Giving Up

My husband and I recently went on vacation in Door County, Wisconsin: a whole week of camping and biking and kayaking. The kayaking was my husband’s idea, but it sounded fun. Lake Michigan was still a lake, right, so how rough could the water be?

The answer: really, really rough.kayak3

If you’ve never kayaked before (like us), you find out that it’s a lot more difficult than it looks. In a two person rig, the person in front paddles to provide forward movement to the boat while the person in the back is in charge of ruddering with his or her paddle to keep the nose pointed in the right direction.

I took the front, while Jeremy was in the back. And we found the limits of trust and patience in our marriage.

Jeremy didn’t know how to steer, so every time we tried to go straight the wind would push us in circles. The waves were breaking over the front of the kayak, a terrifying sight as I tried to paddle as hard as possible with the nose of the boat tipping first up into the sky and then down into a deep valley of ominous blue-green water.

After five minutes, I was yelling. After ten minutes, I was threatening divorce (if we survived). After twenty minutes, I propped my paddle across the prow out of the water and just cried. We were going to die during our summer vacation, 200 yards from shore.

Eventually, Jeremy figured out how to steer and we had a nice day feeling pretty bad-ass as we crested the massive waves with growing skill. But my initial breakdown revealed something ugly I didn’t want to realize: the very shallow level of trust I had in my husband.

I should have remembered all the things he’s done, and then I would have known that if it meant jumping out of the boat into the freezing water to pull me to shore, he would have done it. He’s always sacrificed his own comfort for mine, faced down his fears so I don’t have to be afraid. But I was afraid. And I blamed him for it.

It made me realize how bad I am at trust in general. I can’t trust my husband for twenty minutes in lake-sized waves. And I can see him. I can touch him. But God is mysterious. He’s invisible. How could I possibly trust Him?

Lately I’ve been reading in the Old Testament, specifically the Pentateuch or Torah, or the first five books that detail the creation of the nation of Israel, God’s covenants with them, and His leading them into the promised land. Sounds like a great positive, happy story, right? But over and over again the Israelites complain. And rebel. And want to turn back.

If they were in the front of the kayak and God in the back, they would be putting up their paddles and crying.

Whenever I read about Israel, particularly when they tell God right to His face that they would be better off in Egypt, I just want to smack them up-side their collective head and say, “Don’t you remember the ten plagues? Don’t you remember the Red Sea?” I think to myself that if I had manna every morning and a pillar of cloud over my church every day that I would have no problem trusting that God was awesome and powerful and had everything under control. That if I had a God who gave me water in the desert and food from the sky, I would never doubt His good intentions and ability to carry them out.

But if I’m really honest, I don’t get upset with Israel because they’re stupid and I could do better. I get upset with them because they’re me.

God has come through for me time and time again. He’s saved me from staying put in bad situations, He’s given me material things I’ve needed right at the last moment, He’s plucked me out of what I thought I wanted and put me somewhere even better, fulfilling my wildest hopes and dreams. He’s showered me with blessings and love and goodness.

But all it takes is one big wave, one look at how far away the shore is, and I start yelling. And threatening to leave. And then just giving up.

Just like I do with the Israelites, I mock Peter when he fails to trust Jesus even after he has already taken several steps (!) across the water of the Sea of Galilee (which is just a lake, if you didn’t know). Just like them, Peter has seen the power and the awesome faithfulness of Jesus over and over again, but when he looks down at the waves, they just seem more real than God, and he sinks.

peter1Israel, Peter, and I all struggle(d) with the same thing: sometimes the scariness of the physical situation around us just seems stronger than God’s power. And we cry out to go back to Egypt. We start sinking beneath the waves.

But the Old Testament, the New Testament and personal experience all tell us that though we may try to give up on God, God never gives up on us.

God sticks with the Israelites through the entire Bible, thousands of years, and even incarnates Himself as one of them in order to suffer and die and offer grace to the entire world through them. If He has been that faithful to them despite their failures, think of how faithful He must be towards us who have been marked with the blood of the Son as His children.

So while sometimes I want to hate myself for just how faithless and pathetic I can be, I try my faltering best at remembering not just God’s power, but also His love. Yes, it would be better if I could just trust Him all the time no matter how big the waves are, and I should always be trying to improve my faith, but when I fail, I have God’s amazing character to fall back on.

I’m seeking to grow in double trust: faith in God’s power to lead me through what seems impossible, and faith in His character to never leave me even when I deserve to be left.

My husband didn’t push me out the boat and leave me to float in the middle of Lake Michigan, though he had good reason to. If he as a human being can be that patient and compassionate, I’m pretty sure I can trust God to get me safely back to shore.

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Broken Bones, Sacred Hymns: The Vulnerability of Sharing Grief

When I say that I recently learned how ironic and self-defensive I can be, I am also saying this: last week, I watched as the eerie magic of an overseas phone call transformed my friend, in the space of two minutes, from a typical expat with a fat itinerary of sights to see into a young woman without a mother.

I was the only other person there for this conversation, and even though it was short, there was a sense of heavy infinity about it . . . and I also remember the slight shock of realizing that, even after witnessing the most painful moment of another’s life, I could still think of my own self.

A few moments later, she said, “Do you promise me. . . will you please promise me that you really believe we have a purpose for being here? And do you really believe–do you promise that you believe–that we will see the people we love again?”

Yes, yes, yes. I do believe it, all of it. But . . .

Thoughtlessness is not usually a positive term associated with grief, but self-forgetfulness should be. Still, I hesitated to spread out the contents of my soul as the situation required. It wasn’t that I questioned my beliefs. It was that I questioned the danger of speaking them out so earnestly, in that moment of naked honesty between two friends who were, still, almost strangers.

I’ve always felt sincerity was simple; my pale, flushing complexion billboards my emotions on a constant basis, so there’s no point in even trying to hide. However, in this most urgent and necessary moment, I still felt the urge to make qualifications for my own sincerity. I wanted to speak with a protective hedge of irony, or to act as if my beliefs were contained within me, rather than making that bold and sweeping hymn to the glorious reality of redemption.

A grieving person might not have the luxury of his or her most intimate companion’s presence; in this particular story, the most trusted friend was, with terrible clarity, also the mother who had died. But if I am to love someone with that wide, encompassing depth that transcends personal knowledge, and if I want to offer the kind of love that the first plunge into grief demands, then I must hold out at least a mustard seed of grace: offering self-forgetfulness with both hands, and summon the bravery to tell as much felt experience as I can muster.

After that first step, perhaps a wobbling one, I can leave these efforts to God, who will expand the meager flour and oil into food that can offer comfort. But for me to do this, I cannot self-protect; I cannot hedge my spirit in veils, or speak with the gentle, self-deprecation that, at many other times, makes the passion of my beliefs tolerable in the world of work and casual friendships.

By laying out our wounds, or our most tender experiences before a mourning friend, we can participate in that promise of the Psalms: the bones He has broken will rejoice; there’s a hum of hymns in the shared poverty of spirit. The sutures and scars of our past, or the ill-set bones that still ache when it rains–in the community of sharing grief, moments of sincerity, whether stories of pain or earnest, unironic belief, will glitter like gems for the newly-impoverished.

Sharing scars and promises will not compound emptiness. In the face of suffering, vulnerability does not pare away the self; rather, it suggests hope’s final incarnation: when Christ wipes all tears from our eyes, and all eternity proves redemption.

Day Two

Erwin McManus says that part of being created in the Image of God is our creativity. Like Him, we can imagine things that don’t exist, and then we can make them exist.

We write books, paint, build, make music, dance, propose, mentor, compete, design, sculpt, photograph, share, like, tweet, retweet, and check in.

We cut and color our hair, hang flags, mix and match pieces of clothing, and base our purchasing choices on what best fits our image.

I can look at an empty plot of land and imagine a building there. And I can build it. If I build it, it will certainly fall down… but you get the point.

I can imagine things that don’t exist, and I can make them exist.

I can even go on Shark Tank and try to get people to help me sell the things I dream up.

But Shark Tank is a ruthless place.

And I think it’s ruthless because the Sharks have been in the real world. They’ve had incredible ideas that failed miserably and cost them all kinds of money. And they’ve had ideas that, when worked and bled for, soared. But my guess is that they’ve experienced more crashing and burning than soaring, because good ideas are common, but successful ideas are not.

The difference between success and a good idea is Day Two.

The difference between us and God is that God can create by using only His words. We have to work at it.

Then again, there are some things God works awfully hard at. Like taking a family of pagans and moving them from Ur to Canaan and then getting their descendants to actually believe that when he tells them how to live, he means what he says. Like getting people to quit getting divorced, but to refuse divorce because they choose to consistently love each other and not because there’s some law against it. Or getting people to quit making each other slaves because they finally realize what he’s been trying to tell them all along – they’re all valuable, and they’re all family.

God has lots of great ideas. But he doesn’t quit with just good ideas.

If you’ve ever tried to turn an idea into reality, you’ve probably found out how hard it is. The first day usually isn’t all that tough, because you have lots of energy and excitement. You know what you want to build, and you’ve finally started.

But Day Two is a little tougher, because when you were planning, you didn’t think about all the things that would get in the way.

Like learning how to mix paint colors.

Or the fact that your fingers bleed after a few hours of trying to learn to play the guitar.

Or the fact that she doesn’t know you exist.

The early church faced a Day Two problem in Acts 6. In Acts 2, three thousand people became believers in Jesus. In Acts 3, a crippled beggar got healed. More healings happened. More people got saved. The church was moving. Day One was the realization of a dream that has existed in the mind of God for millennia, and the apostles got to be right in the thick of it.

And then they realized that their dream of being the hands and feet of Jesus, of feeding the needy in their midst and creating opportunity through community outreach for people to hear and respond to the gospel, would require a bit of organization.

People were getting left out.

They were getting left out because of prejudice. Because the people in charge of distributing the food played favorites.

Day Two was much more difficult than Day One.

You can go read the rest of the story, but my point is this – had the apostles given up when the dream got difficult, we wouldn’t have a Christian church. We wouldn’t have a Bible. We wouldn’t even know the story.

Maybe today’s not even Day One for you – what you need is to find a dream worth chasing with all your heart.

Maybe it is Day One, and you’re excited about seeing one little piece of your dream become reality.

And maybe it’s Day Two, and you’re discouraged. Maybe you’re thinking about quitting, because there are obstacles you never thought you’d face.

Maybe you’re thinking you’re not cut out for this “making the invisible visible” thing that people like Erwin McManus talk about.

Let me ask you to do something.

Remember that you’re created in the Image of God, and remember that means that you should follow his lead in making a difference in the world.

And if you can believe all that, then remember what God did when his biggest, most audacious dream got messy because the expression of his most profound creativity, the human race, decided not to follow his instructions, and in so doing made the road forward infinitely harder than it should have been.

He got down on the road with them, made them clothes for the journey, and started working Plan B with all his creative energy.

If he can do it, so can we.

If we don’t, what stories will the world never hear?

What difference will you fail to make, just because you chose to stay in the muck of insignificance instead of just getting up and trying again?