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)
Two years ago, I wrote a few words for my son. They added up to something that wasn’t quite a story. I think they were a prayer. Also, a confession.
I meant them for all of my children, but it was this boy who drew them out of me.
The love we have for others – but especially for the weaker ones, like our children – is often laced with fear. That is our lot in this world: to love and to know that loving makes us vulnerable. Vulnerable to loss. To pain. To worry.
Some of our loves are laced with more fear than others. My love for this boy is like that.
However, in loving him, I have seen something strange but beautiful, something hard but good: the worst moments are the ones that wash my love clean of all the fear.
Somehow it takes having our worst fears realized, to know that our worst fears are not worth fearing. Because, ultimately, we are safe. We are loved. We are held.
Recently, my son began a new school year at a new school. He was nervous. I was nervous for him. Despite my prayers, despite my hopes, his first day went about as badly as a first day could go. Possibly, it was even worse than that. At the end of this terrible, no-good, very bad day, I remembered what I had shared two years ago. And I knew this: our worst days may be the answers to our best prayers.
(the following is edited from the archives and was originally titled The Only Thing I Pray My Children Grow Up to Know)
The second-born, my oldest boy, starts kindergarten in just a few weeks. Not only that, but he will ride the bus (which is, possibly, a bigger deal for both of us even than kindergarten itself).
I’ve been a mother long enough to know that the days are long but the years are short. These summer days drag (how to fill the time between dinner and bed?), but I will wake up tomorrow and watch my son graduate from high school. I know this, and it has prompted me to wonder: what do I want this boy to grow up to do? To know? To be?
Like most parents in these enlightened days, I say, “I only want him to be happy. Whatever makes him happy. If that means becoming a doctor, great. If it’s an auto mechanic, fine by me.” Unlike most parents, I suspect, I really do mean it.
I’ve spent enough time around highly-educated Ivy-leaguers to know that the things which spell success in our culture (straight A’s! a University of Chicago degree!) are not necessarily markers of either success or happiness.
Not only that, but I know that there is some kind of Murphy’s law of parenting: whatever I plan for my child, the opposite will happen. My father gave me only this bit of advice as I prepared for college: “Study anything you want, but be practical. Don’t major in English or History.” I was never a rebellious child, but Murphy’s law kicked in and, by the end of college, I was graduating with a double major in English and History.
What then do I want for my boy? For his big sister? His little brother?
Only this: to know deep down in their heart of hearts God loves them. Truly, that is all.
Unfortunately, there is such a big chasm between head knowledge and heart knowledge, between assenting to an idea or concept and feeling the truth of it deep inside. I tell them over and over: you are loved. By me. By others. But, most importantly, you are loved by the Love who created everything beautiful and that Love is vaster and more intimate than you may ever know.
I heard that too as a child. I sang these words in so many Sunday school classes: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But I didn’t know. I nodded my head and agreed, but I didn’t really know.
Praying that my children know God’s love is sometimes difficult. It is as if I am praying that they suffer. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is some other way in which this knowledge can travel from head to heart, but the enormity of God’s personal love was only revealed to me in some very dark places.
Looked at another way, I am not praying they suffer. I am praying they be comforted.
And this is what I want for my babies? Yes, this is what I want for them: that, like Hagar, they will one day say, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
This is my prayer:
“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
I’m afraid that it will hurt, but I promise you: it is worth every tear.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42: 5)