I won’t pretend I haven’t been here before. This reaching up with quivering desperation, this staggering to my feet again (sorta) … it’s become a bit of a cliché. And frankly the cycle seems to be ramping up its frequency. The waves seem to hit now before I’ve really got my feet beneath me from the last time around. All the things that were true a week ago are still true … and there’s more.
Since then, my church has announced that two of our elders are stepping down from their positions and leaving Oak Hills. One of them was the music minister. There really isn’t a worship team anymore, also leaving is the keyboardist I’ve worked and sung with for more than a decade. One of them is taking with him his high school age son who I was really looking forward to getting to know. All of them friends, brothers and sisters. All of them my people. All of them leaving holes that can’t really be filled. I know that I ought to buck up and believe that we’ll weather this. We’ve weathered devastating storms before. Honestly though, I’m afraid. I’m afraid this could be the end for Oak Hills.
My ministry job … gone.
So many of my friends in Ecuador … gone.
Ecuador itself … gone.
My wife, my best friend, my marriage … gone.
Having a home, owning a car, being financially secure … gone
Had a job for two months, but now I’m back to the employment hunt.
Anyone who knows me at all knows just how much my church means to me. Oak Hills has been, for a decade and a half, a center around which community and worship and ministry and life have revolved for me. Now its future is shaky? What is God doing? What has He left me?
(I’m not sure when this blog switched from being an exploration of gospel themes and became my very public journal. Hope it switches back soon.)
I think I understand why the frequency of the cycle is increasing. I think it’s tied to what I wrote about here. I think it’s wrapped up in thinking that trusting God looks like a confidence that He’s going to fix my problems in a particular way, and being able to believe it (a.k.a. “trusting”) for a while, but then eventually getting broken down by the absence of things I think I need and going through my yelling at God phase again.
Had a conversation with my good friend Tank* a couple of days ago. He probably didn’t know what he was getting into. I let him have it. I was crying, ranting, sniffling, and probably making very little sense.
I felt like I had my hand in the fire, I told him. Maybe more than just my hand. There comes a point beyond which the avoidance of pain is no longer a higher cognitive affair. The choosing to yank your hand out of the fire isn’t so much a decision as it is an instinct. It hurts and it has to stop. It must stop. It cannot continue! I told him that I stepped back and looked at my life and the things that kept piling up and knew that I was past being able to juggle things. There are too many “things” for that. I’m now beginning to really wonder if the sheer weight of things will crush me. And, I told him, I feel like God’s asking me to keep my hand in the fire, to just hold it there. And I don’t know how.
He paused for a long moment and then responded in his typical fashion, gentle and affirming. He said “Gosh” a lot. He told me that he had no idea what I was feeling, that it had to be so incredibly painful. Basically, he said everything you should say to someone who’s in soul agony … right up to the point where he said something really offensive.
“Is the place where you find yourself,” he said. “Is it possible that it’s the answer to your prayer that the gospel become more tangible and less rhetorical? Is it possible that God’s answering your prayer, and doing it in you first?”
I wish I could tell you that divine joy flooded my heart instantaneously. I wish I could say that all of my struggles melted away into insignificance in the light of God’s consuming truth and glory. Honestly, most of what I felt was anger. Most of what I thought was “You can’t be serious!” The pain, God! The agony! I can’t possibly do this one more day!
But then I felt my Father’s whisper in my heart. I heard Him say, “Do you want to see if this thing flies?” It was as though I could hear a small smile in His voice. He wasn’t scolding me. He was trying to restrain His excitement, like He was finally revealing a surprise He’d been holding onto until just the right moment.
(I started speaking the words aloud to Tank. I’m sure he thought I’d finally gone over the edge.)
“Do you really want to see if this works? You’ve ranted and railed at your heroes, at Me, asking if it’s snake oil. You’ve questioned its viability, its ability to even exist in the real world. Do you want … to see … if it flies?”
“Because if that’s what you want, then we have to take off the training wheels. If that’s what you want, then everything that’s propping this up has to go. Every relationship that you lean on unhealthily, every institution in which you place ultimate confidence, every thing you run to instead of Me has to be removed from the equation. If you want this, every umbilical support line must be severed … or you’ll never know it’s really Me.”
I stood there at the edge of my abilities, staring into the void. I did the only thing I could. I shook with holy fear, and I cried, and I asked Him to hold my hand in the fire, to keep it there. Then I took a step into the dark.
The Sufi mystic Rumi taught about burning with divine love, letting your longing for God become this painful fire within you. He said that you must become so deeply surrendered to the conflagration that ultimately only God’s love remains. It is then, he said, that you will see the truth that the burning longing coming to life in your heart is not really yours at all, but is actually God’s longing for you.
There is a quote attributed to John Wesley. When asked about his philosophy of evangelism, he reportedly said “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” Perhaps the pain of the fire has purpose.
If there is anything in me that is blocking my Father’s longing for me, it would be cruelty for Him not to insist on its removal.
Re: Title … With apologies to Jeff Buckley.
* His name is David Tankersley, but it wigs me out to call him David. So I refuse. He’s “Tank.”