Dare to break free.

What does it mean for us to really believe that God can pluck us from a sea of billions and give us freedom?

It wrecks us.

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The round beams from the headlamps chased each other up the dim stairwells.

We followed them.

I ran my fingers along the dusty walls of the corridors. Not much traffic passes this way. Even in the dark, that much was clear. The beams kept running on ahead of us, bouncing the way they do when they’re attached to the foreheads of preschool boys.

And suddenly the darkness broke above us by way of a creaky metal door, and we were set free.

Up here on the roof, the breeze skirted the flat, circular space, ruffling the little boys’ hair around the straps of their headlamps. The concrete walls of the rooftop curved up at the sides like the lip of a plate, stopping at just about eye level so you could peer down over them at the crush of high-rise apartment complexes below.

It was like being in a fishbowl, a big concrete one, suspended dozens of stories above the ground.

Except that in this fishbowl we could see out and no one else could see in.

“We had a friend who would climb up to the roof sometimes just because it was the only place he could go where no one could see him,” my friend Sarah said with a laugh.

She comes up here for the same reason — to let the boys run around free all by themselves under a sky zigzagged with clotheslines. As the daylight fades, the sun-baked concrete roof cools and the megacity breeze hits us all like sea air on a sunburn.

It feels amazing. We breathe.

It’s different up here.

Sarah said that one time they counted the windows they could see from their living room window and estimated that maybe half a million people lived just in their line of sight.

And that was just from one window.

From up here, there’s 360 degrees of high rise after high rise stacked on top of each other. Looking down over the wall was like peering into giant boxes packed to the gills with the trappings of life – school and jobs and family and cooking dinner. Windows and windows and windows into millions of lives, all living and breathing and striving for something.

It’s a billion-ton train, one big collective worldwide breath we’re breathing, crushed up against neighbors and friends and family, eyes forward, not up.

As individualistic as we like to think we are on our side of the world, we know it’s true.

And here from the roof, it shows.

We’re doing the done thing. All piled up on top of each other.

Every day.

It takes a lot to wreck something like that.

It takes a lot to even realize that it can be wrecked.

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I thought about that as I stood on the roof, eyes scanning the tiny windows, the dusk breeze filling my lungs.

What does it mean to live for a God we can’t see when all we know is to live like everyone we see? What does it mean to follow Him radically when it makes no sense in the framework of what we know of the world?

What does it mean for us to really believe that God can pluck us from a sea of billions and give us freedom?

I took a long, deep breath.

It wrecks us.

That’s all it can do.

There’s no alternative.

A few days later, I sat on the living room floor next to someone who lived behind one of those tiny windows. She said her life used to rise and fall on the wind of that worldwide breath.

Plans.

Goals.

She was doing okay. She really wasn’t interested in being set free from the tidal pull of the masses. She didn’t see a reason to want something different.

She didn’t know what freedom felt like in her lungs.

“But now I know,” she said with a big smile. “I tell my friends I don’t know how to explain it to them … I don’t know how to explain what it feels like. Jesus wrecks your whole life, everything you think you know. Everything you’ve learned about how to live. He tears it all down. And then He rebuilds it.”

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The night we stood on the roof, as I watched the boys run and tumble, I thought about freedom.

I thought about how with faith we can reach up and grasp it, faith tinier than a mustard seed, faith that can move mountains. Faith that can overturn high-rise apartments full of the clutter of our lives. Faith that is willing to trade everything earthly for two lungs full of the air up here, two lungs full of the kind of freedom that can turn our lives absolutely upside down.

I thought about the corridor we use to get up there to it.

Few find it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

And that doesn’t mean the freedom at the end of the stairs isn’t real.

It takes adult discipline. It takes childlike abandon.

We have to walk away from the clutter — all of it.

We have to get off the couch, strap on that light and make that climb to ever taste it for ourselves. We dive into who God is in His Word, begging Him to show us Himself at any cost, because the payoff is worth it. We wake up early. We keep His name on our lips and hearts. We run like kids aching to be set free. We ask for it. We strive for it.

He hears.

It’s hard to explain, but when that door cracks open and we truly breathe, one thing’s for sure.

It’s worth that climb.

Space.

Sometimes we need to stop, take a good, long look over our shoulder and remember who He’s been … and how that shapes where we’re headed.

dust

The wind rushed around the sleeper train, kicking up dust on both sides of the tracks.

I had a good view of the unnatural dust storm from where I lay on the third bunk, up in the nosebleed section. My feet dangled off the end of the too-short bed into the aisle, and I checked to see how close I was to kicking people in the face as they walked by.

Not close. Not close at all. I was miles above their heads. I’d never make foot-to-face contact from way up here. I wasn’t going to be Jackie Chan, not even accidentally, not even in my sleep.

It’s a long way down.

I scooted closer to the wall.

Two bunks below me, the lady across from Elizabeth was offering her some of the plastic bag of noodles she’d brought from home. In the few minutes since we’d boarded the train, Elizabeth had become besties with the noodle lady plus every baby on the train. Moms would come walking down the aisle looking for Elizabeth, babies in their arms, just so they could grab their little ones’ hands and make them wave and watch her wave back.

It’s instant community, whether you’re trying to sleep or not.

Which … Elizabeth was.

Looking down over the edge of my bunk, I saw her pop in her earphones. But here came another baby …

 I should see if she wants to trade at some point, I thought, even though she was getting a kick out of the toddler parade. We still had hours to go, and she might eventually want a real nap. It took some acrobatics to get up here, and sitting up wasn’t an option like it was on her bottom bunk – you had to kind of carefully thread yourself into the space between the bed and the ceiling in a horizontal position.

But up here above head level, above baby-waving level, it was like a pocket of space that no one could get to.

And that was kind of nice. Kind of quiet.

It gave me space to think.

As I lay there listening to the train rush along the tracks, all kinds of thoughts invaded my head and heart, as if the wind was stirring them up on the way by. The depth and breadth of the memories of the past several years exploded in my mind like a kaleidoscope.

God, we’ve covered a lot of miles since this journey started.

All kinds of emotions welled up. My first impulse was to hold everything down where it belonged, slapping my hands down on the memories like they were napkins on the table of a café on a windy day.

But as I lay there staring at the ceiling … I didn’t. I didn’t hold them down.

I let things fly.

This was the space to do that.

And it was a good thing.

Because God was in all of those things.

Sometimes we need to process what God has done, the places we’ve walked. Sometimes we need that space on the third bunk up, a place where the daily grind can fade away for a little while.

Sometimes we need to stop, take a good, long look over our shoulder and remember.

Because remembering takes the truth of who He is, who He’s been, who He will be and writes it on our hearts all over again.

Faithful. Loving. Good.

on the cliffs

The other day, I came across some things I’d jotted down about five years ago when I moved to England, back when I’d first put it all on the table and said God, whatever it takes to know You more. That’s what I want.

As I lay there on the third bunk, I thought about that girl who’d left Alabama with wide eyes and a wide-open heart. I tried to put myself back in her skin.

And I smiled.

That girl had no idea what was coming.

And that’s a really good thing.

I think I knew it would be incredible. I think I also knew it would be hard. But I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined just how incredible, or just how hard.

The list of things I couldn’t have predicted back then could go for days. Mountaintops. Miracles. Tragedies. Joy. Grief. Hope. Salvation.

He was in all of those things.

And in every moment, every day, He answered the prayer of that wide-eyed girl, even though she didn’t have a clue what she was really asking for. He gave more of Himself.

Through His Word, He reshaped the way I viewed Him, and that changed the way that experiences changed me. My life began to shape itself around who He is in a way that held its shape even in the moments when He felt farther away, when the really deep waters came.

I’m not the same shape I was five years ago when I was that wide-eyed girl.

And I won’t be the same shape five years from now either.

Because of who He is. Because of His faithfulness. And because of what happens when He invades the spaces of my life, my heart.

As I lay there on the train thinking about the things that did the molding, the places where His grace held me, the moments of pure joy that sent me to my knees in gratitude, I’m overwhelmed. It’s a big, big bag. Of deep, deep stuff.

What will the next five years bring? I can’t imagine.

But I want it. If it gives me more of You, I want it.

God, You are faithful. You have been. You will be. And because of that, I don’t want to stay the same.

Whatever that means.

I want Your story.

The one that leads me to You.

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The deeps.

(Traveling has been a good time to reflect on what God’s been teaching over the past couple of years. Here’s one such word.)

river

I lay there in a tangle of sheets, emotions tangling around my heart.

I could’ve never seen that coming.

Why? Why that? Why something so painful?

Why something so close to my heart?

I shoved my swollen eyes back into the pillow.

Out the boat’s bedroom window, the land began to fall farther away as we moved out from the dock into the deep center of the river.

I lay there, eyes burning with early morning, ears tingling with the banging of anchors being drawn up.

I’m not ready.

The deeps are no respecter of person. Ready or not, we’re moving.

This is out of my depth.

I don’t know how to navigate this.

A horn blast bounced in layers, rippling across the harbor, soaking into the river.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders.

His voice splits cedars. It shakes the wilderness. It strips the forests bare. (Psalm 29)

That’s the same voice that speaks into the quiet of my heart.

The one that strips.

I heard it two years ago as I lay face down, forehead pressed to the floor, tears soaking the carpet in matching circles.

I’d just lost my friend.

No. Too far. Too much.

When I said everything was on the table, I didn’t know how deeply that could cut.

It hurts.

But I trust You.

And in the quiet of my heart, I heard it. That stripping voice.

Grace, get ready. Know who I am. More deep waters are coming.

My heart stood stone still.

It’s the kind of word that would shake your soul if it didn’t come from the One you love, from the One who loves you with a fierce, heart-bursting love.

Who He is makes all the difference.

From Him, I heard the words like affection whispered in my ear in the middle of a lingering hug.

Be solid and confident in My love. Know who your anchor is. Because the water that’s coming — it’s deeper still.

The words lingered.

The embrace lingered more.

The voice that strips heals all the greater.

God, if it brings You glory … if it means I know You more … if I gain You at the end … then I want it.

I’ll be okay.

Because of who You are.

Because of Your love.

The deeps, they sit uncomfortably in my skin. Pain, discomfort, death, loneliness, hard conversations, loss … they hurt. They squirm in my soul.

With each year that passes, I face my own humanity, my own failings, in a new way.

I see the sting of death, the sting of sin’s poison in a new way.

The world seems more and more broken.

Sometimes I feel like it’s breaking me.

As deep water flows under the bridge day after day, my eyes widen. It rises past heart level, going deeper still.

I feel ill equipped to face it.

This is out of my depth.

I tremble all the more.

And yet His hand holds mine with more firmness than ever.

Stripping.

Healing.

Loving.

Soaked in comfort.

Breaking to rebuild.

It is well with my soul.

Because of who You are.

My heart cries out, hand tucked in His, chin poked above the surface. His love holds me tight in the current, in the water that threatens to pull me under, the river that’s bigger than life to me right here, right now.

The river that’s barely a teardrop to be wiped away by eternity.

It’s worth it, my soul whispers again.

And He pulls me further up and into His love.

Deeper still.

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