The One in Which I Die

I think what I’m about to embark on will be huge but not in the sense that I always thought it would. And I’m starting to realize the gift in that.

The younger me (let’s call her “Little Ericka” for funsies) would spend hours in front of the mirror, pretending to sit on Oprah’s white couch as she deprecatingly answered all of O’s questions about how she was able to publish fourteen million books and marry Prince William at the ripe old age of sixteen.

Delusions of grandeur. I’m afraid to look that phrase up in the dictionary lest I see somebody I used to know.

Nowadays? I’m dying. I don’t mean that literally (although technically, we’re all doing that, some just slower than others). What I mean is that I’m suffocating the illusion I always had in the back of my brain of who I was “supposed” to be. Or maybe I should say “disillusionment.” I am no more that naive little girl who thought blinking would produce a multi-million dollar book deal.

Let’s just say, I’m sitting here because it definitely didn’t.

Who I am is no longer wrought by my own hands. Instead? I’ve given me to Jesus. (And yeah, considering I was an atheist five mere years ago, I get how weird that will sound to a lot of you). But I’ve given everything I am over to my Creator, and I’m patiently waiting as He reveals the me I shall become.

You know that phrase “it’s all in the journey”? They’re not lying about that. It’s not about the goal itself or achieving it or the way your heart beats to break your ribs when you’ve accomplished the unimaginable. It’s about perservering as God molds you into the perfect version of you for HIS glory.

Not yours. Certainly not mine.

It’s about Him. It’s why I created this imprint. I want to be the vessel He uses to bring others (and myself) closer to Him.

I’ve never met Oprah. I most likely never will.

But I’ve met an incredible Father who keeps opening doors and windows for my willing little heart. And really? That’s all that matters anymore.

Running With Wolves

I gave my testimony the other night before the women’s group at my church. It was surreal. I hate public speaking, and crowds, and people focusing all their attention on me (which is why I’ll ask you a million questions so I never have to talk about myself), but I prayed hard that the Holy Spirit would take the lead and boy, did he ever.

I’m pretty sure I blacked out, but everyone said I did well so there’s that.

Following Jesus means doing hard things. It sometimes means giving everything about yourself for little return. And here’s the rub: why am I even holding my hand out, waiting to receive something in the first place?

This isn’t about me. It’s about Him.

In Luke (14:25-34), there’s a passage that talks about counting the cost of following Jesus. I’ve encountered people who seem to think church is just a weekly commitment, a Sunday ritual that’s as familiar as making a morning cup of coffee but not much more.

Why even go?

I don’t go to church to socialize. I HATE socializing, which again, is why I have to pray every second I’m there that the Holy Spirit takes over and softens my heart. I tend to be a cynical creature and have to ask God on the daily to tame my acerbic tongue and steady my eyes in my head lest they roll right out of their sockets.

The old Ericka was a real peach, FYI.

I go to church because hurting people go to church, and I want to know those people. I’m a “fringe seeker.” I want to know where the pained ones congregate so I can be there, too. I want to hear their stories. I want to pray with them. I want them to see what’s happened to me, behind what looks like a relatively put together person. Because we all have that: our outward persona. It’s our inward one that’s worth sharing.

Jesus said to be shrewd (Luke 16:1-13). To keep our eyes out for the wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 10:16). I think this is something that most Christians forget about. People generally just want to be nice, and make friends, and not rock the boat. But I want truth. I want to use my brain and heart to navigate towards those who are truly called to seek God.

Because that’s the thing: not everyone at church is.

But again, I have to also give my thoughts and words and mind and heart to Jesus. I am not the judge here. I keep my eyes open, but I also have to keep my love constantly available.

Because I used to be the problem, the wolf likely to devour a few beating hearts.

And if I can change, well, so can anyone.

The Chosen

Growing up Catholic, the idea that God has chosen the elect before he even set to creating our physical forms left a bitter taste in my mouth.

I’ve always been in favor of choice, of people making their own decisions and basking in that warm beautiful glow of free will.

And of course, when I became an atheist, this notion took root and weeded through my barely beating heart.

But ultimately, I’m a writer. And if I look too deeply into my (newly renewed) blood pumping organ, I can feel the idea of knowing and watching and willfully deciding fate at any given time sitting snugly behind my breat bone.

As a creator, I control the created.

As God, he controls our salvation.

I was listening to a podcast about this by Dale Partridge. If you haven’t listened to Real Christianity, I highly recommend you do. The American version of Christianity that runs rampant on every street corner does a poor job of giving followers a real Biblical perspective of the world around us.

And if you’re anything like me, books are the road maps to this life. Good thing, God has written us one.

A Thousand Paper Cuts

Writing this feels a little like walking to the guillotine. Honestly, I’ve never done it, but I’m sure my physical reaction would be similar.

My eyes hurt from the unchecked tears, and I can’t breathe. My skin feels like it’s suffering a thousand papercuts.

It’s death, just the slow-stepped version of it.

Our dog died Christmas morning. That sounds too neat. Too cut and dry.

Okay, so here’s this: my everything died Christmas morning. Not just my dog, but my past, my security, my understanding of this world.

My mistaken hope in what I can see and hold with my hands.

Roxie. Her name was Roxie. And we had her for thirteen years. A lifetime compact in a small body who loved me, unconditionally. I don’t know how to do that, frankly. I don’t know how to love anything so complete and pure. But she did. She taught me that.

I’m still learning.

The worst is maybe at night where I’ve forgotten who I am and what this feels like until my eyes open, and for one unfiltered second, everything is as it should be, until it isn’t. There are no good morning kisses. No early breakfast and bathroom break. No sharp barks at her bowl and the back door to inform me of the former. There’s no her. There’s no holding her and the way she’d grab my face with her paws and kiss me, and I swear that kiss could heal my heart.

I’m not always so good at living. I’m not always so good at peopling. I doubt myself and play the reel tape of all my mistakes, and Roxie was like having an assistant coach who’d kick me in the shins and tell me to stop being so hard on myself.

I guess my greatest fear is that I don’t know how to navigate something like that alone.

There’s a new phase on the horizon. It was inching in while Roxie was still here. My daughter is growing older and plays with her friends in the afternoon. My husband has a full time job. And then there’s me. I write. I do that. I’m not that bad at it, I guess. But the thing is, my computer never talks back. It won’t give me a hug. It won’t wake me out of my reverie with a sharp bark and a look.

I am now left to my own devices. The world is my oyster, as they say. And it seems to taste pretty rotten.

There are good things that have come from this. God has stripped me bare, and when He does that, I have to cling to Him. There is no other option. I can get angry. I can walk away. But when I do, I feel more alone than before.

He’s making me move, and my feet stumble towards him.

But there’s also the unknown, the bitter fact that there’s no Scriptural evidence that dogs go to heaven or anywhere pleasant for that matter. But I suppose, also, there’s no Scriptural evidence that they don’t. It would just be nice to have a window in the sky, a thin piece of glass I could press my nose against to watch her. To know she’s still safe and loved.

And that’s the thing. I’m no longer in control of that. And it hurts like hell.

So here’s something I’d like to say:

Dear Roxie,

You were and are so beautiful. You prepared me for motherhood. You helped prepare my heart to love others. You saw so much. You witnessed who I was before Jesus and who I was after. You gave me so much love and friendship, and when I doubted who I was and what I have to offer, I could see it reflected back to me in your eyes. We all miss you. Daddy and me and Ava and Rocco. We’re peering down a tunnel that leads away from this place, this moment. And it’s hard to keep walking and leave you here. But I’m afraid I don’t have any other option. We’ve been really good to each other in our grief. And we’ll continue to love each other like we loved you.

I’m sorry, baby girl. I’m sorry I have no say in this. I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you here forever. And my biggest prayer is that all of this is quite all right. That somewhere, you’re kicking me in the shins again, you’re holding my face in your tiny paws, and you’re telling me everything is perfectly as it should be.

I love you.

Mama

Like I said, a thousand papercuts, all screaming for attention. And all I have in my back pocket is the wind on my face and a Father who heals all wounds.

I pray with all my heart, it is enough.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 

Romans 8:28

God Only Knows

My most favorite and maybe even most fearsome picture is one of the author Joan Didion. She’s standing on the upper decking of a beach house that sits nestled close to the ocean, cigarette in hand, as her daughter Quintana and husband, John, lean against the railing close together, lips lifted in small smiles.

The things that grab my heart like two hands: 1) Joan is looking at them, not the camera. 2) Several years later, Quintana and John will die two years apart and Joan will live to write about it.

Live to write about it.

I feel like I’m doing a lot of that now.

My favorite prophet is Jeremiah. This seems like a non-sequiter, but I promise, it isn’t. He’s tasked with a huge ask: to share God’s words condemning idolatry, the greed of priests, false prophets…

He was only a child. And his reluctance took flight like a bird in a closed fist.

I feel that feeling. It’s like looking around and everything being in it’s exact place, but you know something’s off because you simply can’t breathe.

It reminds me of what I read (okay fine, listened to) about C.S. Lewis. One of his biographers dubbed him a reluctant prophet because He was an atheist called to God, not some studied Biblical scholar who knew all the answers.

The thing about C.S. is that he acknowledged the answers were very few but the evidence palpable. We can see enough of the detail to make out the picture. Or we can choose to be blind. C.S. changed his entire paradigm for Jesus. He was also given a wife who died of cancer and he, too, lived to write about it.

And so he did. Because God asked him to. But he couldn’t swallow for awhile. Swallowing, breathing. Different steps to the same dance.

I am not saying I’m a prophet. I am saying there’s a message shoved deep, a small bundle of letters trapped between the rocks of my ribs. There are so many different colors about this place: the bright red that tastes like bile because I can’t go back. There’s a wall every time I turn around; a yellow nauseaous aura that consumes my mind when I first wake up and that feeling of everything being the same but everything being different when I breathe in air; the cold hard blue of truth that God is in control and anything I ever thought tasted like it was mere metal in my mouth.

If you need proof, God already gave it to Job (Job 38:1-18):

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings
* shouted for joy?

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
   and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
   and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
   and it is dyed
* like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked,
   and their uplifted arm is broken.

‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
   Declare, if you know all this.

I sometimes wonder about that picture of Joan. I have a nonsensical thought, that maybe if she could have just looked up at the camera for one second, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe living and writing wouldn’t have been her only options.

But I know I’m a fool to think that, that she chose the better thing. To look at all God had given her (whether or not she knew that’s what she was doing), and to prolong that one moment before her worst nightmare became the only task God asked of her.

You take up your cross. You carry it. And God only knows to where you shall walk.

We Don’t Live There Anymore

I’m starting to realize I’ve cried more for a chihuahua mix this past week than I ever have for any human being.

I’m starting to worry about myself a bit.

But I’m also not worried one iota. This week has been the hardest and the best one of my life. For the first time, my toes have edged the threat of death, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to stare it directly in the face.

And I’m still here.

I’m realizing now where the suffering in my heart is coming from. Sure, I’m devestated I won’t see my dog again here on this earth, and there have been a few growing pains knowing life is still moving around me even when my chest feels empty (and that it’s probably less than beneficial for me to wear last night’s pajamas while watching Dr. Phil and eating icecream straight from the carton in bed – but how fun, right?). I have to go out. I have to look people in their faces. But what’s even harder to swallow than that is knowing I have to look back on the gift God gave me and weigh the purpose Roxie put forth in this world.

Love. Unconditional. It’s what she taught me. That, and having a gusto for playing ball and eating until you want to pass out. But I’ll probably take a rain check on the latter.

I’ve made it my life’s mission to do just this. It will look messy and awkward and have a complete Ericka twist to it where you’ll tell me something and then I’ll have you repeat it because I was busy daydreaming what it would be like to zoom through Wal-Mart wearing a jet pack.

I have a lot going on upstairs. Apparently.

But my heart will be in the right place even if I have to keep roughly repositioning it.

I didn’t cry last night. I didn’t have a panic attack, wondering about the void that is death and how it feels like its consuming every inch of me. I slept peacefully.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

It’s what I wholeheartedly believe.

Two things: Horatio Spafford wrote “It Is Well” after his son died in the Great Chicago Fire (which also ruined him financially) and four of his daughters died on a ship he put them on because he was delayed helping D. L. Moody with is upcoming evangelistic campaigns. His ship had to pass the exact location where his daughters had perished, and as his own ship moved past their final resting place, he wrote this:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

That, my friends, is what true faith is.

People always ask why bad things happen. As a writer, I couldn’t understand a world in which they didn’t. The bad is a dark shadow on a lonely plane and on that lonely plane is a house. It’s where we used to live and wallow in darkness but at the right exact time, the moon comes, and hovers above, it’s great orb of white highlighted by the other side of the sun. And we are bathed in everything good, and we feel it too: the high of letting go and loving until it hurts, bits of us flecking off like dust back to the earth.

And then the door opens and our feet are spurned to move down the path, closer to God.

And at that exact moment, we realize, we don’t live there anymore.

Burn Those Boxes

My experience of following Jesus started with the demonic. It was a black night terror sort of feeling and yet a strong powerful buzz that rushed through every single one of my cells.

God showed me the true darkness that lies beneath the shiny facade of this world. I didn’t know why until I had time to think and pray on it:

  1. I would never have become a Christian unless something drastic occurred (check).
  2. He wanted me to understand the power Satan can have over people (check check).

It’s easy to turn on the television and see skin and flesh and hate it with all your might. And if we go that route, that’s exactly the sort of thing the enemy will enjoy, sitting back to slow clap.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:12

A lot of you are trying to make sense of all these things and jam them tight into poorly made boxes. It’s a waste of perfectly good energy, friend.

And then, on top of that, once the boxes are crammed and the seams are spent and broken open, we like to go online and talk about what we’ve just done. How we’re right, everyone else is wrong, and ultimately we’ve solved the problem.

No. We are all wrong. Jesus is right. And he already solved the problem by dying on the cross.

You feel itchy, no doubt. Your hands want to do something, your mouth wants to say something. Well, here’s the good news: you’ve already been given a directive and here’s how that plays out:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Matthew 22: 37-39

Oh and one more:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

James 1:27

There are no sides. There are just people. As Christians – let me rephrase that – As TRUE believers (because not everyone who calls themself a Christian actually is), we’re to be medics and help any and everyone who needs our help. We’re to humble ourselves to Jesus and follow His command.

We are not to dole out personal judgment.

Does that mean we agree with the state of the world? No. But the world is the devil’s playground, a mere carbon copy of what it was originally meant to be. The boxes here are warped and won’t carry a darn thing.

So leave them. Walk away. Look at the world with fresh eyes and look at the people as flesh and blood and hurting hearts. We’re here to heal them, not break them. Something to never forget.

The Black Hole of Bitterness

It’s easy to not want to forgive. To slide feet first into the black hole of memory and bitterness.

It’s punishing yourself, over and over again.

People have theories about forgiveness, especially people who lack forgiving hearts. They see it as pardoning someone else, owing a horrible human being a favor because anyone who steps on somebody else’s pride has to be horrible right?

You’re the innocent. A sacrificial lamb. There are no black marks brusing your own heart.

False.

None of us are innocent in this game called life. When I remember that, it’s a lot easier to spot the momentous wall I’ve built up against the world and to smash it to smithereens.

I have a choice: choke on the pure image of I’ve made of myself (an idol that doesn’t actually exist) and my ruinous intent for the person in question or breathe.

Choosing the former is easy. It feels good. It takes no resolve or dignity or internal fortitude to allow yourself to be consumed by bitterness and rage. It’s just a matter of standing still and letting it happen. And then watching the years go by as you turn into someone that doesn’t love and doesn’t receive it in return.

But forgiving someone is an act of worship. It is active and a complete denial of the evil that started this whole mess in the first place. It’s a strong indication to Satan that you are not someone to be messed with. You will not be blindsided by his attempt to stroke the fire of your anger.

You rise above.

Jesus was the ultimate forgiver. He laid His life down for everyone who didn’t deserve it, and he did it with a heart for God.

It wasn’t about Him. It wasn’t about the mountainous work of growing His hatred, an act that never truly affects the person we’re angry with but works like cancer in our own body as well as our relationships. It was about glorifying God and proving that nobody and no thing would ever make the detrimental mistake of believing He’d sidestep His purpose for a lifetime of internal misery.

Forgive. Let it go. You owe it to yourself and your God.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

1 Peter 2:24 

My Friend Ericka

There’s another Ericka Clay.

I receive her emails from time to time (I suppose our email addresses are pretty close), and I’ve learned a lot about her.

She’s from Chicago. She has a daughter. She’s African American and enjoys martial arts and drives a luxury sedan. She travels a lot and has her own personal travel agent who plans vacations for her, like trips to the Bahamas.

Her two friends, Pam and Melvin, are getting married, and I’m invited to the wedding. Okay, she’s probably the one invited to the wedding but I’m the one who technically received the digitial invitation and can do a killer electric slide.

So you do the math.

It’s strange seeing your online counterpart live life and to take an extreme personal investment in someone you’ve never even met.

Well, maybe for some people.

I pray for her, Ericka Clay.

I pray for her friends, Pam and Melvin, that they have a beautiful wedding and a marriage that is a the true embodiment of God’s never ending love for them.

I pray for Ericka’s daughter and her upcoming parent/teacher meeting, which I’m sure will turn out just fine if she’s anything like her mother.

I pray for the trips Ericka takes and the car she drives, that both keep her safe on the road and in the air.

I pray for a woman I don’t know and will most likely never meet and who looks nothing like me and can’t know the thoughts in my head or the words in my heart.

But I pray for her, because her pulse throbs, and mine does too. She’s a child of God. And so am I.

I have His breath and so does she.

You see, it’s that simple.

We all need to stop making everything so complicated.

Complication is the devil’s dance, and right now, he’s doing it beautifully.

Let’s trip him up, shall we?

Let’s pray for and make friends with and serve those who are nothing at all like us.

And yet, everything we are, too.

And Then I’ll Smile

At night, near the end, Roxie would come into our room, requesting my pillow. She’d do this by sitting at the end of the bed and look at me silently. Her eyes were my downfall.

She might as well be asking me to give her the moon because I was three pillows in, my back perfectly situated several inches from the wall behind my bed. But I’d do it. I’d remove the middle pillow (admittedly, the least plumpiest one), and put it there on the floor where she’d lay down and breathe heavily for the rest of the night.

One day, I was in the kitchen and I was looking at the picture our daughter had drawn of our family. We are a small family, three people. Big personalities. Not to the outside world, though. To the outside world, we are the Clays. We are small people who are kind and generally seem to have it all together.

We are nothing if not con artists.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. We’re not going to swipe your wallet any time soon (although Ava’s a bit of a wild card, so keep an eye out). I just mean we hold our cards to our chests because they’ve all been defaced with that dubious art of living.

We’ll be honest with you. We’ll love you through unending acts of service. But except for a select few, the curtain will remain closed.

Nothing to see here, folks.

I was studying that picture. I look like a dowdy fraternity house mother who needs to get her roots touched up and Matt looks like the questionable neighbor leering out his window across the street. Then there’s Ava, mouth wide in an excited “o,” (smiles are so last year), holding Roxie who looks more like a horrified meerkat than a dog, and then Rocco, a wild fox/half lemur at her feet.

I remember looking hard at that picture, at Roxie, thinking one day, this picture will be a lie.

And now it is.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about how I hate the cold and hate the hot but also love winter but then kind of despise it.

She laughed. And I put up my hands and said, “I don’t even know what I want.”

This over a plate of tacos.

I don’t want the past, necessarily. But there are moments of it I’m still swimming in. The present is too complex for me to think about sometimes, and the future? The future is the enormous rock down the lane that my feet walk towards, but I’m too put off by the fact that I have to walk there myself to realize how much closer I’ve gotten to it.

I think about this. About the universe God created and how much reason and logic has been drilled into it. We don’t go spinning, uprooted off this earth on Tuesday only to be safely spun back down on Wednesday. I think about chaos theory, how there’s an infinite number of ways to lose your mind and break your heart, but at the crux of it is God’s hand, his order, always guiding you home.

He can’t leave me. I won’t let Him. Because without Him? There’s no more honesty. There’s no more unending acts of service.

The curtain becomes a wall, and He’s no longer allowed to live behind it.

So these are the things I think about, and then someone comes up, a new person. Someone who will see me, small and slight, particularly unassuming. They will think, she looks like a nice person, and find comfort in the modest way about me and come to say hello.

And I will want to peel back the surface of hair and pore and skin and skull and brain until they see the workings of my own chaos, how it’s patterned and approaching a reasonable sense of stability.

But instead, I’ll just say “Hi, I’m Ericka.”

And then I’ll smile.