Stinky Fish Grace

"But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord." - Jonah 1:3

I grew up learning about Jonah on the felt board in Sunday School. Yes, felt boards, not Smart boards, were the name of our game back then. Jonah is likely one of the first Bible stories we learn because it is so memorable. And what kid wouldn’t love a story about a man being swallowed by a big fish?

Well, of course that kid would have to be me. Ever the odd one, I always kind of worried about Jonah and was grossed out thinking of his three-day surroundings. Then, there’s the lovely visual of the fish vomiting him up. I can hardly even stand to use that word and Jason knows to change the channel at the first hint of visual/audio up-chucking of any sort. This story has never appealed to me in the slightest. But I still felt as if I’d known it inside out (ha, pun not originally intended) since I was a child. I didn’t really think there would be anything more to learn from it, but God always has other plans. I thought I knew it by heart, but He showed me it hadn’t sunk into my heart. Because I now realize, Jonah is my soul-brother.

Jonah disobeyed a direct order from God. I disobey God and He’s been speaking so clearly to me lately, I really have no excuse. Jonah tried to run from God. Boy, do I love my running shoes. Jonah thought he could sleep peacefully after saying “no” to God’s difficult task. I think I have to say “no” to the hard things if I want peace.

But, my storm is coming…

This illness is a storm of sorts. I refused to take care of my health for years. It’s really not a wonder that I’m sick. I ignored the nudges from God to slow down, to grieve, to manage stress, to ask for help. And I was swallowed-up, forced to stop and take care of myself. Forced to cry out to God again.

"In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry" - Jonah 2:2

The fish in which Jonah sat marinating in filth for three days was grace. Stinky fish grace. Grace he did not deserve. He was disobedient and deserved to be tossed around by the storm. But God sent grace in the form of a fish. It was in the dark, rank belly of that fish that Jonah called out to God again and promised to finally obey. And it is from the dark, foul belly of my illness that I found the nearness of God again. My illness is grace. Stinky fish grace, but grace. Beautiful, wonderful, humbling grace that I would have never known otherwise.

Allow me to illustrate this concept further. My days are full of stinky fish grace. Beautiful rubble. We only have one car right now and that means when I need it, I have to get up early and take Jason to work. Less sleep, stressful driving, BUT also togetherness I would otherwise miss. I would have missed kissing him goodbye outside his work today and watching his coworkers greet him in the parking lot. I had to be in Kingsport later anyway for an unpleasant meeting. There wasn’t enough time for me to go home after dropping Jason off so I planned to meet my friend, Robin, to walk. I was early to our meeting place. I could have considered all of this a waste of time, BUT I was able to watch the ducks play in the peace of the stream in the early-morning sun. I met a fellow bench-rester and we watched and shared a laugh at the ducks chasing each other. This man was just visiting his sister from out of state and I gathered he lives alone and doesn’t see his family often. I will likely never see him again but I hope this encounter was as bright a spot in this lonely man’s day as it was in mine. I am thankful for this simple, shared moment with a stranger. A divinely-appointed gift. My friendship with Robin itself is grace born out of illness. I only worked with her for six months and by that time I was so sick I couldn’t hide it very well. Being the great nurse that she is, Robin read me like a book. And I, the person with the iron bars and concrete walls, let her sneak past the gate. She is still a dear friend to me, much attributed to my illness rather than in spite of it. I have other divinely-appointed kindreds due to this wonderful, stinky fish gift of illness. By the time I had to drive back to pick Jason up this afternoon, I was far past my expiration but again, God gifted me. I don’t go many places by myself so I was perhaps overly-excited to be able jam to my very eclectic array of Alathea, Dolly Parton, Savage Garden, and Point of Grace. All I can say is dancing to loud music fends off panic-driving. Thanks be to God. Again, I was gifted with Jason’s presence and recap of his day on the way home. Alas, we still needed groceries and I almost considered it when Jason asked if I needed to ride IN the cart (oops, I mean, buggy). But God gifted another grace in the midst of the stink. I was greeted by my favorite grocery clerk who always smiles, calls me “young lady”, and genuinely wishes me a good day. He always blesses my heart. God always blesses my heart. My disobedient, fearful, run-away, stinky, filth-covered heart. He gives me grace I do not deserve.

IT’S TIME TO THROW ME OVERBOARD.

 

The storm has been raging around me for quite some time, waves pelting me against the rocks, the darkness covering my head, drowning me. Sometimes I’m not sure how I will make it out alive. Is the storm raging around you like this? I am wondering if it might be time for us to embrace the storm. To jump, or ask someone to help throw us overboard. I wonder if by welcoming the dark and painful circumstances, if we would experience God’s peace in the middle of them. To watch God calm the storm around me instead of watching Him calm it from a distance seems that much more powerful. I think I’m ready to be swallowed up by the stinky fish version of grace. Wondrous, mind-blowing, heart-changing grace that I do not deserve in the slightest. Grace that may not look like what we would consider good, but grace that saves us from drowning in our darkness. I want to embrace my less-than-ideal circumstances, believing that God IS working them for good. I don’t want to reject the seemingly stinky gifts anymore because they just may be what saves me. I want to see these gifts as grace. Beautiful, saving grace. It’s time to jump in.

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Peace In the Pain

How do you find words to explain a shift inside a human heart? I’ve been mulling over that question for several days while simultaneously waiting for the back swing. Basically, I don’t trust myself to stay a changed woman but I long for it to stick. This experience may not seem profound to anyone else, but for me it is monumental. It is something I have clung to each passing day since the day I let God change my heart and something I want to keep hold of until I see Jesus face to face.

I ‘formally’ gave my heart to Jesus twenty years ago but, as all of his followers know, we learn more each day about what that really means. And for me lately it has been a clutching, exhausting, grasping, constant, stubborn tug-of-war with my whole heart. I just wouldn’t let God have it. I’d let him have some of it but I didn’t like what he was doing with parts of it so I took them back. The part I simply refused to let go of was pain. I thought if I let God have my whole heart, he might break it by not taking away the pain. I don’t know how else to explain my flawed thinking other than I have been angry about my own pain and the pain of the people I love. I resented God for allowing so much hurt and I doubted his goodness. And then I beat myself up for my faithlessness. I have been in a deep, dark pit of constant ups and downs. One day I would fall down in worship to God and the next I would rage at myself for resenting him. And this roller coaster ride in my heart has centered around a fear of pain.

I can walk next to God and love him for the good things. No problem. I count the beauty in each of my days and genuinely thank him for it. But there is a dark corner of myself where I hide the ugly, wounded, angry, trembling part that I refuse to let God have. I even manage to hide this part from myself at times if you can believe that. See, I told you it was hard to explain. The absolute constant pain in my life and in most other lives would not reconcile in this corner of my heart with a good God.

So, imagine my surprise when the cosmic shift inside of me happened during intense pain. Actually, I believe it had to happen that way in order for God’s light to reach that dark, aching corner of my soul. I had one of the worst migraines of my life and it ebbed and flowed for several days. One beautiful, sunny afternoon I had been in bed for hours, just lying there in my darkened room. I couldn’t read because it hurt. I couldn’t watch TV because it hurt. All I could do was lie there and think about the pain. It would have been very easy for me to rage at God, but truthfully, I didn’t have the energy. So I just started talking to him. I said, “I can’t take this anymore. God, you take it!” And then I started thinking about what I really meant by that. I wanted God to take away my pain. I’ve been struggling to trust him because I don’t understand pain. But this time I decided to ask him to open my heart to what He was trying to teach me and to allow him to love me through the pain. I told him I was too tired to fight anymore and he could have it all. I was done. I’ve said these words before so you can see why I don’t trust myself to allow it to stick, but then I just kept talking. “God, forgive me for the tug-of-war and thank you for that forgiveness and for still loving me and pulling me back toward you even though I fight so hard to keep part of my control.” I handed him the control. I handed him the pain. I finally fully trusted him with the pain. It was unbelievably difficult and through gritted teeth at first but I finally meant what I said. I finally relaxed and let go. I said over and over, “I give you my pain. I trust you with my pain. Thank you for carrying my pain. Do with it whatever will bring you glory. I accept your love for me. I accept your healing of me when and how you see fit. Use my pain. Use this migraine for your glory. Carry my pain. Thank you for how you are working in my pain. Thank you for working good even out of this migraine. Thank you for working in my pain. Thank you for my pain.” Ummmm…. thank you for my pain? I said it, and meant it, before I could take it back! I couldn’t believe what I had just heard myself say and instead of being a punch to the gut, it was like a breath of fresh air. I thanked God for what he is doing in my pain, what he is teaching me in my pain, and how he carries me through the pain.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. - Romans 8:18

After such a profound heart-change, there might be a slight expectation of a miracle, right? I did not experience a miraculous healing but I did experience a miraculous heart healing. God did not take my pain away. But surprisingly, my heart finally understood that it was enough to know that he was finally helping me bear it. I had finally allowed him to have my pain. I realized something that should have been so obvious, but to a raging, wounded child, nothing is obvious. I never wanted to hand God my pain because I was afraid that if I did, he would not take it away and that would break my heart. But how could he take my pain away if I never gave it to him? How could I be angry at him for not taking away a pain that I was still clinging to by my tired and bleeding fingertips? How could I expect him to do anything about my pain if I never actually gave it to him?

It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s one of the hardest things I have ever done. Because, there’s no guarantee that once I hand the pain to God that he’s going to take it away. I want a guarantee. I want pain GONE! I would be so happy to never see it peering out of the eyes of anyone I love again. But there is no guarantee of pain removal. Instead, the guarantee is that God will work the pain for good, some way, somehow and, if we let him have it, he will help us carry it.

"Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." - Isaiah 53:5

How could I have believed that God was breaking my heart, especially a heart that I never fully gave him? No, he wants to hold my heart while it’s breaking. He wants to hold me and show me how he will make this good. I trusted God to do what he knows is the best thing for me, even if it means more pain. Then, I started singing. Singing? In tremendous pain, I started singing. Song after song kept pouring from me. Meaningful words from songs I hadn’t remembered in years. I just kept singing to my God. Nothing about my pain changed…but everything about my heart changed. And somehow that made the pain so much easier to bear. It was such a relief to finally be completely dependent on God. After the songs stopped, I just listened for awhile and I felt a weight of comfort holding me and the pain greatly diminished. It was still there but knowing God was holding me took the sharp sting of bitterness away.

Sun rays are a reminder to me of God’s presence and at that moment I suddenly knew that I would look outside and see them. I crawled out of my dark cave and peeked out the window to see the most gorgeous rays. The sun rays were an extra gift from God straight to my heart, but the biggest gift was how present he was in my pain. The sun rays lasted just a few moments but his presence is always with me.

Later, Jason said I looked like a different person when I came downstairs and I want to be! I want to have stepped out of the darkness and into the Light for good. I want to have crossed from the depths of death to abundant Life, fully trusting in God. It’s amazing how much freedom is felt when you give your heart away. It seems like it should be the opposite, but God’s ways are more beautiful than our limited understanding. Since that time it has been as if God has slowly breathed new life back into me. Sure, it is a daily, moment by moment battle with myself to give it up again and stop worrying about my pain and other people’s pain. I still constantly have to stop and remind myself to let go and give the current pain or worry to God. But I now know how badly I want to rely on God and let him be my strength. I know that each pain and worry is an opportunity to experience God again. So, I thank him for the pain. I cling to him. As long as I am clinging to God with all of my strength, I won’t have anything left with which to cling to my control and pain. I’d rather expend my energy holding tightly to God. It’s the only way to have peace in the pain.

“One day soon, we’ll see His face and every tear He’ll wipe away. No more pain or suffering. Oh, praise Him for the mercy tree. Death has died. Love has won. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” – Lacey Sturm, Mercy Tree

Carry Me, Lord (Listen to the song here)

Weary from a burden that's too heavy
Oh, just carry me, Lord
Finally ready to let you be strong when I'm weak
Oh, just carry me, Lord

I give up the fight
It was never mine
And I will choose to wait for you
I'll sit by your side
In the still of the night
Knowing God, you'll see me through

Hurting, stumbling blindly on this crooked way
Oh, just carry me, Lord
But you heal me, washing my feet, make my path straight
Oh, just carry me, Lord

I lay down my will
And I'll be still
And I'll let you have your way
What you want for me
Is more than I could dream
And one day I'll hear you say

'I have won your fight
Can you see the light?
And I have cleared the path for you
You let me take your hand
And help you understand
I have always carried you
My child, I carried you.'
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