Monday, February 15, 2016

Take Heart

"In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world."- John 16:33

I wanted to take some time this morning to reflect on the sermon I heard at church this weekend. I've been in Estes Park for three weeks now, and I've been going to this church since I arrived, so this was only my third time. 

Faith has done a different thing for me. It's been an amazingly grounding, stabilizing (yet freeing) force in my life, one that keeps this story, the story of my life, moving forward. I never would have thought that my soul would so avidly seek to connect spiritually upon coming to a new place; never ever would have thought faith would be central to my life, but I notice (only now in this new move) that having God at the center of my heart has given me a real spark for life, a passion for it; an internal motivation to stay connected and close to the thing, the One, who brings my heart great joy. 

The mundane nature of the world so easily beats the awe and wonder out of us; I don't- for the price of intellect, wealth, fame, fortune, or success- ever want that to happen to me, to move through the world with my mind fully engaged but my eyes and heart only half open. I want to keep my joy.

Coming to a new place- alone; prone, like all humans, to lose ourselves in this world; to follow the ebb and flow of our immediate environment, to let that impress and inform and shape us; to rely on vices or unhealthy coping mechanisms (or even just negative thoughts) when things get hard or uncomfortable (and they always get hard or uncomfortable)- presents its challenges. But I now believe in a God who has overcome, and my strength comes from the awareness of my human weakness and faultiness- and His strength. I am looking beyond myself.

A far cry from a kid raised in a Catholic church who wanted nothing to do with God for most of my life. Of course, I now realize, that's because all I saw was religion- the very thing Jesus himself detested in this world. I didn't understand the intimate relationship God wants with people- every last one of them; me. I didn't understand that that human feeling of void or emptiness that gnaws at all of us in our quietest moments- that sense that something's missing that we meet in our sadness and restlessness, that inability we have to cope with death when it comes, because we can hardly understand life- is the human heart's longing for belonging; for peace, safety, and comfort. 

I didn't understand what pure love was, and how much it doesn't just fix or cover up, but heals beyond measure. It is the kind of love we must get from God first, before we can truly offer it to the world.
The mountains, and being close to nature, brings me happiness (great happiness), and painting does, and yoga does; writing does, my job does, the way I think and look at the world- my thoughts- do. Yes, much of the choices I have made to direct, situate, and participate in my own life have set me up for personal happiness. But personal happiness still leaves an emptiness we have to face for wholeness.

My thoughts are generally positive, kind, and hopeful. They are positive toward myself: who I am, what my body looks like, what I'm made for, what I'm here for, if I'm 'good enough'- all the things I used to struggle with tremendously. I don't want more than I have, and I'm no longer the kind of person who thinks that 'if only I had this, 'the next best thing,' then my life would be complete, or good.' I don't spend my life being 'busy' over content, rushed over savoring my experiences, possessive of things or people at the expense of loving them.

I understand my life is already complete and good. I don't feel like anything fundamental is missing. Everything I mentioned above- that human feeling of void or emptiness that gnaws at all of us in our quietest moments, that sense that something's missing that we meet in our sadness and restlessness, that inability we have to cope with death when it comes, because we can hardly understand life- all that, as unbelievable as it may sound- is all gone. Overcome. 

But not because of me. Not because I am the answer to the same problem of sadness and suffering I haven't been able to solve my whole life.

Lots of things in my life now make me happy- and that's good, but wisdom has taught me that they are only things. None of them can- or more accurately, I am conscientious not to let them- be the source of my joy

I've learned to do more than cope with restlessness, than manage my discontent. I've learned to see the heart of myself, and of others. There is something about pure, innocent perception that sets free. I am positive. I am light. I am strong. But I am not positive, strong, and light enough to open my heart, or open the hearts of others, in the fullest way possible. That brilliance belongs to God in a way we can scarcely comprehend, and can't fake or mimic even remotely. It is too real and radiant a thing.

I'm not enlightened. I'm not divine. I am a vessel for something else. I am not emptied of myself without being filled by something greater and more sustaining. If I died tomorrow (not at all that I want to die tomorrow), I'd be content. I am okay with the way life is, so I am at peace with the way death is. When it's time to leave this world, I expect the peace of knowing that I did the only thing that really matters and that really lasts: I realized myself on the truest, deepest level, and I loved and glorified the Lord with the greatest resource I was given: my whole life, and my whole heart, and my capacity for faith.

I don't really want to live my life like this is it because I really don't feel in the deepest part of myself that it is.
And here's what's still true, no matter how good my life is: I will have trouble.

I expect it, I know it. It's inevitable. I've had it, and I'm sure there will be more. 

But the economy of God the opposite of what I've tried to do my whole life: avoid suffering. Ask 'why me?' as though I was personally owed something in the first place. Seek comfort and happiness to offset pain (usually only to be driven deeper into it, actually). This is a huge problem in the world- in social circles, in families, in relationships, in ourselves- that we overlook and self-justify all the time: that life's not treating us well or going our way, according to 'out plan,' so it's okay to numb it, or try to figure out why, as though we were the center of cause-and-effect throughout the universe.

And the economy of Jesus, spiritually but also literally, finds that logically problematic. You're not living your best and fullest life unless you give it up, unless you surrender. God promises us trouble. Everybody has trouble. Every single person on earth. It's hard to be a human here. We are complex, emotional, sensitive, paradoxical things all under unseen pressure. And you can't really help others or inspire others or love others unless you realize that we are called to bear each other's burdens and serve one another and love one another beyond ourselves- and that life by example is the story of Jesus. Real, rich friendship works on this principle; real, rich marriage works on this principle; real, rich love and connection of any kind works on this level. Self-sacrifice is expected to be involved; genuine love can't exist without courage. It is so rare and sacred- and so possible.

We are not free until we realize there is more to a great life than trying to be comfortable and right all the time. There's no avoiding trouble. But there can be pursuing joy anyway. That's what's changed, what continues to change, my life: the idea that there's no getting out alive (literally), that this world does have its hardship and it is a mess and I personally will continue to lose, to suffer, to simply be sad sometimes. Things will be rough. And that's okay. That comes with. That's not a resentment: that is a promise, designed to deepen my dependence on the only thing that will really see me through those circumstances without leaving me lost, confused, or in pieces. God is not the absence of suffering, He is the presence of light. Light breaks darkness- but it can't be seen without it.

It was beautiful to move to Colorado- but like any human life, mine is full of unknowns. It was beautiful but not easy to step out in faith, to leave things and people behind; it is not always comfortable to believe that things will work according to a higher purpose I can't yet see.

But if I didn't, I'd be stuck. In myself. In my ego, in a way; in my belief that I know what's best for me. It seems so natural to think that we know what's best for us (who else could it be?) But there's something different about a surrendered life, a God-driven life. There's something different about faith, hope, and love. There's something different about a living, moving, purposeful soul. There's something honest about it, something raw, real, and seen.
But that life is short, death is near, and we're hardly really living is not exactly motivating. Or it isn't unless we realize that those are the problems, and it's really having a sense of the solution, the more ultimate answer, that changes things.

It's gradual. It takes time. Faith is not a 'light switch' kind of process, where suddenly it all makes sense. It takes a lot of learning and a lot of changing, a lot of pressing into pain. I personally think I came around to it when I was tired of my own solutions, when my soul detected there was something more, and I didn't know what it was, but I thought I just might be brave enough to go after it. It was weird- it was something within me, but also something very much outside me, above me; higher.

I think sometimes, more than sharing intellectually what we've brought ourselves to seek or to learn about the nature of life and death, it helps (like I mentioned in a previous post) to share stories, because they are more a matter of the heart; they speak more directly to an experienced truth than simply a theoretical one.

This is the kind of truth that changes things, because it changes us. My sense of Heaven comes not from 'wanting some kind of resolution for death,' an 'easy answer;' and it's not 'a reward I'm living for,' or why I 'try to be a good person.' My sense of Heaven comes from a deep awareness that since my soul seems to be designed for somewhere else, it is also designed from somewhere else, and it functions most optimally when it functions suitable for that place. My most authentic expression is within God's design, not mine.

When people talk about Heaven and Hell in the real sense, I think, they're not like two hypothetical poles into which we are cast after death as either penalty or reward. They're like an extension of what we choose to seek on earth: Heaven being intimacy with who we are on the deepest, deepest level, the craving of our hearts and souls for nearness to God, for love from God, and to be good; and Hell being total self-reliance, the absence of the feelings of total, unwavering peace or home, the rejection of love from God which is eternally available to us. I don't think people should be shamed or glorified for making (or not making) either choice; I think believers should shine a light that inspires others to the joy of the former.

The idea that there's a Heaven- a final, real, eternal resting place for my soul, which I believe is a unique creation, not a recycle-able thing that will reincarnate on earth, but is made for a specific purpose in this one earthly life- has to do with right now, with my life in this moment, with what I sense of living from the awareness that while my bodily life is temporary, I certainly detect something inside- something universal, something we all have and feel- that says that there is an eternity out there that is not.

It is not so much a question of whether it is there, it is a question of whether we will choose it. In a way, it is really a matter of whether we will believe in the true uniqueness of ourselves.
Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us, "trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall directs your paths." That means a very, very different operational approach to life on earth, let alone the promise of anything after it. That means my life has meaning because it's in God's hands, not mine, and it means I am free to go. Every mental chain I once spent time fighting and figuring out is broken. I have literally no idea what's ahead. I have no idea what I'm doing with my life, no idea what people want or expect of me, no idea of any of that. But my life's purpose is not in those things. They will resolve themselves as a byproduct if I'm living right with God. I never doubt that.

I do have an idea of what God is doing with my life, and what God wants and expects from me. That's soul-driven, and that is really why I'm here. I want to do well in this world, of course: I want to 'be successful,' but probably not in the way most people mean 'successful.' I'd like my success to come from my character, which, I realize, will take a lot longer and be a lot harder to develop than my character coming from my success.

But more than doing well in this world, I want to do well for the Kingdom of God, for what my soul is made for. My achievements will fall away, my life will end; my possessions will be dust, the words I say won't matter in 100 years.

That's grim if I get my validation from the world- and joyous if I get my validation from something beyond it. Joyous if I have hope. Regardless of how you react to it, it's definitely true that no man's kingdom is lasting.

Who God is, Biblically, is definitive, clear, concrete, and unchanging over time- what I can do, or what I go through in this life, changes and evolves; what happens to me is totally outside my control. If I let my joy and my hope come from how things are going in my life, or what I can figure out about them, it would never sustain. It's not a good foundation for thinking, living, or loving.

Things would fall apart easily, I would refuse to really invest in anything. I think we're naturally inclined to hesitate true, deep investment in things we expect will fall apart- which, if they're not built on an eternal foundation, is everything. We need to see examples of love that are not like that. Love with redemptive power. Love built on the model of the way God loves us.

And I think a lot of us have been hurt, or wounded, or scarred in some seemingly irrecoverable way, so painfully that we can't see our way out, because something we put our hope or our joy in has fallen apart. I know I have been; I know in some way, we all have been. And I think it is an act of very pure love to remind people, in no sentimental way, that there actually is a place to put our joy and our hope.

We can't just eliminate or ignore hope, like some spiritual philosophies claim we should. Detachment slowly kills our souls and weakens our ability to truly heal and truly live. Our hope has a place. I've heard it said: 'Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can't heal.' It has to; I feel it. Everybody feels it.
In this world you will have trouble. But you still have to make choices and take risks and do things that scare you. I still hesitate. Trusting God to guide me doesn't mean I resign myself from work, intense effort, intellect, or goal-setting. I still question. I'm still prone to wandering away from God and His word and trying to see further ahead than is literally humanly possible. I still have a very unknown future and I don't know what it looks like. I still have scars and deep, deep wounds and hurts like all human beings do. I always will; they're already there. But they don't define me.

What I also have now is deliverance, and faith from those things identifying me or driving me on any level. From them stopping me. From them running me around in circles in this life, not leading me anywhere in particular, because I now know where I'm ultimately going, and why I am ultimately living. I'm going where I was made to go, and I'm trying to live accordingly regardless of when I get there.

It makes sense: when you know where you are made to go- what your ultimate destination is- that changes everything about the way you travel. My goals, big life moves, business moves, relationship moves, all moves, ultimately, are oriented around what God wants for my life, not around my desire for what I think will bring me personal happiness. God- joy- is bigger than even that, and His faithfulness the template for my loyalty to the life I've been given. I've chosen the opposite thing enough times to see my kingdom fall and my story dead-end. I'd rather have His joy than my way.

If you believe we weren't created for anything in particular, then you wind up living a life not doing anything particularly inspired, or inspiring, or purpose-driven. Or you try to temporarily, but your whole entire life never really transforms entirely into a renewed, beautiful narrative. And it can. It was designed to. It is supposed to. It is supposed to go home when this is all over and you are supposed to know the joy of that feeling here and now.

But if you believe we we were created to help each other, to shine more than just 'our own' light in the world, but the light of a loving, caring God- the light of Christ, who overcame the world- well, then you live for that. Either way, it's just a choice. A difficult choice. An often counter-intuitive choice. A choice that leads you away from what you think is best for you to what actually turns out to be best for you. A choice of virtue- not desire or longing, because the longing is gone, satisfied.

Hopefully a choice that helps and leads and encourages others- not in a superficial, ego-bolstering, pat-on-the-back kind of way, but in a way that allows their humanness to come forth, be seen, be known, be sat with and acknowledged: as God has done for us. Called us, seen us, invited us, loved us- even (and especially) in our darkness. It's such a simple thing. You will have trouble: that's a statement we can all certainly vouch for. Take heart: that's a command not to be afraid, to be comforted, to trust in a stronghold, to be unbroken and undefeated, even in death.

And I have overcome the world: that's the thing we all want, and get when we tune our hearts to seek the glory beyond it.

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