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Tuesday, March 01st, 2016 | Author:

When I was a probably four or five years old, I really wanted a horse. I’d been praying for one for a long time. Our next door neighbors had a pasture with horses in it. Our next door neighbors on the other side often had horses in their pasture. And while we didn’t have a pasture of our own, we had a sizable yard, and I thought a horse would really complete my already pretty good life.

My parents had told me that we couldn’t afford a horse, unfortunately. But I also was always taught about miracles and bible stories and I figured praying for a horse was the best way to possibly get one.

Then one day, my dad and I were home together for the afternoon while my mom was out with my other siblings. It was my nap time, and my dad decided to take a nap during that time as well. I woke up mid-nap because I was thirsty so I decided to go get a drink of water.

When I went into the kitchen, I looked out our big bay window in the dining room and in our backyard, under our big climbing tree, I saw a horse. I was so excited I immediately ran into my dad’s room and woke him up.

“Dad! Dad!” I shook him awake. “There’s a horse in our back yard! I’ve been praying for a horse and now my horse is here!”

He asked me if I was sure. So I ran back to the kitchen, and double checked. There he was, brown and mighty in all his splendor. My long awaited horse. I ran back.

“Yes! There’s a horse! It’s not a cow, I double checked,” I told my dad.

I was ecstatic. Prayer worked. Miracles happened. Life was good. And I had a horse.

My dad got up, still not believing the word of his ever-wishful toddler, until he too looked out the window and saw that there was a horse reaching up and eating leaves from our mulberry tree, just as I’d said.

“There’s a horse in our back yard!” he said, smirking at me. He told me to get my shoes on and we’d go out and investigate.

It was the first time that the harsh realities of life broke in and broke down my childhood whimsical belief that anything was possible — God didn’t just manifest this horse in our backyard to answer my prayers, my dad tried to explain to me. The horse, he said, belonged to someone else, and we had to try to find out who was missing their horse. It wasn’t ours.

“But what if we can’t find any owner and it really is an answer to my prayers??” I pleaded. He explained that if that was the case, unfortunately, we still couldn’t keep it. Apparently the cost of buying the horse was not the main cost we couldn’t afford — it was having a horse that we also couldn’t afford. (Information I would have addressed in my prayers prior if I had been privy to it.)

My dad spray painted a very red-neck looking sign on a sheet of plywood: “Horse Found.” We propped it up against our mail box pole so that anyone passing by could see it. Soon, a neighbor from down the street came and claimed his horse. His fence was broken and she’d wandered away.

My answer to prayer was led home to the her rightful place four houses down. And I learned that sometimes, even when you get exactly what you’ve prayed for, it isn’t actually an answer to prayer.

Ten years later, when my sister was in the hospital, in a coma, I was terrified to pray for her to live, because I was afraid that if I did pray for that, and she still died, my faith in God would be irreparably shaken.

Instead, I prayed like a politician: “May your will be done,” is all that I could bring myself to pray. And then Julie died. She turned 21 three days before, and then she died.

That prayer caused more turmoil in my faith and my theology than I think praying for her to live would have, because for years after I was left wondering if God had answered my prayer — if it was actually his will for her to die.

It’s been 12 years since then, and my prayers look very different now. They’re not often requests, and they’re not often political pleas. They’re just conversations. They’re just me talking to someone who’s been there with me through it all. I don’t bullshit God anymore and try to dance around things that I want or things that I want to pretend he doesn’t know. I just talk to him. Because at this point, I’m not sure that he answers prayers in the ways that I used to think he might. I haven’t prayed for a horse since I found one in my backyard and learned that it still wasn’t mine. I also haven’t hidden what I want in vague, maybe manipulative pleas, pegging my desires on God’s will. If I want someone to live, I say it, like I would to a friend.

In some ways, I think my faith in God has gotten smaller, but not less magnificent. Smaller like when a crowd gets smaller. It’s become more personal, and less majestic. He’s less the genie granter and more the father that I share my confusion and frustration with because I thought the horse could be mine. I thought my sister could live. I thought that life was good. He’s the one that I cry with because of these disappointments and tragedies. And for me, that’s enough. I don’t need a God who grants wishes. I just need a God who lets me know I’m not alone, and that he hears me.

Whether he answers or not, I think he hears me. And that’s enough.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014 | Author:

I was sitting in a new church, in a new city, feeling very unknown again for the umpteenth time. It was my first time to the church, and while it felt warm and welcoming, I still felt new, knowing not a single person there.

It was the end of actually a really touching, raw and honest church service, and the worship band started to play, and the song that we all began to sing was not new to me. Somehow in the singing of a common song, I felt a little less alone, a little less like a stranger. It was a song I’d sung in the past with people who knew me as well as you can know a person. It was a song I’d sung before when I was new in a church, feeling uncomfortable. It was a song I’d sung on my own, in my bedroom while journaling through some dark times.

I knew the song well, and it seemed to know me in my broken moment.

These are the lyrics:

 

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant in the trial and the change
One thing remains
One thing remains

 

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me
Never runs out on me
Never runs out on me

 

On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

 

In death, in life, I’m confident and
Covered by the power of your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
Separate my heart from Your great love

And I stood there singing this song that I knew so well when all of a sudden I realized something about it for the first time.

At the end of the second verse, as it goes into the chorus again, these are the words: “I never ever have to be afraid… one thing remains… your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.”

As I sung those words, I realized that to me, what I’ve been meaning when I sing this is a reminder to myself: I don’t have to be afraid, God’s love never runs out on me. But not in the “We ran out of money now we don’t have any” way, but in the “my dad ran out on us” way.

I had never realized before that I’m afraid that love will run out on me. That those who love me will leave. That the God who created me would just decide that I’ve been taking too long, wandering too far, questioning too much, and that he would decide it wasn’t worth it to chase me anymore. I never would’ve voiced that before, but that’s the deep fear, the deep ache of things too scary to think about — that maybe God’s love, and others people’s love will run out on me.

And in terms of other people, that’s a real fear, because it’s a real possibility. I’m learning to trust people with my heart again, but that piece is still there.

But with God I’d never realized that that was a fear of mine as well. That’s not based in truth, or in experience. It’s just fear. And this song, that line, it speaks to those vulnerable, fearful places deep inside me and reminds me of what’s true: I don’t have to be afraid, God’s love will never run out on me. And it will never run out on you.

My favorite image of God is based in an old English poem I found tucked away in a book at my Uncle’s cabin one year, and it has stayed with me ever since. It’s called “The Hound of Heaven.” God is the hound of heaven, like a relentless dog that pursues and pursues and pursues us, across ages and spaces. We don’t have to run to God. I really believe that. We just have to stop running away and let him catch us.

This hound of heaven picture is what I know to be true of God — that he not just won’t run out on me… he’ll run after me. And he’ll never stop. His love is ferocious in it’s pursuit, relentless in it’s goal, and gentle in it’s touch.  That’s what I know of God.

His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.

And that calms my fears more than anything else ever could.

 

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 | Author:

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photo credit: Flickmor via photopin cc

This is hard for me to write, even though I’ve been saying it with my actions and body language for more than a year now.

I don’t trust the Church.

And that breaks my heart.

Like the admission, “I don’t trust my husband,” or “I don’t trust my father,” it hurts to admit because one, it’s true, and two, I wish it weren’t.

I have always loved the Church — my home church and the greater Church. I grew up in the church. The rough brick hallways and the green and purple faded carpets have known my touch, my presence since they were erected in the first couple years of my life. I have spent a massive percentage of my life within those walls.

My home church looks kind of like a prison from the outside. All gray cement blocks and massiveness in the middle of a large parking lot between two barren and vast fields of dead grass. It is lonely and unwelcoming in presence and stature. But it was home.

People said that, about it looking like a prison, and I could see what the meant, but I had personally never seen it like that. It was the place that held all of my dearest people in the world. People who had known me since I was born. People who had seen our family through some of the most trying times, including my mom’s severe illness with Lyme disease, and the sudden death of my 21-year-old sister. These were the people who had been there through it all. Not just at the church — in our homes, in our backyards, in camping trips and missions trips, in the schools, at softball games — but in the church, too. That was our common home, and I was there more than most.

Now when I drive up — which I don’t do often — I see what they mean. It looks like a prison. A prison full of beautiful people who know how to extend grace and how to love one another, mostly. But a prison none the less.

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photo credit: .brioso. via photopin cc


When I enter, I feel like I’m entering the prison. I walk through the foyer, down the aisles, and into rows of seats and I get stared at (or intentionally ignored) the whole way, like a prisoner walking down the cell block, being eyed — plotted against, sized up, respected, scared of — but being eyed none-the-less.

I take my seat and rely on the word of the warden-pastor that I am welcome there, of course. And though I know he wants it to be true, it’s not. I am not welcome. I am tolerated by most, judged and unwelcome by some, and greeted by a few (who really mean it).

The stares, glares, looks of, “Oh shit, how do I respond?” are palpable and, I am certain, mostly unconscious and involuntary.

I have a few friends who make conscious and great efforts to welcome me — to show that they won’t just tolerate my presence there, but align themselves with my presence there. They seek me out to hug me and chat, or even greater, they come and sit next to me. That’s how it was nine months ago at least. That’s the last time I could bring myself to attend a full church service there. I went one time since then, just for the worship portion, when the lights were down, and I wept and had to leave before the rest of the service continued. I wept because I so wish I could trust the church. I so wish it was still my home. I still love those people who bristle at my presence — and I love them dearly — but I know that I am not a part of them any longer. I wish I could be, but the welcoming hands and eyes of maybe 20 in a crowd of 500 is not enough. I can’t belong to a home where I am tolerated at best by the masses. It is better to be unknown.

But this is the thing, yes, that’s just one church. But that was my church. And I know those people — they are good people. Real people. People who have been through the mire of life with me. And they stiffen when I walk in, unsure if they should even look at me. Because they are human.

And the thing is, the reason why the stiffen, why they bristle, why they stare, is because they’ve been hurt by something that involved me. The reality is though — I was hurt by something that involved them.

And as I think about joining a new church, trying to find a new body of people to belong to — I have met many groups of people who are full of grace and acceptance. But I am still distrusting because while they welcome me now, I have been welcomed before. I have been known before. I have been carried through the trials of sickness and death and grief before. But then there came something that was too much, and everyone stepped away. And I was left. Unwelcome where I was once loved. Tolerated where I was once celebrated.  A threat where I was once a servant.

Not just by a few. Not just by casual church attenders. But by pastors, board members, and life long friends who I called family.

It’s not that they’re just bad people. They’re not. I know them. They’re hurt people. And hurt people hurt people.

So I’m distrusting of churches. All churches. Because they’re all made of people who have the ability to be hurt, and then to hurt.

I’m distrusting of pastors more than of churches. So the pastors that are big on grace, I’m suspicious of because it makes me think they KNOW they need grace, because they know of their depravity, and it scares me to think of the people they have hurt, or do hurt with that grace-needing depravity.

And the pastors that tote punishment, I’m wary of because, truly, I believe in grace.

And the pastors that talk of prosperity and hope, I don’t feel that they can understand the depths of the brokenness that I have drowned in.

The only ones I trust are the ones who talk honestly and openly about pain and brokenness and the God that is with us in that. But actually, in real life churches, I have yet to find those pastors.

The reason I don’t trust churches is because I don’t trust people. It just breaks my heart that it was church people who taught me to be distrusting. And it breaks my heart that I’ve taught others to be distrusting, too.

So this is me saying I’m fledgling right now. I’ve been drowning for a long time and am trying to find my way to the surface again. If you’ve got your head above the water, if you trust people and belong to the church and feel welcomed, don’t follow me.

But if you’re drowning too, if you’re distrusting and hurting and it breaks your heart, I’m trying to find a way up, and you’re welcome to come along. I can’t promise that I’ll find the most direct route, but I’m searching, and I’m trying to be honest about the journey.

And if you’re distrusting and it doesn’t break your heart, I hope it will some day. I’ve lived on both sides of this line now, and while this side feels wiser and more enlightened, the other side is more fulfilling indeed. It is a beautiful thing to trust people, and to have them be trustworthy in return.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com