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My Story (In Progress)

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Shard #1

I will attempt to tell my story. I have been getting obsessive, overthinking getting started, paralyzed by my fear of turning out something boring or religious. I am anxious about the vulnerability. If I give in to those fears, I will insure that my writing is boring and religious—a safe, dishonest, and defensive account of an abstract belief system. However, I have never read a direct, transparent, and emotionally naked story that was boring. An uninhibited account of a person’s passion cannot be dull. A humble account of any belief is unlikely to insult. 

I want to tell you of God’s beautiful intrusion in my life, but I don’t want to lose you by signaling that this is a sermon. I want to tell this story, not argue and defend. Just tell it raw. While I won’t argue and defend, I will be open about my belief that I am experiencing a personal encounter with a ravishing God. 

My story is about a battle with self-pity, and a rising joy.  I am a believer. I am a doubter. I am a romantic. I am a cynic. I try to protect myself, but it leaves me more vulnerable and ashamed. I throw my arms wide open to God, and cross them when he comes near. What is this foolishness? Can I protect myself from the Protector?  Refuge in myself turns out to be exposure in an open and windy plain. But God does not leave me in the cold, but keeps coming, pursuing me, interrupting my schemes and openings my eyes to the beauty he offers.  This journey is what I want to tell you about.

Shard #2

I shared a much-anticipated drink with Andy, a college roommate I had not connected with for decades.  Stories flowed back and forth about the course of our lives, many of which were painful for me to tell. At a certain point, Andy remarked, “God has been so faithful to us over the years.” The comment jarred me. Was he spouting a cliché? Not only that, I felt I was on my own, dangling in the wind. Shame was chasing me.  Anxious fears dominated my view of the future. Inside I was thinking, “Yea, Andy, God has been faithful to you! But I’ve blown it.” My reaction surprised me because I had not admitted my unbelief to myself. I had theoretical faith and practical atheism. 

Andy’s comment was a seed that eventually provided me with a different narrative of my life. My failures have been many, and I have seen them in an even deeper way. But God has been faithful, even loyal. I began to review the events of my life, and took a different look at my future. Like being an aloof judge of my wife, then realizing she has been more faithful than me, I began to see that my assessment of God, and the hesitation that flowed from it, was wildly inaccurate.

Gradually, I came to see that the real and comprehensive story of my life is that God has passionately pursued me. Over against this account is a rival account, a distorted narrative, in which my sense of identity was shaped by, “I have succeeded at this,” or “I have failed at that.” The story I was stuck in was about my own faithfulness (or lack thereof) to God. I vacillated between pride and despair.

We all tell the story of our lives. And we tell it selectively—emphasizing some parts more than others.  Sometimes we put forward our personal accomplishments, at other times our failures and the wrongs done to us. Is it possible that you, like me, are wrong about your story, telling a negativity-biased account? Telling a proud account?  

Shard #3

  I wrote that my friend’s comment about God’s faithfulness “jarred me,” and “shame was chasing me.” Why? Two years earlier, my financial life engulfed me. My debts were mounting for years, but I kept trying to consolidate. I nurtured a magical belief that this problem would disappear if I just worked hard to serve God. Maybe he would drop a check in the mail. 

When I realized I needed to get to work on this crisis, I resigned my role as pastor to focus on making money and retire the debt.  Not having the role revealed how much I hid behind a public persona of having it together. 

 My greatest fear, public failure, came true. I filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy—in my mind one of the most embarrassing things you can do.   I am easily shamed because I am so proud. Forgiveness is not enough. I want something to boast about! 

I keep feeling a sense of reproach, as if I was cursed. Or at least on the shelf. I wallowed in self-pity like the boy Shasta in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, who thought, I do think that I am the most unfortunate boy that has ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me.” Shasta believed enemy lions were pursuing him. A voice in the dark said, “I was the lion.” This lion had protected him from dangers that were not visible to him, dangers beyond Shasta’s comprehension.  Remembering this story pushed me to rethink my negative interpretation of my life.

I too needed to be told a new story. I needed to hear my story from a different perspective, from the one in charge, from the one pursuing me. That the apparent enemy was saving me…

Shard #4

I wrote that I needed to rethink my negative slant on my life, and “be told a new story from a different perspective, from the one in charge, from the one pursuing me.”

The story that I began to hear was from Israel’s songbook—the Psalms. I began to explore an idea from the 23rd Psalm, known in Hebrew as hesed, which describes God’s passionate, pursuing love—a love that flows from his loyalty to his sworn oath to take care of his people. “Goodness and steadfast love (hesed) will pursue me all the day of my life.” One translation reads, “Your beauty and love chase after me.”

I realized I have been, and will always be, chased by a shepherd who wants to protect me and provide for me. I instinctively try to protect myself and provide for myself. I hate to feel needy. God pursues me, but I flee from him through religious activities and self-reproach. As Flannery O’Connor wrote of her character Hazel Motes’ belief, “The best way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin.”

Over the next few months, I explored hesed in the Psalms, seeking to know how it is compatible with pain and the perplexing experience of God’s absence. I also sought to uncover why I flee and avoid.

Shard #5

A couple of years before my encounter with Andy in Shard #2,  a seed was planted in my heart that helped prepare me. I came across the musician John Mark McMillan, who sang of God,

He is jealous for me, 
loves like a hurricane, 
I am a tree
bending under the weight
of his wind and mercy…

Loves like a hurricane? Seems like love should calm the wind. At the time, I felt as if a hurricane knocked down all that I relied on and humiliated me. McMillan’s arresting words exposed the tame god of my imagination.  God is not tame. He is not like a therapist who simply nods his head in unconditional regard. Rather, his love is strong, willing to fight with me when my heart is seduced. At the time, this made no sense. I was just overwhelmed. Encouragements to “trust God” sounded like like clichés.

Shard #6

I previously referred to John Mark McMillan’s music. Another one of his songs, “Guns/Napoleon,” rang in my ears for several months in 2014. McMillan sang of how overwhelming God’s pursuit can feel, like being wrestled to the ground: 

You’re sinking all my ships
You’re climbing all my fences…

You’re standing on my harbor
You’re landing on my shore…

This seemed to describe an invasion of a defensive fortress. I realized my heart is like that–guarded from threats, and determined to carry out my plans in my own way. And here comes God, breaking into my domain. 

McMillan then sings of his surrender, how he “lost this throne” in a revolution:

And I’m laying down my guns…
I’m handing down my armor…

As he stops locking God out of his house, he senses God’s warm presence there, and his heart sings for joy. I began to “lay down my arms.” But I would pick them up again and barricade the doors. But God kept coming on. I am so glad he did not give up on me! 

Shard #7

As I looked at hesed/steadfast love the Psalms (see Shard #4 ), I came to see that God’s passionate pursuit of me is the true and comprehensive account of my life. Over against this was a rival account, a distorted narrative, in which my sense of identity was shaped by, “I have succeeded at this,” or “I have failed at that.” I acted as if everything was up to me to get God’s help. I viewed myself as the pursuer and the initiator. But in reality, I am just the responder. God is always previous, always taking initiative. He is not reacting.

 I also came to see that God’s pursuit (faithfulness) is the true account of my future. All threats and dangers must be seen in the light of this.  “Neither things present nor things to come can separate us from the love of Christ…” I was challenged to question my deeply ingrained expectation of coming disappointment. 

My faithfulness matters, but God’s faithfulness is matters more!  When this order is reversed, I live a performance-based moralism, either resulting in either pride or despair, depending on how I perceive my performance. If I perceive myself to be faithful to God, I develop a sense of entitlement, believing God owes me blessings.  If my performance is lacking, I am insecure and traumatized. “I am a failure, He has abandoned me.”

Even though I professed to believe God loves me, I lived an anxious and threatened life—as if I was on my own in the world.  So much of my efforts were spent trying to exert control over my circumstances and relationships.  I had an  abstract and conceptual view of God’s “unconditional acceptance,” lacking a vigorous sense of his love in action.

Looking to God’s faithfulness is taking the pressure off:

When I thought, “My foot slips,”
    your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many,
    your consolations cheer my soul. (Psalm 94:18,19)

“Steadfast love” is another word for God’s faithfulness. As I write my story, I will seek to unfold what it means to revel in the psalmist’s joy: “How precious is your steadfast love!” (Psalm 36:7) 

This is the big picture description of what I have come to see: God’s faithfulness is the true and comprehensive account of my life.  He pursues me constantly and passionately with His loyal love for the sake of His glory at all the times and in all places. In his faithfulness, God provides for me and protects me, all the while supervising my pain and problems.

Shard #8

As I have been saying, God’s faithfulness is the true and comprehensive account of my life. I have been pursued. I am being pursued. A powerful and tender God comes after me. That is the greatest fact of my existence. God’s faithfulness is his love in action, his relational commitment—an active and passionate pursuit of me based on his character—not my achievements or righteousness. This is variously translated in English Bibles as God’s “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “unfailing love,” and “faithful love.” It is the Hebrew word hesed, which is about God’s “covenant” loyalty and promise-keeping. In his covenants, God’s swears to stay committed to His people. He sticks with you.

It is not my loyalty or “lovableness” which moves God to be faithful to me. His loyal love does not depend on anything in meGod is loyal to me even though I am not loyal to Him. My failures cannot separate me from him. His loyalty is a matter that originates in Him. It is not a reaction to me. I cannot do anything to get God to be faithful. He is never in my debt.

It is staggering that God should love sinners; yet it is true. God loves creatures who have become unlovely and (one would have thought) unlovable. There was nothing whatever in the objects of his love to call it forth; nothing in you could attract it or prompt it. Love among persons is awakened by something in the beloved, but the love of God is free, spontaneous, unevoked, uncaused. God loves people because he has chosen to love them, and no reason for his love can be given except for his own sovereign good pleasure. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 123, 124)

When I use the phrase “the faithfulness of God,” I am talking about the faithfulness of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is God as he has revealed himself, and there is God as I prefer to imagine himI have a tendency toward idolatry—bowing to the invented gods and projecting those into the living God. That God scares me. I want a god I can manage, who is tame, predictable and “domesticated.” My idolatry surfaces when I am threatened and confused. I feel let down by God, because he did not grant control and comfort I crave. The real God constantly shatters my imaginary version. 

 The God who is faithful is also glorious, weighty,  beautiful, a generous giver of gifts, in control, and mighty. He knows the best way to give his gifts. He is carrying out His plan in the world for the sake of His glory. That’s who is loyal to me. That’s the one I can rely on. Bowing to this God and His agenda opens my eyes and heart so I can cooperate rather than fight. When I don’t come to terms with this God, I try to use him as I imagine him so my life work my way. And that always ends bad.

Shard #9

It is hard to write about personal change. My story involves telling how God’s faithfulness has been transformative. But I start to wonder, in what way have I changed? I sense that God has changed something about my anxiety.  Am I less anxious because I have changed, or because my surroundings have changed? Am I simply less threatened currently?  Has my intellect grasped something deeper about anxiety? Have I found my triggers?  It’s not easy to say.

I want my writing to be honest. Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that grasping a biblical concept  is the same as actually trusting and living it. It may be that God is giving me some words that I can use to “talk back” to anxiety. Perhaps it’s not about me changing, but getting to know God, and turning to him instead of living in self-protection.  Perhaps, instead of trying to think my way out of anxiety, I am praying sometimes in a real way, putting aside my to-do list and goals to simply be with God. To sit still for a bit and try to listen. It’s a real challenge. I have such a long-established habit of worrying instead of praying.  The more I explore this, the more I see that what I call change is relational, not mechanical. I am learning a little about “casting” my anxiety on God. It’s not gone as a tendency, but today’s anxiety has been cast.

Shard #10

As I wrote in Shard #7, God’s faithfulness is the true and comprehensive account of my life.  He pursues me constantly and passionately with His loyal love for the sake of His glory at all times and in all places. I came to believe this from reading and from experience.

I learned from my studies that as God pursues me, he provides and protects me.

If God is for us, who can be against us?  who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31,32)

God faithfully provides what I truly need and protects me from real harm. In the words of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” I often think I need something that is simply a desire. Things that are not actually dangerous threaten me. I think I need human approval, and so I am overly frightened by disagreement and rejection. I think I need more money than I do, so I get frightened when funds are low. God has shown me that neither human approval nor surplus money is essential. In fact, when I lack them, I tend to draw closer to God. And that is the point. My greatest need is for God himself! And my greatest danger is being lured into a self-sufficient false peace.

God’s most wonderful provision is the gift of His active presence in all situations. To quote the 23rd Psalm again, “even though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” His presence, his person, is more precious than things or comfortable circumstancesI am never alone.

Not only does God  protect me from real danger, he also protects me from what I inordinately love.  He protects me from evil and from goods that become gods. I inordinately love leadership roles that make me feel important. I inordinately love having something profound to say and hearing praise in return. He protects me by exposing my glory motive. 

God also shows his love in what he refuses to protect me from: difficulties that are good. I don’t need protection from the demands and risks of love. When love requires awkwardness and conflict resolution, I tend to avoid and shrink back.

While I learned about these things from reading the Bible, it is another thing to trust the person of God who promised his provision and protection. Every day there are new things I think I need and new threats to my security. I keep thinking I need more money, even though I have thought this through and know I have everything I need. A new craving emerges. I think I need to be honored and valued more even though the most important person in the universe honors me by pursuing me. Something within screams out, “that’s not enough.” But when I spend time with God, reviewing his gifts  and thanking him again, my trust grows. Then the next day, I go though the process again.

I am so glad I don’t have to provide for myself and protect myself! Meditating on this lifts a weight from me. A part of me wants to be independent and free from the feeling of vulnerability. I need God to change that desire so I can embrace child-like neediness as a way of life.

In these shards, I have been unfolding my story–that God’s faithfulness is the comprehensive account of my life, not my accomplishments or failures. He pursues me constantly and passionately with His loyal love for the sake of His glory at all times and in all places.

One of the more surprising and somewhat scary things I have been learning is that God’s pursuit is passionate. He is not a detached therapist who simply accepts me. He is like an involved husband who experiences a full range of emotions as he constantly moves toward me. This is scary because I sometimes treat God like a concept, a thing I use rather than a person. He made an intimate bond with me. He has rightful claims on me, but I want to detach and retreat to my own space. 

God is passionate in his joy over his bride. That is why betrayal hurts him so much. God’s love is a love that fights for the marriage. Consider the intensity of this passage:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. (James 4:4-6)

This makes me uncomfortable! In one breath, James confronts his readers’ attitude in the strongest possible terms (“you adulteresses”), and compliments them in the most affectionate terms (“he jealously yearns”).  As our husband, God longs for our loyal and exclusive love. Spiritual adultery is giving  your heart and affections to someone or something other than him. Often while going through the motions of loyalty.

This passage exposes my wandering and fickle heart, a heart that attaches to other loves, a heart that gets “bored with the marriage,” a heart that can settle into cold, formal, and outward devotion. In spite of that, God jealously yearns for me! In his passionate faithfulness, God fights for me and will fight with me. He loves me too much to let me be a successful whore!  He intrudes and opposes my plans.  He reserves the right to disrupt my “affairs of the heart.” He “blows up” my schemes for happiness apart from him. For this I am eventually extremely thankful, but while it is happening, I resent my thwarted aims. Frustration becomes my theme!

My spiritual adultery has involved being in love with being needed and respected for my “service” or “wisdom” in the church. I lived as a workaholic to feel important to people, and became a stranger to God and myself. I am still strongly tempted in this direction.