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.

‘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.

Held.

“I think God’s people are at their strongest when they are broken, because God can use them to do incredible things when they say, ‘All I can do is rely on God.’” – Mark Stuart

potter 1

When I woke up that day, I didn’t think, “Today will be the day a stranger squeezes my bicep in the parking lot.”

But it happened.

It was awkward, and I don’t think he was impressed.

“Know anything about clay?”

Only that it’s heavy. “No.”

“Well, it can be a beast of an upper body workout. Hope your arms are ready for this.” Squeeze, squeeze.

OK … great. Thanks …

I managed to make it the last 10 yards to the car with the 25-pound block of clay without any more stranger arm squeezing. Amazing how dense that clay was at about the size of a cantaloupe … somehow 25 pounds feels a lot different when it’s in the form of a knot rather than a toddler or a carry-on suitcase.

This was solid. Intense. Heavy. I was hunched over it all the way from the art store to the car, super-flexing my non-biceps, carrying it right next to the gut with everything I had.

It was a familiar feeling.

Sometimes I think our spiritual loads actually feel physical. Some days the ache and the longing for the real stuff that’s coming later make me want to reach out and punch a hole in the flimsy canvas tent I’m sitting in, wind-battered and broken.

And stick my hands into the Light. For good.

“For we know that when this tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling … “

We all have a load. And we all have an innate longing for the real stuff, if we don’t allow ourselves to numb it.

This life is good, don’t get me wrong. I love the neighborhood where I run in the mornings under a bunch of hot-pink crepe myrtles. I love a good chai latte. I love hanging with my people. I have big plans to become a unicyclist by the end of the year.

But the good stuff (when it comes) is meant to remind us of the even better, and the pain (when it comes) is meant to drive us further up and further into His arms.

When my good friend Clare died earlier this year, it felt like a 25-pound block of pain lodged in my abdomen, like I’d caught a cannonball with my gut. The only thing I knew to do was run as fast as I could to Jesus, and I face-planted into His solidness kind of like that guy in “Man of Steel” who tried to get in a bar fight with Clark Kent.

God didn’t move an inch. He just stayed. And cared. And was solid.

He always was. But I think death and pain have a way of making the eternal look even more permanent and the stuff here look even more translucent, our human form even weaker.

“But we have this treasure (the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in Jesus Christ) 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 … “

mangled pot

My fragility was on display. And the more broken I became, the more solid He felt, and the more I wanted Him to fix what was broken in the way that He chose.

“’Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do …”

ruined pots

For months in the quiet as I’ve sat with Him, the words that come to mind about Him are Rock. Shield. A Shepherd who carries me, solid and gentle. A Creator who, like the Potter, keeps His hands still and steady and lets the clay conform to them without movement or force.

And another word: love.

And for months as I’ve thought about my own condition, the words I thought of were weak. Broken. Out of strength.

So I took my clay and I went down to the potter’s house.

I’m still doing that every day.

potter 2

I don’t know how to put into words how sweet His care is. One night at the beach recently, I stood in the shower and let the tears run. I didn’t even know how to tell Him what was wrong. I just said, “I have no strength. I know You’re in control, and I trust You. I’ll follow You wherever You want me to go … just please be my strength.”

I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up when my niece, who was sleeping near my feet, screamed at 5:30 a.m. with a missing blankie crisis. It abated quickly, but the thoughts in my head didn’t.

So I grabbed my phone and my Bible and headed for the beach.

And on the way down, I read an email from a friend I hadn’t had a really good conversation with in months.

“Hey! Ok – this is going to sound a bit strange but here goes.  I just wanted to check in on you to see how you are because I just dreamt about you. I just woke up instantly thinking of you and prayed for you. I am not any prophetess or anything and it maybe me just missing talking to you but I thought I would check in since it isn’t everyday that this happens – and prayer is always good!”

Huh.

I laid my head back on the beach chair and watched the waves roll in. A couple of older people were picking up shells about 100 yards away. The beach is pretty deserted at 6 a.m. Guess that’s not surprising.

“Father, You’re so big. You made the waves, yet You made someone wake up in the middle of the night to pray for me.”

Insane.

“Hey … umm … hi.”

Where did these girls come from? There was no one on the beach but the old people.

“This is kind of weird, but we were just walking by, and I felt God telling me to stop and pray for you for strength.”

For strength.

The next thing I knew, the two girls were praying over me things they couldn’t have known on their own.

“Is this something y’all do all the time?”

“What? Stopping and praying with people?”

“Yeah.”

“No … this is kind of weird for us.” They made a face at each other. “We never do this.”

We talked for a minute, and I headed back to the beach house amazed.

My God cares.

For me. And for you.

He cares

A wedding under a bridge.

Bridge wedding 1

Plastic wrappers and other pieces of litter rustled like tumbleweed across the empty space under the bridge yesterday afternoon.

Two hours later, enough chairs were set up to seat several hundred of Nashville’s homeless, enough chicken and baked beans cooked to feed them all.

And a few minutes later, while some were still finishing up their rainbow cake dessert, a cloth was rolled down the aisle and my friend Amanda walked through a crowd of her homeless friends to meet her fiancé at the altar under the overpass.

She’s not homeless. Never has been. Neither has her fiancé.

They just have tasted the grace of God and see people through the eyes of Christ.

As a train whistle echoed under the bridge and Tuesday evening rush hour traffic shook the concrete, Amanda smiled out at a sea of brothers and sisters as the band played and sang …

There are no strangers
There are no outcasts
There are no orphans of God
So many fallen, but hallelujah
There are no orphans of God.

And then they pledged to love each other for a lifetime as they love the “outcast” together.

Those of us who weren’t regulars to Heath and Amanda’s normal Tuesday night gathering of friends didn’t really know what to do when we first got there, except we knew one thing.

The homeless were to be the guests of honor.

Over and over we got the privilege of carrying their food for them as they walked to their seats, talking with them and serving them their plates as they got settled in for the wedding.

“You look beautiful,” one lady stopped and told the bride with a gap-toothed smile as she walked to her seat.

Amanda beamed. She had carefully thought this through, and it was just what she wanted.

The vows she had written for him. The flowers were picked with personal meaning, a photo wrapped around them of her niece who passed away recently. The songs were picked out for her Savior – and two of the homeless men stood up from the crowd and sang “Amazing Grace” like I’ve never heard it sung before.

And all of it was for them on His behalf.

“But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:13

Bridge wedding 2

“Who here among us has not been broken
Who here among us is without guilt or pain
So oft’ abandoned by our transgressions
If such a thing as grace exists
Then grace was made for lives like this

There are no strangers
There are no outcasts
There are no orphans of God
So many fallen, but hallelujah
There are no orphans of God

Come ye unwanted and find affection
Come all ye weary, come and lay down your head
Come ye unworthy, you are my brother
If such a thing as grace exists
Then grace was made for lives like this

O blessed Father, look down upon us
We are Your children, we need Your love
We run before Your throne of mercy
And seek Your face to rise above.”

- Avalon