Three weeks ago I gave the message at the church where I worked for the past year. I returned as "pulpit supply" while the pastor was on vacation. The message circled around the concept of asking God for more. No, I have not stepped into the prosperity gospel camp. I do not believe that if you sow your seed (money) and give it to the church God will bless you with three cars and a million dollar house. God wants even more than that for all of us. God wants us to have a real, deep relationship with the one who threw the stars out into the heavens and set the earth spinning. God wants us to have more than just the drudgery of this day to day life, more than the discontentment that can so easily set in, more than rehearsing our old wounds and lashing ourselves on the back for our sins. God wants forgiveness for us, grace for us, love for us, hope for us. I preached that and I believed it, and I believe it still. But I didn't trust it.
Three close friends from the seminary come to the church to listen to me preach. While we sat in the church basement, eating delectable treats (no wonder I gained a few pounds this year), it started to pour outside. Monsoon-level. The streets were rivers, with water at least a foot deep in some places. Driving home, two of our friends, husband and wife, stalled their car in one of the impromptu rivers. Sarah and I were able to pick them up and take them home, but their car needed hundreds of dollars of repairs. We felt a little guilty, since they came to hear me preach, and we had given them alternate directions home, directions that led them through the water. But, they were gracious and soon forgave us.
Fast forward three weeks, and the third friend who came to listen desired my companionship on a road-trip to bring some of his things to storage in a town two hours away. He's moving to Ireland for the next year, and I wanted to spend time with him, so I readily agreed. We ended up taking the second vehicle of our erstwhile water-logged friends, an SUV. The drive up was wonderful, blue skies and the wind rushing past us, green trees and the smell of pine. We arrived and he unloaded his things (packed in heavy rubbermaid bins that he told me were too heavy for me--which was true--and that he proceeded to lug up two flights of stairs himself.) We spent a few minutes chatting with the woman at whose house he was leaving his stuff, then headed back home. He was craving hot dogs, so we stopped along the way at a roadside restaurant and he ordered two dogs with all the fixings and two birch-beer floats, one for each of us. (Birch beer tastes like a smoother, slightly more bitter root beer and is the color of black cherry soda.) So far, the day had been perfect. We took to the road again, relishing the fresh air and the good conversation.
While we drove I asked him what drove him. What was the passion underlying his time in seminary? What kept him going through the long nights of studying and all the frustration? Even as I asked him, I knew that I asked because I was having trouble answering the question myself. Back in high school I was surrounded by energetic friends in the prime of life. We prayed for each other, sang with each other, took trips to the mountains with each other. I was ready to do anything God wanted, ready to go anywhere. I read my bible daily, prayed every night and wrote in my journal at least once a week. I wrote songs and poems and novels. I was full of joy and passion. I was eager for God.
College hit. I moved miles away from my friends and the home I'd known for eighteen years. The new relationships I tried to build in college didn't last long. During an AOL chat with them, a girl mentioned something that was troubling her. I typed that I would pray for her, and instantly the backlash began. It was offensive to offer prayer in college. Offensive and pushy. Those friends soon turned their backs on me, especially after I met Sarah and started spending more time with her instead of them. Soon I met new friends, good folk who worked with me at the college chapel. But my life wasn't the same. I grew distant from God in college, angry. I did things that drew me away from God, things that I continue to regret. I took on too much in my first year, sleeping only four hours a night most nights. Then I vowed to never take on too much again. Living on the edge of sleep was exhilarating for me, but I didn't think it was healthy. So I curtailed my passions. Even though I wrote for all of my writing classes, everything I wrote was dark, writing became an assignment, working for a deadline. During some of the best times of my life, I often withdrew to my room and shut my door. I still regret having a closed door for some of the residents for whom I was an RA.
My friends from Utah faded to the background. I hardly knew them anymore. I was so busy in my first two years that I didn't stay in contact. Even the new friends I gained were kept at a safe distance. I didn't let them into my heart, into my life.
I learned that I had a fear of failure and, instead of facing it head on like I knew I should, I built a cocoon of safety. I did, and still do only things at which I can succeed. I don't let other people see my flaws. I let as much of myself out as is needed to retain friendship, but not enough to make it real. My relationship with God has fared the same fate.
After college, I followed the call planted in my heart in middle school and went to seminary, Sarah following me with love and trust and sacrifice. We arrived and the first year changed me again. It was hard to gain friends, hard again to get my footing. The call to be a church pastor disappeared quickly, pushed away by justified fears and by good reasons and good sense. God was still calling me, but now the voice seemed farther off, and in a different direction. God was calling me, but we were separated by fog and a sturdily-built cocoon. I was directionless, and far away again from God. I've spent my time like a pocketful of pennies, selling it for cheap. I troll the internet for interesting articles, and watch TV like I used to read books. I find myself grasping for the passion and eagerness I once had, grasping and holding nothing. My life is circular and stagnant. After my friend told me about his passion, I told him that I felt lost and that my relationship with God wasn't that good, that I wanted it to be better. I told him that the only thing driving me is the search for my old drive. He said that these dry times are why we need faith.
An hour away from Princeton, we ran into a wall of water. Monsoon-level, yet again. The rain was hitting the windshield so fast and so hard we could barely see, and we rumbled through the quickly-rising torrent, spraying muddy water everywhere. People were pulled over on the side of the road, hazard lights flashing like lighthouses in the darkness of the storm. Some cars were stuck in the flood, their owners knee-deep in water, trying to push them out. I was worried.
My friend is a wild, devil-may-care man, with a big laugh and an even bigger heart. The storm gave him energy. Soon he had me smiling with his effusive praise for how exciting it all was. Still, I held our map with white-knuckled intensity.
"It's odd," I said to him, "I'm smiling, but somewhere deep in my head I'm really worried. Not about us, but about the car. I don't want to be the cause of stalling two of their cars."
"I am too," he said. "But that's what makes it an adventure!"
Just last night, another friend and I were talking about joy. We talked about how fleeting happiness is, and how unattainable joy is. Happiness comes up like a weed, sudden and often. But it dies just as quickly. Joy is like a great oak, it needs roots and a firm ground. But how often is our true joy carried away by the carrion of life, how often does the seed of joy land on the hard ground, how often is it choked out by the very weeds of our happiness, choked before it can ever take root? Sometimes in our search for momentary happiness, we strangle our joy.
This blog is named after one of my favorite verses. "There is no fear in love." (I John 4:18) I have taken this verse to mean that I should not fear, and in doing so have avoided those things that scare me. Avoided deep relationships, avoided the pain of confronting myself, avoided the incomprehensible and wild God. Avoided where that wild God is calling me. But the verse goes on. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love."
Maybe this is an indictment from the writer of I John. Those who fear have not reached perfection in love. Our maybe it's a statement of reality. We all fear, we are all imperfect in love. Right before this, the author says that we love because God first loved us. God is love.
In reading this I realize that the fear has to be there for the love to cast it out. And in that split second between fearing punishment and failure and embracing, or being embraced by love, in that small moment is joy. After all, the contraction in the throat that comes with fear and the widening motion of the smile that comes with love are what make life an adventure. And perhaps by avoiding the fear, I've been avoiding the love and the joy too. Perhaps by trying to find a shortcut past my fear I've gone right around love and joy and into this wasteland where I find myself now.
And perhaps this is a turning point. And maybe it's not. The Israelites encountered a God who moved in cloud and fiery pillar, a God who split the sea in half; yet they still complained and worried about how they were going to be fed. Peter saw Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses on a mountain, witnessed him raise people from the dead and bring sight to the blind, and still denied his lord, his savior, his friend, three times when the fear of death came in a slave girl's accusation.
But that same God who took the complaints brought the Israelites to a good land just the same, though they had to struggle through the wilderness to get there. And that same God has preserved those people for thousands of years. That same God spoke to them lovingly again and again, trying to get them to turn around when they strayed, never giving up on them. That same God came down as a person, came down to take the brunt of our complaints and inattention, came down to be spat upon and ridiculed. That same God came down to befriend Peter, and when Peter betrayed him, that same God came back and restored Peter with love, affirmed his love three times, once for every betrayal. That same God loves me with a perfect love that can drive away my fear, because I can't do it on my own. That same God brought me the joy of my life--my wife--out of the midst of the wilderness of college. That same God brought me one of my best friends out of the driest time in my life. That same God brought me to this place, brought me this far, brought me through two floods and through this season of doubt to the place I am now.
The passion will come again. The voice will become clearer. The skies will turn from grey to blue and though I see now in a mirror, dimly, then I shall see God face to face. And even if all of this does not happen, God is still with me. Even when I turn my back on God, God is still facing me. And because God is facing me, and because God is pushing me from behind, and because God is walking right by my side, I can face my fears too. And that God of perfect love, that God who is love, will cast out those fears, and in doing so, bring me joy again. That's what makes it an adventure.
Thanks for sticking with me, faithful reader.