James 1:2-4

Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journeyand cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing. James 1:2-4D

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Dark Night and How It Has Transformed Me

Wow!  It's hard to believe it's been six months since I've entered anything into this blog.  Believe me it's not for want that I haven't.  It is really because I was in a very deep place which required me to withdraw from pretty much everyone and everything that I used to define myself by.  I really was in quite a dark night for a long time and the last few months have begun to signal the end of that dark night.  Thank goodness!!

Another reason I haven't written is because I heard very clearly from God that I was not to write  another word publicly until he did two things.  First: remove me from the dark night and second: I was not to begin writing again until I had begun healing from the pain of the dark night.  (I wasn't really moving along very quickly through that part!)

Have you ever experienced a dark night of the soul?  Wikipedia defines it this way:  a dark night of the soul is a metaphor used to describe a phase in a person's spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation. It is mentioned by spiritual traditions throughout the world, but in particular by Christianity.

When I was a little girl I was afraid of the dark, like a lot of little kids, and honestly I have to say I very much feared having a spiritual dark night as well.  I felt if I allowed myself to go into the dark night that I would not be able to survive it.  That it would crush me and kill me and I would fall apart completely.  So I fought hard to stay away from the darkness but eventually it overcame me and I was forced into it, quite frankly because of extreme burn out.

My journey through the dark night lasted a little over a year and honestly, there were times when I should of been hospitalized and but I told few how bad I felt.  No matter how hard I tried I could no longer see life as anything but this miserable drain on me.  I was mad at God and felt more alone then I had ever felt in my life.  It was knowing my kids needed me that seemed to give me the strength each day to keep going on.  I've known many people who were hospitalized during these dark nights, so hopefully that will give you an idea of how bad you feel spiritually, mentally and physically in a dark night of the soul.  The darkness was a scary place but something that was so necessary to help put me back on the path God has for my life.

I believe that God has ordained each and everyone of us with a purpose and a plan, and that we already have that plan imprinted in our souls.   Somehow, along life's many roads we can lose sight of who we really are and we begin to start designing our own plan.  Our body, soul and spirit become disconnected and we lose the ability to connect to God.  In my case,  I knew he was there but I felt so deeply estranged from Him.

A key issue that emerged in my dark night was an awareness of deep insecurities and a very poorly defined sense of self-worth that was created as a young girl.  I learned that I was trying to fix these  deep insecurities by becoming the kind of person I thought everyone else wanted me to be.  I believed that people wouldn't like me if they really knew who I was.  So I began to mask my true self, take on belief systems different from my own, and worst of all I demanded that my family be who I wanted them to be, rather then who God created them to be.

In the words of Dr. Phil, so how was that working for you?  Not so well!  For so long, I was out of touch with myself even though living like this left me unhappy and miserable.  I was a zombie at work, mindlessly going through the motions of my job, then I would go home at night and zone out on TV and eat junk food to try to numb the pain.  My husband and my kids were miserable also trying to live with the very high expectations I had put on myself and others.  Our lives were completely out of balance and very chaotic most days.  However, I just held that false belief that if I could just fix everything, create the perfect me and the perfect family, everything would be okay. What a pipe dream!  I just didn't see it at the time.  Despite a deep unhappiness, weight gain, job burnout, and almost a complete loss of my faith, I continued to pursue this facade of a life.  Eventually my fantasy life began to unravel, I was thrust into my dark night.

Have you ever tried to find your way down a country road on a dark night?  It's so scary, you literally lose sight of where you are going, you become disorientated, you wish desperately for some light.  My spiritual dark night felt like this to me.  I was so disorientated, God had removed the facade I was hiding behind, the masks I was wearing.  I was lost without them, I really struggled and stumbled for a long time.  It was hard to understand how I could have gotten so lost in my own life.  I needed to learn how to let Him be my guiding light and not follow the light of others and most of all my own falsely created one.  During this time I learned very early on that God was about to change everything in my life, EVERYTHING!

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

The first thing to go was my job. I had been pursuing a career as a pastor. I initially left on a four month sabbatical, but deep down inside I knew I was not to return to ministry.  In time I had to face the truth that my husband never wanted me to be a pastor and had only agreed to keep me happy.  So for five years we sat before a credentialing board of my peers, pretending that we were happy and that he was supportive of everything I was trying to accomplish.  The truth was I knew all along that he wasn't supportive at all.  However, I lied to myself that he was on board, after all becoming a pastor was part of my plan for what my perfect life would look like.  It was so painful to have this part of my life stripped away and I was forced to look at whether I was ever called in the first place.  It's taken me over a year and a half to admit to myself that the only thing God ever agreed to was me going to Bible school, He never called me to become a pastor.

I lost my marriage and my husband.  The false marriage anyway that I had created and wanted everyone else to believe I had.  The truth was that my husband and I had completely grown apart in the five years I was "pursuing ministry."  We were barely talking to one another and didn't even sleep in the same bed anymore.  The man I had married and had planned to "grow old with" was now honestly professing that he was no longer in love with me and that he hadn't been for years.  Oh what a painful truth this was, but I also knew it and had pretended it wasn't so for many, many years.

I lost my health.  In the beginning of this journey I was not getting it.  I really was quite certain in my mind anyway, that I was just on "sabbatical" for a few months but that I would return to work at the church eventually.  In fact, I did make an attempt to go back to work in the church, not as a pastor (to honor my husband) but none the less back into "the work of the church".  The moment I accepted the offer of employment I knew it was not what God wanted.  I sat in my car and cried and then the next day I went back and told them I would not be returning.  I was beginning to see that God was in control not me, but I really was still trying to do things my old way.

By this time, I had already been off work for six months, but I had not really taken a whole lot of time to repair my very damaged relationship with God.   A friend of mine, keep saying: "Seek God's face Laura."  And I keep thinking, "Ya, ya whatever that means!!"   I had no idea.  My relationship to Him was in the same sort of disrepair as my marriage and God and I were like strangers.  I was willing to do whatever it would take to make things better with my family, but honestly I was pretty mad at God and not really wanting to "seek His face" most days.

It took the loss of my mobility, literally my ability to walk to get me to a place where I would draw near to Him. I completely tore my ACL ligament in my knee, and I would need surgery which wasn't going to happen for almost a year.  I was devastated angry and cried out to God why, why this?  In addition to being very immobile, and in a lot of pain, I had to completely stop everything.  I couldn't even take care of my kids, the one thing that was still giving me my purpose to wake up each day.  I had to rely on my sister and my best friend to take care of me.  How painful it was to realize that my husband was not there for me anymore, he was angry and wanted very little to do with me and was also suffering from his own bout of depression which would later be revealed to me.   At this point, I was flat on my back and literally forced to spend time "seeking God's face."

While I waited for my surgery, God in his gracious mercy healed me enough that I could eventually find the strength to function even with a gimped leg, the pain decreased and eventually I found the strength to advocate to my family doctor for an earlier surgery time.  Okay, I admit it!  I went in and cried like a baby, but you know it worked and I got my surgery way earlier then scheduled.  Of course once the surgery was done, I was back to the complete state of having to rely on others for help and forced once again into more deep healing times with God.  By now I was beginning to crave those times with Him and our relationship had healed a lot.  My husband also seemed to cope a little better this time having to take over my duties, although our relationship was still very fractured and he really had a hard time being there for me.

I lost my so-called support system.  In the darkness I realized I was alone, that I really didn't have many true friends.  Most of "my friends" were people I had done ministry with, or people I knew from church (kind of like acquaintances).  Some were pastors and some lay people, but for the most part the only thing we had in common was the church.  They didn't know me and I didn't know them.  This was a very hard reality for me to accept.  I felt very hurt and very abandoned.  I could only count a few people on one hand who were still a close part of my life, and had any idea the journey I was on.

Admittedly, there were a few people who tried to reach out, but I didn't really consider them "my safe" people and at one point I was so deeply depressed and honestly not so sure if their intentions were pure, that I repelled at the thought of trying to explain to someone what I was experiencing.  My hurt manifested in the darkness and I begin to feel nothing but anger and disappointment towards the people that I had once relied on for my support.  That's when the unthinkable, at least to me at the time happened.

God asked me to stop attending church completely.  If you knew me at this time you would realize how difficult this request was for me to obey.  The church was my whole life and I spent a lot of time there.  My self worth was very much tied to how and what people of this church thought of me.  I was already feeling so disconnected from God and from the church that the last thing I wanted was to stop going there.  The ache during this time was incredible, kind of what it feels like when you are addicted to something.  I am such an extroverted person and I craved the fellowship of the church even if I no longer felt "safe" there.  I cried many weeks and I was very depressed.

Eventually, I began to experience a complete freedom and a loss from guilt.  I realized that you do not need to go to church to be in a meaningful relationship with God.  This differed from what I had been taught by the church.  After all the Bible says, to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, right?  Yes, and I still think it is important, but by the time I stopped attending I was only going out of obligation to this belief system.  Even though God himself was telling me not to go, I would still go and not feel connected to God or the people and I would leave feeling angry every Sunday.

When I finally listened to God and stopped going, I realized a few things.  First, and most importantly that I was practicing religion and not spirituality.  He showed me that I did not have my own understanding of Him according to who I am in Christ.  I had based my whole belief system on what I had been taught and was not really questioning if it lined up with who I really was and what I believed.  I began to see that I no longer had a "personal relationship" with God. I was not walking out an authentic faith, according to the truth of who and what I was created to be.

"How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He's the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. "Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) "He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we're a free people--free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free"He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth. "It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone. "It's in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free--signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what's coming, a reminder that we'll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life." Ephesians 1:1-13 MSG     AMEN!!

I realized I had based my worth on what I thought the church wanted me and my family to be, according to what was being taught.  I learned that I was trying to be something I was not, just so people would approve, so I could fit in and feel like I belonged.  I had issues with some of their core values and their theology but I ignored this as well, and obeyed and did what was asked of me, especially once I became a pastor.   The ironic thing is, no matter what anyone said or did, or how they treated me good or bad, I never felt I belonged there, this was probably why!  I didn't belong there, in the true sense of the word!

I've also come to realize that I had hidden resentment and negative feelings towards many of the people who were my brothers and sisters in the church, and who I loved.  My feelings of resentment existed because I was faking it and trying to be someone I wasn't, (which of course no one knew) but this left me feeling really inadequate, and always a little annoyed that I couldn't just be myself and had to wear a mask.  I felt negative because others seemed to have little issue living this belief system, especially those raised with it.  I was so out of touch with who I was, I had no idea why I felt this way.  I thought it was because of my low self-worth (which it partly was) but mostly I believed I just had a negative spirit, of which I asked God all the time to take from me.

Probably the biggest truth I realized in this part of the journey was that it does not does not matter what anyone did or didn't do to me, or what they did or didn't think of me, you cannot define your sense of self-worth on what others think of you.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how many friends you have, no matter how successful you are - YOU ARE WORTHY BECAUSE YOU ARE WERE CALLED INTO BEING!  Psalm 139:13-16 says we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and all the days of our lives were written in God’s book before we were ever born, confirming God’s prior knowledge and plan for our lives. This is the only thing you need to base your self-worth on! I remember one Sunday when I was questioning God and wanting so badly to go to church, any church!  God said to me, "Laura I do not want you to go back to church until it is about me and not about them."

Through this time of surrender I also learned just how damaged my relationship to Him had become. I had become so used to wearing masks in my life that I no longer felt I could come to Him without masks when I was alone with Him.  This greatly impacted my faith life and I was no longer confessing my sin to Him alone in my prayer closet but trying to hide it from Him as well.  Which of course, is ridiculous, because he is all knowing, but I had gotten so good at convincing myself this was okay with God, how I was living my life.  Eventually, because my life was an utter mess, I got to a point that I doubted He loved me and was pushing him away.  I was hiding my true self from Him and was accusing Him of not listening and worse yet not caring that my life was not going the way I had planned it!  Ha!  I had the gall to be mad at God for not letting my life work out the way I had planned it!  What a fool I was!  Had I not become so utterly dependent on Him, I may not of come to know this.

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 

John 8:32

So where am I today....

I am no longer in a dark night. Whew!  I have a personal relationship with God that is like no other.   He shines a light and I now know how to follow His light!  

I have fully accepted that I am not called to minister.  At least in the official clergy way as I once dreamed of.  The funny thing, not long after I accepted this reality, a great job in the secular world literally fell into my lap, that works with my family's goals and lets me use many of the same gifts I used in ministry.  I have come to accept that my true calling in life is to my family, and if I die tomorrow knowing that I was a wife and mother that is enough for me!

I am learning to see the husband that God gave me almost 20 years ago with new eyes and appreciation.  I am patiently (okay not everyday!) waiting to see what our new marriage will look like.   Our marriage while very damaged continues to heal.  My husband and I for the most part sleep in the same bed again.  There are problems in our marriage that were there long before my detour into ministry, so we have a long road ahead and we are taking it one baby step at a time.  I am learning to see my life and my family as a blessing.  I am letting everyone in life just be who they are, and I am not trying to define anyone by my own ideals of who or what I think they should be.  I have also let go of a false sense of responsibility that I was assuming for other people's lives, and have completely given the care and concern of my family and friends over to God.

I am completely mask free, which is why I write this blog so candidly.  I was afraid to confess all of this publicly, as I suppose some people will be surprised (or maybe not) to learn the false life I was living.  

I'm okay that I don't have a ton of friends.  I'm happy to be loved by the true friends I have.  In fact, I don't want superficial friendships any more.  I want people in my life who feel safe to take their masks off and know that I will try to love them and accept them just the way they are.

I am attending worship again, not in my old church, but a new one and I am asking God everyday to help me always make it about Him and not about them!

I do not wish that anyone would ever have to experience the pain of the dark night, but if you are already or ever find yourself there, my prayer would be that you will be brave enough to embrace every moment of it, as dark as it may be.  The truth is it won't stay dark forever, only as long as it takes for you to learn to follow His light and not your own or anyone else's!

Many blessings!

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