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!

Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same book that had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

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.

 

Depression and the Compassion of Christ

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.

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.

~

Millennia later, the story is the same. The girl has a lump in her throat, a perpetual reminder of the sin of ungratefulness. The gifts she is supposed to be counting turn astringent on her tongue. Lying down, finally, the day has been waded through. She can now give way to the only relief, the tears. The girl crawls underneath the covers and cries out to Jehovah, the Lord, the one who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. She is cut off, can’t even open the book. Its words, once healing rain, now roll in droplets off hard soil. Three weeks ago she decided to cut the pill in half. 6 years was enough, she reasoned. 6 years of growth and changed thought patterns. New stability would make it a natural transition.

And with the cutting of the pink pill in half the wilting begins. A rapid descent into the old. Now she is weak. And voices accuse, “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” Mornings begin with dread. The day stretches out as a desert. Her eyes are cloudy, her stomach clenched. And supposedly her name is hope.

~

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. Compassion was a word I had heard of, but knew that I was to be forever excluded from. 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 was filled with the conviction that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules. A rebel, a kind rebel.

~

The girl is weak and ashamed. She knows how it seems to the outside. And she’s read and heard that the pink pills are acceptable for a time, but a life-long reliance would be to put one’s trust in medicine rather than the Lord. “Jesus,” she mouths, wincing through the tears. Her mind is clouded; the only thoughts are oppressive, and her body splayed out exhausted at 5 pm cannot fight. “Jesus,” is all she can manage. There is compassion in his eyes, she knows, even though she cannot feel it.

~

When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering….. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

His is a compassion that sees beyond what they see. His is a compassion that goes beyond what they cannot understand. I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed, loved and seen! Known by the one who saw and loved Hagar, abandoned to die in the desert.

~

The girl will not cut the pill anymore. Instead, she will take it, giving thanks to the compassionate One who knows that she is dust. The judgment was not from him. Those speaking judgment were well-meaning, but lacked understanding. But He, He has been tempted in every way, a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief, compassion embodied. The girl will name this place Beer Lahai Roi, for she has seen the one who saw her, embraced her, and promised future healing by his infinite touch.

All Scripture has been taken from Mark 5:25-34, New International Version.

Jaazaniah, 2003

Jaazaniah, 2003

Holding a picture and a “never, never” you were a gritter of teeth and a ram, but because you heard Him you answered yes. You stepped into a heavyset bus with orange curtains in the land of Rus, where you fell and jammed the knee to a bruise, ripening under pale skin. A bumpy endless night follows, with a skipping refrain from a silver Walkman:

And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.

Open the shutters and see the first summer that you were awake, drink the sparkling stars and tall, skinny pines like a shot of vodka, with shivers and burn and clarity.

Earth, rain, mud, sense and a cry, the original cry that was answered with the unexpected, longed for yes.

Through flooded showers, communal and freezing, through mosquitos feasting on flesh layered in sweat and dirt, through a shared mascara and a new friend who shared your name there was that yes,

the yes that answered the question, the original question.

You sat there, twelve and ancient, infinite and tired, tasked with tasking the children with crafts you didn’t understand, and some tasks just don’t make sense in the entropy, and the prayer pours out in all its young, eternal specificity:

“Let it rain God, a rain with drops big like I’ve never seen, but let it be for only five minutes.”

And when the sky immediately rumbles and cries your tears of relief, it is all naturalness to you, but

joy, joy, joy!

Joy in an oversized grey hoodie, running through the forest path in the giddy hope that defines you. Slick with the answer dripping off your face, through your clothes, breathless and known.

I have now seen the One who sees me.

He was in this place and I did not know it.

*Jaazaniah is one of my middle names. It means “the Lord hears.”