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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
The sand crunched cold against the back of my hand as I lay there in the dark, arms crossed behind my head. My knuckles worked their way into the soft silt soundlessly, my weight making the slightest dent in the massive desert dunes.
Tiny like a grain of sand.
I feel so small right now.
In this huge ocean of desert, all I’d have to do is move and a whisper would shift a silky wave of sand back over the spot where I’d been.
But at that moment, there wasn’t even a whisper.
The silence was huge as the desert sky forgot the last hints of sunlight and gave over to night. In seconds, it became a rich black canvas for stars to poke through, white bulbs punched in a Lite Brite.
“It almost feels like you can reach out and touch them, they’re so close,” said my friend Elizabeth, who was laying a few feet away.
I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me.
I don’t think either of us could’ve felt farther from home than we did in that moment, lying there in the gaping evening shadows of the central Asian desert, starlight piercing our thoughts. Moments ago, I’d laughed until tears ran out into the sand — we were looking at a ridiculous picture we’d posed with a cup of noodles and the camels that had brought us out here.
Where are we.
Still, even here, God sees.
Earlier that morning, we’d taken a tour of an ancient place covered with art that honored a faith whose followers strive to be like their figurehead — to achieve a state of sleep.
Lying there wide-eyed, sleep was the furthest thing from my mind.
I sifted sand through my fingertips.
“Elizabeth, aren’t you glad we don’t have to follow something that tells us the best we can do is to one day get to sleep for a few thousand years? Aren’t you glad we get to follow the One who made all this?”
The One who is bigger than the sky, yet sees us. And loves us. And pursues us so we can spend eternity reigning with Him.
The silence reigned a little while longer, and then we found ourselves singing. Song after song came, and eventually this one.
Your love is like radiant diamonds bursting inside us we cannot contain.
Your love will surely come find us like blazing wildfires singing Your name.
God of mercy, sweet Love of mine,
I have surrendered to Your design.
May this offering stretch across the sky;
These hallelujahs be multiplied.
I thrust my palms into the night sky, praising the One whose love does surely come find us, no matter what square foot of earth we’re standing on, no matter how remote or how normal.
He reaches for us. We just have to reach back.
Starlight traced the edges of my outstretched hands. Lying there, like Elizabeth said, it’s almost like we could touch Him.
It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
But the next morning, as I drank instant coffee from a paper cup and watched the sun pierce the sky over the dunes, the thought that warmed me wasn’t so much that this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
It was the thought that these moments, moments where I feel His grandness bursting my heart – they pierce my every day. In my car. At my desk. When I run, when I’m folding laundry, when I get up early to read the Bible.
Your love will surely come find me.
In a few days from now, when I’m back at my commute from the Birmingham suburbs just as the sun rips the Alabama sky open over I-65, God will find me there just like He always has.
I just have to choose to reach back.
He’s always there, and He’s always just as amazing. Expansive. Overwhelming. Personal. Beautiful.
Sometimes when we find ourselves on a mountaintop, we feel like our heart is quickened to realize His presence. And in some ways, it is.
But those moments were never meant for us to walk away and forget who He is. We pack that mountain, that sunrise, that starry night into our hearts and they gather together again in collective praise every time that we feel Him in our quiet cup of coffee, every time we talk to Him while we fold clothes, every time we do our job as an act of worship to Him.
Wherever we are, His love surely will come find us.
Like blazing wildfires.
More, please. More of that.
I stretch out my hands again.