You know you are experiencing a stretching time in your life when even writing about it requires a deep breath and an internal pep talk.
Last October was a whirlwind of activity in our family. The girls moved in with us, our adoption facilitator was in from California, we were meeting with attorneys and other professionals frequently. And frankly, we were living on the edge emotionally as we waited for a court date two months in the future. It was in the middle of that tremendously uncertain time in our lives that God planted us in a new body of believers.
Even though two years ago I had all but decided I was never going back to “church” [because you can't go to The Church seeing as She is a bride and not a building], I have spent nearly all of my life “in church”. I’ve done church camps, VBS, women’s Bible studies, sunrise services, small groups etc etc. I was completely and totally sick to my stomach over the majority of it. Bigger than the pit in my stomach though was undeniable sense that I was truly heartbroken.
Still, sad and upset, I knew how to “do” church. The frustration I had grown to feel in Christian settings made me uncomfortable in the that I was irritated. There’s another definition of uncomfortable which hones in on the feeling of uneasiness or the awareness of being strained or stretched in a situation. Before October I don’t think I’d often (if ever) felt that latter kind of discomfort in a church environment. But since we began worshipping at Zion, I can honestly say I have been that kind of uncomfortable at some point during every single Sunday morning gathering. I’ve not been frustrated. I’ve not been angry. I’ve just been out of my element. I’ve been stretched so far it has at times been hard to sort out if I was offended, unfamiliar, moving past my comfort zone or all of the above.
I don’t know if I’ve ever eagerly anticipated discomfort the way I do now. No time of worship at Zion is ever the same so I can’t even prepare myself and do the whole “worst case scenario” thing in my head. I know walking in the front doors that something is probably going to offend me or rub me the wrong way or just catch me off guard. Still, I look forward to Sundays more now than any other time I can recall. This past Saturday Adler was running a fever and my first thought was “Now how bad is it really to bring a sick kid to worship?” I then started strategizing how I could take him and not infect others or somehow convince a babysitter to come on a weekend morning to watch a sick kid… (Thankfully, he ended up not being sick)
Last week was the beginning of a new quarter of the ministry school the church body operates. David and I had casually talked about checking it out the quarter before, but didn’t. He’s the brave one who is up for anything and open to whatever God asks. I’m the one who pulls back. When it is a good thing I call this “discernment” and when it isn’t not that, I have a hard time admitting it is fear. So imagine my surprise when I signed us up and I made arrangements for the kids and I wanted to do it even though it was no more practical for us than it had been a few months before.
We have about two hours between the time we get home from worship and the time we have to leave to make it to the class. The drive is 45 minutes one way. If you’re keeping track, that means 3 hours of driving in the car with 5 kids in one day… a weekend day none the less. And still, I just know in my heart that whatever the inconvenience, we are supposed to be in the class.
Not only does the class time and distance completely wreck our schedule, but it may the most uncomfortable situation I have ever knowingly chosen for myself. Forget the “may” in that last sentence. It is without a doubt the most uncomfortable situation I have ever willingly chosen.
The teaching has been incredible, but it is on a topic that makes my stomach instantly get twisted in knots: healing. Yep. I typed the word and every muscle in my core contracted. So not only is the topic one I’ve tended to shy away from, but nearly half of the class time is set up for “activations”. That means we are talking about hearing from God and what it means to see Jesus as the truest theology and then we are expected to… practice.
…Now before you keep reading, pause for a second and consider that…
If you imagined yourself there and you weren’t terrified then I am officially impressed with your bravery. Not that it likely encourages you, seeing as how I’m the lady in the corner with the knocking knees, trying to blend in with the wallpaper.
Sunday evening I was having a conversation during the short break and never made it to the bathroom. I had been drinking water all day and two minutes into the introduction of the activation I realized I either had to walk out of the room from the front row somewhat embarrassed or I was going to be in the middle of an activity with someone I just met and have to excuse myself to the restroom while they’re trying to practice with me. I opted for the first choice. In the long run, it seemed less awkward.
I tried to walk out calmly and nonchalantly but as soon as the sanctuary door closed behind me, I made a mad dash for the potty and managed to go, wash my hands and get back into the sanctuary in record time. I caught the end of the instructions. We were to find someone we didn’t know and then pray and ask Holy Spirit to bring a verse to mind to share with them and then share it.
Generally, I am awful at these kinds of things. Someone says “think of a verse” and my mind goes blank. I panic and then I can’t think of single word in the Bible. The person might as well have said not to think about pink elephants because my brain turns on me when it feels pressured to produce. But, oddly (and wonderfully, I might add) immediately a verse came to mind; one I am sure I hadn’t read in some time but it was there and clear as a bell.
I was standing against a wall in the back of the room (I was not going up to that front row again until people started to move around again!) and I saw the back of a woman’s head. Long blond hair, half of it in a clip, was lying over the back of her chair. She was the one. That verse was for her. So I made a beeline for her and introduced myself. We took turns sharing with each other what had come to mind. Then we were asked to ask God for an image or a picture similarly to the way we had asked for a verse. I was fighting the urge to anxiously bite my nails again but before I could panic or try to make something up, a vivid picture was in my mind. It wasn’t something I had been thinking about either. It seemed random. We shared what we had seen.
Despite my own trepidation, the atmosphere in the room was light. People were laughing and smiling and feeling awkward together and we were told multiple times it was ok if we nothing came to mind, “We are just exercising spiritual muscles.” It seemed so strange until I reminded myself I’ve spent a lifetime as a Christian exercising muscles of prayer and reading Scripture and fasting and community. Why does it feel so weird to practice listening? Why does it feel absurd to ask God to speak? That’s what I was thinking when the last activity was announced.
Following the instruction to ask God for revelation, I felt something in my physical body I had not ever felt before. The best way I can explain it, is that when I was trying to breathe in, it felt like my diaphragm was the shape of an upside cone and that a weight was hanging from the point in my core, pulling down. Instead of expanding like lungs should when the diaphragm contracts and flattens, there was a heaviness caving in on me, keeping my lungs from fully opening. My eyes snapped open.
It was God and I know that because:
a.) I had been feeling very happy and light most of the evening. Despite the fear, I had thrilling sensation as watched my partner’s face as she listened to the “random” things that had come to me and seen in her countenance that they were, in fact, really meaningful to her. Heaviness was not what had been going on in me at all.
b.) Who wants to tell someone they don’t know that you’re sensing, likely from Holy Spirit, that there’s a heaviness in them?!?!? Not me.
c.) Most convincing of all was her reaction. Her voice choked as she shared with me what she had been experiencing the past week. My heart was moved and while it isn’t like me to cry in public or with a stranger or at all really, I couldn’t help it.
Something happened. That wasn’t a practice run.
The kids were all asleep and several were snoring before we were half way home so David and I started processing together what we had heard from God and what had been shared with us. It was then that the significance of what my partner said to me during the first exercise finally clicked.
David asked about what verse I had been given. I paraphrased it for him. “You know that one..” I said, ready to move on to the next exercise. He stopped me. “Yea, I think I do. Where’s it at?” I paraphrased again. I hadn’t answered his question. “It is in Isaiah.” His eyebrows scrunched together and I could see him trying to think of the context of the verse. So I did what we would all do: I pulled out my handy dandy iPhone (right?!?!) and using my bible gateway app I located the verse and read it to him.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned or scorched, nor will the flame kindle upon you.”
And then remembering, I added “Oh and she said she felt like the waters and the fire weren’t bad things even though that didn’t make sense to her…” My voice trailed off because as soon as the words departed my lips, it made sense to me.
I went back and read more. Then I read verses 1-3 over and over. And then the whole chapter.
I am so glad she threw in that it-does-not-really-make-sense-but-I-think-the-Holy-Spirit-said-it tidbit at the end. I’ve never read that verse to mean anything other than that God sticks by you even in the bad, hard times. And, of course, He does. My life is crazy right now, but it is a great,sweet kind of crazy. It doesn’t feel like a natural disaster is headed for me or like my house is burning down.
What I have been walking head first into is a very real fear about what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God. I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life and good bit of my teen years speaking out about The Church not looking like or acting like or functioning like The Church of the Bible. My blood at times was at full blown boiling temperature for months. I would become too impassioned to talk about it without being offensive. I’d feel sick over it. I would doubt and then feel hopeless and then wonder if there was any point in trying to say that the emperor is naked. And then I’d wonder if maybe he was clothed after all and if maybe I was the crazy one.
Yet, in all of my talking and theorizing and feeling I had rarely been in a situation where talking wasn’t the end of the matter. I can talk and debate and get all worked up with the best of them, but when you walk into a community where people are actually pursuing and seeking the Kingdom and don’t have a lot of time or energy to complain and feel sad about why things aren’t happening… well that’s a whole other thing.
I have felt overwhelmed. I have felt afraid to let go. It is likely not a coincidence that there is a worship space in the front of the sanctuary people affectionately refer to as “the river”. I sit close to the front so I can be “in” the river and hear other people worship and experience the corporate expression without actually leaving my seat. A couple times now I’ve ventured into the aisle toward the front. Once I actually went up in the middle of it. It was so hard. We don’t know a lot of people yet. I felt simultaneously lost in the group and then like everyone was looking at me. Ridiculous! For crying out loud, I’m 33 years old and it took me almost three songs before I was worshipping instead of feeling insecure and self focused. People are dancing and singing and waving flags and crying out to God during worship and as odd as that all may sound, I’m often so moved my lips cannot form the words I’m trying to sing.
I can’t even express fully why, but I have been scared to let that flow over me. There’s so much unknown for me in a church body like the one we’ve been planted in. I hear things every week that I think I don’t agree with but then I realize I can’t Biblically defend any other position. I feel like I’m running a race with an pesky ear infection. I’m off balance and tripped by even small things on the course. I mean, (read the rest of the sentence with a sarcastic voice in your head) it is almost like I don’t have this whole Christ follower thing figured out as well as I had always thought when as talker and thinker instead of a doer. Go figure!
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you…”
It is also not likely just “random” that there has been a lot of talk about fire during worship lately or that sometimes there is even a “fire tunnel”. The first time someone used that term, I glued my own booty to the seat as fast as I could. I didn’t know what a fire tunnel was and I sure as heck wasn’t going to participate in it. Turns out that it is a human “tunnel” where people lay hands on those walking through and pray for and bless them. I tried to hold on to my offense, but it isn’t easy to be offended over prayer (gasp!) in a church service. I still wish it was called something else, but I am so glad it happens, even with the kind of name that brings images to mind on par with snake handling.
A couple of Sundays ago I participated in a fire tunnel. I went through with Kacey in front of me, Cohen holding my hand and Scout on my hip. It was beyond sweet. I started packing up our stuff when we were done and then Cohen took my hand. “I want to go through again Mom. Come with me.” So we went through again. I asked Cohen if he had gotten what he was looking to get. He squeezed my hand, “yep”.
“…When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned or scorched, nor will the flame kindle upon you.”
Whatever anyone says or thinks, I know deeply that that verse was meant for me Sunday night. I have been reading and rereading all of chapter 43. Every time there’s something else that clicks with me; some little nuance that resonates in my heart. I am still utterly terrified to lay years of talking and thinking aside in an effort to run wholeheartedly after the things I’ve not seen but yearned to see. I am terrified even now standing at the island in my kitchen typing these words with a house full of sleeping people who are unaware of the wrestling match in my brain. I am afraid that I’ll quit white knuckling the river bank and drown or have to bob up and down the river, filling my lungs and belly with muddied water. I’m scared to get carried away on a current.. any current! I can’t even say which scares me more: getting water logged in the wrong pool or pulled on by a good current I can’t direct. I’m scared of being burned because, let’s be honest, if you’ve belonged to a body a believers for more than a year, you’ve probably experienced a nasty burn or two. I think it is more frightening though to consider the actual fire of God and what it means to exist within that. It is cute to talk about being “on fire” for God but when you get close to Him, you start to realize it’s more than a little warm in His Presence. Suddenly Moses’ glowing face makes sense. Fire is fire.
So stretching as it is to write this I wanted to take a moment to erect a “word memorial” so I don’t forget what was spoken to me. In the old testament writings of the Bible, we read about people setting up memorials - physical landmarks- to remember what God had done. We humans tend to quickly forget but rather than building a stone something in our yard in the middle of the night, I figured a blog post would do the trick. What my new friend shared via the Holy Spirit continues to be confirmed in my heart by the Spirit and through the Word of God.
I’m a total scaredy cat and while I can talk a good game, I can also be a chicken. Stronger than my fear is the knowing that I if I don’t move forward, whats left for me is a life of stagnation and criticism and wanting.
So I’m thankful for that potentially awkward in-class assignment. I am so grateful to the woman who wasn’t afraid to risk sounding weird to share what she herself didn’t understand. And above all, I’m thankful for God. He’s the kind of Dad who could see me shaking with fear in the corner and instead of being embarrassed by my short comings or chiding me for my weakness, could just love and comfort me. Holy Spirit, knowing what I need to take that very frightening next step, reminded me of a promise I can cling to:
He will be with me through not only the bad times but
also the uneasy times that feel really strange
and good times that just seem way too good to be true.