We have counted on preaching and teaching
to form the life of the Christian. But this strategy has not turned out well.
The result is that we have multitudes of Christians who
can hardly get along with themselves, much less others.”
~ Dallas Willard
For me, 2020 was the best of years and it was the worst of years. Newly married and loving my life, beauty stretched out over a seemingly-endless horizon. Then came the pandemic. Then daily riots broke out in my city. Then the 2020 election cycle. All these things converged at the same time churches were forced to suspend in-person gatherings in an effort to keep people safe. Church attendance has been a pillar of my life and I did not find online worship to be at all compelling (but I love and respect churches SO much for pivoting to that format).
Had you told me five years ago that I would go months without stepping inside a church building, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now that I’ve lived through that very reality, I’ve discovered something important and it’s this: The Church, as it stands right now, cannot handle the full weight of spiritual formation. In fact, I don’t think it was ever intended to. The Church is built for equipping. A ski shop can outfit you with all the essential equipment you need to tackle those slopes, but the ski shop cannot make you a great skier. That’s on you. That takes practice. That happens out there on the steep, steep mountain. Or, to use a metaphor I can actually relate to: A cookbook and a chef’s hat cannot make you a great cook. Only real time in the kitchen with a lot of success and a multitude of failures can do that.
2020 & 2021 have been exactly that for me: Time in the kitchen. It has been a time of reorientation, as the corporate Church was forcibly removed from the very center of everything I do, and the life and way and words of Jesus became a truer and more reliable compass. During this time, I ran into an old book by Dallas Willard called Renovation of the Heart and it has upended so many things while also setting so many things right. I won’t go deeply into the book’s content because it’s very dense and hard to capsulize, but I will say that it has led me to a more intense and intentional discipleship practice than ever in my 56 years of living. And it has been unbelievably difficult and unendingly beautiful.
Each morning, after reading something in the Bible, I sit down with my journal and the Holy Spirit and I get really, really honest about the Big 6. The Big 6 are the six things that comprise my whole life. They are:
3. Decisions (will, spirit, heart)
4. Relational Context
These six things are the rooms of the house where I live – and they will only be as healthy as the thing around which they orbit. Every day, I ask: Are my thoughts oriented fully around You and Your way? Are my feelings? Are my decisions? Is my body? Is my soul? Are my relationships?
And every day I discover stuff in myself that is incompatible with His way and His love for me. BUT…and this is big, every day I discover something more beautiful about Him than I’ve seen before – and that beauty covers my wounds and my failures and my inadequacies with grace, while still calling me to a higher, better life. Each day, I find that the Bible offers direct insight into WHO Jesus really is and WHO I really am – and when I bring those two truths together – boom! – real change is possible. And, wow, I feel that change happening – in the peace I have at night, in the way I respond to conflict, in the way I view my enemies, in the soul-deep joy I feel in spite of this season of global unrest.
Allowing His heart to form inside of my heart is not producing anything marketable. I’ve never written less or been less relevant in the Christian marketplace where I used to schlep my words, but it is producing so much LIFE. It’s life I thought I already had, but now I realize there is always so much more to experience of His love for us. I’m finally understanding that I will never get to the depths of His goodness, but I will happily keep drowning in it for all of eternity.
If you are longing for the life of Jesus to come alive in you and to work through you, could I suggest you start with your Big 6? I still love the Church fiercely, but going to church will not be enough. Listening to great teachers will not be enough. Paying your dues will not be enough. Spiritual formation is all about spending honest time with the Holy Spirit, letting Him examine our hearts and show us His way. It’s about inviting Him into road trips and long walks and quiet mornings to let Him do the work He came to do: Counsel and comfort.
Oh, how He longs to be with us. Oh, how He loves us.
Victor Frankl tells this story of his arrival in a Nazi death camp:
“There were still naive prisoners among us who asked, to the amusement of the more seasoned ones who were there as helpers, if they could not keep a wedding ring, a medal or a good-luck piece. No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away.
I tried to take one of the old prisoners into my confidence. Approaching him furtively, I pointed to the roll of paper in the inner pocket of my coat and said, “Look, this is the manuscript of a scientific book. I know what you will say; that I should be grateful to escape with my life, that that should be all I an expect of fate. But I cannot help myself. I must keep this manuscript at all costs; it contains my life’s work. Do you understand that?”
A grin spread slowly over his face first piteous, then more amused, mocking, insulting, until he bellowed one word at me in answer to my question, a word that was ever present in the vocabulary of the camp inmates: “Shit!” At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.
As a writer myself, I cannot imagine the searing pain and lingering ache of throwing a manuscript away. I could lose everything else – my pretty wedding ring, photographs, everything except the humans I love – and survive it, but I cannot imagine losing my work.
However, this excerpt is from a little book called, Man’s Search for Meaning and it is Viktor Frankl’s tour de force. In it, Frankl posits that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but meaning. It has become one of the most influential books in the world, selling millions and helping to form our critical thinking around coping through suffering. I don’t know what was written in the manuscript Frankl lost when he arrived in his worst nightmare, but I know it wasn’t this. Our stories are formed by our experience and they are sharpened and strengthened by our suffering.
My friend, Emma, had a complicated and painful relationship with her dad until his death when she was in high school. She recently posted on the anniversary of his passing and said this: “Anniversaries are sometimes horrible and heart wrenching and sometimes merely sentimental and contemplative, and I’m still understanding the balancing act of honoring both, and that honor includes the person you lost and the person you became because you lost them.”
I keep turning that phrase over in my mind…”the person you lost and the person you became because you lost them.”
I hold in my hands the book that became of what that Viktor Frankl lost. And it is magnificent.
I wonder: Can you trace back to a moment when the story you were writing disappeared? Can you pinpoint exactly when the pages flew out of your hand and into the winds of change or circumstance or suffering? I can. I know exactly the moment. I remember begging God to save my story. I remember trying to gather pages as they scattered, hoping to piece something together with what remained. I remember the absolute certainty that I would not survive it.
When we feel we’ve lost everything, or most things, or the one thing we’re certain we can’t live without – the only way forward is to realize the story is still in-the-making.
He put a new song in my mouth and a new pen in my hand. And the story I’m writing today is more painful and more purposeful than anything contained in the first draft. Maybe it isn’t my work after all.
When last we spoke, I mentioned how Psalm 139:1 had sucker-punched my life (in all good ways). It woke me up to the idea that God is not attracted to my wins and repelled by my wounds. It boldly asserts: You search me and know everything about me. Everything. Such a big, scary, crazy word. Such a big concept, in fact, that it’s easy to get lost in it and feel lost in the billions of people God is busy searching and knowing.
One way to bring this concept home to roost, is to write out twenty ordinary or extraordinary things that God knows about you right now. Don’t overthink it – include big and little, bad and beautiful. Be honest. Be transparent. Be gracious with yourself (it’s hard to write honestly about negative things in your life without mentally building a backup plan for how you’re gonna fix that stuff – but this is not the time for fixing because our verse doesn’t say anything about fixing – it only says “God knows”.) My list – and this squeezes my courage to share it – looks like this:
My fears. My phobias. My deep love for my kids. My worry that I’m doing it wrong. My fear of getting older. My sense of humor. My love of the show New Girl. My desire to be smart. My need to be liked. My love of Italy. My love of Bend. My fear that politics will separate me from the friends that I love. My frustration that I can’t lose weight – and the change in identity it’s created. My tendency towards jealousy of other writers. My resistance to revisiting old memories of Steve. My struggle to love ___________ (not gonna share that one with you!) My love of cooking. My need for my mom when I’m sick. My fear of losing her (perhaps my oldest, truest fear.) The way I so often feel like an “almost”.
I wrote this list through tears weeks ago, but it still moves me when I read it. To know that God sees the good and bad and petty and silly and hidden and hopeful parts of me and STILL has a multitude of precious and wonderful thoughts about me? Oof. It’s just too much wonder to take in.
That’s all I’ve got today and the end of verse 1. Stay tuned, though, because verse 2? She’s a beaut!
Journal prompt: Make a list of twenty things God knows about you. Include things like your favorite color, your worst habit, your deepest fear, your truest love. Write without mentally making notes to fix yourself. Write without guilt that God can see you. Write knowing how unconditionally crazy about you He is. This is our God. And He is good.
Still sifting through Psalm 139:1 (here’s the first thing I wrote about this verse) and if you’ve forgotten what it says, let me bring you up to date:
You have searched me, Lord, and You know me.
I didn’t want to leave this little verse behind yet, because it revealed a fault line in my thinking that I suspect is problematic for a bunch of us which is this idea that God searches us (remember the tax-auditor analogy?) and is repelled by the icky stuff and happy with the good stuff. First of all, it’s not true – as we move down the road in this Psalm (and a million other places in the Bible) we’ll find that His thoughts towards us are precious – His love for us extravagant and unconditional. And yet there is this simmering fear in me that if He searches me and doesn’t like what He sees, He won’t like me – at least not in that moment.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal:
“It is fundamentally problematic to believe that my failures and inadequacies repel Him or place me out of reach of His love. It leads to striving, working for approval…it creates an addiction to accomplishments. If God is repelled by my failures and attracted to my achievements, then what is He when I am neutral – neither winning or losing? This gamifies my relationship with Him and for some personality types, that’s a big draw – but for others, it’s an immediate defeat – a quick trip to inadequacy. This makes an enemy of rest. This keeps me always on my tiptoes and His love always just a little bit out of reach.”
This little-but-big idea is insidious – but I see it in my thinking and I want it to change. I want to understand and receive the love of a God who is able to view the whole of my life with the vision and grace only a good, good Father could possess. I don’t want to hustle for His love or hide from His attention.
I did an exercise to help me understand this truth more fully and tomorrow I’ll scrape together all my courage and share it with you. Until then, here’s your journal prompt: Are there any ways I have learned to believe my successes will earn the love of God or others and my failures will lead to abandonment and rejection?
Keep leaning into love, friends.
I have this theory that becomes more of a certainty to me every day and it’s this: The ultimate longing of every human is to be seen, known and loved.
That’s it. That’s what we want and what we need. We need to know that there is someone out there who knows the real us, understands why we are the way we are and remains inexplicably crazy about us.
Take a sec right now if you would, close your eyes and answer this one question (we’ll do this a lot during our time in 139): Who in my life has ever made me feel seen, known and unconditionally loved? (The answer might be “no one” and if it is, I’m so sorry – but I’m also excited for you to find the love you’re looking for in the only place it can be found.)
Throughout my life, I’ve scraped and clawed for that kind of love from good and bad sources – but honestly, even the “good” sources – like the most incredible parents in the universe or two amazing husband – are not able to pull it off completely. There remains a supernatural longing that can only be filled by a supernatural source.
Enter…Psalm 139:1. David’s awe-filled anthem about the height, depth and breadth of the love of God. It is stunning right out of the gate:
Lord, you know everything there is to know about me. (Passion Translation)
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. (NIV)
O Lord, You have examined my heart and know everything about me. (NLT)
O Eternal One, You have explored my heart and know exactly who I am. (The Voice)
Up until now, my first reaction to the idea of Him seeing and knowing me has not typically been joy…it’s been fear. The idea of anyone knowing everything about me makes me a little queasy. And that queasy feeling? It’s a huge obstacle to experiencing His love fully and freely. Honestly, it’s one of the biggest obstacles we’ll face in this journey.
Story time: In my early career as a *bookkeeper, the company I worked for was **audited. The tax guy came (I’ll always remember he wore a slightly purple suit because the 80’s were pretty awesome like that) and sat at a makeshift desk behind my desk and sifted through receipts and ledgers for three full days. Even though he never found anything wrong, the tension in the office was palpable every second of his visit, and I don’t think it was just the color of his suit that was unsettling. We knew he was examining us with the intent of finding mistakes.
One year later, our first child was born. My husband and I laid together in my hospital bed, holding that little blonde bundle and looking at every perfect detail on her entirely perfect face. We counted fingers and toes, we smelled her little head, we cried and marveled and vowed that never, no, NEVER shall any boy be good enough for this princess of a girl.
My point is: David is not extolling the praise of God-our-Tax-Examiner. He is in awe of God-our-good-good-Father. Our Father who sees and knows us, who marvels over our faces our gifts and our beauty. I get that it’s hard to believe – we’ve been our own tax auditors for so long, it’s hard to imagine someone looking in love at all the mess we see. But, that one truth is fundamental to believing anything else at all about the love of God. We must be willing to die to the lie that God is out to catch us and come alive to the truth that He is crazy in love with us. Will His love sometimes bring correction? Sure. But the truth in first position is always: Love. He sees us and knows us and loves us – even when He wants more for us than we want for ourselves.
That’s enough for today. But we’re not done with this verse yet. There’s so much more to discover in 139:1. (If you pulled out that old notebook and want to scribble down some thoughts about this – I’ve included a journal prompt at the end.) Next up: How to fight the lie that puts God out of reach. It’s gonna be so good.
Journal prompt: What is your first reaction to the idea that God sees every part of you, knows the heart of you and loves the entirety of you? Is this reaction built on truth or a lie?
*I know, shocking, right? I also cannot believe anyone let me go near numbers.
**The company was not audited because of my poor bookkeeping skills, however.