Word of the year 2017

In early December, it grew bitterly cold in Arkansas. I stoked the wood stove full day in and day out, wore my fuzziest pajama pants, and only went outside to feed and water the chickens, pups, and cats. The icy wind tunneled through Duncan Hollow, determined to freeze the fresh water I’d poured for the animals the moment I poured it.

Sometimes the weather matches my mood. It did then. My father-in-law died the first week of December. A few days later, every leaf clinging stubbornly to the tall oak trees in our woods fell silently. In my grief, I didn’t even notice them falling. One morning as I drank my coffee, I glanced out the glass door in my office, overlooking the trails where the old barn used to be. A week earlier, some of the trees held onto their crunchy brown jackets in stubborn refusal to let go of autumn. That morning, I was met by bleak winter.

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Gulin, China–One of the images I focused on 

During that cold, bitter time, God came to me through images of smooth lakes, calm water, and iridescent moonlit walks I took when I lived at my old house. He came to me through a specific song I’d long forgotten but dearly loved, a soothing song I listened to repeatedly when I first loved it and listened to again this December while meditating. I pictured my father-in-law beckoning me to follow him to a still, quiet, joyful place when I felt overwhelmed by grief. Christ came to me through a story of a group of very manly men who were scared to death by a storm, so scared they couldn’t help but wake up their Leader and ask Him for help in the middle of the night. Christ spoke to me by sharing a specific word with me which, for two months, I thought was my focus word for 2017, a word which tied all these things loosely together.

But I never felt solid about writing about this word or sharing specific details about these things on my blog. So I didn’t. I’ve grown to write less and less for my personal blog, partly out of necessity for lack of time, and partly because what matters most to me is deeply personal, so personal and spiritual I’m unwilling to splay it online unless I feel compelled.

I also hesitated to land on that word because its meaning, for me, denoted a lack of color and life. And while I knew I’d needed that word desperately during December and January, while grieving deeply and walking in quiet, solitary pain, I was ready for more.

Last weekend, I walked a labyrinth with my friends at a spiritual retreat and let my feet fall into rhythm, purposely following an earthen path countless others have trod in an effort to find 30 minutes of peace. Afterward, I chatted with two ladies while the afternoon sun warmed our faces on the way back to the lodge. One of them shared with me about the growth of her small business. This peaked my interest since I opened my own business less than one year ago. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but she shared something about one of her associates mentioning that it was important to let things happen. I wish I could remember the exact words; maybe I’m not supposed to, and maybe those words don’t matter.

What matters is in that moment, God gave me my focus for this year.

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Ozark National Forest

I walked to the creek running beneath the bridge we crossed to return to the lodge and looked down. The water shone. Several bright yellow leaves lay in the water below.  Some of the leaves seemed still, and others moved at varying speeds in the water below, some in the current and others on the outskirts. Those leaves were not concerned with the temperature, the wind, the light, or the people around them. They weren’t concerned with the other objects in the water, not even logs or wild animals, because the water was powerful enough to maneuver the leaves around objects, even if it took a little time. They were simply being carried by the water, and they kept moving wherever the water carried them.

I am a leaf. He is the Water.

 

 

As sick as our secrets

Smiling through the sick secrets in my life, 2000

Smiling through the sick secrets in my life, 2000

“We’re only as sick as our secrets.”

I’ve heard friends say this phrase repeatedly in the rooms of recovery for almost six years.

This week, an old college friend of mine was arrested and charged with multiple counts of possession of child pornography. I sat through several religion and philosophy classes with him, sang worship songs alongside him, and watched him help start a campus ministry organization. When I learned about his arrest as I unrolled our copy of the local paper, I was not surprised.

Don’t get me wrong. This guy seemed to have his stuff together, serving his church and community by working as a youth pastor and teacher. He was recently married to a lovely lady and had a bright future to look forward to. Honestly, I always viewed him as better than me, more together than me, much more fundamentalist in his beliefs and behavior, and certainly more in control of his sinful nature.

I just wasn’t surprised to learn of his arrest because I’ve learned, through my own walk with God and personal struggles with right and wrong, that things are not always what they seem. And certainly people are not always who they seem to be.

Not long ago, a childhood friend of mine was convicted on similar charges related to filming minors and other women without their consent. I shared Skittles with this kid at church camp in sixth grade. I nailed roofing shingles next to him in Oklahoma on a mission trip in high school. I climbed the Great Wall of China with him as part of a service trip teaching English as a second language to college students. And I felt very proud of him as he became a pretty well-known local evangelist. He, too, had a beautiful young wife and had just started his own family.

And then the truth came out.

I don’t know the ins and outs of my old friends’ sins. I have compassion for their families, and I wish that I’d been able to offer some help or extend a way out to these old friends who are now facing legal consequences for their actions. As someone who was raped by a close family friend at the age of 16, I know firsthand how far and wide our secret sins can impact others. The man who raped me is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The man who abused him is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The cycle of secret sickness infects and wounds and scars all those caught in the tangled webs we weave.

Sometimes we only see part of a much larger and more complicated reality.

I faked my way through life while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average while smoking pot almost daily for a year. I served in campus ministry organizations while struggling with sexual sin on and off again in my own life. I pretended to have blissful marriages while being affected daily by alcoholism and drug addiction in my home. I have cheated, lied, and felt worthless, all with a smile plastered on my face.

007Until I got real honest with myself, with God, and with the people I love.

I’m thankful I don’t have to hide from the truth today. I have no desire to keep secrets. Secrets kept me sick for years. I’m not willing to pretend things are fine when they’re not. I’m not afraid to look at the past. Not even God can change the past. I’m not afraid to face who I am today head on—God has enlightened me and shown me time and time again that if I am willing to live in the light, the darkness will not prevail. Any time I’m tempted to do something and feel that it might be better to keep it to myself, chances are it’s something I’d be better off without.

It’s my prayer that I might become more honest with myself and less judgmental towards others. Just because I can see the horrible truths in others’ lives doesn’t mean I’m not harboring plenty of horrible truths myself, unless I choose to live in the Light and honestly look at the truth of who I am every day.

“Only the truth and truthfulness can save us now.” –Sara Groves

Dirtiest bath ever

When I was in Beijing as a college student, I took the dirtiest bath ever.

At the Great Wall of China during one of four amazing trips

At the Great Wall of China during one of four amazing trips

After spending three weeks in a smaller city in Shandong Province working on ESL skills with college students and other community members, the group I traveled with spent three days in the nation’s capital, climbing the Great Wall, walking through the once forbidden gate of the Forbidden City, meeting Alanis Morissette in the gift shop, and other interesting touristy things.

But the best part about our final three days in China each year? The first long, hot bath I took in our lovely hotel.

After staying in a smaller city and in a nice but simple hotel for three weeks, the luxury of hot water at all hours of the day and night overwhelmed me. Our rooms in the simpler hotel were not really “roughing it” by Chinese standards. We had hot water for one hour a day, most days. Workers delivered boiled, potable water to us each morning in a vessel so we could wash our faces, brush our teeth, drink hot tea, and take sponge baths. And our rooms were carpeted and had air conditioning. Compared to the Chinese college students’ dormitories, we were in the lap of luxury.

Compared to our spoiled rotten American standards of living, we were suffering (and some of us had a tough time not whining about it along the way).

There is nothing like going without what you don’t need to bring you to the realization of what you do need.

Most days, I skipped the opportunity to take a hot shower during our one-hour window of opportunity in lieu of spending time with college students, practicing English, getting to know them as individuals, answering their probing questions, and performing a song or dance on occasion for a group of giggling roommates (eight to a room, by the way, as compared to two on American campuses). I don’t regret missing any of those showers. As we say in the Ozarks, “a little dirt won’t hurt.”

It didn’t. Each time I went to China, I experienced some of the most amazing, interesting, miraculous, and inspiring moments of my life. Not once did I rue missing a few baths. But every time the plane took off from the tiny airport, heading to the big city where we’d spend our last few days abroad, hot, salty tears created rivets on my dusty cheeks as I left people I’d grown to love and care about and pray for.

The first year I went, when I took the dirtiest bath of my life in Beijing, I remember being disgusted and amazed at the degree of dirtiness I had achieved in three short weeks of less-than-perfect hygiene. I scrubbed and scrubbed with a white washcloth, filling the white porcelain tub with so much dirt and grime that the water literally transformed from translucent to opaque, dark brown. The washcloth might never be white again, even with the help of bleach. And to this day, when I take a hot shower or bath, I thank God for the gift of endless access to hot water. And I remember the flood of warmth that washed over me during that very dirty bath in Beijing, along with the relief I felt, knowing that I was finally clean again.

Sunrise on the White River, 2012

Sunrise on the White River, 2012

The Ultimate Cleansing Agent did a similar dirty job for me–and for my fellow filthy humans–by washing away the nastiest, dirtiest, and most disgusting gunk of all. One time only, never needing to repeat this dirty job, He wiped off the darkness in our hearts to reveal who we really are. Souls created in His likeness, meant to reflect the Light of the world.

I’m so thankful He has scrubbed me–and the anyone else who lets Him–completely clean, once and for all.

Happy Easter.

 

Getting it

This morning, as I read through 1 Chronicles, I came across a passage I’ve read and studied multiple times before, outlining the story of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Some of the details I remembered were missing from the 1 Chronicles version, so I flipped back to 2 Samuel to check out the other version.

“So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing . . . David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might . . .  As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michael daughter of Saul (David’s wife) watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”  –2 Samuel 6:12-16

Why?

I’ve never understood why Michal hated David for dancing before the Lord. Bringing back the ark was a huge spiritual success for David and the Israelites. Everyone with David was singing, shouting, and dancing. And as his wife, wouldn’t she want to share in his joy rather than turn up her nose at it?

Apparently not. My Bible’s footnotes explain that “Michal had no appreciation for the significance of the event and deeply resented David’s public display as unworthy of the dignity of a king.”

The bottom line: she just didn’t get it.

As I contemplated these verses over a cup of coffee and chocolate buttermilk pie, memories of times in my life when those around me “just didn’t get it” trickled in.

Striking a pose, 2009

I remembered attending three different churches over the course of a decade and going to ministry fairs hosted by each church. Each time, the churches sponsored a booth with a suggestion box and encouraged members to write down their specific spiritual gifts and talents if they hadn’t found a group, committee, or activity that seemed like a good fit. Each time, I wrote down, “I love to dance, and I feel it’s a gift God’s given me. I’d love to use that gift in some way.”

Crickets.

I never got a single response to that request. Dancing in a traditional, often Fundamentalist denomination, wasn’t really considered acceptable. Maybe to some, it would be considered “public display unworthy of the dignity of a Christian,” to paraphrase my Bible’s footnotes on Michal’s perspective on David’s dancing.

China, 2005

I recalled another moment in a church service, in one of these same churches, when the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus began playing. I had just returned from China and had felt the heavy spiritual oppression surrounding me for three weeks. I’d come to value freedom of expression in a way I’d never valued it before. It seemed only natural to physically stand in reverence to God now that I had the option to do so.

The minute I stood up, in the middle of several rows of pews, I believe colossal drops of sweat began to drip from the music minister’s face. I received multiple stares, and if my memory serves me correctly, the folks’ faces weren’t exactly reflecting support, encouragement, or brotherly love. Apparently I’d rocked the boat a little too much that morning and missed the memo outlining specific “don’t stand up during the Stand Up for Jesus song” instructions.

I recollected a time when I read a book about a native Indian man who proposed that if Americans truly want to assist in spreading God’s word to other people, their money may be better spent supporting native missionaries rather than foreign missionaries since native missionaries require much less financial backing; they’re already used to living in poverty-stricken places and can get by on much less. This book moved me and opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about things. I shared the book with my then-boyfriend. He read it, and when I asked him what he thought of it, he said, “I thought it was cute.”

Cute? A book about changing the world? His response brought tears to my eyes.

I reminisced about moments when I’d felt compelled to make choices based on my beliefs. I’ve walked away from movies and television shows, leaving friends confused over why I’d be offended at the content. I’ve tried to explain to people why I’m moved to tears over others’ addictions holding them back from the Light. I’ve given money and items to people–some whose names I don’t even know–when spurred by a strong, quiet voice instructing me to do so. I’ve visited and called and emailed friends to express my concern over something God revealed to me about their lives or current situations–each time, I really knew nothing about what was really going on; God just kept telling me to say something to them. So I did.

Acting on my spiritual gut feels pretty ridiculous sometimes. It’s often not dignified. It may involve making incredibly unpopular choices. It incites disgust, anger, and confusion.

But I can’t stop doing it.

I can’t stop dancing before the Lord with all my might when I know that’s exactly what He wants.

And I won’t worry about the Michals of the world who, sadly, may never get it.

Spontaneous love

Many times in my life, tears of joy have streamed down my face uncontrollably.

Once, when I was watching Elizabeth, my stepdaughter, earn her yellow belt in Taekwondo, I found myself crying while watching other kids compete. The children grinned contagiously, pulling the joy out of every parent in the room. Mind you, I wasn’t watching Elizabeth compete yet; I was watching children I didn’t even know.

So why was I crying?

I can only suggest that sometimes the spontaneous love of God wells up in me, and it’s impossible to keep it in.

The same thing happened to me once while listening to a young orphan in China play his small violin for a group of visitors. We had just heard the story of how he lost his parents and came to live in the orphanage. He sat silently during the story, one tear sliding slowly down his cheek. Then he quietly picked up his instrument and soothed himself with it. He looked at me, and without warning, a flood of tears rushed down my face. It might sound ridiculous, but I felt as if I could literally feel his pain.

And the spontaneous love of God came pouring out of me.

Recently I was lying in bed, attempting to stave off nausea caused by pregnancy. As James read the book of Hebrews to me, and he noted the extravagant love of God sacrificed for the world, I felt my heart attempt to leap out of my chest and yelp for joy.

Maybe I’m an exception. Maybe most people never experience these kinds of moments.

What a terrible shame. Ever since I opened my heart to God and asked Christ to flood me with the only real Peace that exists, His love has been spilling over into everything in my life.

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers (in his devotion for April 30th entitled ‘The Spontaneity of Love’) asserts that,

“The evidence of our love for Him is the absolute spontaneity of our love. It comes naturally. In looking back, we cannot tell why we did certain things. We did them according to the spontaneous nature of His love in us. The life of God manifests itself in this spontaneous way because the springs of love are in the Holy Ghost (Romans 5:5).”

I’m forever grateful for His love and never plan on stopping up the springs that spill out of me from time to time. Unbridled love is nothing to be ashamed of.