On Lynchburg, a Slightly Melodramatic and Certainly Oversentimental Ode to Days Gone By

Lynchburg is a patchwork quilt, pieced together from the last seven-and-a-half years of my life’s wardrobe.  Some of the squares are carefully cut from the best and most beautiful dresses, worn only on those most special occasions, when you feel as though life could never possibly be more blessed.  But many of the pieces — most of them, probably — are stripped from hand-me-downs, too ragged to be worn in public, or from those shirts that seemed to me to be attractive, but that turned out never to have been quite in style.

Lynchburg has been with me throughout the entirety of my independent adult life thus far, from the moment I first set foot outside my parents’ doorstep, on my way to a college dorm on Candler’s Mountain.  It was there for my first real full-time job, and the first job I ever hated.  It was there for my providentially short-lived first dating relationship, though not my first broken heart.  Lynchburg has seen me irretrievably shy, unrestrainedly confident, prideful, humbled, hopeful, disappointed.  It has seen me at my best and my worst.  And its streets are paved with a myriad of memories, stretching all the way from the farthest reaches of Forest, through Ward’s Road and Timberlake, to downtown and Rivermont.

I grew up in wild, wonderful West Virginia, my Mountain Mama, down some real-live country roads.  But it is Lynchburg that has shaped me more profoundly than any other place.  I have a long-standing love-hate relationship with this town, that I suppose is mostly love, plagued nonetheless by the all-too-recent records of my naivete, disillusionment, failures, sins, regrets.

Still, I can’t think of a single year I’ve spent here that hasn’t brought with it some new joy, or some new growth.  And I see the finger of God tracing my path along the sidewalks and the confoundedly interwoven roadways that I’ve traveled so familiarly.  I see how he brought me here, unexpectedly, by his grace — and I see how he’s masterfully orchestrated every friendship, every decision, every change throughout these seven-ish years to bring me to where I am, and to make me who I am.  This last year particularly has been overwhelmingly good (confusing, yes, and frustrating at times, filled with difficulty, but filled with love and hope and so much happiness).

Just a little over a year ago, I ventured out to a part of Lynchburg that I hadn’t frequented before.  I’d always thought Wyndhurst was a little too “yuppie” for my tastes, which vacillate rapidly between lowbrow mainstream and over-prententious hipster/hippie.  Who’d have thought that Wyndhurst would become perhaps the dearest part of this city, the most cherished in my memory.  You see, normally, if I wanted coffee, I’d go to Starbucks, or The White Hart.  But that day, I was headed for the first time to The Muse.  I walked in the door, not quite sure what awaited, and certainly not aware that this would mark the beginning of something entirely new to me.  There near the entryway, at a table for two, sat a new friend of mine — a handsome young man wearing a red-striped drug rug, cradling a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, his face illuminated by the soft glow from the screen of his Macbook.  We talked till closing, about all sorts of things.  He was visibly nervous, which I suppose made me a little nervous, too.  That night, I recall that we were moved nearly to the point of tears at times, and certainly to the point of robust laughter at others.  Neither of us knew what it meant, but we knew that it was good.  We still don’t quite know, but God does, and I for one am daily astonished by his goodness and faithfulness to me, and by this challenging, sanctifying blessedness he’s entrusted me with for however long he pleases.

Ah, Wyndhurst, with our countless hours at City Place, with that one incredibly lovely evening stroll around the block, with that one time when my mom and I spent a much-needed day at the spa, with the church offices, where I laughed and cried with the women of Mercy, my church family.  I have memories all over this town, but as I stand here on the brink of my departure, at the end of this era of my life, it’s Wyndhurst that I know I’ll think of most when I’m gone.  I mean, so much of Lynchburg is tinged with painful memories.  Still, I suppose when all is said and done, I love the whole of it.  I love Diamond Hill, and all the stray cats on my afternoon walking route, and the stairway down to Percival’s Island, and sitting under the overpass there.  And I love that willow tree on campus, long since cut down, where I’d sit with dear friends, or alone thereafter.  I love that classroom in Campbell County where I met my first friends with autism, and where I learned to appreciate how much we had in common, and where I learned as much from them as they learned from me.  I love the little apartments all down Ward’s Ferry Road where I spent time with so many people, so long ago.  I love the Dollhaus in all its glory, with its board games and Zelda time and movie nights, with the smell of bacon caramelizing in the oven and the Jesus Storybook Bible being read aloud in the living room.  I love that East Campus dorm, where I lived with my favorite college roommates, singing hymns and working puzzles and playing Trivial Pursuit.  I love that school-cafeteria-turned-sanctuary where I’ve worshiped for more than a year with people who have loved and served me, and who’ve let me love and serve them, despite myself.  And I love my little Oak Hill apartment, and the crowds who’ve gathered here to sing Psalms and to eat, and my favorite roomie ever, and the stop sign on Lee Street.

I don’t know what lies ahead in my life.  I’ve heard that an RUF Campus Minister sometimes says (probably contextualized in some way that’d make more sense than this), “All the best days in life are still ahead.”  Or something like that.  And if that’s even remotely true, then I can have a heck of a lot of hope.  Because Lynchburg has been very, very good to me, despite its many ups and downs.  And it is true, I think.  Someone also told me once (quoting another Campus Minister) that “God always gives us exactly what we would have asked for, had we known everything he knows,” and that “It is a cosmic impossibility for God ever to be anything less than absolutely good to us at every moment.”  And the longer I live, the more clearly I see those truths engraved across my life, the times I’ve hated most, the times I thought were amazing that turned out to be just okay, the times that were surprisingly good despite my stupidity, and the times (like now) that were just plain confusing because of all the overwhelmingly happy and sad and excited and bittersweet emotions that flooded over me all at once.  Thank you, God, for your goodness throughout my life, and throughout my time in Lynchburg — and thank you for the goodness that lies ahead.  Would that I will glorify God and enjoy him in the days to come.  Here’s to life, and here’s to Lynchburg!

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On Pain, Again

It’s an all-too-common scene:  I toss and turn for a few hours before I finally wake up, roll out of bed, and step over the used tissues that are littered carelessly about my bedroom floor.  I wander to the bathroom and rub the sleep out of my swollen, painful eyes.  My lips and nose are also chapped, enlarged, and red, and my face tingles all over with the remnants of last night’s uncontrollable, violent storm of tears.  I take a deep breath and shower, but my conflicted, irrational thoughts run rampant, and I’m in tears again before I’m even dressed for the day.  Most days, I pull myself together and head into work for a weary day.  Today, I called out, pulled out my Bible, and watched an episode of The X-Files.

There’s nothing wrong.  My life is unbelievably good right now.  I have an intense and challenging, yet incredibly rewarding job that I love and look forward to most days.  I have an amazing church family, and amazing friends, both in Lynchburg, VA and Boone, NC, and there is an abundance of love being poured out on me by friends and family all the time.  I have the best boyfriend that anyone could ever ask for, who frustrates me at times, confuses me at times, but who faithfully, selflessly cares for me more than I could have imagined possible.  I have a loving God and Savior who forgives my sin, who is strong in my weakness, who loves me even more than all my friends and family combined — more than I could ever hope to understand.

Everything is wrong.  I struggle with anxiety and depression.  And every good thing in my life is tinged daily by my anxious thoughts.  I can’t handle my job, can’t handle how exhausting it is, and how much energy it requires.  I can’t handle serving my church, and I’m too tired to spend time with people.  I just want to sleep, because being with people just stresses me out me more.  My relationship is unhealthy, it’s too much to ask him to handle, I can’t deal with long-distance anymore, and I can’t wait for God’s timing in showing us what the next step in our relationship should be.  I’m too sinful and messed up to be loved by God, and I don’t understand why He allows me to feel this much pain, so often.

All will be made well.  God has already made me well, but not yet.  God has already healed my pain, but not yet.  He has called me, justified me, He is sanctifying me, He will glorify me.  I am His, and He cares for me, and there’s a reason why every inch of my body hurts, every day.  There’s a reason why I can’t calm my anxious thoughts, even with Scripture, godly counsel, joyful distraction.  There’s a reason why my jaws crack with tension, why my shoulders strain against my neck and all my muscles feel like they’re trying to detach themselves from my achy bones.  There’s a reason why my stomach churns with nausea and sharp, burning pains, no matter how healthy I eat, no matter what.  There’s a reason why my knees and ankles ache and feel so very frail.  There’s a reason why I can’t control my emotions and my fears.  There’s a reason why I languish in exhaustion, after six hours of sleep, after eight hours of sleep, after twelve hours of sleep.  There’s a reason why I sometimes cry nearly to the point of vomiting, and there’s a reason why in those moments, nothing seems to help.

Everything happens for a reason, because God is lovingly and sovereignly directing all things in His creation, for His glory, and for the good and greater holiness of those who love Him, who He has chosen.  And He has, out of His infinite wisdom and pleasure, by His grace, because of the righteousness of Christ — He has chosen me.  And He has orchestrated my lot in life for a greater purpose than I can grasp.

I cling to that in these times when I am not the only one affected by my pain, when my closest friends stay up with me on the phone while I sob, listen to me vent my frustrations time and time again, put up with all the ups and downs that come with the whatever-the-crap-is-wrong-with-me.  Because feeling like a burden on others only increases my insanity, only makes it more difficult to bear — and so the very thing that should be comfort and hope, becomes a strange idolatry, an unhealthy dependence that only exacerbates the anxiety.  I crave comfort, significance, security, hope — and I know that God uses others to provide those things for me at times, but often my greatest sources of comfort also spark my deepest fears, because I feel like I cannot in good conscience ask others to bear my pain.  But when I think of what Christ has borne for me, so willingly, and when I think that He calls us to bear each other’s burdens, I have hope.  Because the pain and anxiety that I deal with sucks, but it is a mere fragment of the suffering that many others have experienced in this life, and it is the most minute speck in comparison to the sacrifice of Christ for all mankind.  And though I suffer frequently, and though I have much pain to bear, I am also not the only one who suffers, and my pain helps me live compassionately — towards my students, who try my patience, and yet in whom I can see reflections of my own struggles; towards my friends and family, who I sometimes blame for not understanding my pain, or caring for me as I feel they ought, but who each have their own burdens to bear, and each of whom I long to care for and support as they do me; towards my boyfriend, who understands and feels my pain more deeply than anyone else, though he doesn’t understand it either (even I don’t understand it, so I can’t blame him for that!), yet who I often unjustly expect too much of, when I should be running to God with my burdens and striving also not to focus merely on what he should do for me, but to bear my boyfriend’s struggles in return.  It’s crazy how pain drives you inward, and centers all your concern on yourself, which only really makes things worse.

Around this time last year, I was writing a similar post, lamenting my pain.  It’s crazy and incredible to think of all that God has done in that short year — He has blessed me beyond measure.  And yet, the same struggle remains.  But it does not persist, at least.  The pain persists, but the insanity comes and goes, haha.  And looking back on last year, and on the many years before, I see God’s sustenance and faithfulness so clearly.  And I can’t get lost in hopelessness, because I know that even though these past few weeks have felt endlessly difficult, that feeling will not last forever.  At some point, my anxieties will die down for awhile, and life will feel normal again.  At some point, I’ll just calm the frak down.  At some point, I’ll remember that my life is not the center of the universe, and that not everything depends on me — I’ll learn again how to care more for others than for myself, and I’ll regain my footing on the solid rock.  And that will last for a few weeks, a few months, or longer, or shorter, as God sees fit.  But, for now, because there is no other option, I let the emotion do it’s worst.  I try to rest as much as I can, I try to remind myself that the circumstances of life (though they are indeed stressful) are not the source of my anxiety, I try to find times to cry with people, I try to seek Scripture for comfort and hope, and I try not to beat myself up for feelings I can’t control.  I often fail, but God still loves me.

Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind.  But God is good, and He is at work.  And I may or may not ever understand this craziness, that flares up every now and then, usually in these colder months, that crushes my hope and joy and sends me whirling into a vortex of emotional instability and apathy and self-pity.  And I may not ever learn to deal with my pain in ways that are healthy and wholesome and right.  But I do know that God loves me, and that He has given me many people throughout my life who have loved me, and that right now, I am so deeply loved by so many.  I know that God forgives me, and teaches me to forgive others, and strengthens others to forgive me, too.  And I know that God is in control, when I feel like I’m out of control, and that He will provide for my needs in every way, and will use my life to His glory despite myself, just as He always has.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord.

On Relinquishing Control

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.  …  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.  …  You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  …  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”  …  Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.  …  Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

I have an excessive need for control — or, at least, that’s what my psychology-major brother tells me.  And he’s at least partially right.  I have a deep impatience with uncertainty in life, and whenever the future seems unclear, every fiber of my being wants to grasp the reins of my life and drive it feverishly towards whatever I think is best.

But throughout the last few weeks and months, I’ve been learning an important truth: Life is not meant to be grasped and controlled.  Instead, it is meant to be lived and enjoyed, in the light of God’s sovereignty and love.

Life is always so full of changes, and I’ve found over time that many of them are good.  But with change always comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes the desire to control.  I’m so excited about so many changes that are happening right now in my life, and in the lives of those I care about.  But lurking always under the joy and hope that I have for the future is a lack of patience and a deep insecurity.  I want to know how these things will end, what will happen in the next two months, or the next two years, and I want to be able to predict and control all the varying changes that will affect where my life is headed.

But when I let myself get caught up in thinking about the future, and in trying to cling to whatever I want it to be, I find myself missing out on the joys of my present life.  I think it is good and healthy and right to have deep and even specific desires for the future, but when those hopes become expectations, those expectations create fears and doubts, and we lose our ability to rest in the gratitude for what IS, because we’re too worried about what will be.

I remember hearing a preacher once denounce “Que Sera, Sera” as a thoroughly unChristian and evil song, pointing out its inherent apathy and lack of conviction.  But I’m inclined to believe that dear old Doris has a point.  “Whatever will be, will be.”  Now, this only works when you say it with a genuine conviction that whatever will be will be perfect and right, because it is divinely orchestrated by our loving God.  And the knowledge that God is working out his eternal purposes, according to the counsel of his will, through his providence in preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions — that knowledge has given me so much freedom from the worry of whatever may come in life, and from anxiety over whether life’s many changes will bring about good or bad.

And so, just as I began to recognize that I really do need to let go of my desire to be in control of my life, I was given the terrifying and wonderful opportunity to lead a group study of James.  And as I started studying James in preparation, I was reminded that God is the giver of good gifts.  And not only that, but he gives good things generously to those who love him, and to those who ask in faith.  Because the prayer of the righteous has great power.  These truths have absolutely revolutionized my prayer life throughout recent weeks, and I am so thankful that God has graciously reminded me of his care for the minute circumstances of my life, and of his most holy, wise, and powerful work in my daily life.  The fact that he is intimately concerned with each moment of each day — that, in fact, he sustains the existence of even the tiniest particle of matter at every moment — and that, as someone told me once, it is a cosmic impossibility for God to be anything less than absolutely good to you at every moment of your life — gives me so much confidence in his ability to use even the biggest, scariest changes in our lives to bring about his purposes.

And it gives me freedom to hope, deeply and genuinely, without fostering false expectations.  Because, in hope, I can come before God boldly, requesting the fulfillment of my desires, in full confidence that he will provide for my needs — and then, in faith, I can relinquish any impulse to try to control the outcomes of those desires, because God’s perfect will is far superior to anything I could ever expect for myself.  And so, I pray that the things I desire might come to pass, but only in accordance with God’s will, and only insofar as he receives glory therein.  And then, I rejoice in the knowledge that all things in life, whether difficult or easy, painful or joyful, disappointing or beautifully fulfilling, are being worked out for the good of those who love God, because this is what brings him most glory.

And such prayers deliver me also from the fears which so often cripple my heart when I think about the uncertainties in life.  No longer must I worry about being hurt or disappointed.  No longer do I dwell on my insecurities and failures.  Suffering and trials will come, as will abundance and growth and joy, but in every circumstance, God is at work.  I don’t have to worry that I’ll somehow make a mistake and destroy any good thing in my future, because I am not in control — and thank goodness for that!

And, furthermore, coming to rest in the power of such prayers enlivens and deepens my prayer life, as I begin to rely on God’s providence not only in my own life, but in the lives of those I love.  When someone is hurting, and I do not know how to comfort them, I remember that the Holy Spirit is our comforter, and that only by his power — not my own — can I ever be truly comforting.  When someone asks for advice, and I fear that I’ll be wrong, I remember that the Word of God is our only rule for life, and that only in coming to know it more fully can I hope to speak wisdom into the lives of others.  When someone trusts me, and I fear I’ll disappoint and fail them, I remember that God alone is fully worthy of our trust, and that when failures inevitably come, his forgiveness will work in the hearts of his children.  Indeed, knowing that God is at work in others’ lives gives us also the confidence to trust other Christians more fully, not because of their own goodness, but because their hearts incline towards God, who is working out his plans in and through them as well.  This is one of the blessings of fellowship — that we may rejoice in God’s work in each others’ lives, by weeping with those who weep, encouraging those in need, and celebrating with those who rejoice.

And so, no matter what the trial in life (of which there are many and various, daily), I can and should seek God in prayer, asking in confident faith for the wisdom I lack, because he gives generously and without reproach.  Because in prayer, we do not gain power for ourselves, but we learn submission and contentment, and confidence in the power of the God who has chosen the poor in the world to make rich in faith, and whose strength is most powerfully displayed in our weakness, and not in our ability to control.  And when we let go of our anxious cravings for control, we can be free to enjoy each day as it comes, and to be truly thankful for the abundant blessings in our lives, without an unwholesome preoccupation with the fear of loss or pain.

Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake to guide thy future, as he has the past.