I mentioned last month as I was leaving Thailand that I would try to begin to process everything that had happened in the past year by posting all of the messy, unpublished, drafts of blog posts that were full of things I didn’t know how to say. Here’s the earliest one. The first post to begin to address the ache I felt and didn’t know how to explain. I wrote it in several sittings in March, 2015.
In Chiang Mai, March is burning season. People slash-and-burn fields, and burn their garbage (apparently there’s a valuable mushroom that only grows in fresh ashes). Why this is such a phenomenon, and why it happens all of sudden in March, is not obvious to me. What is obvious is the smoke. Its a hot, dense, unrelenting fog. Its not like the pollution that covers Bangkok or so many other urban giants. Its almost sweet smelling. It’s like standing next to a campfire, for weeks. We rode to lunch in the back of a pick-up and, as we turned a corner, we all flinched away from the side of the road, where an uncontrolled fire lapped right up to the shoulder, pushing out waves of heat into the already hot day. Driving out into the field this week, the hillsides were brown and the trees were bare, the dead leaves on the ground and gray sky made it almost look like fall back home, and you could almost imagine when you rolled down the window, it would be cool and crisp and smell like cedar and pine. And then you did, and it was 90 degrees and you coughed on the smoke. The fires consume all of the things that are dead, that are taking up space and not giving anything in return. Its brutal, but the ashes make the soil richer and what grows back is better than what was before.
Burning season also coincides with Lent this year. My thought behind this year was that I was uniquely positioned over to develop in character and in Christlikeness and that I should be taking full advantage of that opportunity. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel like I was. In the chaos of moving, and then the first month or two of just trying to keep my head above water, I realized that I wasn’t devoting as much of time and energy to prayer and service as I wanted to be. I was just getting by. And now here I am, four months in, and not really sure how to do more than that.
So for Lent, I gave up 3 things I recognized that I was using as a source of cheap comfort and strength. Things I was using to numb feelings, push through tiredness, and fill time when I didn’t want to think about anything. Things I was using to avoid Christ. Things I was turning to instead of Him. And so I’ve entered my own burning season. Left alone without the things I used to use to regulate and level myself, I’m more pushed to turn to Christ. Its still not enough, I still know I could turn to Him so much more, and see the other things I’ve invented to distract myself so that I can avoid the whole reason I did this in the first place: to let Him change my heart.
I know Chiang Mai has changed me, and changes me every day, but I’m not sure how, and I’m not sure how to put that in words. Its disorienting, I’ve always been able to sum up even the worst experiences in a 15-minute testimonial with a tight metaphor and scripturally sound lesson. That has been one of the things that got burned in the fire. One of my 3 was social media (the blog gets an exception because I’m not interacting with anyone, just writing and scheduling wordpress to automatically post). Without the constant context of how I would tell the world about this is 140 characters or an instagram caption, I find myself realizing that you can’t explain anything worthwhile that way. That anything you’ve learned that’s really worth sharing can’t really be shared. (Don’t worry, I realize the irony of this blog.) In the gray hazy smoke, I’ve learned to be more comfortable with the gray areas in myself.
In this season of burning, of winnowing out all of the extraneous voices, what do we do when the voice left no longer can give us clear answers. What was the clear and confident ability to point to God in all things is now the silence of staring into the sky and wondering at a God you now know better and understand less. I believe that God is faithful, and that it is after the earthquake, after the wind, and after the fire, in the silence, that He speaks.
I’ve had this post sitting, written to this point, on my laptop, for 2 weeks, unable to finish it. I felt like I couldn’t get the post to go anywhere, I had no answers, no lessons, no truths to share. But I suppose that’s the point.
So, I’m sorry I can’t wrap this up in three verses and a powerful quote for you. But I will wrap it up with this:
A week and a half ago, a couple at my church were in a very serious motorbike accident, the husband didn’t make it, and the wife spent the next several days in and out of surgery in the ICU. In the same week, suicide bombs at churches in Pakistan killed dozens, including close family members of 2 members at our church, (a haven for Christian Pakistani refugees). Last Sunday, when our pastor climbed up on the small stage in our hot, still, church, we expected him to give his scheduled sermon on the martyrdom of Stephen. He didn’t. Instead he started reading from Habakkuk 3, where the prophet questions God about why he lets bad things happen, trying to justify what he believes about God with the world around him. How do we believe that sin is conquered and death is overcome when it looks so clearly in our world like that is not the case? Choking back what I think are the most honest tears I’ve ever seen from the pulpit, he wrapped up, “so what conclusion does Habakkuk come to? What is his answer for why these things happen? ….. He doesn’t have one.”
He invited the congregation to come to the grieving families, and tell them that we stand with them, and the worship band led a chorus of an old worship song – its triumphant tune soft and defiant. I had never been part of a congregation that mourns together, that truly believed that when one part of the body was hurt, the whole body suffered. And the congregation sang.
That is the God I beginning to understand, and approach in silence in prayer, for I am learning He is more mysterious and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined