How does a
missionary (person) get back to the centre?
How and why do we sometimes lose sight of God, even when we are meant to be the people closest to him? How can we get so far away from him, that we lose sight of ourselves, our purpose and the first love which compelled us to follow him?
Well in all honesty, I haven’t got the faintest idea! All I know, however, is that walking this path/journey away from the One who started the whole thing, and from oneself, is a very tiring affair. Not only is it exhausting but it will lead to pain, hurting others, and it can lead to never being the person God intended you to be, worse still for those of us in full-time ministry, never fulfilling your divine calling.
I am the third of three and grew up in a female dominated home. In school I was teased for being camp/soft. Extended family members would reprimand me, telling me to man up and stop being such a crybaby. It did not help that I was born in Brazil, with its “macho” football fuelled culture and chauvinistic approach to life, I was a bully magnet.
I wanted to sing, play piano, write and looked for beauty wherever I could find it. As a result of this misfit between me and the world around me, my young sensitive and creative soul was often crushed, as I felt that I fell short of what I was meant to be. I did not accept myself.
I recall standing by the bedroom window of our top floor apartment most afternoons watching the “normal” boys play football outside. I longed to be like them. However, watching them was somehow a distraction. Whilst I watched them I would have day-dreams about another life, about a more stereotypically masculine Levi who was good at football, who fitted in. In doing that, I avoided dealing with my own pain, the questions I had about my sexuality, the bullying I was suffering at school, the lack of a father figure after my father’s tragic death. I was avoiding living my own life, escaping to a different existence.
Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes we find ways to avoid looking at our own mess in the eye. So we look the other way. We find something else, another approach to life that will help us survive our own hurting. In Christian ministry, if that applies to you, we sometimes find distractions to cope with the pressures we come under and the state of our own soul. After-all, what would happen if people knew the true state of our soul?
The pressure to be good all the time, being the perfect Christian, parent, spouse and leader is not only tiring, it’s impossible! I will repeat that… it’s impossible! So we distract ourselves with things, people or thoughts that take us away from the heaviness of it all. This will obviously look different to each of us, but it may include sexual sin, pornography, addiction (this may include Netflix), workaholism, perfectionism, consumerism and others.
The subtle and hidden nature of these distractions means that we can continue playing the role, doing the deeds, being available to others, surviving… but it also means that we are not living the life we are meant to live. The issue here is that we are not called to survive. We are called to live. And to live in abundance.
In the blog posts that will follow over the next few weeks I will explore how I (we) can stop surviving and start living. I will look to the Bible for help, and be vulnerable about my own brokenness and struggles with mental health issues, anxiety, self-doubt etc. I would like to invite you on this journey with me. You can send me your questions, comments and suggestions bellow. Be kind!
I will start in David’s Palace.
The Roof Top
In 2 Samuel 11:1 we read:
“In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the King’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.”
After years of persecution under a mad king, David had finally reached a comfortable place. He had subdued most of his enemies, built a new Capital for the nation, and brought his own people together by making Jerusalem the administrative and religious centre of Israel. He had achieved so much. He had done so much. He was now finally in the place he was anointed to be in – the throne.
Then, out of the blue, something happens. After the long winter and the hardships of the journey to the throne are done, a shift happens. It is interesting that the writer tells us it was spring. As it is often the case with the Scriptures, I believe this is mentioned intentionally. When life seasons change we can sometimes struggle to adjust. Changing seasons can sometimes reveal what was hidden before.
Like thawing snow reveals what is underneath it, so in our lives changing seasons can uncover what is under the surface. Spring is a joyous season. New life springs up everywhere, flowers bloom, and the landscape is transformed. The whole of nature bursts with scents and colours.
The writer in the text, I believe, mentions the season to make clear that it was a new season, a season of growth and life. However, David seems to be frozen somewhere back in winter.
When he should have been on the battle field enjoying the new season, doing what he was called to do, being the king, he decides to pass on his responsibilities to someone else (Joab) and stays at home. In the season for growth he was unable to be the person he was made to be.
I wonder what happened inside of him that led him to that place? I wonder if the weight of the crown became too much? Maybe he was just tired. He had worked so hard to be king and now that he got his crown, perhaps he just did not know what to do with himself. Or maybe the quest for the throne defined his whole existence for so long that arriving to his destination, meant he lost his stamina. Maybe he just felt he was better as a king “wanna-be” and inadequate to step into his calling.
In chapter 7 verse 18 we see a glimpse of his feelings of inadequacy: “Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”. Perhaps he was more comfortable being someone who displayed “potential”, rather than actually doing the job.
This can also be true in our lives. In my own life, when seasons change, I sometimes struggle to do that which God had been leading me to be and do. In those times I can often feel a very strong urge to just hide. For many years now I have been hearing from people in the church and those around me that I have huge potential. Those words, although intended to encourage me, have often made me freeze with fear.
What if I am not good enough? What if the so-called potential is never realised? How can I keep the high standards I set for myself? It is in the fog of these questions and crippled with self-doubt that we can sometimes look for coping mechanisms. We take our eyes off the course set for us and end up searching for something else.
David was in Jerusalem, and he was frozen. He was not doing what he was meant to be doing. More importantly he was not ‘being’ who he was made to be. His ‘potential’ was not being realised. In this restless moment he hides. He finds himself on the roof top.
“One evening David got up from his bed and walked around the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful. […] Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him and he slept with her. (She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went back home.” 2 Samuel 11:2,4
When we read this we may ask: What happened to the shepherd boy who worshiped in the mountain plateaus? What happened between the mountain top experiences of the sheepherding days and the roof of the palace? Whatever happened, David changed. Something shifted and it took him down a road that caused him and others so much pain.
Gene Edwards, in his classic ‘A Tale of Three Kings’, writes about David’s shepherd days:
“The first seven sons of Jesse worked near their father’s farm. The youngest was sent on treks into the mountains to graze the family’s small flock of sheep. On those pastoral jaunts, this youngest son always carried two things: a sling and a small, guitar-like instrument. Spare time for the sheepherder is abundant on rich mountain plateaus where sheep graze for days in one sequestered meadow. But as time passed and days became weeks, the young man became very lonely. The feeling of friendlessness that always roamed around inside him was magnified. He often cried. He also played his harp a great deal. He had a good voice, so he often sang […].
At night, when all the sheep lay sleeping, and he sat staring at the dying fire, he would strum upon his harp and break into a concert of one. He sang the ancient hymns of his forefathers’ faith. While he sang, he wept, and while weeping he often broke forth in abandoned praise […].” (The Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards, loc 54-63, Kindle Version)
Somehow, in the lonely nights of the palace, praise was not an option. He was no longer attentive to the audience of One that shaped his heart after His own. Instead of looking to God for answers, he looked at his neighbour’s backyard. The moment David forgets who he is, and whose he is, he does the unthinkable.
What happened to the David that spared the mad king’s life? What happened to the man who danced undignified when the Ark of the Covenant finally came home? What happened to the shepherd boy who worshiped in the green plateaus of Bethlehem? Well, we don’t know how or why, but that David had been lost somewhere in the bricks and mortar of the the splendid castle he had built.
Have you ever felt like that? When the sweet experiences of worship, the certainty of the calling received, the clarity of God in all of life, just goes. And you look at everything you have built and achieved and you feel as cold and grey as the stones you used to build it?
In that moment of dark and deep loneliness we can react in two ways: We either walk towards God and ourselves, or we walk away from both. David hid, he walked away… in fact he walked out onto the roof. There he found another David and another god. There his disconnection was revealed and he did the unthinkable. He sleeps with a married woman and arranges to have her husband killed to cover up the unwanted pregnancy.
It goes to show that even people after God’s own heart can all do the unthinkable if we neglect God and ourselves for long enough. Our disconnection will eventually show its ugly fruit. We go down the wrong way, we hurt people, we scheme, we lie, we hide, we waste away. About this time in his life, David writes:
“When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long,
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped.” Psalm 32:3-4
At nearly 35, I can climb up to the roof of the things I have built. Looking down from my palace I see many things. But the one thing I see clearly is: somewhere along the way, somewhere in the process of building, I disconnected. I was so busy in the quest to reach my “potential” that I forgot who I was and God became a foggy figure in a the distant past.
Like the people of Israel in the desert, I could see the pillars of fire and cloud, forgetting why I had left Egypt in the first place. For me the palace roof revealed my fear of dealing with sorrows and the difficult things in my life. I built a palace but in the process neglected the inner man. In my busyness to achieve, I left no room in my heart to allow God to build His palace in me.
You see, thrones reveal the innermost intentions of the heart. A throne, power or authority, reveal what a man or woman are made of. The beauty of it all is that God is in fact in all of it.
As you stand on the roof of what you have built, what do you see? What does your throne reveal about your heart? My throne revealed my fear of not being important. After arriving in Brazil, I began to miss the small amount of prestige my ministry in England had afforded me. My throne revealed that I, for most of my life, have lived negating how unimportant I felt by creating things that made me feel important. In this, my ministry became a great way to massage my own ego, giving me the sense of importance I lacked.
Being in a new place, in a new context where I was no nobody, shook me to the core. My crutch was gone. I crumbled. Depression set in. As I stood on my palace roof I realised I was feeling very lonely, not unlike the young boy staring out of the window. Levi, the “self-confessed” popular guy, who loves people and is loved by many of them, surrounded by crowds of people, was finally reckoning with his greatest sin: the need to create opportunities to feel important.
In the last few months, which I have called “The Darkest Darkness”, I realised that one of the greatest thing one can build is the ability to look at their own darkness in the eyes and let God shine his light on it. It has been the most painful thing I have ever done.
It is not easy. There are no palaces in view. But it has been strangely and may I say, bitterly, liberating! When we hide behind what we do (or anything else) to conceal our fears, we also hide massive parts of our hearts from God. We need to look at the ugly bits of our lives and face them. A poem by Carol Bieleck explains it well:
“Breathing Under Water”
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
—and I still don’t know how it happened—
the sea came.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift,
but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight
and I thought of drowning
and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher,
till it reached my door.
And I knew then,
there was neither flight,
nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling
you stop being neighbors
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
(from “Breathing Under Water: Spirituality And The Twelve Steps” by Richard Rohr)
Instead of flighting, dying or drowning we need to choose to be acquainted with our pain and fear. We need to come out of hiding. We need not to see our sin, pain and grief as good old neighbours but to allow God to redeem our character. Jesus, in order to deal with our sin, had to look pain and grief in the eyes. Isaiah writes of him:
“He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” Isaiah 53:3
Jesus faced his cross allowing God to deal with our sorrows and sin. He is familiar with our grief. It is a mystery, but he will use it for his Glory too. His objective, in inviting us to face the darkness in us, is not to expose our pain and leave us adrift. Neither to enable us to be defined by our fear or pain. God’s desire, and the cross is the landmark which guides us here, is to take us into his own being.
Overwhelmed by his love, immersed in his kindness, we can then breathe again. Like breathing under water. We will not forget the the pain, it will not be like the sea across the sand but God will help us be people who are whole. With our pain, with our defects, with our need for importance, with everything we carry, we will also be everything that God wills us to be. We will be one with Him. For that we need repentance. We need to turn around, face our sin and pain, and run back home to Abba, warts and all.
If you are facing darkness I want to leave you with the words of the Psalmist:
“even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:12
“Lord, I am on my palace roof. Meet me here, as you met me on the mountain tops and the deep caves. I give you my striving. I give you my pain. I am ready to be made whole. Warts and all. But yours.”