I grew up in a central Indiana trailer park that smelled of antifreeze and the continuous waft of a neighbor’s cigarette. A half-charred trailer leaned at the park’s entrance, a monument to the short-lived relationship between fire and manufactured homes. All my family’s coming and going was marked by the collapsing shell of someone’s former living room. I wanted to look away, but at five years old, I was compelled to stare at the remains every time we passed.
Even after it had finally been leveled, the image of that trailer remained burned in my brain. At night, alone in bed, I’d think about fire, how it could snatch my happy world with one lick. I’d pray feverish prayers until the panic burned away and I fell asleep.
Fire introduced me to fear; fear introduced me to prayer.
We moved from the trailer park when I was seven, a few days after my dad’s graduation from seminary. My late-night prayers continued, often fueled by new fears – car crashes or plane crashes, mostly – and other times fueled by beauty. My younger sister and I shared the upstairs room, where we’d giggle about things well past our bedtime. She’d fall asleep first, and I’d lie in the silence, my eyes toward the small window that framed the moon perfectly in summer months. That’s when God seemed closest.
At the office entrance of my dad’s second church hung a picture of the Emmaus travelers on a long stretch of road. There was an energy about them, an excitement in the way they leaned toward each other, an eagerness in their walk. Below the painting was Luke 24:32, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” That kind of burning from within was incomprehensible, but even at twelve, I knew I wanted it. I wanted to see God.
But by age fifteen or sixteen, a few years after moving from rural Ohio to Florida, I felt that the growing burn within me wasn’t good. The Florida heat, beaches, and orange-scented air suited me, but the culture shift was more than my young body could metabolize. The South was vibrant and diverse. And it was fast. The kids knew more and tried more. There were rules about “yes ma’am” or “no sir.” There were boys and their attention. There was pain.
I could pray through fear, but I couldn’t pray through pain. In suffering, God felt distant. I didn’t want to ask for help, I wanted the comfortable assurance pain wouldn’t find me again. My bruised ego ambitiously shored up the gaps where my guard was let down and indignantly promised that if God was off duty, I’d protect myself, by myself. That didn’t work out.
I needed a God bigger than me, a faith bigger than me, a God bigger than all the world’s complexity, who could restore simplicity with one good answer or one good question. I needed the God who answered Job without answering Job, the God of gentleness and care and a list of intricately created things that clearly convey the order I so often forget: God is God, and I am not. It really is that simple.
I’m well past my teen years, but I still struggle to bring God my pain. I resist discomfort on a daily basis. I doubt. I question. I frequently inventory the God information I’m carrying around, but I never do it alone. I take it all to the God Paul described in Acts 17, the God who made everything, who gives everyone life and breath, who needs nothing from my hand. He is familiar with my limited understanding and reliance on physical senses and explanations. He exposes them, so that I might sense my way toward him in the dark, and find he is not far off.
Paul had real world experience with this God and this process. He had confronted his finite comprehension and embraced his full dependence. He knew faith in Jesus wouldn’t insulate him from humanness. He knew accepting the Jesus way meant he’d be pressed on all sides but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but never abandoned; beat down but not done for. He was willing to reach for God as if his life depended on it.
I’m learning to be willing, too. Last fall, I spent seven days in the hospital – two days with a child fighting for life; five days with a grown child birthing life under high-risk circumstances. I prayed through the fear and the pain, I reached for God in the darkness. Just as he promised, and just as I found as a child in her room at night, God was there.
As humans, we prefer doing over being, knowing over trusting, and helping God out. To trust fully is to be fully dependent. This is not a palatable idea, but it is the truer image of the faith relationship into which we are invited. We are clay in his hands, pressed by life, our limits, and our needs, but in the shaping, God’s power and glory are being pressed into us, too. How we receive it and carry it is either life revealed or life concealed.
When Jesus appeared to the travelers on the road to Emmaus, he asked what they were discussing. They told him of the happenings with the man named Jesus, the one they had hoped was the Messiah. They could explain the miracles, but they could not explain the suffering, the crucifixion, the hope crushed. Jesus interprets Scripture as they walk and their hearts burn with assurance that Hope is in their midst, but they do not see Jesus until they sit with him and receive the portion of bread he hands them. Communion is the gift of God with us. It is the wonder of God in us, the mystery that we carry him inside, and by doing so, we see.
I’m sitting with Jesus longer these days, receiving his portion, and realizing more fully that strength has two forms – resistance or acceptance. One breaks, one bends.
Lord, may my heart, mind, body, and will be pliable in Your hands.