Real fear.

DSC_0001

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.

‘We can find you one.’

“I’m so happy to meet your new husband,” she said to a friend before jabbing me jokingly with an elbow as I passed. “Now you just need to find Grace one.”

She patted my arm.

“I heard what you said about Lottie Moon earlier. But I still think we can find you one.”

I’ll go ahead and tell you that singleness is not my favorite topic. Not that it’s a bad topic … I just would prefer for it to be brought up in conversation with the frequency of my subtle toenail polish color (hey, that really matches your dress) rather than that of an electric blue Mohawk (WHOA, would you look at that! That’s so bizarre! I know a great place around the corner where you can get that toned down … ).

Ideally I’d just like for that part of me to fade into the background and let – hopefully – the Jesus inside me come to the front instead.

I had told a story about Lottie Moon to a few folks that day, about how she had spent herself feeding the Chinese – physically and spiritually – and the starvation eventually got her.

But not before reaching many with the hope of Jesus.

“How many there are … who imagine that because Jesus paid it all, they need pay nothing, forgetting that the prime object of their salvation was that they should follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in bringing back a lost world to God.”

Lottie had an opportunity to marry once. But she knew she was meant for China. He didn’t feel the same way.

“God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result.”

It was that simple.

Now I’m no Lottie Moon. Wow, I wish someday I could be a tiny sliver of the lady she was.

But what I am right now is a single woman fighting daily to cling hard and fast to a Savior who’s the most amazing thing life has to offer. Eternity has to offer. At the moment, there’s no husband. Every day I get up and do what disciples of Jesus do – sit dumbfounded at the infinite grace and joy we’ve been handed for free, and fight hard against distractions and my own flesh, fighting to keep my eyes locked on Him. I fight to take His love to the ends of the earth and finish well.

It’s not entirely helpful when I’m in full-on battle mode to hear that I need a different life, even when the comments are made in love.

I love Him, and I want to live the life He gave me.

I want to pack light. I want Him to spend me out in the best way He can use my single life. I want to have time to give from sunup to sundown to relieve the moms who just need a minute alone with Jesus to grieve or rest or decompress. To talk with friends who need it, when they need it, for as long as they need it. To move in with someone for a couple of weeks when they need some extra help close at hand. I want time to pray fervently for others.

My heart was so encouraged a while back when I listened to the podcast of one of our pastors from church speaking about singleness. Not that it’s never been said before, but I needed to hear that message that day.

That marriage is brilliant and messy and God-ordained for some to be the way God shows the Gospel in a human picture … Him giving Himself for His bride, the Church.

And that singleness is brilliant and messy and God-ordained for some to be able to share the Gospel without having the demands of a family (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

Both of them valid. Both of them needed.

Right now I’m living in the second.

Either way, He’s all I need.

The house of my sojourning.

33

I laughed yesterday morning before I ever climbed out of the sheets.

I woke up 33 yesterday. In a bunk bed. In a room full of stuffed animals and children’s books. This on a birthday where I feel like, for the first time in adulthood, I finally feel my age. Where I look in the mirror and see a mid-30s woman, not a “you still look like you’re 25″ girl.

Heather met me in the hallway, teasing me about my accommodations.

“Did you snuggle with the teddy bear I left in there for you?”

Heather is amazing.

She beat me to 33 by only a few months, and she’s in the homestretch of becoming a foster parent. That’s why the bunk beds and the perfectly put together kids’ room overflowing with toys and books and Scripture placards.

I was her first charge on the eve of my birthday. She and several other friends kindly let me stay with them occasionally when I’m in their neck of the woods this year while I’m in transition.

Since 30, I’ve been in transition. At least to a degree.

“Do you ever get tired of living out of a suitcase? Do you ever just want your own bed?”

That’s a good, good question.

Yes. Yes I do.

Sometimes, anyway.

Over the past few years, I’ve started to feel more like a professional backpacker than a resident of anywhere. My toiletries stay in bags always. I could have a “go” bag ready in seconds. I’ve slept on the ground, in hostels, bathrooms, hotels, tents, planes, trains and airports. I even slept in a Starbucks once.

The adventure girl inside me loves that. I love the packing. I love the traveling. More than anything, I love the people and I love the stories. They light me up.

That part of me I hope will never change.

But eyes of the 33-year-old woman I see staring back at me in the mirror has crow’s feet stretching a bit further these days, and I’m convinced they’re not from the miles but from the goodbyes. From unexpected death that snatches people we love. From circumstances that move us before we’re ready to go. From the thought of breaking yet again from family and friends. From the thought of how my nearly 3-year-old niece jumps up in my arms now when I come through the door … she didn’t know who I was when I first moved back to the States …

“It’s going to be hard to leave again, isn’t it?”

Some people ask that question. Others ask another.

“I bet you can’t wait to get back, can you?”

The answer to both is yes. It’s hard to explain how you can so badly want to be in two places at once. It’s the torn heart, I think, of everyone who packs up their life and moves overseas. We’re not meant to have to say goodbye.

But as I sat at dinner last night with a handful of friends under two massive Mylar balloons in the shape of 3s (thanks, Elizabeth) I just felt gratefulness. Gratefulness for folks who let me stay in their houses and sleep in their bunk beds and offer me friendship that stretches beyond the moments I’m standing on the same soil as them. Grateful for an incredible family who also happens to be good at Skype and emailing and even gets on a plane and crosses the ocean.

Grateful for a God who gives us tangible reminders of His love but also of the fact that we aren’t home yet.

It’s abundantly clear every night, no matter where I sleep, that my desire isn’t really for a bed so much as it is for a permanent home. One that lasts. One not found here. A home where goodbyes and tears end. And all the traveling, the uncertainty in what’s coming next (in addition to the vast privilege of seeing the Father’s hand at work around the world) reminds me that I’m not here for long, just passing through. My feeble heart needs to be able to pack a bag, roll out a sleeping bag and experience that truth tangibly day after day after day. That’s the only way I’ll remember.

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

I’m ready for that city. Until then, we keep passing through … ambassadors … imploring others to come with us. We pack our bags and go to them. We look to Him for what we need, and we get to know Him a little more every day through prayer, through His Word, through walking with Him to the next place.

“Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning.” (Psalm 119:54)

Here’s to another year.