Friday, July 12, 2013

Snapshots of Who I Am- Unconditionally loved

Every Christmas, my mom gives me a Mary Engelbreit desk calendar. Each day, I look forward to pulling off the sheet from the day before, and seeing cute drawings of round-faced children in colorful garb grinning back at me. The drawings accompany a memorable quote- something meant to infuse the day with humor or good cheer. Today's sheet doesn't have a cherubic looking child. Instead, there's a shaggy charcoal-colored terrier smiling at me. His head is slightly tilted, ears perked up attentively, pink tongue just barely peaking out of his furry mouth. His red collar has a heart-shaped tag, and he sits next to a red and white polka-dotted ball. Above his friendly face, I read, "A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself. - JOSH BILLINGS"

My dog Gatsby is lying beside me on the sofa while I write- he's polka-dotted, but his ball is not.  When it comes to balls, Gatsby has no shortage of variety- red, blue, a green one with a bell inside it, one that looks like a soccer ball, a pink one that was supposed to be for Daisy, our other Cocker Spaniel, but that Gatsby has, of course, claimed as his own. When he turned ten last year, Andy & I bought him ten balls from Pet Smart. He's eleven now, and he's lost a few of his birthday presents, but we keep a pretty steady supply of balls for our boy.

If you've ever met Gatsby, you don't need me to describe him to you. For you, the phrase "Great Gatsby" already has double meaning- F. Scott's and then the Cocker Spaniel version. But if you haven't  had the chance to meet Gatsby, I'll do my best to introduce him to you.

When I was in college, I went through a period of blatant spiritual rebellion. Actually, I don't know if "rebellion" is the right word. Doesn't rebellion imply that you once belonged to something and have chosen, defiantly, to leave it? If so, then that's not the right word, because it would mean that I'd once truly followed the Lord with my heart, that I had loved Him, had accepted His ways, and then left Him. That's not true. My heart hadn't ever been devoted to Him, and I'd only followed his ways out of fear. I had fooled a lot of people, even myself, but in truth, I'd been devoted to myself all along. In college, I just began to let my true devotion show, and I spent my Freshman year following the ways that seemed best to me at the time. One of the ways that my parents dealt with my behavior was by requiring that I transfer colleges at the end of my Freshman year. I might have been out of their house, but they were still paying the bills, and they had more authority than I wanted them to have at the time. Their rationale was that I had to have some consequences to my actions that went against their Bible-based standards, and a change of environment was going to be one of them. I was so angry with them, with God and with life that summer before my Sophomore year of college. It was the closest to hatred that I'd ever come, and yet, I knew, on some level, that I was a huge mess inside and someone had to do something or my heart, much less the rest of my life, was never going to get cleaned up.

On the day that my mother took me up to the college that I would be transferring to, I alternated between tears of self-pity and the silent treatment. My mom, God bless her, suffered through my antics while we visited the Registrar's office and then an apartment complex, where I would live by myself in a one-bedroom in the fall. I was sullen, thinking the whole time of myself and what I would be losing- how I would miss the friends that I'd made my Freshman year at the college I was being forced to leave, convincing myself that my quality of life would be almost unbearable come August. I was such a jerk back then. Now that I'm a teacher, and I deal with sullen, indulged, self-obsessed teenagers, I'm convinced that what my mother did next was nothing but a demonstration of God's grace and her love for me. As we left the city to head back toward home, she picked up a newspaper (This was before she had her iPhone) and began to look for an advertisement for puppies. We'd secured the apartment, now, we were going to find me a roommate.

She found a breeder in a small town about an hour and a half away. She made a call and let them know we were coming. When we got there, the breeder showed us a litter of Cocker Spaniel puppies- some were solid black, or black with chocolate markings. They were really tiny, not very old at all. Then, she let out a litter of polka-dotted puppies- what's known as "Parti Mix" to dog enthusiasts- into a little outdoor playpen type of thing. They ran, if you could call it running- it was more like wobbling quickly- around the pen, tackling one another, making impossibly adorable noises. I couldn't take my eyes off them.

For months, ever since I was told that I'd have to transfer schools, I'd tried to seal up my heart, turn it into stone- a monument to my self-justified anger toward my parents and their stoic, demanding God. But when I first knelt down and picked up a rough-and-tumble puppy with a white streak that ran down the middle of his head, separating two soft, curly black ears, I knew it wouldn't last. I gave him back to the breeder so she could give him an injection and a bath. She handed him back to me. He was dazzlingly white with perfectly-placed black speckles on his nose and his back and his feet.

On the car ride home, my new puppy curled up in my lap and fell asleep. I watched his rhythmic breathing and was amazed that something so tiny could trust me so quickly, and so completely. I named him "Gatsby" because of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald's book that fit my life at the time. I didn't know it then, but I was naming my best friend. By the time we got home, my heart was softer than it had been in months.

In college, Gatsby was my saving grace. I struggled spiritually for a while longer, before surrendering whole-heartedly to Christ in the spring of my Sophomore year. Still, the years that followed weren't exactly easy. I struggled to follow Christ, to make sense of religion- something that I'm still struggling with. I had a break-then-mend-then-break-again relationship that lasted too many years, and I struggled with depression, as well. I never did make very many friends at the college I transferred to. I studied a lot. I watched too much TV. I gained weight. I wished that I looked like, could be like, someone else. In all of this, Gatsby was my friend. On days that I would have gladly stayed in the bed, not having the energy or desire to do much else, I would look at his playful face- always hopeful to go out for a walk or to play ball- and I'd get up anyway. I took him everywhere with me. Some days, when the weather was nice, I'd let him ride to campus with me. I'd park in a big gravel lot, and roll the windows down in my Jeep, and he'd wait in the car for me until I was done with classes. Looking back, it kind of amazes me that I did that. Nowadays, I'd be afraid that he would be stolen or would get too hot (even though I never did take him on hot days). But then, I always wanted him to be with me. There was a girl in one of my Chemistry classes who brought her Basset Hound to class with her. My prof was an older gentleman, and I don't think he knew the dog was even there, he was a little hard of hearing, and too excited about explaining the difference between cis and trans configurations to pay attention to the back row, where she sat with her hound. I seriously contemplated bringing Gats to Chemistry with me, but I was confused enough in that class, and knew that Gatsby would never be able to sit still like that lethargic Basset Hound could. But I would have if I'd thought that we could get away with it.

Gats and I have always had lots of adventures. We both love hiking and he loves to swim. We've gone to National and State parks together. We've been swimming in the Atlantic and the Pacific. We've lived in a lot of different places, and made different friends. In all of this, God has gone out of His way to protect Gatsby. In eleven years, he has fallen down a mountain waterfall, fallen through insulation from a second story to a first story, been shot (with a bb gun while my college boyfriend was dog-sitting him. I never did get the whole truth on that one), and been attacked and nearly killed by a pit bull. Each time something scary happens to Gatsby, and God delivers him back to me, I am reminded of how undeserving I am of God's grace. Gatsby has always been living proof to me that God loves me- not just that He loves me, but how He loves me. But I had all but forgotten about that in early summer 2010.

Months had gone by since I sat at the lake-side coffee shop. The weather had turned hot, and so had my anger and frustration over the faltering relationships that catalyzed argument after argument in our new marriage. I'd started working part-time at Banana Republic, both to help with the bills and to bring some semblance of structure back into my life. I was still trying to write, trying to sit quietly and let Abba talk to me about my identity. But I was impatient. I felt raw on the inside. More words, more actions had inflicted more pain, and I was lashing out in full-force anger at Andy on a nearly daily basis.

Every time I would get upset over something- either something that was communicated to me or about me- I would, with or without reason, launch into an emotional and verbal crescendo that culminated with me yelling hateful things, filling our two-bedroom apartment with filth from my mouth. Every time that I did this, Andy would suffer through it in silence. He'd usually just sink into the sofa- his head dropping and shoulders slumping, giving into my verbal battering in a way that I never could have. I'm from a family of feisty folks. One of my own flesh and blood would have given it right back to me, but Andy's not a fighter. Not verbally, anyway. He sat quietly while I raged on, folding in on himself, wrapping his arms around his torso, a symbolic shield from my anger. Sometimes his calm fueled my rage even more-I could not understand it, and I interpreted it as a lack of concern or unwillingness to defend our marriage. But Gatsby- Gatsby was not calm. When I would first get started, Gatsby would try, bless his tiny good dog's heart- to get me to stop. He would look at me pleadingly. He'd stretch his paws up on my legs and make the most pitiful face. One time, he sat next to Andy on the sofa, while I paced the living room floor, fussing and fuming. At one point, I looked at Gatsby and Andy, sitting side by side on our salmon-colored sofa. Gatsby's paw was placed on Andy's leg and he gave me a look that said, as clearly as if he'd had words to speak, "Stop. Stop this. He doesn't deserve it." That time, I did stop. I hugged Gatsby and Andy, and that time, like all the rest of the times, I promised to try not to erupt again. But I did erupt again. I was powerless to stop it. The perfect storm of insecurity raged inside me, and I'd not yet responded to the truth completely. And so I raged on.

When I would get angry, Gatsby would always try to communicate with me with his pleading looks, and then he'd begin to shake- his entire body quaking in fear. Eventually, he would find somewhere to hide- in the bathroom, under the bed, behind the sofa. He had never seen me like this before. We had lived together for eight years, and I'd never been like this. Nothing had ever brought it out before. One of the things about marriage is that it brings to the surface things about yourself that you may have never known. I heard a sermon about this phenomenon one time. Andy Stanley talked about how people in marriages often blame one another for causing them to become angry, ugly, abusive, selfish, etc. They say to one another- "I was never like this before we got married. You've made me into someone I'm not!" Sometimes people will even use this as a reason for divorce, believing that if they can just get away from their spouse, then they'll be a better person again. But Andy Stanley said that you're angry, ugly, abusive and selfish because that's sin, and sin is in you. It's in you whether you're married or single, old or young. It's in you until God replaces it with Himself. And that's a continuous, lifelong process. Andy Stanley made an analogy of two very full glasses of water. If the glasses were to bump one another, then what's in the glass inevitably spills out. He said that marriage doesn't change what's in the glass, it just increases the amount of times the glasses are likely to bump into one another. But what comes out when those exchanges occur depends on what's inside you. If you're filled with your sinful, selfish nature, then, when you're bumped, that's what comes out. It comes out because it's in there. It's not your spouse causing some new thing to come out of you. It's you spilling out what's already there, what's always been there, since Adam & Eve and the original sin. Because of this, I knew that what was spilling out of me had always been there- though I have to admit that I was shocked to see it. I knew it wasn't really Andy's fault, or anyone else's, that I was reacting this way. I knew that I'd just gotten jolted so hard by my life's circumstances and the identity crisis that followed that the ugliness of my sin was pouring out with an intensity that had been previously present but never  seen.

It was during this spilling-out period that I came home one day with my arms filled with groceries. I was on the phone with Andy, already angry over something he'd told me, my tone probably mid-crescendo. We lived on the second floor, and when I opened the door, Gatsby dashed out. This wasn't completely uncommon. Sometimes, after I'd been gone a while, he would squeeze past me as soon as I opened the door and trot quickly down the steps to a little patch of grass by the stairwell. I assumed that's what he was going to do, so I stepped inside to place the grocery bags on the counter, still barking at Andy on the phone. After I'd unloaded my arms, I stepped back outside to search for Gatsby. A minute hadn't even gone by. I looked at the patch of grass, but he wasn't there. I looked underneath the stairwell, and along the side of the building, my pace quickening and my heart beating faster. I didn't see him. I stopped complaining to Andy, and my voice changed from anger to urgency. "I can't find Gatsby," I said, bounding back up the steps, thinking that maybe he'd slipped past me and gone back inside the apartment while I wasn't paying attention. I searched the apartment half-heartedly, but thoroughly, knowing deep down that he wasn't in there. I hurried down the stairs again and began to run all over the apartment complex shouting his name, over and over again. Andy was still on the phone with me, and he promised that he was one his way home right then. We hung up and I called my mom, panicked, "Mom, I can't find Gatsby. Please pray." I called my best friend back home, Lacy, and asked her to do the same. Then, I called my mom back. By then, I had started to cry.

Gatsby had never run away before. I'd never not known where he was, and losing him was unimaginable to me. My faithful, loyal friend was always with me, or I at least knew where he was at all times. Sometimes, when we would hike or play off-leash at a park, people would tell me that they wished they could trust their dog to stay with them the way Gatsby stayed with me. I had never once worried about him running off. The thought had never even crossed my mind. He kept his eye on me better than I kept my eye on him. In many ways, Gatsby was more my care-taker than I was his. I'd always just taken it for granted that he would be with me. Even though only minutes had passed since I'd last seen him, I felt a hole rip open inside of me that I'd never felt before. I'd lost my best friend. And it was completely my fault- I had been too harsh, caused him too much stress, and he had run away.

While I waited for Andy to come home and help me look, I paced around our apartment building, crying, praying, and talking to my mom on the phone. In some vague way, I admitted to her that it was my fault that Gatsby had run away. She knew how hurt and angry I'd been the past few months. I hadn't kept it a secret from my parents, though I doubt they, or anyone else for that matter, could imagine the destructive power of my full-throttle anger. My mom was clearly concerned, but was confident that God would not let anything bad happen to Gatsby. She told me that God loved that little dog and He loved me. Her words ripped the hole in my heart open even further, and I felt the weight of my actions in a way that I never had before. She was right, God did love Gatsby, and He had loved me, too. He had loved me when He let me have Gatsby. Of that I was convinced. But lately, I was not sure that God loved me anymore. He seemed so distant. And I was certainly not behaving in a way that anyone could love. It was not the first time I'd acted in such a way.

The summer that I got Gatsby, I had convinced myself that God was an ego-maniac.  He wanted people to worship Him, and wouldn't let them truly live. I thought He was too demanding, too judgmental, too difficult to please. I was never an atheist or an agnostic. I've always been convinced that God is real, I just chose not to like Him.  And the summer before my Sophomore year of college, I made sure that He knew just how much I loathed him- shouting at him one day in my mother's garden, making sure that there was no mistake that I was like my parents, who loved Him and thought that everything He did was so great. I was different. I was making my own choices. I was rejecting Him and felt justified in doing so, and I wanted to make sure that He knew it. It made me feel tough and worldly and real, at the time. Later, I realized that I was not tough, I was critically weak and needed saving. My words that had once seemed so bold and authentic were stupid and vapid, and so was I. But during the time of my greatest defiance, God gave my mother the patience and unconditional love that brought me to a dog kennel, where I picked up a tiny creature that would turn out to be one of my life's greatest blessings. He gave me this gift when I was at my ugliest- when I'd told Him how much I hated Him, how full of Himself I thought He was. I puffed up my pride in His Holy face and spat out my disapproval with arrogance that should have been obliterated right then and there underneath my mother's tulip tree- and He gave me a puppy.

It was thinking about this grace that made me completely break down. Andy had gotten home by then, and we'd searched the apartment complex completely on foot. We were making a second round when I fell down, literally unable to stand in my grief over what I had caused. I didn't deserve Gatsby. I never had deserved him. And now, God had finally done what was just. He'd taken him away.

I couldn't bear it. I sobbed into the dirt, not only because I had lost my friend, but because my ugliness was the reason for it. I imagined him lost, confused, hurting somewhere. Had he been hit by a car? Hd someone stolen him? He was suffering because of me, I was sure of it. This was justice for me. I didn't deserve him. I never had. But it wasn't fair for him to be afraid. And this was my prayer. I asked God for His mercy- knowing full well that I did NOT deserve it. All of my rage, my anger, my nastiness since I'd been married, this was fair punishment for me. This was the pain I rightfully deserved. But I asked God to spare Gatsby any pain. Please, God, don't hurt him because of me. And then God let me realize the bitter truth- that I had been hurting him all along. And I had the audacity to ask God not to hurt him. In truth, I realized that maybe God was taking him from me so that I couldn't hurt him anymore. Then I looked at my husband, who was also crying, while trying to come up with a plan of action for how to better search for Gatsby, and I thought, "Maybe God will take him from me so that I don't hurt him more either." And I sobbed, not with self-pity, but with a deep, mournful sorrow over the greatness of the loss, and the justice of it all.

Andy & I searched for over an hour. We got in the car and drove around, we searched on foot again, we talked to the folks in the apartment complex office and to some neighbors we didn't really know. No one had seen Gatsby. Finally, we went back into the apartment. Andy went to the computer to create a flyer. I got him a picture of Gatsby and he sat down to type up the necessary info before we went to FedEx Office and made a bunch of copies to post around the area. I sat with my back against our apartment door, in more intense emotional pain than I'd ever been in. I thought that my emotional pain was bad when I walked up the stairs that afternoon. Wasn't it catalyzing everything? Bumping my glass and spilling all the anger that was within me? But it was nothing compared with what I felt now. In the months since my wedding, I'd felt so far away from God. I couldn't figure out where He was, why He was letting me go through what I was going through. I knew we had been close once, but in my time of need, He seemed to have evaporated. I wanted Him, but I was having such a hard time finding Him. Then, today, He had shown Himself- not as the Comforter or the Restorer that I had been asking for- but as the Judge. He had sentenced me, and I hadn't even known that I was going to be on trial that day. But the ruling was fair, and I deserved my pain, and it was my own fault for thinking that I could get away with habitual sinning that hurt others. He had to put a stop to it. Any good judge would have.

I heard footsteps, heavy ones, outside the door. Someone was coming up the stairs. Then, a voice- the complex maintenance man, Charles, asking a neighbor where the people with the black and white dogs live. My muscles have never responded so fast. I was on my feet in milliseconds. I could hear it in Charles's voice, even before I swung open the door, and heard his words, "I found your little dog." I can't even remember if he told me where to go. He had barely gotten his first sentence out before I was sprinting down the stairs. When I got to the parking lot, I didn't look to see if cars were coming, or pay any attention to the curious neighbors looking at me. I was a mad woman, running recklessly toward the sound of a familiar bark.

He was in the side yard of the building adjacent to ours- a place we'd searched several times already. Some of the landscape crew had him cornered there, and he was barking at them. He looked confused but otherwise okay. I ran toward him and knelt down, more tears flowing than when I'd lost him. I opened my arms. He ran, and then everything was a blur of tears and black and white fur.

Snapshot 1- I am unconditionally loved. The Bible says this. Its storyline is all about grace. Grace is unmerited favor. It's not what we deserve. It's not based on what we do, how we behave, or what we can achieve. The Bible tells me so, but sometimes, because God is a God of grace, because He loves me with a crazy love that can't be explained except by the fact that He is love- He shows love in a way that our hearts will forever understand. In 2002, He gave a puppy to an arrogant, self-righteous young woman, and today, my heart understands that was an act of his great love for me, even when I was His enemy. And He shows mercy when justice is what's most appropriate. And this might be even greater evidence of God's unconditional love for me than when He gave me Gatsby in the first place. To be given the gift again,  even when I had proved that I thoroughly did not deserve it, was too selfish to care for it as I should. Nothing has ever been more convincing that God's love and His intentional goodness to me is not based on how I perform.

The day that Gatsby disappeared, I had no idea that Abba was telling me a story about His love for me. I didn't realize that He would, one day, point me back to that day so filled with sin, fear, sorrow and regret, and say, "Meredith, here you are and you're crying. You're in a lot of pain because you've lost the gift I gave you. But here in this snapshot, I've restored the gift to you. I restored it, not because you deserved to get it back, but because I love you."

Today, my desk calendar tells me that my dog is the only thing on earth that loves me more than he loves himself. But I know that's not quite true. Gatsby does love me unconditionally. He's still one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given (and re-given). But, the truth is, that the Giver loves me more than Himself, too. So, today, looking at this snapshot of who I am- when my Dad tells me that I am unconditionally loved, I look over at my black and white Cocker Spaniel, who's been sleeping beside me the whole time I've been writing, and I can say, with assurance and thanksgiving, "I know."

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