Father

Tel Aviv smelled like orange groves. The air was the same temperature as the surface of my skin – perfect, light. We rolled our bags to the bus and fought the jet lag with several rounds of Israeli coffee, two ounces of thick espresso at a time. As we walked from the bus to our hotel, we laughed, removed our sunglasses, widened our eyes. I sighed, exhaling delight and awe.

Most of my travel revolves around my singing and speaking schedule, so I wondered if I was simply caught up in the vacation-like feel of it all — after all, it was the first time I’d traveled anywhere without my guitar in five years. But the “vacation-ness” didn’t explain how a country that was objectively dangerous felt like a cocoon of peace and ease? The atmosphere juxtaposed weightlessness and gravity.

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On my first morning in Israel, I woke early to watch the sunrise. It blows my mind to think Jesus would’ve seen this view many mornings when He rose early to pray.

Lush rolling hills and gardenia bushes surround the perimeter of the Sea of Galilee. It’s more like a lake than a sea. If you stand at the north end, you can see all the way across the furthest distance. I’ve never been good with Biblical geography, but Galilee was minuscule compared to my imagination. I could hold all of it in my field of vision – two miles wide and five miles long.

Jesus spent the majority of His three-year ministry on and around this lake. What one Man did and said in roughly 10 square miles nearly 2,000 years ago has changed all of creation for eternity. His reach extended around the world and across millennia to me.

One day we stood underneath the shade of a tree in the Garden of Gethsemane as our tour guide told us the tree was more than 2,000 years old. It would’ve been there when Jesus prayed in the Garden on the night before His crucifixion. It would’ve been there for the tears, for the prayers of agony while His friends were sleeping, for the kiss of betrayal.

Being where He once was opened something inside of me – hints of passion and deep longing. That, too, caught me off guard, but this time I knew where to pin it. It reminded me of something I’d felt before, though it was much stronger this time.

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This is one of two trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that are reportedly over 2000 years old.

When I was in college, my heart was knit to the guy who had slowly become my best friend. He fell for me too, but we kept our secrets separately. I, out of desire for him to pursue me. He, because he knew he would be flying around the whole big world to spend the summer as a missionary in Papua New Guinea, and he didn’t want to tie up our summer with distraction.

He told me his secret over the Chinese dinner we cooked together on his first day back for the fall semester. I didn’t tell him then, but I will tell you now, how I spent our summer apart: when I missed him, I did math.

It was 9,000 miles around the earth to where he was, but it was only 7,900 miles through the earth. Armed with that math, I marched through a field to the lowest part of the valley, and I pressed my face and chest to the ground, my heart beating into the dirt. It was the closest I could get to him.

Some days I drove past his old dorm – the room where he used to sleep and study biochemistry and pray (on his knees, no less!). He wasn’t there anymore, but just seeing the window brought a sense of comfort.

That’s how it felt to be in Israel. While God’s Spirit lives inside of me, Israel was the closest I could get to the physical, tangible aspects of my Savior. I began to miss Him more. I longed for Him in a way that pulled on me like weights on chains. I never wanted to leave.

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 I took this shot of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during my 6th trip to Israel last month.

On our last night in Jerusalem, I sat on the roof of my hotel and wrote in my journal:

Father, thank You for using my earthly mother and father to bring me here to fall more deeply in love with my You, my Heavenly Father. I feel like I understand You better after being here – like a kid who finally got to see the homeland her parents always talked about. Or the girl who finally met her boyfriend’s family. It means everything to me that You chose to share this experience with me.

Jesus, please come back soon. If I have to leave this place, You have to come back. I can’t be away from You. I know You’re everywhere, but this place and this nearness awakens an ache in me. Please. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Nothing — apart from knowledge of the Scriptures — has enhanced my relationship with my Father more than visiting Israel (and the latter has even enhanced the former). As soon as you have the opportunity, GO. Skip Hawaii. Forego Europe until next time. The effects of Israel will trickle down into the things in your life that have eternal value. If you dare, it will change the way you live and think and love.

(This piece originally appeared in Kiss The Wave: A Memoir on the Attributes of God,and has been altered for this format. You can purchase the book here.

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Portion

This is a chapter about the struggle for (and of) contentment. I’m not the girl who always writes about singleness, but this chapter is, in fact, about that. If you’re not there, these thoughts could also apply to any unmet desires you may have at the moment.

——

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:26

Was there sleep before the fall? I wonder if, in the new heaven, there will be sleep. And if so, surely even our dreams are redeemed.

For now my dreams consist primarily of some unspoken goal I can’t accomplish. Usually, I’m trying to get somewhere but am thwarted at every turn.

Last night I encountered a series of obstacles: trying to find things I had lost (my notebook, my car), trying to do something I’d forgotten to do (give a series of talks I failed to write), and trying to use various forms of transportation which all ended up failing me (the ship capsized, the flight was cancelled, the highway had been destroyed, leaving only chunks of blacktop piled behind construction barriers). Not just one of these things — all of them, in one sleep.

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No dream is rest, no dream leaves me relishing the perfection. Unlike some dreamers, I never stretch my arms wide and fly. All of my life, even my dream life, feels like a collection of assignments I keep botching, coupled with desires I invariably am denied.

I love His promise that I won’t be chasing things forever, always coming up empty-handed. One day, the only Thing I’ve ever really wanted will be always mine.

“Tara-Leigh! I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before. I know the perfect man for you!”

The text from my married friend came on a morning when she had no idea how much I needed it. I’d had a dream a few hours earlier, where I’d shown up at my own wedding and the groom (whom I’d never met) was nowhere to be found. I woke frantic and angst-ridden.

My friend and her husband, along with another married couple I know, conspired to set me up with a man they deemed a great fit, and she was texting me info to gauge my interest level. He was a small group leader at his church, had a high-level job in engineering, and had even done some modeling.

They threw a party, ostensibly to introduce us. As the days approached, they suggested we become friends on Facebook. We started talking. Not much, just enough to help me feel relaxed about meeting him. He made me laugh with his quick wit, and he even laughed at my poorly-constructed jokes.

When the night of the party came, I was excited to finally feel open. For the first time since Joel, I felt the hint of the possibility of hope. As I stood in the entryway talking to one of the wives, he approached with two glasses of water, handing one of them to me. He didn’t even know me, but he was already meeting my high-demand beverage consumption needs. Considerate? Check. Handsome? Check.

Throughout the night I found out more impressive things about him. For instance, he graduated from an Ivy League school, where he also rowed crew. His family had a crest, for crying out loud. He was like a thoroughbred. For that reason, I will call him Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit and I talked well into the night, and at the end of the party, he asked if he could drive me home. Ever the gentleman, he held all the doors, requested my number, and called the next day to ask me out on a proper date. There was no second-guessing his intentions. The way he treated me – and everyone he encountered, for that matter – conveyed the way he valued people. It reflected Christ.

My friends were right. This guy was a catch.

The day of our date arrived. I had never been so nervous before a date in all my life. I even called a friend to come help me with my hair, because I kept dropping the flat iron, and I was afraid I would end up with questionable burns on my face. I imagined him looking at me, perplexed, asking: Tara-Leigh, is that a hickey on your forehead?

One of the wives of the couples who set us up texted me half an hour before he picked me up. “Just be careful. Lots of girls like him and fall for him hard. Keep your head on straight.”

You’re not helping! I thought, as I zipped up my knee-high winter boots, teetering and stumbling. I steadied myself at the edge of my bed and tossed the phone onto my pillow. The screen lit up again, and I leaned over to read it.

“Have fun with Seabiscuit!” the other wife texted. “Can’t wait to hear how it goes!”

On our date, he loosely planned the series of events, constructing them around my preferences. He asked meaningful questions. He paid for everything quickly, so I didn’t have to wonder what my role was. He should probably write a book on how to respectfully date a woman, because he was nailing it.

Despite his near-flawless interaction with me, I wasn’t the least bit interested in him. At the end of the night, I sat perched on the end of my bed, beating myself up in my head.

Why don’t I like him? What is wrong with me? If I can’t like this guy, I’m doomed.

My friends encouraged me to give it another try, so I did. The second date was even more frustrating than the first. After I got home, I put my hair up in a topknot, made some tea, and called one of the wives.

“Well, that settles it,” I said. “I’m going to die alone.” I shuffled from the kitchen into my bedroom, tea in one hand, phone in the other.

She laughed. “Whatever! Just because you don’t like him doesn’t mean you’re dying alone.”

I set the tea on my nightstand, put her on speakerphone, and threw myself back on my bed.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m certain marriage is awesome, but on the bright side, I sure do love only making one side of the bed.” I rolled over onto my side and stuffed a pillow under my arm, propping myself up.

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“Tara-Leigh. Stop being ridiculous. There’s someone out there for you.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Look,” I said, “I appreciate the gesture, honestly. But that’s not necessarily true. God hasn’t promised me that. He hasn’t promised any of us tomorrow, much less husbands. I don’t need false hope – I need hope in the real thing. Otherwise I end up getting angry when He doesn’t fulfill those things He never promised me anyway.

“I hear you,” she said. “I just don’t want you to lose hope. Marriage is a good thing to desire.”

I thought about David. He wanted to build the Temple for God. God told David it was an honorable desire, a good thing to want. God didn’t say it was bad or wrong, but He told David no. David. The man after God’s own heart.

God cares about how hopeful we are, because our level of hope shows how much we know His Word, trust His character, walk in His strength. Romans 15 says that hope is one of the reasons Scripture exists. But He also cares about what our hope is in. I don’t need to have hope for marriage. I need to have hope in God. That will carry me through whatever He has for me – marriage or singleness or sudden death.

Maybe my dreams will always feel a little too much like real life, never easy or beautiful. Maybe my desire for marriage is like David with his Temple blueprints in hand. Maybe marriage is my good desire, but one that will only be fulfilled in eternity, where I’m part of the Bride of Christ. If that’s the case, there is no less joy for me. He always has been and always will be enough. He is enough for my contentment. He is enough for my fullness. No matter what else He puts on my plate, He is more than enough.

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
You hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
– Psalm 16:5-6

Refection Questions:

1. Does it ever feel like God is not enough?
2. What other things do you look for to be your portion?
3. What false hopes have failed you?
4. Why is putting your hope in God an effort that never fails?

(This piece originally appeared in Kiss The Wave: A Memoir on the Attributes of God, and has been altered for this format. You can purchase the book here.

Light.

Sometimes I think I could be really good at not getting what I want.

By the grace of God, I don’t sin in relation to my singleness anymore. I spent years being tangled up in the standard sin patterns that bind many modern singles. Even within the church, we acknowledge that the purpose of marriage is holiness, but we act like the corresponding truth is that singleness is for hedonism. I know those chains well, and I remember their weight on my shoulders, the smell their rusting iron left on my skin.

I could point out the ways I’ve seen His Spirit developing His fruit in me over the past five years, but I could also point out some of the things I hope He will continue to work out of me in the next five years. I’m not there yet, but when the memories arise of who I used to be, I’m grateful that I haven’t gotten married a single day earlier than now. I’m learning to see the grace of God over every closed door.

This feeling of longing and anticipation is more universal than a desire for marriage, I know. Even married people or happily single people feel it. The longing is there, no matter who you are. It hides underneath the uncertainties of promotions and pregnancies, it tucks itself into the replayed memories of every failed interview and the pages of every unlived dream. The world is full of thwarted desires, buried deep, that keep rising to the surface. We all wait.

Sometimes trusting God’s timing means we wait patiently, other times impatiently, but we wait. We refuse to build our own houses on our own foundations, because we know it would be laboring in vain, like Solomon said in Psalm 127:1, “Unless The Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” We remind ourselves that Jesus knows waiting is hard – even waiting for the inevitable thing you don’t want. In John 13:27, as Jesus waited for Judas to betray Him, we see it. Jesus handed him the communion bread – the sign of His flesh that would be shredded and pierced in barely more than a dozen hours – and He told Judas, “Hurry.”

I love being able to ask God to hurry, knowing He won’t move a moment too soon or too late. It also helps me rest just to remember that He is in charge and that I don’t have the power – or the wisdom, for that matter – to bring my own future to pass. It can be humbling and frustrating to leave it up to Him, but then I remember something my mentor told me once when I was eating Tex-Mex in Houston with him and his wife on a muggy Sunday afternoon. One sentence out of his mouth changed the way I wait.

“Don’t light your own fire,” Kemper said.

Kemper, with his white hair and broad smile, is a sage. If Gandalf were real and walked the earth, he would go to Kemper for advice. He is the Chuck Norris of wisdom.

“‘Don’t light your own fire’ – what does that even mean?” I asked. Kemper doesn’t usually speak in monosyllabic words. Half the time I have to write down what he says so I can look it up later and not appear foolish. How embarrassing that I finally knew the actual words, but still didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me.

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Without hesitating, he quoted Isaiah 50:10-11 for me.

Who among you fears The Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness and has no light
trust in the name of The Lord
and rely on his God.

Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.

Isaiah talks about two kinds of people here. The first kind are the ones who fear The Lord. Those kind of people walk through dark times in faith, trusting that God is not only the God of the light but also the God of those dark nights. The second kind of person refuses to wait, impatiently grasping for matches or lighters or pieces of flint.

The second person, Isaiah says, may find comfort in their makeshift torches, but that is the only comfort they’ll know. Their lack of faith in God’s goodness, specifically His attention to their struggle, will torment them.

God doesn’t just know my future. He built it. Scripture is always reminding me of this. Psalm 139 says He wrote our days before days existed. Revelation 13 talks about how the names of God’s children were written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the earth.

He goes before me, He’s already there, and He’s in control. God’s sovereignty is a prerequisite for the existence of prophecy. Otherwise, He would just be guessing. Somehow, He is not bound by time. He stands outside of time, already in my future. From that vantage point, He says my lot is secure.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is: even though He is outside of time, He is also, somehow, inside it. I do not wait alone. He is the Light that will be revealed, and He waits with me. 

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Psalm 27:1

Reflection Questions:

1. Have you ever been tempted to light your own fire? What happened? What was the result?

2. When was a time you waited on God? What did that feel like? What helped you wait well?

3. What are some of the dangers of never having to wait for anything?

4. What lessons can only be learned through waiting?

(This piece originally appeared in Kiss The Wave: A Memoir on the Attributes of God, and has been altered for this format.)

REWARD

(This piece originally appeared in Kiss The Wave: A Memoir on the Attributes of God, and has been altered for this format.)

I’m about to say something that may sound shocking or arrogant: it does not surprise me that God loves me.

That’s not what I’m supposed to say, right? Because I’m a sinner, and He’s perfect, so I should be totally unloveable. And I am. But for His glory and through Christ’s death, the Father adopted me into His family, to be His heir and carry out His heritage. It logically follows that a God who would go to such great lengths to have a relationship with me would love me in and through and because of and for that relationship.

What does not make sense to me at all is that I love Him.

He’s infinitely lovable, more beautiful than all other desires … but I was born with a wicked heart, one that is bent in toward myself, one that takes tiny created things and makes them into gods I could easily spend my life worshipping. I’m inherently unable to view things through a lens of truth. Truth is all around me, to be sure, but my natural eyes are too dim to see it.

It continues to shock me to find myself growing more in love with Him all the time – when I want to read His Word, or when I want to obey Him more than I want to do my own thing. I know it must be His love for me working within me to produce this love for Him, because I don’t know how to love good things on my own.

I’m stunned by my love for Him, because it is the most gripping, obvious, undeniable evidence of His love for me.

We love because He first loved us. – 1 John 4:19

Scripture says the only reason we love Him is because He loved us first. I used to read 1 John 4:19 as though it only indicated the order in which our love happened, but what it really means is that His love is the cause of our love. Our love is the very fruit of His love. He initiates, sustains, and fulfills all the things involved in that love relationship.

“I have learned to kiss the wave that strikes me against the Rock of Ages.” – Charles Spurgeon

Even in this present hardship (the cynic’s so-called evidence of His cruelty), all I see are layers and textures of His love – light and shadow both reveal it.

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I took this photo in the middle of the ocean, after begging Him to “show up.”

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
– Psalm 46:1-3

Every day feels like it surely must be the first day I’ve ever really loved Him – all clumsy and excited and hopeful and filled with longing. All other longings only serve as arrows pointing to Him. No matter what I gain or lose, what desires are granted or denied, what prayers He answers no or yes, I find my eternal “yes” in Christ. He is my exceedingly great Reward.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; You hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

– Psalm 16:5-6