Finding Grace in Hard Places…

Come Saturday afternoon, when the preparation work is done, time to find a quiet place with delicate petals and long quiet, and settle into life-nurturing words. Words that prepare for the work of grace. Transformative words that will linger, percolate down to the hard places, soften with healing oil. Good, long-lasting words.

Some books offer bullet points, sterile checklists, action plans. Well and good, even needful. Some books wax eloquently, poetic and lyrical, but leave us hungry for something meaty and filling. Rare is the read that serves up something deeply soul and mind satsifying that is, too, lush and rich and worth savoring.

Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places is that rare read. It’s as Edward Gilbreath writes; this is a book with “a storyteller’s charm and a Bible teacher’s grit.” (If you’ve read any of Mark Buchanan’s works, this book deserves a place on the same shelf.)

The striking literary prose of this book leads us into L.L. Barkat’s own story, a river running with pain, shame and abuse. How does one find a way across life streams that threaten to sweep us away? One finds stone crossings, grace that is “as real and solid as stones: tangible, weighty, something to hold on to.”

And as we prepare for a Sabbath, this is a good book for a Saturday afternoon (for a life) of reflecting on the radical power of grace. For as L.L. Barkat writes,

Grace. That’s the centerpiece of Stone Crossings, shared through the hard and hidden places of my life and the bible. In sun-dappled creekbeds and strawberry fields, in the dark belly of a whale and on parched desert plains, grace makes its appearance page after page. Then it gently calls out, “Where have you been, where are you now, where do you want to be?”

Questions worthy of deeply pondering, especially for us bruised and broken ones, with our own woundings. … I have a few more for the wise L.L. Care to join us for a cup of tea on the front porch? You take the swing and I’ll pour the tea.

L.L. this is, truly, a book to revisit, an intelligent book of beauty and depth. I’ve been thinking on this shimmering line, one that rings true for me, “

“I can’t ever remember even one [sermon] about God my lover who seeks me in a blatant Song of Songs kind of love that brings a person to her knees.”

Might you share more why you may not have heard a sermon like this, why you step out of your church experience to speak like this? And how do you personally meet God daily as your lover? How does that practically live itself out in the grit of our everyday life?

L.L. Barkat: In the past, my church has tended to depict God in terms of safe, traditional images: father, shepherd. I don’t know that this will continue under our new pastor; he seems to be in touch with the richness of scripture, its unabashed portrayal of God as Lover. Why, just this Sunday, he talked about God as a dance partner who takes us by the hand and whispers, “Look in my eyes.”

Personally, I have struggled with addressing God as Father. I think anyone who reads Stone Crossings will completely understand this struggle. For me, God as Lover is actually safer and more inviting. The tenderness, gentility, and deep longing implicit in that image speaks to my heart and wounded soul.

Experiencing God this way also tends to motivate me more seriously. The thought of disappointing the Lover of My Soul creates a poignant urgency that other images like Father or Shepherd fail to produce, at least for me. For anyone who wants to see how this plays out in the “grit of everyday life”, from dealing with sin to bringing praise and pleas, I suggest a quiet visit to my prayer blog Love Notes to Yahweh.

The truth of God as our Lover, and us living in intimate love communion with Him is a powerful one, L.L. And yet, we all may have experienced, at one time or another, how terrifying relationships may be. You thoughtfully write:

“Maybe I am still more wounded than I think, hesitant to invest myself in others, to give myself fully like my mother did, fearing I’ll end up with nothing… In my worst moments, I even view the ordinarly relationships of life as obstacles to my fulfillment and achievements.”

How do we bruised ones, perhaps with scraped identities and broken places, take the risk to invest in relationships? I often express it that “relationship is the essence of reality“– and as you write, we can reflect on how God Himself is “really a relationship in orbit.” Might you delve deeper into the idea that Christianity is foundationally a set of relationships? And how might that look in our everyday life?

L.L. Barkat: As you might guess, being a child of divorce many times over and having grown up in a threatening family environment, I find relationships to be one of the more challenging aspects of life. Give me a blank page to fill, or put me in front of an audience to speak and I’m fine. Ask me to sacrifice in relationship or open my heart just a little bit wider and I become timid or resistant.

Like you say, I believe that the power of Christianity is made manifest in relationships first and foremost. So I can’t let myself off the hook on this matter. Regardless of my past and my learned behaviors, I try to build relationships and I talk to myself a lot in my head to keep moving forward. I also rely desperately on the Holy Spirit to show me the way.

For instance, I remember one night when my eldest daughter was being very needy at bedtime. She kept pulling on me and fussing, not wanting to let me go. I could feel my heart rate accelerating and my cheeks getting hot. I was breathing too fast and becoming irritable. Then this Still, Small Voice explained that if I would simply sit quietly and fill my daughter’s need by holding her close, the need would soon dissipate. She just wants to know that you really love her, suggested the Voice.

Of course, the Spirit was right. I sat quietly in the dark and held my daughter close. I let my breathing get in sync with hers. Slowly, she became limp in my arms, at peace and ready to rest.

One of my favorite examples from the book, of a similar moment of truth with the Holy Spirit, is in the chapter on forgiveness. There I was minding my own business, relishing some bitterness about my grandmother, and the Holy Spirit broke into my thoughts with an unusual assertion… that I was being an idolater, putting myself up on a pedestal in an act of self-worship over and against my grandmother. Now, I must tell you that the Spirit has had further reach with this. Just the other day, a woman wrote this, after reading Stone Crossings…

“For years I have been told that until I could forgive the ones that harmed me I could not heal and grow. Until I read [your] words in the chapter on forgiveness, nothing any one said, nothing I read in the bible or any where else made an impression on the hate I held inside. I realize now that I treasured that hate and made it an idol. [Your] words have opened that door to freedom for me.”

Moving, L.L.. And that the Spirit is moving through these stories, ripples of healing. For me, reading of your interior dialogue at the crossroads of when you chose to come home full-time has had a powerful effect. You wrote of your seven-month-old daughter refusing to eat while at daycare.

“After two weeks of this, we took Sara to the doctor, who asked us, ‘Has something shanged in Sara’s life? Babies who are distressed sometimes go on hunger strikes.’ I was at a crossroads. My daughter wanted me, but I wanted a life. What’s more, I wanted house.”

Might you share how sacrifice continues to factor into your life and choices. How do you experience God’s grace in those cross-road places?

L.L. Barkat: Okay, I’m having a private moment of mild amusement right now. Because here I was sharing that I talk to myself, in response to the last question, and now you mention my interior dialogue. Clearly I talk to myself more than I thought! But it’s not really just to myself I suppose. It’s a process of laying out the pieces of my life and my struggles with sacrifice, before God in my thoughts.

I wish I could say that I simply do things out of a heart of great love and selflessness, but it is more as you say. Life feels full of sacrifice, sometimes little and sometimes big. Washing laundry I didn’t soil, cooking food that will feed others, holding my tongue when I’d rather speak, sharing my finances and my substance, and so on. Yet I actually experience grace more fully in the hard places of sacrifice because I’m reminded of Jesus’ selfless sacrifice for the world. In moments when it hurts a little to give, I remember that it hurt Him a lot more to give His very life, and yet, and yet… He reached through the hurt to embrace us with grace.

Thank you, L.L.. And on the afternoon before Sunday, you’ve brought us to a good place, with good words reaching through our hurt, embraced by grace. We’ll sip tea, and turn the pages of a deep book meant to be slowly savored. A book on grace and the Cross and a steady stone for all our steps through and a story that helps us “find the rock of God’s grace in the midst of [our] own broken and hard places. And his grace will give [us] a new story to tell” …

To hear excerpts of Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places (InterVarsity Press) click here
To read L.L. Barkat’s blog
To read excerpts of Stone Crossings on Amazon