People, I’m sorry. I’m pretty much writing a book via post these days. This is so long, and so involved, and I hope very much you don’t find me to be a hopeless navel-gazer. Just know, I’m figuring out my whole life. (Yes, you can smile.)
First, I must, must say thank you for the deep and heartfelt comments last post. What stories you have lived, and what deep beauty you’ve found in the midst of it all. Thank you for what you shared and how you sent courage pulsing into your posts so it could pulse back into my heart. You were bountifully honest in what you wrote about; struggles, hopes, and uphill run toward redemption. I love how there was (for me at least) a sudden flash of friendship across the internet wires. I owe several of you emails, and they are coming… very slowly, but surely. For the moment though, I have to let all of you know that you are making me think. Hard.
Odd, isn’t it, how talking about what is broken in our lives brings us closer? Makes friends of strangers. Maybe our pain makes us more honest, more “real,” like the Velveteen Rabbit who had all his fluff worn off by the love and loss of his boy, but went from a cloth bunny to a flesh and blood rabbit, with eyes that could see and a heart that beat. Could it be the same for us? Is struggle (and the admission of it) the thing that makes me real? The pain I so despise, is it the force that turns me from a mist of illusions into a real, living soul? Real to you all, real to everyone else as a person. But also, real to God?
I was reading about Iona the other day (the famous, Celtic abbey in Scotland) and saw it described as a “thin place.” Madeleine L’Engle said that there is something about that jutting, wind-bitten little rock of land that allows a few more drops of God’s presence to slip through than usual.When I read that phrase, it got right into me with pincers of desire. A thin place. A place so lovely, God is touchable. I could have taken off for Scotland that instant because Iona, in all its myth and beauty, seemed to promise that it could make God and me both feel real. That lonely, aching want for a true knowledge of God’s presence is a hurt I carry just beyond the busyness of my mind. It’s the want I’ve cried over the hardest in my knee-popped moments of utter truth. And I cried all the harder in those times, because I assumed that beauty and perfection, a lack of pain, were the way to God’s presence. The more I struggled, the more defeated I felt. If I could only be truer to my ideals (healthy food, sleep, hours of contemplation, extra reading, less modernity), escape from the noisy people, the constant needs of ministry, the bee swarm of modern culture that crowds my life, I could create thin places for myself. If I were only at peace, God would come.
Then came my knee, and the post, and your comments. To my shock, all of it has been a thin place. In your letters, I’ve felt the love and care of God. In my own, more honest quiet times this week, I’ve been sustained through crazy conference days by a love that comes under and beside me when I least deserve it. But it upends all my expectations. I am more honest and in more struggle than ever, yet God is here.
What I begin to see is that there are thin places already in my life, but I have been slow to see them. They are a far cry from Iona’s ethereal beauty or any ideal of a quiet life that I have held. I have rarely welcomed them. But I see now that my thin places are the hours in which I have questioned, struggled, and grieved. Times like this week, but if I am honest and look back, almost without exception, every dark time in my life has been a space of God’s sudden presence. In pain, the usual murk of living grows a little thinner, my distraction eases, and I come face to face with God. Whether in my knee-popping epiphany, or seasons of intense loneliness, or even in watching the grief in Haiti (something very much on my mind), these moments demand truth. Circumstances like those scatter all illusions and take me right down to the wire of what is true. Thin places. In an earthquake where children die, either God loves us and is good, or he’s not. When I am at my end, either God truly is with me, or he’s not. The places of pain demand an answer from my soul. In that minute I face, abruptly, the true landscape of myself, and in it, the presence of my God.
I suppose such a sight could make me despair. If God didn’t show up, desolation is the only word I can conjure to fit the thought. But this is where the faith I claim to hold becomes a life that is a defiance of death. This is where I become real. If, if, when I come to that stripped place I can hang on by nail and finger and tooth to the love of God, oh my. The beauty that comes from it. Pain strips away all my twisted, soul-poisoning faith in stuff or circumstances (clothes, friends, food, ease, money) to make me happy. Pain is a clean wind blowing the fog of my imagined righteousness right over the horizon. Trouble tills my stiff heart. I stand there, staring at life in its barrenness and me in my frailty (Lord what a sight) and the moment of truth comes. I enter the thin place and right there I have the chance to lift my head and find the love of God staring down at me. He comes into my void like invisible springtime zipping through frozen earth. Hope comes springing up out of the impossible, frozen dark. Peace is this slim, green shoot in my soil. Joy comes, like birds zipping through the sky.
I’ve lived in that place this week. I have put all my hopes on the table. Writing and marriage and the want for a real adventure. I’ve laid out the struggle too. Everything. Rejection, health, silence. I’ve gone right deep down to that barren place of having no answers, and staring my sinful heart straight in its dark eyes. But do you know, I can say it, I’ve held on to God. I have passed through several moments where I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth and said I will love the Lord my God. I will cling to him here, in the thin place. Now, a joy is rising in me day by day that is so great, it stops up my throat and stills my fingers. No words can tell it. It’s a gladness not founded on a circumstance that can change or a person that will fail. It’s Tolkien’s joy beyond the edge of the world, poignant as grief. And peace. Not the peace that is synonymous with middle American lack of discomfort, or my getting what I currently want, but real peace. The one that dwells in the heart of fire and trouble, camps out at the center of despair.
But you know what else I’ve got? Restlessness. This new hope ups the ante of my dreams because I don’t want to live a day without this joy, even if it means the loss of normal life, or success, or ease. The energy of finding that God is most powerfully present in my pain and weakness so shocks me, I can’t rest. I am real. I am alive. I want to live in the thin places every day of my life because this is where God is is. This is where joy and grief brush shoulders, and joy is stronger. Hope is real here. But what am I thinking? Thin places are the hard spots in life. Thin places are found in struggle. And here I am wanting to live in them all my days.
I think this has been coming for awhile and I’ve resisted. I wanted ease. I wanted a life that wasn’t a struggle. I’m already tired (I know I probably have no right to say that at 25). Figuring out my purpose, staying godly, being a ministry kid, just trying to survive ain’t easy these days. I’ve been close to letting my weariness define my vision for my life. Lately, I’ve yearned for a cottage way up in the hills and the life of a reclusive, successful writer. And oh, I know, rest is good, cloistered time is a gift, and carving out spaces of both is a discipline that is definitely necessary to godliness. But. It’s not enough.
I’ve known God. Felt him as the undying life growing up from the broken heart of things. If I leave this thin place, I won’t have him so close anymore, I won’t be able to live heaven this side of eternity if I pull back and head for illusions and ease again. I know the answer isn’t to seek out pain, start a career as an introspective, wounded soul. So. The only way I know to keep this joy with me, to stay in the thin places yet not wallow in my own grief, is to take what I’ve found and pass it on. To be a lover of God, I find, means you are so shocked to by God’s love healing you from the inside of your pain right out, that you can’t bear to stop the miracle. You continue it by leading other people into the same grace. Anguish makes us ready to meet God. Imagine being there to lead people to the love at the heart of their pain. I think I finally get the whole “take up your cross” thing. It’s always threatened me a little. Was it my sin? That hostility of the world? Both, probably. But also, I think, the reality of pain, mine and other peoples. Yet to follow him means taking up that pain and finding redemption at its heart. This makes me so glad I think I want to go into missions, or disaster relief, or war zones, those absolutely thin places, and lead people to God at the heart of it all. Who knows what’s around the bend.
So here I am in a thin place and I actually want to stay. I’ve found the beauty I craved right in the heart of my struggle. So strange. I thought I’d be happy, spiritual, if I could have the beauty I wanted in this world. But how could I? This is the broken place. It can only break me too. I see that now. I also see that God himself rises up in the brokenness when I walk with him through the pain of this fallen life. To love God, to live with joy here, is to have hope as your breath in a world whose atmosphere is despair. It’s to walk in light, when all the world is dark. I don’t find God in the illusion of perfection. God? He’s dwells right at the heart of grief because that’s where I have to live. Isn’t it odd? We all see pain as destructive, evidence of abandonment. Without God, I suppose it would be the end of us. But the miracle is he comes closest to us in our pain, and that’s where he catches us up and begins to dance us down the road to his grand, final redemption.
It’s mind bogglingly beautiful and it’s where I intend to live every day of my life. Forevermore. The end.
Good grief. Even I’m exhausted. If you made it this far, bless you. Oh, and pray for me, that I don’t pop out an elbow or something. Who knows what that might start.