Inside the Fence

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“Can I tell you my story now?” he asked.

It is not really very likely that I will ever say no to this question.

It was an ordinary day at the office. He’d been fighting discouragement for a while. It’s hard, when you have total faith that this is what God is calling you to do and still the doors feel like they’re not only closed before you, but also locked. But he’d been praying and today God replied:

“Go to Cleburne airport tonight and stay until sunset.”

BUT WHY THOUGH. It wasn’t like he could fly tonight. There wouldn’t even be any airplanes for him to watch and wish he would be piloting them. What would be the point?

“Just go.”

Okay then. Whatever You say.

He called his wife to warn her that God had booked his evening, and invited her to go along. His enthusiasm levels about visiting a lifeless airport were not high, but at least they could have a date night. He didn’t think God would say three is a crowd tonight.

The airport disappointed his expectations. Not only were there two airplanes which took off and landed several times before flying away, there was a third which seemed inclined to stay the whole evening; taking off, flying the pattern he knew so well, landing, and then starting all over again.

They parked their car and sat on the hood to watch. But if you do not have the call to flight whispering in your veins, pulling your gaze ever skyward, you can only watch an airplane do the same thing again and again for so long. His wife’s eyes wandered, and she saw wildflowers growing in the field by the runway. Could they go and pick some?

“Just wait,” he said, “It’s not quite sunset yet.” And he hadn’t had any shining revelations. Yet.

He continued not having them while the sun dropped, and when it slipped behind the horizon, he gave up. Maybe he wasn’t meant to have any tonight. They had had a good evening. Maybe that was meant to be enough.

He took his wife out into the field, and while she was gathering her wildflowers, he looked up again to the place where, according to the pattern it had been flying, the airplane should have been. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere in the sky or on the earth either, as far as he could see.

“If I brought it here for you to watch, why would I keep it here after you stop looking?” God pointed out.

Oh, right. This evening had been God’s idea, not his.

“Thank You for the airplanes tonight.” And he turned back towards his wife.

God cleared His throat. “Ahem. Also. Where are you standing right now?”

In a field in the middle of a tiny airport?

“Remember how you used to stand outside the airport fences, watching, longing just to be on the other side? These closed doors you keep staring at? Yeah, there might be a few still before you. But what about the gates we’ve opened? Look around you, Craig. You are inside the fence.”

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An Armful of Stories

There are stories written in the skin of my arms. The language is silent and perhaps only I can interpret it, but when I trace the lines I read a history of the most formative relationships in my first fifteen years: my daddy, my mother, my older sisters, and my self.

1)  A small brown dot about the size of a pinhead has been on my wrist for as long as I can remember. Before I was old enough to go to school, one of my sisters used it to teach me right from left. Some people made an L with their thumb and finger; but in looking for the mole on my right wrist, I never learned to see it as a flaw. It was a help, a reminder; and now it is a memory of my older sisters, without whom I would be ill-equipped to face the world. 

2)  On the inside of my right elbow there is a narrow, faintly silver crescent. I remember the day I got this scar, though I was quite a small girl – small enough to sit on the kitchen countertop while I helped my mother fry mushrooms. I slipped, on that evening, and fell hand-first into the pan of boiling oil. On the palm of my hand there blossomed a blister larger than my thumb, but my mother doctored it so well that there’s no sign of it today. The only scar I was left with is the curve where my arm hit the edge of the skillet. I seldom notice it now, but I was all of twenty years old before I could enjoy the taste of mushrooms. 

3)  Over the tops of my arms a hundred freckles are scattered – mementos of seven summers spent in the sun, running a mower for my daddy’s lawn care business. I was never a fan of outdoor work but I enjoyed working with my daddy, and despite the two years since spent in housewife-ing and teaching and office work, the freckles remain, a memory of the days when I worked to earn the position of my daddy’s right-hand girl. 

4)  On the soft insides of my forearms the fourth story is written in whisper-thin lines of fading white. Soon they will vanish, and I could choose to let their story vanish with them. I’ve never told it to anyone, this story of a lost teenage girl for whom alone was definitive, both as a blessing and a curse. Alone was the place where I became acquainted with myself, but alone was also the cage where no one could reach me. There were too many thoughts, too many emotions, too tightly locked inside of me, and somehow when my arms stung red in the dark, it soothed for a moment the deeper ache in my soul. Sometimes, still, when I am very tired and my thoughts press in too heavily, I miss the pain that felt like a balm. Last night was like that. But lost has become He saved me, and alone is now where I feel safest in Him. The skin on my wrists is transparent and the blood branching blue underneath is bought blood. Once created and once purchased is twice owned, and I have no right to turn it red.

There are stories written in the skin of my arms: stories of my sisters who taught me so much; stories of my mother, who was patient when I wanted to help and tenderly faithful when I was hurt; stories of weeks spent in the comfortable near silences of practiced understanding with my daddy; stories of fighting my battles alone, of losing and being lost, until the day I was found and I learned to surrender – not to the battles, but to the One who conquers all.

Preface

Let me tell you a story. It’s a new story; it only really began on August 2, 2017. But there was a preface, of course. The story couldn’t exist without a preface, and there’s no way to understand the story without the preface. I like to say that the story begins on August 2, because that’s neat and simple. The preface is harder. Harder to tell, and harder to know where to begin telling. I have to look back, far back. Really, it begins long before I even existed, because it begins with the culture into which I was born.

It’s a constricted culture, highly religious with a long list of traditions. One of the traditions goes like this: you graduate from school after the 8th grade, and within the following year you are baptized and you become a member of that church. Somewhere in there you become a Christian, I suppose.

When my sister was that age, she refused. There was general horror and terror because apparently she was going to hell now, and what my ten-year-old self understood was simple: once you graduate from school, you are no longer safe. And once I reached that age I was terrified, to the point of not being able to sleep at night. So I tried to pray myself into being safe and I was baptized and became a member of the church, and I tried to convince myself that I was saved. Was I? I don’t know.

I do know I had no relationship with God, but then no one taught me what it meant to have one, or how to have one. Sometimes I read my Bible and prayed, sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter. I think I did always want to be a Christian, but really only because I was afraid of what it would mean if I was not. 

And time passed. I grew, and so did my mind. Introspective by nature, I spent a lot of time alone and read many books. When I was a teenager, my parents took us out of that culture and I began to meet people whose view of God wasn’t fear-stained. I was lonely, always searching for someone who could really understand me, never finding them. More time passed, and by marrying quite literally the man of my dreams, I learned that no matter how good a husband he was, he could not fill my every need. I was still lonely.

But I was also still growing and learning, and I was searching with increasing desperation. I felt that there had to be more to this God thing than I was experiencing, and I began to doubt if I was a Christian at all. Had I ever been? I felt lost and I wanted someone to see it, but I was too terrified to ask for help and I had been so well-versed in what a Christian is supposed to look like that it was easy for me to hide. In the Mennonite world, being a Christian is supposed to be the default. It’s not okay to be anything else, and it’s your job to assume everyone else is one. If anyone saw where I really was, they never told me.

On July 30, 2017, a man named Jacob Peters preached the gospel message in a little country church. I was there. I had known that message all my life, but I had never heard it as a message of love. It gave me courage, and that evening I sat next to a river and I told his wife something I had not said out loud to anyone besides my husband: I didn’t know if I was a Christian. 

She was kind. She did not gasp. She simply told me that I could be, if I wanted to. And I did want to, but I was afraid. Afraid of asking and receiving nothing, feeling nothing. Afraid there would be no change, and it would all seem fake. She said that I just had to trust, that God wanted to give me this. I said, but what if He didn’t, though?

And I realized that I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough to be saved. Afraid that there was something I was still holding above God, something I was doing wrong without knowing it. 

God is kind, even before you trust Him to be. Kind enough to show me where I had been hurt, why I carried that fear. Kind enough to make understanding translate into release.  

The next morning I decided that I was going to start over. I was exhausted of not knowing, so I just decided. I would say I’m not, and I would start over, and then maybe I could be and know I am. I asked God for a sign: to show me He wanted to be in my life, to make me brave. And then I ordered a new journal, because that is how I deal with life crises. 

The following evening I sat on my kitchen floor and I said to my husband, “I am not a Christian.” He seemed a little surprised. But we talked about it, and he helped me untangle my thoughts in that way he has. 

The next morning was August 2 and my day off from work, but I got up early enough to have coffee with him before he left. After he was gone I read book for a little while, but there was this song stuck in my head so I stopped to look it up and listen to it. It turned out to be Matt Maher’s ‘Lord, I Need You’, and the lyrics were the words of my heart. 

At that time, I didn’t really feel like I had gotten a sign, but almost without my realizing it those words gave me the courage. I walked into my prayer closet, I lit my candles, and I started to pray. And I started to cry. Tears are always a powerful and precious thing to me because they do not come easily, but for these I was especially grateful. They meant I was feeling something. They made me feel like it mattered. I cried and I prayed until I was empty, and I stopped. I felt less peaceful than I did scraped out and hollow. I started YouTube on autoplay, beginning with ‘Lord, I Need You’ again, and I curled up on the floor and I said, “I’m just going to wait here, God.” So I lay there and the music played and I breathed and I waited, and about halfway through ‘Because He Lives’ something started growing deep in me. 

When it had grown too big to hold inside me, I sat up and spilled it out across paper. And as I wrote and the music kept playing, there was a line that sealed it for me.

“Blessed are the people hungry for another start…”

This was a wonderful day for me but the best part came later, when the days passed and became weeks, and the weeks began to be months, and this thing is still with me, still real. Again and again, I am amazed at just how deep inside me it has grown. I’ve heard hundreds of times that God gives His sons and daughters a new heart, but I never grasped just what that means for me. But I have a new heart. And it loves without loneliness, without grasping, because it has been filled. 

I have been given so much. A new heart, a new story. It’s full of wonder and power and beauty, because it’s not mine. He is writing a story bigger and deeper than I can yet imagine, but I can’t wait to see where this will go. Do you want to read with me?

God, Logically Speaking

I am logical. When there is a problem, I look for the cause, and then I look for a solution. Last week, I was once again surprised by my own insignificance. This is not a nice, glittery, happy-birthday kind of surprise; it’s more like when you’re eating blueberries and suddenly you bite into a really bitter one and your mouth goes all puckery even though you have had bitter blueberries before. It felt like a problem to me. So, I am logical. I look at humans, at the way loving makes you vulnerable and the way people will always fail you at some point, and I think ‘how could I avoid this hurt?’ And it’s simple. I just won’t love more people. Then it won’t matter if I don’t matter to them.

And it works, for about a week. Then I get lonely, which is a different kind of hurt. At the end of this week, the husband and I go down to Texas to visit his family. While we eat sandwiches, I tell my father-in-law that I can’t find any purpose in existing anymore. It’s not that there’s nothing good in my life, nothing to love, nothing to look forward to. I just don’t see the point in it. And are you really just supposed to open wide your heart and be okay with getting hurt again and again and again? He’s very kind and he asks me questions and he listens well. He is a good blueberry. But then everyone leaves and I am left alone with myself in a house that doesn’t smell familiar.

So I go outside, and I sit on the swing in the fairy corner of the yard, and I listen to classical music, and I try to find peace. I close my eyes. I breathe. I listen. I pray. Talk to me, God.

Will He, though? When does He ever, to me? It’s my fault, of course. If I remembered to pray every day, if I read my Bible more, if I was less lazy, more intentional, better…

I’m not finding peace. And my toes are itchy.

I swing more, breathe more, listen more.

When the husband comes back from his knife-sharpening party and joins me, I do not sing songs of welcome. I say hi. He says hi, and gives me a book. Trust or Control. Tina sent it.

I already read it, I say. Before we were married.

He didn’t know if I had or not. She asked if he was married and gave it to him for me, so he brought it. And it’s hot out here. He’s going inside.

I don’t stop him. I swing a little more, listen a little more, and then I follow him in. In some areas, my conscience is well-developed, if a little slow and soft. When I’m left alone, it never takes me very long to remember that I want to be supportive and loving and interested in him. He is a good blueberry too.

After I am supportive and loving and interested in him, I recline on the couch to read the book through. Again. I might as well, I think logically. My afternoon stretches empty and I have nothing against reading books twice.

So there, says God, very quietly and very loudly at the same time. You asked.

Also, possibly I don’t let you feel people love you because you’re not counting on My love first. Possibly you get hurt because you’re giving them power that should be Mine.

That’s logical, I say. Thanks, God. I know You’re bigger than my logic, but I appreciate that You speak my language to me. That when I ask for a sentence, You send me a book.

And I find the peace. It’s a gift.

Thanks, God.

The Twin

joshua-tree-national-park-mojave-desert-rocks-landscape-73820Picture this: your world has just been shattered. And you did not see it coming.

Well, maybe you kind of did. You’re not stupid. Things weren’t going exactly well, but they were going magnificently. Something larger than life was happening, right before your eyes. You’d heard the prophecies all your life, of course, but you’d never dreamed you would live to see them be fulfilled. But you did, and you had a front row seat. He was your best friend. It amazed you, filled you with wonder.

But it didn’t blind you. You knew not everyone was pleased with him, not everyone believed in him. You knew some people, powerful people, wanted him dead. But you couldn’t imagine living without him. That was why, when he insisted on returning to a town where they had tried to kill him before, you told the others, his other friends, that you were going with him anyway. It was dangerous, yes. But you decided then that you would rather die with him than live without him.

But you didn’t die in that town, and neither did he. Instead you saw the strongest miracle yet, and for a moment, things looked better. It seemed that the people really realized who he was.

And then everything fell apart. They took him, and before you could think what to do, they killed him. And to twist the knife, it’s one of your own who betrayed him. And you can’t understand it. Somehow, you feel like he let you down. Like he let this happen to himself. Some part of you believed that he could do anything, and yet they killed him.

A week before you said you would rather die than live without him, but now that he’s dead and you’re still alive, you find yourself less willing. You’re scared, all of you. They killed him. You’re his closest friends, his strongest supporters. The ones who believed in him most. Won’t they come after you, too? So you lock all of your doors, and you sit and you wait. It’s a paralysis, cold in your heart, freezing your bones.

It’s dangerous to stay all in one place, might make you easier to find, but you gather as often as you dare. You need each other. No one else understands the pain and the despair of losing him. Everything you hoped and planned, shattered, ashes in your mouths.

But then one day you come in to find them all already gathered. They crowd around you, words falling over each other, trying to tell you something impossible. He’s alive. They’ve seen him. Talked with him.

But there’s no way. You saw him die. You know it. Dead is dead. Yes, he raised Lazarus, but he was alive then. And bringing someone back from beyond the grave – that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You don’t doubt their sincerity, but they can’t be right. Most likely Jehovah sent them a vision to comfort their hearts. Which doesn’t seem quite fair, because your heart could do with some comforting as well.

They’re insistent, every single one of them, but you’ve never been one to take up an opinion just because it was popular. It’s clear that they really believe their message, but you, well, you doubt it. And you tell them so. You’ll believe it when you see it. When you touch those wounds that tore open your heart. And not a moment before.

And then he just shows up. Really, truly him. The same man you followed and loved for three years, but different somehow. Bigger. More joyful. He lets you touch him but he reproaches you a little for thinking you have to see him before you can believe. Not everyone will have that privilege, and they will be blessed for their faith. And as you look into his eyes and listen to his words, something ripens and blossoms, something that has been growing in you ever since the day he first told you to follow him. You fully and absolutely realize, at last, who he is. There is no room for doubt here.

“My Lord and my God.”

 

It’s not the end of your story. He has fulfilled his mission, and now yours begins. Your task is to tell his story, to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations. And you do it. You live many years after that, long enough to see a new kingdom rising. His kingdom. And at the end of your life, the thing happens which you once feared most, but which you are honored to face now: you die because you are his friend.

But you are not forgotten. Year upon year passes until everyone you ever met has died, and still your name is not forgotten. Down through the ages you are remembered, but not for the reason for which you lived. Not even for the reason for which you died. As far as history cares, there is only one moment in your life that really mattered – those few hours in which you were Thomas, the Doubter.