Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Release Them" -- Love, Fear, and Letting Go of the Past

Summer. The beginning of Wedding Season, and I wasn't exactly in the best place to enjoy it.

"This weekend is a celebration of love," I wrote in my journal the night before a friend's wedding. "I'm in a particularly vulnerable place right now, since I've been reminded of my wounds and my agreements about love. Things look poised to press all those vulnerable places tomorrow. Protect me, God, from making agreements with lies; heal my heart."

I had been re-reading a new favourite book, Walking with God by John Eldredge, and in one chapter the author had talked about his agreements with love. His words resonated with me, dragging up memories from my past and hitting me in the chest with my own beliefs about love:

"Have I made an agreement that I will never be loved?...Agreements are really nasty and subtle things. They pin our hearts down, or shut them down by handing over to the enemy a sort of key to a certain room in our hearts...Think back over your story of love. In those moments when you were wounded, you were really vulnerable for agreements to come in. They come swiftly, imperceptibly, often as some message delivered with a wound...I came back to this issue with a question for myself: What do I believe about love? That it never stays." (pp. 93-96)

This chapter brought a startling wave of pain as I faced my own beliefs about love, and was an unexpected jolt to realizing my need of healing afresh.

God had been bringing up my issues with love and fear in various ways since the beginning of the year (as I also discuss here), but I was a professional at pushing them to the back of my mind. I was always so busy.

Now, once more, I ignored my insecurities and anxieties and wounds, getting busy with finishing my Master's dissertation and having various mini existential crises. But God would not be put off so easily. He kept bringing up the issue in little ways. Again and again and again.

I kept being confronted with my fearfulness about love and life in general, and particularly at the end of the summer, some things began happening in my life and in my head that made me not want to be a slave to those fears any more.

Two or three weeks ago I bought an old book about one woman's experience in her Christian life and her growing intimacy with God. (The pile of books I'm currently reading ever increases--one of the delights of finally having time to read for pleasure!)

Last week I had been reading a chapter on forgiveness and letting go, and now as I sat on my bedroom floor, cup of tea in hand, I started reading the next chapter, which just so happened to talk about fear.

And suddenly God said to me, not so much in a voice as in a strong impression, "Release them. Release them to me."

The thought was so clear and startling that I wrote it down in my journal.

I knew what God wanted me to release, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to go there.

I didn't really want to go through the memories and pain and issues that I habitually relegated to my subconscious, yet which I knew had such a hold over me and how I interacted with others.

The things I told myself on my darkest nights, while my head knew they were twisted and false, had the strange comfort of familiarity.

Hiding from love, hiding from risk, hiding from the possibility of rejection and censure, was a way to protect the vulnerable, unhealed places in my heart. I had been coping, hadn't I? Perhaps. But not living the way I was meant to live.

I knew that whatever else God was up to, He was after my transformation. As John Eldredge puts it: "Remember--He is after both our transformation and our joy. The one hangs upon the other...Whole and holy. The two go hand in hand... Healed. As in fixed. Restored." (Walking with God, pp. 33-35)

"Long before God laid down earth's foundations, He had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of His love, to be made whole and holy by His love." Ephesians 1:3-4, The Message

To be made whole and holy by His love. And so God was asking me to look at my fear and my beliefs about love again.

Two days later, I sat down in the conservatory and shut myself away from the world. Armed with a large cup of tea, two pens, my journal, and copious amounts of blank paper, I set about following God's instructions to "release them to Me."

I wrote down my memories, things that I thought I had forgiven or shrugged off, but which perhaps I hadn't forgiven after all, and which had obviously continued to have an impact on my way of thinking.

I wrote down my agreements about love.

I wrote down my fears.

I wrote down my agreements about myself. One thing that kept surfacing was the belief that I am not ____ enough. Fill in the blank any way you like, I've probably thought that about myself.

"Alright God," I said aloud. "You asked me to release these things. I give them up to You. Break the hold they have over my thoughts, my actions, and my reactions. Replace the false, hurtful agreements I have made about love, life, and myself with truth instead." I ripped up the sheets of paper, praying over each one.

As I sat in silence, God spoke to my heart again. I wrote the impressions down in my journal:

"Now that you have released these things, you must replace your fear with praise, and lies with truth.

You think love doesn't stay. My love never leaves. I love you with an everlasting love. I will never leave you. I rejoice over you --yes, you-- with singing.

I want you to look at Me, not at yourself and your inadequacies. Realign your focus. Love is freeing; it frees you to be your best self."

And then suddenly, He said something that touched at the recurring theme in my memories, the persistent belief that has kept me fearful -- the feeling of not being good enough.

"My love is not conditional. It is not based on your performance. I look at you and I see the perfection of my Son."

"What, God? What?" I gasped.

"When I look at you, I see the perfection of my Son. Quit thinking you are not enough."

I was crying now. God goes to the heart of the matter. He is so kind.

"When I look at you, I see the perfection of my Son."

He doesn't see me as not ____ enough. He doesn't look at me and think, "She's not good enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough for Me."

Because I am His, because I ask Jesus to cover my shortcomings with his Robe of Righteousness, because it is "no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20) -- God looks at me and sees perfection.

His love for me, His delight in me, is unchanging.

"God's Daisy Game"
And ultimately, it is God's opinion of me that matters most.

Finally, as I wiped away my tears and prepared to get back to the responsibilities of the day, God said to me, "Let my love replace fear at the core of your being. And my love will release you to love well, too."

It's been almost a week since that morning with God. Sometimes I still struggle with insidious insecurities and fears that raise up their heads and try to burrow back into my heart. It's a gradual journey. There is no magical overnight change, but there is progress, and I have at least made the conscious decision to let go of the things which have hurt me and kept me in fear. I have given God permission to rebuild my personality based on love instead of fear.

Whatever happens next, I want to keep hold of these truths God has been patiently showing me.

I want to be "rooted and grounded in love" -- I want to be able to understand "what is the width and length and depth and height -- to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that [I] may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3: 17-19)

I want that for you, too.

"You love me like I'm one in a million."
From the song "One in a Million" by Elevation Church Kids

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christian Holidays and Pagan Roots: Honoring Other Gods?

This Easter I've seen quite a number of images like this floating around my Facebook news feed:

Something bothered me about seeing these posts, but not because they pointed to the pagan roots of and influences on our modern holiday traditions. We know that's a fact. It's not too hard to dig into history and find out that the Roman Church adopted certain pagan festivals and rechristened them as Christian celebrations. And even without a knowledge of history, it's not too hard to discern that bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with the Risen Christ.

However, when someone in my Christian family points these things out, I can't help wondering, "Why are you bringing this up? How important is this historical fact to the present-day meaning of the celebration? Are you inferring that I should not celebrate this holiday, and if so, why?"

This post is my attempt to succinctly articulate why all this bothers me.

"While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church." 1 Corinthians 8:1
As I looked at the picture above, I couldn't help thinking that the principles in the writings of Paul could apply here. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses the issue of eating food that had been offered to idols. Some of the church in Corinth thought there was nothing wrong with it, and others had distinct qualms. Paul says:

"Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God. There may be so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, and some people actually worship many gods and many lords. But for us, there is one God, the Father, by whom all things were created, and for whom we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, and through whom we live. However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated." (verses 4-7)

Paul reminds his readers that the gods they are worried about -- Baal, Ishtar, and Tammuz, to use the example in the picture above -- are really nothing. Eating meat offered to an idol -- or eating an Easter egg, or putting a Christmas wreath on your door -- means nothing.

But that's only part of what bothers me. The other thing that concerns me is that posts like these, and often the comments accompanying them, either implicitly or explicitly point judgemental fingers at other people. Sadly, we are often quick to raise eyebrows, to condemn, and to think that we are more righteous than our brothers and sisters because we do or don't do something, whatever "side" you're on. I believe that especially for issues such as the celebration of Easter and Christmas, this attitude is neither helpful nor necessary.

There is always the danger that "knowledge puffeth up", whether it's knowledge about the pagan practices that influenced current holiday traditions, or the kind of knowledge that Paul references in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.

However, Paul presents all his arguments in a framework of love.

Although he reminds believers that idols are nothing and implies that there's nothing to worry about in eating meat sacrificed to them, he also reminds them that they shouldn't go pointing fingers at someone who doesn't think the same way they do, or encouraging them to do something the other believer thinks is wrong.

Regarding judgemental tendencies, Paul writes to the Romans in a similar context as he wrote to the Corinthians:

"Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don't. And those who don't eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else's servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord's help, they will stand and receive his approval... So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgement seat of God...Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. So let's stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believe to stumble and fall." (Romans 14: 3, 4, 10-13)

The Bible has nothing to say about the celebration of Christmas and Easter holidays in the sense that we observe them today. God does not command that we keep or remember them in the same way that he wants us to keep the Sabbath or celebrate communion, for example. Believers should be able to make their own decisions about whether or not they keep these other holidays in accordance with their own conscience.

Ellen White, a respected author in my denomination, said the following regarding Christmas, and I believe the principle can be carried into other celebrations as well:

"Letters of inquiry have come to us asking, Shall we have a Christmas tree? Will it not be like the world? We answer, You can make it like the world if you have a disposition to do so, or you can make it as unlike the world as possible...A word to the wise is sufficient."

So celebrate Christmas. And Easter. Or don't.

Whatever you choose to do, it's important to remember that Christmas and Easter are times when people are thinking about Jesus, even if it is only fleetingly. Rather than focusing attention on pagan histories and starting debates about whether or not we should observe the holidays, as Christians, let's put the attention back on Christ.

"So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up." (Romans 14:19)

Instead of subtly or openly criticizing each other, let us focus on the reason that we exist and the mission God has given us to share His love.

After all, whatever you think about Easter, it doesn't change the fact: He is risen indeed. And that's something to be excited about.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Hiding from Love

I adored Jamie with all the shy fervency of my 10-year-old heart. With his olive skin, floppy dark hair, and oversized denim jacket, he was the cutest and the coolest 14-year-old in my neighbourhood. I'd had a crush on him since the day he leaned over his garden gate, hit me with a dazzling smile and laughingly teased me about the squeaky breaks on my bicycle as I rode past his house.

Close enough to how I remember him...haha
"I don't see the point of my crush," I wrote in my diary. (The introspection started early.) "He probably doesn't fancy me. In fact, he probably already has a girlfriend."

One day, as I was playing with Jamie's sister and her pet ferrets in the garden, one of Jamie's friends came and stood over us, twisting his baseball cap in his hands uncomfortably. "Jamie wants to know if you'll go out with him," he blurted out to me. I was stunned. My dreams were coming true! Then I thought of the wrath of my parents should they find out their innocent, 10-year-old daughter was going out with a 14-year-old "ruffian", and I shook my head. "I can't go out with him," I said, and ran away.

Jamie and his friends still hung around occasionally after that, but I would always find a reason to leave them before too long. I would hide behind my bedroom curtain and peek out to watch the object of my thwarted affection riding his BMX moodily around the block.

Fast forward fifteen years. I was having lunch at a friend's house, lazily scanning her bookshelves as I waited for the food, when the title of one book leapt out at me. "We all long to be cared for, but we prevent it by...HIDING FROM LOVE," the cover proclaimed, in huge enough print so that if you're reading the book in public, everyone can see at a glance what's wrong with you. Smaller print assured, "How to change the withdrawal patterns that isolate and imprison you."

At that moment something inside me clicked.

Since moving back to England, I'd had plenty of opportunity to consider loneliness and my attitude towards various relationships (friendships as well as romance). Although I've certainly had my share of crushes, I've never been one to jump into anything quickly or really pursue an interest, partly for good reasons and partly, as I was beginning to realize, for unhealthy reasons. I recalled my deepest love interests and realized that in spite of what good things I saw in the guys and hoped for between us, there had always been a part of me that knew a relationship wasn't likely to work out, even though I pushed those reasons into my subconscious. Then I imagined what it would be like to meet someone and pursue a serious relationship now, and to my surprise, the first thing I felt was...fear.

See the whole awesome comic here 

Perhaps I have been hiding from love -- metaphorically running away, as I literally ran away from Jamie all those years ago. I've definitely been living out withdrawal patterns. And I have been realizing that my past has a more significant impact on my present than I have always given it credit for.

There are probably many factors that play into my tendency to hide or withdraw.

One factor, I think, comes from moving around a lot as I grew up. The cross-cultural and highly mobile lifestyle of a pastor's/missionary's kid impacts your relational patterns. Some of those effects are good, but some of them are negative. As someone who travels a lot, even if you are used to making friends quickly, you become adept at avoiding deeper intimacy. As you become used to leaving and being left, you learn to minimize the pain of loss by perhaps refusing to acknowledge your true depth of care for anyone or anything, refusing to feel pain and becoming emotionally "flat", or "leaning away" from relationships -- becoming detached or withdrawn (David Pollock and Ruth van Reken). I've noticed this playing out in my life, especially in the sense of leaning away from someone, as if I'm subconsciously getting ready for the loss of a relationship.

Another factor is simply due to the hurts that accumulate from living in a broken world. Nobody has the perfect childhood or adolescence, and life leaves its wounds. I have my scars. Over the years, various experiences have imprinted a message on my heart that in one way or another, I am not enough. I have believed that if someone found out this or that about me, they would stop loving me, they would leave. It may be a lie, but it has become so deeply embedded in my way of thinking that even now I sometimes struggle to see it as anything but the truth. The resulting fear makes true vulnerability high risk and unappealing. And yet for the best relationships to flourish, particularly a serious romantic relationship, vulnerability is essential.

"The truth will set you free. Perfect love expels all fear. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us." (John 8 and 1 John 4)
I know many truths that can fight against the lies in my soul. I know that my worth ultimately comes from the God who sees me as I am and still wants to call me His friend.
"There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love for me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery can now disillusion Him about me or quench His determination to bless me." (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)
I am reading some great books to help me get past my fear, to help me find healing and stop hiding (including Becoming Myself and Hiding from Love).

But moving something from the brain to the heart takes time. Learning to have grace for myself in my imperfection and failure, as God has grace for me, is a process.
"We are free to fail. Because of Jesus, we can be free from the cages of other people's expectations, demands, yokes, and judgements--even our own...We are loved, forgiven, embraced."(Stasi Eldredge, Becoming Myself)  
If the saying is true -- "We accept the love we think we deserve" -- then only when I have accepted the truth about myself, the truth as God sees it, will I be free to accept love instead of hiding from it. And only then will I be free to truly give love, too.

Thankfully, I'm not on this journey by myself. Besides finding strength in my relationship with God, I have some safe people to grow with. True community, as I'm learning, is a necessary part of growth and healing.
"Relationships are portrayed as crucial in the Bible...Our need for connection extends not only to God. It also means we need each other. During the Creation, the only "not good" God mentioned in an otherwise perfect universe was that Adam was alone. God wasn't simply dealing with the benefits of marriage in this passage. He was addressing the deeper issue of our need for attachment and relationship, of which marriage is one important component... The fact is that having relationships with God and other people is not an either-or proposition; it is a both-and necessity. The heart has a deep need for God, who placed eternity there. The same heart yearns for satisfying and safe human attachments in which we can be truly known and truly loved, that we may all be one." (Dr. John Townsend, Hiding from Love) 
 Eventually I will learn not to hide from love. Eventually I will learn not just to extend grace to others, but also to myself.

And in the meantime, well, let's face it... I'm in grad school!


Friday, January 15, 2016


Everyone I know got married or engaged this winter. That is, everyone who was left over from the past couple of wedding seasons, when summer marriages in my social circle saw an unprecedented increase.

Well, alright, not everyone got married.

A guy I follow on Instagram visited 26 countries during 2015. A couple of people had babies. Other friends moved house, got new jobs or climbed their career ladder, travelled, helped refugees, went to shows in London, and generally got on with their grown-up lives.

I moved back in with my parents and went into further education, a move that left me with mixed feelings and no cash.

If you've read any of my blogs from the past few months, you'll know the transition from my old life to my new one was not easy. Sometimes I've struggled against feeling like a child again (although I have to credit my parents for not treating me as such) -- against feeling lonely -- against feeling trapped -- and against feeling behind.

Sometimes it's easy to compare myself with peers who look like they're "ahead" in their careers, relationships, financial situation etc., and wonder what happened with my own life. It's easy to feel like I haven't "made it" yet...whatever that means...and that everyone else has their lives figured out and on track.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I've always struggled to be fully engaged with the present. I tend to look forward to significant points in the future -- the weekend, graduation, the summer, my first regular paycheck -- at the expense of what is happening, what God is giving me, in the moment.

I think about the next place I'm going to go; I have trouble imagining myself in one place for very long or putting down any real roots.

I overlook or downplay my own everyday adventures because I wonder what other, potentially better, adventures my friends are having. I tend to think the grass really may be greener for them.

I miss out on joy.

I'm tired of that. Life is what happens while you're making other plans, so they say, and I don't want to miss out on happiness and fulfilment in my life as it is here and now.

In a very apt article, "How To Ruin Your Life (Without Even Noticing That You Are)", the writer states, "Understand that life is not a straight line. Life is not a set timeline of milestones." 

I'm beginning to internalize that.

I'm realizing that my life doesn't have to follow other people's timelines (or plot lines, as my story-loving mind likes to imagine it). I can let go of some of my own preconceived notions of what my life should look like, too. Particularly as a Christian, I can be assured that God is somehow working out things for good, and that He is weaving my story into part of a grander tale that I may not fully see or understand right now.

A colleague kinda brought me up short this week as I pondered how "behind" I was feeling.

We were talking about our language learning experiences in class, and I was briefly sharing some anecdotes about what had compelled me to learn German, Spanish, Lao, and Portuguese (to varying degrees of fluency), which included, of course, my travels and life abroad.

"Can I ask how old you are?" my classmate said.

"I'm 25," I replied.

"Wow, you've done so much!" she said.

I thought about it on my train-ride home. I have done a lot. My pathway may not have been very traditional, but I have so many stories and experiences and people that I would never have encountered if I hadn't gotten "behind." Honestly, I wouldn't exchange all of that to be on par with my peers in relationships and apartments of their own.

Riding 3 to a motorcycle? Done that!

These days, I may not have prospects of marriage or a job that allows me to support myself on the horizon, but I'm in the worldwide #1 university for my field, studying things that fascinate me, working towards a Master's degree in something I believe can help make a difference in the world. I have family and friends who support me.

What do I have to complain about, really?

I thought about these things as I watched the winter-grey, terribly ordinary suburban neighbourhoods of Greater London flash past my train window. And I was happy.

"Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God."

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Christmas Spirit and the New Year's Challenge

Certain people would say I'm a grinch. It's true that I dislike hearing Christmas music before December, and, if it was left up to me, I wouldn't put up my tree before Christmas Eve. I do like the holiday, though, whatever grinch-like things I may do or say earlier in the year.

But this December I was having more trouble than usual getting into the Christmas spirit. (I know I wasn't the only one.) My heart felt...tired and dull. Even the lights of Oxford street, Bing Crosby's croonings, and all the marzipan I wanted to eat couldn't produce a sense of real delight or warm fuzziness. I was in an inner huff about it.

But as the days passed, I became increasingly convicted that I was thinking of Christmas spirit in the wrong way, and part of my problem was that I was focused entirely too much on myself.

Today I read something that beautifully and powerfully sums up what God has been whispering to my heart about real Christmas spirit:
"We talk glibly of the 'Christmas spirit', rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But...the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit itself ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round...

"The Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor -- spending, and being spent -- to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others -- not just their own friends -- in whatever way there seems need."
(J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

Well...wow. Frankly, it's hard to live like this! Thinking of myself comes much more easily than thinking of others, yet the inescapable call remains: "You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had."

(Thankfully, a few verses later we are assured that we're not alone in producing this attitude and lifestyle-- "For God is working in you, giving you the desire and power to do what pleases Him.")

This is God's challenge to us not just for a few days in December, but as we go into the New Year, and for all our lives.

May I, and may you, take the true spirit of Christmas into 2016 -- a spirit of selfless love in action, the spirit of our Master.

Plot Twist!

I needed a change. After seven years of teaching, on and off, I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue. Perhaps it was a temporary di...