To my beautiful daughters,
Last night in our church, surrounded by so many of the people we love, I watched you stand up together and publicly share your faith in Christ. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cried. Not just last night but countless times over the past week. I cried again this morning as the reality of it hit me.
You know that I cry easily and often. It’s been that way for a long time. Happy things. Sad things. Beautiful things. They all make me cry. You’ve been around me for long enough to know that. However, as I reflect on what took place last night, I want to take a moment to explain why the emotion that has overwhelmed me this week has a deeper root than I suspect you fully understand.
A good friend once asked me, “Heidi, who is God to you?” At the time, the question was born out of a growing realisation that, as someone who worked for a Christian organization, God was in danger of becoming her “boss.” He was the person who issued the next list of targets. The name that was stamped on each project and signed at the bottom of each evaluation sheet.
Over the past few months I have been studying the letters to the churches in Revelation with some friends. In this season of my life God’s words to Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea, in particular, have made for uncomfortable reading. With razor sharp accuracy, God pierces through every façade and lays bear the carefully concealed truth, in essence forcing each church to answer the question, “Who is God to you?”
As I have tripped and stumbled through the letters, that question has been a constant and often unwelcome presence, gently nudging at my soul and stubbornly demanding that I search my heart for a response. Afraid of the answer, I have been trying in vain to avoid God’s gaze as He whispers again and again, “Who am I to you?”
The absence of light is almost oppressive this year. For weeks, those of us who live in northern latitudes have been getting up in the dark, driving to school in the dark and coming home in the dark. Every day we lose a little more light and the lamps have to burn for longer. Often it feels as though the gloom outside is mirrored by the shadows inside. News reports. Sickness. Friends in pain. Voices that whisper and demand to be heard.
As the darkness continues to gather momentum I have found myself drawn again and again to Psalm 73. It has become my Christmas psalm. The first verse is a bold declaration of God’s goodness, quickly overshadowed by the confession that, despite his best efforts, the psalmist’s feet are slipping. Images of chaos and pain have chipped away at his soul and hope is hanging by a thread.
All that opposes God is flourishing. Evil goes unpunished. Suffering multiplies endlessly. Men and women throw unspeakable taunts at the heavens and walk away unscathed, pride pinned to their breast as a badge of honor. As the arrogant flourish, the faithful are broken and beaten down.
Met with silence, the psalmist can no longer deny the questions that have been stubbornly gathering in his heart. Does God really see what is going on? Is He powerless to act or does He simply not care? Has God forgotten us? Torn between his desire to believe and the agony of the reality before him, the psalmist is in turmoil.
A couple of weeks ago my Facebook newsfeed was invaded by a selection of animals urging me to go to the Rabbit Room Store and pre-order Andrew Peterson’s new album, The Burning Edge of Dawn. Never one to argue with a magical fairy squirrel beast, I swiftly obeyed. If you did the same, you will be familiar by now with the track “The Rain Keeps Falling.” Some songs become meaningful over time, the truth of their lyrics gradually finding a path into your soul. Others arrive without fanfare and claim a place in your story before the end of the first verse. For me, “The Rain Keeps Falling” landed firmly in the second category.
As a writer, I am always tempted to write about struggle in terms of “we” and “our” rather than “I” and “my.” If I’m honest, it is not generally because of a deep sense of solidarity on the journey but rather a literary tool, allowing me to name my pain while at the same time maintaining a respectable distance. The truth is that the life of faith is often fraught with loneliness. Sometimes, when the heavens seem silent and the stories of victory are a painful reminder of your own weariness, hope is a song that is bleeding from the battle even as it whispers peace. To be both real and vulnerable in the pursuit and telling of the true story is not without risk, and I am grateful to Andrew, and others like him, for their courageous honesty. Not only because the result is stirringly beautiful but because it is a reminder that, even when we pass through a season of shadows, we are not alone.
There are times in my life when my own mediocrity and lack of holy desire leave me quietly wondering if God has finally given up on me. That, disappointed with my weakness, He has taken my calling and given it instead to someone who has worked harder, prayed longer, and deserves it more. It’s not something I shout about, or even admit readily to myself, but all too often I allow myself to be seduced by the voices that whisper this dark and dangerous logic into my weariness. In those moments it seems inevitable that He has finally noticed the ease with which I have neglected and trampled upon the fervent promises that came so easily in simpler days.
In a steady stream of small but piercing moments, God has been reminding me again recently that the voices are wrong. They are wrong because they are based on the presumption that somewhere along the line God looked at me, saw something of value and responded in love.
The truth is, that is not what happened.
I have always suspected that the simple act of eating together holds a deeper significance than we generally recognize. A few months ago a newspaper article outlining the impact of regular family mealtimes on young people caught my attention. The research confirmed a long list of benefits including stronger communication skills, improved mood, decreased risk of obesity and an increased sense of belonging and cultural identity.
The results did not surprise me. If there is one image that could define my childhood it would be the kitchen table with its flickering candle and unhurried conversation. At a time when my own identity seemed constantly under threat, it was there that I knew myself best. In fact, above the food itself, I think it is that sense of security and belonging which still draws me back to my parents’ table more than two decades later.
Once in a while, I get to ride the Charniaz Express. Nestled in the Alps between the villages of Les Gets and Morzine, close to the border of France and Switzerland, it is a chairlift with a magic all its own. At the top, beyond the tangle of battered down pistes and unspoilt powder, there is a little mountain hut and a chiminea with a roaring fire. The hot chocolate is rich and sweet with swirls of fresh cream that turn liquid on your tongue and the air is so cold and pure it almost hurts to breathe. It’s my favourite place in the whole world.
If you get there at just the right time you can sit in a battered yellow deckchair in the snowy silence and watch as dozens of hot air balloons rise from the valley floor below and float like bubbles between the glistening mountain peaks on either side, vivid colours dancing on a backdrop of white snow and blue sky.
On other days the view is cloaked by the wildness of an alpine storm. As silence gives way to howling wind, nature flexes her muscles in an explosive display of raw and untameable passion. Braced against the needles of ice and snow that sting even the smallest area of exposed skin it is impossible not to surrender to the awe that presses insistently on your soul.
Then there are the days when the clouds are low. From your vantage point on the mountain you find yourself looking down at a dense canopy which slices the landscape in two, separating the majesty of what is above from the misty grey valley that has been swallowed up in cloud.
Dear aspiring young “Christian Greys,”
I’ll be honest, this latest trend has left me bewildered, heartbroken, and very afraid for you. I’m afraid because the things that have hurt and broken you, leaving you less than you were ever meant to be, are now being applauded, encouraged, and dressed up as love. I’m afraid because the road you are on is a dangerous one, and it’s not going to end the way you hope.
I’m sorry that life has been unkind to you. I’m sorry that you’ve been encouraged to settle for money when you needed so much more. I’m sorry that pain has twisted your idea of love until all you have left is a distorted reflection in a broken mirror.
And I feel I must tell you something else.
Earlier this year I read an article about a Dutch student, Zilla van den Born, who spent 5 weeks travelling in Southeast Asia. Throughout her trip she posted photographs to Facebook, recorded videos, wrote a blog and bombarded her friends and family with the technicolor details of her once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
The remarkable thing about Zilla’s story was not the journey itself but the fact that, for the entire 5 weeks, she did not actually set foot outside her Amsterdam apartment. The whole trip—the photographs, the stories, the emails home—were all an elaborate experiment designed to show how easy it is to distort reality and create the story you want people to see.
Since I read the article the questions it raised have been playing on my mind. I may not go to the same lengths as Zilla to concoct a 5-week adventure in Asia but I am deeply aware of a constant temptation to present perfect children, an idyllic marriage, and a relationship with God that never waivers or falters in any way.
Eleven years ago I knew exactly what kind of parent I was going to be. I had decided what books my daughters would read, what songs they would love to sing and how I would handle difficult situations.
It turns out that life cares little for my theories.
The challenges facing our children seem to grow on a daily basis and the truth is that some days I go to bed feeling like every choice I made turned out to be the wrong one. It feels like the future is approaching at an ever-increasing pace, relentlessly mocking my naïve arrogance and tempting me to give in to the fear that I have not adequately prepared my daughters for what lies ahead.
For me, one of the most sobering moments in the entire Old Testament narrative is when the children of Israel discover that the land they are ready to conquer is inhabited by giants. Crippled by fear for the future of their children, the Israelites turn back and head for the wilderness. Every time I read it I wonder whether I would have acted any differently in their shoes. Honestly, I doubt it. Sometimes, when I look at the world around me, the temptation to retreat can be almost overwhelming.
It strikes me that the thing which swayed the Israelites more than any other was the voice they chose to listen to. All twelve of the spies saw the same thing when they looked at Canaan. Giants. Strongholds. Danger. The facts were inescapable.
Sometimes, in a particular season of life, a passage or book of the Bible can grab hold of you and wrap its words around your soul. For me that book is Deuteronomy. For several years now it has been a faithful companion, its thinly veiled beauty stirring my heart and giving me a clearer picture of the God I have claimed to know.
I love it because it pulses with the hope of a new beginning. The Israelites are almost there. Egypt is finally behind them and the wandering has come to an end. The home they sang about when slavery broke their backs and bent their heads is so close they can almost touch it. Anticipation runs high as the dying flame of hope bursts into life once more.
As they stand there, poised between the dream and the reality, Moses tells the old tale once more. The story of a God who made a promise and then kept it against all the odds. A God who heard the cries of his people and rescued them, freeing slaves and making them sons.
Then, from the heart of this God to the heart of his people comes a plea to choose to live in the fullness of all that he is and all that he has done. Pursue me. Love me. Obey me. Make me your starting point, the goal of your journey and your strength along the way. Anchor yourselves in my words and my commandments so that you will know me and live like you are mine. Let me fight for you and guide you and hold you in my arms. Let me show you how I love you. Believe that you are the treasured children of the Most High God and then live like it is true. Choose life.
Heady with anticipation, the promises come quickly to their lips. Hearts full of all that he offers, they forge ahead into the Promised Land.
Last week I was invited to tag along as C.S. Lewis scholar and writer Sandy Smith took a group of men from our church on a tour of the local C.S. Lewis landmarks. I’ll be honest; I was more than a little excited. Actually I was as excited as a child on Christmas morning. There is something oddly refreshing about becoming a tourist in your own city. Somehow looking with fresh eyes gives you a chance to notice things familiarity had obscured from view.
In Belfast, if you know where to look, the legacy of C.S. Lewis is on every corner. Tucked away a short distance from a busy intersection is a monument in the shape of a wardrobe. On the back, reproduced in bronze, is a letter to a young girl who had written to Lewis in distress after reading of the death of Aslan. In another spot, if you look down, you will find that the pavement itself carries a quote from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, engraved like a concrete tattoo on the streets of a city that is proud of its celebrated son.
Hidden amongst the leafy suburbs, marked only by a small blue plaque, is Little Lea, Lewis’s impressive childhood home. On the top floor is a small window marking the attic where at the age of ten, when most of us were lost in adventure stories, Lewis was reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and writing his own response. Or creating the imaginary land of Boxen. Or counting the rafters in an attempt to find his bearings in the rooms below, just as Polly and Diggory would do in years to come.
Further down the road is the rectory where the young Lewis would often visit his grandfather. If you look closely you will notice that the oversized handle on the rectory door carries the face of a lion.
For a generation of British children, growing up in the UK meant there was a good chance that you cut your literary teeth on the writing of Enid Blyton. Amongst her best loved work was an adventure series called “The Secret Seven” and I think it was there that I first learned what it was to lose myself in a story. At the centre of the action was an old garden shed where seven children would perch on upturned flower pots, drink lemonade, solve mysteries, and come up with plans to unmask the latest gang of dastardly villains. The plot lines were not particularly complex but it mattered little, such was the appeal of that band of friends. Long before I found the words to name it, I was pulled in by the sense of belonging and common purpose that bound the children together. So much so that I decided to form my own “Secret Seven.”
The perfect headquarters was already in place. A cellar as thick with dust and cobweb as it was with possibility, accessed by a little wooden door at the side of my grandparents’ house and masked by a wall of tall thick trees.
Somehow I managed to convince six of my classmates to sign up. At the pre-arranged time they stole into my back garden, sneakers tracing a silent path through the long shadows. One by one they knocked on the little door, muttered the secret password and slipped quietly into the underground room.
[Editor’s Note: Heidi Johnston is another of our newest contributors. She’s the author of Life in the Big Story, and lives just outside of Belfast, Ireland, not far from C. S. Lewis’s birthplace. Andrew and his family got to know her and her sweet family during their visit to Europe last summer and we’re delighted to have her here in the Rabbit Room.]
It seems unlikely that an Irish stranger would be invited to pull her chair out of the shadows and join the conversation, yet here I am, and for that I am grateful. As I began to write this post I found myself searching for beautiful words that would somehow be worthy of the rich surroundings. If I’m honest, in my head the accent that is part of who I am began to take on a hint of Tennessee. What I ended up with was a post that may have been beautiful (at least that is what I tell myself) but it wasn’t true. And what is beauty if it isn’t true.
For the past few months, truth in my life has been less about beauty and more about brokenness. Last July I watched helplessly as my ten-year-old daughter faced for the first time the moment when childish innocence is invaded by something dark and cruel, an intruder whose presence is a constant and unwelcome reminder that bad things happen. Unexpectedly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, she discovered first hand that this story we live in has evil villains and dark forests with monsters who sneak up on us when we least expect it. For every needle that pricked her skin and broke my heart a little more, another question came. It just felt wrong.