The experience of joining 8,000 other women in worship is hard to describe. As we faced jumbotron screens and lifted our arms in praise, the drumbeat buzzing in our chests, many of my fellow sisters glowed with exuberance. I should have shared in their joy. But with shaking hands, in those first minutes I scrawled the following into the margin of my notebook: Conferences are just not for me.
Perhaps it was the purple lights that flooded the room, or the thundering speakers. Maybe it was the sweltering heat and humidity that swathed Indianapolis. At least in part, my chagrin arose from the poverty and despair that dotted the perimeter of the conference center, from how wrong it seemed that the homeless, hungry, and forgotten lingered while we professed our faith in an air-conditioned hall. I felt my knees buckle beneath the helplessness I felt, the same overwhelm that swamped me during my first code as a medical student. I had cowered in a corner, wanting to help but not knowing how, struggling not to weep as my resident pounded on a woman’s chest, her vacant eyes fixed on the ceiling. The scene was sickening, our powerlessness dreadful.
Whatever the influence of these factors, on the first day of TGCW18 I wanted to ship my twitching, introverted self back to Boston. I thought I’d made a huge mistake.
Thanks be to God, that opinion would change.
I was in a dark place when I boarded the plane for Indiana. Pip, who has made such brilliant progress with therapy, backslid after a busy month. Hurtful realities from my past resurfaced, tearing old wounds open. Questions of identity nagged me. I found myself ruminating myself into despondency: “You’re not worthy of love. You’re a waste. You’re a failure. What’s the point of life anyway? Does God really love you?” I had not sunk into the familiar darkness of depression, but its shadows crept toward me daily.
When I mentioned my struggles to my husband, he replied matter-of-factly, “It sounds like the adversary is attacking you.” The wisdom of his statement stunned me into silence.
When I first stepped into the cacophony of 8,000 worshipers, the adversary was winning. I felt like I was suffocating. I’d come in response to an invitation to a workshop, and to attend meetings related to my book. After those first moments of booming drum and purple glare, I decided to skip the speeches, and in between required meetings hide out in the narrow confines of my hotel room.
Then, on my retreat back to that hotel room, one of those suffering on the streets caught my eye. She sat on the curb with her head bowed. Her cardboard sign announced that she was pregnant and hungry, and closed with the words, “God bless.”
With a surge of heartache, I bought her some food and the biggest milkshake I had ever seen. I wanted to repair the lives of everyone on those streets, to mend their hearts, to build them homes. The need for a savior was so stark. I could not save them; at least I could offer an outrageous milkshake.
We sat together on the pavement, with the sunlight glittering in her green eyes. She spoke of the domestic violence she had endured, her urgency to escape. She spoke about the hopes for the child still blossoming in her womb. She spoke of the shelter she hoped would admit her the next day.
Then she said this: “All I can do is trust God. He knows me and loves me. I just have to wait on him.”
Tears welled in my eyes. We embraced, and her arms somehow felt familiar. As I pulled away and gave her hand a last squeeze, an ache flooded me. I strove to bless someone hurting; she had ministered to me instead.
I didn’t return to my hotel room, but instead went back to the thick crowd of worshipers. I sought out the Word. Or more appropriately, through a stranger on the street, God sought me. As he always does.
I listened with a renewed mind to some of the country’s most gifted pastors and theologians unpack the Book of Deuteronomy. They carried us to the wilderness, to God’s people waiting on the threshold of the promised land. They recounted Moses’ last words as he inched toward death. They splayed wide for us the full breadth of God’s steadfast love, and affirmed that to know God, and to follow him, is to love him with heart, mind, soul, and strength. To treasure him above all else. To know that he is worth it.
Phrases from the steady procession of wisdom nestled within my heart, and bloomed:
Krista Anyabwile: “He’s worth it.”
On Deut 6:6-9 “This passage is talking about infusing love for God throughout the regular rhythms of our lives.”
Don Carson: (Oh, so many) “Any failure to observe the Great Commandment embroils us not in mere coldness of heart, but actually involves us in idolatry. Not to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength presupposes that there are other things that are pulling our devotion, pulling our affection, pulling our hearts.”
“It’s unwise to write books to be remembered. You can spend so much time cultivating a heritage that you’re not honoring or faithful in ministry.”
“As our love for God grows, obedience is the entailment.”
Jen Wilkin: “The right question is not, ‘what is God’s will for me?’ but rather, ‘who does God want me to be?'”
Bethany Jenkins: “The passion mindset in choosing a vocation is faulty. The heart is deceptive; even when we want the right thing, it is often for the wrong reasons. Instead, our approach should be through a discipleship mindset.”
John Piper: (again so many; on Deut 29) “Every human being is deaf, blind, hard, and unable to love God because of the hardness within them.”
“Fallen people are capable of great sacrifices, but not out of love for God.”
“‘To this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear.’ And until that massive, foundational, all-pervasive truth sinks into the core of your being, you will not begin to fathom, or enjoy, or spread what it means to be saved, because you will have no idea the condition you were saved from.”
“Do you have any idea how deaf, and blind, and hard you were?”
“Moses makes plain that the aim of this covenant relationship is that the people grasp with their heart and their eyes and their ears, ‘God is their God, and we are his people,’ and that nothing is to be desired more than that relationship.”
As I boarded my plane back home, the message that resounded was: Goodness flows only from an utter and complete love for God. And that we can even enter into such a relationship with God is manifest grace, through Christ.
He is worth it. He is our treasure.
And so I reunited with my family, my endlessly laboring husband, my kids, beautiful and challenging. And I prayed, I love you O Lord, my strength. (Ps 18:1)
I remembered my past, its dark hollows, the hurt unresolved, and considered how it has refined me, molded me for his work. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps 18:2)
I considered the my years in medicine, the sterile corridors and their stories, the suffering and the awe, and therein too, could see God’s handiwork, and his grace. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. (Ps 136:1)
I embraced the unexpected joys with which he’s graced me, the freedom to delight in books with my children, the inspiration to write of things past and present, the opportunity to meld thoughts and experiences for the good of his people. He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful. (Ps 111:4)
And the usual disappointments and calamities of fallen life resumed. The day after I returned, during an attempt to share a backyard breakfast with the kids, I locked ourselves out of the house. I pried open a screen with an oatmeal-smeared spoon, and pitched headlong through the window like a sack of potatoes down a garbage chute, with my kids laughing hysterically at my feet flailing in the air. Two days later, the toilet broke. So did my phone. Attempts to prepare food for those I loved turned out burnt and congealed. People fell sick. People said hurtful things. I said hurtful things. I lost my patience.
But after each moment, I returned to the most important question, the only question, the one about which Moses warned his people so many thousands of years ago in the desert through the Great Commandment: Whom do you treasure?
Do I treasure my efficiency more than God?
Do I treasure my gadgetry more than God? My home?
Do I treasure my time? My schedule? My accomplishments?
Or do I treasure God?
In all, do I fight against the goads, or do I say, “Lord, you are sovereign even over this”? Do I say, “Lord, I love you with all heart and soul and mind and strength?” And then, as fruit of that great command, proceed to love my neighbor as myself? To bake and break bread? To open our home to the sojourner, and the orphan, and the widow?
Our door is open. The bread rises in the oven. The screen, although bent, is back in the window.
On dirtied streets, in a conference hall, in a backyard, in a broken world, the Lord God is our treasure. Because from the beginning, he has treasured us first.