It was the dreariest of winters. Not only was the thermostat dipping into lows never remembered by a living soul for my region of the country, but my soul felt lower and heavier in a way that seemed to sap into the marrow of my bones most days. I felt joyless in a manner unlike anything I’d known, and I was pretty familiar with joylessness. I usually had more distractions from my lack of joy, but not that season. I was strongly convicted that I was following God, and that my life was moving in a right way that it hadn’t for decades, but the gray skies outside felt like they were fully seeped inside my head, inside my soul, inside my marrow.
I’d had previous holidays apart from my family, but that had been due to distance. This year I was just up the street from family, but for very different reasons that won’t be covered in this post I determined not to go to the family gatherings for any of those year-end holidays. That decision and the ensuing separation brought on a whole cadre of discordant and troubling emotions and internal struggles – some not so internal as I felt people challenging, questioning, misunderstanding and judging me about the decisions I was making in my life.
I’d spent much of the previous year fighting a multitude of physical maladies, none life-threatening, and most somewhat vague and seemingly unrelated, but I’d gone on disability from work multiple times that year and spent months alone in a studio apartment, too weak to even take my trash out for many months. I was moving forward walking out a number of decisions I believed were right, but it seemed like the weight of many mountains was over me and more things seemed to be coming apart negatively since I began taking more bold steps toward God. I knew that most of the people who knew me thought I was wrong and deceived, and there were days and weeks and months I had to fight hard to hold on to the truth I knew that I was making right, godly decisions, because not much in my life appeared blessed by God at that point.
I remember praying to God for encouragement those final weeks of 2013 and I was grateful for a small gathering of friends on New Year’s Eve. Yet, much to my dismay it seemed as if that black cloud over my life came in to overshadow even the time with my new friends.
In my heart I felt like I had trudged back up a hill to the Lord’s house to knock wearily on His door simply to say, “Hello, me here. I know you heard me. I know you got my encouragement request. Just wanted to let you know I’m still waiting. Just knocking again. If you sent it, I missed it. I’ll wait. Just want to resubmit that request. Thanks.”
Accessing the Lord didn’t usually feel so tiresome, but I felt a fatigue that seemed different that terribly bitter winter of harsh wind chills and igloo pictures on my phone weather application.
I didn’t realize how much I had been hoping for some pleasure in this gathering with my friends on New Year’s Eve. I felt beyond exhausted to discover that even there among my little group of friends the weariness still lay heavy on my soul. The place I could usually find a measure of joy and relief, I still felt drained and unrefreshed. That lack of release from the weight of depression seemed so close to more than I could bear.
I settled into the living room with a small plate of treats, though even the savory snacks held little appeal. I made an effort to pick at my food, though I’d not had much of an appetite for months actually, and even less it seemed that night.
One of the ladies began sharing about the scriptures in Hebrews 12:1, 2 where we are encouraged to look away from sin and all that distracts to look unto Jesus. I was intrigued by what she was sharing and as she talked I remembered that I had studied parts of that scripture years before. I felt very taken in a new way that night as she talked with the idea of how we are instructed to “look unto Jesus.”
Driving home I continued puzzling over the concept, that felt somehow brand new to me. I felt completely stuck though as I considered this idea with a new sense of urgency I cannot explain. But I couldn’t seem to determine what it actually meant to look to Jesus, and I felt myself struggling to understand how to follow through on this scriptural instruction.
I became so agitated that I began yelling at God in my car on the drive home. I’d heard so many teachings about Jesus Christ, and I’d studied the Greek on part of that section of Hebrews 12, and yet I could not begin to fathom HOW to do this. What the heck did it mean??
I’d heard my new senior pastor talk about what she called “Painting with Jesus” the past summer. I felt utterly incapable of fathoming what that ideas meant either. What were these people talking about??! I had tried to follow along when she’d done a mental exercise the previous summer, but it had seemed to hurt my brain to picture Jesus, so I quit pretty quickly.
But I knew there was something important about this point…..I knew there was something key and fundamental and important that I knew I was missing in this vein of thought. I felt almost a brain cramp. I’m sure there could be a great many studies and ways that people interpret that aspect, but that night all I could come up with was to try to literally LOOK at Jesus in my mind. It seemed sort of stupid and childish, but it was the only thing I could seem to latch onto.
I figured with it being roughly 2,000 years later Jesus probably wasn’t wearing robes anymore, so I put him in a pair of blue jeans. I also gave him a hair cut in my mental picture. And I began a practice of when I went to rest, as I shut my eyes, to sit cross-legged across from Jesus.
I don’t know that I did this every single night, but it seems I did it often those first weeks of January 2014. But I quickly came upon some disturbing aspects.
One was that no matter how hard I tried, I could not see Jesus’ face. I tried pasting images of happy Jesus pictures I’d seen across the years into my mental imagery….but it wasn’t working. His face just seemed a blur. And honestly, I had trouble remembering many painted images of Jesus.
He didn’t look right in the 2014 hair cut and blue jeans makeover I’d given him either….the trendy clothes and hairstyle somehow didn’t seem fitting, though I couldn’t think why it would make any real difference….
Worst of all was that although in my mind we were just across the room from each other sitting on the floor, I sensed that the space between us wasn’t just a horizontal distance across from each other, but there was a depth, an underneath to the space between us. And that depth felt SO deep – an uncrossable chasm between us.
And I began to dread that time each night of “looking to Jesus,” because more and more I came to realize how much I didn’t know him. Night after night the reality of how much Jesus was unknown to me grew. How could Jesus be an inaccessible stranger, so close in the space of my mental picture, as far as there wasn’t much physical distance across from us in my mental picture, yet so foreign and achingly distant to my heart? I felt ashamed and honestly, I felt exposed. Though this was just a “simple” mental exercise in the privacy of my bedroom, I felt as if my lack and inability were evident to all the world.
Then one night as I went to go to that position of looking to Jesus as I best knew how in my efforts to understand in some small way how to “LOOK UNTO JESUS”….I was surprised and relieved that after I closed my eyes to find Jesus was no longer sitting across from me. No, when I closed my eyes, my face was buried in His shoulder.
This was so huge on so many levels. It meant there was something REAL to this exercise, this wasn’t just me alone, unobserved, unknown doing this. Jesus saw me, saw my efforts and was responding to me, to my need, to my desire to understand, and to my inability to accomplish this feat on my own. It meant also that Jesus had COMPASSION on my struggle to see his face and he was not only bridging the gap between us, that I couldn’t, but he was not condemning my inability to see his face. He saw and felt my pain at my inability to see his face and he had compassion on me to allow me to bury my face in his shoulder and weep. And I was so glad that the chasm between us was gone. I still couldn’t see his face, but I was physically close to him.
Jesus became more real to me right then than he had for all the decades I had called myself a Christian. There was a relief in his presence and a comfort and a release to so much of the pent up anguish I had been feeling. That night, for the first time in my life, I had an experience of a Risen and Living Savior in a personal relationship with me. His face was still hidden from me but in my embarrassment and shame, He drew me in and gave me His shoulder to bury my face in. Gone too were the trendy duds I’d tried dressing Him in. It was a robed shoulder my tears soaked into that night.