Monday, January 15, 2007

Coffee & Wine

“Thank you.” I sniffled, reaching for the napkin she removed from under her cup of coffee.

“That was under my drink.” She apologized. “I can go get you a clean one.” I regained my composure, wiped away a stray tear from each eye and shook my head. Aimed a smile at my new pastor – a woman I like and respect a tremendous amount.

“The plan,” I told her, “was not to reveal how very messed up I am right now. I just wanted to find out about Bible studies and Sunday School classes.” I smiled sheepishly and ducked my head, knowing I should probably feel embarrassed but instead basking in a strange sort of comfort.

The tears didn’t come from revealing the beginning of the end, though my defense debacle came spilling out with great detail and remembered misery. She had told me a story of her son and his own graduate studies and when presented with a secret, I immediately reciprocate. I love getting to know people and will do all I can to create a comfortable yet intimate environment. So tell me something that not everyone knows and I’m wide open.

Which led, in this instance, to a two hour conversation in a Starbucks with soaring wooden ceilings with exposed beams, soothing dark colors and the aroma of coffee. Coffee – for me – will forever be associated with early mornings of childhood. Hearing my parents conversing softly in the living room as I rested at the other end of the hall, knowing it would soon be time to get up and brush my teeth, but not quite yet. For now, I could drift between dreams and the coming day, feeling warm and loved and safe. Coffee still soothes me and Starbucks provided an environment that was strangely right for both introductions and personal stories.

The tears weren’t brought about by stories of a friend lost – to a car accident or to some strange set of circumstances tinged by an emotional undercurrent so intense I find myself writing a novel to try to explain it to myself. I instead wept over the lizard. Told her of my former pastor and the peaches he wanted so desperately after mere hours of fasting. How he advised that that energy – that need – should be focused on God. Just for a little while. Just to see how it felt, evaluate our secular desires, allow a bit of time to cleanse our souls.

“I knew I was supposed to hear it.” I confessed to Pastor last Thursday morning. “That God was warning me – trying to guide me in the right direction. I knew, I considered it very carefully, then I ignored it. Made a conscious decision to disobey. And that’s not like me – it really isn’t. I generally do what I’m told.” I shook my head, shame washing over me, tinged with regret.

“I… I didn’t think I’d find anyone to love – to keep as my very own. I still don’t. And this man in particular… I just loved him so much. Had this incredible certainty that I could love him regardless of what I discovered as we grew closer. And I needed to be loved – so desperately wanted someone to see me, hear my secrets, understand my fears – and love me anyway. And I know God can do that, but I wanted a partner! I wanted him.” I gestured to the room around us – people I could see and touch and hear. “Not Him.” With a wave of my hand upward, I blinked back tears – the guilt so overwhelming that I couldn’t continue.

After I wiped my eyes, she regarded me kindly. Allowed a few tears of her own. We’d talked for a long time already – family dynamics, how it feels to be a professional female in a work environment dominated by men, cancer and sickness, war and death, the difference between hope and optimism, how one relates to this higher power in which I believe.

“Can you forgive yourself?”

I shrugged and looked away. “I don’t know. I haven’t so far.”

“You know,” she said softly, reaching to touch my hand, “that this… willful defiance bothers you more than it bothers God.” After a pause when I didn’t reply, she continued.

“You know Luke 15.” She said. “Let’s talk about the prodigal son for a minute. He did a bad thing – squandered all his father had given him, lived badly, made poor decisions. And yet when he came home – before he had a chance to apologize or repent to his father – he was welcomed joyfully. When he tries to ask for what he deserves rather than to reclaim his place in the family, his father brushes that aside. He doesn’t need to hear it. The important part – the only part that really matters – is that you came home. You needed to return and you found your way back. God is joyful in that. He delights in your return.”

So I cried again, smoothing the crumpled napkin so I could dab at my eyes once more.

“I turned away.” I whispered. “I wanted to be loved so badly. I didn’t want to be alone anymore. So I didn’t trust… couldn’t be grateful and patient in the present moment… I think I deserved all those bad things.” I told her softly.

She stopped to think. I’ve rarely come across someone who listened that well – whose focus on my words was so complete that she truly needed a moment to gather her thoughts to reply. Though I’ve been trained in counseling basics – know that listening is the critical part – I’m rarely good at it.

“Some would disagree with me.” She warned. “But I think there’s Biblical support for shaking your fist at God. Especially in the Psalms. There are problems in life that I think should enrage us. When we rail against something cruel or unfair. Children get cancer or are abused – thinking about that makes me so angry. So confused at what God could be thinking! I think it’s OK to be angry and disappointed that God allowed bad things to happen to you.”

“It’s not that the world is bad.” I thought out loud. “It’s that people I trusted – people I thought I knew and loved – disappointed me. I didn’t matter enough. Wasn't smart or talented enough. Not loving or interesting or pretty or compelling enough.”

“You’re still hurt.” She recognized. “That’s OK. You will heal.” I nodded in agreement – it’s started, but try as I might to rush the process, it just takes time. I’m working through it.

“I think,” she continued carefully, “that – for me – it’s better to be open and angry with God than it is to withdraw.”

“That’s what I do. With everyone, actually. When I’m hurt, I retreat into this safe little shell and just lash out occasionally. Make noise so people know I’m still there – still in pain – but refuse to let much touch me.”

She offered more advice – we spent more time talking. She encouraged me to attend a Sunday School class, thought about people to include if she started a Bible study. She told stories and I offered comfort. Then we’d switch.

“What’s your book about?” She asked once, leaning forward with a smile.

And I stammered. Finally blushed and shook my head.

“That’s OK.” She said.

“It’s silly.” I offered. “I just want to understand myself a little more. How I ended up here – why I made certain decisions, the driving force behind my choices, how I can avoid the same mistakes again. So by fictionalizing it, I might be able to be more objective. Divorce myself from the personal pain and hope and see it for what it was. To see me for who I was.”

“I don’t think you’re messed up at all.” She said before we left. “I’m glad you shared all this with me – let me know you. I see health as honestly acknowledging where you are, seeing where you hope to be, and taking steps to get there. The medication, the therapy, coming to talk to me – I think it’s all progress. You should feel good about that.”

I thought about it as I headed to work. I keep seeking help – reaching out tentatively and hoping someone yanks me toward where I need to go – but then I retreat again. Huddle into isolated safety so I can berate myself for bad decisions, look around fearfully for someone who seems safe and wonderful but who will eventually hurt me, pull away from God because I don’t deserve Him.

“God isn’t angry at me.” I said experimentally as I waited at a red light. “He’s happy I came home.” Then I paused to see how it felt. Frowned. “It seems like He’d be irritated at the very least.” I decided.

Then the thought appeared that I found a wonderful church – one that offered immediate comfort, a loving welcome and gentle lessons. I just spent hours with a woman who was smart and strong, who would include me in her prayers, who guided me toward a loving God who offered joy at my presence. Would someone angry have offered Pastor to me?

In light of the fact that I decided He would not, it seems I would have been eager to attend services yesterday. I wasn’t. I’m not sure why – there’s still this urge to clutch at what went wrong rather than to make confident strides toward what might go right in the future. I really want to keep writing this book – I have ideas on why, but I’m not positive. I doubt it will be something I have tremendous pride in when it’s finished. I’m hesitant to allow new people in my life – the chances that they’ll someday hurt me after gaining my trust and affection is terrifying. The thought that our time here is finite – the chances we are awarded are limited – leaves me paralyzed sometimes. I'd often rather do nothing than make another mistake.

Services yesterday centered around the first miracle Jesus performed. Children’s time was on the outward focus of the Lord. “He didn’t turn paper to gold to make himself rich. So he could buy all the things he wanted in the world. Instead he turned water to wine. Healed the sick. Forgave the sinners. We should try to help others – to love others – instead of thinking about what we want all the time.”

I’ve read John 2 again this morning. I’m a bit confused. Jesus seems reluctant to help – it’s not time, it’s not His problem. But He helps anyway – provides the best of wines when it seems there’s nothing at all left.

“Is your soul empty?” Pastor asked the congregation. “Do you feel as if there is nothing for you to drink, let alone offer to others? Trust that God will take what you have – as meager as it might be – and make something amazing. Not just for you, but for the world. The best is yet to come. The most coveted of wines isn’t offered at the beginning – it’s made at the end so that you can truly behold the glory of God.”

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