The walk home.

The breeze ambled down the dusty street, breathing cool in our faces.

It felt like the pockets of cool mountain air that used to pop my face in Birmingham when we’d go cycling in the summer, the days it felt like we’d passed through a hot Southern kitchen with the freezer left open.

I never expected that in the desert. Even at dusk.

I love this time of day here.

The city’s sandy white buildings glow rosy at sunset, like the sun in its haste to get out of this part of the world spilt a glass of pink lemonade right over the top of them.

“I love not having to walk this road alone anymore.”

Abi made the comment as she and I ambled down the empty road toward home, casually dodging the occasional cat or garbage dumpster, or cat jumping out of a garbage dumpster.

It’s true.

It’s a totally different walk when you’re alone.

Your eyes take in less of the sunset, less of the fruit stands and the children playing and more of the honking cars, the men loitering around. More of how the eyes are all staring at you. More of how little you blend in. More of how the darkness is falling quickly.

But with a buddy, you can drag your feet a little in the dust and let the sunset wash over you while you stroll home, laughing at how you almost just got hit by that kid’s soccer ball or that erratic taxi, or how you bet that family would let you come to their really loud dinner party if you just knocked on the door. Five dollars says they would. I’m sure of it.

And suddenly … we’re home.

The keys clank in the double doors, and I smile just thinking about my living situation. I have a great flat. I have great flatmates.

And temporarily I have a broken bed.

Abi rolls her eyes at me because I like to dramatize the fact that I sleep on a sheetless mattress in the middle of the floor at the moment. It’s only been that way a few days. It’ll be fixed in a few more days. I try to play it up to get sympathy, but it doesn’t work. She knows that the reality is … I could care less about it. I sleep fine anywhere, and I love where I live.

But it’s so temporary. I’ll be moving again soon. What I do over here on this side of the world has a transient nature to it – a lot of changing plans, a lot of moving. The sheetless mattress mirrors my heart a little. Why put on the sheets when you don’t think you’ll be there very long?

Most days I don’t think too much about how transient and unpredictable life is at the moment, but today as I sit on the edge of the mattress, a wave of emotion rushes over me. A wave of anxiety about not knowing where I’ll be … again. About not knowing how long I’ll be there … again.

A desire for something even mildly permanent.

Looking forward, my eyes drown in the details of the coming months. Where will I live and work? When? For how long? Who with? Will all my stuff ever be all in one country again? All the questions loom big, loud, uncertain and unpredictable, like I’m doing reconnaissance as I walk alone, trying to anticipate what could be lurking a few steps up the road.

And the Father whispers again … “You’re not alone.”

He’s right.

I’m not alone.

So why do I walk like I am? Why do I walk like He’s left me by myself to hyper-focus on things, panic occasionally and bolt through the uncertain bits like I’m a contestant on “Wipeout”?

He’s not left me yet. He’s good. He’s loving toward me. He’s always seen the soccer balls and the taxis coming, and He’s planned the sunsets and their beauty.

So, I remind myself, just let those sunsets wash over you.

Breathe.

“He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

Walk slowly, for crying out loud, Grace. Enjoy each night on the bare mattress in this country. Don’t worry about where you’ll lay your head next.

Wherever it is, He’s there.

Loud.

My heart pounded as I lay there in the dark. Two donkeys conversed outside. A rooster crowed. The call to prayer from the local mosque blared across the African desert.

And the sand didn’t soak up nearly as much of the sound as I thought it should.

“God, I know Your truth,” I whispered. “But I need Your truth to be loud right now.”

I trembled under the thin sheet, the remnants of a bad dream clinging to my skin like perspiration.

The darkness was heavy. Loud.

So loud that even the mosquito buzzing in my eardrum nearly drowned out the God of the universe for a moment.

I slapped at my ear.

I beat my chest.

Why is it that — while my God speaks with a still, small voice — the enemy is allowed to speak with such a deafening shout?

Why is it that I listen?

“Grace, you’re going to be so lonely …”

“You’re brokenhearted, and that’s never going to heal …”

“You should be ashamed of yourself …”

“You’ll never have the strength or ability to do this, that thing you feel called to do …”

Stop. Just stop.

I cover my ears. I block out the mosquitos.

“Father, please be loud,” I whisper.

I lay there on the bed, wrestling with the two-ton weight sitting on my racing heart. I try to throw it off like a hot brick, push it away like an elephant that’s parked its foot on my ribcage.

It crushes. And it won’t move.

I’m infuriated.

White-hot tears.

“Father, the enemy has no right. No right to my heart. No right to tell me lies about You. Why does this hurt so much? Why does he get to speak to me like that when I know Your love for me is stronger?”

I feel my heart grasping for the Father’s love, the love I’ve crashed into in the past, the one that pursued me and began to gently strip away the things I thought I needed more.

The love that gave me life. The love that’s better than life. And He begins to remind my heart again.

I’ve never been alone.

In the most broken moment of my past, He was solid.

In my darkest pain, He held me.

When I needed strength desperately, He gave it.

In the middle of my shame and mess, He bent down, picked me up and offered me fresh mercies.

There in Africa — like Asaph in Psalm 77, when I found myself stretched on my bed, my soul refusing to be comforted — I asked God if His steadfast love had somehow ended.

And then I remembered His deeds of old. “What god is great like our God?”

As a sliver of sun peeked out over the sand, the truth was quiet but sweet.

He loves me like no one else can.

He seeps into the corners of my heart, turns over the stones, airs out the shadows and fills the gaps with His love.

Sometimes His love is buoyant. Sometimes it’s obvious and deliberate.

Sometimes it’s a slow and steady stream I have to choose to plunge my face into when the dark, heavy air I’m inhaling attacks me from the inside out.

Sometimes His love screams a battle cry and lifts me from the pit. Most days it just whispers a reminder of who I am. Who He is.

But it’s always there, packing the punch of a lion’s roar in my heart.

It’s won. It will win.

And today it’s winning again.

*****

“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

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Real fear.

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The rain splattered hard against the window.

Just didn’t seem right for the desert.

I rolled the legs of my soaked jeans down and noticed the damp marks my feet were leaving on the tile floor. My friend laughed at me and clicked her tongue, the cultural sign of disapproval here. Kind of like a “girl, what were you thinking?”

It hadn’t rained since I arrived, and they’re just as unequipped for rain in this country as the South is for snow. A little rain, and full-scale rivers start flowing right down the middle of the street.

Hopeless. Hopeless for me … and for my Toms.

I’ve been visiting this country for a few weeks now, and what I’ve learned already is that there’s so much I don’t know. I’ve had to get comfy with diving out confidently on foot into fast-moving traffic and just trust that cars will stop. (They do.) I’ve learned what a forecast of “dust” is.

And I’ve learned what real fear looks like.

“Grace, are you afraid of thunder?”

She asked me that as I worked on drying out my shoes.

“Did you hear all the thunder last night?”

No, I didn’t. I told her as much.

“Really? It kept me awake all night. I’m so scared of thunder.”

Why?

“It reminds me of God.”

It reminds me of God, too, I thought, but I didn’t say it – mainly because I figured it reminded us of God for very different reasons.

“Why does it remind you of God?”

“Because it makes me think of how bad judgment day is going to be. And I am really scared of judgment day.”

In my friend’s beliefs, all her actions will be weighed out on judgment day. If she comes out with more good than bad, then she’s in the clear. If not …

“When I do bad things, I get afraid that I will die right then, before I have time to do more good things.”

As I looked in my friend’s eyes, all I saw reflected there was fear.

Hopeless.

Here she sat in front of me, concerned about buying the right dress to impress a guy she liked at a party … texting her friends … cruising Facebook …

And fearing eternity hard-core.

Oh, God. Please put the fear in me for the sake of your name among these people.

Every moment, every second, I feel ill equipped to be a bearer of hope to dark places. At all times of day, the darkness pounds against my window with the fervor of a desert rainstorm, threatening to wash away seeds planted, threatening to steal my joy or my confidence, threatening to distract me with stray thoughts or insecurities or concerns.

It’s loud sometimes. It shakes me.

And then I remember that the God who made the thunder loves me. He’s broken the scales holding my worthless rags. He’s clothed me as a daughter.

And He loves my friend.

What hope … for you, for me … for a world of people enslaved by darkness who don’t know the One who can calm the storm. For Him and for them, we trust His power behind the thunder, we remember He’s bigger than the darkness, we put our drenched shoes back on … and we press on.

In Him, we have nothing to fear.

sunrise

Ticket day.

I look back on that day, and I think there’s only one thing she could’ve thought.

Lunatic.

There I was, fingers buried up to the knuckles in my little bedroom’s fairly industrial carpet, tears forming a river formidable enough to make Justin Timberlake proud.

Meredith was standing in the hall, and her eyes were huge.

She was unpacking her suitcases. She was new to England.

I wondered if she was taking in the scene and thinking in horror that she might be looking into the mirror at the ghost of Christmas future.

#whathaveigottenmyselfinto

#toolatetoturnback?

#thedamageisdonesoiguessillbeleaving

Expats sometimes call them “ticket days” – the days that if you had a one-way ticket, you’d probably get on the plane and fly back.

This was my first ticket day.

It seemed everything had imploded in a split second. I’d prayed over several things, then botched them all in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed up. I’d hurt people I love when I meant to do the opposite. All in one day. It felt like I’d been dead-legged so suddenly I didn’t feel it until my face hit the industrial carpet.

It was awful.

Later that week, I was on the schedule to give an encouraging talk at my office, and I don’t remember saying much that fit the bill of encouraging. I think it centered around clinging to God in the midst of pitch blackness, when everything goes up in flames.

#dropsthemike

#yallhaveagreatweek

Admittedly I have a deep well of emotions, but this plumbed it and kept digging. But in the middle of it, something unexpected happened.

I started learning how to learn.

A few days later, after I’d moved from the carpet to the couch, I found myself in 2 Corinthians 4.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal bodies.”

My weak, frail body – exploding with tears and messing things up even with my best efforts – is nothing but a jar of clay.

The stuff that matters is the treasure that’s on the inside: “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

I may feel hard-pressed on every side, but I’m not crushed, all because of His strength, strength that is super visible in my clay-like weakness.

That passage dead-legged me, and I remember yelling down the spiral staircase at Meredith how much I LOVED THIS CHAPTER.

I read it. And read it. And read it. Until finally one day I felt God prodding me to do something I hadn’t done since my sixth grade Christmas program.

Memorize it.

Oh, no.

It was hard. It took time. It took turning off the radio to say it to myself while I drove. It took getting up early to have some quiet hours before work.

But eventually it got in there.

And just in time.

When my friend Clare died last February, my face hit the carpet again, and this time I wasn’t sure how to get up with the weight of pain that sat in my gut and radiated through my pores. But something else came spilling out, too.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen.”

I couldn’t read. I couldn’t pray. Everything hurt so badly I couldn’t see.

I wanted a ticket out of this one, too.

“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Scripture came pouring out. Praise God. He knew my need. He supplied His Word. It got me through some hard, hard days. Sleepless nights. Tear-filled showers. Days doubled over my desk.

I started wishing I had already put so much more in my heart, because it didn’t take long to realize that when this jar-of-clay heart gets shattered, His Word spills out everywhere.

If I’ve put it there.

sheep

“My sheep know My voice … ” through His Word.

The roar of the darkness.

Candle

The power popped, and the air was warm, and 14 of us piled into the thick dark of my parents’ windowless bedroom.

We tried to keep the toddlers away from the one lit candle. We tried to keep our 16-year-old eastern European (and non-English speaking) guest from thinking the world was ending.

We didn’t know that my dad and some of the other men, watching the roaring blackness out the window, had quickly piled up the mattresses just outside the bedroom doorway.

Dec. 21 is always the darkest day of the year, but this was taking the cake.

“But I don’t want the power to be out. I want to play in there,” my 3-year-old niece said. “I don’t want to stay in here.”

We made it a game. We sang songs. But I could see on the faces of the men, who looked in on us every few seconds, that something a lot bigger was happening outside.

Power poles were snapping. Trees were bending. Shingles were peeling off roofs just streets away.

And then it was all over.

That night was supposed to be our “Christmas Eve” – everyone had in-laws and other houses to disperse to before the real thing. But as we stepped over the mattress piles and used up the last few matches for a candlelit dinner, even the little ones forgot about the presents under the tree.

“That could’ve been so much worse.”

“That was basically our entire family in one room.”

“Between you and me, the greatest danger passed over when we were all still running for the bedroom.”

We were fine. We were blocks away. But we all still trembled a little knowing death had passed over, and we all huddled around the light we had. Plans had changed.

What a great day for plans to change.

It’s amazing how much the trappings of the holiday, the trappings of life don’t matter when huge, black, consuming death comes roaring past your house.

That tiny flame – flickering humbly in the bedroom while we sit in our helplessness – it suddenly becomes so vital, so central – sanity and salvation and hope and peace all in one.

Like Jesus. Jēzus Kristus.

Sure, the tent that is our earthly home may be destroyed. Life as we know it could be drastically changed. Possessions splintered. The landscape of our family altered.

We tremble at the thought.

But as my mom started singing to the wailing littles in our family who didn’t understand the ferocity of the dark, “Jesus loves me, this I know … “

He does. He does love us. This we know.

And this is what we celebrate. The Light that came into the thick, deadly darkness. The Light that is our everything even – especially – when everything else gets blown away.

Something – Someone – much bigger.