Into the Unknown

The contemplative spiritual journey is a journey into the unknown. The more I know God the more I realize how much I don’t know about God. This can be frightening and frustrating, or we can allow it to fill us with wonder and awe. The mystics refer to this as The Cloud of Unknowing. We are all called, like Abraham, into this unknown and it is there in this cloud of unknowing that we experience God in pure spiritual faith.

Kure Beach Pier by Nichole Perreault

Yet few of us want to step into the unknown. In fact, in my experience, “knowing” is one of the pillars of the western evangelical Christian tradition. We are taught that we can know God, know our destiny, know the Bible, know how to pray, know right from wrong, know God’s will in everything. We know so much there’s no room to wonder, doubt, question or debate.

The danger is that with all this knowing we forget that God is bigger than our imaginations permit us to believe. He’s bigger even than the Bible. He can’t be carried around in our pockets, or summed up in a meme. His ways are not our ways. NO eye has seen. NO ear has heard.

But we forget and our God becomes small. He becomes comfortable instead of the Comforter. He becomes helpful instead of our Helper. He becomes reassuring instead of our Blessed Assurance. He becomes a theology we can master instead of our Master. But we don’t need a god we can carry. We need a God who can carry us.

Some people may be tempted to think that this “unknowing” is really just a result of the fall. That we live behind this veil because of sin and through Christ we can now know all things. Yet I disagree.

From what tree did God forbid Adam and Eve to eat? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We often focus on the “good and evil” part, but what about the “knowledge” part? What if God’s desire was always to protect us from the burden of a knowledge that was to great for us to carry. And what if now, today, He’s calling us back into the cloud of unknowing? Not because He doesn’t want us to know Him – oh, He wants us to know Him! But because He wants to free us from our lust for knowledge, our lust for power and control, our lust to be little gods of our own.

In the cloud of unknowing we humbly surrender our limited selves to the One who knows all, to the One who knows us. And even though we know we will never be God, we will never know everything, we find rest in letting go and letting God be God.

Now, more than ever, may we let go, and let God be God.

©️Nichole Q Perreault

A GIRL AND HER BASKET OF BROKEN THINGS

There I was, a little girl standing before Jesus, with a basket in my arms. My basket of loaves and fishes. Everything I had to offer was in that basket.

As Jesus stretched out his hands for my basket, I hesitated. Dipping my chin, I took one last look at my offering. Suddenly, shame covered my small frame like a wool coat five sizes too big.

I had worked hard to fill that basket. And while I felt the weight of all my attempts to get it right, to do something good, to bring something special, my basket was filled with nothing but moldy crumbs and eyes and scales and bones. It might as well have been empty.

Photo by Annie Spratt

I wanted to run, to disappear, to make excuses – but there’s none of that nonsense when you’re face to face with Jesus. Shaking and uncertain, I looked up at him through tears. What would he say? What would he do? Would he be disappointed? Or angry? Would he yell? Or shake his head and pass me by?

Oh sweet Jesus. He smiled. Full-toothed, big and bright. A smile that throws open windows to the universe and warms your insides at the same time. He received my broken bits with joy. The kind of joy with which a parent might accept their child’s gift of a mud-covered rock or a crushed dandelion.

The cloak of shame vanished and I stood a little taller, returning his smile with my own. Then he invited me to sit next to him.

“Thank you so much for your gift,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” was my quick response and then, “But…I’m sorry. It’s just broken bits and…garbage. I thought I was bringing something better…but then when I got here…I saw it for real somehow.”

He smiled again. “Actually, that happens to everyone. It’s ok. I love it because you gave it to me.”

“But what good is it? What does it matter if it’s just garbage?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “First, nothing done with love is ever just garbage. Even the tiniest, most broken attempts to love matter – love changes you, changes the world. And it matters to me.”

We sat silently for a moment while I thought about that. Then he ever so gently said, “I know the heart of every giver and so I know the heart behind every gift. Broken people living in a broken world give broken gifts, even when they try really hard to do everything right. So you can keep giving, freely, without fear or shame. I won’t be angry or disappointed. I love you, even though you’re broken, and I love when you open your heart to give.”

I couldn’t find my words, so I kept silent.

Then Jesus said, “Just one more thing..”

Still deep in thought I waited for him to go on.

“When you do give,” he said, “Remember to really let go. Leave your offering with me and trust me with it. What I do with it is up to me. OK?”

I nodded.

Then he nudged me with his elbow. “Besides, I can do some pretty awesome things with a handful of eyes and old bones.”

My eyes widened and I whipped my head to look at him. He just threw his head back and laughed and laughed. A big belly laugh. Then before I knew it, I was laughing, too. Imagine that. Me and Jesus, together, talking and laughing over my basket of broken things.

©️Nichole Q Perreault 2020

The Ruins of a Faith Built on Ideas*

I close my eyes and see my feet on stone, the landscape around me rocky, colorless, empty. Where is my love for You, Lord? I catch a glimpse. So thin, so fragile, this gold-leaf love. Floating away on a zephyr created by my own reaching hands. I cannot grasp it. Cannot feel it. This precious, flimsy love. I’m so hollow, I have become a question.

With eyes still closed, I explore this vision. Words of revelation come to me:

I am standing in the ruins of a faith built on ideas.

A faith built not on God, but on ideas of God.

I thought I knew Him, this God of Jacob. I was not a foolish girl. I had heard He was a God who could not be bought, a lion who would not be tamed. But I didn’t know Him until He dragged me into the wilderness and refused to answer when I called.

He tore down mountain after mountain, rearranging hills and valleys until the landscape was unrecognizable. Both my physical family, after the loss of my brother, and my spiritual family, after a challenging season, were shattered. And the greatest sting was not experiencing God’s absence. The greatest sting was knowing that the all-powerful God of the universe was right there, witnessing everything, and doing nothing to stop it.

I think I understand the disciples better now. How they might have felt as they watched Jesus submit to death on a cross. As they pried His bloody hands from the nails and carried His lifeless body to the tomb. As they laid him there and said good-bye, turned their backs and walked away. And He, their Messiah, their conquering King, Israel’s Salvation and Deliverer, did absolutely nothing to stop it. (Matthew 27:57-60)

They thought they knew Him, this son of David. Thought they’d built their faith on Him. But they’d built their faith on ideas of Him instead.

We, too, can build our faith on ideas of God. Like the disciples, we can fashion scripture into formulas and platitudes that fit our own understanding, if that helps us sleep better at night. Like the disciples, we can lean on teaching that reduces our walk to a step-by-step method for successful living, if that helps us feel more in control.

Or we can persevere like David, wide-eyed, wide-hearted, refusing anything but the true, untamed heart of God. We can hold on fiercely to God like Jacob, wrestling with Him in the midst of our trials, until we get to the good stuff…the real stuff…blessings that change us, alter our journey, even if that means we walk with a limp. We can reject platitudes and shallow teaching like Job, and brave the whirlwind of God’s mighty presence, that we might also say, “

I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand – from my own eyes and ears!” (Job 42:5 MSG)

I stand in the ruins of a faith built on ideas. But beneath my feet lies the Foundation that will not be shaken, the Promise that will not be removed.

Like the disciples, I carved myself a God of my own design. But now, as the dust settles and rumbling quiets, I see Him and I hear Him saying “Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you.” (Isaiah 54:11)

I am so empty I have become a question. But like the vacant tomb, I am a question of freedom and of hope. A witness to the Truth. And I, like Mary Magdalene battle-worn and broken, run crying in the streets, “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:16-18)

© Nichole Q Perreault

*The above post was written for Wintonbury Church as part of the Stations of the Cross 2019 booklet.
**Digital photographs of original charcoal drawings by Kate Tortland. These two drawings are part of her 14-piece Stations of the Cross collection which depicts Jesus’ journey from the Garden of Gethsemane to His resurrection. The collection is on display each year for Good Friday at Wintonbury Church; and an accompanying booklet with photos of the artwork, scripture, and meditations written by church members is provided for guests.

You Are Enough (God Says So)

I’ve seen this quote popping up in my feed a lot lately and I’m not feeling it.

A few years ago, I probably would have adored this quote. But now….not so much.

Here’s why: Much about the way this is worded implies that “she” (a symbolic “she” with which all Christian women are invited to identify) “she” is not lovable, is not worthy of forgiveness, and is not good enough to be a child of God. And people…especially women…often accept that as truth.

There was a time when I would have agreed with this quote and not without good reason. God created us, loves us, and forgives us because of who He is. There is nothing we can do to secure our right to exist, earn His love, or deserve His forgiveness. We are a people who found ourselves separated from God by our sin and without any means to close that distance between us, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Everything we are and have is because of Him. That is true.

Along the way, however, that truth often becomes twisted:
‘I can’t earn God’s love’  becomes  ‘I’m unlovable.’
‘I am a sinner saved by grace’  turns into  ‘I’m not good enough.’
‘I can’t earn love or forgiveness’  becomes  ‘I am not worthy of love or forgiveness.’

See how that works? Take the truth, twist it just a little, and you’ve got yourself a powerful lie. Typical, and oh so very destructive. That’s how the enemy rolls.

Over the last several months, God’s been speaking to me a lot on this subject. Here’s what I believe He has to say:
You are enough.
You are good.
You are worthy.
You belong here.

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this Christmas whispers

this Christmas
whispers
from behind a midnight sky
trembling
on crystallized air
a wrinkle in the starlight
like the tinkling of tiny bells

we fell
once upon a time
now we fall
and fall
blazing, burning out across
that inky wall
still Christmas whispers

among the glaring of
the screens
the clanging songs
that drag their feet along the hall
tradition on repeat
the dead-eyed throng

into the silence of my heart
empty as the space
between the stars
this Christmas
whispers

wordless whispers
like snowflakes
lay a blanket down
upon barren ground
a heartsong
a homesong
love letters without ink

this Christmas whispers
breath that flickers flame
pats the chair
says come sit
beside a fire you didn’t build
warm
like cinnamon
and mugs of tea

this Christmas whispers
rest
be
wonder
breathe
this is enough
you
and Me

©️ Nichole Q. Perreault

so my newest pastime is writing on the walls…

Yes, God Will Let You Down

The song starts off well-enough:

…let the King of my heart
Be the wind inside my sails
The anchor in the waves
Oh He is my song”

Photo by Hugo Kerr on Unsplash

The achingly beautiful melody sucks me in and I sing along. Until the chorus hits me. Like a brick.

“You’re never gonna let
Never gonna let me down”

Wait. What?

“You’re never gonna let
Never gonna let me down”

Excuse me…um…can we talk about this for a minute?

One night, while enduring said chorus from a church lobby, a young woman said to me, “What about all those people in there who feel like God has let them down?” I responded with something equivalent to, “Preach it, sister.”

Then, because it was, after all, a worship song, we had to suffer through about 5,763 more rounds of the chorus….which was long enough for me to compose most of this blog post in my head.

It starts off like this: The song is crap.

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Repentance

There is more to say than sorry
More to do than turn around
There is you and me
Face to face
Where the light leaves shadows
Across our cheekbones
A deceptive mirror
My right eye in the darkness
Your left
We see
We see so differently
Blinded both by darkness
And by light
We stumble
We stumble all the same
Oh there is more to say than sorry
More to do than turn around

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

Throwing Dishes at God | Part 1

Photo by N. Perreault | CC CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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.

Continue reading

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.