Love That Will Not Let Me Go

11254053_10153406434689261_7435853901037485899_nThe view from my balcony at Chalet Bellevue

When you come to L’Abri there are 4 questions you’ll have to answer over and over:

  • Where are you from?
  • How did you hear about L’Abri?
  • How long will you be here?
  • Why are you here?

The first few are fairly innocuous, but you find out very quickly that there is an expectation of honesty if not outright vulnerability in your response to the latter. It’s rarely one-sided, and it feels safer to speak the truth when you’re not the only one doing it.

After 11 weeks here my response to the last question is well rehearsed. I spent nearly 10 years in a christian cult which I left 3 years ago. I may have prettied up my reasons for coming here in previous writing, but the truth is that I came to L’Abri to immerse myself in community after being alienated from it for several years; to intentionally learn to live with people again and prove to myself that they are safe. I wanted to find a sure foundation to stand on. Those goals are being met, but it doesn’t look the way I thought it would.

Sharing my reason for being here dozens of times has made me reflect a lot on my time with Oikos Ministries. I didn’t see it as a cult until my friends started to leave, 6 months after I did. One of them googled the word and the similarities to our church were eerie. No one wants to believe themselves or their friends and family are deluded enough to be in a cult.

It was the habit of the “apostles” to cyber-stalk people who left the church, looking for clues of their demise. The struggles they confessed in pastoral counseling were made public and any misfortune they experienced subsequently was credited to the fact that they walked away from Jesus; walked away from us, because we represented Jesus in the earth. Tongues were clicked when families experienced trial or tragedy, people divorced or jobs were lost. We shook our heads and said, “That’s what happens…” the implication being that your life would implode when you left our church, when you left the truth.

This practice made me supremely uncomfortable and increasingly mistrusting. I knew that my own online presence was under scrutiny. I analyzed everything I posted from 10 different angles before putting it online, so fearful of a confrontation. When the final confrontation came I expressed to the “apostles” my discomfort with how the stories of those who left were handled. I was told, “If they leave the church, they’re fair game*.” When I confessed that I didn’t feel I could trust them I was summarily dismissed and they moved on to address my sister.

I didn’t leave for another 2 months after that. I was so afraid of losing my family, all of my friends, my apartment with my sister. I was afraid of being struck down by the disciplinary hand of God. I’d seen families torn apart because the loyalty in them was split between church leaders and one another. I didn’t want to take anyone down with me and see my own family destroyed. So I walked out as quietly as I could, holding my breath and waiting for things to blow up in my face.

But they didn’t. At least not for several more months and by that time the explosions were controlled and deliberate. I got my own apartment for the first time. I got a promotion and a raise in my job. I was flourishing in every external way. Inside, I was falling apart and having a massive identity crisis. Nevertheless, I did not fulfill all of the prophecies of destruction spoken over dissenters. I still haven’t.

I’m sure my old church members would read this and think I’ve gone soft, cruising my way along the wide path of love and grace. They might have a point, but I don’t take it as an insult. I am softer.

Finding freedom for me was like walking on ice. With each careful step I let go of legalistic rules about daily bible reading, drinking alcohol, cussing, going to church every Sunday, “regular fellowship”. Is it any wonder that as I unburdened myself of these heavy things I found my weight on the ice still supported?

I thought by coming to L’Abri I would somehow find greater ease in restoring the so-called “Christian disciplines” to my life and thereby experience the love of God to a greater degree, one that is acceptable to all my Christian friends. But love does not come through rules. Love comes from people. The christian cult I was in taught that Gods love is conditional. My experience of His love proved otherwise quite some time ago but it is difficult to make my heart believe.

Here at L’Abri I have encountered love that is not contingent on conditions of success or failure. No one cares what my job was. I can’t earn my way into affections through favors or exchange. This love is not trying to correct my behavior or my theology. It isn’t concerned by the things I believe or scared of the stories I tell. This love sits next to me when I ask pain-filled questions that have no easy answers. It cries the tears I can’t and tells me I am loved until I start to believe it. This love shows me my worth and makes no demands.

Love that does not want to change me, has changed me forever.

In learning to be loved, I am set free to love others in the same way, without condition. My heart is opening up. There’s nothing I can do to stop it, and I don’t want to try.

I plan to spend another term at L’Abri next year. I want to study theodicy and keep asking questions about the nature of God. But when I return home for a few weeks this December, and even when I eventually leave L’Abri on a more permanent basis, it will be with the assurance of a love that has been made real through people – tangibly. Love that isn’t composed of fancy lighting, moving music, an emotional altar call and warm fuzzies. It’s real in shared wine and long conversations, freshly baked bread, kitchen crew choruses, cups of tea and mountain views, touch without fear, tears shed and belly laughs.

This is love that will not let me go. Not ever.

Oh love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths it’s flow, may richer, fuller be.

Oh joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.

* I have a witness to this statement.

Finding my Hinds Feet – a Place Prepared

Before I could blink I’d reached my last week at work. It was a bittersweet time: packing to move and training my replacement. Only then did this start to feel real. My lease was over on the 31st of the month so weeks in advance I made arrangements for a place to stay between September 1st and September 13th, the date of my departure. But, only 5 days before I had to be out of my apartment, those plans fell through and I was looking for a place to lay my head.

This came as an unexpected hitch in my plans, but there is nothing that surprised Him about it. He was preparing a place for me.

I reached out to a couple of friends who have large networks in the area to see if they knew anyone who may let me sleep on their couch for a few days. I planned to reach out to the friends I have in town and sleep on as many couches as possible so as not to be an imposition. But, before I could even do that, my friend Maggie connected me with a family she knows that live only a few miles away who had an open guest room. I’d never met them before, they didn’t know me at all, but they were receptive and invited me to their home to meet them.

I stopped by the Cooks’ house after my last day at work. Immediately I felt the warm familiarity that is present with other believers–the witness of the Spirit. Within an hour, this mother of 4 handed me a key to their home and told me I was welcome to stay in their guest room for the full 2 weeks before I leave. I held back tears, in awe of how He was taking care of me.  I was a stranger without a home, and they have welcomed me.

This, this is what Jesus looks like. This is what it is to be a part of the body of Christ. This is amazing grace. Unmerited favor. It was as though He had this arranged all along.

BabyCuddle

Cuddling little ones

…and this is where words begin to fail me. I wish that I could communicate with glistening eyes and a lump in my throat everything that I want to say. But this part is still unfolding. My heart is being healed by holding babies, and watching parents shepherd the hearts of their little ones, and laughter between family members and words of encouragement that never cease. My room even has it’s own little writing nook! It couldn’t be more perfect. I didn’t know I needed this. But He did.

I know that my home is ultimately not on the earth. But I am beginning to find glimpses of it in His people. Someone recently reminded me of Jesus words in John 14:1-3,

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

He has a place prepared for me. My home is where He is.

Read part 1, part 2 and part 3, testimonies of His goodness…

Finding My Hinds Feet – Desire Awakened

Once again, I am debuting my word for the year in September. Unsurprisingly, it plays a large role in this story. The Lord spoke the word “desire” over me in the first few days of the year. I knew the year of naked would be a tough one to follow. As much as I wrestled that word, would you believe me when I tell you that “desire” was more difficult to come to terms with? For as long as I can remember I have killed the hunger in my soul. Desire felt dangerous. It felt like breeding ground for disappointment or at the very least, discontentment.

heart hunger

heart hunger

My only intentions in regard to the word were to find out what the Lord desires for me and in me. I wanted to know His desire. But from the very beginning each time I asked Him what He desires for me He turned the question around on me, asking what I desired. Answering that was much more difficult than I anticipated. It wasn’t until sometime in March, after a frank conversation with some dear friends that I finally reconciled with the word, realizing that to deny my desires is to deny my humanity. When He redeems us, He redeems all of who we are, which includes our desires. There is nothing to fear in them.

The night that I emailed L’Abri I went before the Lord and just asked, “Is this something that you want me to do?” It was a loaded question. Going to L’Abri required that I quit my job, leave my apartment, give up my independence, temporarily lose touch with all that is familiar.  His reply was simple but immediate, “Is this something that you want to do?” Tears instantly filled my eyes; desire was awakened. I wasn’t aware how badly I wanted it until that moment. I felt His smile then. He is not a fortune teller and I didn’t need Him to be. I just needed Him to be Jesus.

I saw an image of what made Him smile. I was gently holding my desires in the open palm of my left hand. I was not clutching them tightly, choking the life out of them. I was not burying them or pretending they did not exist. For the first time I can remember my desires were allowed to be. And in my right hand was the hand of Jesus, strong and sure. I knew that no matter what happened to my desires, be they fulfilled or dashed, He would not let go of me. I rested in this knowledge.

The next morning I woke to an email from L’Abri. Not only did they have the reservation dates available, they reserved me a spot and told me that they would see me in September. After the toil and stress of the previous months I could hardly believe the door opened so easily. There was nothing left to do but walk through it.

To be continued…For a little more back story, read part 1

Finding my Hinds Feet – The Shore of Decision

I am sitting at a writing desk right now in a little closet office adjoining the guest room I am occupying for nearly two weeks. I’ve been here for three nights already and it’s only just starting to feel real. So I am here to tell the story of how I got here. Because our God is too faithful not to document His goodness.

Writing Nook

Just over six weeks ago I was riding down I-10 with my sister at midnight, listening to the latest album from Jonathan David and Melissa Helser. At the beginning of “Cageless Birds” Melissa recites a poem that grabbed my heart and would not let go.

Standing on the shore of decision

looking into the face of adventure

desire to abandon all I know

what pushes me is rooted somewhere between misunderstanding and knowing

knowing that what I want to understand is not within my reach

so I ponder my escape

not knowing what lies ahead

adventure in theory is full of excitement and bleeds with passion for life

but adventure in reality is full of breathless moments

silent nights, and wounds that leave scars of memory on a heart

can I go the distance?

can I give all my mind to get what the messenger is saying?

can I surrender my knowing?

will I survive the humility of ignorance to obtain a treasure that earthly gold cannot buy?

will I ask the question honestly

even if the answer convicts my soul and sends me to the land of repentance?

All of these thoughts flood my mind…

as I stand on the shore of choosing

in the distance of my wondering I see with clear eyes a flock of wild, beautiful birds

swooping in my direction

as if they see me and are coming for me

how strange it is that their eyes are full of clarity…

Song birds wake up

you’re not in your cage anymore

bound by your shame anymore

the walls that held you in prison

the gate is flung wide open

start singing, start singing, start singing, start singing

cageless birds

I’ve felt for several months like I am in a state of transition, but I wasn’t sure of the exact direction I was to go. All the doors I pushed on seemed firmly shut. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but the restlessness in me was relentless. That night on I-10 a moment of clarity came swiftly. I decided to try to apply for the Helser’s 18 Inch Journey program even though they’d stopped accepting applications months before. My age will disqualify me to apply next year and I at least had to ask if there was any shadow of possibility that would allow me to attend.

Unfortunately, the answer was no, the 18 Inch Journey was not accepting applications. But that moment of clarity was not fruitless. Asking the question was a proving ground, a test to determine if I would seriously consider leaving behind my comfortable life for a period of time before stepping into the next stage of my life, site unseen. There were other options.

I’d read about L’Abri several years ago from a blogger who attended. Studying theology in the shadow of the Swiss Alps seemed too far fetched a dream for anyone without a trust fund. But I visited the site again and after a few quick calculations realized that spending a couple of months there wasn’t as far out of my reach as I assumed. It was comparable to what I was prepared to spend with the 18 Inch Journey. So, after just a week of thinking about it and talking it out with my sister, I sent off an inquiry to L’Abri, just to see if they had a spot available for the dates I was considering. I didn’t want to dream or plan any further until I knew if it was possible. I didn’t want to want it too much.

And this is where the story gets more interesting. To be continued

Dichotomy: Part II

“…And I wanna draw a map, and sing:
‘He restoreth my soul, and leadeth me in righteous paths,
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’
As if I believe it.
And I used to believe it, and someday I will again.
But right now I’m barely holding on to the love that saved me from sin
And I don’t know who I am, the whore or the virgin,
Or just a girl with a heart as dark as death itself and a whitewashed tomb for skin.

And I need a resurrection…” ~ Dichotomized, Emily Joy

…This poem became my prayer. I wasn’t sure if the “me” that “should be” was who I was , or if who I felt I was – a confused, broken, and lost girl – was actually me. I didn’t know what was happening. In a moment of clarity I said that I felt like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. I’d done everything right, followed the rules, served faithfully, put in the long hours — because if I didn’t, who would?  And how was I rewarded? My heart was torn out and trampled on. And I felt cheated. It was like bitterly watching as a prodigal came home to the loving embrace of the Father and I couldn’t be a part of it.

It wasn’t fair.

It had been a long time since I’d felt the embrace of the Father. I no longer knew what it felt like to respond to His love. I only served because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. I was afraid of going to hell. I was afraid of disappointing everyone. I was afraid that without all my Christian duties, without my “title,” I would lose myself.  I knew that service motivated by fear wasn’t sustainable. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make myself love Him.

I was done.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” ~ John 8:36

I knew I was a “son.” But I’d never felt free. I had made myself into a slave, trying to pay off a debt I no longer owed. I wanted to know what it was like to be the prodigal, to run away for a while. I made up my mind that if I ever came back it would be because I wanted to, because I loved the Father, not because I was afraid.

Fearfully, I confessed this to a friend who wisely told me,

“God has given you your freedom, Bekah. If you want to get the hell outta dodge, then do it. He’s not making you stay. Really. It might take a little time ‘outta dodge’ to realize that He’s not putting dogs on you to bring you back.*” 

So before I could think too much about it, I walked away. Quietly, tentatively, not even sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.

I didn’t get very far.

Grace is an Ocean

Grace is an Ocean

Within a week of walking away I found myself swimming in the deep sea of forgetfulness, long suppressed memories floating to the surface. And suddenly, I needed Him. I didn’t have time to examine my motives or wonder if He loved me. All I could do was cling to the hem of His garment. And He picked me up. And washed me, over and over with the water of His word, His grace, His love. He held my hand and walked with me, shining His light in the darkest corners of my memories.

I’ve spent the last 5 months sinking into His oceans of grace, becoming saturated by His love. Under the reign of spiritual abuse, grace and love were meted out only in the smallest measures lest they be “abused” in excess. I never knew they were available to me in endless quantities. The law of the Spirit of Life has set me free.

I am free, indeed.

I know I’m not the only one who has ever been unable to receive the grace and love of God. As the “older son” I felt like I was spinning wheels trying to feel worthy, trying to make the Father notice me. But I was with Him all along, and everything He had was available to me.

Whether you’re the older son or the prodigal, He’s waiting.

Come home brother, sister. Lets go swimming. 

Part I..

*He knew I’d be back – he just didn’t tell me. 

Dichotomy: Part I

Trigger warning for mentions of spiritual abuse.

If you’ve been here very long, you know that I spent nearly 10 years in a spiritually abusive church.

During my internment in this group I learned to believe that the love of God was expressed most effectively through the confrontation of sin among our brethren. We were told that the essence of love was to be warned of our sin and given the opportunity to “bear fruit unto repentance,” thereby proving the sincerity of our redemption.  In fact, the most unloving thing one could do to another believer was failing to warn them of sin, carelessly allowing them to blaze their path to hell.  I was drawn to these people for their transparency, nakedness, and vulnerability. Their teachings were presented with strength and conviction and were the farthest thing imaginable from the “cheap grace, prosperity gospel” I had grown up with.  I dove in without looking back.

the hot seat

What I thought ‘vulnerability’ looked like.

When I say we were transparent, vulnerable and naked, it was in the sense of being found in the hot seat with the “light of fellowship” aimed at our flaws. “Search me and know my heart” took on a new meaning.  There was an expectation of confession. Deeper, hidden sins were expected at the root of the “obvious symptoms.” Those who responded well to correction were embraced. Those who did not were ostracized or eventually excommunicated via manipulation.  It didn’t take long to adopt the pattern of response that would garner the most positive results.

I vividly remember my first confrontation. I was 17. My heart pounded a foreboding rhythm as I sat across from my young friend in her living room. Haltingly, painfully, she “brought her offense” to me.  I had speculated that she had a crush on a boy in the youth group and conspiratorially giggled to my sister a prediction that they would marry. My friend learned of this and felt hurt. Rather than bringing her feelings directly to me, she followed the pattern set before us, consulting with our youth leaders. She was counseled to formally confront me according to the rules of biblical discipline. My examination took place with church elders in the next room, sanctioning the practice and “supporting us in prayer.”

What had started as a case of hurt feelings ballooned into accusations of foretelling, divination, witchcraft and rebellion.

I was angry, indignant, as I listened to the charges against me.  I felt betrayed. How could the whisper and giggle of a teenage girl lead to this? My anger was quickly squelched by the ultimatum laid before me by my friend. The requirement was that I repent, turn from my ways, and by means of a trial period prove my sincerity lest she and other church members be forced to distance themselves. If I continued in my pattern while claiming to be a Christian, they would fulfill the biblical mandate, “with such a one, do not even eat.”

My blood ran cold and my head spun. This was no idle threat. Just weeks before we’d excommunicated a friend of ours, carefully navigating the legalistic steps of “biblical church discipline.” I knew I was in danger of losing the first real friends I’d ever had. This was not a time to exert my will. I wondered if I was so deluded that I’d become demon possessed. I wondered if I was a witch. At the very least, I assumed my friends and leaders must be able to see a great blind spot in my life. So I tearfully pledged repentance and promised to work harder to overcome rebellion. I became utterly humbled, and for many years lauded that encounter as the nearest I’d ever been to Jesus in the flesh. Because only Jesus would get himself dirty enough to save one as close to perdition as I.

That was only one of many such confrontations, both conducted for me, and sadly, by me. I regret to say that I participated in these inquisitions as eagerly as I sought them for myself. Over the years I grew anxious if my friends did not point out my faults. I believed that any failure to confront me indicated they no longer cared and were content to let me slide right out of grace.

The truth was that many of them had grown weary of this fruitless charade.

Over time, I began to recognize what was happening and knew I had to get out.  I was the first among my friends to leave the church. I didn’t know who I was or what I believed. A crisis of faith became a very real crisis of identity.  I draw my sense of being from the people around me and suddenly I had nothing familiar in proximity. Who was I? Did I really know Jesus? If not, who was I serving? It was months before I felt I could hear from the Lord in the wilderness, alone. But I was determined to stay by His side, wrestling, until I came to some kind of reconciliation with Him.

This poem epitomized where I was. It became my desperate prayer. But would it ever be answered?

This story isn’t over yet. Part II coming soon.

from Dichotomized, released 01 February 2013, Emily Joy Poetry.

Heart Treasures

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19

I’ve always marveled at that. Each Christmas season, when I hear the retelling of the birth of Christ with the angels, and the shepherds and the manger and the hay; I love Mary’s response to it all. It prompts me to reflect on the year that has passed, selecting my treasures and pondering on them. I wonder if maybe she made a habit of holding on to those treasures. Later in the Christmas story she is told that a sword would pierce her own soul with the fall and rising of her son… did she ponder on her treasures, holding tightly to them in those dark hours when her soul was bleeding?

I’m taking a life inventory this week as part of my Story 101 e-course. As someone with a writers’ soul I observe and capture moments vividly. Each one of these, bitter or sweet, I can see, smell, and almost reach out and touch. These are my heart treasures.

  • Heard my Father speak my name in a sunlit graveyard
  • Smashed a porcelain tea set just to hear the pieces shatter
  • Watched fireworks from my treehouse, held in the arms of a childhood crush
  • Had my hand held for the first time walking on the levee of the Mississippi River
  • Danced with abandon in front of my church as a little girl
  • Cleaned toilets with strangers in a tiny Mississippi town
  • Called the authorities for a friend who overdosed
  • Watched my favorite art teachers fall in love while we cleaned the ceramics studio
  • Collected beach glass on the Mississippi river for a found-art sculpture
  • Sold my sculpture for over $300 and became an artist
  • Hiked in the Andes Mountains
  • Never went back to Peru
  • Chased pigeons on the National Mall in DC
  • Let my grandpa brush and blowdry my curly hair
  • Flew a kite in Hurricane Katrina’s winds
  • Learned the scent of death in a New Orleans home only 2 weeks after it had 10 feet of water standing in it
  • Broke the news to a homeowner that she had 6 feet of water fill her house for weeks
  • Cried with her when she told me her dog was locked inside
  • Danced for Dominicans while covered in dust and paint
  • Shivered in a frost covered pasture to watch the most spectacular meteor shower of my life
  • Spread 1,152 pastel Easter eggs across a friends lawn on Thanksgiving morning
  • Established and annually celebrated “Pranksgiving”
  • Read Hinds Feet on High Places
  • Cried with friends whose arms ached for babies
  • Cried with friends when they read positive pregnancy tests
  • Stood next to my best friend during the most God-honoring wedding I’ve ever been a part of
  • Left a church by myself – twice
  • Read Captivating
  • Examined the anatomy of a kiss
  • Drove alone to New Orleans to be the only person who showed up for a gifted songwriters performance
  • Stood under a waterfall
  • Tamed wild kittens
  • Found and believed in my “eye” for photography
  • Saw the sunrise from my swingset; over and over
  • Trembled as I held the phone to my ear and heard the words, “It’s cancer.”
  • Sang hymns with a broken voice to my daddy in the ICU
  • Learned to love wine
  • Rode the ferry on the Mississippi just to ride it
  • Sucked the heads of countless crawfish (respecting my roots)
  • Was hired into the state job of my dreams during a hiring freeze
  • Forgave the first boy to break my heart
  • Went on my first date at 21 years old
  • Stood in the room while my grandfather slipped away with Jesus
  • Dropped out of high school
  • Got my GED months before my friends graduated
  • Moved out of my parents home at 19 years old

Which of these snatches would you like to hear the story of? What are some of your hearts greatest treasures? Share with me.