Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Know Now

One year ago today, I received a phone call I will never forget.

One year ago today, my heart broke into pieces on the floor.

One year ago today, I lost some of my faith, some of my strength, some of my hope.

One year ago today, Nathan drew his last breath on earth.

But today is not a day for mourning. Today is a day for celebration. Because one year ago today, Nathan closed his eyes in death and opened them in the arms of his Savior.

During the year before his death, I prayed for Nathan to find healing, find hope, find redemption. I prayed for him to make peace with his past, with himself, with his God. I prayed for him to know love, know forgiveness, know grace. And when he died, it felt all wrong. It felt like defeat. It felt like failure. It felt like God had given up on Nathan.

After a long and painful year of grief, anger, and brokenness, I have finally come to understand, to believe, to know in the farthest corners of my soul that Nathan's death was not a defeat. It was not a failure. And God did not give up on Nathan. How do I know? Because God   is   love. In my limited humanity, I cannot even begin to understand what it means to be love. But this much I know: Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres—LOVE NEVER FAILS. It's the kind of love we have all longed for from the moment we were born. It's the kind of love that covers over our multitude of flaws and somehow makes us more than we are. It's the kind of love that carries us through our darkest moments. It's the kind of love that picks up the pieces and painstakingly puts us back together. It's the kind of love that holds us up when nothing else will. It's the kind of the love that won't abandon us even when everyone else has. This love never gives up. This love never fails. This love is never defeated. And this love surrounded Nathan every moment of his life.

I do not understand the purpose in Nathan's death. This is a mystery I will carry with me until the day I meet my God. But after a year of grieving and searching for answers, I have found the only answer that matters: God  is  love. Don't skip over those words because you've read them a million times, because they've been quoted to you all of your life, or because they're too simple to be the answer you need. Those three little words change everything. It means we were created, chosen, and redeemed in love. It means we are sanctified, disciplined, and refined in love. It means we will be resurrected, glorified, and welcomed in love. And it means that everything God has purposed for us is in love.

Do I wish things had ended differently? Of course. Do I still grieve for the loss of Nathan's life, his future, his earthly redemption? Absolutely. Would I change things if I could? No. Because after twelve months and many painstaking layers of healing, I believe with all my heart that God  is  love. And that means God would not have written this ending to Nathan's story if it was not the most loving outcome possible.

I realize now that none of those prayers I offered on Nathan's behalf were in vain. In fact, God answered every single one of them. It just didn't happen the way I expected or the way I would have chosen. The moment Nathan left this earth, he found hope, healing, and redemption beyond all human understanding. He made peace once and for all with his past, with himself, and with his God. And he finally knew love, knew forgiveness, and knew grace in a way that would set him free for all eternity.

Two days after Nathan's death, I was listening to a CD from one of my favorite artists, Bebo Norman. When the song "I Know Now" came on, the floodgates of my grief were opened anew. It was if I heard Nathan's voice telling me the story of his healing:

I took a walk down to the river
A broken heart in my hands
Before the Taker and the Giver
To make my final stand

I waded out into the water
And I sank just like a stone
But I was lifted by the Angel
To never be alone

And I never knew
I could lay my burdens down
And I never knew
Redemption could be found
But I know now

I saw Your mercy in the morning
In the color of the sky
I let the Spirit wash me over
And the sun began to rise

And I never knew
I could lay my burdens down
And I never knew
Redemption could be found
But I know now

I took a walk down to the river
And I laid my burdens down
Before the Taker and the Giver
And I am finally found
And I am finally found

(Bebo Norman, "I Know Now")

I wasn't ready to hear it that day. There was still too much sorrow, too much loss, too much disappointment. But things are different now. Today this story gives me reason to rejoice. Because one year ago today, Nathan was finally found. One year ago today, Nathan's life began. And that is most definitely cause for celebration.

Happy Homegoing, Nathan. You are loved and you are missed. But we rejoice in your redemption.

(I couldn't find the song to add it to my music player, but you can hear it at this link. Just press the play button next to the song title.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Pursuit

When I first began telling the story of my grief and healing way back here, I drew a chart in my journal to help me remember and understand the stages I had been through. It looked like this:

That's ten stages, if you're counting.

And in case you're wondering, after two-and-a-half months and nine blog posts, I've only managed to write about the first four stages. But don't panic. I am about to cover the remaining six all in one sitting. Okay, maybe you should panic after all.

Long after I made that chart, I realized the first four stages were all part of the mental and spiritual process I needed to go through on my way towards healing. They were big belief-altering, viewpoint-shifting issues that needed to be confronted, torn apart, examined bit by bit, and finally rebuilt. From grief to prayer to sovereignty to shame and grace—all of them hard-fought struggles, all of them exhausting and painful. But once I had gone through them, I entered the second half of my journey: the emotional process of reconciliation. Though greater in number, these stages were, to put it mildly, a whole lot less complicated. For the most part, they didn't even require much effort from me. They happened naturally as my heart ran the gamut of emotions and slowly but surely began to make peace with the One who had broken my heart and was patiently waiting to put it back together again.

When I first came out of the mental/spiritual half of my process, I was left with a rather large dose of apathy. Partly it was the result of being emotionally exhausted after months and months of active struggle. Partly it was the simple fact that I just wasn't ready to move towards reconciliation with God. But underneath all of that was the 'A' word: ANGER. Not just anger or even Anger but ANGER. Oh, I had been angry many times in the months following Nathan's death. But, without realizing it, I had never allowed myself to be angry AT God. To yell and scream AT Him for breaking my heart, for leaving me to grieve alone, for choosing this path for me and for us—a path that left me miles away from God. Shortly after Nathan died, I stopped believing God was listening. And being angry at someone without being heard by them only breeds more anger. So I pushed it aside for months and ended up feeling quite apathetic about being (or not being) in relationship with God.

Eventually and inevitably, my apathy turned to an unexplained bout of anxiety, followed days later by deep gut-wrenching, yell-inducing ANGER. I yelled, cried, vented, and sometimes just seethed at God over the course of several days before finally writing the poem entitled "Making War." I don't know if this is true for everyone, but for me, the artist and the writer, putting my anger into words and creating a tangible representation of it helped me to feel heard. Although I did not understand it then, I realize now that feeling heard by God was the first step towards the restoration of our relationship. Of course, had I known this at the time, it would have just made me angrier. I wasn't ready to reconcile. I was still angry, still deeply wounded by all that had transpired between God and me.

As the brunt of my anger began to recede, I started to feel both the extent of my hurt and the greatness of the chasm that now stood between us. But whenever I thought about God or sensed His presence, the only thing I could say was this: "I don't want to be with You." Because I didn't. I wasn't so much angry anymore, just hurt. And broken. And oh so tired. Tired of fighting, tired of trying to understand, tired of trying to believe, tired of trying to heal, tired of trying to make peace. My head kept telling me I needed to pursue reconciliation, needed to spend time with God, needed to move forward. But my heart was not ready. I could not even bring myself to ask God for the desire to be with Him because I knew He would give it to me, and I didn't even want to want Him.

I am thankful that no one really pushed me to overcome my own resistance during this stage of my journey. I think my wounds needed to heal slowly, in their own time—without poking and prodding from me or anyone else. I know now, of course, that God was at work even then, doing what I could not do, what I could not even ask Him to do. Again, I wouldn't have appreciated this thought while I was still in the midst of my process. To realize that God was still so intimately involved and intertwined with me even when I had completely disengaged from the relationship would have felt more like a boundary violation than anything else. How grateful I am that God does not cease His work in me because of my weakness, my brokenness, and even my unwillingness. He knew that someday I would be willing, and He faithfully made preparations for that day.

At some point, although I am not exactly sure when, my unwillingness did leave me. It was not instantly transformed into willingness, but I no longer felt the overwhelming sense of "I don't want to be with You." Because ever so gradually, I began to believe that I did want to be with Him. But I didn't know how. The gap seemed too wide, the passage of time too great, the baggage of our relationship too full to unpack and put away in the closet. And all of that added up to a brick wall standing between us, one that I had no ability to get over, around, or through. The first pangs of desire were stirring in my heart, but it wasn't enough. I needed something more. I didn't know what, but something.

That "something" came unexpectedly from the most unlikely of places. A long-time friend wrote a scathing letter attacking my morality, my grief over Nathan's death, my relationship with God, my faith, and all the work God has been doing in my life over the past few years. I never saw it coming, although in retrospect, perhaps I should have. Her words cut me deeply and, ultimately, brought an end to our friendship. It wasn't what I wanted. But in some ways, it was exactly what I needed. God and I had been standing on opposite sides of a brick wall, but when the accusations were made, they were made against us—not just me, but God, too. And suddenly God and I were on the same side. Maybe my need for God finally outweighed my reluctance. Maybe all the lies made the truth shine more brightly. Maybe my heart was simply ready to move forward. Whatever the case may be, I will not dignify the attack by saying it had any merit or that it was of God. It didn't, and it wasn't. But God knew it was coming. And He knew exactly how He would use it to further my healing and move us one step closer to reconciliation. For that, I am grateful.

As the smoke cleared from this friendship-ending conflict, I found myself sitting squarely in the last stage: I was finally ready to rebuild intimacy with my Creator. And that's how I began writing this story on Nathan's 19th birthday, July 7, 2009. I felt certain that I needed to remember and record the many chapters of this journey before I could begin the slow process of restoring a relationship that had been broken for nine-plus months. Of course, God knew differently. God knew that this writing of my story was not just an exercise in revisiting and summarizing. God knew it would be as much a part of my healing as the 10 stages that had come before. God knew this was stage 11. Thankfully, He didn't tell me that upfront. Or else I might have crumpled into a heap on the floor and refused to move forward. I do that sometimes, you know. Telling my story seemed like a difficult task but somehow doable. Telling my story while grieving, processing, healing, and rebuilding intimacy was entirely out of the question. Or so I thought.

As I wrote about each stage of my journey, it was as if I was re-living that stage all over again, albeit with greater awareness and a bit more understanding of what was happening. A single blog post would take hours and hours of writing over the course of days and sometimes weeks, not because of how much I was writing but because I was actively processing and working through the issues while I was trying to write about them. It's been emotional, exhausting, and time consuming. But it has been worth it. My newfound beliefs about sovereignty and prayer have been solidified, my release from Shame has been completed, the last threads of doubt and resentment towards God have been resolved, and, yes, the intimacy-rebuilding process is well under way. Because writing my story was not the obstacle or the prerequisite to rebuilding intimacy with God. It was the means by which we would begin the arduous pursuit of a better relationship, a pursuit that I hope will last a lifetime.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Beautiful Redemption

In view of my deliverance from Shame, this question remains: Why did Shame still affect the way I responded to God in the wake of Nathan's death? The answer, of course, is complicated. But you weren't expecting anything less, were you?

To begin with, I dare say that my release from Shame was not yet complete at the time of Nathan's death nearly one year ago. Although I have been an active participant in this process of accepting Grace and owning myself all along, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I realized the significance of everything I have been doing in the past couple of years. God and His Grace have been at work without me knowing or understanding what they were up to. And I am thankful for that. It reminds me that I am not in charge of my healing. Although I must be willing and I must press on in the day-to-day working out of my faith, I do not have to see the big picture, understand what comes next or even what came before, or know how to find my way back to spiritual health again. These are all things that fall under God's jurisdiction, and I know from years of experience that He does them beautifully and beyond all expectation. This doesn't mean the journey won't be messy, deeply painful, and sometimes terrifying—most times it is exactly those things. But it means that I can trust Him to bring about Redemption in His way and in His time. And in the end, I will stand in awe of His handiwork.

I am starting to believe that Nathan's death and the subsequent devastation in my relationship with God were actually the final layers of my healing from Shame. When I worked my way through Philip Yancey's book on prayer a few months ago, I was struck by the idea that God desires to be in relationship with us much the way we are in relationship with our most intimate human companions. It is not so much about superior versus inferior, authority versus subject. Rather it is more about partnership, more about give and take. Yes, God is sovereign, holy, and in absolute authority over us. But He wants us to engage with Him as though we are equals. He wants us to bargain, argue, and wrestle with Him just as Abraham, Moses, and Jacob did. These things not only develop and strengthen the relationship between us but they are also the very things that shape and refine our character along the way.

As I was pondering this new perspective, I realized the view of God I had been carrying for much of my life involved God being far above and superior in our relationship and me being a mere speck of human disaster whom God reluctantly allowed to exist in relationship with Him. And here, I believe, is where the influence of Shame becomes evident. My relationship with God began and took form almost simultaneously with the development of my bondage to Shame. I related to God within the confines of my unacceptability. Although I knew in my head that I was not saved by works, that I could not lose my salvation, those were far-off ill-defined concepts compared to the very real sense of worthlessness and impending rejection that I lived with day in and day out. It is no surprise, then, that the picture of God I came up with was heavily colored by Shame. My sins had been forgiven by the pardon of Grace, but I had not yet experienced the acceptance of Grace. And as long as I carried the burden of being an unacceptable human being, I was incapable of engaging with God on anything close to equal footing.

When Grace began to take root in my soul, I slowly came to believe that I was worthy of acceptance and worthy of being loved by my Creator. I even started to consider the possibility that Grace would never reject me. But I did not know that my view of God and my understanding of our roles in this relationship needed to be redefined in the light of Grace. Or perhaps I simply wasn't ready to do so. Over time, I came to trust that God would not reject me or treat me as if I were worthless to Him, but I think the fear of that still lurked beyond the edges, waiting for the right moment to make a grand re-entrance.

When Nathan died, it felt as if my prayers for him did not matter to God, as if I did not matter to God. More than that, it felt as though God had burdened my heart to pray for Nathan knowing full well that He would not answer my prayers. This left me feeling set up for the devastation that followed Nathan's death. If I was valued, loved, and accepted by God, why would He treat me this way? In my Shame-filtered view of God, there was only one answer: Because I was worthless and God had finally cast me aside, just as my worthlessness deserved. As this belief settled into my soul, my heart shut down, my walls went up, and I cut off relationship with the One I had loved more than life.

It would be months before I understood what had happened between God and me. Even longer before I realized the role Shame had played in this. Longer still before I would be ready to open my heart again. But all the while, God was at work, prying away the last shackles of Shame. As I reevaluated my beliefs about sovereignty and prayer, recounted the redemption and deliverance in my past, and reexamined the effects of Shame on my relationship with God, I began to construct a new understanding of God—an understanding that was no longer darkened by the shadow of my Shame. In many ways, He was very much the same—Redeemer, Deliverer, Ever-Present Help, Comforter, Defender, Healer. In other ways, He was vastly different—reserved in His sovereignty, respecting of our free will, aware of our suffering but not involved in the choosing of it, changeless in nature but responsive to our prayers, desiring of our highest good but knowing it will not always come to be. But the most important difference was this: I now knew in every corner of my being that God was the Giver of Grace—Grace that accepted me completely, Grace that deemed me worthy of acceptance, Grace that would never reject me. And after two long decades, the chains of Shame were finally broken.

In truth, I do not know the precise moment when I fell into the arms of Grace, no longer held captive by Shame. In many ways, there was no precise moment. It was more of a gradual letting go of the lies I believed and an equally gradual taking hold of the truth. But at the same time, I also believe my healing was not fully complete until the day I revisited my Shame and realized that it was no longer mine, that I belonged to Grace, that I had been set free. For that reason, I will always celebrate August 4, 2009, as the day when Shame fell down in defeat and I became a child of Grace. It has not been any easy road. This is not the path I would have chosen, for me or for Nathan. But as I am nearing the end of it, I find myself rejoicing in our Beautiful Redemption and the One who brought it about.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Embracing Grace

In December of 2006, nine months after the discovery of my Shame, I wrote these words in a letter to my family and friends:

The only answer to my Shame [is] God's pure Grace. It is by this Grace that He offers me acceptance without possibility of rejection, and this ultimate acceptance is the only thing that will ever heal my deep fear of being measured, found wanting, and rejected as worthless. I wish I could say that I have conquered this fear and embraced the Grace I so desperately need, but the truth is that I am still very much 'in process' with this part of my healing. I am grateful that God has begun this work, and I look forward to the day when I may joyfully declare that Shame has lost its hold on me. For now, I praise God for His faithfulness and cling to the promise that He will bring His good work to completion in me.

Two years and nine months later, it is with great joy that I declare to you today: Shame has lost its hold on me. I am weeping as I tell you this because I am a prisoner who has been set free, a slave released from bondage, a woman saved by Grace from the devastating grip of Shame. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel in the farthest reaches of my being.

So how did this happen? Slowly, quietly, and, of course, miraculously.

Unbeknownst to me, the work of Grace did not cease simply because I did not understand how to accept the acceptance of Grace. Seeds of Grace had been planted in my soul, and over the ensuing three and a half years, God nurtured them until they took root, grew, and eventually flourished. Slowly I came to believe that I had been created with infinite worth, and this belief gave me the courage to begin developing into the person God meant for me to be. This pursuit of my true self was encouraged and held accountable through my involvement with a group of fellow believers and pursuers, a group that has since become known as a Christlikeness Group. Although I did not understand it until now, the dynamic of this group has demonstrated Grace to me in tangible terms—I am accepted and loved just as I am but I am given the strength to become more than I am, more than I have ever been, more than I ever believed I could be. As I continued pursuing the characteristics of Christ in my daily life, God continued His behind-the-scenes work to bring about the miracle I so desperately needed but did not fully believe possible.

It happened so quietly that I did not even know I had been set free from Shame until I began reviewing my notes from Shame and Grace in preparation for writing another chapter in my story about Nathan's death and my subsequent journey toward healing. The first time I read Shame and Grace, it seemed as if the first half of the book had been written specifically for me. It was the story of my life, or rather the story of my Shame. It described perfectly everything I felt and believed about myself. When I moved into the second half, I struggled to understand this concept of Grace, so foreign to me in my slavery to Shame. Grace was everything I wanted, everything I needed. But it seemed beyond my reach. Then a few weeks ago, I re-read my notes (all 24 type-written pages of them!) and I knew something was different. In reading the parts about Shame, it did not seem as if I were looking in a mirror but more as if I were looking at a scrapbook—the way my life used to be, the way I used to be, the way my Shame used to be. When I revisted the chapters on Grace, this concept no longer seemed foreign but instead familiar. I recognized myself in the descriptions of Grace, and that's when I knew: I had accepted the acceptance of Grace, and Grace had set me free.

Lewis B. Smedes, author of Shame and Grace, says this: "The experience of acceptance is the beginning of our healing; to accept ourselves is a signal that we are getting healthy." Although my acceptance of Grace happened gradually, my experience of Grace's acceptance began the moment I read the words and knew what Grace offered. That, indeed, was the beginning of my healing. And the work I have been doing these past few years has been the process by which I have become healthy—I have sought to accept myself as I am while striving to become more of who I was created to be. This acceptance of myself has really been what Smedes calls "taking ownership of myself." This ownership includes owning my raw materials (the genetics and the circumstances I've been given), owning my shadows (my flaws, vices, failings, etc.), and owning my pride (or, in other words, taking pride in the self I own). It is interesting to note that, as Smedes says, this pride we take in ourselves is much different than the pride that comes before a fall:

The pride that comes before the fall is what the Greeks called hubris. We call it arrogance.… A person who has experienced grace knows that what she is and what she has are gifts of God, so when she feels pride, she feels gratitude with the same impulse. Arrogance is pride without gratitude while grace-given pride is nothing but gratitude.

A few months ago, someone I considered a close friend lodged some very weighty accusations against me. Among them was the assertion that, over the past two to three years, I have become increasingly selfish in my relationship with God, that it has been more and more about discovering who I am and how I want to live my faith and less about living for God's glory and His purposes. I knew immediately that my friend was wrong. But until recently, I was at a loss to explain why she had made such an awful allegation. What I am beginning to realize is that not everyone understands this concept of self-ownership, especially people who have grown up in grace-less religion or with un-accepting parents. The fact of the matter is that I have indeed been discovering the person I was created to be and how I am called to live out my faith. But this has not come at the expense of God's glory or His purposes. In fact, the very opposite is true. I bring God more glory and fulfill His purposes more fully and more consistently when I am the person He created me to be. And I can tell you without one iota of doubt that I am absolutely more of the person I was created to be today than I was three and a half years ago. I was not created to live under the bondage of Shame. I was created to be free in the arms of Grace. And by the miracle of God's working, I am. Hallelujah!