A Tale of Two Loves (Part 2): Love in the Age of Fear

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. I’m currently writing about the first kind, constrained love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended a New York Times Op Ed called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear.” She describes the constant fear that mothers are expected to live under, fear that any little thing could lead to catastrophe for their kids. Or fear that they’ll be judged for their lack of fear. The layers of fear over motherhood are thick and complex.

Two things stood out to me. The first is the label, “Age of Fear”. It is such an apt description of our era that I went looking to see other people using it—they must be. But apparently they’re not, or at least not yet. So let me be the first to echo it. I think that phrase “Age of Fear” will resonate far beyond the scope and moment of that OpEd.

The second is that fear is seen as a facet of love. And not just a biproduct or a sadly necessary part, but something so critical that if it’s not therein sufficient quantities, people call child protective services. ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’

I think the Age of Fear and what I’m calling Constrained Love go hand in hand. When I first read the phrase the Age of Fear, it resonated because I recognize that I’m a citizen of the Age of Fear. I’m a born and bred citizen, not naturalized. It’s not something I adopted deliberately, and it’s not something with its roots in the last few years. When I first read about the Age of Fear, I thought, “well of course—9/11. This is the result of the constant threat of terrorism.” But I don’t think that’s it. I remember the roots of the Age of Fear being there when I began having thoughts of my own, back around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the Internet was being born. If anything, it should have been the beginning of a more optomistic, hopeful time. But hope with a grain of fear in it is a different animal.

I remember my dad (who spent a year in Germany in the 70s) reminding me every so often that if the Third Reich could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. I remember arguing with Vicky (my childhood best friend) about whether people are inherently good or evil. Vicky loved the optimism of Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How could she think that, after what people had done to Anne Frank? Anne and my friend both seemed naive. Whatever peace we found seemed tenuous, fragile, in need of protection from evil empires, maybe even from ourselves.

Like so many people in my age, I looked to ideology to protect me. To protect me from myself and from other people. So much of my faith and the way I interacted with life was shaped by the compulsion to acknowledge the evil at our core and to fear it.

Fear does strange things to hope, turns it into something different. It makes hope conditional. I hope that if I do things just right, I can avoid or eliminate the things I fear. I can shelter myself and my family from crisis by avoiding the mistakes of the past. We can put up a fence so high that the creeps won’t get to us. When Faith, Hope, and Love change to Fear, Hope, and Love, they all end up warped. Fear is the little bit of sand in the shoe that can drive us to take the wrong path. The leaven in the dough that I’ve seen wreak destruction in my own life.

When fear is the root, we protect ourselves from our selves and from each other. Last week I read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, who in some ways was before her time when it came to acknowledging vulnerability. She was all about recognizing our faults. It was published in 1989, when I was 10. But looking back at the book through the lens of the last 30 years, I can see the grain of fear. It’s worth quoting Pippert at length because she captures the spirit of the time in a way that I can’t do retrospectively:

“There is something truly wonderful and remarkable about us all. We have a capacity for love, an appreciation of beauty, and moments of genuine courage. But unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. We want to believe that the essential ‘us’ is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn’t let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side.

“Has it ever struck you as odd that, for all our sophistication, we modern people have a remarkably naive understanding of human nature? Living at the end of history’s most murderous century, we flatter ourselves that we are basically good people who occasionally do bad deeds. The founders of our nation were not so naive. The very political institutions they contructed for us, founded on concepts like ‘checks and balances,’ are testimony to their assumption that human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions. People with power cannot be trusted too far. History hardly indicates that our problem has changed—rather, that it is we who have developed short memories. We are struggling the the symptoms of an age-old disease, which we have lost the capacity to diagnose.”

Do you see what I see? The idea that to get to the good, we have to contain the evil? The idea that our bad selves dominate and that our main line of defense is fierce PROTECTION? I hardly mean to pick on Pippert. Honestly, I may be reading fear into it because it had such a strong mark in my own life. It was a view so pervasive that 10-year-old Amy unquestioningly and enthusiastically repeated it. It’s really subtle. So much so that it may just be me displacing my own thoughts onto what Pippert is saying. But I see the idea that the answer to this darker side of ourselves is in our institutions and our traditions. And while they certainly need to protect us, I think we (I?) leaned on them entirely too much. And I suspect this: that there is a bright and direct line between what I remember (and the subtle thing I see in Pippert) and the Age of Fear we find ourselves in 30 years later.

Think about the Late 80s. We were decades past the world wars and Vietnam. We were inches away from winning the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell the same year Pippert published that book. We had used the power of our military and our culture to dominate evil in the world. The world never seemed brighter than in the late 80s and early 90s. But I think in our victories, we were scared. Scared of one another and of ourselves. Frightened of the creeping immorality in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in ourselves. We had seen the end result of letting the evil in human hearts run rampant, and it was terrifying.

We kept looking for the seeds of evil so we could protect ourselves before the problem got dangerously big. We became proactive. Preemptive.

The news outlets built for war turned the same camera onto car accidents, kidnappings, plane crashes.

The government institutions that had helped us battle evil on an international scale were repurposed for pre-emptive war. And for war on evil within our borders—The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

I am definitely not the first person to point out this repurposing of militaristic approaches to international problem-solving. But I see another layer of it. This didn’t just happen on international and national levels. It happened in our schools, in our churches, in our homes. We looked inward, we looked deeper, we saw the darkness within and decided to make sure we were battling it preemptively. Leave no room for evil at home. Or else… or else we might become the next Nazi Germany? Or else… [insert bad thing here] might happen again.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a macro level, laws are used to govern conscience. We outlaw things like straws and suicide. We address tragedy with more laws. (How many laws are named after people who have been kidnapped or murdered?) We look for the kernel of evil and fence it in, building bigger and stronger fences every time the barrier is breached. The children are our future, we need to show them our love by making the world a safer place. World war: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

We’ve amped up our medical technology. We’ve found vaccines for any conceivable virus. We’ve honed our cancer treatments. We’ve mapped the genome. We’ve started talking realistically about eliminating death. We show our love for our ailing family members by throwing every dime we have (or don’t have) into their care. Long hospital stays and prolonged deathbed agony: Never again!

Without big wars, death on a much smaller scale terrorized us. 17 years after 9-11, we are still plugging gaps in our borders where terrorists could trickle in. Almost every large building in the country has cement barriers to prevent someone from driving an explosive-loaded car into the bottom floor. We love our country and our businesses and institutions. Terrorism: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a family level, protection becomes a weapon of love. We put up internet filters. We learn to watch for signs of child molesters in our schools, churches, and families. We hover over our kids as they wander the neighborhood, as they walk to and from school. We acknowledge (not incorrectly) that evil can go undetected, can even flourish within the confines of our homes, so we watch for it diligently. We love our children, so we must do ANYTHING we can to prevent these bad things from happening to them. Kidnappings and sexual abuse: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

And on an individual level, we protect ourselves. This I the most obvious to me in my own life. I’m constantly on the lookout for patterns of behavior that led to my divorce. I remember this paranoia hitting a fevered pitch when I spent some time speculating whether the cute guy I’d met on the trail was a homeless drug dealer. When fear reigns, every possible risk has to be accounted for or eliminated. I show my love to myself by vigilantly watching for any sign of repeating the same mistake twice. Divorce: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

Because we love, and because we have learned to express love as fear, we protect our loved ones from the evil outside and the evil within themselves. The effectiveness of my belief system (in my case, evangelical Christianity, but that is certainly not the only example) is evaluated based on its effectiveness at stopping evil, at protecting me from others and from myself.

Pippert asks, “Does God make a difference?” If I can’t answer yes to that question, there’s not much point in engaging with God. But WHY I think God makes a difference matters so much. Is it because I think it makes me safe from the evil in me and those around me? My city on a hill is a place where children are safe, where the environment is pristine and the dolphins thrive, where terrorists can’t get in because we’ve eliminated all of their entry points with giant fences. Otherwise, what good is it? It is not only my right, it is my primary, God-given responsibility as a loving person to see the sprouts of evil in myself and those around me and root it out.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.” It’s everywhere, in all of us. The statement is not untrue, but oh, what have we done with it?

Fear is like a ghost whispering in our ears at every opportunity: “‘Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.’ Never again! Protect what you love! Evil will not pass the same way twice! If you’ve learned enough from your last encounter with it, you can and must move heaven and earth to prevent its like in other places!”

Fear is sensitive, it detects the evil around me better than anything I know. It protects me and the people I love. Fear is my friend.

Or is it? What if fear cannot live alongside what may be the two most powerful weapons we have? What if fear does not leave room for hope (or it’s close cousin, resilience)? What if fear isn’t a symptom of love, but runs love out of any space it occupies?

If you’re not on board with those questions, ask yourself this: what have we gained from letting fear rule? I know my answer to that question: Not safety, not happiness, not community, not love. When we plant fear, the only yield we get is more fear.

Chips, Queso, & Sex Drive

One reader asked me to write about the male sex drive. Since I’m not male… take this with a very large grain of salt. Perhaps even a block of salt, or an entire salt mine. This is my take based on my non-scientific observations. Because you have to start somewhere… (I’m not even going to try to address gender identity or any of that. I think my brain would explode. Maybe another day.)

I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely.

The second factor in difference between male and female sex drives is the fact that boys typically discover sexual self-satisfaction earlier in their lives and more easily. It’s just… out there and easy to find. I don’t have kids, but I’ve heard from many moms of boys how young they are when they figure out self-soothing. Disappointed? Sad? Lonely? Angry? There’s a quick fix that will make you feel great for awhile even if the problem hasn’t gone away. Again, I’m not going to say that’s good or bad. Just different. What it does, though, is open an opportunity for boys to learn to use sex hormones to address problems that could be handled differently. Girls may develop a bigger toolkit for dealing with disappointment because we typically figure out that mechanism for releasing our own pleasure hormones later in life (if ever). We have to solve social-emotional problems creatively.

Here’s another food comparison. (I make so many food-sex comparisons, I’m starting to wonder if my sexual preferences are more kitchen thank kink.) I eat emotionally because it’s worked for me my whole life. Sometime in my formative years, I learned that chips and queso make me feel better, even if they’re not solving my emotional problems. Eating gives me a shortcut to achieving my end goal of feeling better, even if it doesn’t last. It’s not the best, but it’s effective enough that I keep doing it (and I probably will until I find a more powerful alternative). I learned to do that from a very young age—it’s deeply engrained in my habits and very hard to overcome. You may laugh when I say that I NEED chips and queso, but it sure feels that way sometimes.

This is controversial, but based on my own experience I’m going to say that sex isn’t a critical need. We can live without it. People do it all the time. I’ve spent most of my thirties celibate, the majority of that time out of a choice to be faithful rather than a choice to be celibate. That was hard. I remember describing myself as a starving animal at one point. I wouldn’t have chosen the sexless years of my marriage, but I grew through them. I grew even more by keeping a celibate lifestyle by choice later on. Personal growth is not what happens when you are deprived of something you need. If you’re deprived of something you need, you don’t become a more complete person, you eventually go crazy or you die. Was it right for my ex-husband to deprive me of sex for years? No. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was ok.

Celibacy isn’t some magic that you either have or you don’t—it’s an acquired skill. I think sex feels like an urgent biological need because we’re using it to biochemically patch deficiencies in the things we DO need to survive, like love and help and relationship. That’s why, even if we’re getting sex, it can feel like a compulsion. The more sex I have and the less emotional connection, the more I’m going to feel like I need sex, regardless of how much sex I’m actually getting.

So you have a society that’s relationally starved, you have boys growing up with one powerful tool for self-soothing that is well-developed and other tools underdeveloped. Throw in porn, and discovering sex at a time when we’re just learning to function socially as adults, and it’s easy to see how sex can become a panacea for problems it may not actually be the best tool to solve. I’d be sex-crazed too if I thought it was the only way I could fill certain needs. Oh wait, I have been.

I think we (men and women) sometimes use sex as a patch for relational problems. My thought is that there may be reasons men seem to lean more heavily on it. It’s powerfully effective temporarily. So is cocaine, for that matter. But when the hormones wear off, the problem is still there. I don’t think that’s what sex is meant for. (Or, not the ONLY or even primary thing it’s meant for.) Like emotional eating, it’s incredibly painful to remove it unless it’s already been replaced with something else that will fill the same need. Don’t take away my chips and queso if I have no other way to feel better after a crummy day at work. Don’t take away sex if when it’s gone I find myself desperately, irremediably alone.

Waking Desire (Part 6): Love

This is the final (!) episode of a six-part story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire. (The posts in the story are listed from newest to oldest. I’m working on fixing that when I have patience to wrestle with WordPress.)

Also, I’m still working on my sexier posts. Right now I’m reading a book about polyamory. Intrigued??! Check back soon… In the meantime, let’s get back to Emmy and her trail Viking. This post is long enough to split into several more episodes, but I won’t make you suffer through that. 😉 Thanks for following!

Bryson would be leaving soon for some kind of orchard conference “outside.” (That’s how Alaskans refer to places that aren’t Alaska.) He’d be visiting his own farm and planting thousands of trees. It had been six weeks and they’d still only ever gone on walks. And in spite of very romantic things he said to her–like when she slipped on the ice, and he said “next time, fall toward me. That’s what I’m here for.” Or all of the lovely compliments he paid her–he’d never so much as tried to hold her hand. Maybe he was shy, but that didn’t seem right.

He left the state. He texted, but, oddly enough, only during the day. I won’t go into details, but Emmy knew enough at this point about men juggling more than one relationship to know that was a bad sign. She waited until he got back to Anchorage. It wasn’t a good day. Her car had been t-boned with her in it. She was sore, she was cranky. His text popped up, “Hey, how about a walk?”

“You have a girlfriend outside?” She was done waiting.

“Yes I do… What makes you inquire?”

“Needed to test a hunch.”

“No worries. I was trying to find a way to tell you. Sorry.”

Emmy was livid. That is not a detail you accidentally leave out of hours of conversation over weeks of time. She was mad at Bryson, but she was even more mad at God. God had lulled her into admitting desires on her heart that she’d been pretty content keeping hidden. He’d poked and prodded them to life again only to completely decimate them. Jerk.

Emmy was mad at God for weeks. Months, actually. Much longer than her time with Bryson had actually lasted. She still kept talking to Him, fists clenched, jaw tight. (God, not Bryson. That was O-V-E-R.) A friend pointed out that God doesn’t as us to unclench our hands to leave them empty, but so that He can fill them. Let go to receive, not to lose. She knew it was true but she didn’t want to buy into it. It felt too painful.

Gradually, the memories and her anger with God faded without being resolved. A year passed–a year that no one could deny was epic, even Emmy. Travel, amazing times with friends, unearthing new talents, reshaping her career… A lot of those things had even been spurred on by inspiration and encouragement from two of they guys she’d dated. Still, Emmy occasionally thought back to Bryson, wondering what he was up to. She never saw him, even in the big small town of Anchorage. Maybe he’d moved back to his orchard and his girlfriend. For some reason, she decided the story belonged in a blog about God breaking through to the small details of our lives, in a series about sex and relationships…

At this point, dear reader, I am going to shift to the present. I’m sure you’re shocked to learn at this point that Emmy is me. 😉 I never really knew what to make of this story. When I started writing it, I thought I was going to conclude it with a big question mark. I honestly don’t even know why I started. I guess I like to write about God moments, and there were a lot of them in this story. Maybe I thought it would help me figure out what to make of God’s seemingly contradictory, capricious behavior.

And then as I started writing, “Bryson” started showing up in my life again. That was weird. I really didn’t know what to do with it, but there was no way I could let go of the series of coincidences. Once would be one thing, but several times in one week… While I was writing about him… Exactly a year after we last talked… It was just too much. We met for coffee. Twice. He still has a girlfriend. The brief spark of “maybe he’s changed and now is our time–maybe God is making good on his ‘hold my beer’ moment” was extinguished pretty quickly. That wasn’t too surprising. What was surprising was that 2018 Amy has no interest in the guy. None.

Seeing him sitting in front of me raised the hair on my neck, but when we met for coffee… nothing. I wouldn’t be interested even if he didn’t have a girlfriend. Even if he hadn’t been the kind of guy to carry on an extended flirtation while hiding the truth about his availability. He’s cute, he’s funny, he’s smart, he’s interesting. I like where he’s headed if he chooses to follow the hard and beautiful course of his life. But I know myself a whole lot better than I did a year ago. I think I have a ways to go before I feel confident I know what I’m looking for in a partner, but I’m more confident in who I am every day. I can’t think of a better foundation than that. And I know enough now to know he’s not for me.

Talking to him again has been like putting bookends on the last year of my life. It has given me a chance to look 2017 Amy square in the eye. I don’t think I would have done that as honestly if my trail Viking hadn’t shown up in my life again. I’d have written this story and felt a little sad, and that would have been the end of it.

So, after all that, what do I make of all of those God moments, the beautiful signs written across this story? (Or, for that matter, the fact that they seemed to shift meaning over the course of weeks?) I’ll try not to make generalities about how God uses signs or why. I’ve been humbled enough by this not to venture there. But what I do know about Him is that He likes to be on the journey with me. (There’s a reason they’re called “signs”, not “arrival depots.”) He rarely offers easy answers. In my past experience, when His answers do come, they are far more breathtaking than the easy ones would have been. I think, given the choice, I’ve seen enough to know that I actually prefer the hard road when it’s the one God has laid out.

I’ve realized that 2018 Amy wouldn’t WANT to have a relationship just dropped in her lap like that. I want to build and hone my wish list with God. I want to grow and stretch into something and come alongside someone who is doing the same. Even if God did do easy answers, 2018 Amy would tell Him “no thanks.”

I’m learning that, for me, the exhilarating life of faith isn’t a passive one spent quietly submitting to the will of God (no matter how beautiful or how difficult). Faith pairs well with strong desires. Faith is bold. Faith takes action. Faith just doesn’t know what the outcome is going to be, and so it is willing to hold the methods for getting there loosely even while pursuing them passionately. When God does drop hints, they are typically more along the lines of encouraging me to boldly go into the unknown than telling me what is actually going on. It’s like driving a powerful car with great fuel in it, destination unknown (to me). God doesn’t usually work in my passive hoping, He works with me, through me, as I act on it. Hope and action: both are required.

I’ll leave you with my paraphrase of I Corinthians 13:8-13: Prophecies, signs, and wonders are just flashes in time of the glory of a timeless, infinite God. You think that you get it, you feel like you know, but knowledge is ephemeral. As beautiful as they are, these moments are echoes on the wind, a shifting reflection that disappears if you look directly at it. I used to cling to those, like a child. (Okay, I still do.) But, I’m learning to look forward to the day when I will know and be known in the unflinching light of eternity. So, where does that leave me? Faith has me hoping for things without knowing how I will get them. Hope has me holding onto desire, even when my own lack of control of the outcome makes desire feel like a hot coal in my hands. And love, the greatest thing… Well, what are faith and hope without a God of love who knows what I need before I ask Him, without love for and from others to fuel my engine?

Waking Desire (Part 4): Wonder as We Wander

A note before I dig into my story again… The events in this story were a year ago. (Almost exactly a year ago, as it turns out, although that was not deliberate. Sometimes I’m a little in awe of the power of my subconscious.) I saw “Bryson” once during that year. Once, until I started blogging about him. Then he sat in the row in front of me at a show. I saw him on the street afterward. I ran into him again at a movie theatre last night, again in the row in front of me. As soon as I finish this blog post, I’m meeting him for coffee, one year and one day after our last walk. Weird coincidences. I hope you’re enjoying the show, dear reader… For what it’s worth, I composed this blog post yesterday, before I knew we were getting coffee.

(This is part four of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy had been learning not to believe in coincidences. This particular confluence of circumstances–God speaking, other people’s stories, a sexy viking on her favorite trail–was impossible to ignore. Was it really possible that, after writing about walking a relationship path with God before you walk it with someone else, she’d met someone on the bike trail where she liked to talk to God? There was a poetry to that too beautiful NOT to be true. Animated and a bit dazed, she told her friends at the party about Bike Trail Bryson. Most of them thought it was a lovely story, but one friend’s response stuck in her head, “That just doesn’t happen. Are you sure he’s single?” She didn’t know, but she felt certain. With all of those signs, how could he not be?

Bryson texted the next day inviting her on a walk. “Meet me by the Narnia light?” She knew exactly where he meant–the surprising street light in the middle of the wooded trail, the one that shed a small and welcoming pool of light onto the snow in the middle of the wooded darkness. Whenever she encountered it, she half expected to hear the foxes that haunted the trail begin to speak English to her. She’d called it the Narnia light to herself for months.

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” C.S. Lewis

He texted again two days after that. Before long, they were spending most evenings pacing the several miles of wooded trail by their homes (he lived about half a mile away). She learned that he was an engineer by day, but while he was furloughed during a recent layoff, he’d gone down to Washington and started an orchard on some property he owned. He’d selected trees that would last a century or more. And some exotic trees… did Emmy know that farmers had grown tropical fruit high in the Swiss Alps?

He called her Sunshine. Sometimes he greeted her with a wolf whistle, sometimes with the Norwegian word for “hello” and a nod to his beardless Viking hat.

He loved all trees. He told her the story of the trees on their trail and how they’d come to grow in Alaska. There was a birch that had split, its top half bent and hanging from the base by a thread. After days of grumbling about the city’s neglect of tree maintenance every time they passed it, he brought his own hatchet on their walk. Jacket off, muscles taut, he hacked the last bit of connecting fiber away. It wasn’t that warm out, but when he didn’t put his coat back on, Emmy didn’t complain. If he wanted her to watch his manly hands turn blue from showing off, she was happy to.

The summer before, when Emmy complained about the dating pool in Anchorage, a friend had reassured her that someday she’d find an intellectual lumberjack. It was only a matter of time and patience. It appeared the friend was spot on with his metaphor.

The moments on the trail were magical, even though Emmy wasn’t much for trees and orchards. She could converse intelligently with anyone about almost anything, and talking with men about things they have a deep passion for is always interesting. But it wasn’t just a deep personal connection, or even his beard and sparkling eyes that captivated Emmy. What really enchanted her were the God moments that jumped out when they were together and the fact that Bryson seemed to be seeing them, too, at least at first.

She felt a little crazy when she told people stories like how God had given her red boots, but the fact was she didn’t really care if she was crazy. She would talk to anyone who would listen about what God did in her life. She told Bryson about hearing God speak to her on the trail they walked, about the beautiful and loving things He said to her there. A few moments later, as they were passing the precise point on the trail where God had told her He had made her part of a new family (a story she hadn’t shared), Bryson stopped. “Did you hear that, Emmy?”

“Hear what…? No, I guess not.”

“There it is again!”

“Still didn’t hear anything.”

“The splashing?” (The creek alongside the trail was frozen)

“No.”

“Huh. Maybe I’m beginning to hear God on the trail the way you do.”

Silence. They turned around.

Flowers in the snowOn their way back, they noticed something they’d been too engrossed in conversation to see before: someone had stuck fresh flowers in the snow with handwritten quotes and poems hanging from the stems. They were an odd and beautiful sight, these frozen reminders of a season of warmth. Bryson and Emmy stopped to read the signs. The significance of one in particular stood out to Emmy. She took a photo:

To feel God brush against her soul, and to share the experience with someone in the moment was something unprecedented in Emmy’s romantic relationships. Was this even possible? Her relationship with God and her conversations with Him were deeply personal. It was like the inner dialogue we all have with ourselves, except with another person inside the echoing space of her head. Was it possible that the ineffable beauty of God in her life was something the two of them could share with a third person? That would be something. She said goodbye to Bryson on the trail with a sense of awe and wonder.

Waking Desire (Part 3): Truth & Beauty

(This is part 3 of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy decided to tell her friend (and herself) the truth. She described the dreams. She spoke up about her real desires, the ones she’d kept hidden so long, even from herself. This was the first time she would speak her desires to a friend, her longing to be married again, to have kids. It was terrifying. And powerful. And (she had to admit) liberating.

The next morning, Emmy helped out with the kids at church. The lesson was on Abraham and Sarah having their only child Isaac when she was 90 and he was 100 years old. (Of course.)

Emmy walked the bike trail together with God after church. It was a bluebird Alaskan day, when the snow is still on the ground but the color of the sun has begun its shift from cold blue to warmer golds and yellows. Snow sifted from the trees, catching the sun in glittering clouds around her. This is beautiful, God. Thank you.

What I enjoy most, my love, is you enjoying it.

Contented silence, then…Okay, God. I get it. What you did for Abraham and Sarah, you can certainly do it for me. I trust you. But, um… kids? I need a man. In reality, that was the form desire usually took for her. This time it was a bit turned around.

God responded, but the things He said to Emmy weren’t always in words. The best I can think to put words on this particular expression is something along the lines of “Hold my beer.”

Emmy rounded a corner of the trail and there, walking confidently toward her, was a man. He was wearing silly crocheted hat made to look like a viking helmet and a smile that openly welcomed the day. They got closer, and Emmy saw sharp, laughing blue eyes and a blonde beard that any Alaskan man would be proud of.

Their paths finally crossed. “I like your hat.”

“Thanks.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Beardhats.com. It came with an attachable beard… I lost it.” His voice. It was even better than his eyes and hat and beard. He spoke like it was a song.

“You lost it? Where? Is it hiding in your actual beard?”

They both laughed and stared at each other a minute as her dog began to bark her fool head off. Emmy apologized for the noise, the spell broke, and they both moved on.

Emmy’s head buzzed. What was up with that? She hadn’t believed in that kind of thing. Romance was silly (and vulnerable). Attraction that strong in a short conversation was ridiculous. She must have been out in the cold too long.

They were both circling a pond in opposite directions, and she could see him as she continued her walk. He seemed to be seeing her, too, but it was not a small pond and it was hard to tell for sure. They walked a bit until they met again. This time, they stopped and talked over the dog barking. The dog gave up after 20 minutes or so, her vigilance ignored, and they kept talking. For an hour.

“Let’s do this again.”

“Yes, let’s.”

“What’s your number?…” Number given. “Okay, you’re in my phone as Emmy Trail.”

“And you’re Bike Trail Bryson.”

He texted when he got home, “That was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.”

“Yes, it was. :)”

Emmy went to a Super Bowl party later that day, where she learned that another friend her age was expecting her first baby. Seriously, God? You really like to drive a point home sometimes…

Emmy had been learning not to believe in coincidences. This particular confluence of circumstances–God speaking, other people’s stories, a sexy viking on the trail–was impossible to ignore. Was it really possible that, after writing about walking a relationship path with God before you walk it with someone else, she’d met someone on the bike trail where she liked to talk to God? There was a poetry to that too beautiful NOT to be true. Animated and a bit dazed, she told her friends at the party about Bike Trail Bryson. Most of them thought it was a lovely story, but one friend’s response stuck in her head, “That just doesn’t happen. Are you sure he’s single?” She didn’t know, but she felt certain. With all of those signs, how could he not be?

(To be continued…)

Waking Desire (Part 1): Cake Day

We Christians love to talk about how God is a God who gives good things, who is a God of order, who comforts us… all of these are true. But sometimes I forget that one thing He is NOT is predictable. He likes to surprise us. And man, oh man, when I really want something, being surprised SUCKS. To be more accurate, when I really want something, waiting sucks. He likes to remind me that I want something, then invites me to sit in anticipation of Him meeting that desire without having any idea how or when He’s going to do it.

Frankly, it mostly pisses me off. Imagine Mom coming home from the grocery store with an amazing cake. Teenage me has sworn off cake because I think it’s bad for me, and Mom is like, “Hey, I brought home your FAVORITE cake. Remember how much you love it?” Then she waves it in front of my face and reminds me of all of the things I love about that cake until I’m ready to eat it right now. “Oh, no, that cake is for later.” What?? When later?? “Oh, just… later.” And I’m stuck looking at and wanting that damn cake every time I walk through the kitchen.

That’s God in my life. A lot. It’s something I’m learning to enjoy about Him (when I can let go of the fear that He’s not going to meet my needs and desires), but I admit I mostly find it annoying. Think I’m wrong? Let me tell you a romantic little story.

Once upon a time there was this woman. We’ll call her Emmy. (I assure you, any resemblance to my name Amy is completely coincidental.) Emmy was learning to enjoy the heck out of a celibate life. She was getting to know God. She was learning to have better, more fulfilling friendships. She was discovering things about herself she didn’t know before. It was a beautiful time–a time she walked closely with God, figuratively and literally. She and God took long walks together on the bike trail behind her house. They had special spots on the trail where He had whispered loving things in her ear. Things like, “I knew you would be here when I put this creek here,” and “I’ve made you part of a new family.”

Emmy was happy and content. She’d seen so many of her needs for love and intimacy being met in unexpectedly platonic ways. She had victory over that irresistible craving for intimacy that had driven her to sex with the nearest attractive guys she could lay her hands on. Maybe sex just wasn’t for her. She could handle it. Mostly. She began to forget that she’d asked God for a husband and a family. After all, she was within spitting distance of forty. She’d never wanted to be one of those woman who freak out because her biological clock is ticking. Contentment was safe. Being content made it easy to forget that her deep desire for specific intimacy might still be there. She only knew two ways to handle desire: 100% containment, or unleashing the beast. Taming it wasn’t her area of expertise.

There were occasional prods, pokes that woke desire, caused it to stick its nose out of its hibernation cave. Uninvited moments that delighted her but also left her feeling a bit like she’d been ambushed. There was the memorable week when she finally connected with a neighbor the day before he was supposed to move out of town. They went for drinks after he’d found her lost dog, and they closed down the bar talking. He extended his stay day by day as they made a tour of Anchorage restaurants and bars, talking late into the night like they’d known each other for years. Then it began to snow. The threat of icy roads on the trip south finally drove him away, leaving her with ghost traces of his kiss and the pressure of his hand on her back. It was just as well. A pasture fenced by time (not heartbreak) was a safe place for desire to come out and play.

There were moments like that, glimmers, really, when circumstances pushed desire out into the light. Emmy didn’t seek them out, but she didn’t fight them. Then came a weekend–she joked to her friends that it was “fertility weekend”. It also happened to be the weekend of the Super Bowl. There came a weekend when desire was pushed out into the open, naked and blinking. It started with a friend’s baby shower on Saturday. This friend was Emmy’s age, and pregnant with her first child. Emmy had avoided baby showers for awhile–the reminder that her ex had never been ready for kids was just too painful. But she was past that now, and she went happily, the token single friend with a gift of wine to save for after the baby was born.

There was, however, something a little different this time. You see, Emmy had been having dreams. Strange dreams about houses that stretch and grow. (To be continued…)