I thought there was only one way to tell the story. I was sure there was only one way to begin.
The beginning was the black page in my own little copy of the wordless book. The beginning was the black bead on the bracelet I made in Vacation Bible School. The beginning was the first bullet point in every gospel tract I’d ever seen. The beginning was that first brick on the Romans Road to Salvation: we all have sinned.
Sin, separation, estrangement: this is how the story always began.
I thought I knew the story. I thought I had it right.
It began with a great debt. I owed this Christ everything. This is the story I was taught, and this is the story I believed.
This is the story that has shaped my whole life. And this is the story I still believe.
But I spent years crawling my way back to the beginning of the story. And ten years ago, I arrived. Desperate with pain and unmet desire, I let go of that black page. I let go of the blood-red, and I let go of the white.
I’d spent my whole life clinging to my own cleanness, my own goodness, trying to pay back the debt I owed, but it no longer mattered. The only things that mattered were these: was I known? Was I loved?
When belief unraveled, when it no longer seemed to matter if I was good, I heard this: I see you.
God didn’t care if I was good. And he didn’t care if I believed. But he cared that I was hurting.
Because he loved me like I love my babies. And he held me like I hold my babies.
He held me until I could say, like Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”
It is Lent, and I am thinking about sin. I am thinking about the Love I encountered ten years ago.
My prayer these weeks has been the same every day. It is brief and simple: search me, O God, and know my heart. The result has been surprisingly straightforward. It has felt like God placing a mirror right in front of my face.
I can’t help but see what the mirror reflects, and I cringe. I see something ugly, something so buried I would never have discovered it on my own, and I feel the expected shame. I’d like, just for a moment, to forget what I’ve seen. But then another thought occurs to me: it takes such love to hold up that mirror. Thank you, God, I whisper. Thank you for loving me enough to show me this.
It’s as if God is the friend who won’t let me leave the house with spinach stuck between my teeth or toilet paper clinging to my shoe. What a relief it is to have a friend like that.
And so, I have finally arrived at the black page. The black bead. The first brick. But I am not afraid. I am not ashamed. At least, not for long. Because I know what comes next. I know about the blood-red, and I know about the white.
And this story?
It is a love story.
“Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that
faith may take new forms.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
I remember the day I stopped believing.
I see that day now for what it was: a doorway. Nothing would ever be the same for me having passed that threshold.
I thank God every day for leading me to that place. I thank God every day for giving me the courage to do what I had never yet done. For the first time, I doubted him.
I am not a risk-taker. I am a play-it-safe, keep-within-the-lines, follow-the-rules kind of girl. Growing up, they told me God is Love, and I believed them. And then I followed the rules.
Church on Sunday.
Read your Bible daily.
Rules which added up in my mind to this: you’ve been bought for a price so now live like you can make it up to him.
But, of course, we can never do that.
Which is why he never asked us to.
I stood in church one Sunday and sang some song about God’s love. I was in pain, I saw no evidence that God had noticed, so I stopped singing the song. I no longer believed in a God equals Love. I no longer believed that this Love saw me.
Here is the thing about unbelief: it is like a fire. It burns away the truth, yes, but it also burns away the lies.
What is left is a heart like a dead, blackened field.
In other words, what is left is the perfect ground for new life.
I do not want to idolize unbelief, no more than I would want to idolize certainty. All I want is to say: Do not be afraid.
On the days when you believe, the days when God is near, do not be afraid. Do not imagine it is up to you to keep the feeling going, like a bicycle that might disappear the moment you become too exhausted to keep peddling.
And on the days when you cannot summon belief, on the days when God is a void, do not be afraid. These days are dark, they may be painful, but they, too, can be a gift.
Which came first, my love for God or his love for me? Before I stepped through the door of this day, I’m not sure I could have answered the question. My view of divine love was a mixed-up mess of lessons I’d been taught, songs I had sung, parents who loved well, and my own lonely efforts to be a good person.
Maybe that has been the greatest gift of unbelief. Embracing it, I let go of everything I thought made me lovable.
And then Love found me.
“We love because he first loved us.”
(I John 4:19)
We’ve signed papers, and, if all goes as planned, we’ll soon move into an old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside. For two years dreams have been our only food, and those dreams are being realized.
Dream is a word I’ve always had trouble with.
When I was a child I learned words like sinner, salvation, and cross, but those good words twisted themselves in ugly ways until all I heard was duty, obligation, and sacrifice. My faith boiled down to what I owed to Jesus. There is little room for dreaming in a life of obligation.
Why dream my own dreams when Jesus might say follow me somewhere I did not want to go?
The Jesus who loves me – me! – and not my life of sacrifice taught me how to dream. I wanted to live in the city, I wanted a PhD, I wanted children. They were my dreams, and Jesus made them reality. Each dream realized was a gift from the One who is Love.
Until the day I came to the end of my own dreams.
Pregnant with my third child and only a few hurdles away from my degree, I saw a future that looked blank. The horizon was right up close, and I had nothing to aim for. The dreams I had chased for years had come true, but I had no dreams of my own left to run toward.
We cannot live without dreams. They are as necessary as bread.
But where do we find them?
I know now that our best dreams come from the kingdom of God.
For too long, I looked at Jesus and saw only the cross: a one-time event that left me in his debt. I saw but didn’t see.
Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were not isolated events. They were beginning and ending. They unleashed something so beautiful and miraculous words just can’t capture it. But we try. We say, as Jesus did all those years of his earthly ministry, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
Frederick Buechner puts it so well. Speaking of Jesus’s first followers, he writes: “One way or another Christ called them. … They saw the marvel of him arch across the grayness of things – the grayness of their own lives, perhaps, of life itself. They heard his voice calling their names. And they went” (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).
Yes, we are moving to our dream house, but we are not chasing a house. We are chasing Jesus. It has always been his beautiful voice calling to us in the desert. It was his voice that said NO, and NO, and NO when we pursued familiar things like church involvement, an academic career, a life just big enough for three children, no more.
Now, we are living in his YES and everything that looked like sacrifice and hardship has proved to be the surest and best path toward glory.
Buechner goes on, “[Christ] called them to see that no matter how ordinary it may seem to us as we live it, life is extraordinary. … Life even at its most monotonous and backbreaking and heart-numbing has the Kingdom buried in it the way a field has treasures buried in it. … The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. … The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
We jumped into the river, though we had no idea where it might take us.
It has taken us home.
I spent most of this Labor Day weekend sitting by the pool and feeling the spray of splash after splash after splash. My children don’t swim so much as hurl themselves repeatedly into the water. Even the two-year-old, with a grip on his inner tube that looks entirely too casual to me, gets in on the action. Run . . . jump . . . Splash! Repeat.
I tried it once or twice myself, but even that small drop from side of pool to bottom of pool makes my stomach flutter. Once upon a time, I could jump from the 7 meter diving platform for fun after swim practice. Once upon a time, I pretended to like the free-fall rides at the amusement park.
I have nothing left to prove. I would rather avoid stomach flutters. And so I generally ease my body into the pool one concrete step at a time.
But if a bodily free fall is something I now avoid, I find myself pursuing spiritual free falls with much more regularity. They don’t make my stomach flutter – only my heart.
I don’t think you will find the phrase “free fall” in the Bible, but it seems to me the best way to describe the experience of following God into unknown terrain. To hear His voice calling, to move in His direction . . . well, it often feels like falling.
There we are – in midair – and it is not at all clear that we will be caught, that we have in fact heard rightly, that we will not fall all the way to the bottom of an empty post-Labor Day swimming pool.
I could tell you that He never lets us hit bottom. That our free fall of faith is rewarded every time. But I’m not sure if it always looks like that. Or if it always feels like that.
Sometimes we might just find ourselves at the bottom of the pool, picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of it all. Asking, “Was I wrong to jump?”
Occasionally, we are tested like Abraham, and we are privileged to see, without a doubt, that we have aced the test. Abraham knew that he would have sacrificed his son. God knew it too. Abraham passed the test and was rewarded with God’s provision and with a faith that had been refined by fire.
Abraham made the leap. He landed with both feet on the ground and eyes that had witnessed God’s goodness and glory.
Yes, God tests us, we have read, in order to know what is in our hearts (Deuteronomy 8:2). But even if we find ourselves heart-bruised at the bottom of the pool, we are given this good thing: we have seen our own souls in flight.
Whether we call it falling or flying, it is good to know what we are made of. It is good to know that even the least thrill-seeking among us are capable of leaping after Him.
“. . . acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you . . .” (I Chronicles 28:9).
I hope my kids keep jumping. It isn’t safe, but I’m convinced that it’s the only way to live.