When Memories are Our God

I spent a good chunk of my early twenties regretting two days: an afternoon at a sushi restaurant and a night I spent alone watching Batman at the movie theater inside of the mall.

I didn’t realize it, but all those years I spent driving around my hometown arguing with God, I was trying to figure out a way to convince Him to turn back time. I knew if He would just let me do them over I could fix everything.

It wasn’t until last week with my forearms resting on a picnic table, young eyes and beautiful faces staring at me that I finally admitted the truth.

That day in the sushi restaurant and that night in the movie theater could no longer be my God. They could not be the thing I lived for–the thing that I leaned on to save my life any longer.

Later in the week I cried on the baking aisle at Kroger because I realized that until we decide to let go of those moments that we’re convinced changed everything, we will spend our entire lives making idols out of a day on a calendar that cannot offer you anything for your future.

Constantly looking at the past, at a moment, a hurt, a grief, a thing we cannot forgive–in ourselves or someone else– eventually makes it our God. When we obsessively expect or want something from it, analyze it in hopes for some kind of redemption or some kind of answer, we begin to worship it. When we obsessively believe that it will fix everything, if we get an answer or get “closure” from that moment, we make it our God.

Those two moments are ones I couldn’t forgive myself for. They are also moments I could not forgive someone else for. Within them were layered years of trust issues and excuses for why freedom was out of my reach. But anything that keeps you from freedom is your God. Anything that you are so locked into, given over to so fully, anything that has permission to take control of you without your ability to have yourself back–that thing is your God. 

For me they were my trust issues, that came with seeing that birthday bag hidden at the end of that table, and the words said to me when I was wearing that blue jacket. They became my God because I was so trapped in how they broke my heart. I gave them my mind, my heart, my trust. If they had gone differently, oh how my life would have turned out to be something else to behold.

When memories are our God, we give them our hearts, our best years of forgiveness and trust. Back when I was young and dumb, back before I knew that people were so cruel. 

We think our wisdom and better understanding of the world is what took our ability to just hand out trust and forgiveness, but really it was our idolatry of our memories. If we were honest, we’ve spent our years fixated, worshipping days of our lives, thinking that if we could get them back they would heal the deepest parts of our souls.

We have given credit where it is not due and thought if this day had not happened, I would be better than I am right now.

We exalt hours, minutes, or seconds; we worship the hands of the clock. We think it was moments that broke us, time that heals us, and will be at-first-sight seconds that save us.

But time is just a measure, a tool, a thing. If we could finally invent the time machine we’ve all been praying for, I’m convinced that none of us would be happier, healthier, better off. Because it would not change our hearts; we could change a moment, but we could not change what got us there.

Because everything that built up to that moment would not have changed. It’s cause and effect, my dear. That moment was built on a thousand other little things that made it what it was. The second you realize that is the second you might finally learn to forgive. Because the human heart is far more complicated that just one passing moment. We must stop holding it inside a prison of one split second, one long day, one complicated year.

Time and your memories are too small to be your God; they are too far gone to fix you, too fleeting to save you.

But if they hold your trust, have stolen your forgiveness, trapped your joy–you’ve made them your God.

If you’ve used words that sound something like: “But you don’t know what happened to me”, that moment, that sixty seconds, that day, that stretch of the earth spinning of the earth around the sun– that became your God.

It became the thing that you gave permission to break and name you. And if you’re honest it’s the thing you believe, if you could get it back, would be able to save you.

There’s a baking aisle in Kroger and it’s where I decided that the calendar wasn’t the thing I wanted to wake up next to every morning. I didn’t want to grow old with and give everything to a day or a year I had circled in red.

It’s where God became God again and time and its memories became a thing I finally stopped trying to change.

 

 

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God, My Questions, and a Stranger

I stared at the foam of my cappuccino as her words broke through the thick fog I’d been walking through since we first landed in Israel. This woman, who just an hour before had been a total stranger to me, was telling me her story and showing me some pretty raw places of her past.

She sighed, but sat with such peace. “I was struggling so much. I was believing so many lies… but God still used me, you know?”

I leaned in and watched the corners of her mouth turn upwards in a smile,

“God is so big, He doesn’t mind.”

As soon as they hit my heart, I knew those were the words I’ve been waiting years to hear.

It took me back to a few years ago, to a day that I’ve heavily carried. My face was soaking wet, my eyes were bloodshot; I was angry, I was afraid, I was barely breathing. I was five bodies deep in grief, and the sixth was being prepared to be put in the ground. I remember standing in that church building with clenched fists and shouting to the top of my lungs, “If God is so big, He can handle my questions!”

As soon as those words left my mouth, I broke. I fell straight to my knees and sobbed on the floor. Countless people passed by me, but I didn’t care how it looked. This was me and God on the battlefield and this was me slinging every last shot I had. I was firing all of my ammunition, this was my win or lose moment. This was the moment when God would either walk off and leave me or lean in and grab me tighter. I was giving Him every reason to finally turn around and walk away, I was pushing Him with every bit of force my tiny fists could muster. I thought for sure that He’d leave, if He hadn’t already.

So flash forward, years later, sitting in Israel across from this stranger. She whispered those words with such peace, such certainty: God is so big, He doesn’t mind.

It felt like I was finally hearing Him respond to that moment, “You were right, I could handle it. I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind that you were weak. It didn’t change anything.”

He’s that big. He isn’t the least bit altered by my anger, weakness, frustration or questions. I’m not a big enough bully that I could make Him walk away.

I think that was Israel for me. All throughout the Bible we see that Israel rejected God, gave Him a million reasons to leave. They hated Him, they pushed Him away, but He stayed and He still stays. He’s there and He has such mercy, even in the war and chaos, even in the grief and in the misunderstanding.

Everywhere I stepped it was a reminder of Him saying, I don’t leave my people. 

I think most people were expecting some kind of post about adventure, climbing mountains, walking on water, exploring ruins of an ancient city. Maybe you thought I’d have some kind of life lesson about enjoying every moment, about living an exciting and free life.

What this post is about is God pressing the play button, after feeling like I’ve been on pause for a really long time. It was His reply to the banging of my fists all those years ago. It was the moment of me finally looking up from weeping on the floor and seeing that even though so many people left, He stayed.

I walked down the Via Dolorosa last week (the road Jesus walked to the cross). I thought a lot about the men who were beating Him, swinging over and over again while watching His body crack and tear. Later I realized that some of the swings they made were for the day I fell screaming in that church floor.

He handled my questions, then. It was finished on that day. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t yet rammed my fists into the floor or shouted furiously, He handled my questions long before that day. God is big enough, that He didn’t mind. He didn’t mind my questions, because He died to give me the answer.

He doesn’t leave, that’s really what Israel gave to me. The reminder that we all have years spent in the desert, years of giving Him a million reasons to go. No matter how long we spend wandering around and walking in circles, He’s big enough, He can handle it, He stays.

It Won’t Be the Stage

I joined a grief group soon after I moved to Georgia.

It was completely unlike me, but I was so broken and desperate for healing that I was willing to do something that I would have previously labeled as mortifying.

I showed up to a few of the meetings. I was the youngest person, the quietest person and the least certain that I wanted to be there.

It took maybe three sessions before I walked out a changed person. It had nothing to do with the discussions, people, videos, etc. (although they were all good things). I think I walked out a completely different person because it took choosing to become a different person to ever walk into that meeting in the first place.

Sometimes, we have to choose to do the things we never thought we would.

We have to be willing to walk out the path that we once labeled ourselves too good to tread on.

I was a pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps-and-deal-with-it kind of girl for most of my adolescence. I didn’t need grief groups, counselors, or cry sessions. I was too strong for that, too proud for that.

But it wasn’t until I chose to do the things that sent my knees to the dirt that I learned how wrong I’ve seen the world.

I learned the value of doing things that are hard, that require me to sit among other broken people and say maybe we’re all really the same. Maybe I’m not better than anyone else. Maybe I am a poster child for weakness and that’s not as bad as it always seemed. Maybe weakness is where I always needed to start.

The world is going to tell you who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to wear.

They’re going to tell you that you’ve got to be the loudest, the funniest, the crowd-drawer. They’re going to expect you to wear dresses, suits, ties and pointed shoes. They’ll tell you that’s what makes a leader, that’s what makes a world changer. They’ll tell you that the behind the scenes people are important too. “There are no small parts,” that’s what they’ll say.

And what they’ll never know is that some of the greatest leaders, greatest world changers, some of the bravest people are those who pull the curtains and cheer for the people on the stage.

What they’ll never tell you is that Mother Teresa wasn’t a show stopper and she didn’t go looking for microphones and monuments built for her name. But she was a force; she wrestled hatred with her bare hands, and she won. At age 87, she lifted her arms in victory and heard the words, “Well done.”

They told us, “Leaders don’t go to grief groups, and world changers aren’t quiet. Difference makers don’t mop floors and brave people don’t wait for anything. Leaders push, they’re the people who build something and make things happen (even if what they built doesn’t last).”

But what I’ve learned of lasting change is from the people who choose the hard things, whose names aren’t the first among the credits. They learn how to listen first, and speak carefully. They weigh their words, bend their knees and know what it means to wait, to truly wait for something to grow.

They are not afraid of the platforms or the microphones, but they have no appetite for them, no fascination with them. They do not shrink at truth, but do not speak for the sake of being heard.

I took a journey of becoming the person I want to be when I stepped through the door that led me to that grief group. When I chose to become the person that I saw as weak, I started to do the things that actually make me stronger.

What I really needed was to step into a little back room with a few people, where I didn’t need to be liked, or to get a round of applause. I needed to sit among people who knew my kind of loss and admit that it was hard, but I was going to try. I had to decide that I was willing to do the work it would take (even if it took forever).

It was the little step that led to a change that has lasted.

It won’t be the stage, the fame, the applause, that will make you the kind of person you really want to be, or help you change the world in a deep-rooted way.

Mother Teresa’s don’t come by way of popularity.

It’s when you let go of the need to have anyone know your name, the need to be seen as strong or brave; that’s when you’ll change the world in a lasting way.

We’ve Got Bigger Problems

My playlist landed on that song, it happened just as I was turning into my neighborhood in Georgia.

It poked at my heart, it nudged at some pain I’ve been carting around.

I turned it off and put it out of my mind.

This morning the same song came on, but its weight didn’t crush me. Today, I’ve got bigger problems. I’ve got bigger problems than sad songs that remind me of disappointing seasons and of people who didn’t turn out to be who I thought they were.

This morning he left. I lost an uncle. My family lost a father. The world lost a fighter.

Sad songs didn’t really seem like such a problem after that. The little heartbreaks didn’t really seem to matter when I thought about his life, the miracles he lived. The world seemed more gray this morning. The news felt like bricks breaking in an earthquake, I could hear the sound of crumbling clay around me.

The earth should shake when someone is no longer here. There should be breaking glass and falling objects when someone takes their last breath.

There are harder things than people who refuse to grow up and the problems they cause us.

Our lives should be defined by more than small obstacles, inconveniences, bad days and hurt feelings. These things are really not worth the time we give them.

If we’re going to value small things, let’s value the good ones. Let’s put our energy into falling in love with cups of coffee shared with old friends, long walks beneath cracking winter branches, take-out food with your family, and sweet memories of uncles who knew how to say i love you.

The rest of it, the little heartbreaks and disappointments, the days that are uneventful and the discontent seasons…let’s stop letting them keep us from playing a song we used to love.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Blood shot eyes, I just sat there with my face soaked in tears. Hands beneath the table, I was clenching that elegant white table cloth, praying we could just get that meal over with.

No one asked.

I think that had to be one of the most monumental moments of that year. Sitting at a table in some of the deepest pain I’ve ever known, and the people I thought were closest to me never even asked.

He was gone. Not gone on vacation, not moved away. He was really gone and at that moment being prepared to be lowered in the ground.

I could have tapped my glass, stood to give a toast, and at the end tacked on: “and with this sip of water, I toast to the life of a childhood friend who isn’t simply moving away, but who no longer has breath in his body.”

I didn’t, thank God. My mother gave me the sense to know that doing those kinds of things wouldn’t have changed what had already occurred. Still, sometimes I lie awake and wonder if it would have been an alarm clock to a room full of people who claim to love me.

I want to be the person who asks, even when I don’t want to, even if it’s uncomfortable. I want to see brokenness and not be afraid of it. I want to love people so much that even if their arms push me away, I push harder to let them know that it’s okay to not be okay.

I think sometimes we’re just all afraid to dig deeper, to ask painful questions. We’re afraid of what could occur if we light a match next the pile of dynamite pain. I don’t want to be standing too close if and when this explodes. 

“I’ll let them come to me.” We tell ourselves, “When they’re ready to talk about it… they will.”

Sometimes that’s true, but most of the time it’s an excuse.

We sit at fancy tables with white table cloths and we just try to shield our eyes from the person dripping tears into their lap. This isn’t the time or place. Can’t they just get it together until the time is more appropriate? I’ll ask them later, when there are less people around, when I have more time.

We give them a little side hug, buy their food, a little pat on the back, but we steer clear of words and apologies. It’s easier just to not ask, to say a little prayer and hope that God handles it and we don’t have to.

We’re always waiting for better moments to love people. We’re waiting until we’ve changed into lesser clothes before we sit down in the mud with them.

I’m not sure when it became embarrassing or improper to not be okay. As though it were a choice, or as if it could be controlled. We treat it as though little bandaids can hold back the blood of gaping wounds. Just put this over it, put on a little smile until it’s more convenient, but don’t break, not here, not in public.

Sitting at that table on that Sunday afternoon where no one asked, I nearly bled out. While faces were turned and entrees were served, I felt almost everything drain out of me.

I wondered if that was how he felt. Had he been stabbed with that same feeling over and over again? Had he just sat in room after room, at table after table while no one asked? Did he feel inconvenient, weak, shameful? Is that what caused him to end his life? Did they watch him bleed out, never willing to put their hands on his wounds and call for help?

You can’t save people. Those words have been said to me over and over again, I know they are true. But I can scream, I can yell, I can make a scene to say that you are loved and you are not in this thing alone. I may not can save them, but I must be willing to push people out of the ways of trains, away from cliffs; to bring flashlights to them on dark paths where it seems like there’s only one end.

I can’t save people, but that can never be a reason not to fight for someone’s life with all the fierce love inside of me.

I want to dig my heels in and say “It’s alright if you make a scene, let it out, be angry or broken. You are not an embarrassment. I don’t see you as a fragile or useless person when you’re not okay. It’s okay to not be okay.”

Pain is not a gentleman. He pushes himself to the front of the line, knocks displays over, and wounds others in his way. He does not wait patiently on the porch. He bangs his hands brutally against your door and barges in before you’ve even had time to fix your hair.

Pain shows up and there isn’t always a warning, a phone call to say what time he’ll arrive, he shows up with guns blazing. Pain is not proper, so Love is does not wait for convenience.

Love doesn’t care if her dress is wrinkled or her eyes are bloodshot. Love doesn’t mind weeping in public or knees hitting the carpet. She doesn’t really care what the onlookers at the restaurant think of her or the one she holds. She doesn’t keep a watch, doesn’t wait for quiet, isn’t afraid of words or silence. Love has no expectation, no requirement, no desire to wait for a better time. 

Pain will surely come, most times in a loud and unruly manner. When he does, may he be met with Love, who never minds a mess and isn’t afraid of making a scene.

Exchanging The Grief for The Good

My friend died.

And I remember the exact spot where my knees hit the hardwood floor of my house as soon as I read the words that no fifteen year old expects on a Monday morning.

That was the beginning of a series of stories that no matter how many times I tried, I never knew which shelf to place them on. I also didn’t know then that I’d spend years shoving and shuffling them around. I just knew that I wanted to keep them in plain sight.  It felt so wrong to just put them in the closet, or in an old wooden box beneath my bed. 

I never would have known after that first loss of the sweet blonde- haired boy, five more would follow.

Since then, I’ve never really known how to knit their names into conversations. I made their stories a piece of decor in my life, but I never know how to explain them to new guests.  How do you explain these books of loss that sit there in the center of your mantle, a focal point of your home?

“Well, these are the six people I carry in my heart and on my sleeves. I keep them close so that how they left never becomes casual. So that I don’t forget how important it is to use words, to look people in the eye, to plant myself and not run away.”

I spent years asking God to fill each of my limbs with as much love as they could hold, but every phone call that came after that first one, gave me reason to pull the plug and let the good spill out.  

The weight of love, along with the heaviness of grief, became too much for me to carry.

I thought I needed those books of grief to be front and center. I needed to remember, to make it all matter, to find some sort of higher meaning in the how and why. I needed them to be there, to remind me to find the answers; to be the one to carry the candle.

I exchanged love and living for grief, because I thought it would give their deaths some kind of meaning.

I put my laughter, my joy, and my peace in boxes that I stored in an old dusty attic and quickly forgot about the way that burnt orange leaves and the yellow lines on the pavement give me a sense of adventure. I lost touch with the way that the shades of blue in a sky, a shirt, or a set of strong eyes can stir my heart.

I think I lost myself when I lost them…and I’m starting to see how that was never a noble cause.

So, I’m learning how to take them off the mantle and put them into boxes. I’m learning that it’s okay to pack them away. It’s not wrong, or unloving, or failure to replace them with pictures of laughter at baseball games and birthday parties. It doesn’t make their lives less. Nothing could do that.

I never even let most people read those stories, because I knew if they did, they’d see the evidence of my tears on those pages. I knew they’d see the stains of my own doubt and fear scattered throughout. Those stories brought out the worst of me, the parts that I thought, if ever seen, would cause a person to leave.

I’m learning that this loss shouldn’t be the center of my story. Those aren’t the books I want others to read when they come over for coffee and a game night. I want them to hear lullabies of laughter and about stories of “fudgery almond” ice cream and to watch the fullness of joy that has come, now that I’ve decided to pack away the years of grief.

There will be times, when strangers become friends and then become family, and I’ll occasionally take them to that attic. I’ll pull out those dusty books and I’ll show them the stories of those people; the faces of the kids who made me better. The ones I miss, and the childhood we shared and how they made me laugh, called me great, played footsie with me, picked me up and swung me around. I’ll tell them about the car crashes and the weapons and the choices so dark that I’ll have to ask them to bring a flashlight, because I might still get a little afraid.

I know these stories will always be around. They’ll always stay somewhere inside these walls, that’s the price we pay for love. But I can’t keep them on this mantle, on the shelves of this living room. Because they are books that have will always questions that I can’t answer, and pages that are blank and that I wish could have been filled. But there’s just no more to be added, there’s nothing I could say or write to change what they were, what they are.

It’s another Monday morning, and I’m now seven years older. I’ve finally let God lift me up from the floor, I let him help me pack these boxes.

I’m letting him bring down the ones I took up there a long time ago, the ones that find life and joy in the good things like colder weather, sunsets and stories that aren’t so sad.

I finally see how that’s perfectly okay and it doesn’t make me selfish and it doesn’t mean I love them any less or that I won’t let it remind me to  use words, to look people in the eye, to plant myself and not run away”. 

But this life…it’s for living, for laughing and for loving. Yeah, sometimes we find ourselves losing, but I don’t want that to be the center of my story.

I’m learning that it’s brave to live on, to live fully, when you’ve lost people you love. That it’s not heartless or reckless, or careless to pack the sadness away.

In our monkey bar and sandbox days, we lived in the moment and laughed without fear. I’m seeing now that’s what we always wanted for each other, and those are the memories of them that keep me strong. I’m not sorry that I felt their loss, that I let it make me cry, but I’m sorry that I let the grief outstay the good.

So the good things are what I’ll keep in plain sight and I’ll let God pack the grief away.

Their stories were beautiful, but this one is mine and I think it’s time that it become stronger, braver, and the laughter-filled kind.