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Begin Again, Believe AgainEmbracing the Courage to Love with Abandon
By Sharon A. Hersh
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2010 Sharon A. Hersh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Beautiful Ache
The soul is made of love, and must ever strive to return to love. Therefore, it can never find rest nor happiness in other things. It must lose itself in love. by its very nature it must seek God, who is love. - Mechthild of Magdeburg
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I took the whole month of December off from work. I had visions of cleaning out closets and spending quality time with my children. I also watched a lot of television and discovered a show that completely fascinated me. For those of us who are domestically dysfunctional, The Martha Stewart Show is an amazing program. On one show, Martha made an elaborate gingerbread house that looked better than the house I live in, and it took her only twenty minutes!
Watching Martha Stewart inspired much grander dreams for my one-month sabbatical. Instead of cleaning closets or playing Scrabble with the kids, I had visions of painting sunflowers on our garbage can, growing an organic garden, and sewing elaborate outfits for my children. Maybe we could even start entertaining with theme parties. I approached my family with the idea of having our friends over for a Hawaiian night. We could decorate and cook special food and even wear Hawaiian clothes. My children, who were all too familiar with my mediocre domestic skills asked, "Why would we do this?" that Christmas they gave me a sign that I still have in my kitchen: "Martha Stewart Doesn't Live Here."
It didn't take long for me to recognize why I had attached myself to Martha. She seemed to have a foolproof formula for domestic bliss. Ever since I was a young teenager, I have been looking for a foolproof formula that would give me the deep relationships that I longed for. At various times, I have thrown myself into doing what everyone else was doing to win friends, into academic achievement to gain affirmation, and into overinvolvement with church activities to win the respect of others. Although I haven't always been able to put words to it, I have always known that my deepest longing - what drove my involvement in these activities - was for intimate and lasting relationships.
If it were possible for you to peel back all the layers of your longings, I have no doubt you would discover a desire for rich, deep, fulfilling relationships - a desire so intense that even the inevitable relational failures and disappointments can't extinguish it.
Our longings to be chosen, joined to another, have babies, keep our families from danger, unify our families around common values and goals (like Hawaiian dinner parties!), live with purpose, heal our wounds, make a difference, survive loss, and give and receive forgiveness are not random characteristics. these longings and attributes are part of how God designed us uniquely as women. In God's first story about men and women, we learn that he formed Eve from Adam's side. Eve was born into a relationship. Humanly speaking, she was never alone. Her attachment to the relational was more conscious and more compelling than Adam's. God had to tell Adam, "It's not good for the Man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). From the beginning, women were designed to be dependent on the ability to enjoy warm attachments, close relationships, and interdependent bonding.
In every woman there is an inner tug, an ache that propels us toward relationships. You may have felt it on your first day in school when you surveyed all of the other girls and wondered how you could belong. Maybe you felt it last week after you had a meaningful conversation with your husband that you wished didn't have to end. I feel it every time I look at pictures of my grown children and think about how I miss them and all that I long for them to experience. I felt it at church a few weeks ago during our extended worship time after our ser vice, a time of praying, singing, and meditating. this particular Sunday, I moved to the front of the sanctuary and sank down in my chair. I needed something. As the lights dimmed and the band played, I got a sense that I was the only one in the sanctuary. I couldn't see anyone sitting around me. And there in the dark, with the music flooding my heart and soul, I cried out to God, "I need you."
God designed us with this beautiful ache to lead us into a life of love. When we believe that our longing for relationships is about only human relationships, we get frustrated, because human relationships often fall short. When we become determined to satiate or soothe our longings with people-pleasing, alcohol, work, food, perfectionism, among other things, we get confused about where God intends our longings ultimately to take us. We mistakenly believe that the ache is calling us to something merely external. What we seek is always just around the corner, and when we reach the corner, it has ducked out of sight. Yet our longing for relationships is so strong that even after turning the corner a thousand times, we still say, "This is going to be the relationship, the formula, the experience that works - that satisfies me." Life becomes an endless pilgrimage around corners.
The beautiful ache can be frustrating and confusing. That's why we come up with strategies to manage our longings in hopes that we can figure out a way to get what we want. The two strategies I have experienced and seen most often in the lives of other women are dreaming and scheming. We may begin as a dreamer, hoping that all of these longings will result in a "happily ever after" story. When we start to realize that our dreams might not come true, we find another strategy and become schemers. A schemer is determined to take matters into her own hands and have some sense of control. Both the dreamer and the schemer are energized by the belief that our longings were intended to send us in a mad pursuit of what we want. It is humbling and a little scary to realize that God uses our longings, our shattered dreams, and our foolish schemes to reveal what we most deeply want: a relationship with him.
When I was in college, I sang this little song:
I'm tired of college life I want to be somebody's wife I'd rather do dishes for somebody's kisses I'm tired of college life
Like most young women of my generation, I dreamed of marriage, family, and a beautiful home with a white picket fence to satisfy all my longings. The ideal life beckoned me with promises of perfect peace and endless bliss. I was a dreamer. A dreamer wants the ideal. She is drawn to the promise of romance, well-behaved children, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But being a dreamer has a dark side. When dreams become agendas, the only right way to do things, or the proof that we are good, no room is left for family and friends to have their own dreams, make mistakes, or try new things. Shattered dreams bring shame rather than trust that God brings beauty from ashes.
After speaking at a parenting conference a few years ago, a dear older woman approached me with tears streaming down her face. She described how her dreams for her children had poisoned her mothering, and she expressed deep regret for her idealistic and unrealistic parenting. "I expected my son to be a certain way, no matter what," she explained. "I crushed his individuality and drove him away from me." this mother's dreams weren't necessarily wrong, but her response when she was disappointed kept her from offering life to her relationships.
Dreams and Disappointments
The dark side of dreaming shows itself when we don't know what to do with disappointment. When Sam and Liza got married, they immediately began to dream about creating a family. They both wanted to pursue an international adoption. After a few years of marriage, they traveled to Ethiopia to get their beautiful baby girl, Selah. They had faced struggles with family members who didn't understand why they wanted to adopt, with the financial and legal hurdles of adoption, and with fears of the unknown about their future child. they were ready for this dream to come true.
Sam and Liza dreamed what they believed was God's dream for their lives and bravely followed that dream. They knew Selah had experienced extreme malnutrition and would have some health complications. What they didn't know is that the complications would eventually lead doctors to conclude that beautiful little Selah might never speak. When Sam and Liza began the adoption process, they had no way to anticipate all of the disappointments they would experience along the way. They have never been disappointed in Selah, but mounting medical bills, impending surgeries, endless hours of caring for a very sick little girl, and agonizing questions about suffering are the excruciating realities that they have had to face. Perhaps you can identify with Liza. She dreamed good dreams. Unselfish dreams. Godly dreams. Maybe you have channeled your longing for relationships in wonderful ways - loving a difficult spouse, raising children with special needs or rebellious hearts, caring for aging parents, offering out of your singleness to motherless or fatherless children - only to be met with disappointment and more difficulties. We tend to believe that if we dream God's dreams, then surely he will give us all the desires of our hearts. But we are often disappointed.
Dreams and Donkeys
I couldn't help but think about this confusion over God's dreams and our dreams when I was in Israel a few years ago. It was incredible, standing at the top of the Mount of Olives, looking down over the beautiful, lush Kidron Valley and gazing across to the other side, the city of Jerusalem. I was deeply moved as I listened to my pastor read the gospel texts of Jesus' triumphal entry into the city, the event we now commemorate as Palm Sunday. This setting, so rich with history, and the New testament story my pastor read made me think about how easy it is to get confused about our dreams and God's dreams.
I stood there and tried to imagine what it might have been like on that day over two thousand years ago. As we slowly walked down a narrow road into Jerusalem, I envisioned the royal processional that everyone must have been expecting for the messianic King, the son of David, entering the city. It wasn't hard to imagine that the celebratory crowd might have been confused and disappointed with what they saw instead: Jesus riding a lowly donkey.
How many people that day were surprised, upset, and disappointed that their leader, their King, couldn't do better than a donkey? they believed the Messiah would deliver them from roman occupation and oppression and restore the kingdom of David to its glory. They wanted a hero, and they probably wanted him to look like a hero. Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem was an opportunity to show strength, to exhibit royal status, to make a statement, and to show people what his kingship would look like - a time to make everyone's dreams come true.
But Jesus confused them and confounded their expectations and dreams. He entered the city on a beast of burden, not a beast of war. He chose to ride among them on an animal of the common folk: a gentle, humble, dependable donkey. I suspect that the crowds were looking for something more, maybe a beautiful, high-stepping thoroughbred. For some folks, Christ's entry on a donkey must have felt like a shattered dream.
Pastor and theologian Dan Clendenin writes, "Jesus' 'triumphal entry' into the clogged streets of Jerusalem was a deeply ironic, highly symbolic, and deliberately provocative act. It dramatized his subversive mission and message.... Identifying with Jesus and patterning our lives after him results in endless subversions." In the act of riding on a donkey, Jesus subverted the narrow political dreams of his followers in order to fulfill God's larger dream of redemption. It was an act that signaled a divine truth: Jesus had come not to conquer a government but to conquer the human heart. And his subversive work didn't stop with his earthly ministry; it continues, endlessly, in the lives of all who follow him.
This confusing and mysterious mission of Jesus became very personal for me during a Sunday morning church ser vice years ago. It was Valentine's Day, a good day to ruminate (and even obsess) about the many painful, disappointing relationships in my life. The pastor ended his sermon by summing up the purpose of suffering in our lives: "Can you hear the tender whisper of Jesus [in the midst of your disappointment]: 'All of this was allowed, orchestrated, and done to conquer you?'" I longed to believe that dreams and disappointments, donkeys and humiliating circumstances, as well as broken and healing relationships were about conquering my heart so that God could love me more fully and I could be more fully in love with him, but it was a hard idea to hold on to when so many of my relationships seemed threatened.
It is a leap of faith to believe that having our dreams subverted is sometimes a necessary part of the pilgrimage to find our heart's true desire. The dictionary defines subversion as "an activity that undermines, destabilizes, or topples." As women, we certainly understand the subversion in our relational lives: the experiences that undermine, destabilize, and topple our dreams of intimate connection. Just like the people who lined the streets when Jesus rode in on a donkey did not see what they expected, you may think that your relational life is full of big mistakes; it is not the life you dreamed of. then again, perhaps you are exactly where God wants you to be. It is good, though often hard, to remember that when our dreams are subverted, God is at work to conquer our hearts.
Dreams and Discontent
After I got married, it didn't take long for my little college song about marriage to topple and change:
I'm tired of married life I want to be more than a wife I do all the dishes ... and get paid with kisses I'm tired of married life
When I discovered that my deepest longings could not be completely fulfilled by my spouse, I dreamed of children. And anyone who has children knows that it doesn't take too many weeks of mothering to discover that babies take more than they give, and they too leave us restless and discontent. So I jumped into ministry. And I did it all: children's church and choir, women's ministry, and even helping head the new building committee. Once again, it didn't take too many weeks of working in ministry to discover that it couldn't meet all of my longings.
Whether it's marriage, building a career, raising a family, or ministering to others - none of these have enough soul food to satisfy anyone completely. It's at this point that many of us get into trouble with addictions and other destructive behavior, trying to satisfy longings that our less-than-ideal relationships only intensify.
If you are a dreamer, I suspect you know that desire - the longing for more - in your relational life is always there. One friend portrayed it this way: "It pops up here, then over there - kind of like a gopher in an empty field!" In her book about feminine desire, author Carol Lee Flinders describes this ache as a "stubbornly recurrent itch that makes ordinary life impossible."
When we cling to the ideal in relationships, we are devastated when we can't find a program or formula that makes everything work. And then what happens? What happens when we sin and fail, when our dreams topple and shatter, and when relationships falter? Here's how Liza describes her response to some of the shattered dreams in their adoption process: "I don't remember when I began to hate God in my heart. Or why I even do. His blessings abound in my life. And yet the sorrows that I have walked and that I walk now tempt me to despair."
Reflect for a few minutes on some of your dreams - for your family, your friendships, your ministry. What happened when you started to realize that all your dreams weren't going to come true? Did you dismiss your dreams as stupid? Did you blame others for the disappointment? Were you mad at God? the dreamer often begins with a good plan, wonderful ideals, and honorable desires, but the dark side of dreaming comes out when disappointment invades and causes us to question ourselves, others, and God. Shattered dreams leave us feeling vulnerable and out of control. That's why the next strategy makes so much sense. It doesn't take many disappointments for us to move from dreaming to scheming.
The schemer lives to take control of people and situations. She plans what she will say in order to get a desired response. She often manipulates situations to control the outcome. She knows what is best and is determined to make it happen. At the first hint of losing control, the schemer scrambles to manage herself and others. A schemer often lives with a profound sense of loneliness, because it is impossible to get close to someone who is always in control.
Excerpted from Begin Again, Believe Again by Sharon A. Hersh Copyright © 2010 by Sharon A. Hersh. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Begin Again 11
Part 1 Begin Again, Believe Again in Daily Relationships
1 The Beautiful Ache 25
2 The Gift of Brokeness 43
3 The Hope of Strange Women 65
Part 2 Begin Again, Believe Again in Difficult Relationships
4 The Valley of Humiliation 93
5 The Desert of Estrangement 113
6 The Fruit of Loneliness 137
Part 3 Begin Again, Believe Again in Redeeming Relationships
7 Daring to Trust Again 163
8 Living in Hope Again 183
9 Falling in Love Again 207
Conclusion: Believe Again 231
What People are Saying About This
“Once again Sharon uses her experience as a talented counselor to show us what it means to ‘work out our sanctification’ in the ups and downs of everyday life.”
Susan Kiely, founder, Women With A Cause, Denver, Colorado Susan Kiely