Are you in a relationship with someone in whom all your significance, self-worth and identity is wrapped up?
Could you survive on your own if they were subtracted from your life?
Would you bow to a grace that offers a Greater Love…and be utterly, supremely satisfied?
George Matheson would have to find out.
At age 20, George was engaged to be married to the girl of his dreams. But something sinister invaded their romance; something so dark and horrible, his fiancée walked away from him and never looked back.
George was going blind.
George had already authored two volumes on theology and, were he to have retained his sight, would likely have been a prolific writer in his Scottish homeland. His sister offered to look after her brother and moved her belongings into his home and for years assisted George with all of his daily needs. Though he lost his dear sweetheart, God swooped in and blessed him with a diligent life partner.
Life was good. Or as much as it could be…when you’re blind.
Alas, the story is not finished. Again, the opaque spectre of gloom made its illicit entrance into George’s world but only, this time, riding on the wings of a sweet and innocent interlude as George’s sister fell in love and made plans to marry. Once again, he faced the biting prospect of having his security wrested from his grasp. As he felt the familiar agony of soul in which he would be forced to relinquish all he held dear, all that buttressed and sustained him, George had to find a Higher, Greater and Fixed Love.
What happened next is a beautiful soliloquy, penned in grace, to the matchless, eternally romantic love of God.
This new testament of George overwrites his sorrowful stanza of loss. It nobly testifies to gain.
His, and ours.
O Love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be
O Light that foll’west all my way
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee
My heart restores its borrowed ray
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be
O Cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be
I have a disability. I am not, however, defined by it so I don’t consider myself a disabled person but, rather, a person with a disability. More to the point, my paralysis is what God is using – my platform – to demonstrate the out-raying of of His glory to the broken and hurting world around me.
Regrettably, in 1981, before I was introduced to handicapped status, my life was anything but a bright and shining testimony. Rather than traversing about about as a vessel of honor, I was a shipwreck waiting to happen. Had I stayed that course, you would not be reading this version of my testimony, but God, who is wise and merciful, saw an opportunity and put me in dry dock for some woefully needed reparation.
Before our man Job’s colossal Trial, he was a man of moral honor and of blameless character. Here, he and I part company really fast, with a wide berth between us! Before my own divine appointment, while supposedly preparing for a life of ministry at a Christian school in Tennessee, I opted rather to trip the light fantastic my junior year and explore options more cosmopolitan and earthly. Actually, I was more titillated by the prospect of a season in sin than falling headlong into it for fear of turning permanently away from God. That notion did horrify me. So maybe not the far, far country, but a few zip codes away suited me just fine.
Soon, however, the gravitational pull of Vanity Fair overtook me and I reached inside my soul and eagerly picked out some coins and paid the fare of some of its carnival attractions. The labyrinth of neon-lit avenues soon led me down darker alleyways and the introduction to even more seedy venues. These dens of iniquity were not for those who were merely playing at sin but for those looking to be actively employed by it.
Here I felt less in control. No longer was I picking the rides and selecting booths for momentary pleasure but felt they were somehow choosing me. Thanks be to God, my skin prickled. My gut told me to run for dear life. There opened before me a way of escape and I gladfully took it.
Wending my way outward through the maze of attractions, penitently reversing my travels, the carnies looked less friendly than at first, the places and atmospheres more insidious. Just you try and leave, they threatened.
You are trapped here forever…
The tangle of sideshows kept rearranging themselves, confusing the senses, prompting me to feel less hopeful about leaving. I kept running down promising lanes, expecting to pop out onto main arteries only to run into dead-ends leaving me exasperated and hopeless.
The profane grinding of a carnival organ and its incessant melodies sped up creating even more confusion. Sadistic people with snarkish smiles whirled about me and their faces blurred and morphed into visages macabre and demonic. There, in a grotesque blend of Grimm-worthy music and amusement, in the very nexus of Vanity Fair, I stopped and cried out for a supernatural deliverance from my agonies, to the only One who could. If He would even have me.
Miracle of miracles, not only would He, but He came to me with great tenderness and mercy.
The Call of the Carnival is undeniable but the Rescue of the Redeemer is epic!
It was during this episode of Divine Intervention that a friend placed in my hand a golden gift. This friend was well aware of my forays and foraging in the far country and came alongside me to buttress me as I wobbled on renewed legs. His “gift” was a plastic case, no larger than a paperback book, containing four cassette tapes, each a separate sermon from a pastor out west. The sermons were a four-part series of encouragement for those who were hurting.
The title on the cover read, “Gold In The Making”. I was captured.
My friend told me he had listened to Pastor Swindoll’s sermons over the summer and had also been accosted by the teaching that had seemed so alien to our theology: that God uses and even prescribes suffering for His children, that they might deepen in value and expand in power, being made weak in their trials. In short, we need fire in our life to purify, mold and empower us.
The fire softens us toward God and others.
The fire turns us to God in absolute dependence.
The fire increases the brightness of His glory in us.
Whatever this “fire” was, I knew I wanted it. I needed it. One of the sermons was a gem about Job. In that particular homily, Dr. Swindoll focused on Job’s crowning confession as we near the final stages of the debate with his trio of counselors, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.
“He know the way that I take and when He has tried me, I will come forth as gold.”*
The insightful pastor offered an unforgettable lesson, zeroing in on one of the primary Hebrew words in the text. He said the word “way” translates the word ‘derek‘ in the original. He explained it means “bent” as in the bent area of an archer’s bow. When an archer crafted his bow, he was well-acquainted with how much force of pull was needed to create the arch without breaking it. With great care and exertion, the craftsman would pull on each end with his foot unyieldingly positioned in its center, applying just the right amount of pressure so as not to completely break the object, but enough so as to achieve for it maximum effectiveness.
Dr. Swindoll imagined for the listener what the bow might say about the process if it could feel. Perhaps it would question why such merciless mistreatment! But, carrying the parable further along, he explained it is not the archer’s desire to destroy his instrument as that would defeat its purpose, but to fashion it according to his own need.
The point is well struck when we yield to the truth that God applies trials in just the same way for His own instruments of righteousness, always stretching us beyond our own natural ability to learn His super-ability in us. All of this, we realize, is for His own purpose and pleasure, but also our value and effectiveness.
As I listened with heart swelling and eyes blurred by the onslaught of emotion, I decided then and there I wanted my life to hit the mark, whatever it cost me, and utterly for His own glory. Forever and ever, amen.
And so, that’s how I initially became a marked man. My story doesn’t begin at the Ingle’s Memorial Hospital in Harvey, Illinois on the third of September, nineteen hundred and sixty. I like to think it began on the floor of my college dorm room about the time I was introduced to Job, sometime just before midnight in late September, twenty-one years later. I may as well have been a figment prior to that night, artificial and existentially challenged. Trueness didn’t find its way into my empty shell until I laid myself, body, spirit and soul, as a sacrifice to the Lord on an altar of industrial-grade carpet while my roommates slept the sleep of dreaming freshmen.
From my perspective, however, the sacrifice was an embarrassment. I seemed like an inferior lamb, a blind goat, a lame offering in the scheme of things. Would my heart’s Governor accept me on His table?** I carried the stink of sin, the scent of a far country, my carcass pitted with decay from the inside out.
Even so, the Holy One received me, warts, leprosy and all, lock, stock and barrel, though befouled and obscene, because He knows His fire will consume all my worst and produce His artistic best, transforming my drudge and dross into pure gold.
That’s God’s job and He takes His work very seriously. It’s my job to let Him.
From Job’s apogeic confession, I inherited three gleaming truths that still flank and support me as I accept life with a serious disability.
1. God Knows Where I Am
2. God Knows What I Can Become
3. God Knows What He’s Doing To Bring Me Into Fullness
Beneath the thick viscous sludge of dross that clung (and yet clings!) to me, the Divine Assayer saw a vault of priceless gold and made it His perfect plan to get to it. To that end, I made it my constant plea to call upon my Sovereign to administer His Fire to do its necessary work in me, of bringing out a fully transparent sheen, the out-raying of Christ, and making my life a glory to my God and an encouragement to His people.
One thing about ashes, they are visible reminders of a former existence, so when scripture says Job “sat down among the ashes”***, it could also point to a deeper reality that they were a graphic eulogy over his former days, that a new era was commencing, taking him from good enough**** to better, from great to greater, from former glory to grander glory, from fear to faith, from bronze to gold.
“Gold, God,” I sobbed, face buried in the threadbare carpet. “I want to be gold!”
Then: a holy, pregnant pause. “Take my life, take my legs…whatever it takes…”
My prayer ended. I’d said enough, it turns out.
The benediction over my funeral pyre that night, some thirty-two years ago as I rose on Amen legs, could only be heard in the Unseen Realm, sufficing as a Divine Directive, passing from Throne to the powers that waited:
“The kindling and the sacrifice are ready. Start the fire.”
A hasting to do the Father’s will, and these words followed His fiery cohort out of the Heavenly Temple:
“Quickly, now. There’s gold…”
I have an unsettling statistic to share with you. At present, in our country, there are 3,000,000 ongoing cases of child molestation. That means, while you are reading this, three million children aged 13 and below are being victimized by sexual predators. These are only the cases we know about, so that figure is likely a very conservative estimate. Today, Nearly 40 million adults bear the scars of sexual abuse in their younger years at the hands of strangers, caregivers, parents, siblings and clergy. Mostly at the hands of people they know quite well.
Even in the safest place a child should know – a Christian home.
The beautiful young woman who wrote this hauntingly beautiful piece is a friend. “Jane” (a pseudonym of her choosing) was sexually molested by a family member and has courageously agreed to share her story with you. My wife and I have known her – from afar – for better than twenty years and, like so many situations like these, would never have guessed this was her story.
This may be one of the most moving – and important – posts to ever appear on Green P@stures. Jane’s story may be equal parts ugly while gorgeously and tenderly written, but it brings into the light the issue that the protected secret of sexual criminal activity – of all types – in the church and in Christian homes must be addressed.
Jane is an overcomer. Questions linger, yes, and scars remain, most certainly, but she has been brought into the safe pasture of Christ and has known His healing grace intimately and has even found the ground to worship Him in the “garden of her heart.”
Thank you, Jane. Your life is beautiful.
“Close your eyes and imagine your heart is a garden….What does it look like?… What shape is it?… What is growing in it?…And where is Jesus in it?”
The first time someone asked me that, during a time of prayer, I imagined something very like the walled garden in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, The Secret Garden. A beautiful garden full of rose vines, with trees and an abundance of flowers near overgrown in a tangled beauty. Walls covered in ivy. A hidden place, open to the sun and sky but protected and safe. It even included the small, dark, abandoned cottage in Burnett’s garden, barely noticeable in the riot of rose vines. And Jesus was a Dickon-like figure, helping me tend the garden.
That this garden is how I would imagine my heart when prompted hardly surprised me. The Secret Garden was a favorite among the many books I fled to live in as a child when life became unbearable. When my step-father, the new daddy I’d prayed for, turned out to be a nightmare.
Who expects a respected church leader and Bible college student to be a child molester?
No one, it turns out. Certainly not the eight-year-old me who couldn’t even begin to comprehend or understand what was happening.
I knew my family loved me. I knew Jesus loved me. I knew everything that happened was part of God’s plan.
And I knew about God’s plan. I’d spent all of my life in church and Sunday school and Christian school, and I’d learned about God’s plan in the Bible. How all the amazing “coincidences” in the Old Testament story weren’t coincidences at all, but were God carefully working out his plan. And how even more so, all the “coincidences” around Jesus’ birth and life were as intentional as the most carefully written story.
Even the horror of the crucifixion was part of God’s plan.
So what was I to think of the horror of this plan? For part of the plan this too had to be, since nothing could happen outside God’s plan. It simply was, and I couldn’t understand it or avoid it, only try to endure it. To find a way to live with it.
And I did. For too many years. I lived with it by fleeing into books, stories that offered friendship and love, adventure and wonder, difficulties and sorrows but always hope. I lost myself in other lives – many of them happy, many as difficult and troubled as that of Mary Lennox, but all of them definitively other.
My life – the reality of it – had not only become unlivable, it had become invisible. No one saw, so no one helped.
But God saw. I knew that, too. God saw everything.
And God didn’t help.
Somehow I never questioned that he loved me.
God loved me, and he didn’t help me.
So being loved by God stopped being safe before it had even occurred to me that it should be. Being loved by God stopped being something I could enjoy without me even realizing it. Years later when a friend mentioned in passing that we enjoy being loved by God, the whole thing felt utterly alien to me.
What do you do with hopelessness when it becomes just the stuff of life when you’re eight years old?
And yet God was there – in Sunday school and church, in songs and scripture, in the vivid prayer conversation I’d had with him for as long as I could remember.
But he wasn’t there.
In the nightmare, he wasn’t there. In his place was only stillness and silence and preachers quoting Romans 8:28.
I couldn’t bear to look at where the God who loves me wasn’t, so I just didn’t go there.
I was too young to be thrust into the heart of the problem of evil. (We are always too young.)
It wasn’t until God remade the garden of my heart that I realized that first vision was more than just a familiar and beloved image from a favorite childhood book.
It was indeed a place of great beauty – beauty that reflected all that God had made me and all he made me to be. But it was also a place of walls rather than freedom.
Jesus was indeed there, helping me learn to care for all the life and beauty, but that small, dark, nearly hidden cottage (the one that isn’t actually in the book, though I remembered it there) – that was the place of God’s absence, of God’s silence, that I just avoided looking at much less approaching.
When God remade the garden of my heart, it was in another vision during another time of prayer. This time, the vision came without a prompting. It came instead with daring to remember.
The particulars of what happened in my childhood were never something I couldn’t remember. Instead those memories were packed away in a shoebox in the back of the closet of my mind. I knew exactly where that box was, and was careful to avoid it – careful to avoid the torrent of overwhelming and unbearable feelings (and realities) that came with those memories.
But this time, in prayer, I was asked to remember, and in fear and trembling I did.
I found myself trapped in the most primal darkness, stuck so deep in the thickest and most despairing of swamps, entangled in the harshest of briers and vines.
Drowning in helplessness and hopelessness and despair.
And in a sudden instance I felt myself grabbed by Jesus and yanked out of the darkness and stuckness and thrust out into the vastness and brightness of a sunny mountain meadow surrounded by distant peaks. And I ran free through that sunbright meadow straight to a brightly lit house in its middle and into the utter safety of my Father’s arms.
I understood that this was the garden of my heart now – still filled with the beauty of creation, but the walls had been replaced by the freedom of endless adventure; the small, dark, nearly hidden cottage with the bright mountain cottage that was the home my Father had made for himself in my heart (though I knew somehow that home contained it all); and somehow, all that had to be avoided was replaced with the utter safety of his embrace.
The questions were all still there and all still important, but they couldn’t get in the way anymore. They couldn’t come between me and the safety and joy of being loved by my Abba.
And it is in his arms of love, in that house filled with light, in that sunbright meadow, in those wonderfully wild mountains that I ask those questions now and wrestle with answers – and the lack of them.
I don’t believe the nightmare was part of his plan anymore, because this is his plan and was all along. And all that darkness could do to rip me out of it was defeated on the cross. This is the victory won there – when the God who is love came and absorbed the force of all the violence and evil this world had to throw at him, and then got up and walked away unchanged – resurrected and still the God who is love.
I don’t believe the nightmare was part of his plan because God is not the author of evil.
He is the victor over it – he is love, life, and light.
It is only because he never stops thinking about us that any of us exist, move, and have our being. And even when we suffer or commit the gravest evil, he never stops thinking about us – loving us. That’s who he is.
We are still free to ignore his plan. To do the many things we do that have nothing to do with who he is or who he intends us to be.
God does have a plan, and he will accomplish that plan. I’m just not sure any more that plan has a lot do with all we credit it with. I’m not sure God does much interfering in the things we (or others) choose.
I don’t think he’s constructing history to meet his ends. Because I believe he already has his ends. And from that place of victory he calls us toward him, in the middle of the mess of this world – through the mess of this world and into his victory that is leaking into it.
Most of the questions I live with still aren’t answered, and the questions and the mess only seem to multiply daily. I’ve come to doubt that answers exist, or if they do, if they’re the point at all (though I can’t seem to break the habit of looking for them).
Sometimes we can try so hard to find meaning in the meaningless that we miss the pain in the painful – the reality of how far things are from the way they are supposed to be.
What I’m beginning to learn to look for, though, is the victory in the middle of the mess. That’s where Jesus is.
Endnote: if this story is yours and you need to talk to someone – even Jane – we can help you find the help you need.
“Are you still holding to your God?” she blurted.
The question, so venomously delivered, floored him both in its substance and tenor.
A pause. A pestering fly buzzed and lit, and with a grotesquely misshapen hand, like the rest of him, he swatted at it and instantly recoiled as the motion shot pain traveling down the bone of his boil-covered forearm.
His wife’s dark-chocolate eyes were a mix of pity, disgust and desperation and they held onto his own in unapologetic defiance.
Then, over lips cracked and oozing from painful blisters, were dislodged a brief salvo of words, measured but molten nonetheless, meant not to injure but correct.
A wracking cough.
“Wife!” he chuffed, liquid pooling in his eyes, “even in the whirlwind He is still God!”
She opened her mouth as though to protest but no words could be conjured. Instead, she balled her fists until they were whitened from blood-loss, the skin over the knuckles stretched as tautly as they dare, and she swung them downward in a violent arc as she collapsed on folded legs. She landed with such force her knees were bloodied by bits of rock and force and, simultaneously, a cloud of dust went up as the sides of her fists pummeled that sad patch of earth again and again.
Her husband reached for her imploringly, but every movement spilled fire throughout his ravaged body. As he stooped lower to the ground more pustules opened along his spine causing milky fluid to spurt and run then coagulate with other rivulets of ooze. No position was comfortable, no shift in posture without serious repercussions. Some boils had burst and the viscous discharge began to dry-cake over large sections of his body, yet still he struggled to kneel beside the love of his heart. By then her face held a layer of chalky dust, through which the streaks of tears etched pitiful lines across and around her sallow cheeks.
Down there, in the ash, beside his wife, the broken man cried silently. Aside from the Great Cosmic Truth, he had no answers for their recent downturn of events and his pulverized soul was dying by degrees.
A horrifically Perfect Storm had converged on husband and wife in a single day and changed them forever. No inner resource imaginable could be summoned to counteract the briny poison they tasted as they helped each other up from wobbly knees. In a still-recent scene, both pairs of red-rimmed eyes willed the freshly dug graves to suddenly, somehow tremble and their ten resurrected children break through the tender, packed soil.
And not just their offspring but most of their household as well, silenced by marauding terrorists, their souls cut off with unspoken words henceforth trapped in their throats. In the melee of catastrophe, all was lost: household, livestock, wealth – their very subsistence! – ripped from their clutches! All that remained were fields of blood, the flotsam of tragedy, plumes of hellish smoke, ashes of heartache. The aftermath. And all this in a single day.
That was yesterday.
In the early morning of a sleepless night, a veil of unnatural blackness passed over the piteous man’s body and his skin prickled as fear squeezed his spirit.
What’s this — ?
The chill quickly gave way to a blazing fever that produced head-splitting pyrotechnics of fire and lightning. Instantly, his hands went to his head and the stultifying discovery of even more rising boils, these more monstrous than what earlier plagued him. In the light of a revived oil lamp he was literally watching as blister after blister began bubbling all up and down his arms. He clawed at his nightshirt as the pus-filled eruptions spread across his torso and brought multiplied agonies.
Oh, my God in heaven — !
By the first rays of dawn, there was not a single inch of his body that was not ravaged by festering boils. From crown to sole, he was tormented. Terrors invaded his mind and he knew only death could bring relief but death was obstinately elusive. Tortured to the point of wracking sobs of which he had no control, he sought comfort from the only human touch available, but she was closed in by her own grief.
Incredulous that her husband would persist in persistent worship of the One she held responsible, ire burned deep within, tempered only by despair and guilt. At one point, holding rags of gelatinous blood from her helpmate’s sores, she shut down completely and removed herself from the stink of the room and sloughed heavy-heeled out into the stale, rancid air, each step taking her lower to the ground until her body fell in a heap twenty paces from the front fold of their tent. She lay there, in the dirt, motionless.
The candle of her once-bright spirit had flickered out; all life, save the doleful beating of her heart, had begun its slow, mournful descent into hades.
A single slit of light from the tent-fold shone like a thin, glowing sword on the floor as the broken man gathered himself for the silent pilgrimage where his unsightliness and suffering would be shielded from view and his groanings well out of ear-shot. Yard by agonizing mile he shuffled and struggled, distancing himself from his wife who lay face-down, crumpled in suspended shock, arms stretched and hands clawing at the ash.
At the outer edge of all that was once familiar and pastoral, on the outskirts of the main settlement, were the dumping grounds, where a pit of fire burned refuse day and night.
Here, he could wail.
Here, he could formulate his arguments.
Here, he could make his final altar to his God, whom he clung to for dear life and, if necessary, to its bitterest end.
As the sun baptized itself beneath the craggy horizon, a pitiful silhouetted figure of a patriarch, a dark smudge against the monochromed dusk, bowed atop a heap of ash and worshipped Elohim with the music of broken shards of discarded refuse scraping against his diseased flesh, taking great care not to curse deity with his blistered lips.
And thus it is that this greatly suffering servant of Elohim soon discovers his great value to the Almighty and wealth that has little to do with ledgers and portfolios.
Longer? (Who knows?)
Months? Probably not months. The Trial of Yob was underway and his Character Witness had not shown up to take the stand on the defendant’s behalf. There was, however, a team of deftly-trained prosecutors who postured themselves on the opposite side, tilting the courtroom floor on the wizened merits of their own arguments. Back and forth it went, each round-robin of questioning getting more and more aggressive and viciously personal, but the lone man Yob maddeningly (for them) deflected each diatribe and proudly held his ash-laden ground.
How obscene that a man of such inarguable distinction should suffer such relentless and ignominious persecution and proverbial salt-rubbing! How unkind their condescensions! Was there no end to their delusions that they would be hand-picked by the Almighty to protect the honor of His Name?
While these self-promoting sages wrestled their opponent with predictable wisdom and quasi-rational rhetoric, the beaten-down man sought audience with Higher Counsel and Transcendent Revelation, so, at times, the gallery (you and I) catch him in a different dimension almost, the dronings of The Three becoming a collective mist dissipating against the rising warmth of Yob’s impassioned appeals to a Majestic-Though-Silent Cosmic Court.
“I cannot see You!” he barks to the heavens, “but I know You can see me!”
A couple of flies strafed the pitiful patriarch, who had barely enough strength to swat them away anymore, by which they lit again and again, having no decency to stay away from the victimized man. Yob’s red-rimmed eyes lowered in resignation. He sighed.
Then, marvelously and mysteriously, his slumping head raised again as he sucked in a half-lungful of steamy air. Summoning strength he did not have and, with lowered voice, formed his next words with great care.
“And I know this…”
A series of choking coughs.
Another brittle, cracked cough.
“…He knows I will come through this…”
A corresponding, but very weak wave of a ruined arm.
A spasm of pain, drawing a deeply pained expression.
Couldn’t have said it any better…
“The older theology tended to produce character. By the end of the 20th century, we have become God’s demanding little brats. In church we must be entertained. Our emotions must be charged. We must be offered amusing programs. We give up a lot to become Christians, and what little teachings we do get must cater to our pragmatic, self-centered interests.
“Preaching must be filled with clever anecdotes and colorful illustrations with nothing more than passing references to doctrine. I want to know what this means for me in my daily experience. Have we forgotten that God is a Monarch? He is the King by whom and for whom all things were made and by whose sovereign power they are sustained.
“We exist for His pleasure, not for ours. We are on this earth to entertain Him, please Him, adore Him, bring Him satisfaction, excitement and joy. Any gospel that seeks to answer the question, ‘what’s in it for me?’ has it all backwards. The question is, ‘what’s in it for God?’”
- Michael Horton
A fisherman put it this way in his day:
1 Peter 4:17-19 (Message)
It’s judgment time for Christians. We’re first in line. If it starts with us, think what it’s going to be like for those who refuse God’s Message! If good people barely make it, what’s in store for the bad?
So if you find life difficult because you’re doing what God said, take it in stride. Trust him. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll keep on doing it.
God has honored me by entrusting to my care a small knot of young men – my young lions – who see me as a spiritual father of sorts. Together, we are enjoying deep community and mutual life-exchange unlike anything I’ve ever known. They may think I’m there for them. But I think they’re more there for me.
As a new young man joins the group, I give him a topic to put his words to, with the promise to post it to my blog. I’ve done this three times and what you have here now is a fourth. Paul’s topic was “hope that overcomes”. He accepted the challenge graciously and immediately, like his nature, went to work. A few days in, Paul texted me and asked about my expectation.
He: Hey Pastor, I’m having trouble with writing assignment. I’ve had a rocky relationship with hope, so do you want me to write about how I deal with the
Idea of unfailing hope, or do you want me to write it as reviewing my life experiences, and putting them in such a way to support the premise, hope that
Me: Man, I love you! I want you to write it from your heart. However it comes out. If its too painful, we cn look at another topic, but I am eager to see what you discover!
What you’ll read here is real, tinged with frustration and baked with the raw sensations of a man who has been at odds and war with his topic.
I wouldn’t have it any other way because I have a joyful expectation as to how the story will end. Thank God for Paul’s refreshing frankness. No religionized tripe here.
I “hope” you enjoy.
The Hope Story
Funny how a person can be built from such a small collection of things. My entire identity fit in a black plastic box. My tools, the conduits of my creativity, make up my life. But now they lay spread across the rough shop floor. Each tool a purpose, and story, the list of their possibilities read like a spec sheet. Circular saw: used for cutting plywood and 2x4s, also possible to cut masonry, metal, mainly cuts straight lines, but also can cut wide radius curves. Jig saw: good for cutting curves, but only on thin plywood. Somewhere in the bottom of the box is the cloth bag for the jig saw, with 3 replacement blades in it, one broken blade not a problem, two broken blades, I need to start finding a source for replacement.
Each tool brings back stories, the time I used my angle grinder to shave metal burrs off the end of a gnarly piece of metal. Hammer: if used with a keen eye and a light touch, can be used to level a surface. Each tool is simple, but each one with infinite options and complexity.
Scattered across the shop are pieces of wood, some cut, waiting to meet others. Fresh cut 2x4s sits together in a neat stack, waiting to be used. The plywood in two stacks lean against the concrete walls of the work shop. One of 3/8 in ply another of ¾ in. It took a lot of arguing to get that stack of ¾ in plywood. We already had a large stack of 3/8in, and Gentry didn’t want to spend the cash for ¾ in plywood. It took many “discussions” to convince him they were necessary,
At the moment I pace through the shop, trying to finish the ramps before the completion. A check list fills my mind, a list of steps. Could Reece assemble this before the next part was ready? I check the clock, and try to discern the time needed to complete each task.
I was clear, we couldn’t meet our goal. The ramps would not be ready for the competition. The only question is if they would be put together enough to work temporarily. I was short on materials, time and energy. This wave, the latest mess from the week, struck hard. The mild stress, quickened into anxiety.
The mission started quite calm, but the second day of the trip, Henry, one of the instructors at the La Carpio ministry, insisted that I leave my hostel and stay with his family. I understood his compassion and willingness to give, and being informed by our translator that it would be bad form to refuse such a request, I was compelled to say yes. But the house sat in a quiet suburb, far away from San Jose. So instead of the freedom to get out and explore, the quiet home became a monotonous prison. Each day I entered, and because it was a gift, I was compelled to enjoy my discomfort.
Henry’s family lived poor, waiting on donations for support. The ministry requested that Henry serve full time, living primarily off the support he raised. A tough life, it seemed working for God, meant working poor.
Every day, like clockwork, we returned to the house at 6pm. Henry remained awake, studying for college classes, working hard to maximize his resources. Once when I left a room with a light on, Henry scolded me for wasting electricity, and while he had WiFi at his house, it was turned off most of the time to help conserve energy. With the exception of a novel I brought with me, the evenings proved monotonous.
The attempts to connect with the other people at the ministry did not go well either, trying to talk with our host/translator, was like talking to a brick wall. I tried to open a conversation, “ Where did you learn English? I inquired. “In school working on my bachelors and masters in linguistics.” He answered with minimalist elaboration. “Do you read much?” I queried. “Yes,” he said with a perk of attention, and rattled off a list of his favorite titles.
Many of which I should have read in school, but either missed or skipped completely. I picked out a title from his list, one that I had a basic knowledge of, I asked his perception of that book. He answered again politely but to the point, with little elaboration. But while his conversations with me are short, he talked at lengths with others.
There was another American staying at Henry’s house. He professed to be a Christian, but when he talked about his plans after Costa Rica, smiled and said “Me and my girlfriend got an apartment on the beach. We’re staying there for a month when I get back.” He oozed arrogance and confidence, completely aware of his value, his full ride college athletic scholarship served as a witness to his self worth. Though I tried to create an authentic conversation, couldn’t connect with him.
So alone I stood in the shop, surrounded by guys, trying to complete a project, working to achieve a goal, fulfill a mission, get the job done, achieve my purpose. Time ticked by. My heart, living in my tools, lay scattered across the work shop. I mentally kept track of them, trying to not to lose the little pieces I had left.
Quickly we knocked out the last of the tasks, John resurfaced the old ramps. Nathan assembled the last launch ramp, and distracted, Johnny skated with the gathering crowd of neighborhood kids.
It looked like we may meet the deadline. Everything was falling into place but one, the metal transitions at the base of each ramp. The long strips of metal that smoothed the transition between the wooden ramps and concrete skate pad were delivered in a 4×8 sheet of steel, not long thin strips like I specified. Each strip had to be cut individually, 32 linear ft of steel in total. Even with my little experience with metal, I could tell this was an extremely time consuming task. After I saw the enormous piece of steel, I immediately got Gentry started making the cuts. Two days later, and one hour before the competition, we still had 3 ft of metal to cut. With it becoming obvious all the transitional strips were not going to be ready, we convened a quick group meeting, and decided to use some scrap plywood as a temporary transition.
The plywood worked. Crisis adverted. We continued on. At 1:30pm, 30min passed the planned start time; we rolled out the last of the ramps, and started the competition.
Johnny took charge of the 75 kids who crowded the pad. He divided up the group by ability. John, Rick and Reece joined in, keeping things organized and showing off different tricks. Nathan walked around, documenting the event with photos.
The skating commenced, and I was done. I don’t know how to skate. Quietly I wander up to the porch overlooking the skate pad and sit down.
We completed the mission. The hard work and stress were done. The ramps and boxes were complete; we had succeeded! We won! But it didn’t feel like victory, it felt like I was wrung out.I felt used. I was there to work, and the work was done, life moved on. Once again I faded into the background.
I have felt this feeling before, and took provision for its arrival.
I find it hard to understand my own value. Proud people inflate their egos and call it confidence. Creating an illusion of experience and wisdom. I try not to deceive myself, I see my faults honestly. And while I’m great at covering them up, every once and a while I let people in, show them my character, gently reaching out, exposing myself, listening like one listens for an echo.
People usually don’t understand me, I guess I can understand. When I express my dreams, people don’t ask me to return to reality. My humor misses more than it hits. My adventures are usually considered lunacy.
Rejection. The pain cuts a familiar pain. I’m easy to generalize. The nicknames stick. The obvious: hulk, big gun, thunder thighs, and the bad ones stick harder: special, Idiot.
Why am I pariah, why am I ignored while others accepted? A new group and a new town, the same verdict. Similar to the one I received from God a long time ago: not worth it.
I seal myself off from emotion. Pain comes up but I barricade myself in with heavy walls, my armor is impenetrable. I let no emotion in and none out. I do not normally keep up this guard, but I can put it up at the slightest offense, I try to remain open with people, in the hope that one day, someone will see the value. Maybe someone will understand, maybe one day I’ll fit in.
But that was not this day, and at the sign of pain, I raise the walls, and locked myself in. If they can’t touch me, they can’t hurt me.
For some reason on this trip, I allowed strangers in a little longer than normal, and now with the feeling of emptiness, I start closing the gates.
The competition came and went, the winners received there prizes. We packed up and headed back to the local church. My mind ached to be let out, a part of me wanted to weep or to rage. To shout and scream, “HERE I AM, WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? DO YOU NOT SEE ME?”My mind knew this was inside me that my heart needed help. My heart for its part felt nothing.The doors were closed and walls raised, choosing not to feel, than experience the emotions around me.
At the debrief that evening, we discussed the day’s events, after a general positive consensus, Carlos, talked of an exercised the group was going to do at the final debrief, Friday night. Each member of the group, for two minutes, would say things they appreciated about another member. Carlos decided, because I would not be there when the rest of the group did this exercise, they would all go around and say positive things about me.
For 10 min the group went around saying what they liked about me. The sentiments were sincere and genuine. Rick and John expressed their appreciation for coming on the trip. Johnny Collier, even though we didn’t have much time together, said he enjoyed working with me, each expressed encouragement and appreciation for myself, my personality and character.
My armor worked flawlessly. I felt nothing. The love from the group struck my hard shell and fell away, I couldn’t let any in. My mind screamed at my heart to open up, to try again to get real with these people, but I just sat there, still as a corpse, the encouragement hit and bounced off. They gave, I didn’t accept.
I kept up the walls, I couldn’t let anyone in. I couldn’t risk dealing with the emotions. Two days and I would be back in the states. “Hold it together for two days, that’s all” I told myself. Finally, the debrief ended. After a quick closing prayer, we headed back to our respective houses, back to another solitary night.
With the heaviness of the evening, I tried to be upbeat and I got myself into a humorist mood. I started telling jokes, quick with a laugh and a smile.
On this night instead of taking the bus back to the house, one of the members of the church offered to drive us in his car, a small Toyota. With much effort and humor, we squeezed 5 guys into the small economy 2 door Toyota. The comedy was a great reprieve from the heaviness of the day, all of us cramped in the interior of the car, sharing a common hilarious misery. For a brief second, I hit a moment of perspective, the type ones lives are made from, 5 big guys flying through a town, inside a tiny Toyota.
I decided to I needed to remember this moment. I had to remember it. So for a moment I let down my guard. I absorbed everything: the atmosphere, the chuckling from the guys, and the cool breeze from the cracked widows. The musty interior, the dim street lights passing overhead in a steady tempo. All of that moment filled my mind, the lunacy, the humor, the peace.
All of a sudden I realized I made a mistake. The emotions of the week charged my lowered defenses. Quickly I tried to put my guard back up, keep it all locked out. But I failed. It came in a flood, the frustration, the disappointment, the insecurity.
I tried to deal with it logically, reason it out, but I couldn’t. Exiting the Toyota we flagged a bus to take us back to our neighborhood, I looked like a normal functioning person, but inside I was an animal raging.
The emotional debt I took out in the beginning of the week, called all at once, the idea of continuing was over. I quickly put on my ear buds, my hands were shaking from anger, the familiar question Why?Why? Why? pulsed through my mind, I turned on my music, and battles my rage with rhythm. I went to the list of music, the familiar beats, I keep on my phone, hard fast music. I turn up the music until the screen says “maximum”. My heart beat races in my chest.
The music makes my ears ache, from the quietness of my seat, I raged. I was done. Here in a place, I traveled to find God, to meet with him, but it turned into another dead end. I was wounded. On the seat sat a man, inside raged a monster. When we arrived at the house I ate a quick snack and went to bed. The day was done. I wanted no more. I couldn’t pray, but I mumbled a quick prayer anyways, and then dived into bed.
The adrenalin in my veins slowly began to fade, as sweet sleep slowly numbed the pain. A dreamless sleep slowly creeps over me. The day slowly dies, like the final judgment of a sentence. It confirms the life I live. Gone was the hope of the day, I moved forward and in the walk towards the end of my life. Status: no hope, another day gone, only 19,345 days left to endure.
Why do some get rejected and other accepted. Why do some succeed as easily as I fail? People say I was created for something. It seems I was created to be damned. Why, when I reach for God, am I rejected? Why, in trying to walk with God, do I end up wounding myself more? Why? Why? Why?
The quiet morning greets me when I wake. The cool humid air drifts in from the open window. The violent anger disappear with the dawn, only its friend, quiet despair, stays with me.
The musty streets and sulfuric traffic meet me on the commute to La Carpio. My last day in Costa Rica, this day would be a quick one. A fast cleaning of the workshop,the finishing of the ramps left over from the day before, and then pack up to leave. The team worked with bitter-sweet motivation, more than once abandoning their tasks to skate with a few of neighborhood kids. Gentry finishes cutting the last of the metal, the ramps are completed.
I go through the motions cleaning up the shop. Half way through, I come across some loose pieces of paper, on them several sketches. Earlier in the week some of the kids gave there input on what they wanted built for the park. Armed with a few loose pieces of scrap paper, and a stray pen, they sketched out their wish list. Most of the ideas match our own: a kicker, a fun box, and a launch ramp. But one item which kept coming up in their sketches was a set of steps. In the chaos of the week when the discussion of ramps came up it always found its self in a tug of war between the budget, time and value. In the end the steps were forgotten.
Then and there, I decided to build the steps
I gathered the tools and tossed a sheet of plywood on a worktable. The movements are a familiar dance: measure my length, mark with the pencil, extended line with a straight edge, cut with the skill-saw. Saw-dust flies from the spinning blade, ricocheting across the shop. The odor of fresh cut lumber fills my nose.
The cycle repeats itself,with intervals to calculate lengths and heights.
The stairs take shape quickly. They are an easy build, any teenage with some lumber and access to his dads shop could knock them out in an afternoon.
The work occupies my mind, relaxing it with the hypnotic repetition. One of the guys stopped by and asked the obvious “You’re building some stairs?” I answered back with and simple and solitary “yep.”
How could I explain what I was feeling, that part of me had to create. For some reason it was necessary to build without being bothered. A little freedom to do something by myself, without having to justify my actions in terms of cost, time or impact. The stairs were me, they flowed out of my hands. Hands scared from sharp tools, rough from abuse. I could do the work, I had the ability, and so I did. some people breathe, I build.
A short time later, Reece and I carry the steps out to the concrete pad. A dozen neighborhood kids skated on a few of the small ramps, the small crowd not warranting the complete collection of ramps. As we set up the stairs, the kids gather around excitedly. Reece and I placed the steps at the end of a ramp, so the kids could ride up the ramp, and jump the steps.
Suddenly a line formed in front of the ramp. The kids ran towards the ramp, and at the last moment jump on their skateboards, carrying as much speed as they could up the ramp. As the skaters approached the top step, they ollie their boards, jumping over the set of stairs, and attempt to land on the concrete pad below. I watched as the young boys go again and again: run, jump, land. Going nuts, like a child with new toy.
Later while talking to Johnny Collier, he told me stairs are a popular obstacle for skate boarders. It builds confidence and they translate well into urban environments.
I went back to the workshop and finished cleaning up. I put my life back in the black plastic tool box. Sweep up the sawdust and pile up the scraps of wood. Finished I go back out and watched the kids skate. The boys were still skating hard on the steps, pushing the stairs to the max. The skateboards rumbled across the top, go silent in flight, then chirp on touchdown.
The kids cheer each other, glowing with a happiness I haven’t felt for years.
For a moment a tiny, an emotion touches my soul, like a quiet chime in a large empty room. The stairs stood. I created something good. The critics said nothing. The kids used my work to. Skating harder, faster, using it to its fullest. For a dim second there is hope.
It took a couple of weeks to get over Costa Rica. My therapist told me it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes other people have different plans or ideas on how relationships and projects will go, and not fitting into them perfectly is no fault of my own.
We also discussed limits, and how to limit how much influence you give someone in your life. I was tempted to try to forget the whole thing, shove it down deep inside and let it rot away, but I decide not to. A wave of Facebook friend request came in. Kids from the skate park, and other people I met in Costa Rica wanting to maintain contact. I didn’t want to accept them. I wanted to disappear, to fade from the picture. But in the end, I ended up accepting most of them, with only a couple exceptions.
So where to from here? There are people I know of down in Costa Rica. I may visit them one day. The dull silence is still there, and for most days my barricades hold up. But Hope, like a rare word, unknown until discovered in the dictionary, by the presence of its definition alone, is known to exist.
Hope exists. My heart is broke and my soul destroyed. One day though, I may find it.
A word about drawing near…
Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.
And he is inviting you – and me – to come home, to come home to where we belong, to come home to that for which we were created. His arms are stretched out wide to receive us. His heart is enlarged to take us in.
-Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home
HT to Writing Sisters. Thank you, ladies!
This will be painfully short.
Sweet girl, you’re confused, lost, tricked…and, undoubtedly very, very unhappy in your core.
I can’t even be mad.
But I can grieve.
And my heart feels like mourning, and so it does. You were made for more. You are not made to strut, to bend over, to mock sex acts and undress before unsavory, sex-starved, perverted men.
You are the image of the Bride – no, not in the way you presented yourself – but as a female in general.
God put you and your gender on the earth to put flesh and bone on the mystery that is the Church.
A friend of mine says you need someone to hug you and whisper in your ear, ” you were made for more than this.”
I enthusiastically agree.
But before any emotion of enthusiasm can erupt from my being, I have to cry.
Women everywhere – in Christ or not, makes no matter – should feel degraded.
And men, also – in Christ or not, makes no difference – should feel grieved.
Shame on any who were turned on by this sick display.
Those five or six minutes were not playful, innocent, all in fun.
They glorified darkness and gave it power to become darker still. Come into the Light, Miley.
That’s your only hope. It’s the hope of all of us. There’s genuine acceptance, freedom from enslaving childhood issues (or whatever), significance, safety and peace in the Beautiful Man, Jesus.
You’re naughty. You’re filthy. You’re dirty.
Whether it’s your handlers your publicists or yourself…makes no matter.
Jesus wants that costume that is sin-stained and ill-fitting…
…and He’ll give you an eye-catching wardrobe and make you a princess in a kingdom that boasts love and eternally satisfies.
Because this is not who you are. It’s all a lie you’ve become because you believed the lie.
Once upon a time, I did too, but that’s all changed by Jesus Who is Love.
Oh, yes, Miley…you CAN stop.
And it’ll be worth it.
Today is a grace-kissed milestone in my life.
I get to tell people that I’ve been blessed to be married to my Sandy for thirty years.
She deserves a medal.
So, I thought I’d take you on an ever-so-brief journey of our bliss, a panorama if you will. My Facebook readers have read these, but I think these’ll serve us well on this platform, too. Didn’t want you to miss out.
And off we go…
Hey Sandy, you remember when I passed you that love note in Dr. Porter’s Corinthians class…when we weren’t yet in love?
Hey Sandy, remember when you put Clyde* in the backseat and he put a run in your hose?
*my first wheelchair
Hey Sandy, remember when we were in Mr.Castle’s driveway and I was talking to him through the passenger window of Dorothy’s car, and I started rubbing my leg up and down, then looked at you sitting in the middle and you had that puzzled, uneasy look on your face? Then I looked down and saw I had been rubbing your leg instead of mine?
Hey Sandy, remember when you wrote “I love you” in shorthand on my cake for Valentine’s Day?
Hey Sandy, remember when I proposed to you beside Jacob’s Well? And after my well-rehearsed speech, you reminded me I left out the most important words?
Hey Sandy, remember when you hopped on my lap for our wedding recessional and we started up the aisle, but your gown got caught in my wheel and we pitched forward?
Good times, good times…
Speaking of falling headlong…
Hey Sandy, remember when we were leaving our apartment on that rainy day, all dressed up for church, and my chair slipped off the side of the ramp and went over, and you rushed to catch me, but I pulled you over with me and we ended up in that mud hole, all messed up and laughing our heads off?
(thanks for listening)
Hey Sandy, remember that day you came home from work and came into my office crying? Remember how you sobbed and sobbed until you could quieten enough to tell me that you’d been struggling for days about your salvation and knew you weren’t, but were scared to tell me, what I’d think of you, that you’d embarrass me, that you married me “under false pretenses” (smile), but couldn’t stand it any more, and would I pray with you? Remember how thrilled I was to get to “lead my wife to the Lord” and how we cried and praised Jesus for His marvelous grace to settle your soul? Remember?
I’m so glad you came into that room, darling, because now we get to spend eternity together too.