“I just don’t understand your taste in books,” my mom said after I gushed on the phone to her about my newest Barnes and Noble find—Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.
My mom and I are similar in almost every way. The amount of parmesan cheese on our spaghetti, the sweaters we stop to point at in store windows, the scenes in movies we fast forward through and the scenes in movies we watch again and again and again. My dad complains that she always has a teammate when we gang up on him, my sister gets drowned out by our constant chatter.
We never disagree about a thing—except when it comes to books.
“I read for entertainment,” she tells me. The novels you pick up in a gift shop for an adventure, a romance, a handsome lead with a dash of wit and charm. My mother lives and breathes for reading these stories. For as long as I can remember, the clearest image of home I have is of her laying on the couch with a paperback in hand, getting lost in worlds much more fantastic than our own.
“But you like realistic books,” she says. She’s right.
First kisses, late night tequila talks, the water droplets fresh snow leaves in dark hair, blue eyes, touching noses. Heartbreak. That sting of loneliness when you power down your phone at night. His blue eyes locked on a new woman in the photo you never meant to see. Figuring out death. God. Donald Trump.
There’s nothing I need to fantasize about, no sexy jewel thief or talking animal that I could find more interesting than the heart of the single mom who prays every day that her life will work out, or the college student who isn’t sure he has the strength to make it to tomorrow, or the girl from my high school who now wears a ring on her left hand when a year ago she was convinced love would never find her. Real stories, real hearts, real life in its messy and lonely and thrilling and awkward glory written out on 300 pages for me to read. Every sentence another lesson for me to learn about how people try, and how people are always trying, even when they fail us. Even when we fail ourselves, we know we have to keep on trying until this thing is over.
I’ve been trying to do a lot of things lately. Convince myself me and the boy will work, stop letting my boss down when I don’t have good news to tell her, write more, pray more, live more. We’re coming to the end of the year, where I can reflect on all the ways I have failed and all the areas of my life screaming, sometimes whispering, usually hissing, “Try harder!” at me.
But there’s one thing bigger than all the others that’s been eating at me during this recent Advent season. And that is how badly I need to start trying to get myself to church.
I haven’t stepped into a church on a regular old Sunday—not a Christmas Eve or Easter—in 18 months. I like to think it’s just because I’ve gotten busy, I ‘ve been moving around and haven’t settled down into one place yet, I travel too much on the weekends to get there, I stayed up too late on Saturday to make that morning service; but then I spend a few hours searching for the perfect church to try on Yelp, I make up my mind to go, I get dressed and I get excited.
But I never go.
I don’t need to tell you what happened 18 months ago in my church. But I can tell you it’s made me terrified to go back. And I wonder how I can love God with all of my heart when I’m terrified of his people. The messy hearts of people I love to read about in books and in blog posts look a lot scarier up close where they can hurt mine. It’s easier to look at the pain in someone else’s life and believe that in the beauty of their struggle. Tell them things like “It’ll make you stronger,” and imagine, maybe even write about, all the hearts just like theirs who now have an example of someone who has made it through to the other side.
I just can’t look at my own life and do the same.
There are many hurts I can get over. Betrayal, illness, heartbreak, loneliness, isolation, self-loathing—these are all words that mean something to me. All words where I can point to in my life and say, that’s when it got me. But more importantly, words I can point to in my life and say, that’s where I defeated it. But there’s one word that absolutely kills me, rocks me to my core, keeps the tears soaking in my hair and pillows at night, makes me shake and makes me nauseous.
Being rejected by people. By God’s people. By God himself? That’s what I may have believed for some of those 18 months—maybe a little part of me still does.
But even still, even after the rejection and all that goes with it, my heart is telling me to try. To keep trying. Maybe that’s why I have to keep going back to these real characters in my real books. Maybe I have to keep going back to them until I go back to church.
Most of us make resolutions for the New Year.
Finish the book, lose the weight, run the marathon, kiss the boy, start the savings account, go to Europe, go to church.
But I know more and more people abandoning the list of things to do in favor of choosing a word to theme their year around. Something like “courageous” or “strong” or “happy”.
I played around with the word “fearless” for awhile. Fearless to finish the book. Fearless to start the business. Fearless to travel to Africa. Fearless to say goodbye to the person who probably shouldn’t stay. Fearless to put myself out there and meet someone (or many someones) new. Fearless to walk into church and feel as though I belong there.
But for some reason, that word just wasn’t sitting right.
“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
This verse, Philippians 4: 11-13, is what I want my next year to look like. Because in 2015, I started in a place of need. I was hungry for more, hungry for a different life, hungry to escape 4 years where joy was a treasure to be found. I ended up in a place of abundance, with all that I had prayed to God for and all that I spent weeping nights dreaming of. I’m ending it in a place somewhere in the middle, where all the best stories take place. There is joy, but there is also pain. There is satisfaction, but there is also want. There is confidence, but there is also insecurity.
Steadfast, I hear this verse speak. Be steadfast on your path to fearlessness. Be steadfast on your walk to church. Be steadfast in your attempts to try, and try, and keep on trying every time you feel like you’ve just been kicked down again.
No matter my circumstances, hungry or well fed, living in want or in plenty, let me be steadfast in my hope that God will see me through to the end, no matter how many try’s it takes to get there.
That’s the kind of year I’ll be proud to have lived.