Faith

you found me

"What's your favorite song of theirs?"

I'd been crushing on this older couple sitting in front of me at The Fray concert, hoping that I'm still going to shows at their age. So I love that the gentleman turned around and asked me that. I didn't even need to think about my answer.

"You Found Me."

The man glances over at his wife with a grin on his face. His eyes light up as he turns back to me. "Can I ask why?"

I give them the cliff notes version: I was a missionary in South Africa, married for ten years. My ex-husband had multiple affairs and ultimately left me for another woman. I tell him that this song came out right after I returned Stateside for counseling, broken and devastated.

"It was the only thing I could listen to, and I played it on repeat for weeks on end. It gave me permission to be honest and carried me through the most difficult season of my life. "

He squeezes my arm, lifts his face God-ward, and quotes some of the lyrics. "Where were you?!" I nod in agreement.

He shakes his head, squeezes my arm again, and says with a compassionate smile, "I understand that completely." And then, "Would it be okay for me to tell Isaac this?"

Wait. Isaac? As in the lead singer of The Fray? The gentleman sees my puzzled look and explains. "He's my son-in-law. And I know it would mean a lot to him to hear your story."

My eyes instantly fill with tears as I start nodding. "Of course. I would really appreciate you telling him the impact his song had on my life."

His wife speaks up, her face pure kindness. "Isaac has come a long way since he wrote that. He's a different person today; his faith is different. I can tell it's the same for you. You've come a long way."

I agree wholeheartedly. "And my faith is different."

Fast forward thirty minutes. As I hear the distinctive piano notes, tears start to fall...

Where were you
When everything was falling apart?
All my days
Were spent by the telephone
That never rang
And all I needed was a call
That never came ...

Lost and insecure
You found me, you found me
Lyin’ on the floor
Surrounded, surrounded
Why’d you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late
You found me, you found me
— You Found Me, by The Fray

I can't keep myself from weeping.

Snot-nose, running mascara, and all... I cannot keep it together. And I don't even care. 

Seeing The Fray, hearing that song, talking with Isaac's in-laws... This—THIS—is a picture of redemption my heart will hold forever.

faith goes to the dark places

I grew up in a breed of Christianity that sought to be a light, but hid from the darkness.

Though it would never be said, deep down there was concern that the dark might extinguish our glow—or, at the very least, cause it to be misunderstood. 

So we lived with a sterile faith.

Non-polluted.
Pure.
Uncontaminated.

Prosperity was named and claimed, words of life were spoken (#blessed), and this little light of ours shone brightly within the walls of our sacred safe places. 

We claimed the American Dream as our Christian right.

And somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the picture that's actually painted for us in the Gospels. Within those pages, I don't see a sterile faith, holed up to avoid contamination. 

I see pursuit. 

Search.
Rescue.
Scandalous grace.

I see Jesus preferring to spend time with prostitutes, thieves, and those who make a living screwing over their own brothers. I see Him seeking out those who live in the shadows, those the faith leaders of His day shunned completely.

Jesus called us to a faith that is anything but sterile, for an antiseptic faith is powerless. 

Ineffective.
Empty.
Worthless.

The faith we're beckoned to is not concerned about preserving its image or "avoiding the appearance of evil." Instead, it walks down the back alleys; it steps into the slums; it pulls up a stool in the pubs; it sits in the brothels; it finds and frees the shackled.

Faith goes to the dark places.

It pursues the darkest corners of the night and the deepest depths of depravity.

It never fears that the dark will snuff it out. Faith knows that no amount of darkness can dampen its illumination, so long as it shines.

But even the smallest flame can shatter the blackest night.


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a christmas miracle

It was the year when THE Christmas gift for little girls was a Cabbage Patch doll. What year was that? '83? '84? So you were maybe five or six...

You wanted one soooo badly.

You don't know what it was about those ugly-faced, yarn-haired, autograph-bottomed dolls, but you were dying to have one. It was at the top of your Christmas wish list.

The Santa bubble had already burst for you. After all, you'd recognized he had daddy's eyes when you were just three. But—even more recently—Jesus became the only reason for the season.

So that Cabbage Patch doll you wanted? You weren't asking Santa for it. You were asking Jesus. And your parents too, of course.

Despite the hard times and the sold-out stores, unbeknownst to you, your parents had found you one. They had it safely tucked away at the top of the closet where you wouldn't be able to find it.

But when your aunt told them she was struggling to find one for your cousin, they sat you down and filled you in.

They told you they'd bought you a Cabbage Patch doll, and even where it had been hiding. Then they told you about your aunt, devastated over not finding one. You imagined your cousin, brutally disappointed on Christmas morning. And when your parents asked what you'd think about giving up your doll so she could have it, you said yes.

You don't remember what you felt in that moment—because, honestly, you don't really recall any of this, only the stories about it. But you imagine that tears in your eyes accompanied the sense in your heart that you were doing the "right thing."

Fast forward to Christmas morning.

You wish your mind could play back for you in vivid detail this particular December 25th. You wonder if you woke slower than Christmas-morning-usual, less eager to tear into gifts, knowing your prized doll would not be under the tree. You wonder how disappointed you actually were, and if your face gave away your heart.

Gifts were opened. Family came over; more gifts were exchanged. And by the end of the day, you'd somehow unwrapped three Cabbage Patch dolls. Three!

Your parents were just as surprised as you were. But there they were: three Cabbage Patch dolls—when you were expecting none.

It was a Christmas miracle.

Fast forward three decades.

You no longer think in terms of Christmas wish lists, but if you were being completely honest, you'd admit that your wishes bubble at the surface of your heart all year long.

You still don't write letters to Santa about them.

You don't really even ask Jesus for them. Not any more.

But they remain wishes nonetheless.

The memory of your Cabbage Patch Christmas story keeps coming to mind, and you don't know why. It lingers close, pestering you from the inside out. You try to shake it off, but—just like a catchy T-Swift song—it doesn't budge.

And then you realize:

It's because deep down, you're hoping for another Christmas miracle...

"Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight."

when none of it mattered

I've spent the past few years in a spiritual detox.

In my lifetime, I've heard more sermons than one could ever possibly need, and I've read more Christian books than anyone should ever read. I've done the Sunday-morning-Sunday-night-plus-Wednesday-evening church service thing. I've memorized the verses. I've had the Romans Road and Four Spiritual Laws and Spanish plan of salvation down pat. I've prayer-walked, mission-tripped, youth-grouped, See-Ya-At-The-Poled, 40-day-fasted, preached-and-teached. Baptism? Check. Tongues? Check. Slain in the Spirit (modesty cloth and all)? Check. I've kissed dating goodbye, been a missionary, gotten ordained, run a ministry, and been a pastor's wife (whatever that really means).

Hell, I've even won a Best Christian Witness trophy. (Heh.) (But seriously, I did.)

And when, at 30-something, my entire life fell apart? None of that mattered. None of it.

All that I'd done, all that I'd learned, all that I'd believed, couldn't spare me from the worst pain and deepest heartaches and greatest losses. It couldn't spare me from it, and it didn't comfort me in it.

None of it mattered.

The verses and worship songs and experiences that previously made God feel close, bolstered my faith, and left me feeling held, no longer did. They didn't carry me like they used to. I didn't find solace or strength or support in them anymore.

But there in The Great Sadness, with my heart stripped bare, I discovered God was still undeniably by my side. In the vast darkness, when He wasn't visible at all, and in the boundless sorrow, when I couldn't feel Him at all, and in the deafening quiet, when He wasn't speaking at all, I curiously never felt abandoned (at least not by Him anyway). Even when He felt far, He was still right there in the struggle and sadness and silence with me. Just Him, without all the other religious frills.

Thus began my spiritual detox.

Burned out on church and ministry and Christian leadership, I steered clear of anything that smelled like corporate Christianity for a good long while.

I quit church, stopped reading my Bible, gave up on any real semblance of a prayer life — and you know what? He was big enough to take it. His feelings weren't hurt when I spoke words of doubt instead of faith. He didn't mind when I cried rather than worshipped. He is God enough to handle this human heart of mine. He didn't scold me; He didn't heap "shoulds" or shame on me; He didn't tell me He only helps those who help themselves. 

He just sat in The Great Sadness with me.

As I've emerged out the other side, I've done so with a very different faith. With changed eyes. With an altered heart. The certainty of my faith gave way to uncertainty. Question marks replaced the periods. And yet, I've found a sweet intimacy in the wrestling.  I've discovered a depth of faith that is laced with unbelief.

Breaking my spiritual detox is a slow process. I've only recently returned to church, and — for right now — that's enough. Most Sundays demand a whole lot of bravery to walk, alone, through those doors. So I acknowledge the significance of this seemingly-small step, and I actively work to silence the nagging to-do lists of my former breed of faith.

I'm learning to be content with just sitting here for now — in The Sadness or otherwise — with the God I both question and believe.

Originally posted at A Deeper Story »

you still somehow love Jesus

You were every bit thirteen: skinny as a rail, brace-face smile, unbelievably shy, uncomfortable in your own skin. But from the first moment you learned what a mission trip was, you wanted to go on one. As soon as you hit the minimum-required age, you signed up for a trip to Central America.

Funds needed to be raised, of course, and you got to the hard work of raising them. You baked. Babysat. Washed cars. Wrote letters. Your small, zealous church was puzzled, but supportive. You remember that church, don't you? The one that met in the American Legion Hall, with children's church in the hallway and nursery in the coat closet? They readily celebrated the gifts of the Spirit, but didn't really have much concern about "going into all the nations." But now, one of their own was wanting to "go." And this—this—they could get behind.

You made a poster board map masterpiece with a movable airplane to track your progress as you raised support that would get you to Managua, Nicaragua. With sweaty palms and a shaky voice, you got up in front of the church and shared your desire to serve in a foreign land. Your nervousness was met with happy cheering, a side hug from your pastor, and encouragement from those who saw what a big step this was.

Your pastor took up a "love offering" for you. (You still laugh at that phrase.) And he did that every week for a month, with the church collecting all the funds to pass along before your financial deadline. You were blown away by the generosity of your tiny church family of tongue-talking misfits. Then when the time came for the funds to be sent to the missions organization, you made a painful discovery.

Your pastor decided to spend the money himself. There was nothing left for you. Nothing left for Nicaragua.

You were thirteen.

:::

chandelier

You were every bit nineteen: no longer skinny as a rail, curves had finally begun to find you. You laughed loudly and often, with a flannel shirt perpetually tied around your waist. Fresh out of a year-long missions internship, you had your sights set on Africa. You had six months to work, save, and raise money to move overseas.

Having graduated from the tiny Christian school at your church (a very different church from your previous one), your pastor knew you well—after all, he'd doubled as your Bible and pre-Calculus teacher. You loved him and the way he made you (and everyone else in the church) feel like family. And you knew he loved you too. He would beam with pride when he'd spontaneously pull you up on stage during a service to brag on something you'd done or said. You hated it and loved it all at the same time.

So when he said you were making a bad decision by pursuing missions, you were caught off guard. He told you that doing mission work was a waste of your time and skills, that you "could do so much better," and that you "could do anything you wanted." Of course you cried (as you always do when speaking about things of the heart) when you told him that contrary to his perception, you weren't resigning yourself to missions out of some strange sense that it's all you could do—but that it was, in fact, exactly what you wanted to give your life for.

Many tears and conversations later, your pastor agreed in the value of going to Africa "for a year, and then we'll see...." He went so far as to commit to covering your monthly support in exchange for you volunteering full-time in the church office until you left for Africa. (You can't help but roll your eyes at your 19-year-old self, stressed over raising $400 a month. You'd eventually be raising half a million dollars.)

So you spent those six months working as his assistant. It was a rocky road, that season of church work—like the time you had to challenge his integrity and stand up for your own when he asked you to write his thesis paper—but you worked hard, and kept your eyes on Africa.

And then came your last week in the office, when he told you he'd changed his mind. "I decided we'll only cover half of your support. The church will give you $200 a month." Amid tears, confusion, and disappointment, you reminded him that this whole arrangement had been based on them supporting your full amount.

"Well, it'll be your word against mine, so..."

You were nineteen.

:::

You are every bit thirty-five: still pretty uncomfortable in your own skin (which now curves in all the wrong places), but you also still laugh loudly and often. And, by the grace of God, you still somehow love Jesus, despite a lifetime of being taken advantage of by those who carry His name.

And that has to count for something on the Sundays you can't bring yourself to step foot inside a church.

Originally posted on A Deeper Story >