeing her attain what I’ve longed for for so long, and seeing the kind of person she is–the kind of person I long to be, but feel I can never be–left me reeling in pain. I told God–I’d do almost anything to be like this friend of mine. I’d do almost anything to have her character and sweetness. I’d do almost anything to one day gain the kind of happiness she’d attained. But that’s when reality sunk in. Yes, I was feeling some self-pity and envy–I won’t deny it–but more than that I felt despair. And I still feel that despair. Because, after years of struggling to find my way out of an incredibly dark valley of pain, and doing all that I can think of doing to find help toward that end, I am no closer than I was at the beginning to attaining freedom, healing, and wholeness. I feel trapped. And when I feel trapped, I lose hope.

So, overwhelmed by this sense of hopelessness over my situation, and who I am, I sat in my bed last night and wept. I wept tears that only God could see. I vented the pain that only He knows about. Desperate for comfort, I opened up my Daily Light devotional and read today’s Scriptures, and they just happened to be about asking God for things. Here’s what I read, taken from various Scriptures:

“Ye have not because ye ask not. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth…This is the confidence we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him…Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it–Men ought always to pray, and not to faint. The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles…Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”

These Scriptures sound comforting. It sounds so easy. Ask, and God will answer. Ask, and you shall receive. The problem is, what if you ask, and you don’t receive? What if you ask, and God doesn’t answer? I’m not talking about asking for materialistic, petty, selfish, and shallow things. Jesus said that the Father doesn’t give His children stones when they ask for bread. But sometimes I feel like that’s exactly what He gives me. I’ve been asking for bread–wholeness in body, mind and spirit, deeper friendships, meaningful fellowship–for a long time. But all of these still elude me. I’ve had tantalizing tastes of each, but every time it seems I come close to gaining these things, and breaking out of my darkness, I’m thrown back in, with more devastating force each time. And so I begin to question God. I begin to doubt His goodness or that He even hears my prayers. Because it seems to me that the things I’m asking for are good things. Things that any loving Father would want to give His child, especially if He wants that child to grow in holiness. So what am I doing wrong, I wonder? Am I so screwed up and sinful there’s no hope for me? Am I beyond redemption? Has God just tossed me aside?

I hope one day I can look back on what I’m writing now and say to myself, you silly fool. O you of little faith. But when you’re in the midst of pain so deep and excruciating that it feels like a knife through your soul, and God seems apathetic to your cries, it’s tempting to simply give up. Especially if you’ve been crying out for deliverance from your pain for many years.

I hope I can trudge on. I know that I’m merely venting right now. But hopelessness and despair are crushing my soul more and more often these days, and if something doesn’t happen in my life soon to bring me some hope, I’m scared of what might happen to me.

In my moments of darkest despair, I simply want to see Jesus’ face, like the sinful woman I wrote about in my previous entry. I wish I could have an encounter like hers. Because I’m just like her. I know I have the Holy Spirit. I know I have the Word of God. But the thing I long for the most, when the pain and shame are the deepest, is simply to see Jesus. Face to face. To have Him tangibly in front of me. Because sometimes walking by faith, and not by sight, is the most frustrating thing for me. I long to touch, to be touched, to feel, to know. And having a relationship with an invisible Person, Who’s often silent and distant, isn’t conducive to these longings, and is never easy, no matter what anyone says.

I’ll keep on praying, as the Scriptures urge me to do, and try not to “faint,” but I don’t know how long I can hang on, if God doesn’t answer at least one of my prayers soon. All I can hope for is that He hangs on to me when I have no strength to hang on myself.

An encounter

“He’s at Simon’s house,” came the excited whispers all around me, as I made my way through the throng of people crowding the street.

I tugged at the sleeve of an older woman who was walking in front of me. “Excuse me–do you know which Simon everyone is referring to?”

The older woman turned to look at me, and as she did so, her eyes widened in recognition. Then they narrowed in obvious contempt. “I don’t know why it matters to you.”

I felt my cheeks burn with shame under her scrutinizing gaze. She knew who I was. But still I persisted. “Please, I’d just like to know.”

“Well, Simon the Pharisee, then–if you must know,” the woman replied, with obvious disgust in her voice. She quickly turned away, indicating she wanted nothing more to do with me, but I was satisfied. I knew where Simon the Pharisee lived, and it wasn’t far.

I was jostled and bumped and even cursed at a few times as I quickly weaved through the crowd, but I didn’t care. I had to see Him. The prophet and teacher named Jesus that others claimed was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

When I finally stood outside Simon’s house, however, my heart began to race with fear. I peered around the people in front of me into the open doorway, catching a glimpse of the richly dressed Pharisees reclining at a table. I glanced down at my own shabby garb, my cheeks flushing. How could I walk in there? I wondered. Even now I could feel the stares of those around me. Nearly everyone in Capernaum knew who I was. Certainly even this Jesus would know who and what I was as soon as He saw me. Maybe even He would turn away from me in contempt, despite the stories I’d heard about Him.

But I had to take a chance. Clutching a small, alabaster vial of perfume in one hand, I pushed my way through the people in front of the doorway, ignoring their scornful remarks, till at last I had entered the house. I knew which one was Jesus as soon as I saw Him. He was simply dressed, unlike the Pharisees around Him, and had a very unimpressive physical appearance, and yet, when He spoke, there was an authority in His voice that filled me with awe. For a moment I stood transfixed, listening to Him and watching Him, wondering what had possessed me to approach such an esteemed teacher and prophet. I, the dirty and unclean sinner, who could hear the whispers of the Pharisees, now looking in my direction. My heart flooded with the familiar feelings of shame, and I was about to turn around and flee, when Jesus suddenly looked at me. My eyes locked with His, expecting to see the same contempt and judgment I was used to encountering, but instead kindness and compassion stared back at me.

I felt as if, for the first time, someone saw me, instead of my sin. In that single look I felt known. Known and somehow still loved. Something in me broke. Tears began to course down my cheeks, and gathering courage from Jesus’ kind gaze, I approached Him, suddenly oblivious to the whispers and stares of the Pharisees. I knelt at His feet, weeping, overcome by the sense of my unworthiness in His presence, and yet so drawn to the compassion and mercy He emanated. When I realized my tears were falling on His feet, I unloosed my hair and, gathering its soft ends, used them to dry His feet. I then kissed His feet repeatedly and anointed them with the perfume from my alabaster vial.

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Even as I knelt there beside Jesus, weeping and performing these ministrations to Him, I listened to the conversation He was having with Simon, who reclined nearby. He was telling Simon a story about a moneylender who forgave his debtors, and then, turning to me, He asked Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then, laying a hand on my shoulder and looking me in the eyes, He said to me, “Your sins have been forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

A peace and joy I’d never experienced before filled me at His words. Could it be possible? That I was forgiven? I just stared into Jesus’ face for several moments, not wanting to look away from His loving eyes, nor leave His awe-inspiring presence. I could feel the stares of Simon and the other Pharisees, but I no longer cared what they thought of me. I no longer cared what anyone thought of me. This man Jesus knew me, and He still loved me and forgave me. Slowly I stood up, wiping my eyes and tear-stained face, and I expressed my gratitude in the only way I knew how: by smiling at Him. He smiled back at me. That was enough.

I walked out of the house, glancing back one more time at Jesus. He was still looking at me, his gaze full of compassion. My heart lept with joy. When I re-entered the street, I pushed through the throng of people, till I’d at last found some open space. Then I began to run and skip, my arms opened wide, not caring who saw, feeling freer than a bird soaring through the heavens.

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.