Our Beautiful, Ugly Idols (Part 1)

A story from Greek mythology that has stuck with me is that of the Sirens. The famous warrior Odysseus is making his way home from war when his ship must pass by the Sirens: half-women, half-birds who sing a song that is achingly beautiful, and until then, had led to the death of all who heard it. Whenever sailors followed their melody, their boats were dashed against the rocks. So before encountering the Sirens, Odysseus had his men block their ears with beeswax so they wouldn’t be tempted to succumb to their song. But Odysseus, now he was sure he was better than that. He wanted to hear the beauty of this legendary song, so no beeswax for him. Instead, he had his crew tie him to the mast of the boat and swear not to untie him no matter how much he pleaded.

Of course, when they passed by, Odysseus frantically fought to get free and begged his men to untie him. Fortunately, his crew ignored his cries, and he survived. But what I find interesting is that although both Odysseus and his men survived, they both saw the Sirens completely differently. “To Odysseus, who [was] bewitched by the song, the Sirens look[ed] as beautiful as Helen of Troy. To his crew, made deaf with beeswax, the Sirens seem[ed] like hungry monsters with vicious, crooked claws.” Whereas his crew saw the Sirens for the murderers they truly were, Odysseus saw them as beautiful, even worth giving his life for. Although he survived, instead of passing through peacefully like his men, he writhed through the struggle, pining for something that looked beautiful, but was actually deadly.

The Lord has convicted me this weekend that I’m just like Odysseus. Continue reading “Our Beautiful, Ugly Idols (Part 1)”

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 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 faithful then, 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