Last night I was going through documents on my computer, trying to bring order to the chaos. I found notes from a talk I gave a couple of years ago at a women’s retreat in Maryland, called “Shalom Shattered.” It stuck with me, especially after reading Sarah Bessey’s blog yesterday about how reluctant we are to admit (let alone deal with) trauma.
The retreat coordinator had asked me to talk about my experiences with faith & friendship. in the first session, I’d shared about the first time I’d tiptoed, terrified but intrigued, into a CHRISTIAN church (I thought of that word in all caps back then, so strange was it to me) after years of running my life via astrology, feng shui, and whatever new spiritual ideas I found in the New Age aisle at Barnes & Noble. I told them about the friends I made at that church, and how well they’d loved me even when I was a complete pain in the ass, and how they’d stuck around during the extensive, messy process of Jesus sorting me out. I love telling that story, because it illustrates so clearly how God puts people up around us like protective bumpers to keep life from crushing us as we’re being transformed.
But to keep things honest, I knew I ALSO had to tell these young, eager, tattooed hipster Jesus-loving girls the rest of the story. How, like any writer knows, the key point in any plot outline is Shalom Shattered, the moment when your perfect world is blown to smithereens.
That was talk #2.
In an effort to keep things light, I illustrated my story by asking for volunteers to come up front and be passengers in an imaginary boat. I lined them up with signs that designated different leaders from that same church that had been so central in my life, and then described the ways they’d fallen (or jumped, or sometimes pushed others) out of the boat. I described how the rest of us, flabbergasted by this turn of events, had turned on each other with accusations, how thick layers of mistrust settled in. I described the sadness of watching that beloved boat sink, and the frustration of knowing we couldn’t ever go back there, because there was no there to go back to.
Thankfully, by this time I had a couple of years between me and these events, so I had some hope to share. Because one of the things I learned during that season was this: Just because we look around and think, All hope is lost, doesn’t mean that God agrees.
Around that time, I read this Proverb I’d never noticed before that says, “What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desires will be granted.” (Proverbs 10:24)
It prompted me to ask: How much of my thought life was now devoted to dread? (A lot.) What did I desire? (I had no idea.) It felt like I’d witnessed a huge collision between good and evil, and I had a choice to make about what I’d look at and for.
-If I chose to look at blank spot on the water where the boat used to be, it was easy to believe that the disappointment, pain and heartbreak would keep accumulating; that loss was our new normal. This was so easy to imagine.
-But if I chose to look at God, He hinted that something better was possible.
I wanted to focus on God. But it was hard. I was so clear on my dread, and it was so easy to replay all the things that had been said about me (or even right to me) as these friendships blew up: That I was uppity, too full of myself, bossy, flighty, lazy, too big for my britches, rebellious, attention grabbing, too guarded, and even dishonest. I was terrified that those angry, hurt, scared former friends might be right. What if I was all those terrible things, and I just didn’t see it?
And yet bumping up against this litany of accusation was the voice of one wise new friend (who’d been through something similar about a decade earlier). He’d asked me, “How can you ever prove that you’re NOT something? All we can do is show who we ARE.”
He was so right.
This left me with a new struggle: who was I without my church, without my friends? Who did God want me to be? At a basic level, If I wanted to exchange my dread for desire, that meant I had to desire something.
You’d think this would have been easy, but it wasn’t. My dread felt safe, familiar, and even responsible. It felt like the smart thing to do was to focus on those accusations and somehow remake myself into someone BETTER. (By which I meant someone to whom this awful, painful process could never happen again).
But every single plan I’ve ever had to remake myself has failed. Every. Single. Plan.
I sat there, caught between handing off my dread and having nothing to grab in its place. And as I sat, God quietly planted seeds of desire in me, seeds I knew nothing about until they started popping up like little blades of grass. They were pretty pedestrian, truth be told:
-I wanted to live in a suburb, not in the city.
-I wanted a family.
-I wanted real friends.
-I wanted my life to have purpose. (I kept trying to yank this last seed out of the ground, because wasn’t it PROOF that I was full of myself and attention grabbing? But God kept pushing it down deeper in the dirt, away from my grubby hands.)
I didn’t even water theses seeds. I was sure they’d die. I couldn’t let myself get attached. It was too scary to REALLY want, so I just sort of shoved these wants off in their own corner, like someone else’s groceries being stored in my fridge for a few days.
But despite my neglect (or perhaps because of it) these seeds shot up through the ground. They were surprisingly sturdy. They had buds on them, and signs of sweet fruit. Where there was nothing, God planted new somethings. It was a thing to behold, and I can’t take credit for any of it, because I was just sitting there trying not to be a terrible person.
After sharing all this, I invited the retreat women into an exercise, asking each of them to write down a dread they wanted to trade in. Then we crumpled up our dread, gave it to Jesus, and asked Him to give us desire, instead.
The results of this talk were mixed, truth be told. At first, there were tears of hope and joy as women filed forward, paper in hand, crumpling up their fears at the foot of the giant cross (placed next to a giant buffalo head) at the front of the room. Throughout that day, so many of those woman took me aside to share desires God had whispered to them, asking me to believe with them that they might be real.
But the next week when I got home, I received a message from the pastor’s wife. She expressed concern for my plight, and suggested I join a church she’d found online that was an hour away, because all believers really should be in a church.
Looking back on this retreat experience two years later, I see how most things are like this, actually: The results are mixed, we don’t get to know the full story, and we have to believe way out beyond what we can see, trusting that if God tells us to do something, that means something, and it will amount to something that matters.
I wish we got to see more. I wish the seeds of my current life hadn’t been planted in scorched earth. I wish I could have hopped into my car, driven to that church an hour away, and replaced all those lost friendship with a smile and a prayer.
But that’s not how life (or God) works. Loss leads to new life. But it’s still loss. That’s okay. In heaven, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, of the old order of things will have passed away. But for now, we’re here. We dry our tears, choose where to look (at what we dread or for God’s desire) and head out into each new day the best we can, looking for signs of heaven here on earth.
I’ve found that it’s worth the effort.