I first met God when I was nine years old. My friend Lauren was swinging with me on the swing-set, and she asked me how to get to heaven. I knew the answer because I’d learned it in church. When she was done asking for eternal life I figured I’d better do it too because, well, I didn’t exactly want to burn in hell.
I didn’t really know him – “know Him” – for another twenty years, but that was how we first got acquainted.
For many years, I saw him as my wish granter and maybe my good luck charm. I’d pray silly things like asking for a good hair day or that I’d get a letter in the mail from my cousins in South Dakota. Or when things were really bad, I’d pray that He’d make it end and send someone to rescue us.
When I was in my twenties, I’d learned enough about life to know that God isn’t quite who I thought He was back then and that sometimes He doesn’t answer in the way we want Him to. I’d learned that life has happy moments, but the main story is long and forgettable and mundane and sometimes quite shocking and painful.
I found God – the Real God – in the pages of a book in my twenty-ninth year. The book told me about a God who seeks the lost ones. About a God who can totally handle my level of brokenness. About a God who never leaves and always chases. About a God who does not make silly promises about happily ever after. Instead, His promises are about peace and presence and closeness in my worst moments.
He and I stayed on that mountain together for many years, growing more deeply attached to one another the whole time. There were many storms ahead for me and while the rain raged and the winds howled, I buried my face deep in His chest and I wrapped my little fingers tightly around Him and hung on for dear life. And He showed me then that He was who He’d said He’d be. That He was trustworthy and reliable.
No matter where you go, I will find you. I will search for you until you come home. When others leave, I will stay. When the rest forsake, I will take you up.
I suppose I’m not the only one who could write a book about the sad stories in their life. In fact, I’m guessing that, like me, some of us could fill libraries. I think sometimes part of being a mere mortal is that we narrow in so closely on our own stories that we forget the human rhythm of it all. We get lost in a bunch of “me” and “I” based story lines that we get to feeling alone and like these things only happen to us.
And the more we listen to those little whispers about how bad it is for us and how good it is for everyone else, little tiny bricks start to accumulate around us, walling us in and quarantining us from being part of a collective body of humanity. It exaggerates our loneliness and the voices in our heads tell us half-truths and deceptions that, if we were in open community with other broken people who have felt similar hurts or were facing similar battles, they would have been able to tell us that they are lies.
When separated from the herd, even the strongest eventually dies.
My earliest experiences and memories were ones filled with the church life. Churchy people with churchy clothes and churchy talk and churchy walk.
When I’m honest, most of the largely traumatic events in my life have centered around churchiness.
And while a small bit of credence can be given to the idea that Christians are “just people too”, another whole series of books needs to be written about the value of being a truly changed person who no longer participates in the random slaughter of others based on which preacher you like and which one you don’t, which church you go to and which one you left, which author is right and which one is apostate, and all of the such nonsense that the dedicated church goer has likely seen take place in a million painful scenarios.
The trouble with bad Christians is that they tell a bad story about a good God. Even someone who has known God himself for a very long time can get off on the wrong path after enough exposure to that sort of thing. Even someone who has buried her face in the very chest of God to endure the harsh beatings of life can lose sight and think that the term Christian and Christ are somehow synonymous of one another and that when one is filled with remembrances of pain and hurt and betrayal and wrongdoing, the other is likely to be also.
When I was young, my aunt had cancer. Back then, cancer was still something that almost no one had. And when they had it, they normally died.
I hate even trying to recall what I remember of her death as I know I remember the details the way a young child would… upside down, backwards, and probably out of order.
Her cancer started out as breast cancer and then metastasized through her body. She was so totally going to die. There was just like no way that she was going to be able to get well.
For a while, I had the chance to stay with her in a clinic. I remember her lying on the mattress on the living room floor and brushing her hair. I remember blowing up an inflatable boat in that living room to help her have a bath because she couldn’t get to the tub. I remember the tears she hid when her babies would come visit and oh how they would run when she was finally alone and could let it out.
And one day, she left to go have an alternative treatment done in Mexico. She came back healthy. “Cancer free” is what the doctors said. I still remember thinking that it was such a miracle how she kicked cancer’s butt like that. I mean, she really was a tiny little thing. Cancer had eaten her alive, and I’d watched her shrink with my own eyes. But inside her little bitty self was the heart of a warrior that just didn’t quit. And she so totally lived.
A while later, she went in for a routine procedure of some sort. Again, I was too young to really understand. All I know is that she died on that operating table because the strain of it all had become too much. Yes, I know there was something about a fat lipid acting like a blood clot, but what I remember most was realizing she’d just been through too much. She’d come as far as she could come. And she finally couldn’t go any further. At least this is how my heart took the news of her passing.
And in a very similar way, this is how things went for me too.
I was like a little ship that spent the first thirty-five+ years of her life being tossed around in a dark ocean being beaten senseless by waves and sea monsters. And when I finally made it to harbor, instead of surviving, I just fell apart.
The strain of it all had just become too much.
The stories of churchy people with churchy words who threw spears right through me “in the name of Jesus” got mixed up inside of me with the story of the God I knew before I really knew Him and somehow in the tangle and mess, I just got lost.
It was like my bones were so full of holes that they couldn’t bear weight anymore. Like if I put the full pressure of all my questions on any part of me, those parts would give way and my bones would splinter and crumble.
In an angry protest, I machine-gunned those questions directly at the softest spot of my soul for many months, all the while, telling myself that anything worth believing could hold up to my rapid fire. I poked every hole I could think of and watched thirty-seven years of belief fall flat right in front of my face.
Advisors from hell came to me to tell me more bad stories and to whisper things to me about the nonsense of the Bible and how ridiculous the whole thing really was. Whispers about how God was just this made up thing that these horrendous people came up with because they’re too weak to handle the really tough shit that life can dish out.
In between my drops of tears and blood, I would raise a defiant fist at it all. “If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s weak,” I would tell myself. I would weep tears of lostness, but the voices told me that I’d finally been found and was crying the tears of my redemption.
The sound of God’s voice faded away from me.
All went black.
All went silent.
I tried to read books, but with every intention on my part to help myself be found and not be so lost, it was as though the surge of violent counsel from the voices in my head would redouble their efforts.
One day about twelve months in, I stopped myself in the middle of another self-annihilation session and had the fleeting thought of my aunt dying there in that operating room all those years ago. Thinking of how ironic it was. Of how sad and seemingly meaningless it was that she lived through so much, and yet died over something that wasn’t even life threatening. And yet, here I was, doing that exact thing.
The real beatings in my life had ceased, but the irony was that the war that finally pulled me all the way under was something that raged entirely in the space between my own two ears. Inside of my memory. Inside of my anger and my hurt and my sadness and my fear. Inside broken feelings and terrible aloneness.
The tiniest pinprick of desire was all I had left, but it was enough to convince me to set down my tools of self-destruction. To shut off the voices and fire those advisors for their bad advice.
Inside my mental battleground, I finally surrendered and laid my bloodied face in the wet earth and rested. Not quite dead, but very far from resurrection.
I think sometimes we think we can pull people back from their cliffs. You know what I mean. It’s when your friend tells you she’s getting divorced, and you somehow think that now is the time to start trying to convince them otherwise. I think that when people are already to that point, it’s a bit too late. The efforts needed to happen years ago for them to have the desired effect.
By the time they tell you they have stage-4 cancer, you can almost start counting the minutes before the credits roll.
And by the time I knew the true state of the darkness inside of me, it was well past the time that good talks with good friends or helpful insights from helpful books would be able to be of service to me.
All the lines that worked before stopped working.
Churchy words twisted inside of me like old worms, making me feel physically ill just to hear them.
I was too far gone to be reached by something as simple as the cut and dry answers of my childhood.
This time, what I needed was so much more than that.
I’d always prided myself on not needing proofs from God. I remember reading somewhere in a very meaningful book that the child who no longer needs the constant reassurance of such proofs is near to the heart of God. And I think that might still be true, but my point is that that’s just not where I was anymore.
I had been there at one point. At many points actually. But now I had entered a place that was void and silent and harsh. I called it the dark night of my soul. My Great Sadness. It was a place I’d never been. And as many times as I’ve tried to figure out if there was a way I could’ve avoided going there, I don’t really think there is. It’s just a place I needed to walk.
For another six long months, I spoke to no one about it. I was simply silent. The only intention in me was an intention to not be intentional. I can’t say I recommend this course of action, but I think that the God who knew me before was still knowing me then and was able to hear the groanings from my deepest places that my mouth simply refused to form words around.
I think He saw me there and had great pity.
I don’t think He was angry.
And I think He missed me.
Pieces of red and pieces of blue. Green too. And brown. Lots of gray. With a splash of yellow here and there.
These are the colors of me.
I once was a different picture, but that picture is gone now. About nine years ago, someone that I loved very much took a sledgehammer to that picture and sent pieces of me flying in all directions.
I carry a little bucket in my heart where I collect those broken pieces of me when I happen to find them along my way.
After recently adding immense piles of black pieces to my broken lot, I finally dumped it out one day to assess these pieces as a group.
What could be made of this? I wondered.
What good could come from this much brokenness?
Broken glass serves only one purpose, doesn’t it? To cause pain and to be a reminder of what broke it in the first place.
Is there anything anyone can do with this bucket of broken glass?
God came and found me again. Just like He did when I was nine and like He did when I was twenty-nine. There were no gonging cymbals or bursts of fireworks. There was still water and unseen movement and gentle breath and many words.
Words whispered to me in the mundane places of my life. Whispers sent to me under the hum of normal speech and above the deafening quiet that a heart can make when it’s chosen to give up.
Words that demanded to be heard but insisted on being delivered via soft breath; forcing me to listen if I truly wanted to hear.
I would ride in my car and hear His voice in the wind rushing around in the backseat.
Do you remember Me?
In my bed late at night when sleep would not come, in between awake and not, I would feel memories rise up in me. Memories that were my own and therefore, not something I could argue against. Times when life had pressed me so hard against the wall that I felt as thought I could feel my spine separating… and then He would come through for me. Times that were solid and concrete and immoveable and not subject to my existential questions and theology hole-poking.
For a time, forget the rest. Stay here in this place.
A Sunday morning in a little living room on the east side, surrounded by new people. Fighting to breathe out and keep the tears in. Not really sure how I ended up here, but I can feel the unmistakable Presence. The Presence I’ve been running from. The Presence I’ve been longing to find again.
I told you that no matter where you go, I would find you. That I would search for you until you come home.
A morning hilltop just before sunrise. My daily ritual for most of spring. Watching the small town awaken and begin to move around. The perspective gained from even a minor altitude change. Experiencing that almost imperceptible shift from darkness to daybreak. Time and again, hearing whispers of invitation. But not necessarily an invitation to do, this time, to simple sit still and be.
Be still, Heather. Stop fighting. The war is over. Be at peace. And remember Me.
Sometimes the Voice came in a trickle. Sometimes in a downpour. Words from my childhood would flood over me and wash me. Words that had brought me comfort decades ago.
Heather, I have searched you and known you. I know your downsitting and your uprising. I know your thoughts afar off. There is not a word in your mouth that I do not know. Before a word is on your tongue, behold, I know it altogether. Where can you go from my Spirit, and where can you flee from my presence? If you go up to heaven, I am there. If you make your bed in hell, behold, I am with you even there. If you fly on the wings of the dawn and go to the uttermost parts of the sea, even there my hand will guide me and my right hand will hold you fast. How precious are my thoughts of you. How vast is the sum of them. If I were to number them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.
Word by word, whisper by whisper, brick by brick, my Great Wall began to become dismantled.
I love the Webster’s definition of dismantled. “To take to pieces.”
I have a whole bucket of pieces.
It’s always been a wonder to me that the affecting of love into a person’s life can produce it’s own abundance of the same material. Someone can be empty and have nothing to share and no ability to even meet their own basic needs. But an infusion of love into them can turn on some sort of invisible pump in them that not only enables them to fill themselves, it gives them enough to share. Enough to go around pouring out their water into the empty wells around them.
My anger began to dissipate around the time that winter ended its reign of terror. Spring came and brought with it fresh perspective and an intense longing to put the final period on this thirty-nine-year-long chapter and close this book.
Fresh pages and fresh titles. Forward-looking words and not ones that always looked over my shoulder at what has been. New stories of happy and not always the reflections of sad.
I wrote the letters. You know the ones. The ones you write but never send. The ones where you say what you truly need to say because doing so is like letting out the stoppered-up poison that would otherwise remain in you forever.
I even drove the twelve hundred miles to see those places and those faces. A lot of love can be rebuilt when there is enough desire and intention, but nothing slain stays dead in a vacuum. And where anger and unforgiveness has been eradicated, a wise person doesn’t leave it empty for long.
Still, I saw that the phantom sorts of feelings just wouldn’t leave me alone.
The things I wish I could say to them. The things I wish they’d figure out themselves. Yes, even after all these years, I still wished that they could understand how much excruciation their actions have caused me.
I felt like I was on a fence. One day, doing just fine. The next, threatening to return headlong into that dark night that I’d just come out of.
It was as though I’d done all the work of forgiveness, but I’d put all of my favorite wounds in a little balloon that went with me wherever I went. It wasn’t in me anymore, and it wasn’t even on me. It was just by me. Close enough to be pulled down and fixated on again. The string always keeping my fingers busy.
I read somewhere that the remembering of injuries is spiritual darkness and that the fostering of resentment is spiritual suicide. But when someone really has hurt you in a very legitimate way, letting it go is just dreadfully hard. I think there’s actually some pleasure we get in wallowing in the self-pity of it all. And then a person has to decide which they want more: the pleasure of the wallowing or the freedom that comes in the denying of it.
One day, I laid in the grass imagining my pretend balloon filled with all my saddest sads. It was floating up just above me, looking terribly benign and even a little sparkly, but I knew exactly what sort of poison was inside of it. I thought about pulling it back down to look at and hold maybe for a little while, but as the hardwired memories of painful experiences with the balloon made its way across a synapse in my brain, another thought came along.
Just let go.
I laid there for a while with the imaginary string coiled through my fingers. I didn’t really like the idea of letting go of all my most precious pains. As much as I hate them, I mean, I do sorta like them. And it is really really hard work to just let something like that go. It means that I’m done. Done carrying them. And while that seems a silly thing to even have to ponder, anyone who has carried their own poison balloon can attest to the struggle.
One by one, my fingers released.
I felt the wind tugging at the balloon speeding up the string’s departure from my grasp.
Oh how I want to hang on.
Oh how I want to let go.
The string passed through my little fingers first and then through my pointer and thumb.
Here it comes.
And there it goes.
I think there truly is a thing inside of us that can will ourselves to live. Can choose life over death.
And I willed myself to live.
There was a certain moment when it happened to me, but I can’t exactly remember when it was. I chose to pull my head out of the water. I chose to allow myself to be found again. I chose to listen. To strain to hear if necessary.
And while the great work of it was done by Someone other than myself, it would never have been enough to simply lay there in my apathy in a permanent dark night.
I do not say that to contest or make light of those who have reached the same dark night as mine and not resurfaced in the same way. But my story is the one I have to share. The only one I have to share.
Mine is the story of a girl who was lost and was then found. Again. A girl who was once something and then became something else. A girl whose life was filled with shattered glass pieces of many colors. Glass that was repurposed to make something that only an Artist could have pulled together. Shards of this and pieces of that all woven together to tell a new story. To paint a different picture.
You are my lost and found girl.
You have been found again, and you are mine.
You are my resurrection girl.
Back from the dead, over and over.
You are my stained glass window girl.
Give me your bucket of broken glass and see what I create.