This week, I found myself in Tarpon Springs, Florida. It’s definitely a top destination for those interested in humidity, golf courses, and senior citizen discounts. Unfortunately, none of these are really high on my bucket list at the moment.
I did though, get invited to the Blue Martini by a 78-year-old woman named Phyllis on the plane ride to Tampa. She really sold me on the Tarpon Springs nightlife when she described it as, “happy hour, bingo, and a little dancing.” As interesting as a night on the town with Phyllis and the girls sounded (I imagine it being something akin to an episode from the Golden Girls) I had to decline due to my schedule.
So when I did find myself with some down time one afternoon and no Blue Martini or golfing in my immediate future, I decided to spend some alone time with Jesus, my journal, my Bible and my recent favorite read, The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning. And I opted to find myself a much better view than my hotel wallpaper to accompany the time of solitude I was about to embark upon.
I grabbed my belongings and scouted for a great view outside. Soon after, I came across a nature walk, a path that led into a vibrant green forest, full of marsh and moss and insect noises and the comfort of shade. I began to walk down the path but a few hundred feet in I turned to realize that the open road was no longer within my view. If I proceeded on this manmade path in the midst of this lush God-made majesty I would be all alone in unfamiliar territory. It didn’t help that at that same moment I came across a sign educating travellers of the Cypress Swamp Life, including turtles, ducks, swans, and alligators. Yes, gators. I’m from LA. We don’t do gators. Fear crept in, and when I suddenly heard the rustle of leaves in the ominous distance, I wasted no time in turning around and briskly walking, okay running, back to the main road.
Perhaps, I was a coward, but at the very least I could guarantee I would not be featured on the next installment of Gator Week: When Alligators Attack.
A few minutes later, on the side of the main road, I stumbled upon a rocking bench, and in the distance, a view of a swamp full of green marvels and underwater mysteries. It was beautiful to behold and also a considerable distance away. From where I was sitting, it felt safe from any 10-foot reptiles with an appetite for young city girls. I had found my spot.
I was challenged recently to spend uninterrupted time in solitude to meditate on the inexpressible and unconditional love of Christ. It was a good exercise, and after my short time on the bench, looking out at the distant swamp, I felt like I was making progress. And by progress, I mean, I didn’t look at my phone or check Instagram once! 30 minutes without technology, and I was beginning to equate my exercise with monk-like mediation. I was feeling pretty good about my spirituality right about then!
Then it started to rain. At first just sporadic drizzle, which in the intense humidity, felt like a relief. But the drizzle quickly escalated into torrential downpour.
It was bad. Like real bad. I quickly grabbed my belongings and headed back to the hotel. My purse wasn’t large enough to contain my Bible and books, and I realized if I didn’t find shelter quickly, there would be serious water damage done to my belongings. The only thing that offered me sanctuary was none other than the nature walk I had ran away from earlier before.
I had no choice but to run into the forest. And it immediately welcomed me. The branches and the leaves sheltered me like an umbrella in downtown Seattle. I was shocked by its hospitality. And even more shocking, I was no longer afraid. I was something far more compelling- I was curious. And so with wide eyes and a massive grin on my face, I made my trek down the path until both road and rain seemed but a distant memory.
The trail ended with nature’s very own plot twist: a dock, standing over the swamp I had been admiring earlier from the safe distance of the rocking bench. I slowly stepped upon the old wooden floor perched above the green, murky water and found myself enveloped in the stunning and sensational swamp life. This once was merely a nice view, but now it was a marvelous wonder I was standing in the midst of.
The rain had died back down to a tickling drizzle on my face, and I simply stood in awe not only before creation, but keenly aware, I was also standing in awe before the Creator.
And in one of those rare and treasured moments of cosmic irony, I realized my afternoon was the perfect metaphor for my last 20 years of following Jesus. So many times my own fears have kept me from exploring off the beaten paths that could lead me to moments of awe and wonder over the love of God. So many times I have found myself playing it safe, watching the splendor and majesty of Christ’s love from a considerable distance. So often, I’ve studied countless Scriptures on the love of God; I’ve read book after book dedicated to the understanding of God’s love. And though I have grown in knowledge, I am still a novice in experience. My theology has been strong, but my spirituality at times, much weaker.
Following Jesus has allowed me to behold a glorious picture of perfect love; there’s only one problem: many times, I’m not in it. I’m not exploring and experiencing and tasting and touching the height and width and depth of God’s love. I’m studying it from a safe distance, instead of being drawn into the great mystery of the passionate pursuit God has for me.
To be honest, this kind of furious, relentless love is scary. To embrace it, I must leave behind the main road of performance-based religion to travel down the dirt path of grace. And that is scary. I know where the main road leads, and I know it will always be packed with an abundance of travellers. But grace is full of twist and turns and fewer willing to walk upon it. At times, the way of grace in a day and age of commercialized Christianity can actually be a bit lonely.
Of course, there are many other logical reasons for my fears. I could blame my fears on the affects of growing up in an alcoholic home, or the conflicts and dysfunctions of my childhood, or the complicated relationship I’ve had in the past with my father, or the disappointments over the years, or the high demands of ministry, or the desire to people please, or the ongoing temptation to find my value in what I do and achieve. To be frank, we all have our own lists of why we are the way we are. But at the end of the day, when all my blaming and justifying is said and done, I still need to decide if I want to be an observer of God’s love or an explorer of it.
I don’t want occasional moments of experiencing God’s love. I want to abide in it. I want my self-sufficiency that has created within me a love-deficiency to be properly treated by God’s everlasting embrace.
I would like to say I am brave enough to choose all on my own the way of grace. But it was the rain that led me to the breath-taking swamp, and it is more often than not the storms of life that have forced me to run straight into the arms of love. I stood upon the deck thanking God for the rain, the pounding, relentless rain that had led me to this place and this epiphany. And I also found myself thanking God for the trials and the troubles and the pain and the pressures of life simply because they led me to the way of grace and the exploration of love.
You, friend, must decide for yourself if you want to watch God’s love from a safe distance or experience it up close and personal. I can’t make that decision for you. But I can tell you this, it is one thing to know about the love of Jesus; it’s another thing to find yourself living in that love. Both are acceptable choices, but only one will actually change you. May you have the courage to live in His love.
“I have two choices. I can escape below into skepticism and intellectualism, hanging on for dear life. Or, with radical amazement, I can stay on deck and boldly stand in surrendered faith to the truth of my belovedness, caught up in the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.”
-Brennan Manning, “The Furious Longing of God”