On the Lies I’ve Believed and the Truth He’s Giving

“The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus said. “If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

My eyes have been bad for so long, viewing dirt as gold and being blind to the treasure before me. I run after cheap copies of the real thing, then scream at God in desperation when he keeps them out of reach.

I am like the idol-maker Isaiah speaks of in chapter 44 verse 20: “Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

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I’ve been telling myself lies about God for years. He’s good, of course, but he’s not really good to me. He loved me enough to give me eternal life, but not enough to give me what my heart needs on this earth. And suffering, what do I make of suffering, both the general suffering of the world and my own private sorrow, the years of seemingly unanswered prayers and unexpected detours? According to my man-made scale, God has been judged, and found wanting.

I didn’t always question God’s goodness; there was a time when my mind was not disturbed by dark questions, when faith aligned with sight. It was in this time of easy trust, in 2012, that I wrote a poem from the perspective of one who believes in God’s goodness even when suffering doesn’t make sense.

The poem was inspired by a scene in my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in which two very different brothers meet at a pub and wrestle with this question that has been a barrier to faith throughout the centuries.

Ivan, a brilliant intellectual, is tormented by the reality that God allows innocent children to be abused. It’s not that he doesn’t believe God exists, but that he doesn’t want to associate with such a being. In his words, he “returns his ticket” to God. His brother, Alyosha, in training to become a monk, also feels tormented by the tension between God’s character and the suffering of children, but chooses to view Christ not as the problem, but as the solution. And this is the poem I wrote, from the perspective of Alyosha to Ivan:

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This poem has taken on new significance because now, I have been both brothers. When I wrote this poem, I came firmly from Alyosha’s perspective. Over the next 6 years though, although I fought to cling to the truth, the onslaught of severe depression, long periods of loneliness, and hopes deferred tempted me further and further into Ivan’s cynicism.

In 2013, one of my dreams came true- I received a Fulbright grant to teach English in Russia, the country that the Lord had brought me back to time and time again since childhood. The dream soon dissolved into a nightmare, as the isolation was like none I’d ever experienced, and the spiritual darkness of the city was oppressive. For 9 months, I gritted my teeth and held back tears every day, and when I came back to the States, I nearly collapsed. A shell of myself, I had hardly enough energy to get through 2 hours at work, and at night, I was often assaulted with vivid, dark memories of the past year. My mental and physical health were the most fragile that they had ever been, and there were even times, when, driving my little red Chevy, I had the impulse to jerk the wheel to the side and see where a crash would take me.

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Alongside the depression was the ache of an unanswered prayer, the one I’d been praying since I was 13, that the Lord would unite me with a man after His own heart, one whose heart for God’s kingdom beat in rhythm with mine. And like a drumbeat, each passing year pounded a resounding “no.”

And through it all, just like Ivan, my mind began to cannibalize my heart, to attack the very truth of God in me, my DNA as his child. It wasn’t black and white; there were certainly times of praise and trust and hopefulness, but nonetheless, I began to consistently doubt His goodness, and my heart spewed bitterness at him.

This bitterness, I’ve grown to realize, was sprouted from and feeds on my forgetfulness of His faithfulness. Because if I am nakedly honest with myself, He has been so, so faithful to me. But in the throes of depression, in the ache of rejection, I not only fail to remember what he has done, but I dis-member the past, I take it apart, throw away the times he shielded me from evil, paint over the joy he sang in the dark, and slice away the comfort of His presence.

And then, I re-member it into one where He was not faithful- I add my own embellishments before gluing it back into my memory. And even if He was faithfulthen, then His character has rapidly changed in light of a present reality that I certainly did not ask for.

Bluntly, when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

But remembering his faithfulness is what reveals these thoughts for what they are: lies.

The story of the Israelites is the same as my own: God is strikingly faithful, the people forget, complain, and lose heart, only to be shown his goodness once again. And God hasshown time and time again that he sees me and loves me.

During those 9 months in Russia, he sent me two friends. A girl working at the university who had never met me had a dream one night that I was in trouble and that she needed to help me. The next day, she acted on my behalf and became a light in that dark time. And God made me a light to her-he opened her heart to long talks about God and salvation and the person of Jesus. Another teacher at the university befriended me and was revealed as a kindred spirit, and is still a great friend to this day.

In the midst of severe depression, the Lord surrounded me with my loving, supportive family and used me, in my weakness, to minister to international college students, some of whom who were experiencing the same isolation and loneliness that I had in Russia.

In my years of unwanted singleness, God has been good every time he has said no, as I look back and see that the relationships I so desired at the time were not what was best.

And the more I do that, the more I refuse to dis-member the past, but instead to re-member his faithfulness, to piece it back together in my mind, the more the lies lose their potency; they are revealed as stale words that are no match for the power of the Holy Spirit in this woman consecrated to her Lord.

Life is short; I’m going to blink and be eighty years old and blink again and be before him. And right now, my eyes see things through worldly glasses, and I have only faint ideas of God’s glory. And like Job, I know that when I finally come face to face with Him, I’ll fall on my knees and say “I was so wrong about you, Lord. So, so wrong. Forgive me.”

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He has been renewing my mind and bringing me to a place of open trust, of a vulnerable heart, of a firm belief that He is truly good to me, whatever comes. And as I preach this to myself, I find myself faced with a test. Last month, a wound in my heart that I thought had been healed was violently torn open and revealed as festering beneath the surface. Amidst the shock of it all, I feared that I would spiral back into the depression that He had freed me from.

You see, I believe that Satan wanted to steal my joy. He wanted me to shake my fist at God, to again give advice to the One who created me.But I have a choice now, to go along with Ivan’s airtight human logic, or to believe that although right now, none of this makes sense, Jesus does.

Jesus has come to us, defying the worldly math and logic of suffering, bringing peace and joy and piercing our hearts at the sound of his name.

And in the midst of this battle, the truth is winning. I know that although the suffering does not make sense, that Christ within me is fighting for my mind to be renewed. He is fighting for me to grasp the depths of His love. He is turning what I saw as a spiritual attack into a spiritual surgery, cutting out the festering wound with the sword of His Spirit, the Word of God. He is placing his hand on me and saying, “my dear woman, I long to heal you, and I have, and I will. I banish this wound, I banish these lies in my name. They have no power over you; you are mine. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so you may have life, and have it to the full.”

References

Matthew 6:22-23

Job 42:1-6

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Book 5, “Rebellion.”

John 10:10

 

Active Love is a Harsh and Fearful Thing

The love that springs from my natural heart is thin and sharp as a razor blade, outwardly glimmering, but ready to cut and run at the least sign of ingratitude or condescension. The love that I show, in my own strength, is stingy and calculating, the personal benefits that its actions might reap its motivating force.

This love, the love that comes from me and without Him, isn’t love at all.

This past week, my church family was challenged to pray the words of the psalmist, saying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Ps. 139: 23-24

And His answer, although not surprising, resonated in a new way.

The truth that “love,” when it comes solely from the human heart, is an unsustainable, cheap and brittle copy of the real thing, has been an ever-growing realization in my heart for years, but this week, this theme took center stage.

I reflected on a scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that so bluntly, yet beautifully exposes human “love” for what it is. Madame Khoklakova, a woman in her thirties with a chronically ill teenage daughter, visits Father Zosima, a monk who functions as a source of godly wisdom throughout the novel. Khoklakova pours out a heart in tension, telling Zosima that sometimes she imagines dropping everything and becoming “a sister of mercy,” which, today, would be the equivalent of leaving home and country to become a missionary.

“I close my eyes,” she says. “I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands…”

As soon as she has said this though, in dismay, she admits, “if there’s anything that would immediately cool my active love for mankind, that one thing is ingratitude. In short, I work for pay and demand my pay at one, that is, praise and a return of love for my love. Otherwise I’m unable to love anyone!”

It is important to note that Khoklakova had a dull existence where her acts of love were met with ingratitude: her ailing teenage daughter was capricious, whiny, and manipulative. And for a moment, it seemed to her that a new situation, a clean slate, would wash her clean of the resentment and fatigue built up by years of caring for her daughter, that she would be reborn into a selfless saint ready to sweeten the world with her love.

Her situation articulates a reality that I find in myself: in the midst of days where dullness is common and acts of love seem small and insignificant, I am prone to romanticizing situations in which I would have the chance to do something big, something that seems to matter by worldly standards. In essence, I desire to love others in order to prove that I am significant.

But Zosima’s answer, my favorite quote in this favorite novel of mine, challenges me to run away from this inclination and toward the love that only comes through Christ:

“…active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science (p. 58).

This “love in dreams” is a human love, a love that is immediately satisfied with others’ recognition, whereas active love, the love of Christ in us, may never be seen or acknowledged. It may not always be accompanied by warm feelings, but is “labor and perseverance.” When I think of this active love, I think of my grandmother. For months, she cared for my grandfather during his slow and painful decline. Each night allowed only scattered sleep, as he called for her throughout the night out of fear and pain and loneliness. This went on for months, unseen, unrecognized, and she kept on, persevering in this active love until his death.

This is the type of love that Christ calls me to, a love that is only possible through his power within me, not by any strength of my own.

And this week, especially, I’ve thought about the motives behind my outwardly kind actions. About how I am tempted to seek the praise of man more than the praise of God. Of how I always feel the need to explain myself, to prove my worth and my point of view.

I realize that whatever I do, the sinful nature inside of me will attempt to twist it, even if the origin of the impulse is indeed from God.

In Belarus this summer, I was filled to the brim with the joyful thought, “I am doing exactly what I was made for!” At the same time, I found in myself deeply selfish motives for being there. As Paul writes in Romans 7:21-24a, “I [found] this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law: but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!”

But this wretchedness is not the final word.

Paul continues, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord” (vs. 24b-25).

Zosima, too, mirrors the Scripture with the rest of his answer to Khoklakova:

But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment-I predict this to you-you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you” (p. 58).

The realization of how tainted my motives are can tempt me to stand immobile, not acting when I should because I know that what I do is accompanied by selfishness. If I give into this temptation though, I won’t do anything, much like the steward who buried his talent in the ground. Instead, I pray that the ever-increasing knowledge of my own sinfulness would grow a humility in me that would help me to do what He asks, regardless of how I feel in the moment. For Christ is greater than the sin inside me, and He has filled this body of death with His life.

Layers

The mystery of layers: it has haunted in that awkward place between thought and words since I became older than I ever imagined I could be, marinating in a mixture of memories and color.

The layers are becoming too thick to bear, scratchy as an old wool sweater. Year by year, the stories pile, nestle themselves on top of each other, enveloping me with heat.

Sometimes the layers make a kind of macrocosmic sense; the camera pans out, and my cord in the tapestry of God’s faithfulness is illuminated by a sunset cast in the right light or by a moment of starry clarity in a vivid, lonely contentment.

But lately, the layers climb higher and higher until I feel trapped in my own story and the stories that have built it; I grasp at photographs and memories of vivid, lonely contentment on a road that I loved and hated for 10 years, then 9 months.

Is there a limit to the stories we can bear? Is it possible for the memories to usurp the joy of the mundane, and if so, can they somehow still be held as dear without anchoring us to the past?

To repeat the same stories again and again shows how tightly I hold the experiences as markers of identity: getting stitched up by Konstantine the Dentist, escaping the kiss from the Russian soldier on the train, discovering Eden, falling in love with a place and people in a Narnia-like journey 12 years ago…I play these stories on repeat, identifying with the past, bathing in the past until I prune up, because maybe the future scares me a little more than I know.

Alyosha Karamazov once told a group of boys emerging into manhood that one of the most vital things they could do was to remember one good memory from childhood. I’ve always found this ending to The Brothers Karamazov to be anticlimactic, disappointing. But as the years write layers thicker and thicker and the road winds more unexpected than my child self could envision, I nod at Alyosha in understanding. When the future stands over you with a smirk, the past can be a warm hand to hold.

But with the looking back comes the human tendency to dis-member then re-member the past into one where He was not faithful. And if He was then, then His character has rapidly changed in light of the layers that I certainly did not choose.

Bluntness: when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

Question set number two: how can I re-member the memories that I so often dis-member? How can I love Him more than I love my own little story? How can I skydive trustfully into the future instead of pacing within the confines of a stale old temper tantrum?

The questions remain.

The answers are there, age old and simple, yet as hard to submit to as they were for Abraham, Sarah, Naomi, Job, David and the whole cloud of witnesses.

The answers are there, the Answer is there, waiting with open arms to be the constant I have sought in the files of my own identity. So in a conclusion of the heart, I say that I submit, but that I also know I will have to re-submit by hour, by minute. To unclench my fists and breathe in the next unexpected, beautiful layer.

Reorientation Ramblings

I sit on the sturdy plastic chair across from my doctor, a vibrant yet calming middle-aged woman who has been more of a counselor than a physician to me.

“You look older,” she says.

My weight is the same, my hair still that thick auburn, but I think she’s looking at my eyes.

“If I were to guess your age, I would say about 25.”

She also tells me that maybe, just maybe, I might have developed an ulcer.

~

Strangely, the journey home was tied up as neatly as a Hallmark movie, a stark contrast to the genre I’d gotten used to. While waiting for my flight from Russia to Germany, I checked my phone to find I had been accepted to the Masters in TESOL program I had applied for. At Gordon graduation, I would have thrown a tantrum at the prospect of more school. Now, I see it as a way to do what I’ve learned that I love doing.

In Germany, while waiting to board my plane to Boston, my tired eyes landed, surprised, on an old acquaintance from college. He was my T.A. freshman year, the one who had first told me about the Fulbright program.  I approached him and we talked for two minutes, small talk mostly, but for me, significant. As I boarded the plane, as silly as it sounds, I realized that I was older. I smiled as I  remembered the nervous freshman who had to rally every last bit of courage to say a word to the genius senior who held the answers to the meaning of life. Coming full circle so seamlessly- can it be coincidental?

No, there are no coincidences in His kingdom.

~

Preparing myself for reverse culture shock was unnecessary.  As Mom and Dad drive me home from the airport, I do notice that the roads on the highway are really, really smooth.

But haven’t they always been that way?

The waitress at the steak house we stop at speaks English and has a wide smile that I am supposed to rejoice at.

But aren’t waitresses always that way?

I drive the car for the first time in nine months, and it feels comfortable, natural, freedom to the tune of country music and windows rolled down.  Coffee makers and reliable hot showers and not straining to find the right words are taken for granted, because that’s the way things have always been.

Things have always been this way, yet I feel that I’ve taken a backpack off. A backpack full of rocks, a bag I got used to hauling everywhere until I couldn’t remember life without it. Now, I am surprised at how easy it is to walk. I think I could even run.

Still, it is not automatic to be the person you’ve become in the place where you were a different person, in a place where you hadn’t conquered the fears you faced in a different dimension. It was Narnia, where you fought and grew and were crowned. Now that you’re back, you have to fight to keep that identity.

~

I now stand like Polly and Digory in the Wood between the Worlds, in limbo, in that oscillation between a joyful trust fall and a distrustful cynicism.

There is so much I want to do! I want to write that book, start a Russian school, travel, teach, go to grad school, fall in love, buy a car, pay off my student loans!

My brain is an exclamation point.

My brain is an exclamation point, but maybe I’ve missed the message in caps before that eager piece of punctuation.

SLOW DOWN!

I am not used to slowing down.

The past five years have been to and from and flights and car rides and new semesters and new places and new people and new jobs and since I was, 18 life has been a perpetual run on sentence and I’ve never stopped.

How does one stop?

~

Since I’ve been back, I’ve dreamed twice about juggling. It is a failure dream, of Dad and me passing clubs like we have a thousand times, but this time, I drop every pass. The shiny blue pins are foreign in my hands. We try again and again, and Dad assures the audience that we’ll get it. I go through the familiar, confident motions, but the clubs slip through my hands like butter.

~

Four days after I returned, I coached at a basketball camp, the camp that I went to as a sixth grader, the camp that I came home from crying the first day then went back and faced my fears. I hadn’t played basketball in a while, but it came back to me as easily as hot showers and coffeemakers. The familiar drills were therapy for a mind that was dying for distraction from the implications of uprooting and replanting. I was the coach question of the day, and the little girls soon found out that it was me who spent the last nine months in Russia. One asked why, and when I gave her a bite size answer that didn’t begin to tell the half of it, something about going to teach people English, she looked at me matter-of-factly and said,

“That’s no reason to go down to Russia.”

All I could do was laugh.

Breaking the Silence

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a word. I haven’t felt able to write, the depth and heaviness of all that has been going on in my heart has not easily translated to words; the tools of sounds and letters that usually make meaning have run like sand through my clenched fists as I have grasped for a way to make sense of guttural, overwhelming consciousness. For a month, all I have been able to do is to open my mouth and utter an unintelligible, emotional groan, words seeming irrelevant when the waves I thought should have subsided by now keep slapping me, and I am only able to form the words, “help me Lord, I need you.”

Many language learners go through a “silent period” in the early stages of immersion. It is a time when the learner is so inundated with new sounds and tones and meaning that he acts like a sponge, not producing any language himself. This doesn’t mean he isn’t learning; speech will eventually emerge, but he simply needs to absorb for a while. This month has been its own silent period for me, as I have struggled just to keep my head above water, simply absorbing what God is doing in and through me without being able to make sense of it like I want to.

Although I can’t begin to plumb the depths of the changes taking place inside me, I am beginning to see how God has used this difficult time in my life to make me more like Christ, to mature my perspective, to bring me to a more daring, vulnerable trust in Him. I feel older, and part of me doesn’t like that. I feel that I have aged 5 years in the past three months, having lost the romance and twinkle in my eye that Russia used to light in me. I feel older, and part of me knows that this is good, that I am stepping out of a transient fantasy into concrete, messy, but colorful reality. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I believed that He wanted me here and I still believe that He does. But every morning that I get up, bundle up and plod the wintery way, I realize more and more that I am a different person than I was in September.

Three months ago, I would have told you that freedom is synonymous with wandering, and that roots are synonymous with chains. I would have told you, if I really trusted you, that maybe this running away to Russia wasn’t as brave as it seemed, since I thought that steady was synonymous with stale and lifeless, and boring was synonymous with depression. That life, real, conscious, colorful life was synonymous with running into an adventure that could swallow me into purpose, where each day could be a story, quantifiably exciting, to be snatched and put in a snow globe, waiting to be shaken up and retold.

And maybe it is not that I am growing up and out of something actually, but that layers are being scraped off, eyes are being cleansed of perspectives that I thought were central to who I thought I was, revealing themselves to be superficial ideals that actually distract me from my calling. My favorite part of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when Eustace, who has turned into a dragon by his own fault, has to have Aslan peel off his scales in order for him to become human again. When Edmund asks him what it was like when Aslan changed him back, Eustace replies (in the movie version),

“No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it myself. Then he came towards me. It sort of hurt, but… it was a good pain. You know, like when you pull a thorn from your foot.”

What God is working in me hurts, but it is a good pain. I see Him scraping off layer after layer of frivolous Hope and frivolous hope(yes, I just did that) and replacing it with a gaze closer to Christ’s.

Before I left, I was a girl with her eyes always on the country that she fell in love with, using it as a tool of escapism, believing that it was her mission to be there, that life in the States would mean depression, thinking that in order for life to have meaning, it had to be an exciting novel. And then I lived in a foreign country, really lived in it, not in a bubbled, protective study abroad program. I found out that I don’t like living alone. That what I truly desire more than a career is a family. That I still want to write, write, write! And for the first time, I realized that America is home, that maybe roots are a good thing, and that hectic and adventure and unpredictable are still fun, but that stability is not synonymous with stale.

I’m not afraid of boring anymore. I no longer see roots as synonymous with chains. I’ve become more practical in a good way. Like my hero Anne of Green Gables realized the year she went away, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself.”  I’ve learned that living a life worthy of the Gospel doesn’t necessarily entail drama, but blossoms in the quiet moments, being willing and open to the Holy Spirit and watching Him in awe as he works miracles in the mundane.

I still long for that romance that first drew me to Russia, that summer camp, twelve year old candy-like joy of running through a mile-high forest with new friends, to feel smoky, crisp summer air blow my hair as we tear through the night with a crazy driver, obnoxious pop music igniting our veins.  To have late-night conversations in platzkarts and to find magical swimming holes that are as close to Narnia as we’ll ever be, feeling that we’ve conquered time somehow. And although I am growing up into reality, I know that this romance is as needed and as real as ever, that growing up doesn’t mean losing the song that He put in my heart ten years ago. And in the New Year, He gifted me with a glimpse of what drew me here in the first place, at a time when I thought it was lost forever. As I walked through St. Petersburg at night with a friend I thought I’d never see again, bright lights against the dark blue sky and darker Neva, I felt the years I had gained come off. As we retraced footsteps from a far-away summer and reminisced about where we had been and shared where He had brought us, I walked into light and joy and peace,  given perspective in this time of painful refinement, and hope to press on.

Some treasures from 2 Corinthians that have encouraged me in the past few months:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”

2 Corinthians 1: 8-10

 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18