Posted in Living this Life

When you can’t get out of the cave…

Another arrow pierces the heart. I don’t have any fancy words today. The fact is, it just really hurts. We have watched the world convulse this year. There has been fear, violence, suspicion, sickness, anger – and that all feels so distant when compared to this heaving of the heart.

I know we’ve all been there. Walked through that intangible grief of watching a life implode. We’ve watched the one we respected and honored from a distance fall in a flame of tabloid fanfare.  We’ve seen that dear soul we’ve poured everything into, sometimes it’s your own child, brother or sister… imploding their life with a string of bad decisions. Walked alongside someone as a sister or brother, fought great battles together, until the day when you discover you no longer follow the same Lord. You’ve walked in the fire together, and suddenly they are walking in a fire of a different sort. The heart cries out – not another one?

What do you do when you stand in the smoldering ruins and wonder who is left standing with you?

There’s this story I keep being drawn to – it’s a sub-plot, if you will. Almost an afterthought in the shadow of a larger story. But this quiet little afterthought is shouting loud in my heart right now. I need to put these words right here, if only for my own sake. If only to remind myself of what is true when emotions threaten to reign.

We know about Elijah. The guy who saw a boy come back to life as a result of his prayers and participated in innumerable miracles with God. This Elijah who prayed fire down from heaven in an ultimate showdown between good and evil. This same Elijah – the one who seems so bold and fearless; the one with no reason to doubt God; riding high on the winds of victory – what does he do in the wave of this greatest victory? Well, he runs for his life – afraid. I have always been intrigued by this part of the story, because it feels so… human. So real. So much like something I would do.

Elijah finds a cave and hides in it. And here I sit, in the cave with Elijah, emotions all amuck. Feeling confused, sad, heartbroken – alone.

And God says, “What are you doing here?” Elijah replies with all his pent up evidence against God – “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19)

Do you sometimes feel like you’re the only one left? The only one who really cares in a world gone mad? Sometimes the hits come so close together and the waves of loss build up until you’re crushed by the grief. And you just feel alone. Sitting in a cave with Elijah and me – issuing your complaint against the God of the Universe. That’s where we all have to start – letting yourself face the emotions that threaten to consume. All the anger. The sorrow. The confusion. The questions – all of it.

I’m glad it doesn’t scare God. It doesn’t make Him turn His back in disgust. It doesn’t make Him lose patience with you or even make Him join you in feeling like giving up. Here is what He is actually doing in this sacred moment.

He is revealing Himself to you. Open your eyes and look – you will still see Him. Right here. In this place. But you have to stick your head out of the cave. “The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19:11).

He is revealing Himself to you. Open your eyes and look – you will STILL see Him. Right here. In this place. But you have to stick your head out of the cave

Go out and look for Him! And He will show up. But not as you expect. Be very careful not to only look for Him only in fire and earthquakes – He shakes our world in a much more subtle, life altering way. He whispers His presence. What could be more intimate than that?

So let’s start there. Take that one step out of the cave, and watch for His presence. Wait for His whisper. Hold your breath in between the sobs, and let His gentle whisper find it’s way into your soul.

But hold on – the story isn’t over! It may feel like that is all, because it is already so rich, so real. Right here – in this holy whisper – this is just the beginning of our healing! This next part is the flower in the ashes that has held my attention for this last chapter of my life. The part I just can’t seem to get over. Two things happen next in Elijah’s confrontation with God that will define the rest of his life.

  • He is given His next step. God lets Elijah have his moment of grief, but He doesn’t let him camp there. After the whisper, Elijah complains one more time about being the only one left, despite his zealousness for God. And God’s response this time is to simply tell him to what to do next. “The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.” (v. 15) There’s more work to be done – get out of the cave and do the next thing.

There’s more work to be done – get out of the cave and do the next thing

And finally – almost as an afterthought – is the crescendo to the entire conversation. Elijah’s complaint against God centers on himself – I have been zealous for the Lord God Almighty…the Israelites have abandoned you… I am the only one left (v. 10 & 14) Do you feel that some days? Just watch the news cycle. Hop on to facebook or twitter and watch the vitriol swirl. Do you sometimes feel like the only one who still cares? Who still longs for truth and beauty and grace and kindness and for Jesus to be lifted high?

  • God sends Elijah on his way to do the next thing. And then He says, “oh, by the way, Elijah. You’re not alone! “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” (v 18). You may think you’re the only one left, Elijah, but there are 7,000 others out there! I don’t know about you, but this blows my mind. God has His people spread throughout His land, and just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not strong. Does this breathe courage and strength into your heart like it does mine?

So where does leave me on this beautiful summer morning when the darkness licks at the edges of my soul? It gives me the courage to stick my head out of my cave and listen with bated breath for His whisper. To see His glory. To let His truth be louder than all the taunts leveraged against me in my own head. To let Jesus be bigger and more real than any disappointment or heartbreak.

It opens my ears to listen to His next step. Who needs a voice of encouragement today? Who has God brought into my life today? What is He asking of me? Take my eyes off my own self pity, my own disappointment, those who have let me down, and simply do the next thing.  Because we are not alone! God has His people scattered throughout this beautiful world, and we can lock arms with those who are still faithful and walk boldly forward. Elijah’s next step after his encounter with God was to find Elisha. I just smile at this – how very good of God to bring him a brother during this vulnerable time in his life. Someone to walk with him, encourage him, breathe that life back into him. Someone to carry on after Elijah was gone.

Lock arms with those who are still in sync with you and Jesus. Let Jesus figure out how to handle those who break away. Walk boldly on into the next adventure, take on the next challenge, quiet the accusing mocking voices in your heart, and hear this clarion call: “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1)

I’m glad there are people like Elijah in the Bible. I’m glad I got to sit in his cave with him some this morning – I needed this reminder.

Posted in Living this Life

the e-mail

I could tell by the subject line that I didn’t want to open the e-mail.

Yet, I knew by the subject line that I just had to open the e-mail and read the words I didn’t want to read.

It was true. Another place closing. Another place that I love – gone.

Thing is, this isn’t just another place. I drove by one of my favorite restaurants the other day and saw the for sale sign. That was a bummer. This was different. This hit deep, and I suddenly didn’t know how to process it.

It’s one of those places that I have never been able to get out of my soul. One of the first places I understood the word “home”. In a life of feeling perpetually out of place, this was a place that welcomed misfits like me and gave us a sense of belonging.

It was my sophomore year of college – that summer when I walked through the doors of a The Shelter, a youth hostel in the middle of the city of Amsterdam on the edge of the red light district.

I had no idea God would forever change the trajectory of my life that summer. That He would show me who I was created to be and that I would never be satisfied settling for anything else.

I went back after college and spent a year in those walls – eager to learn, eager to meet people from around the world, eager to share my Jesus with them. God used that place to forever alter my life.

You may say it’s just a building surrounded by a multitude of other buildings. But it was on that rooftop I would pace when I felt my world crumbling around me – I would pace back and forth – praying and pleading with God for His Truth.

It was in that dining room where I would eat with people from around the world – Laughing, singing, talking, doing life together.

It was in that kitchen where I learned to make Moussaka and Boerenkool. But it’s really the place I learned that the simple act of spending a day cutting onions and peeling mounds of potatoes can carve out quiet places to let the Spirit in.

It was in that snack bar where I would discuss the beauty of my Jesus with a Spanish traveler who had just from a Tibetan monastery. Where I would pore over the Scriptures and rest in the peace of the Psalms with my friend Jess, a gay prostitute who was desperately hungry for balm for a hurting soul.

It’s where I learned not to fear the questions – for if you keep looking you will find the Truth. It just takes a lot of courage to face the real questions and a lot of persistence to uncover the answers. It’s where I saw that we aren’t really all that different under the surface – where a smile has the power to transcend all cultural, racial, and political differences. And sometimes when trying to register a group of 20 travelers who don’t speak English, a smile is all you have.

It’s where I learned to love shoarma and frites with mayo. And I learned the value of knowing how to ask for coffee with whipped cream in Dutch (Koffie met slagroom, alstublieft)

So I read the e-mail, and as the truth soaked in that they were having to close their doors due to the current condition of our world, the tears started to fall. Not just for all the faces I saw, the people I had come to love, the memories I cherished… I wept for the loss of a place to return to.

Oh how the heart longs to remember what fades so quickly! How often we long to return to places that matter because they remind us of who we were. More importantly, of who God is and what He has done. And I don’t have many of those places…

Growing up in the jungles of Africa was an unmitigated blessing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But my home no longer exists – the ravages of war destroyed my childhood village many years ago, and I will never be able to take my family to the place I grew up. I can show them the country as it is, but it will forever be a different place than the home I knew.

So all these years, my heart has clung to this special place on the edge of the red light district in Amsterdam. I longed for the day I could show my family the place where God changed the course of my life. Where I learned how real He truly is and discovered that He really will catch us when the world crumbles around us. I have walked through those old hallways with my family so many times in my mind – just waiting for the day it could become reality.

And I wept for the loss of that opportunity.

God has placed eternity in the heart of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11) – and yet we try to fit this small earth around that. We grasp for the ideal of an unchangeable good – a place where our hearts feel safe. But buildings crumble and heroes let us down.. What do we do then? Construct new idols? New mirages of control or illusions of contentment? Or do we reject the stuff of earth and place all our hope firmly and only on heaven?

We’ve all experienced loss this year. And I know my story is light compared to the life changing loss many have endured. But we all share this one thing – longings for something we may not be able to return to. It comes out in grief, sorrow, rage, cynicism, depression… and I wonder – what do we do with all these feelings?

When the longings start and we are torn between what is and our nostalgic memory of what was … we often think we have to choose between the two. Instead of rushing past the callback, why don’t we linger a couple more minutes and let it bloom into something of beauty? What if we’re experiencing a foretaste, a promise, a shadow of what is to come? In His moments of greatest agony on earth, Jesus looked to the “joy set before Him”. (Hebrews 12:2)

Do you see it? Can you smell it? The welcoming notes of the fresh baked bread? The delicate aroma of flowers we have yet to discover? We blush and call it childish nostalgia – but could it be so much more?

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves… These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” CS Lewis

So today i don’t think I’m going to wipe these tears away too quickly. I think instead I’ll try to just rest in the magic of the mystery. To let the ache in my heart intensify my longing for heaven – that great unending good that will never be taken from us. That we will never outgrow, move away from, or lose. This is the gift.

For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14

Posted in Living this Life

Leaves and other stuff…

I had to run out for a couple minutes today, so I grabbed the old car that gets parked under a tree, swept away the mountain of leaves that the weekend had left us, and hit the road.

As I rounded the corner, I gasped a little, because the sun hit my windshield and there, glowing like the most brilliant artwork, were imprints of all the leaves that had piled up on my windshield.

Imprints … stick with me for a minute.

Because then I saw the darker less artistic splotches – you know, those that the friendly neighborhood birds had deposited alongside those beautiful leaves. And it made me ask myself – what sort of imprints am I leaving behind? In the middle of this pandemic and social unrest? The day before a highly contentious election? How about the day after said election?

What do you see when the sun (Son) reflects off my life? We don’t get to choose many of our circumstances – but we do get to choose what we do with them.

We all leave a trails behind us – may ours be filled with beauty and grace and wonder