Enchanted Dragons

Last week I realized it had been quite a while since I had ventured into the enchantment known as Narnia.  The discovery and subsequent exploration of Tolkien’s Middle-earth has taken precedence over the known world of Lewis’ Narnia for three years now, and though I am constantly finding new books to delight my soul, I know I also need to draw comfort from the familiar at times.  And certainly Narnia is familiar – and beloved.

Unlike my introduction to Middle-earth, I do not remember when I first encountered Narnia. I do remember hearing several of the Chronicles read aloud by my dad during my childhood bedtimes – his favorite was The Horse and His Boy, and the most memorable was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (thank you, Eustace Clarence Scrubb – “who almost deserved it”).  I know that “Aslan!” was a part of my vocabulary from a young age.  The idea of beautiful clothes that are also comfortable is a Narnian concept that I unconsciously attempt to put into practice in my daily life, and the image of Aslan (or Christ) as not safe and yet good has informed my thoughts on theology since well before I could label them as such.

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At various stages of my healing journey, I have repeatedly turned to one particular metaphor from the Chronicles.  It is the one I find most hopeful when I grapple with pain and change and the ugliness I face in the dark places of my heart.  It has to do, of course, with Eustace.  Early in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is a spoiled prig who wants nothing to do with magic, Narnia, or sailing – or his cousins (King) Edmund and (Queen) Lucy, for that matter.  His presence aboard the Dawn Treader is most unwelcome simply because he does everything he can to make a nuisance of himself.  Yet his actions ultimately bear fruit that causes even Eustace to rethink everything: he becomes a dragon.  Naturally, it is not a comfortable thing to become a dragon (who cannot speak) when one’s whole company is either human or of the Talking Beast variety.

In the lonesomeness of dragon-ness, Eustace begins to change for the better.  But his own efforts are insufficient, and the dissolution of the dragon-spell must come from one far mightier than Eustace himself.  In the dark of night, Eustace-the-dragon finds himself led to a mountaintop bathing-well by Aslan.  The desire to be clean – and rid of his dragon-ness – launches a process much like peeling an onion.  Laboriously, Eustace attempts to shed his dragon skin by peeling one layer at a time.  He soon recognizes that his efforts are getting him nowhere, and the only way to be truly free is to allow the Lion to rip the scales off.  Though the pain is excruciating, Eustace willingly submits to the ordeal because he yearns for both mental and physical relief.  Once he steps into the pool stripped of the external dragon, he becomes human again.

I am the same way.  Obviously, I have not assumed the physical form of a dragon, but there have been times when my behavior or mental state is best described as dragon-ish.  Only when I come to the end of myself do I have any hope of finding relief.  Only One who is mightier than I can peel away layers of dirt, fear, pain, and brokenness to reveal His creation of humanity beneath.  So each time I despair of moving forward, of making progress, of healing, I remember Eustace and the dragon.  And my hope is renewed.

Rebuilding Forgotten Mountains

If there’s one passage of Scripture I could avoid for the rest of my life, it would probably be Matthew 5-7 – the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters were the shape of my early life, and my existence now very often includes undoing damage that was done in the name of “education” or “character” in those days. “And seeing the multitudes…” used to launch a rapid-pace recital of the Beatitudes and all that follows, complete with memory-aiding hand motions. I knew every word, because every word had been carefully dismantled for me, torn asunder from context, and presented as the answer to any problem I would ever encounter in life. Over a dozen years of hyper-in-depth study of one passage proved to be a sure-fire way to kill truth. Because I was taught the passage meant everything, it came to mean nothing.

So when my pastor announced last month that he was taking a hiatus from a multi-year exposition on the book of Isaiah for a “brief” series on the Sermon on the Mount, I was not enthused. Although I have put some distance between myself and the years of Scripture-by-rote, there are still a few nerves that are easily exposed – and Matthew 5-7 was one of those nerves. Spending ten weeks in my least-favorite passage of Scripture seemed like a perfect setup for yet another spiritual crash.

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While I knew in theory that my experience of the Sermon on the Mount was not mainstream, I still feared revisiting the passage that had formed the roots of my old life. I am not alone on this particular journey; the community of Recovering Grace has proven that to me. Yet even though I could give mental assent to the idea of “Post-It Notes on a Work of Art,” I did not think I was capable of finding healing in wounds that went so deep.

How easy it is to forget God’s grace.

From that first sermon six weeks ago, I have been captivated anew by truth – and how truth brings freedom. There are many things in my life that have met a dividing line at my church; I shouldn’t be surprised that the Sermon on the Mount is now on that list. Yet I am surprised, again and again and again, that things I took for granted – under which I groaned in anguish – these things were not truth! How amazing it is to me, week in and week out, that Christ does not bring drudgery nor despair, but rather joy and peace! The law that bound and gagged me had already been fulfilled!

It will take time – time and love and patience – to find the truth and let it settle in my life, ousting doubt and fear. But I am unspeakably grateful to be in a place where I am encouraged to seek answers outside the four walls of a particular building, outside the mental walls of a particular idea, even outside the bounds of specific teachers. I am encouraged to question, to read on my own, to discuss and form my own opinions of what is presented to me. I need not agree simply to keep the peace. There is truth to be had for the asking!

Light like Dolphins

I love the beach.

There’s something about crashing surf, the pungent scent of saltwater marshes, and constant wind tangling my hair that feels more like home to me than any other place on earth.  I am alive here in a way that eludes me during ordinary life, and I am grateful the shore has always been such a sweet place for me.  This week I am on vacation with my parents and most of my siblings, and I am in my favorite place on earth.

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This island holds many wonderful memories: my first time behind the wheel (of a car), my first time at the helm (of a sailboat), the worst sunburns I’ve had in my life, jumping waves and getting mouthfuls of sand and saltwater when I got tumbled by waves, late night games of Cancellation Hearts or Tripoley, feeling ravenously hungry for my Mom’s meat sauce on spaghetti after a long day on the beach, and a few epic sand castles.  But most of all, when I think of the beach, I think of Granddad.

Granddad was my rock growing up.  A brilliant scientist with degrees in engineering from Drexel and MIT, Granddad’s life was one of problem-solving.  During my lifetime (his retirement), he was fascinated by the potential of personal computing – and is solely responsible for my lifelong attachment to all things Apple.

Among many other things, Granddad taught me to love the beach.  When he died – suddenly, at the age of 80 – I was devastated.  I decided that loving people cost too much.  I was 18, and I resolved to never again feel such anguish.  So I bottled my emotions and determined not to feel.  It was an act of self-preservation, or so I thought.

Last summer, I began to wonder what life would have been like if I’d had Madeleine L’Engle beside me – at least in spirit – as I learned about grief.  I’d read her Wrinkle in Time quintet and decided to keep going with Meet the Austins and subsequent books.  I have enjoyed L’Engle’s writing quite a bit, and often found certain passages to be particularly moving.  However, I was totally unprepared for the emotions that would be unleashed by the fourth book in the Austin Chronicles: A Ring of Endless Light.

It’s summertime on an island in New England, and the entire Austin family knows this will be their last summer with their beloved, wise Grandfather.  In addition to quoting John Donne, Henry Vaughan, and Elie Wiesel, L’Engle skillfully deals with the myriad emotions surrounding death.  How do you love someone you know you’re going to lose?  How do you continue living when you’ve lost someone you love?  Why are love and pain so very intermixed?!

Grandfather summarizes the message of the book in one simple sentence: “When one tries to avoid death, it’s impossible to affirm life.”  I finally recognized that in my own life, I had taken to avoiding anything that seemed painful – which meant that I was living a life affirming nothing. I was living a life of negatives instead of a life of positives.  And I was reaping the consequences; life was heaviness and darkness to me.

Gradually I have begun allowing life to illumine my emotions – my hopes, dreams, and desires.  It is a frightening but exhilarating process to admit that life has been lived in fear rather than faith.  My pastor regularly encourages faith as the antidote to fear – a new experience for me.  I had been taught to fear nearly everything in my life, and to come out the other side and find the brightness of faith is a little unnerving at times.

That first crack of light was the hardest.  Medication helped, as did good friends and a wonderful counselor.  A year has passed since I first read about the dolphins and Grandfather and sorting out mixed-up emotions.  A pod of dolphins swam by our beach early in this vacation, reminding me that my own sorting-out has actually progressed quite a bit since last reading L’Engle.  So I have spent my spare moments this week re-reading A Ring of Endless Light – grateful for grace that has shown me that light.  I think I will always need reminders that personal transformation comes about slowly.

Let the light continue growing!

Hurt, Healing, and Writing

Pain is one of those human experiences that is universally feared and avoided.  Yet I have never met a human who has successfully dodged any kind of pain – physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.  I know I have experienced all four, and my response has been anything but gracious.  Instead, in my pain, I am far more likely to hurt someone else – whether or not I realize it.

Healing, by its very nature, requires feeling the hurt.

So there is a very fine balance between accepting enough of the hurt to heal and feeling so overwhelmed by the pain that I lash out or withdraw, thereby causing pain to someone else.

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I have tipped the scales multiple times in both directions over the past several years.  Though it is never my intent to hurt another, it is nearly impossible for my wounds to scab over without someone else feeling the heat of my emotions.  Thus, in chronicling my own journey of healing, I enter a treacherous land, where offense may be given or taken inadvertently and in my own quest to become whole I take the holes of others into my hands.  There is no exact science to guide me here: “Do this, but don’t do that.”  I am flawed and fallible and often do not know my own strength.  Though I journal almost constantly, it is only in front of a wider audience that I am forced to make my thoughts coherent (and thus concrete).  How then can I seek healing without causing more hurt?

Last summer, I found Lucy Maud Montgomery had put into words what I wanted to achieve.  Emily Byrd Starr is Montgomery’s heroine with whom I most closely identify, and in Emily Climbs I found words strung together that opened the windows of Faërie to me.  Here is what Emily says about writing and healing: “It is better to heal than to hurt… But here and now I record this vow, most solemnly, in my diary: My pen shall heal, not hurt” (p. 22).

That is my desire.  That is my goal in writing: to heal, not hurt.  It has taken time — time and grace and love and mercy — to get to this place.  I want more than anything to share that grace and love and mercy with others.