Through the dark and stormy night
Faith beholds a feeble light
Up the blackness streaking;
Knowing God’s own time is best,
In a patient hope I rest
For the full day-breaking.
John Greenleaf Whittier.
It has been said that “out of struggle, comes strength”. Is this true? As for myself, I’ve seen good come out of bad situations. I’ve seen light at the end of dark tunnels, and I’ve seen my trials shape me and bring me to new plateaus. Now, I want to share some of my experiences with you.
Welcome. You are about to begin a journey of rediscovering what matters most in life, and having those pivotal realizations that realign us with our goals. And, with God. It is a journey composed of a series of steps. That series is titled: To Blame A Sunset.
It covers many topics, including joy, faith, relationships, and self-worth. It also talks about pain, discouragement, fear, and distractions. Each part in the series will go in depth into these various subjects, exploring the heart of some of the most relevant Christian issues.
You are about to take the first step, which is really just a brief testimony of God’s power, finding me in one of my life’s darkest seasons. This is where the journey began. So, if you’re ready, let’s begin. Grab a cup of hot cocoa. Find a warm, cozy corner. Because, this story takes place on a cold, dark, Wintry night.
THE IMPACT OF HOPE
It’s a cold December Day. I’m on Highway 90, headed towards Baraboo Wisconsin. I’ve been on the road for a few hours, and I now notice a sign for the Devil’s Lake exit up ahead. I throw on my blinker and circle around the exit loop by Cascade Mountain. The roads are iced and getting slippery from the freshly fallen snow, so I slow my pace and continue towards the more scenic section of highway 12. The familiar bluffs I pass are landmarks, telling me that I’m getting close.
As I enter Baraboo’s city limits, I realize there is a sense of pain in me that my eyes betray. It makes itself known when I pull up behind a school bus full of kids. A few of them in the back seats are staring at me, but I look away, pretending not to see them. I don’t feel strong enough to risk letting anyone see my pain.
On a normal day, I might feel different. I might make faces at them or try getting them to laugh. Not today, though. Today, I’m too busy trying to figure out a few simple things… like who and where I am in life.
Not even a few years back, life was different. I felt more certain. I was younger and had fewer worries. I sang in a rock band and played in the church worship band. I had a close group of friends. I liked the way it all felt, and the appearance it gave me.
Life almost felt like a lazy river of blessings that I floated merrily down, and I believed each good thing was the product of God being satisfied in me – His assurances of how well I was doing. My perfect image was the perfect testimony – the one I called; “my life”. At least, until the day when everything violently changed.
From out of nowhere, I was blindsided by a tragic loss. News came in that someone I loved and was very close to, was gone forever. I felt betrayed – stunned and paralyzed in a way I didn’t know I could be. Life stopped making sense, and my ability to believe in goodness fell, like an angry judge’s gavel, sentencing stern judgment. And while it all felt like too much to bear, the pain to come was only getting started.
My band split up. I watched my tight-knit group of friends go their own ways. My pastor, the one person who’d been my close confidant in everything I was going through, packed up without much warning and moved out of state. It all hit me at once, creating a cloud of confusion that blocked out any rays of hope. Somehow, in a short amount of time, I had lost all certainty of who I was.
I started through the stages of loss. First, I dealt with denial and anger, then bargaining. For a while I thought that if I shaped up and showed God I was serious, He might see my good heart and reverse all the pain. But, He didn’t, so I quit trying.
I came to acceptance, only I accepted a few things I never should have, like the belief that my pain would never be worked through, that God was never who I thought He was, and that the bad habits I had formed were okay. In fact, it felt like God and I had a new agreement. He didn’t expect much out of me, and I didn’t expect much out of Him. That testimony I used to have, the one that I called “My Life”, was gone.
And as painful as the loss was, I actually found my soul being numbed by something new; an anesthetic called self-pity. It released me from the expectations of others and myself. It filled the empty hole that certainty once filled. I now had… an Excuse.
I clung to that Excuse like an overboard sailor clinging to his life vest. It carried me through the rough waves until the worst was behind me. Normalcy started to return, but it was a different kind of normal – a kind that could change in an instant, depending on my circumstances. My pain could suddenly relapse like an earthquake’s aftermath, knocking down any progress I had made. Small things could easily become huge struggles, like the simple process of getting out of bed. While such days came fewer, they still came. Today, as luck would have it, is one of those days.
This is why I find it difficult to face a school bus full of kids at a red light. It’s why I become instantly uncertain, and an eternity seems to pass while I wait for the light to change.
Through the corner of my eye I see one of the kids motioning to his friends. A few others race to the bus’ back window to egg me on. They don’t seem to care that I’m trying to ignore them. In fact, it only makes them more adamant on getting my attention. The light changes to green, and the bus drives straight. I turn, and they pass out of view… a departure that’s neither disappointing nor accidental.
My escape route takes me down the less-traveled road towards the park’s North entrance. It winds me through town and into less populated areas, where houses grow scarcer and trees grow thicker. I see the gates of the park up ahead.
I pass through them and snake my way downward along the steep, narrow road. The parking lot is empty, so I’m able to park right by the water. After locking my car I head out towards the frozen lake, trying to figure out a strange feeling I don’t understand. Maybe it comes from not actually knowing why I came here today. Did I not have anything better to do? Was there just nobody I thought I’d make good company around? I don’t know.
The park is strangely silent, almost haunting. It feels like I am the only one here. The scene reminds me of the part in the Narnia story where Lucy first steps through the wardrobe and finds a wintry land.
I stand surrounded by tall, naked, oak trees that stretch their gnarled hands outward. They reach up to catch the flurries from a gray, overcast sky. Large white blankets of snow cover everything on the landscape that is flatter than a tree. Patches of bare, hibernating plants stick up through it. A few rows of tall, Wisconsin pines stand pointing to the sky, like fence posts along the lakes front yard. Beside them is the road I drove in on, lying flat, like a tabletop to catch the crumbs of snow that the trees missed.
The air is more cool, still, and tranquil than I ever remember it feeling. There is a lot here for all five senses to absorb, yet most of all, I find myself being captivated by the silence. There really is not a sound to be heard; not a trace of the everyday background traffic, no hum of refrigerators, TVs or smart phones.
This isn’t like the kind of quiet you find while you’re at home surfing the internet or studying at the library, which seems to disappear into the background. This silence takes center stage. It is inescapable. In it, I feel naked.
It somehow envelops a sound that I haven’t heard in a while, but it’s one that I know. It’s the sound of my own thoughts. Hearing this inner voice feels like I’m sharing an awkward silence with a stranger, and finding out that the stranger is… me.
My recently-resurfaced pain has nowhere to hide. I can’t just bury it out here as I normally would. So, in a moment of broken routine, I try something different. I fold my hands and attempt to speak with the Almighty.
But after only a few minutes of this, I become frustrated. I can’t believe how distracted I am. I feel the pull of my mind, wanting to change like a television back to its most watched channels of comfort and self-pity.
Why is there such difficulty in such a simple act? Talking. Listening. It’s so exposing and unnerving. Isn’t this what I’m supposed to do without ceasing? Why does my soul fear the unpredictability of doing it for mere seconds? I feel this ache in my heart like from eyes exposed to light after being in a dark room. I fear my inner mess being revealed, as well as how distant I’ve become from God.
I sense some selfish part of me recognizing it is in danger, prompting me to run with all my might back to the false comforts it normally feels protected by, but I know I can’t. I didn’t come here for enjoyment or for fun. In fact, I think I finally do know why I came. God has my attention.
So I try again, folding my hands and closing my eyes. For a long time I do nothing else, and it feels like nothing is happening. But then, I finally feel myself breaking those barriers of my concentration. I move forward into God’s presence. The outside world is blocked out, and I find myself alone with my Father.
As I sense His closeness, I realize there is none of the condemnation that I had so feared… that somehow, He feels joy in my coming. There is a familiar warmth, like that of returning home after a long, tiring trip. And for what feels like a long time, no words are exchanged. No words seem appropriate.
Then, from out of nowhere, a question wells up within me. It asks; “Caleb, do you know what needs to change?”
“Yeah… everything”, I think to myself. Nothing about life feels like it should, or like it used to. I’ve wanted so long for God to swoop down and clean things up – to put things back in place.
Part of me wonders… is that His plan? Could that be why He brought me here? Maybe He brought me here to make my life normal again! Suddenly, I feel hopeful. My outlook is brighter. I close my eyes and ask God to speak to me. And, as though I weren’t really expecting Him to, I find myself a little surprised when… He does.
A picture forms in my mind’s eye. It is very vivid and clear. I see the image of a statue. It appears to be slowly spinning around, as though placed on some type of revolving platform. It looks like it’s made of ivory or some light colored ceramic. I’m a little surprised by it, because it doesn’t seem relevant. I then notice something that I didn’t see right away. Half of the statue is missing, and the other half appears to be filled with holes. I can see right through them like Swiss cheese. Nope. I still don’t understand.
But then, what happens next totally alarms me. As the statue’s front side circles around towards me, I realize that its face is my own! It has my expressions and features. Suddenly I feel startled. In my acute state of confusion, my heart mumbles out a question.
“Is that… me? Father, I don’t get it. I really don’t know what you’re trying to say”. My heart sinks, realizing that once again, I was wrong to be naive, and that today must not be the day God plans to make things “normal”. This isn’t the vision of freedom I was hoping for. This is just… strange.
But then I hear what I believe is His answer. “Child… I don’t always let you see yourself the way I can, because you could never love yourself the way I can”.
And like that, the picture makes sense. I see that this statue, the one that represents me – with all of its faults and flaws that I could never fully accept, is actually a beautiful metaphor of God’s great love. As I pause to think about what it means, I notice that a certain complaining voice within me has stopped grumbling. I sense that there is a reality greater than what I normally see. I feel humbled by it. Awakened.
Perhaps for the first time, I’m seeing that there really is nothing I can hide from God. He sees it all. The ways I’ve hidden my true self behind my talents and abilities. The secret thoughts I’ve had that I’ve never shared with another living soul. The sins I’ve tried to erase. And yet somehow, in some inconceivable way, He still manages to love me just as I am. I truly am blown away.
Something in me knows to be still, to stop talking, and listen. Right now, I only want to soak in the reality of God’s great love for me, because for too long I’ve only been soaking in the way I’ve felt. I’ve been so wrapped up in losses that I’ve missed greater truths. I’ve undermined my own flaws. And in so doing, I’ve undermined God’s grace. When perhaps, I’ve needed to understand it more than anyone. Because maybe those who need an understanding of grace most are the ones who think they already understand it.
For the first time in years, I actually feel encouraged. And while it feels good, I want to quit while I’m ahead, leave well enough alone, and race back home before any of it fades. But, something tells me that God isn’t finished talking yet. In fact, something tells me that He’s just getting started. So, I close my eyes obediently and continue to press in.
The picture in my mind changes. I now see bars… steel, prison bars that are totally surrounding me. They are like those on Alcatraz, enclosing me on an island. There, the outside waves have always made escape difficult, causing me to lose energy and swim back. Not only have I become a slave, I’ve come to enjoy slavery. My heart has learned to be at home with the foul stenches of entanglement. My resistance has grown weak, and my strength has forfeited. I am both unwilling and unable to be free. Here, my heart stays, becoming bent by these bars like a rafter beneath a sagging roof, formed to fit the warped shape of its container. My cage follows me everywhere I go, down each turn I make. It keeps me from knowing freedom; from experiencing God.
How have I not seen my distance from Him? I see it now. I also see how much change is needed, only I need it in ways far greater than I thought.
As the snow continues to fall, I feel tears welling up in my eyes. I know where God is taking me next. It’s a place I don’t want to go. A place I’ve tried so hard to bury and forget. He’s taking me back to my pain. The hurt that has somehow pushed me further from Him, rather than closer.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask. “Why do you want me to revisit such a dark area in my life?” Tears roll down my face. “This isn’t fair. Most people get to move on. Why am I stuck?”
To revisit my pain in full force only hints at my failures to bury it. A sense of shame accompanies the grief. I bury my face in my arms, and suddenly feel self conscious for crying, even though I know no one else is watching.
Daylight is quickly fading, and it’s getting colder. I feel the cold sting of the air on my hands, so I place them back in my pockets. I wonder if God will just leave me here – not in this park, but in this place of wondering, feeling trapped and confused. Optimism alone can’t get me out of this. That hasn’t worked for quite a while anyway.
But before I can despair, I sense God asking me something. I think He’s now saying; “Caleb, do you want to be free?” The question falls on my lap, like a feather from the sky. Silence follows, as though I’m given some time to think about it.
“What? Did I hear you right?” I think. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be free? There’s only one obvious answer, and it’s a total no-brainer. “Of course.” That’s the answer. But… why am I struggling to say it?
Maybe it’s because I know how deeply my heart’s hardness has been ingrained into me – like a cement that has dried and hardened to the skin of my soul. I’m aware that moving forward might require that it be torn off – a necessary pain for my recovery and survival.
Maybe I’m still too afraid to admit some of the lies that I’ve been telling myself, like the belief that all Christians are just like me, entangled in some form of bondage which stays hidden behind an immaculate mask.
Maybe I’ve bought the lie that at the end of the day, none of us are truly free, and that freedom is just an illusion, or some form of lofty idealism that only new Christians strive for.
Maybe I’m realizing that true forgiveness is a vulnerable thing to ask for. When for so long, it’s only been something I’ve sought for the sake of alleviating my conscience; something I’ve asked for even prior to sinning. My sense of righteousness has only come by watering down the definition of righteousness.
Maybe I don’t want to know how simple the solution is, because it would hurt too much to realize that things never had to be so bad for so long. It would only confirm how much of my pain was avoidable and unnecessarily felt.
Maybe I sense that the joy of being free would accompany a certain sadness, like that of a funeral; the laying to rest of joys I have wrongfully rested in for so long. Saying “yes”, would be at the total death of me, as well as the comforts that I haven’t known a world without. I’d be letting go of my Excuse.
No. I’m not ready for this. I’m too afraid. I’ve felt far too defeated to win this inner tug-of-war, the battle that rages at the front line of my heart. I’m afraid that if I set foot out there, I won’t have a chance at making it through this. Yet at the same time, something is prodding me forward, letting me know that that’s okay. In fact, it’s the goal. If I’m to be free in Him, I’m not supposed to make it through this.
Once all of me is smothered out, once I learn to stop escaping, then God can become my exit. Once I’ve humbled myself to His side, He can be what lifts me up. He’s taken me back to my pain, not so I could be taunted by it some more, but because that’s where the hardness began. He wants to pull the hardness out. Not at its branches, but at its roots.
I think I’m actually starting to see how much more is to be gained from my pain than a simple recovery from it. It wasn’t supposed to defeat me, and God wants me to do more than just “move on” from it. He wants me to be free first. He doesn’t want me to get better just so I could go be the same. He wants me to know His life.
So much of what I’ve tried to bury, He wants me to bring ahead to let it affect me, to learn from and be changed by it. It’s part of a valuable story, and one that I’m beginning to see, is far from finished. I know that if I say “yes”, the coming chapters in my life will be strangely good. I believe God’s voice will be more present. Or maybe, just better heard.
I’ve never been the type of Christian to ask God which socks to wear, or which shirt to put on in the morning. My extent of believing has always been that somehow, somewhere, and to someone. He was probably saying something, but with a voice I never felt sure I could count on.
I’ve carried a certain amount of skepticism towards those who claim to be at a speaking level with God, but my world of knowledge in this is being shaken. My preconceived notions about God and how He speaks are crumbling.
The way He is reaching me right now is so personal, so strong, I really can’t describe it. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s beautiful, yet catastrophic. It bears a vast joy larger and more dangerous than any kind I’ve ever found in escaping.
And, it reveals so clearly the choice that is before me; the one God has laid out for me. Down one road, my “self” must die, but my spirit will know freedom. Down the other road, my self will live, but God’s peace is not there. I know that if I choose the correct road, it will involve repenting, not just from my sins, but from the way I’ve chosen to look at them – as minor and acceptable.
I sense God awaiting my response. I can’t stand here on the fence any longer, where I’ve been without change for so long, without transformation. I have to make a move, and the time to do it is now.
Maybe saying nothing is the same as saying no. And, maybe I’ve been slow to respond because I don’t want to take this decision lightly.
I open my eyes and peer about at the snow, which seems to be letting up. I look up at the clouds. The gray sky is parting just enough to show a trace of dark blue beyond them. A sense of certainty falls over me, assuring me of what I’m about to do. I rise to my feet, pushing off of a rock that I’ve been crouched near. I know my final answer. Yes. I say it out loud.
I begin walking back towards my car, noticing that something inside me already feels lighter. There is an empty place where my Excuse used to be. And as painful as the loss is, I find my soul being numbed by something new, an anesthetic called “hope”.
I head home, passing an empty school bus and am reminded of the kids I saw on my way up. A smile finds me. And then it occurs to me – after all I’ve been through, to still be wearing a smile, to still be proclaiming God’s goodness, to still be using my heart as a channel for Him to work through – now that’s a testimony.
And so, I leave you now, not with a farewell, but with a welcome. Because hope isn’t the end, but the start of something, and this has only been the start of a long journey full of awakenings and, healing. If you’d like to experience more, then I encourage you to continue in this series which you’ve already begun, titled To Blame A Sunset.
The next part in this series, The Power Of Remembering, is full of many new discoveries. In it, I share with you one of the most crucial, beneficial lessons I have ever learned – a simple way to revive my heart, anytime and anywhere.
If you’re ready to head there with me, I guarantee it will be a brand-new journey full of revival for you as well. Not only do I feel confident that you’ll benefit and grow, I believe you’ll be inspired, and that your life will be changed.
Come now. The next step takes place .
Can God's touch REALLY change us in a lasting way? In this true story, C J Kruse gives a brief testimony of a powerful event in his life. After a long, dark season, he invites God in. See what God can do with a life that feels broken. Hope is the catalyst that we all need, and which we sometimes lose touch with. Join the large group of Christians who are searching to rediscover God in a powerful way, and to experience His hope again.