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“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” James 1:2
We are innately built to flee from things that hurt. Avoiding pain is a natural defense. Stay away from the edge of the cliff, don’t step into oncoming traffic, watch out for hot stoves, don’t drink poison. It’s a matter of safety and self-preservation. But what about things that gouge holes into your heart, blur your focus and sit on your lungs? Things like failure, rejection, betrayal, … loss.
Just like hot stoves, we learn the sting of pain and then “get better” at avoiding it. Creating standards like: Run from conversations that make you feel small. Disappear when the tension rises. Stay away from brokenness. Get distracted. Don’t trust. Fill the air with pretense. Masks will save you. Don’t open up. Whatever you do, DO NOT share. Don’t care.
Better yet, play it safe, Don’t feel.
Recoiling from it all, we chalk it up to lessons learned and put up guards, warning lights and danger indicators. Pretending we’re put together, we hide, even from God.
I know. That was my plan and I executed it with precision for years.
But there’s a flip side to this protection plan. It has a compoundable cost. It’s never just one or two emotions you bypass. Humans can’t separate the experience of one feeling from all the others. (Brené Brown researched this profoundly in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection”). To block out pain you also have to limit joy. To avoid rejection you also have to give up connection. To run from disappointment you’ll leave achievement in the dust. You can’t avoid one without loosing the other.
This is what I mean by dying. To live severed like this is a slow death, one that’s almost undetectable. It begins by silencing you with shame, then diminishing connection with others and finally extinguishing all hope.
Standing on the brink of extinction can change a person. It did me. In that raw and desperate place I took a really long look at my pain. Years of emotional and spiritual abuse had left some gaping wounds, but as I peered into them I noticed a genesis of sorts – it was a place to begin and I called out for a Savior.
At my most vulnerable, my most exposed, my most intense feelings was my most desperate call for Jesus. That messy space of vulnerability then became a place of communion. His brokenness met mine.
Immanuel – God with Us.
Beyond pretense. Away from all the expectations and stipulations faith became real. My brokenness was a place to see His love. My fears became a place to notice His promises. My wounds sealed by His. My pain became a gift of connection.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven authenticity of your faith … may result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:6-7
For God so loved… that He gave.… John 3:16
I’ve been there. The isolated chair amongst rows of pews. Hollow words tapping on my numb heart. Just another Sunday, just another rhythm of handshakes, I’ll-Pray-For-You’s and Amens. I played my part. Did my dues.
But as I waded through the following weekdays I wondered – What is this all really about? A baby miraculously born of a virgin — something to go caroling about? A tragic death and mysterious resurrection to get dressed up for? Is this all for a someday entrance pass through pearly gates?
Sure I wanted my ticket onto Golden Streets where there is no pain and suffering. Who doesn’t want eternity in sweet bliss?
But this is real life and here I am really living it. It hurts. Its confusing. It’s hard.
Before I go on, you should know. I was 6 when someone first shared the Salvation message with me. And it was warm enough that day that I wasn’t wearing my snow boots- so I’m fairly certain that following Christmas was the first time I’d heard of Baby Jesus lying in a hay trough. And you should also know that I then spent the better part of 20 years “practicing” this Christian faith.
But that’s just it… practicing. Cause I was supposed to?
Until one day it all crashed in on me. (You can read about that life-altering moment here.) I had been playing the Christian part. Doing what I thought I was supposed to do, ‘cause well, that’s what good people do. But when I really look back at the go-through-the-motions girl she looks more like a mannequin than I care to admit. I was so afraid of pain, rejection and disappointment that I truly didn’t feel anything at all, not joy, and definitely not hope. Convinced I wasn’t anything special coupled with my fear of pain, I withdrew and disconnected. And you know what – it was killing me. But when I found myself bleeding to death, hemorrhaging hope, I saw it. All of it. The reality of my pain, all the loneliness and strangely, yet not-so- strangely, I also witnessed whole and true love.
God loved and He gave for me.
His gift was far more than a Holiday. Even more than a someday ticket into Heaven.
Immanuel, God With Us.
It is the gift of His presence.
His very presence in the midst of our chaos and pain. His very presence in the celebrations and the utter devastations of our lives. He is in the here and now. Bringing not just eternal life, but abundant life. Not a life full of feel-goods and material blessings. No, He didn’t promise us a lifetime of jaunts down easy street or even a treasure chest of wealth and provision. He didn’t promise us the glamorous life.
He promised us a real life. A life of vulnerability that gains courage. One of pain that finds true love. One of grief that awakens pure joy ~ Life.
His gift… is a life that matters in this moment and on through eternity, all through the gift of His presence.
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given…
He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.