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how I wandered into the woods and found grace

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”

2 Corinthians 12:8

My brother and I are on an overnight hike along the Superior Trail. We laced up our boots and told ourselves that morning we would go until we couldn’t go anymore because neither of us knew what we didn’t know.

how I wandered into the woods and found grace photo

 

We had whittled away at our packs, the night before, sawing the ends off our toothbrushes like the experts said, leaving behind the bulk of our clothes, determined to not carry any unnecessary weight. I had laid out the contents of my pack and sitting there, right on the top, next to the cookstove and ground coffee, were my journal, guidebook and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

My books were going. Words can lighten someone’s load or crush someone beneath them, and it’s up to us to determine which of these it’ll be.

So we set off. Past boulders and sometimes over them, their gray masses like checkpoints along the way. Past pine trees looming. Past tumbling, gurgling, and roaring rivers. Over snakes, shy under foot. We walked until blisters started to form on our feet and our minds were numb from exhaustion, and then we fell, into our tent, eating protein boosted Mac N’ Cheese, and I read these words:

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a puzzled whimper.”

T.S. Elliot

I turned my head away, turned off my lamp, and let the tears fall, slick against the sheen of the sleeping bag because this is how I felt: my world was ending and I was standing confused on the brink of ruin, knowing only that I knew nothing about how to stop it.


I had wandered into these woods, broken, confused, belittled by the darkness of this world and all its angst. I had wandered, trying to shed the weight of who I was and who I wasn’t… the bulk of yesterday’s guilt and misunderstandings, the many failures. The endless, anxious murmurings.

The debilitating depression. I had stumbled time and again under the weight of my anger at a God who allowed that to happen to me. Why me had become my daily mantra, this bitter replica manna I ate from in desperate attempts to believe I didn’t deserve hardship and surely I was owed something good to outweigh the bad.

“Be careful,” my brother said as I walked casually out over the gorge, onto the boulder, hundreds and hundreds of feet to fall with one missed step.

how I wonadered into the woods and found grace photo

I didn’t care if I fell. Something was freeing in the spreading of my arms and lifting them high, tempting myself to cannonball off the edge, to feel the air hurtling past me as I fell into the freezing waters below because I wanted to feel the end, to catch it within my hand and squeeze it tight, to learn every sharp pain of bitterness in acknowledgment that here I was, a human, completely and utterly undone and alone.

One shaky step.

Then two.
Closer to the edge.
Daring. Tempting.

A startling, cold breeze.

A knee buckling.
And yet.
Determination to live.

To keep breathing.
Sitting down on the edge of the boulder, I gave up.
Shoulders shaking.

Sometimes it’s only in the breaking of one’s will that we collapse against this earth. And it’s here, in the moment of surrender to a God who cares… I find it: less of me and more of You, Lord, I pray. Please give me hope for tomorrow, for courage to go on despite adversity, for Your redeeming blood to drench my life and cause a tiny bit of growth, this seed of faith unfurling.

Giving up sometimes looks like giving in, and God sat down next to me, then, on that large slab of stone, and I felt His presence in the wind, in every tree swaying, in every comforting beam of sunshine.

Grace, I’ve learned, is the conclusion to every battle between our broken humanity and God’s love.

And grace always, always wins.

Still shaking, I crawled on hands and knees back to safety.
I slung my pack onto shoulders sore.

It seemed lighter somehow like I might be able to actually carry on.

But he said to me,
“My grace is sufficient for you,
For my power is made perfect in weakness.”

—2 Corinthians 12:9


What I’m Reading This Week

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

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how we can hope for a better tomorrow

We’ve packed up our little life and moved.

Packed up the china, the folding chairs, the plaques; stuffed a thousand memories into a jar and pretended it didn’t bother us that they were held captive there, their lights slow and steady at first, then quietly dimming, their wings beating desperate like butterfly kisses against the glass.

We pretended the sadness didn’t pervade then, when we flipped off the lamps, shut the curtains, turned the thermostat to “off” that warmed our tiny house.

We pretended until one day, upon waking in our new house, we looked at all we had been given and murmured, “This is home.” Because a home is more than the sum of memories but is also where hope burns passionately for the future.

how we can hope for a better tomorrow photo

I have found this about hope. It is something I come to now, today, without shame because in the past, I had always believed a person like me didn’t deserve goodness, didn’t deserve mercy, didn’t deserve all the blessings God somehow kept giving.

I still don’t believe I deserve anything. But I am learning to be hopeful of everything. Because through this God I serve, everything is possible… everything is hope-filled. (Matthew 19:26)

He is, ultimately, in the business of restoration. Of redemption. Of hope. And He is completely and utterly delighted in me. And you. (Psalms 18:19) He is enamored in the restoration of all the thousand mistakes, of all the broken pieces you see looking back at you in the puddle of your despair.

Life has met this rhythm for me, once chaotic with highs and lows, now the steady hum of one lost in a trance and I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, per se, for this hope to collide hard against the floor of my optimistic soul.

But it hasn’t happened.
And I keep waiting.

I find this anticipation every morning upon waking as if it were lying next to me, its sour breath upon my pillow, willing me to accept the reality that today, definitely, will be the day when all goes bad.

The dog growls grumpily, begging me to open the door.
The poof of his tail, flouncing, nails clacking across the floor.
The sunshine spilling through the door, warm upon bare toes.
Coffee sputters, the fireplace dances.
Life, in all its wonder, continues to be a joy.

This life, I’ve learned, is under no obligation to give us what we deserve because there are no limitations to God’s love.

I sit here this morning and I find it: hope. And I open my heart to trusting that tomorrow and the next day, this promise of love will settle comfortable where fear once resided in my heart.

“Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.”

Alexandre Dumas

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how you can live free in this raging world

When I roll back the curtains covering this one little slice of earth, I see her, the fog, how she came in the night, how she crept beneath bushes and over barbed wire fences making her way to our house. She is tranquility exposed, peace visible and I want to stand there, sipping my coffee and watch her, the way she waltzes with such grace, so effortlessly in and amongst and around.

How you can live free in this raging world photo

I reach out my hand, rest it against the cold glass, these fingers smudging, pressing, reaching for so much peace, and I wonder if maybe God Himself isn’t tired too? If perhaps He doesn’t wish to spend a little more time in the snow-crusted fields of Northern Iowa this morning instead of on the raging streets of Washington D.C.

Maybe you’ve been reading the news, too. Perhaps you heard about the marches, the fight against misogyny and bigotry, the flags being lit up, this tiny spark of rage becoming this uncontrolled wildfire. Maybe you’ve also read about the foreign affairs, how relationships are changing, and nuclear warfare, and its all just one tricky line to walk because no matter how much you trust, no matter how much you guard against fear, it slips unnoticed sometimes into your heart.

I turn from the window, sit next to the dog snoring softly, head on the pillow, and I pull the Book toward me, this life-raft in this raging world.

Maybe it’s the coffee, lackluster in its bravado. Maybe it’s the snores of Ervin. Maybe it’s the fog floating across the river, but the Book slips, falls with my eyelids.

A scream. A yell of triumph. Pain. Maybe fear. I cannot tell.
A battle cry, this time, I’m sure.

I search madly, run down the streets, and turn to see the masses walking along this street. It’s paved with the gold and glimmer of broken souls, these souls once meant to be free but now shackled, splintered – all this shimmering brokenness being trodden on by boots, marching, polished, a rivalry of soldiers yelling, “Hail, Trump. Hail to the Führer.”

And the church doors swing open. Loud, they bang like a cannon fired. The people spill into the street, fists raised and signs high for human rights. Their voices get louder. Their leader is a lady yelling about her God-given rights, and it’s the only time God is ever mentioned, there at the top of their screaming, teeming madness.

And then I see her, this veil of white rolling in and I think maybe it’s tear gas, desperate attempts to control the riot, but then I watch as she tumbles in and around and among the people, how she cloaks them in peacefulness, waltzing this way, waltzing that way. And she wears a coat of many colors, of every race and gender and personality, how she is one being, but so many of everything put together in this beautiful, messy existence of perfection. She tosses her hair, then, laughs, places her hand against her heart, and I see it then, this trail of blood-red she drips wherever she walks.

And the people are confused, the church-goers and the liberals, the politicians and the self-righteous and one small child breaks free from the jostling throng, falls, touching his lips to the trail of blood and then, he too stands and starts to dance.

Only a few follow the boy.
Only a few shimmer in white.
Only a few dance free.

Only a few, there in the middle of that street paved with gold.

I wake slow, unsure of reality, my heart thrumming wild against my ribs. The fog has left for the day. She has slipped silently toward the horizon while I slept. My coffee is now cold. The Bible has fallen.

I sit up.
I shake my head, dizzy.

Oh, how I wish to dance free.

“For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

2 Corinthians 3:17 NLT

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Matthew 5:9 KJV


Photo courtesy of Pexels.com. Licensed under CC0.


What I’m Reading This Week

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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How the church can be a safe place again

He struggles across the horizon, against the wind whipping and snow blowing, against all the bitterness of the world and I wonder how I too, can spring with such resilient joy in the face of such adversity.

I trudge on, calling his name, this dog of mine, but the words are lost in the lonely howl of winter’s play.

The trees are thicker now.  The chaotic tumble of branches reach down upon the narrow trail I’m following and then there’s a fallen log across my path, so I kick my snowshoes off, climb over, sit, catching my breath, this plume of white exhaled, inhaled, exhaled.

Safe - Snowy Treescape

How do you keep breathing when the weight of the darkness presses hard against your chest?

I replay the scene from the dinner table, mashed potatoes piled high, the smooth carve of knife meeting ham, the bread, broken together, this holy communion of friends meeting after church. And how the conversation soared, took on a flight of its own until someone said, laughing, “Guess who I met the other day?”

And we all know her, the lady with four jackets, multi-colored, scrawny, like she doesn’t get enough to eat and how she carries on talking to herself, one second an FBI agent, the next an airline pilot.

“She’s absolutely crazy,” someone says and the laughter tumbles onto the table, this ugly hate and someone carries on about how “cuckoo” she is and then someone asks serious, “Don’t you think she just needs a good laying on of hands? Someone to pray over her? To cast the demons out?”

I cannot breathe, the weight of all the ugly misunderstood weighing down and my face flushes hot in embarrassment as I recall standing in line at Walgreens, waiting for pill bottles filled to stop the voices inside my head. I want to announce it, loud, “She’s schizophrenic, maybe bipolar. We don’t know what she’s lived through to be who she is today. It’s a chemical imbalance, not a demonic presence.” I want to say it, but I don’t because Southern Gal squeezes my hand, then, under the table and sometimes that’s all it takes: just one person knowing what you’re going through and you have the strength to stay silent or speak up or do all kinds of brave things.

Because when, when… oh when, did the church become this? When did the church, this one place that should be the safest refuge on earth, become a place with no room for the broken and imperfect? When did “oneness of spirit” become “oneness of attitudes, culture, and traditions”? When did we start exposing the broken people as unfixable, unlovable and when did we start casting the first stone against them, these dear people with stories different than our own? When, oh when?

So here I am, walking through the woods, even in a storm because sometimes the weight of all the hurting in the church rests heavy on my chest. I see the depressed, the overweight, the socially awkward, the labels – thousands of names we throw on people that are different from the rest, and we choose to judge instead of love. I’m so ashamed of how we treat the very people Jesus came to save, how we treat the “least of these” He spoke of so passionately.

Here also, alone in the great outdoors, if I’m perfectly honest, no one can hurt me.

I see a tuft of fur ahead, this bounce of a tail against the flurry of snow and I follow Ervin off the path, see a well-worn trail not yet covered by snow. It is an animal trail, hollowed out from use and there are dog prints, too, smaller than Ervin’s fresh ones, and I think about the coyotes in the area.

“How do you bind up the slow bleeding of your one broken heart and still believe wounded warriors win, still believe that there is no remission of sins or the crossing of finish lines without things getting downright bloody, still believe scars and wounds and broken places might become you and become who you are?” says Ann Voskamp in The Broken Way.

The trail narrows, curves around trees fallen and ancient, rotting fence posts and the wind pushes hard against my face, throwing the stinging sleet in my eyes and then it’s over. We are in a clearing, a small, hollowed out space of refuge and above me. The ice has collected on fine branches like a chandelier, this dance of light reflected and projected. And the snow filters soft, down from the trees around, and it sparkles in the air, falling, like God Himself is sitting at a piano welcoming me home. My knees hit the ground, and Ervin, clutched in my embrace, licks my face, licks away the tears from all the cold in this world.

Safe - Pristine Snowscape

“How do you live with your one broken heart?” It echoes in the sudden silence.

A rabbit peeks at us from beneath the bushes. It sniffs the air, pausing there, letting me see it, and it see me. and I think maybe this is how you live with your one broken heart: you let others see you and you see them. You find that one other broken person and you bear them up, love them, live this one life right alongside them. You find, like in this haven, your own tiny church of misfits and the broken lonely.

“Forgive me,” I pray. “Forgive me for all those I’ve hurt in my hurried intolerance. Help me to see the heart of others how You see their hearts.”

Night is falling, the darkness pressing in but I don’t want to leave this space.

Safe - Moonlit Night

“Help me to love even the ones throwing the stones.” I whisper this last one, like a silent, desperate plea.

“My body was broken for you, for them… my side was pierced, my hands split wide open. I died a broken man, and no man shall come to the Father except through me. No man shall enter the kingdom of heaven unless he first enters into the brokenness of who I am, of who he is…”

I walk home, then, take off my snowshoes on the porch, step inside and Southern Gal, she stands at the sink washing the last of the dishes.

“How do you love others who are different than yourself?” I ask.

“People are complex. But Jesus is simple.”

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Photos courtesy of James Kade

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What I’m Reading this Week

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Best Books (Escapes) of 2016

This past year, I joined a challenge in which I was the only contestant.

Sometimes, when you’re trying something new, it’s good to leave the back door open in case you get bored and need to flee to the Land of Quiet Failures. Ironically, I learned this after a few years of realizing around January 13 that food tastes way too good not to eat and we’re only given this one precious deep-fat-fried life, aren’t we.

That said, this year, I committed (with no real commitment) to reading a book every single week and last week, I completed 52 books. I celebrated like only a nerd can celebrate: by going and sprawling in the aisles of Barnes & Noble and glaring at small children making noise in this sacred space.

Lying there, I struck up a conversation with another human (yes, bookstores are one of the only places I make eye contact with humanity) and after hearing about the 52 books, she asked, “What were your favorites?”

So here goes. I thought maybe after you’re done buying everyone else a present or two this holiday season, you may want to buy yourself the Gift of Escape. These were the only books out of the 52 that I gave five-star reviews. (The links below are commissioned links and help maintain the cost of this website. Thank you in advance.)

Best Books Photo

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

This is a book that you can’t predict the ending and you feel so many feelings that the only way to deal with them is to eat an entire box of Oreos.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Every person, especially medical professionals, need to read this one. It made me a better person. It is written by a neurosurgeon who finds out he is dying of cancer and his wife ends up finishing the book after his death. I ugly-cried through the last pages of this one but it was worth every tear.

Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Be careful with this one. It made my top 10 because I couldn’t get the story out of my head. But it is highly controversial, attacking issues of political injustice and socialism. A fast-paced story on top with deep allegories.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

A lighthearted, endearing story of a grumpy old man. Nothing short of brilliant.

A Little Life by Hanna Yanagihara

If you struggle with a mental illness, please know this book is full of triggers. At 832 pages long, it also takes a huge time commitment. This book tackles issues such as self-mutilation, depression, suicide, racial tensions and equality of life choices. This book has some adverse language in it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

About a Cameroonian family coming to live in New York City. The writer challenges racial bias, issues of immigration and assimilation. When you finish a book and you feel like you now know a family in New York City, you know it has totally captured you.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The writing was what captivated me. Right from the beginning, the words are more poetry than a story.

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

I tried to keep the psychology books I read off this list but this one fought its way out. Thought-provoking. You will walk away with a confidence you didn’t know possible.

Room by Emma Donoghue

This book takes off and it doesn’t settle down until you are completely exhausted from reading. It was one that I read in two days because, well, life sometimes has to wait.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Technically, I read this book in 2015. But then I re-read it in 2016 because it was the best book I have read in years. If you haven’t taken the time to devour this novel, stop what you’re doing, take a mental health day from work, and enjoy.


I would like to make a personal thank you to Book of the Month for the amazing job they do at finding all the good books and making me wait impatiently by my mailbox each month. This was the best club I’ve ever joined and I can successfully say I’ve been one happy, loyal and active member (unlike my dusty gym membership). If you join using the link above, it’s only $10 a month.

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