(***Disclaimer: This is a previously unpublished journal entry that I’ve tweaked after a recent discussion with a friend. I told her I’d throw it out there.)
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve been struggling. Emotionally. Psychologically. Spiritually. I know it’s not true, but—wow!—I feel alone in this place. Regrettably, not enough of us are willing to drop our fig leaves and confess that we’re human, that we hurt, and that things are often far from ‘fine’.
I’ve been praying, but right now that’s like stumbling through a mist-shrouded forest. Within the complex mess of salvaged parts in my soul, I’ve found myself at once yearning for two opposites: the longing to escape for a while and set out alone, and a desperate aching for human connection, compassion, and soul-support. Unfortunately, obligations and busyness have kept me from the former; and the latter? To whom shall I turn? Everyone I know is either mired in their own battles right now or conspicuously MIA.
Still, I confess: I feel discarded, forgotten, maligned, misunderstood, ignored, unloved, unknown … and completely alone. Like a bird in a hurricane, I’m blown around with nowhere to touch down and rest. And I can’t keep this up. I’m exhausted.
“I need a place to lay my head … a place to rest.” -Drew Holcomb
I began this morning sitting outdoors with a cup of coffee and another blind stab at prayer.
Father, I’m sinking fast and I need … What? I don’t even know what I need. I know you’re here somewhere, but there’s so much static in my head I can’t find you. Is this just another descent into depression or is it something else? Something silly that’s leaving me anxious? Something sinister that’s digging its claws into me? I’m confused and lost and in this very moment I have no idea how to even pray. I’m tired from a struggle I don’t understand and distracted like a gnat in a combat zone. My soul is coming apart and I have no one to turn to, no one I can trust with my heart …
As my mind raced to keep up with the desperate cries (and lies) churning in my heart, something unexpected happened. Unseen hands took hold of me and shook me awake and my reality shifted without warning.
A war for survival came to life all around me.
My eyes were drawn by a furious commotion in the trees. What had just been the blissful morning call and response of songbirds were now shrieks of panic. For better or worse, my internal and external worlds met on the same battlefield.
I looked up to find a red-tailed hawk ascending and soaring, circling and diving as masses of smaller birds darted back and forth and then submerged into the protective shelter of the treetops. The hawk chased them into the branches as far as he could go, but the more nimble wrens and finches lifted into the sky and quickly disappeared into another tree, and then another. This frantic dance went on for just a few moments, but it seemed a lifetime of beauty and terror.
Finally, the striving hawk pulled up, spread his wings wide and attempted to land on a solitary branch that pointed skyward like an old man’s crooked finger. With a sharp CRACK, the branch gave way under the sudden weight of the hawk. Unfazed, the predator gracefully floated toward another limb as the fractured branch tumbled downward, end over end, before hitting the ground with a lifeless THUD!
I found myself marveling at the powerful elegance of the hawk. He had somehow managed to release his initial perch in the very instant he’d grabbed it and avoid sharing the fate of that dead branch. He didn’t hold on, demanding support where there was none; nor did he continue to flap his wings and hover in exhaustion over the dead branch. He wasted not even a moment to linger over something broken while cursing it for not holding him up when he most needed it. Instead, as part of his mysterious, gravity-defying design, the hawk sailed on and found another place to take his rest.
Within moments, peace was restored and the songbirds returned to their melodies.
“Do you see what I see?” I heard a loving, playful voice asking.
“No, Father. I have no freaking clue what you’re after here, but thanks for the effort.”
With that, I finished off my coffee and headed out to limp through my day.
Two hours later I was sitting in the Vitals-Records department of our county courthouse. Laura needed a copy of our marriage certificate to renew her driver’s license; she was swamped at work, so I offered to make the trip. As I waited, I overheard a gravelly-voiced old man requesting a copy of his grandson’s birth certificate. I looked up to find a gaunt figure leaning over a gnarled wooden cane. Deep lines were carved into his leathery face and he seemed exactly the sort of surly character you’d find in a West Virginia county courthouse.
The clerk asked for a picture ID and the old man’s head dropped as he sighed heavily. I interpreted this as annoyance and disgust, but it was neither.
“I recently moved and I can’t find it,” he said in defeat.
“Well,” the clerk’s head tilted quizzically, “has anyone ever had a copy of the child’s birth certificate?”
“Can she not find it?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, his voice reduced to a coarse whisper, “she’s deceased.”
“Sir,” the clerk said with a fair amount of compassion, “we can’t give out a birth certificate to someone unless they can prove they’re a parent, grandparent, or legal guardian. Without a picture ID …” she shrugged sympathetically. “Can one of the parents come down here with a picture ID?”
“There are no parents,” he muttered. “One’s in prison and the other’s hooked on heroin. She dropped the boy off with me a couple of years ago. It’s just me and him.”
My heart sank.
There were so many things I wanted to offer the man. What, exactly, I’m not sure. Something deep inside yearned to reach out, put my arm around him and say something, do something, offer something to lighten this man’s burden, at least let him know that this complete stranger actually gave a damn; but I couldn’t muster even the slightest chirp. In that moment I was a dead limb, struggling to support my own weight.
The young lady assisting me finally reappeared and handed me a copy of our marriage certificate. I paid the five dollar fee, thanked her, and quietly fled the building. Once in the security of my truck, I broke down and sobbed, crying out to God, feeling utterly broken and useless.
We are constantly surrounded by beautiful souls afflicted with untold heartaches, and in this moment I hated myself for being unable to find even one kind word to offer that man. That painful reality dug into me, mercilessly shredding my already weary soul, filling me with regret, accusation, and guilt.
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Matthew 11: 28-29 (NLT)
I especially love Eugene Peterson’s translation of these verses in The Message: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
Unforced rhythms of grace.
Just like nature. Wild. Untamed. Unpredictable. At times, violent and destructive. Others, filled with so much beauty that it hurts our eyes to stare into it.
“Predictability and faith cannot coexist.”
Mike Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder
Do you see that we are all far more than we think we are in any particular moment? We are complex, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139: 14), but we try to peg ourselves and reduce our mysterious existence into basic, easily-defined terms, because if we can name exactly what we are, then we have some control over nature; we can predict what happens next.
How foolishly vain are we to think we could ever deflate the terrible wonder of what God is doing within us?
I am not the hawk. Nor am I the songbird. I am not the dead branch or a thriving, healthy tree.
I am all of these things … and so much more.
I suspect a part of my soul is raptor-like, hunting with deadly potential, but sometimes chasing things that I simply can’t catch. Often driven by hunger pangs, my best efforts can leave me with nothing but exhaustion. Worn out, I look for a familiar, convenient place to touch down, but rarely can these places support the weight of all that I am. So many dead branches all around. Either that or in my defensive pride I refuse to risk vulnerability in areas where I have found disappointment and disillusionment before. Maybe that’s wisdom, but perhaps not. It could be fear.
There is also a brawny, yet delicate place in me: the thick-leafed tree on the hillside. I now realize the bitterness that has invaded my heart recently. I have found myself recounting all those who have come to me in distress as I held their hearts as best I could with all the strength I could muster; but like the songbirds, they flutter away to sing their joyous praises in another tree once they feel secure again. A friend recently lamented: “Ministry kicks your ass.” Indeed, it does. Some sense of fair-play suggests that our love and care for others will be reciprocated, that we will be loved and supported by those we’ve held; but rarely does that happen. Rather than allowing myself to feel ill-used, I should be thankful that I’ve been healthy enough during those times to provide shelter to the souls God has entrusted to me.
Quite frankly, I’m not able to do that right now.
The heaviest part of my soul feels like a dead branch. No matter how much I’d like to offer support, I simply don’t have the life and strength to do it. The slightest pressure will break me and send me spiraling to the ground, ending in a lifeless thud.
Then I remember … nature …unpredictability …terrible beauty.
The Christian life is not one of control, consistency, or comfort. It is a wild, exhilarating, terrifying adventure story that is being told within and throughout our souls. This life is sometimes a beautiful, sometimes grotesque reflection of nature.
As I watch this nature-story unfold, I pause, survey the landscape, and feel an odd sense of anticipation for this particular dead limb to snap off and fall to the ground. Perhaps what good is left in it will return to the soil and nourish the tree that continues to grow into something beyond my imagination or control.
I now see that I’ve become weary from both despising and clenching the dead branches in my soul.
There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.
Therefore, all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.
And our God is a consuming fire.
George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons
We cannot mourn the destruction of that which no longer has life in it.
I welcome the violent intrusion of restoration and the continuance of life. As painful as it can be, that’s part of this mysterious adventure; it’s the chaotic natural order of this complicated life which makes perfect sense when viewed from above.
Through the eyes of a hawk.