On Losing Everything

I trudged up the hill, wondering as one does whether sacrifice is just a weapon religion uses to oppress people.

But only for a moment, only as long as it takes to know, deep in your being, that sacrifice is one of the truest holy things you can imagine. And the words hurtled through my head, sorrowful but strong, joyful even in remembering what is better than all: If you follow Jesus, you will lose everything.

We like to throw statements like this around in sermons and pious small group discussions, but do we know what we mean by them?

I am learning these days. I am not the Baudelaire children, I have a house and food and a job that feels purposeful, and I like to think myself grateful. But sacrifice means something to me right now, not in an oily self-congratulatory way but in a writhing make-it-stop way. An I’ll-do-anything-to-get-out-of-this way. A please-just-let-me-be kind of way.

Two years ago I “gave” God this year. I stopped looking for grad schools and started looking for places to serve others; I said I’d go wherever I was called. I couldn’t help thinking myself rather noble for this. But somewhere along the way towards this particular calling, I slipped comfortably into the expectation that God’s will was for me to be comfortable and happy. Not that I should pursue comfort and happiness, but that they would fall inevitably onto my lap if I followed after God’s ever-so-whispery voice.

So when the word came, “Syracuse” –

I leapt on a plane
with two plastic tubs
full of all I would have
for a year

And this required me to put all my family – and friends who were family – and Havenplace – and two churches – and good Southern buttermilk biscuits – in another plastic tub marked “last season”. But that was OK; I stepped off the plane and sat down cross-legged, in expectation that I would need a lap for their replacements. Waited for all the new shiny things I was sure God would provide to give me joy and purpose and rest. Told God thanks for the cool house and he could send along all those incredible kindred spirit-friends any time.

Then my roommates arrived, and they were (Lord have mercy) DIFFERENT from me. And then election season began in earnest, and my dream of reconciliation in my country seemed farther away than ever. And the wind blew and I wondered if I really liked winter all that much. And the beautiful life I’d built at home in Tennessee was a stream that swirled around the eddy of my absence for the briefest moment, then went on without me. I missed it. I mourned it.

So for three weeks I waited and wilted, unable to understand how I could be unhappy “in the center of God’s will,” as Father Mitch likes to say. Have you ever made your dog execute a patience-trying trick, then tried to explain that the biscuits were gone? I was that dog.

After a point sadness turned to mounting frustration turned to desperate panic at all I’d really lost, and I reminded God how I’d fulfilled our contract – God, I GAVE you this year – and the answer pierced, no you haven’t. I saw myself then, small fists clenched around all the things I thought I deserved. 

By all that grace I’m learning how one might give, in steps: I turn my hands over; I extend my arms; and finger by finger I uncurl my ugly grip. The things blow away with the wind and I do not feel less empty.

Until these unfamiliar foreign things begin to settle into the space they didn’t have before. Conversations with my housemates give life, and there is room here for them. I surprise myself with a joke at work, beginning to sense that I belong. Autumn, as always, turns my heart upward in riotous thanks, even- especially- if it has come early.

But there’s still a great emptiness I haven’t tried to hide, here in this life with barest income and tenuous friendships and wearying otherness. Yet when I made my bed in the depths, God pressed in; and now I run a thousand times a day back to His rest I’ve finally found in letting go again and again. And if I offer a cliche, it’s the only story I have to tell for now – to lose everything is somehow deep, painful, precious gain.

—-

(Just to be clear, I really have found a great deal to be thankful for, especially in the past week or so; and I do quite love my housemates and other new friends. I’ve waited to write about this until now – I feel I’m over the major hump of this settling-in process. Thank you for all your prayers!)

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