Well, I’m not sure how many of you have been with me from the beginning but to kick off this blog I decided to start with a series entitled “Whatever is True.” You can head to my previous posts or click on the links below to check those thoughts out. I thought for my last post of the series that I’d share what I think is the thread that links all those four posts together.
I’ll never forget the day that Andy finished graduate school. After six and a half years, Andy’s committee was finally ready to sign off on his project and we were preparing to leave Galveston. To put our move in context I just have to write here that moving half way across the country to a barrier island on the coast of Texas was both one of the most important things Andy and I have ever done (both personally and as a couple) and also one of the hardest journeys I’ve ever traveled. I can’t really put a finger on why I found it so hard. Plenty of people make big moves like this and don’t experience it in the way I did. If pressured to explain it I would say this: It’s as though my personal spiritual and emotional make up at the time and the state of Texas geographically and culturally were just iron against iron for all the years we were there. I felt like my soul was constantly on the battlefield. For all the good experiences we had there (and there were some amazing experiences and friendships made) I just never felt at home.
It turned out that the day Andy’s final copy was due to his committee on my 32nd birthday. To put it mildly, Andy and I have vastly different schoolwork habits! I tend to look at a deadline and set out a schedule of sorts in order to finish on time. The idea of pulling all night sessions at the end of a big project makes me mildly nauseous. Andy is the opposite. He collects bits and pieces for his final project along the way and then puts them all together at the very end. If you ever needed real life exhibits of the Judger/Perceiver dichotomy in a Myers Briggs personality profile then Andy and I can gladly serve as your poster children!
So, true to his style, Andy spent the entire night before the due date in a study hall on campus putting in some final tweaks to his paper. In retrospect, I could have been more understanding as it was essentially his final day of grad school. But after multiple weeks of crazy hours and promises to be home at one time only to see him hours later, I found myself steaming that he couldn’t just hit “submit” and be done with it. I wondered what changes he could possibly make the night before the due date that would make or break his committee’s final decision.
After a restless night of irritable sleep, I finally saw him walk up the steps looking like a bedraggled zombie, at around 10 or 11 on the morning of my birthday. Our house was in total disarray as we were preparing to move a few weeks later. All of our stuff was either packed away or on its way to an open cardboard box. At 30 weeks pregnant we even had our first daughter tucked away waiting to make her debut in Georgia once we moved.
It was in this chaos of mind, body and surroundings that Andy entered and presented me with a manila folder. Inside was the front matter of his final thesis. I had enough presence of mind in that moment to mask my frustration from my obviously exhausted spouse and began to leaf through the pages he had presented me with. He had dedicated his project to me and the dedication page was (and still is!) lovely. I will always cherish those words. Then I read his notes to his family and mine followed by words to colleagues and close friends we’d made both in Texas and back home.
Lastly he wrote a note to our unborn daughter. He encouraged her, should she read his work one day, to consider the health of others. It is virtuous, right and good to do so, he said. At this final sentence, whatever trace of anger I had gave way to two hours of completely unexpected tears of relief. I finally called my mom at some point to blubber afresh to her for another hour after Andy retired to get some sleep.
For the next couple of weeks the two of us were extremely emotional. When he defended his dissertation publicly, I silently thanked God that he had maneuvered things in such a way for me to NOT be in attendance. A doctoral candidate often invites close family and friends to the public portion of the defense but because of some last minute rescheduling I would be attending my own baby shower in Virginia the morning after his presentation. This last minute change up was a minor miracle as no sooner did I receive the first text message from a friend in the room on the morning of his defense did I start sobbing anew at my mom’s kitchen table. I don’t think I would have kept it together if I had actually been physically present in the room.
I don’t know how else to describe those weeks after grad school but to say that the burden I had carried just lifted in the most surprising and unexpected way. I often think about that experience when I consider this world and whats actually required of us for joy and life to come forth. Sometimes I think it looks like surrender. My brother-in-law David has often asked me over the years if I resisted when we decided to move. My response has always been some version of “Yes. There was a lot of resistance.” followed by, “But I knew somewhere deep down that in this particular situation I was being asked, by God more so than Andy, to lay down my preferences. I just knew at this gut level that the future marriage and family that I wanted depended on my willingness to go somewhere that I didn’t want to go.”
I don’t write these sentences with any sense of heroism about them either. Its hard to tell how my own writing sounds at times so I hope I’m not coming off in that manner. I wasn’t exactly a compliant sheep about it all. There was just this internal integrity that I knew would be broken if I didn’t go.
Have you ever considered this? The fact that getting what we want often requires us to go where we don’t want to go? It sounds morbid but if I know anything I know this one truth. Jesus asks us what it is that we want and we respond with our desires for family, career, joy, marriage, children, or home and then he often responds to the deepest of those desires with the most paradoxical and devastating news. “Ok, these are great things to want. But I don’t want you to miss the point it all. So first we’re heading into the wilderness. You’re just going to have to trust me.”
The wilderness, perhaps you’ve experienced, is as frightening and exhausting as I, for one, never could have imagined. Its tears streaming down our faces and sleepless nights wondering when the anvil will come off of our hearts. Its depression and anxiety and loss and being stripped to our cores until we feel incredibly exposed and alone.
But then one day, just as your putting the last of your dishes into cardboard boxes and sweeping the final crumbs into the trash you realize in a moment that its finally finished. Months later you’ll be sitting down to write about it all and realize you just spent six and a half years in a spiritual and emotional gymnasium in order to prove to yourself, your spouse and your God that you can handle whatever comes next because you’re not going down without a fight.
I think that’s the point of the wilderness. Its a place to discover who you really are. When its finally over you stand up and walk into the light that’s now pouring into an empty and spacious room and you realize that you’ve got new skin on. You know in some small and strange way that a part of you died. The life breath was gone. There was no pulse. But somehow, against those crazy odds, your heart just starts beating again. You’ve risen back from the dead.
This. This promise of resurrected bodies, minds and hearts. This is what draws me to Jesus of Nazareth.
Every. Friggin’. Time.
He’s the only person I’ve ever encountered who reverses this very real and frightening reality that is death. And he’s the only person in living history who, full of highest integrity, calls out to us and says: “You can do it too.”
“Embrace me.” He says. “Embrace my pattern for life through death in the wilderness and along the way you’ll come to know what it means to really live in the first place.”
This is the most astonishing news to me. It finally lays the foundation for what our lives are all about in the first place. Its about letting God uncover our desires and letting him show us that the things we all desire – even the very best things like loving families and happy marriages and inviting homes – are just shadows cast from a Creator who gave us those desires in the first place.
You want to know what I think? I think Jesus is just beside himself trying to keep quiet until we follow these shadow desires back to the source of them. He doesn’t want to spoil the surprise. But I’m sure he must look with great anticipation to the day when we’ve followed those shadows all the way back to its smallest width and we realize we’re actually staring at his feet. At this point there’s nothing left to do but look up. And there he is. There he was. There he will be. The one forever father. the one devoted husband. Our one and only home. Our strongest desire.
No sane human person ever willingly takes on a death. This is what makes faith in the wilderness so difficult at times. Even writing this makes me mildly uncomfortable because one day I know one of you readers might just email this piece back to me and tell me to read my own damn writing. Ha!
But this place. The place where the shadows of my greatest desires meet the shadow giver’s sandals is my favorite place to be in the entire universe. Because this is the place where we’re at his feet saying we just can’t do it and we’re just too screwed up. And this is the place where divinity bends down to lift up our chin and say “its OK. You don’t have to. Not by yourself. I’ve already done all the heavy lifting. Just rest in my arms. Just sit at my feet and enjoy my presence. I’m not going anywhere.”
Yes, getting what you really want will require a DEATH on some level.
But its OK. Because you have JESUS.
To this, all I can do is let the tears drop down to the dirt on his toes, and say
“Oh Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Mark 9:24