The Lord Will Fight For You

There’s a fine line between acting in faith and trying to gain freedom in my own strength. I tend to think that if I talk about a struggle enough, if I analyze it from every angle and dress it in different words, I’ll be able to finally discover some insight that will set me free once and for all from thought patterns that keep coming back to haunt me. Now don’t get me wrong, there is responsibility on my part to be proactive in setting my mind on what is good and true, the way that I’ve been approaching it until now hasn’t been effective.

I’m reading a fascinating and insightful book by J.P. Moreland, Finding Quiet: My Story of Overcoming Anxiety and the Practices that Brought Peace. Moreland, a theologian and professor, recounts his experience with mental illness (he had two anxiety-induced nervous breakdowns 10 years apart) and practical steps we can take to replace toxic thoughts patterns with what is true. One of the most enlightening things I’ve gotten from the book so far is that fighting our toxic thoughts by camping out with them and analyzing why they aren’t true actually reinforces the thoughts and keeps the neural pathway that these thoughts reside in well-oiled. Moreland writes:

“The key is not to ruminate about the message, arguing with yourself why it isn’t true or drawing out horrible implications of it. Such rumination, even telling yourself why the message isn’t true, actually depends the brain grooves that trigger the message and makes it harder to get rid of. The goal is to dismiss the message…” (71).

My strategy, so far, has been just this, to ruminate, gritting my teeth, determined to kill the negative thoughts. But I see the irony, trying to fight the battle against distorted thinking with the logic of the mind in which the distorted thinking resides is foolish. Instead, I need to “dismiss the message,” as Moreland says, by acknowledging that the thought is a lie and refocusing my attention on something solid and true.

A good friend recently said the same thing to me, that redirecting my thoughts rather than dwelling on them will play a huge part in experiencing freedom. She used the analogy of a dog being trained, a mental image which stuck with me. When the dog acts out, a smart owner redirects the dog’s attention rather than reinforcing the action through long, drawn-out punishment. So instead of punishing myself every time I have a thought that I think I should have grown past, maybe the wisest thing to do is to submit it to God, refuse to self-flagelate, and redirect my attention to something that I enjoy, whether that’s writing a blog post, listening to Susie Larson’s podcast, taking a trip to the Russian grocery store, or watching Jim put Dwight’s stapler in Jello.

When the Israelites found themselves surrounded on all sides-the Egyptians ready to strike and the Red Sea blocking their way, no human battle strategy could save them.

No human battle strategy could save them, but God could, and he did. Moses told the people, “The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.” (Ex. 14:14)

And God fought for them in a way only He was able: he parted the sea and His people walked to freedom. They had to step forward, yes, but it was the Lord who led the way.

In the same way, when freedom seems impossible to me, perhaps it’s because I’m trusting in my mind rather than trusting God to lead me to mental victory. No amount of analysis on my part will lead to freedom; instead, my victory will only come when I rest my weary mind, submit my thoughts to him and say, “Lord, only you can fight this battle.” So may I trust His healing process, may I rest my mind, and may I take joy in the fact that He is fighting my battles, and that He always wins.

I Have Seen the One Who Sees Me

Unclean.

Unclean am I, I am unclean, because of a bleeding that won’t stop, no matter how much I adhere to the doctors’ instructions, more outrageous and extravagant by the day. Weakness does not just fill me; it is me.

I feel cold in the sun.

I want to seek Him, Jehovah, the Lord, the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But I am cut off. Shame and sin are mine, are me. An unrepentant woman. I hear the whispers: “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” I am unclean, unclean am I. I used to have a name before the condemning blood.

When I heard about him from my mother, when she told me about what he did for the blind man that used to beg at the end of our street, all I could think of was how much he sounded like the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But compassion was a word for others; it could never apply to me. For my uncleanness, my sin, they said, had cut me off from the people. Compassion should not be shown to one who willfully persists in iniquity. It might imply that misdeeds were acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah. But with Mother’s story about this Jesus, I saw that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules.

A rebel, a kind rebel.

I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed. For a moment, I was thrilled, but then I felt the question like a slap.

“Who touched me?” 

I should have known better.

His voice wasn’t angry, but I knew it would be as soon as he realized that I, an unclean woman, had touched him. And if he was as powerful as my mother said, he would most certainly realize.

I feared that he would be angry, that I may have tainted his power with my unclean hands. But I was desperate; he was my last chance. My hands went numb and my body began to heave with tears that left me gasping for air. With my last bit of strength, I moved toward him, then fell near his feet, my hands scraped by the gritty ground.

“It was me! Forgive me, it was me.” The tears kept coming, but my face grew numb. I kept my head to the ground, waiting for the blow, or the curse, or the command to leave.

But instead, in a gentle voice, he said “daughter.”

I lifted my head in disbelief, and he looked in my eyes, really looked-not through me or past me as the others do. And when he looked in my eyes, his own filled with tears. And with a lump in his throat and a soft smile, he said, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”

He called me daughter, and he called me free. This compassion, this love, still feels strange and unreal. It’s been so long since I’ve been clean that I have to remind myself that my encounter with him wasn’t just a dream. But as I wake up every day with strength in my body and the memory of his words, I know that it is all true. And now I can proclaim with joy, just as Hagar did when he rescued her, “I have seen the one who sees me.” 

~

This fictional account is based on Mark 5: 25-34. Hagar’s words are from Genesis 16:13. Italicized words are direct quotes from Scripture.

When Your Hope is Wavering: A Story of His Faithfulness

I am not okay.

I haven’t been okay for quite some time.

The past few months have been defined by a new, sharp unearthing¹ of an old struggle, one that seeped in so deep and so long ago that it is a daily voice in my life’s narrative. I truly believe that the Lord is author of this unearthing; He has been revealing lie after lie that I believe about Him and myself. But sometimes it feels like too much at once.

Sometimes it seems that, yes, the lies have been revealed, that they have been defeated by my mind, but they will always stay lodged in my heart. Many times over the past few months I have felt that I was on the cusp of a long-awaited victory, a standing up into a strength that could not be toppled. And He has been kindling a calling in my heart, one that has been gestating for years and feels ready to be born.

But each time I stand up in seeming steadiness, each time I take a step toward this calling, my feet are swept from underneath me, my head cracks loud on ice, and the wind is knocked out of me. And at the lowest moments, I fear that there will not be a good ending to this all.

But right now, in this moment, I am thinking clearly, I am seeing through the eyes of the truth and not my fears. I am confident, that, as Susie Larson says, “There comes a point when God knows we’re strong enough to win the battle. He allows an overplayed enemy attack to position us for freedom. When we finally grasp the lie, we’ll recognize our path to freedom. The storms reveal the lies we believe and the truths we need.” ( Fully Alive, p. 79).

In this moment of steadiness, I need to remember what He carried me through, so that in a day, in a week, in a month, when the wind is knocked out of me again, I can dismember the lies. Right now, I need to proclaim in vivid detail the account of His faithfulness in similar times, when my heart failed me, but He proved greater than my heart.

So I’ll go back 5 years, to a dark place, a place where death hovered close, but my Father God shielded me, to a place where, though I couldn’t feel His presence, He fiercely protected His daughter.

                                                                           ~

On November 17, 2013, a rickety white leopard* careened through the airspace that blanketed Kazan and thudded, face first into hungry pavement. The plane had been flying for 23 years, its safety features long since neglected, the Russians’ philosophy being that if they shut their eyes and hoped for the best, if there ever was a problem, it would fix itself. But the Tatarstani president’s son had died and so had 49 others and the city would go on as usual because as their idiom goes, you can’t outrun fate.

At the time the plane came into being, I did as well, gestating somewhere between the fourth and fifth month in my mother’s womb.

23 years is a long time to go without a safety check.

What a metaphor this plane was for my own shaky frame. I was about to collide with the ground, fast and deadly, and after running for almost 23 years with no respite, it was bound to happen sometime. But I had to go on; there was no other option.

The day after the tragedy, death hung grainy in the air as I hurtled toward Kazan, that city of death, in the 5:00 am darkness. If all went as planned, (a phrase which, here, made me laugh with a cynical bite), this trip would secure me a visa for six more months.  Where did my determination come from? Why was I gritting my teeth, doing everything I could to stay in this haunted republic that had lodged a perpetual pang in my chest? It wasn’t a question of whether I trusted the two men that took me to the capital, the potato-faced driver and the handsome, self-important VIP from the university. Trust was irrelevant, because this trip was the only way, so I couldn’t allow myself to think of the possibilities of traveling along deserted roads with two strange men. In Russian, the phrase would be другого выхода нет, “there is no other exit.” The phrase struck me as particularly Russian, looking for an exit, a way out, a work-around, instead of barreling through the problem like a stubborn American. Perhaps it was that Americanness that convinced me that exit was never an option.

As we were spit through the precarious roads, we swung past a car, open and gutted, and was that blood? Was that actually the casual opening of a person into lifeless flesh? The narrow highway continued to suck me forward no matter how hard I clenched my muscles.

When we arrived, the sun was up and the university VIP gave me his number, saying that he would call me when he finished his important business. I wafted through the university like wind, not remembering that it was the one where Tolstoy had dropped out and Lenin had been expelled, such a proud institution, yet so creaky and irritable.

I reached the visa office where the woman with the gaunt wrinkles had turned me away a month ago with a yawn. And again, she looked at me like the stupid American I knew that I was and that I wasn’t.

“Of course you did it incorrectly,” she said. Subtle satisfaction flickered in her eyes at first, but I had a flash drive, and in an assertiveness born of desperation, I said we could fix it right there. Afterwards, I took to the city to wander while I waited for the VIP’s call.

Darkness snaked inside of me as I traipsed for hours, each second stinging like a venomous bite. This was the definition of alone, plodding through a city of 1 million, silent and waiting. It’s not easy to be alone when your nerves are so sunburned that a touch could set off sobbing. It’s not easy to be alone when the city is so suffocating, that you fear if you breathe too deeply, you might use up all the air.

When death and darkness have dogged you for months, the faintest light gives hope. Three weeks after the plane crash, I went back to Kazan to meet up with the Tatarstan Americans, us bewildered ones still in shock from the past three months, most in shock that we had remained whole, unharmed, and sane. Nick, the luckiest of us, lived in a new university for athletes and was able to secure us three nights in his dormitory. Unlike my Soviet-era dorm with its broken ovens, persistent dirt and peeling paint, the rooms we stayed in had a new-car smell, beds and sinks and furniture popped out of an Ikea magazine like puzzle pieces.

It wasn’t easy to gain entrance, which made it feel that much more surreal. The campus was outlined in a tall fence with wires, and we entered a metal box with security officers and a turnstile. We were smugglers, our bags full of champagne and wine, which was строго запрещено, strictly forbidden in the dormitory. But they waved us through, too bored to notice any guilty expressions, and I felt the first spark of giddiness in months. After two more checkpoints, we were in, we were safe, we were warm.

Our Thanksgiving meal was drawn out over hours. The small oven only let us cook one course at a time, so we began first with lentil soup, then the chicken that we pretended was turkey, then to hiding like a bunch of high school students when we popped the cork off the champagne. The cork had whizzed against the window, and we feared the wrath of the uniformed woman who prowled the dorm, looking for those whom she could destroy. She especially like to use the intercom to assert her reign, sending us into ripples of laughter when we heard her nasally voice whining “внимание!”

One of our days in Kazan, we found a doll resting atop the snowy street, curly blonde hair framing an expressionless face. We left it there, believing that someone would notice it, would pick it up and discard it. There was no way that she would last through the winter.

Months later, I was being ferried around the stagnant town of Yelabuga in an off-balance, bloated van on the outskirts of the city, when I saw a nineteen-year-old motorcyclist splayed out, extinguished unexpectedly. The onlookers fanned out around him and stared, but I knew they would soon disperse.

At least he would be cleaned up, unlike the muscular golden mutt that emerged, slowly, through the cakey blanket of snow that I walked atop daily, not knowing that it housed a beautiful, frozen death. The dog’s tawny hairs sprouted through the snow like grass, then with the snow scraping itself off to reveal a perfectly formed head, untouched by rot, and finally, the perfectly preserved mummy of the creature that was alive at the time when the rickety white leopard careened into the pavement. The dead dogs popped up everywhere through the snow, so much that we made it a game between our two cities, my American friend Hanna and I, counting them. Once again, Tatarstan proved itself to be a showcase of death. Death happens everywhere, but here, it was on freakish, frozen display.

Nick stayed in Kazan throughout the winter, and when the snow began to recede, walking along those same old streets, he saw that something had surfaced through the snow. He laughed when he saw the blonde curls and expressionless face and took a photo of the doll. She had been submerged and suffocated, trampled and forgotten, but somehow, she had emerged whole. The snow had covered her, but instead of dismembering and destroying her, it had preserved her.

The doll was a more accurate metaphor for me more than the plane, I realize. I would not be dismembered, but would emerge whole. I would not end violently, but begin anew. During those nine dark months, I was covered in snow that seemed to be soil on my grave, but what if that snow was really a blanket of protection?

And what if right now, the snow blanketing me is actually His protection from the elements that are poised to flay my skin and seep into my bones? I don’t know when I will emerge, but I know that I will. I don’t know the future, but His protection in the past gives me hope to grip in the present. So may I curl into His covering as a child into the crook of her father’s arm, may I rest and wait and trust that “I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).

References

*The airline was Ak Bars, Tatar for “white leopard.”

¹In her book Fully Alive, Susie Larson uses this phrase to describe God’s process of revealing lies and hurts in our soul to lead us to healing and freedom. I highly recommend the book!

On Living in Tents and Longing for Home

I had become tired of the constant movement, of the unsettledness that was paired with joy and adventure and trust, but at the same time, had been slowly wearing down body and soul. It struck acutely the night I drove through the eerie dark of a lonely road headed into the heart of Florida. Irma was coming, and after the evacuation order, I was the only one naïve enough to be heading south. An hour away from my parents, I cringed when the radio reported that the eye of the storm had shifted to my destination. There was denial and fear and a realization that I couldn’t go back. Gas everywhere had run dry, and I would have to keep heading toward the storm.

I think I saw the sign for Palatka then, but I didn’t give it much thought.

~

In a whirlwind summer, I had graduated and gone to abroad, moved out of my parents’ just-sold house, and set up camp with friends while the future was a blank page. When I was just about to run out of money, Georgia called. After a few idyllic days in upstate New York eating raspberry chocolate ice cream and exploring trails and laughing my heart out with a best friend, I was sucked into the deep South. My body was in Savannah. My belongings were in Maine. My heart was in another country.

Like so many times in my life, I was in many places at once. And it ached.

~

On the drive back to Savannah after the storm, I noticed sign after sign for Palatka. In Florida, it was the name of a town, but in Russia, it was the word for tent. And with each sign, I was reminded of the theme that God had been writing into my life since I was 12 years old. Just a few months before, with ecstatic joy, I stood in front of the people who spoke the language I loved and read to them from Hebrews 11. I read that Abraham left to follow the Lord, how he didn’t know where he was going, and that that was how my journey had started too, a journey that had led me to them. Those words had so often shot me with strength as a foreigner. But I was beginning to long for an end to the wandering, an end to the loneliness.

I longed for a place that would feel like home. And as the year went on, this feeling grew, and simultaneously, so did the taunts of guilt.

~

Being in this new place, this new culture, brought me again to the mountains I had climbed in Russia: loneliness that I struggled through daily and a job that drew on every last reserve. The difference here though was that this was permanent. I imagined year after year stretching out before me in this unsettled, exhausted state, fulfilling my calling, but wilting by the day.

~

The idea first came in February. My best friend and I were talking on the phone for the thousandth time about how things would be so much better if we were just in the same place. To encourage each other, to support each other in this often perplexing stage of life. And for the first time in years, it struck me as a real possibility.

But as soon as the hope took shape, the guilt that has subtly prodded me for years voiced its thoughts. One of my greatest fears as a Christ-follower is complacency, of becoming so comfortable that I turn inward, cozily ignoring those who need Him while enjoying a life of ease. And my black and white mind reasoned that since the reality I was currently living was anything but comfortable, that staying where I was must be the only way to fulfill my calling. In a mind that is so often uncomfortable with nuance, I had leaned into an almost ascetic viewpoint, the binary being that either I was miserable, lonely, and serving God, or complacent, superficially happy, and ignoring Him.

I longed for a place that felt like home, but I feared that having a home would blur my global vision.

I longed for a family of my own, but the words of Paul haunted me, making me fear that receiving this desire would numb my devotion to Christ.

On one of many nights processing all these thoughts with my Dad, something he said challenged my narrow perspective. “Hope,” he said, “I think you have more freedom in Christ than you realize.”

~

He was right. Absolutely right.

Following Jesus is so much bigger and freer than the way I was living.

As I prayed, discernment came as to what was self-imposed legalism and what was actually His calling on me in this season. And although I firmly believe that God often calls us to specific places at certain times (#russia!), I sensed from Him a beautiful freedom to take a step toward a place I never thought I’d be.

~

I recently was reading Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jerusalem, and I noticed something early in chapter 29 that I never had before. Although the Israelites were in exile, God commanded them to settle down where they were and to live life in the midst of the imperfection: to plant gardens,  to seek the peace and prosperity of the place they were exiled, to get married and to have children. Far from telling them to live in sackcloth for 70 years while they awaited their freedom, God showed care for His people’s physical needs and compassion for their humanness.

Even in tents, even in a body and soul that groan for more, the Lord gives rest and friendship and the Holy Spirit within us. And I am convinced that as I look forward in joy toward this big move, that this joy is from God. This is the first time in longer than I can remember that I have been so full of hope and passion for the unknown callings ahead of me. So in less than a month, I’ll be packing up my tent in Savannah and pitching it in upstate New York. I suspect that this won’t be my last move. Knowing me, I’ll continue to end up in places I never imagined I would be 🙂 But for now, Burnt Hills sounds a lot like home.

 

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.