Love Never Fails
Jessica Lipps (MCS ’12), passionate about the mind, body, spirit integration in the context of personhood in Christ, holds a bachelor’s in elementary education and math, a master’s in theology and culture, and has been a lifelong practitioner of somatic arts (karate, yoga, and more recently, dance and Feldenkrais). This, cocktailed with a journey of emotional recovery, has led to a deeper transformation of her heart’s identity in Christ. She writes, dances, and volunteers with a hospice, and lives with her husband Jonathan in San Francisco. She blogs at birdandbabe.com.
A Shopping Spree and the Ancient of Days
When we call out to God, he answers us. In the midst of our pain, in the midst of our confusion, he is always there. The hardest part, though, is asking to see, asking to hear, asking to be part of our renewal—seeing that we need renewal.
During a recent trip to Hawai`i, I had one such experience of seeing more of myself. I had drastically overspent and was intoxicated with a certain shopping experience to the point that I couldn't see my double vision.
In the land of sand and skin, I saw more of my nakedness (and, no, not from wearing a swimsuit for the first time in ages). Instead, my exposure came out of prayers my heart confessed and expressed: Lord, give me eyes to see and ears to hear. Free me from the feeling of wanting.
So often, those who pray are looking for an “answer” that will feel comforting, soothing, and in line with their own desires. They’re not open to a new way. In fact, some of the best and truest conversations with God result in painful relinquishment of our wants and being freed from our compulsions, and because of that, we experience a new kind of delectable nurturing. This is a story about the courage to unclothe my heart in the presence of God and myself, and return to that kind of paradise that cannot be lost.
I went to Hawai`i for a wedding. My dear friend and her soon-to-be spouse were best friends in grade school, middle school, high school, and college. They played in the lush land of Honolulu, perhaps evoking the image of life-long friends and mates in a garden. Their love blossomed much later in life when she was in Washington D.C. and he just leaving the American military. So, this was a special event I did not want to miss. Plus, I had never been to Hawai`i, and at the encouragement of my husband to be our familial ambassador (due to financial restraint), I couldn't help but go! I was excited to feel the sand between my toes in the middle of paradise.
There was a free morning during the wedding weekend that I decided to make my own. I was hungry for fruit—specifically a Fuji apple—and wanted some quiet beach time with a book. Since I was staying in busy, modern Honolulu (think Chicago on a strip of beach), I wanted to discover the smaller, more intimate parts of the island I had heard about, such as Kailua. I wanted to experience the prolific vegetation, gorgeous views, and be in the midst of the gigantic, volcanic mountains I saw. I drove through a pass that was luscious and enchanting—feeling strangely lured by a particular mountain that felt nurturing to me—and found the apple I craved at a grocery store. Right around then, I also craved some shop-browsing. Since boutiques neighboured this posh food store, I couldn’t help but take a stroll in the opposite direction of my car.
I meandered through one swimsuit shop and quickly walked out—I did not need those tiny Brazilian bikinis and I reminded myself that my husband and I had committed to just the essentials for now. Even with the note to self, I noticed that the browsing was subtly turning into shopping. I moved on to the next store and loved that their floor-to-ceiling doors were their windows. The plush, jersey fabrics hung nonchalantly and beautifully from the hangers and, before I knew it, I was inside. The clothes felt cool to the touch. I found myself quickly picking up every shirt that I liked and slopping it over my arm, just so I could have the option of choosing once in the dressing room. I added pants and jewelry and undergarments. I was even looking at sweatpants (and I never really wear them anymore). The conversation between me and the store was based on attractive appeal, cordial what-ifs and yes-you-may-take-these-thank-you responses. Everything was soft and in my favourite colour palette.
When I went into the dressing room, my delight got the best of me. I heard myself reply to the store attendant with exuberance, “Everything is marvellous!! I'm loving everything that I try on!” For a split-second, I had an out-of-body experience and could hear that I seemed a little out-there. I was more than just gleeful and excited to come across some great designs and fabrics. I was becoming drunk with everything around me in this lush and perfect clothing store. It was heavenly. The clothing labels even said “Made in Paradise.”
I rationalized that I needed these clothes as I tallied up the numbers.
The first reason came running: I dislike shopping and here are all the most wonderful clothes I could ever imagine all right here, in one spot. Why buy just one piece when I could buy many more and save time in the year to come?
The second one hit me: gotta strike while the iron is hot. Who knows when I will come across a find like this again, even though it falls outside my budget?
Let’s not forget, I hadn’t bought clothes in a while and if I were to stack up all of my shirts, they would measure about an inch high. Not joking. My two pairs of jeans and my two pairs of shoes still wouldn’t grow the pile higher than six-inch stilettos. My two yoga pants might but regardless, I needed the leggings, pants, and jeans I was trying on.
A mountain began to grow that I called The Keep Pile, and it rested nicely on the little stool that served as the chair. But instead of ascending the mound with excitement, my heart began to sink. I had to phone my husband and share what was also piling high: the big fat round rough number before tax. (About this time, and possibly noticing my silence, my store-clerk friend had introduced me to the store manager, who wondered if I wanted water. This question woke me up to the realization that I had spent the better part of the morning there and would soon miss the start of the wedding-weekend barbecue. And I still needed to do some work in between...Then, as if she had remembered there was a different bottle in the back, she asked, “Actually, how about champagne?”)
While I waited, I made the phone call, wondering what figure to say. I mustered the courage to reveal the true number. We trusted each other, and I wanted to continue to build off of that trust. He had no jaw-dropping reaction because his temperament is as even as a metronome. His response was an even measure comprised of a little surprise mixed with delight that I “found my store.” He shared what I knew: he trusted me, this usually doesn’t happen, and that he was aware of my clothing drought over the years.
Sipping my bubbly, and back in concert with the store ladies, I threw in a couple of other superfluous items I had not tried on. They felt gentle, and I would eventually need them. Plus, I had just found out that I had two weeks to return all the items, so why not? I wanted and needed to move on with my day. I also wanted to have some space to sit with everything. So, I did what any rationally minded person would do: I lobbed them onto the heap.
When the clerk added up the price tags (the pile was about a foot-and-a-half high), she simply turned the screen around and pointed. I saw numbers and a comma. A part of me froze and a part of me said a quick prayer, Anything Lord? Want me to do anything?? Because I wasn’t struck by a lightning bolt (and because I took only about a second to listen), I went forward and felt a new sense of excitement and trepidation; an exhilaration at falling and jumping off a cliff with my desire in hand. I lost my stomach in the whirlwind of my choice, and it felt amazing.
When I returned to my temporary home, I hoped with all my heart that no one was home. I did not want to walk into the house (when they knew the barbecue was just ending) with bags of clothes in my hands. I shopped for too long regardless of whether or not the public internet at the coffee shop was lousy. Twenty minutes turned into two hours.
In my room, I sorted my new clothes. Everything still seemed like a worthwhile purchase. Over the past four or five years, I had slowly said goodbye to good articles of clothing that had simply worn out with time, and I had consciously chosen not to replace them. Sure, I had gotten the occasional jean here or a new pair of stretch pants there, but other than that, there was no “shopping” to talk about because I—because we—had chosen to put our resources elsewhere.
The first day after the purchase, and with prayer, nothing seemed to change. I was still stoked about the two bags of clothes. I was surprised that there was no buyer’s remorse, underscoring in my mind the right decision was made. Then, I thought that maybe it could be beneficial to go through them again just to see if there was anything I wanted to return. So I did. There was nothing. However, I continued to pray, asking that I would be free from a sense of want, if any was present. I was open. I also did not want this incident to arise in my marriage twenty years later.
Meanwhile, driving through the volcanic mountains with their green, luscious sides, I couldn't help but feel the ancient energy and spirit exuding from them like a pulse. For the first time in my life, I could understand—not from a cognitive perspective but from an experiential, embodied one—why tribal people could worship, say, a mountain.
Because I was so blown away that I could actually feel the beauty and oldness of the place, I shared my sentiments with some locals at the various wedding festivities. They affirmed what I felt and gave me a word for it. I was feeling the aina. They were also a bit surprised that I picked up on it given that I had just arrived; one in particular told me that aina meant “the land” and that I was feeling the laaannnd. To me, I was just noticing what I was sensing.
All of this also broadened my perspective in a different way. For the first time, I got a very small glimpse of the Ancient of Days. It felt like a smell, as if the Known Mystery had a scent but it was experienced and unfolded in the texture of Time. I have experienced the relational, trinitarian God in my life, and in various seasons, I have come to understand his different names—Creator, Abba, Love, I Am, the Risen Lord—but never Ancient of Days until on that island.
Being near this mountain and the land—this aina—helped me to wonder about the ancient days of God and feel the ancientness of God for the first time. Growing up in an evangelical tradition, I knew God as a friend, modern and here, not concerned with the past. He was present and walking with me. During my formal theological studies at Regent, I encountered a deeply personal energetic Presence who helped me to know I was known and held by Christ. This God also helped me to see that history mattered and that I was in a Story, and in a particular chapter of that larger story. He began to wake me up and connect me to the Present. In my more recent monastic days with dance and prayer, I’ve encountered his Breath—Ruach—and have experienced this gentle, healing Breath inside me, sometimes being my very own Oxygen and Living Water. This Presence is Gentleness, Love, and Compassion; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Wholly Other and One. Here in Honolulu, I was able to experience the awe of God’s mysterious and primeval presence inside my body on a cellular level, as we say in the somatic world. The Ancient of Days.
On the second day after my purchase, I decided to go through my two bags again. My husband and I talked and everything was still the same. He was open and trusting. But because I wanted to be as wide-eyed as possible about this, I dug through my things to see if I could create a new pile: The Returns.
I said a prayer to Jesus and tried on all the clothes again. Even though my guest room only had a small mirror, I made do. I did not want to trek all the way to the bathroom every time I switched clothes. I would be seen. I put on my lenses of pickiness and began seeing what I could do about The Returns and The Keeps and a growing third “pile”: The Questions.
How did I become such a person that I even had the opportunity to be so discriminating with clothes?
Was having particular affinities and interests wrong?
Was appreciating good craftsmanship/craftswomanship bad?
These questions were not new to me, but that day, they had arisen from my sorting and reflecting and, just as well, created a real mound next to the others. I continued to pray that I would see in myself anything that wasn't whole or healthy or beyond a fun treat. Lord, give me eyes to see and ears to hear. I am open. I trusted that this meditative, chant-like prayer would once again reconnect me to the Creator, regardless of possibly having eaten the fruit of temptation.
On the third day after my purchase, I woke up and was excited to head to the beach. I would be in Kailua again (where I bought the clothes) and thought it was best to Get This Over With. I managed to grow The Returns pile and just to quadruple-check everything, I went through the two clothing hills again. I began to see what a luxury all of this was, and, if I’m honest, one we couldn’t actually afford. While I began to see that none of the purchases were bad, and that the reasons were real and great—even honest and valid—the real bottom line was that we could not afford them AND that my actions violated the very agreement we had made with our budget. That was the nugget. Right around then, I received a text from him saying he was thinking of me.
All of a sudden, I began to see more clearly. I was horrified at my purchase—the purchase that the clerk only pointed to. I then felt this burning sensation. The clothes were lighting me on fire. Burning a hole in me. All of it, all of it, needed to go. Grateful I had two weeks to return them, I scooped up the clothes, stuffed them into one bag, and headed to my rental car.
On my drive, I listened to a song that my husband Jonathan had sent me the night before. It was a new song he had written while I was away. It was gorgeous and real and life-giving. It called me into a place of clarity, where I could see my choice to fall so clearly. There was no excitement anymore, only trepidation. There was starkness and emptiness with nothing covering it up. I saw the lie that was seductive and beautiful, by which I chose to allow to be seduced, swooned, intoxicated. I began to cry. The song ended, and I played it again.
I began my ascent through the mystical mountain pass, and I wept. The words were suspended in ethereal, melodic tones as if they were hanging vines from the trees outside my car window, lifting me out from the swamps. I was feeling more alive, feeling more of my existence, and cleansed with every tear shed. It was a really weird but really present experience, as if my heart was a filter going through a larger filter. This reality came from the inside of me and what was left was a desire for wholeness, not clothes. I longed for the heart’s nakedness in God’s presence and in those moments, with those tears of renewal, I was. I was unclothed in the Love that never fails.
Coming out of the tunnel, literally and metaphorically, and upon seeing the volcanic mountain, I did not feel as connected to it as I had before. I could not actually feel its presence. Instead, I was feeling the Living Water inside me and around me, nourishing me from within.
I arrived at my destination. I popped open the trunk, lifted out the heavy bag, and walked on the imprinted cobblestone parking lot. Symbolism and reality met as if they were two circles overlapping into one concentric whole. The burning was hotter as the bag got heavier. I swore it would tear any moment. With each heel striking the pavement, I wondered what was I going to say once inside the store. I saw those doors, and before I knew it, I was propelled in.
I heard myself say to the first person I saw (which happened to be the store clerk), “I love your store. I need to return everything.” I couldn’t wait to be free from the heaviness of my hand and heart. All the tags accompanied the clothing, the receipt was in the bag. The store clerk’s eyes bugged. She quickly said, “I’ll get my manager!” before swivelling around, her hair catching up a second later. There was no in-concert manifesto now.
I went to where the deed was done and hauled the bag onto the counter. I waited for the champagne pourer to come my way. “I love your store. I need to return everything.” I liked the newfound clarity, honesty, and strength I felt within, even though I simultaneously felt weak and spent. “We actually don’t do returns,” she said in a friendly, soft voice as if reality could be changed with the nicety of tone. The floor of my heart went out from under me. “We do exchanges. We could definitely exchange something if there was an item you didn’t like.” I felt stung as if by a fighting eel. Panic set in quickly, and I knew I had about sixty seconds before I would collapse.
She continued on but I interrupted, aware of my emergency situation. I clarified. I shared what I had been told. But in hearing my uttered words, I knew all of this was futile. Regardless of what I remembered and what was relayed, the error was in my original choice, not in this apparent miscommunication. Even if I had been told that I could return the clothes—as in return them the way every other store understands that word.
I thanked her for clarifying and scrambled. Hot tears erupted out of my tear ducts as I pushed the doors and felt more of the sting. I felt so solidly locked into my decision, so finite; so enclosed by reality that I felt I could not move. There was no way to manoeuvre out of this concrete situation.
In my hot car, I wept. I felt so ensnared and aware, so awake and so remorseful of my choice. I had taken something wonderful and somehow had lost sight in the midst of it. In this car sauna—this inferno—I confessed. I acknowledged my actions to this Ancient of Days. I apologized and asked for forgiveness. In the midst of my hot tears in my hot environment, where I could barely breathe because it was so hot, all I could think about was reconciling with him—my husband—even though there hadn't been something between us. While an ocean separated us, I could phone, hear his voice, and he could hear mine. I could share my revelation and apologize to him and to us.
He answered the call and immediately knew something was wrong. I could not quite find my words, much less deliver them in a stable fashion. They were fidgety, wobbly, and remorseful with each inhale and exhale. The thing I remember from the conversation above all else was his words, “I have so much forgiveness. In fact, forgiving you doesn’t take any of the forgiveness out from my well!” I would later learn that he went through his own journey of choice with one step leading to another, soon losing his way, and then experiencing the warm forgiveness from the Love that never fails. He was embracing me with this Love that he was embraced by. I was held and beheld in it.
On my last day in Hawai`i, I was in Kailua again (this time truly at the beach with a book) and figuring out which route to take back: the H3 scenic route or the lush mountain pass. I noticed some fear and hesitation when thinking about the latter. Then I wondered why. Was there a lustful connection between me and the spirit of the mountain? It was a weird thought. I knew the original action was mine. Why was I fearful to make that drive through the mystical mountain range? I decided there was no fear in Love. That I was clothed in it and that I could actually love this mountain, even though I felt from it a sense of lustful wanting in a form of deceptive care.
I put on the song my husband had written, rolled down the windows all the way, and sang from the belly of my soul. With both my stomach and heart intact again, I made the climb in my car and came face-to-face with that volcanic emerald green mound. I then decided to do something crazy. I talked to it while at a red light. I shared how its Creator loved it too, how it had beauty, and how it was under the God of Love like everything else. Right then, I felt a spiritual chiropractic adjustment. The light turned green, and I continued on my way, with a bizarre wondering if land could fall too.
This is a revised version of the story that appeared on Jessica Lipps's blog birdandbabe.com.