Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Testimony, Part 4C - "The Teabag is in the Tea"

And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.
[Romans 5:5 NIV]

Therefore, thus says the LORD, "If you return, then I will restore you - before Me you will stand; and if you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become My spokesman. They for their part may turn to you, but as for you, you must not turn to them."
[Jeremiah 15:19 NAS]

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
[Psalm 147:3 NIV]

Continued from last week…
(see 9/15/10 "Testimony, Part 4B – Diamonds in the Dirt”)

The Price of Love

Love is always a risk - choosing to open our hearts in spite of the possibility of pain, injury or loss. I wasn't surprised that Mario liked Heather Clark's song "The Price of Love" (end of 9/15 posting) because he and I had discussed this even in our twenties, when we fought so hard against our pain with only human love as a weapon. It's what the lyrics to "Heart on My Sleeve" were all about - choosing to love anyway, even though "you tend to get burned, you tend to get bruised" and so on.

Risk is not necessarily reckless - choosing to risk getting hurt doesn't mean you haven't thought things through or wisely counted the cost. Mario remarked in those early weeks that, because we both had young adult children, we shouldn't be "reckless" - the next day he admitted to looking online at home prices in the Northern Virginia area where I lived ("Holy cow!" he wrote - definitely more expensive than Colorado). I laughed that just looking wasn't reckless, it was kinda cute; of course, acting on that idea so soon would have scared the daylights out of both of us!

Mario was processing residual feelings from our previous relationship as well as the possibility of hurting me if he didn't survive. He'd recovered fairly well from the stroke - he said his right side felt cold and slightly numb but not paralyzed - his eyesight and typing speed weren't the greatest, but his mind and heart were very much alive. The cancer prognosis was not necessarily fatal - it was serious, but there was a treatment plan (6 to 8 weeks of radiation, 4 months of chemo followed by another PET scan), and the medical team did not discourage his hope for a full recovery.

I sobbed after our first phone call, but not because I thought he would die. As I said last week, faith for healing was easy for me. But Mario touched my heart in places that hadn't been touched in a very long time, and that was frightening at first. I didn't realize how much the pain of divorce had "shut down" my emotions. It was shocking to hear the voice of a man I had loved as a very young woman, exclaiming, "I was crazy about you! I still drink coffee because of you!" I hadn't mattered that much to anyone in many years. I prayed with a couple of Christian friends who encouraged me to allow God to open my heart and heal, even though it was really uncomfortable and a little scary at times.

I like the “alabaster box” model of Christianity (Mark 14:3-8) – giving my all for God (who is Love), no matter what the cost, is a way of life for me. So my biggest issue with "risk vs. recklessness" was wanting to be sure that I was in the will of God. For example, I had planned to go on a mission trip to Guatemala in September, but now I felt a sense of urgency to visit Mario, who was facing life-threatening illness with only the faintest knowledge of Christ. He respected the Catholic traditions of his Latin upbringing, but hadn't formally practiced any religion since adolescence. There was a team going to Guatemala, and another team of friends and medical professionals assembling to help Mario through his cancer treatment - what was my “mission” going to be this year?

A friend who prayed with me at church said, "Wow, wherever God is sending you, I feel that you are definitely going in the power of the Holy Spirit!" My pastor preached that day about Jesus taking His disciples out on the sea, "God will send you into a storm..." When I heard those words, somehow I knew I needed to go to Colorado, to share God’s Love and pray with my dear friend in person. Although my heart was involved both personally and spiritually – honestly? I was willing to get my heart broken if necessary, if I could help in any way to be sure of Mario’s salvation.

"The Teabag is in the Tea"

As I made plans to go to Colorado for a week at the end of September, I was concerned about the tension I felt “between soul and spirit" (Hebrews 4:12). It wasn’t a matter of physical temptation – I would be staying with Christian friends and visiting Mario during the day - he and I were clear that there wasn’t going to be any immorality. But the intensity of renewed emotions combined with the seriousness of his health issues created a sense of urgency – God’s Love invaded my heart and it was hard to tell the difference between His Spirit and my humanity. Church people will tell you to “guard your heart” and that “missionary dating” (trying to share the gospel when you’re romantically involved) doesn’t usually work. My pastor released me to go, but advised me not to let my heart go beyond the Holy Spirit’s leading; because of my history with Mario, I was afraid our hearts were already there.

The pastor’s sermon about God sending you into a storm was, “Sometimes God will lead you into a storm to expose what’s in your heart.” Do you think the Son of God didn’t know the weather was about to turn ugly when Jesus took His friends out on that boat? Sometimes God will send you into a storm to refine your faith; sometimes He has to expose what's in your heart so He can heal it. One thing I learned through all of this is that God is the ultimate “multi-tasker” – He’s always doing way more than one thing at a time! And He almost never does things the way we think He should.

As I wrestled with these issues, a dear friend who’d been praying for me said she felt that God wanted her to share an odd-sounding prophetic word: "The teabag is in the tea," she said. I understood immediately: God’s Love is poured out into our fleshy human hearts, and it isn’t always possible to separate His Love from ours. I would have to allow God’s Spirit to work both in me and through me, in spite of my discomfort, relying on Him step by step for wisdom and guidance. “And enjoy the journey,” she said. “God is going to surprise you with many beautiful gifts along the way.”

God's Masterpiece

I’d forgotten, in the 25 years since I’d left, how much the Colorado Springs landscape looks like a postcard almost anywhere you go. (We used to joke about how the college catalog managed to include Pike’s Peak in every photo.) Every day of that week in September 2006 was like new brushstrokes being added to a beautiful painting - God's masterpiece.

Mario and I had both stayed busy with work and raising our children after our (separate) divorces; neither of us had really dated for many years, so this visit was like a series of “first dates,” with a fairytale quality due to the connection and contrast between past and present. How cool was it for me, at almost 49 years old, to hear the guy who knew me when I was his 22 year old “hot girlfriend” (when he first said those words, I wondered who he was talking about! LOL) say that I was honestly more beautiful now and that I looked so much happier. Mario had known an unsaved Gina who used to smoke and curse “like punctuation” – seeing me, still “me” but now a Christian woman full of light and love, arriving just as his life had been looking so bleak… he told my friends, who invited him over for dinner, “God certainly has my attention!”

On our first day we drove to a south Denver Costco (I work for Costco and he’d never been to one), laughing all the way there and back. While he drove, I asked him 114 questions from those email questionnaires usually shared among female friends - you know, what’s your favorite food, movie, TV show - I figured it wasn’t “a guy thing” and his typing wasn’t fast enough to answer online anyway. Mario grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, so his answers combined New York City sarcasm (Q. “What’s your favorite brand of clothing?” Mario: “Vapid question. Ask a model!”) with his buoyant love for life (Q. “What’s your favorite sound?” Mario: “Jackhammers” – he’d recently enjoyed helping his contractor tear out a botched patio – “and the sound of little children laughing” – his neighbor did home daycare, and he loved hearing their voices in the air as they played, unseen, in her backyard).

We visited places we'd been before – apartments I’d lived in when we dated; a scenic overlook where we used to admire city lights spread out like jewels on black velvet; and the college radio station, where I wrote on the autograph wall, “Gina ’80, back with Mario in 2006.” He also took me to new places: into the mountains, along Phantom Canyon Road and 11-Mile Reservoir, where he’d enjoyed ice-fishing with his son - this was not the city-bred Mario I’d known before! He’d learned to appreciate vast peaceful places that were bigger than he was, where he said he “felt God” more than in man-made environments which he tended to dominate.

And God was definitely touching Mario all week long. Some days I spent hours just listening – Mario wasn’t a fan of counseling, and he’d stored up a lot of hurts and regrets over the years. I sat quietly in God’s Presence while he talked, and let the Holy Spirit be his Counselor. (Each time that happened, he called to thank me later - I realized I hadn’t done or said much at all, but he felt tremendous relief and peace.) I prayed with him for healing. I asked if he believed that Jesus Christ was his Savior and he said, “Absolutely!” I gave him a paperback Message New Testament, endorsed by Bono on the back cover – that was funny to us, because Mario had taken me to Denver’s Rainbow Music Hall to see U2 on their first U.S. tour in 1981. He said he would read it and try to get to know God better.

In spite of our deep affection, Mario and I didn't "fool around" because we knew this was a serious relationship. We talked about the possibility of a future together, and Mario asked about my “bottom line” – what was “non-negotiable” for me. I knew it had to do with faith, and fulfilling God’s call on my life. No matter how much I cared about Mario, we would have to be sufficiently “on the same page” spiritually that we would walk together in whatever God wanted us to do for the rest of our lives. Mario loved children and spoke fluent Spanish, so he could picture himself going with me on mission trips to Central America; but we both knew there were differences between his vague Catholicism and my fiery Pentecostal passion. We were open to the idea that God can put people together whose gifts are not identical but complementary; however, we needed to be sure we were honestly walking with God in the same direction, so we wouldn’t trip one another up along the way.

After I got home, Mario started calling me every night to talk for at least an hour. Having been single for years, it was nice to have someone care how your day went! On my 49th birthday in October, he sent roses to my office. The chemo was going well, with minimal side effects. Our plan was that he would come east and visit me after his treatment was finished. I was waiting on God to work it all out.

To be continued…

But this precious treasure -- this light and power that now shine within us -- is held in perishable containers, that is, in our weak bodies. So everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and is not our own. [II Corinthians 4:7 NLT]
Would you believe that all the world’s become His treasure, and you’re the greatest of them all? Would you believe that when He looks into your eyes He sees the passion and the prize?

Do you see, do you hear, can you feel when He’s near? You’re the pearl He came to find.

And I have searched the world to find you – look unto the Son and you will see that
I gave all I had to buy you – look unto the Son – Would you believe? Would you believe?

Do you see, do you hear, can you feel when He’s near? You’re the pearl He came to find.
“Pearl of Great Price” song by Heather Clark

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