This is not me in real life, just a photo downloaded off the internet about what I love to do.
"The more we pray--in the sense of living a prayerful life--the more we desire to pray. If we live prayerful life, then there is a growing desire to spend more time with God and God alone. It is always the opposite of what people think. It is not, 'Oh, my life is prayer so I don't have to say prayers.' Rather, the desire to pray and to spend time with God and God alone is always growing. It creates in us a desire to be with the Lord whom we have seen shining through people and events, to be with the Lord alone. Then prayer becomes one of the greatest gifts that we can have, because to be with God whom we discover during the day, to be with God and God alone is a great desire. It is as though you have worked with your friends all day, but in the evening it is nice to be with them and them alone, just to be with these special people."
~~ Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing
I am reading Nouwen during the remainder of vacation--his writings help me focus on my relationship with God, especially prayer. I've been feeling prompted to dive deeper to develop this aspect of my communion with Him. It seems to be the weakest link in my devotions, God has been telling me to my surprise.
Over the last 30 years, I've been attentive to my time in God's word. Many bible studies and devotions have reinforced to me the importance of knowing Him through Scripture. I desire and enjoy reading, meditating and memorizing the Bible as well as studying and hearing teaching from various pastors--especially from Kevin, Ben and Jason-- my own at home. So, I thought I was going in the right direction. Not attaining what I pursued, but generally moving towards it. But I was missing something.
When it comes to prayer, I pray for friends, co-workers, and family--I'm in the prayer chain email with my church, and I am regular in bringing requests to the Lord. I'm doing well here but it isn't enough. God doesn't want just to hear requests about how my loved ones are struggling. As good and needful as those prayers are, He wants more. He wants my heart.
A Spiritual Problem
For the most part, I didn't think I was withholding from Him. But that is just my human self assessment. God was trying to tell me otherwise. Six years ago, while meditating and praying during a counseling session with The Navigators, verses from the Book of Revelation came to my attention. To the Ephesian church, Jesus told them that they had forsaken their first love, to remember the height from which they had fallen, to repent and do the things they did at first. They were a persevering community, enduring hardships for Jesus' name as well as working hard to be discerning between truth and falsehoods. They probably thought they were doing well. I thought about how shocked the receivers of this warning must have been when they first read this--how grieved they must have been. And I was shocked and grieved, that maybe this is God's message for me too.
Then I remembered a quiet time I had in the 80's. I was single and spent long sessions of pouring out my soul to God, many recorded in journals. But this one was especially intense. I remember a feeling of overwhelming comfort and peace. God didn't want me to worry any more. I was praying "to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" Ephesians 3:18-19.
At the time, I felt fullness of God. Looking back much later after nearly 20 years of marriage, I felt it was one of those privileges of being younger and single--that God was using my singleness to focus only on Him, since marriage is so distracting. 1Corinthians 7: 32-25 But during that counseling session six years ago, it dawned on me that this was the height from which I fell. Not that I always would have that fullness feeling, but the desire for God had waned. Distractions of life had nothing to do with it and everything to do with it. Married or unmarried, we need to be undivided in our devotion to God, it's just easier when we are not married. It doesn't let married people off the hook.
And the desire came and went, the prayer sessions came and went, prayer partners came and went and I was trying to repent and return to the deeds of love for others and for God that I once did before. I think that the struggle was good for me, but I didn't know if this was God wanted. It was six years of perseverance and endurance, yet still feeling my heart was not as soft as it once before. I was still divided and trying to figure how out to get undivided.
Dream a Little Dream
Two or so years ago, friends described their Mediterranean cruise and a stop in Ephesus in Turkey. I knew that it wouldn't do to be envious, this kind of trip was out of reach for me and Dennis. So, I enjoyed their stories and photos, pretty much resigned that it was all I would ever experience. I thought that if I had desired anywhere to go, that would be it. Ephesus was actually on my mind a lot. I don't know why. I figured God had other priorities for me, and travel wasn't one of them.
Last fall, my sister Fran called and she was retiring from the FAA as an air traffic controller. Her application to work overseas in northern Iraq as a trainer for controllers was accepted. I asked her when I could visit her. She was a little surprised, but said that we can meet somewhere else because she wasn't sure there was anything to really see where she was going. I mentioned Turkey was next door, we could visit each other in Istanbul. I didn't know where I would get the money, but I suspected that she would get lonely and it would be good to see her. And I knew Istanbul rocked. Visiting missionary friends in Sofia Bulgaria in the 90's, it was brought up we might have to go there for the sake of some complication with their visas. It was cool with me, but the visa issue got resolved, and I was a little disappointed.
A few months later, Fran got in touch with me and offered to pay for my expenses to a trip anywhere in the world--the terms of her contract reimbursed travel and were so generous she decided to invite us all in the family--parents, siblings and her kids--to trips anywhere they wanted with her. She said that her friend at work had a villa in southern Turkey we could stay at and I asked how close it was to Ephesus. She had never heard of this place, neither, she found out, did any of her ex-pat co-workers who had used the villa in the past. But it was a few hours drive, so it would be a good day trip.
This was actually going to happen. My mind was blowing for months. My boss said that my brain was vacationing for weeks before I left. I had many aspirations for this trip--including people to see, maybe more day trips and more adventures-- my imagination was running away as I thought about all the possibilities. Ephesus became one more stop on the itinerary instead of a cherished dream.
We went to Turkey during the beginning of the tourist season and during the hottest times of the year. My contacts in Istanbul were falling through (some were in Michigan!), and my sister wisely halted talk of Mt. Ararat and the fairy chimneys and caves of Cappadocia. She also wisely planned lots of rest and relaxation at the villa with visits to good restaurants and little physical exertion as possible. I was in jet lag mode worse than I thought. And a civil war in neighboring Iraq with the help of nearby Syria just began. Fran needed a restful vacation and sunshine. And we were going to be really busy in Istanbul.
The night before our car trip to Ephesus, I was up all night, so excited about the trip, I felt like a kid waiting for Santa Claus. I was wired next morning, and Fran was still tired herself, even though she was ready to drive a 10 hour round trip in an unfamiliar countryside on twisty roads powered by Starbucks Italian Roast Via coffee. Yeah, it was a longer and twistier trip than we thought after we consulted Google maps. We postponed it for the next day and relaxed some more. How could I say no to more time by the pool? With my SPF 70 sunblock and the big umbrella over my lounge chair.
I soaked (reflected?) up a little sun, fantastic views and re-read Bible passages about Ephesus--and thought about God expanding the church in this very country at the beginning of the apostles ministry. Things had changed during the Ottoman Empire when it came to power in the 1400's, but for hundreds of years the Christian church multiplied in Turkey. And the seven lamp stands of the Revelation churches, where are they now? I was looking at the results firsthand, I thought. Did the church at Ephesus heed the warning? What would happen to me if I didn't heed the warning? In the middle of these meditations, Fran was sitting right next to me.
It was good to be with Fran. We had not had time like this together since high school, I think. Since then, I was in some kind of isolating bubble from my family, and Fran candidly brought that out with our poolside talks. Another moment of shock and grief to hear this coming so frankly from her, but not terribly surprising. The turning point came very quickly for me with the realization that even if the trip Ephesus also fell through, that I wouldn't have been disappointed because I had this precious time with my sister. Relationships, I decided, were more important than itinerary or adventures.
Another photo I didn't take, but this time a place I didn't go in Ephesus. This is new, really new--the Terraced Houses, recent excavations. Wish I saw it.
Ephesus, For Real
Fran is a pretty competent driver and I think the only woman driver we saw for miles until we got half way to Ephesus and saw a young lady with a headscarf driving alone with just as much assertiveness and fearlessness as Fran. Most women I saw were sitting on tractors and holding onto the male drivers of motorcycles and scooters throughout the countryside and through the mountain passes. What Google said would take five hours actually took Fran only three hours.
We decided to forgo tour guides and all, and essentially, go by the guidebook I brought along. Which meant, we basically didn't know what we were doing. We parked at the lower gate of the historical site and were approached by a guy who told us that we should take the horse and buggy ride to the top and walk down the main hill. So we did that, and stopped at a cave of Seven Sleepers for five minutes to take pictures of the crypt. Creepy crypt.
Despite the maps of the area on signs and in my Lonely planet guide, it was hard to get a grasp of what was what at first. Ruins are pretty much, ruins. Changes in the port because of the silting of the harbor and earthquakes contributed to Ephesus' slow decline. But certain landmarks were unmistakable, and walking down marble paved Curetes Way was breathtaking. I had several "pinch me, is this real" moments. Especially when I fell and heard my knee crack loudly behind me.
My tennis shoes were supportive but not helpful as the tread wore out from work and useless on the marble slabs that make up Curetes Way. I knew it might be slippery but I wasn't watching where I was going because, well, of everything all around me. I got up and didn't need an ambulance, which was pretty merciful. It hurt to walk and I realized I wasn't going to see everything I wanted to, even though there was no swelling on my knee. The thunder clouds on the horizon were alarming me, and getting caught in the rain with slippery shoes on smooth marble was tantamount to a personal disaster. Fran coached me along to step on cracks and avoid the slabs, all of a sudden I was looking down instead of looking up around me. Getting hurt meant that I was all about protecting myself and not absorbing the blessing of being in Ephesus.
And that is, basically, the story of my heart and soul.
In the middle of these worries, I remembered that it was no accident that I was in Ephesus and really, no accident that I fell. God in His providence and sovereignty, wanted me to hear what He had to say to me. And He ordained everything necessary to get me to hear Him.
So, I started to slow down and to pray that I wouldn't worry anymore about the impending storm and just trust Him. I prayed for both my sister and myself as well as the tourists all around me, that we would be aware that God was at work in this formerly great city once and He is still at work in the rest of the world including Iraq. Cities and civilizations and people come and go, but God and His Word lasts forever. I wasn't going to let pain and then fear rule the day. My mind needed to be in the heavenly and spiritual places and only prayer directs my head there.
The Not So Incredible Shrinking Woman
So, I came away with more awareness of how I respond to pain and how it affects me emotionally, relationally and spiritually, not just physically. We experience pain everyday, it's a part of life in a fallen world. But it can be used to grow in my faith instead of shrinking and deadening in my soul. And I also came away with a better way to deal with it.
In the Bible, Jesus is my model. He knew pain throughout daily life as a human being up to His time on the cross. He understands what and how I feel, I need never to withdraw from Him when I hurt. I can acknowledge it and even express it if possible. It isn't weakness. My strength comes from His promise that we will no longer suffer pain in eternity is the hope I hold on to, but in my earthly life, pain does not define me. Instead of shrinking, I am told, I can rise.
38And, “But my righteousg one will live by faith.And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”h
39But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
In case you all don't know, this is an Althea blossom. My Hawaiian name is also "Blossom of the Heart", given to me when I was born by my Hawaiian granny. How did she know?