“Job’s comforters are reasonable, upright, pious men, and there is much of truth and wisdom in what they offer their suffering friend. Where they fall short is in their need to believe in the comprehensibility of Job’s suffering, in the smugness of their conceit that they can explain the ways of God to him and to themselves, and in their complacent sense that human efforts can suffice to end such suffering. In seeking comfort and security in a reasonable God and a tidy creation that can be comprehended, they must defend themselves against the glaring truth of Job’s condition. It is Job alone, in the depths of his utterly disproportionate misery, who sees God truly: God stripped of all that human sense can make of him.” – Tim Farrington, “A Hell of Mercy”
“’Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’” – Matthew 7:9-11 (NIV)
A couple of years ago at about this time, I felt stirrings – painful, intense stirrings of the heart. They led me through the process of losing something Very Dear to me. In truth, the Very Dear Thing had already left me probably far earlier than I’ll ever realize, but I stayed mourning at the cemetery, I guess, out of a sense of not understanding what it was I was supposed to be doing, but also perhaps not really grasping that I was, in fact, in a cemetery. As I reflect now, I suppose I felt as if my Very Dear Thing was in hibernation, which would make it so that I was merely standing outside of its cave for a long time, faithfully and patiently waiting its renewal and rebirth, and I would someday glory in its restored beauty. So in reality it wasn’t so much the process of loss that these stirrings brought on but rather they led me through the process of realizing and grieving that this was no cave, and my Very Dear Thing wasn’t coming back.
Over time as I stood there, gazing at the cave – realizing in actuality it was a headstone – of what had long ago run its purpose, these painful stirrings began growing, and growing in intensity; the pain of awareness that there was nothing right about my staying there, waiting for a resurrection that was never promised to me personally; an awareness that this Very Dear Thing had been taken from me for purposes greater than I could comprehend. An awareness that this pain would not stop until I was willing to not live with it.
Over the course of several months, in many quiet moments that seemed to come to me with far more frequency than what life typically allowed, these stirrings would usher me into a place where I was willing to consider a world where I was not in control. In what I can only describe as a gentle hand holding mine, I was invited to consider what it would mean for me to not simply lose this Very Dear Thing, but willingly offer it up to God in faith that He had something in store for me in its place that was beyond what I could imagine. This Very Dear Thing had certain good, noble, and pure components to it that were among the most precious in my life. So with God’s gentle hand, knowing that it would be too overwhelming for me to consider all of them at once, over these months, He led me through each component one-by-one, in a process of gathering them all up in my heart, lifting the bundle of them with trembling hands onto the altar that lies within, taking a deep breath, and then waiting for the next moment of stirring.
And the time came when all these precious components – the entirety of the Very Dear Thing – had been lifted up. There was nothing else I was trying to keep. And as if in a final moment of confirmation, the awareness that this Very Dear Thing had already left me long ago plunged another dagger, and this time I knew I felt the full truth of being unwilling to live with it. It was over and I was ready to walk out of the cemetery. So I tried to brace myself both for a walloping emptiness to come upon me and for a landslide of gifts, as I knew the God with the gentle hands and I trusted in His goodness. And for what felt like forever, but in actuality was not, nothing happened. And through this, I was reminded, that the world doesn’t revolve around my being ready for it. There were other matters involved, and it was simply not my work to declare them ready just because I finally was. His work in me, at this point, was to walk me to the cemetery’s exit and have me stand ready to leave, with my hands now open, with all I had been clinging tightly to lifted onto the altar in the months prior, which I now see is all that God desires from me anyway. Finally, the other matters involved arrived precisely onto the same moment, and I left the cemetery, with my hands open.
You know what I mean by the stirrings…..they are directly tied to an ever-growing passion inside your new heart that is pounding at you to be unleashed; that knows for it to come to life, most likely a big, scary step of release and commitment to mystery will be required of you, and perhaps a Very Dear Thing of your own will need to be lifted, left, buried. That passion inside, though, isn’t going to quit pounding, even though you may have become very skilled at pretending either it isn’t real, it isn’t worth how it will flip your world around, or maybe even that it isn’t there at all. Until your dying day, it will pound at you, even if all you can hear of it is a faint echo from how it reverberates off of the many layers of walls you’ve built it around it to keep it from ever threatening to wreak the terrifying havoc you suspect it would.
There’s an injustice, a particular poverty, a wrong somewhere in the world that you know you were created to die for in fighting against (even if maybe you’re not sure yet precisely what it is). This is what is pounding at you to get out. It is pounding against your fear of humiliation, your fear of inadequacy, your fear of loss, and even your fear of success. Because you know that once it’s out, you can’t go back. The Very Dear, Very Good, Very Pure, Very Noble Thing, for some inexplicable divine reason, and this passion can’t co-exist. Some then dedicate their whole beings to convincing the Lord that they can co-exist……but in doing so they never receive what He’s longing to give because their hands are holding their Very Dear Thing.
In the time it has been since I left the cemetery, I have grown in ways I’ve never experienced before but prayed for fervently in the past. Some days – and they are becoming more and more frequent – I can’t imagine anything, anything greater than witnessing the glory of God revealed in my life and the lives of others, and I dedicate myself over and over again to living for this sole purpose, forgiven and free to revel in it, casting aside all earthly treasure. But still, there are also days where I feel all of these things about a cookie…….that I can’t imagine having anything better. The sin nature does not go willingly. The things we’ve buried still try and haunt us. But in His infinite mercy He has not given up on me and I know He has a vision for me that is greater than anything I could ever imagine for myself. I have experienced healing. Confirmation. Revelation. Clarity. Presence. Presence, Presence, Presence that has brought me to my knees in thanksgiving. It is worth so much more than this Very Dear Thing, as beautiful and pure and good and noble as it was, could ever account for.
But there is not a formula to this process, which is entirely the point of making a commitment to mystery. The only common denominator I can assure you of is that God is the same, and His goodness never fails. My Very Dear Thing and yours could actually be precisely the same, and yet because God never created two people with identical journeys, the timing of the relationship with our Very Dear Thing can be completely different. We can’t make the misguided mistake of thinking that the call to keep our hands open is ever about the worth or weight or veracity of the Very Dear Thing that lies in our hands; when we do so we get caught up in arguing with ourselves and others over whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, instead of examining ourselves to see the real question at stake here, which is is it my thing or His? (Oftentimes, the truth about whether something is good or bad will not fully be revealed until we’ve conceded its ownership.) It is about following the God who loves us and has plans for us in ways that we can’t understand most of the time, and so therefore it is about lifting up and throwing down the things given to us as we’re called to.
And so to clear out some of the clouds, I will share that the passion pounding in me was that I knew I was created to give myself in service to others in a particular form of ministry, although much of it was quite raw and hazy at the time. There was just a sense that I knew I was being called to go somewhere with the gifts and talents and interests and passions that had grown and amassed. I couldn’t put solid words to it then, but I just knew there was something to all of this longing for depth and searching and passion to come upon the Church and for others to truly get to know the God who fashioned them and created them with infinite love and gifting and purpose. I knew that the Very Dear Thing that had served as a starting foundation wasn’t intended to take me any further than it already had, no matter how long I determined to stand there and wait. And so I knew that I had to let it go, even though it had stopped working in me long before. And I have learned that none of this was about the worth of the Very Dear Thing; it was about the truth that it had always just meant to be a part of my journey……not the destination itself.
I wanted more, and the stirrings of awareness served to show me that I would never have the more I longed for until I agreed to risk losing what I already had lost. Standing on the other side of this now, I can’t even begin to tell you of the more that has been showered on me. And I know now that if I hadn’t turned and walked out of the cemetery, I would still be waiting. Jesus has come to life in me in ways I could never have anticipated. He has made my paths straight.
So if you’re standing there, and the pain of awareness keeps growing and growing and sending you into fits of agony, consider that it is stemming from His mercy for you. He can’t let you be comfortable where you are because you are ready for a narrowing of the road, and the Very Dear Thing you’re insisting on keeping with you - that you know He’s calling you to put down - won’t fit on this stretch of path.
When you become a child of God, you are asking Him for good things. You ask Him for salvation and forgiveness, but you also, perhaps not knowing so, ask Him for identity and purpose and His presence with you always. I have come to believe that these are things He longs to give and offers to His children……but they don’t always come in what we would describe as beautiful packages. I define the redemption process as the act of making something new out of that which has been lost, stolen, or destroyed. And it requires a cosmically difficult brand of diligence on the part of the one waiting for it: a diligence to press on with hands open, ready to release what you cling to and receive what is unknown, even if every stark human instinct tells you there’s no point, that you’re inviting more pain, you’re leaving yourself open for ridicule, and that it wouldn’t matter…..whatever you may end up receiving could never make up for what was lost. Living in redemption then, perhaps, is the art of keeping your hands open, even though you may lose what you cherish, even though you have no idea what may fall into your hands, because you trust that the Redeemer is good. Release your Very Dear Thing if you know that the gentle hands of Jesus are pointing you to, and receive what is good, what He desires and promises to give you, in His way, in His timing, according to His will and His purposes.
No matter the packaging, it won’t be a snake.