This weekend I led my final women's retreat with the friends who all came together as a result of our time at The Next Level Church in Denver, Colorado. It was a bittersweet time, just coming off the firing, reworking my identity from pastor's wife to friend, moving between bursts of laughter and sudden tears. But in the midst of our silence and solitude I heard the Voice say, "Share what you've learned." And because I follow these nudges, this is what I said.
When we met back in May to plan the retreat we couldn't have forseen its bearing, couldn't have presumed its import. We knew that some of us would be working through the book of James soon. James who says, "Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance..." James who pushes us into good works, into painting a better picture of that eternal hug of salvation. Undaunted seemed to be a good way to begin, a good way to re-envision, a good nudge into "go."
The very day we decided the retreat, I met with a friend who gave me a future. A future I didn't know I'd desperately need now. A job doing things I was designed to do and a nudge into "go." It was an important day, but its meaning was lost on me until now.
We soon left for sabbatical, a time of waiting and silence, and at its conclusion I went to Maine. There I engaged in some personal challenges: traveling by myself, living with strangers for four days, hiking a course hand-over hand through boulders, tougher than anyone envisioned. One new friend said to me, "If I'd have known what the path would be like, I wouldn't have gone."
Two days before our trip, our host announced her breast cancer. Immediately she messaged our team to fill us in and she said, "Be prepared to come to Maine with joy." And so that first night we all gathered from Denver and Indianapolis and Texas and Connecticut. She told us what her health was like, and what it likely would become. She told us what we needed to know to live with her for four days. And she said, "Other people meet these sudden challenges and ask, "Why me?" But I'm asking, "Why NOT me?" I began to fill in her blanks: why shouldn't I be thrust into the very side of God? Why shouldn't I be the one to grasp and reach for God to give me my very next step? Why NOT me? Why shouldn't I be chosen to face this giant with joy?
Why not me? The message obviously stuck.
I returned from Maine and the next night I went to TNL for the first time in two and a half months, eager to reengage with my community. That night we sang, "I Surrender All." I had no idea that the very next day surrendering all would be required of me. I had no idea that I would have to lay down the two biggest pieces of my identity: I was no longer a pastor's wife. I was no longer a homeschooling mother. I had to surrender them both.
Our challenges surprise us: Breast cancer, job loss, relational switches. As much as I've been trying to prepare for the work that God gave to me, to us, I've never felt prepared for the toughest challenges. But God continues to give them, to roll them out wrapped in invitation and hope and pain.
Our challenges require surrender: We have to surrender our egos, our plans, even our dreams. We have to surrender our hats, our very identities tied to the wrong trees, our assumptions, our fears. We can't push forward into the challenge with our hands full because sometimes the hiking is hand-over-hand.
Our challenges are for us: Last week I found a video from one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor. In it she was talking about pain, but she said that if I can trust that whatever comes into my life is for me then it will break down my idols and isolation. If I see that every challenge is for the purpose of building me I can move forward with trust and wisdom. If I let the challenge do its work in me, breathe it in, then ultimately it's for my health.
Saturday I met with a friend who really picked inside my head and heart. I was struggling hard, everything just below the surface. She said, "Debra, you're free." You're free to become the person God has designed you to be. You're free to do that in any way you need to. No one will put their thumb down on you. No one will stuff you into a mold. Then she said, "This is a gift. Not a punishment."
Our challenges are a gift, but they require surrender. Our challenges are for us, but they force us to breathe them in and see them that way. Seeing my current challenge as a punishment was what I needed to surrender.
This week my husband had coffee with a pastor in town to process and make some sense of these past days. He had been through a similar situation, had been let go from a church for confusing reasons. Out of that experience he wrote a book and he brought a copy for my husband and signed it with the words a woman said to him at that time: "Consider what has happened to you as God's kiss upon your forehead."
When we surrender and push through danger, difficulty and disappointment to follow God in what he's asking us to do, we see him, we know his touch, we sense his presence, we take part in his strength. We all came with our own challenges, not just the communal one that has been thrust upon us: caring for a mother in a wheelchair, confronting a father, adopting and fostering children, grieving the passing of a sister. I've seen you rise to these challenges and you've inspired me. You've surrendered to a will greater than yours. You've been thrust into the very side of God.
In order to follow God we have to surrender and believe that this thing that's come into our life is ultimately for us. But when we surrender we don't surrender to a person, or a group of people or a circumstance. We surrender to Jesus. He is your good and beautiful God and he loves you.
I hope that you leave here empowered to go, to be the hope, to be the change. And as you go into the challenge that God has for you don't say the path is too rough, or ask, "Why me?" Say undauntedly, "Why NOT me! This is a gift. God's kiss upon my forehead. I don't know the path, but I'm going anyway."