What I Lost in the Fire (Notes for When Your Faith Goes Up in Flames)

I had an ad in my e-mail this morning for a sale on jackets. One of the highlighted reviews said “If my house catches on fire, I’m grabbing this jacket and then my boyfriend….”

The whole ad was a little ridiculous, but I started thinking about my friend who is figuring out her faith. She’s trying to sort out where it all went wrong and if most of it was ever even right. Sometimes our house of belief catches fire and we have to decide what, if anything, we should take.

It took me back to one of my most challenging seasons in my faith. I had just taken a new job and moved to a new city. In a few weeks the whole experience became a little ember that set a whole host of things ablaze.

I remember driving to work every day, listening to the same song and crying. The words that I just kept singing out were “I don’t know how to be yours”. I would sob at the reality that I was drowning in failed expectations, trauma, grief, and I didn’t know how to belong to God in that. He would say that he loved me, but I just didn’t know how to be with him in the middle of something that seemed to prove otherwise.

When it all caught fire I had to walk away from that job. I was stuck in a new city during a pandemic, completely lost on how to move forward. I had to decide what to grab while running out of that fire. The truth is, there were mornings when I would sit on the edge of my bed and think I don’t want to take any of it. I’m not sure any of it is worth saving.

I still believed in God. I knew I would always believe in him, I had seen too much to do otherwise. But I didn’t know if I could hold on to a lot of other things people had handed me in His name. Was the God I loved even who I even thought he was? Or was the God I knew a collage of ideas and concepts other people had painted?

It was all starting to burn and I was starting to think maybe everything needed to. Where had most of it gotten me anyway?

The good got me out. I didn’t see it at the time, couldn’t fully stop to assess the situation in the middle of the flames. But the good parts, the parts of my faith that were real and true, were the things that pushed me to even walk out of the fire. The good things deep in my foundation caused me to stop and care that it was happening and to even ask the question of “what do I save?” 

Something inside of me knew that some of it had to hold value. Because people without valuables wouldn’t stop to ask the question–they would walk out and let it all burn. It’s in the pause, the questioning, the wrestling and panic that you usually realize there are things worth keeping. Maybe it is not as much as you expected, but there are probably a few things you know your soul needs to take.

I didn’t know how to be His. I didn’t know how to belong to this God who seemed to be breaking my heart. But if there was the option to be His, even in the loss of everything else, I had to grab onto one truth: there is no one else worth belonging to.

A lot of other things I had been keeping burned up in that fire. The optimistic sense that “we’re all on the same team” crumbled for me. I accepted that there were people setting fires to the faith that weren’t on my team, weren’t on God’s team, didn’t care whose houses they had helped destroy. I accepted that it wasn’t my job to change them.

I let the belief that I had to be the one to “save the church” burn. I let many of the ideas people in church had fed me go up in flames. Even though so much felt like a waste,  I had to clench and keep the feeble faith of when I first came to God. That deep prayer of, “I can’t do it on my own and the man who chose a cross is the only one who saves”. 

I don’t hold or parade elaborate doctrine anymore. Yes, I still believe the Bible and the foundations of the Christian faith. I think “church” has a beautiful and rightful place. But sometimes that’s as elaborate as I go. I no longer go around trying to convince people (or myself) that God’s love hinges on our ability to swallow man-made interpretations of Him. There are things we just shouldn’t swallow or try to hold down. There are things we just can’t survive on. 

Jesus showed us that religion, the kind of religion filled with greed and power players, will eventually starve us. He never expected us to feast on organizations, gorge on programs, digest celebrity leaders, be nourished by religious trends.

So, I grabbed the good and ran. It was just the very basic truth of salvation, that was all I was really sure of. I thought I would be sad to see the rest go. But when the flames scorched it all, I sighed at the lightness I felt in not having to live with the chaos anymore. 

There’s a way to live with less. Sometimes I think it’s the only way to live.

Some days, I am still sorting through the survival stage that comes after the blaze. It often feels weak to be holding so few things. But God asks for children, not scholars, influencers, politicians, or “ministry trained”. He doesn’t need our sermon notes, commentary research, agenda for church growth, marketing projections, plans to save the human race. He wants children, dependent and needy, fulfilled in giving up the homes we built with hollow religion, and surrendered to letting them go up in flames.

I was right, God broke my heart.

I had a feeling when we were driving back from Tennessee that he was going to break my heart.

The fog sat between the mountains and I found myself spilling all my best words to him. I put every little part of me in his hands. I trusted him with every thought, every fear, the things that I had been holding inside of me for so many years.

I had just discovered The Lumineers and we listened to them on repeat. I have relived that day a million times: the taste of gas station coffee, the freedom of a road trip to a new place. Just twenty years old, my words were shaky, my heart was fragile, but I couldn’t stop myself from unpacking it all right there in his arms.

Still, I had this undeniable feeling he was going to break my heart.

As it turned out, I was right, God broke my heart. In the kind of way that only He can, in the way that offers no clear cut explanations or answers, in the way that you can never fully understand. You are angry, but it doesn’t feel justified; He’s God, after all. He knows all these things you don’t. You can’t really effectively argue with Him and you can’t get revenge.

God. Isn’t He the one who is supposed to be most trusted being in existence? Yet, He broke my heart. He had taken from me the very thing I had wanted most at that point my life. I told Him all about it, I had given him the secrets of my heart, prayed to Him about my biggest dreams. I had given Him my desires with shaky hands, biting my lip, nervous that I wasn’t good enough to have them anyway.

I spent a lot of years after that angry and hurt. Whenever I heard a song by The Lumineers, saw another foggy morning, thought of that Tennessee town, I thought about how that was the day I’d voluntarily fallen in love with a God whom I suspected might break my heart.

Five years later I still think of that day. I think of the drive through those mountains, how I complimented His color palette choices of green, gray, and brown. I remember that I knew He might break it, but that my heart was so full and alive that I couldn’t stop it from bleeding right there on His hands.

That would be the lesson that would follow me through all the years of pain: love can’t hold it in, but it will never regret the moments that it chooses to give it all away, chooses truth over fear.

Over those five years, there were a million more times that I would not or could not say to other people the things that my heart needed to say. I learned the pain of navigating that kind of regret.

But I never once regretted that morning with God. No matter the pain it ended up causing me.

Because there will never be another that can tuck the fog in the trees and make the contrast and exposure of the skies hit the perfect levels; that can create the perfect tones that crack my chest wide open and cause me to confess all the things that give Him permission to break my heart.

And on that day, by giving Him the things I thought I wanted most, He gave to me a God that was more than a story inside of a book. I found a God who was real and whom I had invited to come and sit inside of my world. A God who listens to my songs and laughs with me over Bean Street Coffee. I was given the gift of a God who is present, who is in my photographs and memories. Who, when the radio plays our songs, I can now close my eyes and whisper, “Remember that day?” In those years of my heartbreak, He gave to me Himself and years of stories, ticket stubs, parking lot conversations, back road drives, cups of coffee by the lake.

By breaking my heart in a way that I still don’t fully understand, it opened a door that caused me to keep coming back to Him to say, “God, I love you. I don’t understand how you could let this happen.” This heartbreak was my beautiful gift. It was the thing that He has used to draw me back to Himself over and over again. It became the thing that continued to give me more of those foggy days in the mountains, moments of spilling my heart out, seconds when I just couldn’t stop myself from handing it all to Him even if I knew it might not turn out the way I would hope.

And now when I hear The Lumineers, see those photos, find myself driving through the Tennessee mountains, the tears I cry are ones of gratitude. I find myself thankful that He took my shaky hands, holding what I thought I wanted most, and gave me something so much better in its place.

 

 

 

 

As all of America responded, there was only one word I could say.

I fell asleep before the final results came in.

But I already knew which candidate was going to be the next President of the United States.

I woke up this morning and let it sink in. I scrolled through my social media and didn’t move for a long time. I finally crawled out of bed and slowly went to sit on my couch. I sat for a long time in silence.

Finally, one word came from my mouth as I began to weep.

“Father,”

This morning as America responded, that was the only word I could say.

I knew from the beginning I would be disappointed with either candidate having a victory. I have already spent months grieving both a President Trump or a President Clinton.

So, I did not cry this morning because of the results.

I cried this morning because many of my Christian friends called this election a victory for the church. I cried for the endless posts that said “God heard His people’s prayers”.

I cried because what they told the world was that God didn’t hear or honor the prayers of those who did not vote for Trump and that they are not His people.

Whether they meant that or not, this morning, that was what many heard.

I wept for the women in my life who are in an identity crisis. For the women who think Clinton was a role model. I wept for the women who believe their suspicions were confirmed: that they have to fight dirty in order to succeed and that even then, they will lose.

I wept for those who woke up with a smirk on their face and prideful words on their tongue because their candidate won. I wept because many of them believe God has put his stamp of approval on this man’s anger and immorality.

I wept because though I understand a sigh of relief from those who were afraid for a Hillary presidency, I cringe at their exaltation of a Trump one. I wept because many of my friends said it “bothered them to vote for him and they were doing it hesitantly, but he seemed a better option.” I wept because when they rubbed it in people’s noses this morning, it did not seem that it was hard or that it bothered them at all.

I wept because “How we walk with the broken speaks louder than how we sit with the great.” (Bill Bennot)

I wept for the way that many of my Christian friends chose to walk with the broken this morning.

I wept because as a person who voted third party, I was condemned, criticized, mocked, rebuked, scorned, and belittled. I wept because I cannot even fathom what people on the other side have endured and will endure. I wept because many of these are people who claim to operate under a law of love and a Gospel of peace.

My heart broke at those who sincerely asked Christians, “How do you explain this to your minority, Muslim, LGTBQ, and disabled friends?”  I wept because I know that many of the Christians I know do not have those kinds of friends.

Later, as I ran to get coffee, I found myself weeping again in the car. But this time, I wept because the barista told me that he liked my shirt that says PRAY. I wept because we are different genders, different races, and together we looked at one another in the eye and agreed that more than anything in these times, we need to PRAY.

I wept because God pulled me close and told me that He heard and hears my prayers. I am not a Trump voter, but I am His people and He heard and hears my prayers, too. 

I wept because though I am broken, I am thankful my hope was never in either of these candidates. I wept because I am thankful that I stood my ground. I wept as I told God that even though I was mocked, condemned, rebuked, I want to learn how to show others what it means to be a disciple who does not sacrifice their influence among Christians and non-Christians for an earthly government.

Today, I continue to weep because many voted for Trump believing he will help maintain their religious freedom. I weep because my prayer is that this freedom and their Christian influence does not become tainted by a pride, condemnation, or judgment of others.

Today, I weep as I pray that we have not pushed and will not cause those around us to say, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Today, I weep, but with hope that God is faithful. His grace is sufficient. I weep, asking for faith to believe that His true church will wake up and will be known for their love.

I weep today and I cry out “Father”. May He be merciful and forgive us in these times when we know and do not know what we do.