Shattered Illusions | Throwing Dishes at God, Part 2

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Read Throwing Dishes at God Part 1here. 

How long can one throw dishes at God?

Well, longer than you might think. Just ask Job. Or Peter. (FYI: This post is going to make a lot more sense if you read Part 1.) I guess the simplest answer would be: as long as it takes. Because He isn’t going anywhere.

To be honest, though, I didn’t know that at the time. Whenever I was in a full-blooded rage, I kept one eye on the sky for incoming bolts of lightning and the other on the earth lest it swallow this foul-mouthed, ungrateful child whole.

Yet, because of His great mercy and love, none of that happened.

He never swallowed me up or struck me down. He never shut me up or shut me down. Rather, He let me stay in the fight. And He stayed in the fight with me. The brokenness and depravity of the human heart does not and cannot shock God. He’s seen it all. And He loves us anyway.

Flickers of Light

Often times, during this season, opening my Bible felt like trying to lift Thor’s hammer. When I did muster the strength, the verses, once as refreshing as a cool drink of water, became like dry sand in my mouth. But by God’s grace, I would occasionally stumble on scriptures that glowed like a balefire of hope. Continue reading

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Throwing Dishes at God | Part 1

Two years ago, on a misty morning beneath a wooden cross, God spoke to me. He said, “Don’t crucify me again, Nichole. Don’t remake me in the image of your pain.”

How thin the line, if there is one, between warning and prophecy.

At the time, I was in awe, and grateful for a God who knew my tendency would be to run, to divide myself from Him, to define His boundaries according to the edges of my agony.

I thought, What mercy! Thank you for reminding me that when I deny who you are, I harm myself. Surely, now, I will do no such thing!

I recalled the story where Jesus warned Peter, “Before the rooster crows, three times you will deny me.” Peter insisted, “I will never deny you!” and yet Peter denied Him indeed. How relieved I was that God had protected me from such a fate…that He had revealed the traps ahead and that I had responded with a humble heart. 

Are you laughing? I am. At least, when I’m not crying.

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Just Mending | Thoughts on Women in Church Leadership

UNEXPECTED MESSAGE

Yesterday, while working my way through three different books about women in the Church, I needed a bookmark. Opening the drawer of our end table, I found a slip of 2” x 8.5” paper – something a neighbor dropped off to promote her sewing business. “Just Mending” it reads at the top. “Do you have clothes that need repair?”

I hesitated. It’s not really a bookmark. What if I lose this thing? I’ll never be able to replace that broken zipper on my Uggs. Does she even repair Uggs? Uggs aren’t clothes – they’re boots. Seriously, Nichole, are you ever going to call this lady anyway? But…

And then I read the title again, “Just Mending”. God speaks to us in the most unexpected ways, doesn’t He?

I folded the slip of paper in half and placed it in Chapter 1 of Jo Saxton’s More than Enchanting. Then I piled all the books together just so and took this lovely photo for you:Reading these books has been like walking along the ocean’s edge. Sometimes the waters lap at my toes and ankles. Other times, the waves crash into me, soaking my legs, knocking me off balance. I stumble as the sand sucks at my feet, and flail my arms to steady myself.

Anyone who’s spent a day at the beach knows that the sun, the sand and the waves work a sort of magic on your mind and body…leaving you somehow relaxed, revived and exhausted, all at once.

The words of these books, the stories, wisdom, reassurances and revelations, crash over me, wave after wave. Sometimes gentle. Sometimes startling

The emotions vary, ranging from joy to sadness to anger to regret to hope, but the feeling that most surprises me is what I can only describe as a sort of comfort. I’m not talking about a warm-hugs-fuzzy-blanket-hot-cup-of-tea kind of comfort. No. I’m talking about a heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-your-body, soothing-truth kind of comfort. I can literally feel the Lord’s truth rushing in…the lies, the hurt, the pain rushing out.

Thousands of years since the fall, thousands more since the resurrection of Christ, decades since I started following Him, and God is still flushing the poison from my veins.

The sensation, at times, overwhelms. I did not expect this.

AN ITCH I COULDN’T SCRATCH

Growing up, I had very little exposure to church or Christian culture. I became a believer as a teenager, simply because I was desperate for Jesus. I doubted so much – God’s goodness, the existence of heaven, the reliability of the Bible.

But there was one thing I knew for sure: Jesus.
When I could hardly breathe, Jesus.
When I was paralyzed with fear, Jesus.
When I was lonely, Jesus.
When I was condemned, Jesus.
When I was hopeless, Jesus.

“Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief,” became my daily prayer. He has answered faithfully.

By some blessed miracle, God revealed to me that understanding and even agreeing with everything in the Bible, are not prerequisites for following Jesus. So I entrusted my doubts to Him and have been walking in the dust of the Rabbi ever since.

I acclimated to Christian culture slowly, very slowly. (I think I’m still acclimating.) One thing I’ve wrestled with for a long time is the role of women in the Church.

I love our church. It has been, for many years, our home, our family. Our church’s people are my people, our hearts tethered to one another by the Spirit of God. And my church is filled with strong, gifted, Jesus-loving women who lead in more ways than I know.

Women are not, however, free to teach authoritatively at our house of worship. While many churches hold to that belief, they can each apply it differently. For us, it means that women cannot serve as elders (our governing board) or teach from the platform (pulpit). Seems simple but it gets a little weird when you think too hard about it. What is “teaching” exactly? Is it only when you “exegete”? Why can a woman share a brief message, a song she wrote or her testimony from the platform? What if a woman writes something that someone else reads from the platform? When, exactly, does God’s truth have less or no authority?

This confused me, but I saw the hearts of the people at this church, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit there, so I entrusted to the Lord my doubts about their position on women in the church. And just kept following Jesus.

Over the years, moving through various lay ministry and staff positions, I have not reached a place of peace about this issue. Even though I have never longed to be an elder or a pastor, even though I have never felt compelled to teach a congregation, it niggled at me, like an itch I could never quite scratch.

As a “strong” woman, with “strong” opinions and a “loud” voice, I have been known to upset an elder or two. I have asked tough questions and said hard things and been accused of being “disrespectful”. And I have wrestled with what this means. Am I wrong? Should I be meeker? Quieter? Is disagreeing with my brother, elder or not, disrespectful? Or is it a healthy conversation that may provide an alternative perspective for consideration? Does God want me to sit down and shut up?

Well, He wants all of us to sit down and shut up sometimes! But not always. I know because I find myself begging Him, Really God? Really? You want me to go and say that? Again? Isn’t there anyone else? And He answers, “Go.”

So I go. Remembering that I don’t have to understand every Biblical passage or agree with all-things-Christian-culture to follow Jesus. A little unsure and afraid, but holding Jesus’s hand, I go.

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED

Then last year, everything changed. As my readers already know, my family was wounded by a conflict at church that deeply affected our daughters, my husband and me.

It pains me to say that some of our church’s male leadership played a significant role in this conflict. Pains me because these men are our brothers, our co-laborers, our friends. They love the Lord and want to do what’s right and good. We love them. And, I believe, they love us, too. I do not want you to worry about the who or what or why or how. Know this: as in any conflict, we all made mistakes, and those involved have exhibited good intentions, concern, accountability, humility and grace. If you must do something, do this: mourn with us, lament for what’s been lost, weep for the brokenness of Christ’s Church and the disunity of His people. And pray for God to restore what the locusts have eaten.

I am sharing our story so that you will more clearly see this: We desperately needed women leaders to help resolve this conflict and to address the consequences that followed. But this didn’t happen…at first…

The hearts of women were central to this conflict. And male leadership was a significant part of the conflict. Add to this the fact that I am on staff, and the circle of involvement gets a little funky. In following the steps for Biblical conflict resolution, when it came time to involve another individual, we couldn’t reach out to a friend or lay leader. To protect the church and all involved, we needed to go straight to the leadership. And all the leadership is male.

We underestimated just how insufficient that would be. After a few weeks, I observed that we had to really work to help men understand the problems, but if I said three sentences about the issue to my mother or our women’s ministry director, they understood instantly. Women did provide support briefly, for specific reasons, but any momentum was quickly lost when their part was finished. Still, I wasn’t ready to accept that male leadership alone was inadequate. So I continued to walk the exhausting, precarious tightrope between advocating and submitting.

We asked God to resolve the situation. He didn’t. We asked God to release us and let us walk away. He didn’t. After nine long months, the situation had grown, its tentacles far beyond our family’s reach. That was when God gave us permission to let go. Not to leave, but to lay it down.

A couple of weeks later, two women in the church picked it up. When I told one of them that I didn’t want her to think we were giving up, she said, “Maybe it’s time for you to let others do the heavy lifting for a while.”

With a strength only God could have provided, these women leaned into the heavy boulder of the consequences of this conflict and began to move forward.

Because of these women, some things began to change. Not because the men were unfit, but because, in this situation, they were incomplete. This issue involved the hearts, minds and lives of men and women. To address the issue completely, we needed men and women to lead.

My gratitude to these women is best described by the tears welling up as I write. Perhaps take a moment to thank God for them, for how they have worked diligently, faithfully and passionately for our church family to the glory of God.

JUST MENDING

This experience has caused me to actively seek answers to my nagging questions about the role of women in the Church. As I feast on books like Jesus Feminist, and How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, and More than Enchanting, I find that, like Ruth Haley Burton, I have not changed my mind about women in leadership but instead “I finally let myself believe something I had always known.” (How I Changed my Mind About Women in Leadership, p35)

That women are fully equal to men and should be fully free to serve God however He calls them. The body of Christ, and the world we seek to reach for Jesus, will be better for it.

As I continue to be overcome with many emotions, I find myself anxiously asking, What has this done to my daughters? What kind of changes do I need to make in my life? Who do I tell? What should I do? And on and on…

But then I look at my makeshift bookmark that reads “Just Mending” and I’m reminded of the heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-my-body, soothing-truth comfort that feels a lot like healing.

And I hear God say, Don’t worry about that, Nichole. Right now, we’re just mending.

Unexpected Gifts

Sometimes, I read old blog entries and I’m like, “Wow, did I really write that?” It’s weird to hear a message from your five-years-ago-self. Super weird. But this came up in my Facebook memories today. And, I say this with as much surprise as you might: it’s good. Like really good. Hahahahaha. Merry Christmas my friends!

Lightning Bug

Photo by claritaPhoto by clarita

Do you remember that Christmas present you always wanted but never got? I found mine while reverently flipping through the Sears Wish Book, eyes wide, excitement bubbling through my veins. I circled the picture over and over, practically cutting a hole through the paper with the tip of my pen. Then, when I showed my parents, they promptly informed me that a Barbie Dream House was not in the budget nor would it fit in our two bedroom apartment. Even after a letter to Santa and some earnest prayers, come Christmas day, among all the presents under the tree, there was no Barbie Dream House. So goes life. Sometimes, we ask for one thing and get another.

Most of the time, such disappointments are small and quickly forgotten. But at other times, they hurt. Imagine the child who wants a set of paints or a guitar but…

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Out of Darkness, Light | A Christmas Poem

Tough year to find time, energy and inspiration for a Christmas post. So I am resharing last year’s. I hope it blesses you. Merry Christmas!

Out of Darkness, Light

We walk in darkness
Stumbling, feet slipping
Grasping for something, anything to keep from falling

We scrape our hands on broken branches
Our knees on stony paths
In trying to save ourselves, we are wounded

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No Strings Attached | Why I Stopped Defending God

DONE DEFENDING GOD

I’m done defending God. To family. To friends. To you. To the world. But most of all, I’m done defending God to myself.

I gave it up several weeks ago – cold turkey, as they say – when something masquerading as a gift appeared nearby. Something that for now brings smiles and giddiness and dreams that buzz through skin like the flush of red wine. But like all young things, it carries the seeds of its own potential destruction. Beneath the shiny, crimson skin there lurks a poison. And I lie awake at night wondering which will be the fatal bite: the first, the fifth, the fiftieth?

Enraged would be a mild description of how I feel. Because I see what’s coming. I see a day when this imposter dressed in pretty colors slips off her overcoat to reveal the disappointment, the heartbreak. And I don’t want to watch my people hurt anymore.

What really burns is knowing that God could have prevented this. He could have prevented this. But He didn’t. So here I am. Again. Watching helplessly.

And I am tempted to try to talk myself out of this reality, to try to convince myself that God will do things differently this time…that He has a good reason…a bigger plan…a better plan.

It’s a thing we learn to do as Christians – to tell ourselves who God really is in spite of what the world tells us. As if we know who He really is. As if we can understand what He’s really doing.

RUMORS OF GOD

I know I’m probably freaking some of you out at this point, right? After all, aren’t we supposed to preach the gospel to ourselves, battle the lies with the truth of His word? Aren’t those good things? Yes, they are…until they aren’t.

Until they become just another work of the flesh, another attempt to figure God out, define the boundaries of who He is, carve out features we recognize, features that make us feel safe, or strong or big or small or whatever it is we think we need at the time.

So when confronted with this new circumstance, I was tempted to run and hide myself in the “truth”. I told myself things like “God won’t hurt her” and “If He does, it’s only for her good” and yada, yada, yada. But none of it rang true. Like oil on water, these “truths” refused to sink in. Because they weren’t real. They weren’t actually true.

What evidence do we have that God won’t hurt us? Or if He does, that it’s only for our good? Look at Job, for crying out loud. What did he get out of that hot mess? Nothing. Except, perhaps, a very painful learning experience, which he probably could have done just fine without.

As far as we can tell, God made Job suffer because of a bet He made with Satan.

And when, after immeasurable loss and suffering, Job finally presses God for an explanation, God doesn’t even try to defend himself. He doesn’t say “OK, here’s all the reasons I needed to let you suffer. Here’s why I’m still good. Here’s why you can still trust me.”

Not even close. Rather He turns on His booming master-of-the-universe voice and basically tells Job to suck it.

Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
….Now what do you have to say for yourself?
Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges? (Job, MSG)

Those are the bookends of a long speech in which God’s singular defense is His own awesomeness. He’s like “Job, shut up. Listen. I’m God. You think you can do the things I do? You think you can understand the things I understand? Well, you can’t. So just stop.”

It’s like the biggest non-answer answer in the history of the world. Jesus often used the same tactic. People asked a question and Jesus answered with a question.

And why shouldn’t He, when we go to Him demanding reasons or explanations that we can cut and measure and stack and cobble into an image of a god we can understand – a god we can shape and mold and fit into our human-sized minds. A god we can handle.

Even answers can become an idol. Even reasons and understanding and explanations can become gods if we want them more than we want God himself.

Job learned that the hard way.

I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears! (Job, MSG)

Isn’t that what we do? We settle for rumors of God. Because a god whose motives and means we can understand…that’s a god we can control – a predictable god, a safe god, a god we can carry.

Only we’re so busy creating this god we can carry, we forget that what we really need is a God Who can carry us.

So I’m done listening to the rumors – yours, mine, anybody’s – about who God is. And I’m done feeding them to you. Because God doesn’t need defending. He didn’t defend himself to Job. He didn’t defend Himself on Calvary. So I’m pretty sure He’s not waiting on me to defend Him to anyone, including myself.

So from now on, when I look at God and see someone who’s always setting me up for the fall, like Lucy to Charlie Brown, I won’t try to convince myself otherwise.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not who He is, but if He wants me to know that, He can show me. It’s really up to Him, don’t you think?

NO STRINGS ATTACHED – A VISION

At around the same time that I made the decision to stop defending God, (which by the way is rather freeing) I had a “vision” of sorts. I was praying during worship (on THP, which I figure my daughter would like to know) and I saw this image of thousands and thousands of strings. And each string was attached on one end to God in heaven and on the other end, to a circumstance of my life here on earth. In that moment, I realized that my understanding of the Lord has always been tied to my circumstances, because I let life – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly – define Him.

Then I saw giant shears, snipping away at the strings, five, 10, 20 at a time. And I heard God say, “No strings attached. Now, you will get to know me with no strings attached.”

And isn’t that what Job did? Isn’t that what it’s like to follow God with no explanations? No neat and tidy reasons?

I will not tie God to my circumstances anymore. For better or for worse. That means that bad things aren’t evidence of a bad God. And good things aren’t evidence of a good God. And I will just have to wait here to find out who He is.

I said before that it’s freeing – not defending God. It’s also terrifying. Like stepping off the edge of a cliff without a net.

I’m not gonna lie. It’s been painful. Painful. But it’s also real. And real is so much better than rumors.

Because above all else, I want my God to be real. It starts there, don’t you think? Because if He isn’t real, nothing else matters.

So I’ve been waiting. Afraid. Hurting. Angry. Doubtful.

And then one recent Sunday, I had the privilege of helping orchestrate a special communion service focused on the King of Love. While preparing for communion, the congregation reflected on which aspect of God’s love meant the most to them over the last year. People then wrote that word down on a piece of paper and, upon going up for communion, dropped their cards in a basket. During the remainder of worship, I categorized the cards and handed them to a friend who painted the words on a canvas, which our pastor revealed later, during his message about loving our enemies.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

The service was powerful. (Listen here if you want!)

But for me, the sweetest moment came as I sat on the floor surrounded by hundreds of cards all proclaiming God’s active love for the person who penned each word.

Some cards shared the same word but each was unique, written by a different hand, a different person, with a different life experience. I read them over and over as the song played on: “You don’t give your heart in pieces…You don’t hide yourself to tease us…Your live is wild…Your love is not ashamed to be seen with me.” (Pieces by Amanda Cook)

There, spread out before me, was evidence of the real God, manifest in the lives of my people. Broken, hurting, joyful, thriving, aching, loving, battling people.

There on a torn carpet, surrounded by bits of paper and ink, He revealed Himself to me.

Strong. Unshakeable. Relentless. Enough. Faithful. Unspeakable. Patient. Long-suffering. Steadfast. Like the spring rain. Merciful. Costly. Perfect.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

And I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have to dig Him up or carve Him out or hunt Him down or figure Him out or defend Him to anyone, including myself.

“Here I am, Nichole.” It was as simple as that.

No strings attached.

 

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When Thanksgiving is a Sacrifice

I don’t want give thanks. Sorry, Ann Voskamp, but my heart can’t hear you now.

I gaze at the starry sky, watch thunderheads roll out over the ocean and lightning bolts streak from the clouds to the water; I stand in speckled green sunlight beneath rows of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss…and I don’t want to say, thank you.

Because to accept these things, these moments, as gifts, and to open my heart to offer thanks, feels wrong somehow. More than wrong. It actually hurts.

To thank Him for what He’s given, reminds me of what He’s taken. Thanksgiving requires receiving. And to receive I must open my hand, my heart…see, feel the ugly, weeping wound. To receive, I must let go.

He gives and takes away.

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Afraid to Pray

I’m afraid to pray.

Not the talking-to-God-throughout-the-day kind of prayers. I’ve reached a point in my life where talking to Him is almost automatic – so much so that NOT talking to Him would require serious effort.

I’m talking about the petitioning prayers. The God-heal-my-friend prayers. The God-fix-this-relationship prayers. The God-show-us-what-to-do prayers.

For weeks, we prayed for my brother’s healing. For weeks, hundreds of people all around the world prayed for my brother’s healing. And there were miracles along the way, days when he defied the doctors’ predictions. Like when he started breathing on his own after a week on the respirator, or when he was readmitted to ICU for internal bleeding and the bleeding miraculously stopped, or when his kidneys began to work again after weeks on dialysis. And we praised God for the miracles and for answering the prayers of many.

The last week of Derek’s life, doctors planned to discharge him. Every day for three days, we waited. And every day for three days, they said, one more day. Until the last day, when they moved him, for the third and final time, back to ICU. He never came home.

Even though I know God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want…and even though I know people suffer and die every day…that we all die some day…that eventually God stops answering our prayers for healing and calls us all home…and even though I know God is unchanging and good and that His ways are higher than our ways…and even though I know that prayer is a mystery…that somehow God invites us to participate with Him in His divine plan but the outcome does not rely on us…even though I know all that, I’m still afraid to pray.

The pain and devastation, the feeling that God abandoned us – actually tricked us with answered prayer and then pulled the rug out from under our feet – snaps at the heels of my heart and mind like an angry dog. And I can’t run away.

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Finding Hope in God’s Plan (Even When Life Seems Hopeless)

The following was written as a devotional for our church’s Faith Quest 2015 team. Our theme this year is God’s Plan, Our Hope. 

As I prepared for this devotional, my first thought was, After the last two months, maybe I’m not the best person to write a message about finding hope in God’s plan. Perhaps a different Nichole, from a different time, a Nichole with a lighter heart with feathers and wings, might have something to say about hope. So I pored over my blog archives and, even though a few posts came close, nothing was quite right.

That’s when I decided to skip the devotional this year. After all, who reads it anyway? And then I heard that still, small voice saying, Maybe God wants you to dig into this topic for a reason. 

So here I am, dreading the dredging of my black, inky soul, the drawing out of the ugly and the real. Cringing as each keystroke scars this white page. Because right now, I’m not really a fan of God’s plan – at least the part of His plan I can see.

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Waiting for Morning

I often hear people say something like, “Joy is eternal. You can’t always be happy but you can always have joy.”

Lately, I feel the opposite. I can laugh with family and friends, smile to greet someone I know, enjoy a dinner out or a walk through my garden. But those happy moments drift unsupported over a dark abyss. I have no joy.

I want to believe God when He says Joy comes in the morning but there is no joy in this mourning. In this mourning, emptiness reigns, like a void that devours light and robs breath from your lungs.

Even in the midst of blessings, of sunshine and daisies and ice cream at the farm and family movies and just being an American with clean water and shelter and food in the pantry, I can be happy – grateful even – but I have no joy.

Does this make me a bad Christian? Is my faith too small? Am I far from God?

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