The ache in my chest was a tight knot, a familiar feeling. I tried to tell myself I didn’t care, to push it down as I always had. I went for a bike ride on our trails, straining hard against the pedals to climb pasture hills as I pushed hard on the knot to force it wherever it might go. I didn’t enjoy the breeze on my face coasting down the gravel driveway as I usually did. The wind and rain felt cold, whipping my jacket open, yanking at my t-shirt. I stopped to zip up tighter.
I have a regular route I ride. Starting at the house, I pedal over to the barn, down the steep hill and across the creek to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, back across the creek and around the pasture, up the Creek Trail, and finally back to the house to start all over again.
On a regular riding day, I do my route four times in an hour, but on this day, by the time I was beginning my third round, I realized I was too tired, too sad, to continue. I wanted to find somewhere cozy and safe, not push myself on my bike.
I was near the barn, so I pedaled over, got off and leaned my bike against the siding. I was fighting back tears as I walked to the loft ladder, my heart welling up just at the thought of the barn loft and its comfort. Its warm sunlight would be spilling through the hay-door slats at the end, pungent with the smell of manure from below. I’ve learned to listen to my body and not force myself to work hard when I’m sick or tired. But I’m not good at listening to my heart, and I suspected it was my sad heart that was making my body too tired to continue. What I needed was to cry. And soon.
Once up, there were dust motes dancing in rays of sunshine, a few flies flitting about, and a cat’s tail whisking by, caught for a moment in my periphery before it vanished, I couldn’t see where. Ah, she’s still here, I thought to myself. Our shelter kitty, too skittish for the house and yard where our dog rules, had become a barn cat and taken up with the horses and cows. It had been so long since I’d seen her, I’d thought she’d run away. She must be half-wild by now, I thought briefly, as I turned my attention to more important matters: creating a safe place to be.
I’d brought up a saddle blanket with me from the horse trailer and set it in the light-filtered space in front of the hay-door, the scene serene and organic, hay dust scattering across the planks as I shook it out. This would be my private place to weep or wail, as civilized or as creaturely as I chose.
I reviewed the incident: a gift I’d given someone was returned to me. The gift itself was full of meaning and was a visible sign, I thought, of my repentance for failing to love, a token of my desire to be forgiven and begin again. But it was not received that way. There was history here, too fresh and painful yet to forget. I hadn’t known what to do with it at the restaurant when I was told with the jerk of a chin, “I don’t think I want that,” as if it had been a plate of cold brussel sprouts, limp and a little sour.
Rejection is hard. It settles like a weight bar across the shoulders, making everyday activity heavy and slow. It knocks the breath out of lungs that had just a few hours before been shallow and fast with anticipation, leaving an airless space. I coached myself to breathe in and out as I reached over to retrieve the gift.
“Maybe you can get your money back.” The words stabbed, affection and devotion bled out, and a hollow place opened up. You don’t really care all that much, I reminded myself, bracing for the ache. This is what you thought would happen, deep down, right? As if my thoughts had been heard in my breathing, I heard a voice say, “You knew this is what would happen, right?”
But I didn’t know. The ache gave testimony to my hope. I would not be pushing it down so hard had there been none. I had hoped the gift would be part of a new start with my old friend. Maybe that was too much to expect from a gift in a box, a gift I’d bought on Amazon, after all. Maybe not the place to buy tokens of repentance and reconciliation.
But it wasn’t really about the gift. It was about me. It was about wrapping myself up in the gift and asking for relationship–maybe not for continuing our friendship as if nothing had happened, but as a way to pick up and begin again. But there was more, and here is where I felt risky and vulnerable and even a little greedy: what I most wanted was to be delighted in by my friend.
I felt a fresh stab. Yes, that was it. I wanted to be forgiven and embraced as if the awful thing I’d done hadn’t happened, and more, to be received like a valuable gift, as someone delightful. And I just wasn’t. I felt more like those leftover brussel sprouts.
But in the hay loft, the pushing down could stop. I could allow my sadness in this light filled place–the vaulted rafters above, the saddle blanket beneath me, nubby and rough, smelling musky of horse and earth. There was enough sacred space to hold it here. Feel it now, I thought. You’re safe. Feel the sadness and offer it up. I lay down, prostrate, waiting for the heaving I could feel coming up from my gut and passing through my chest. Deep breathing, full and slow, I could feel it right there at the bottom of my throat. I knew what would happen next.
There was sudden movement to the right. There she was again, this time rubbing her back along the rough sawn walls, the cat dander pulling out and wafting like dandelion seedlings in the breeze. She was almost within reach. I called her, lunged for her, and missed–her tail a teasing flag as she disappeared through the hay chute. Silly cat, I thought, I’ll probably never get my hands on you again.
Back to the issue at hand. I lay back down. You’re sad, I reminded myself. You’re about to weep and wail it out to God. Breathe. FEEL.
I heard something and turned my head. Shelter kitty was cat-walking toward me, her backside scampering around, making a sideways arc as she came, playful and pouncy, as if she couldn’t wait to get to me. I reached out my hand to stroke her, and she let me.
In fact, she sparked at my touch, her motor turning on as my hand made long rubs from the top of her head down her back, stopping to scratch at the base of her tail. As soon as I’d get there, she’d whip around again, putting her head where her tail had been, begging for another rub. Over and over she whirled around, eager to be touched, her motor loud, her delight obvious. I rubbed along her jaws and in front of her ears, the universal kitty cat sweet spots. She pushed hard against me as she turned herself around again and again, her tail tickling my nose, cat hair floating in the air.
And then I remembered. Wait. I’m sad. I’m trying to meet God here, Cat. “Scat!” I hissed and shoved her aside. “Leave. Me. Alone.” I settled back down on my pallet, this time on my side with my back to her. No sooner had I lay down, than she lay down behind me and curled up, her motor rumbling against my back, her paws pushing rhythmically against the blanket, claws catching it a bit.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the sadness. I was calling it out. Deep breaths. Feel. Wait.
Only the sadness that had been brimming behind my eyes when I parked my bike was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t feel it anywhere inside me. What I did feel was a lightness, and something more like joy and gladness than any ache. What had happened to the knot in my chest and the hollow place? I didn’t know. What I did know was that I had laughed and played with this crazy cat. She had enjoyed me and I had enjoyed her, and she was still with me, curled up in the curve of my back, pulsing with pleasure.
And suddenly I realized—I was feeling the way I had hoped to feel with the gift giving but hadn’t. Delighted in. And wanted. Never mind that I was delighted in and wanted by a cat. Something more was going on.
Ahh, God, I thought. You sneaked up on me. You called me out of sadness before I could even tell you about it. How good of you to spare me the howling I was settling in for. How good of you to tease me into laughter. And to joy.
And *these words came to mind…
“I have more loving thoughts toward you everyday than there are grains of sand on the seashore. I have called you by name, and you are mine. You will search for me and you will find me. You are my delight, my beloved. And I am yours.”
I rolled over and spooned my kitty. How tender of you, God, and how surprising, to use her to remind me of you. Your love and delight in me have got to be infinitely better than anyone else’s, kitty cat’s included.
When I read my Bible later that night, Psalm 147 practically cat-walked across the page:
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name…He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle and the young ravens when they call. His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.”
That I could be a delight to God was a new idea for me. I had a kind of working understanding of his forgiveness, which was something like putting up with me, the way I put up with our dog, who night after night, sneaks up to the top of our porch sofa cushion to sleep. Or the way I put up with all those dirty dishes I find every morning in the family room when I could’ve sworn I’d rounded them all up before going to bed the night before. Kind of like, dang. You again?
But me–a delight to God?
To let this truth trickle in, I had to put it in terms I knew. God is delighted by me, the same way I felt yesterday when the sun came out as it rained, the beauty so bright in my backyard, I had to squint to see the hydrangeas?
The way I felt when I got this hug after Stone’s recent state soccer win?
The way we’ve felt when a new grandbaby is born?
That kind of delight?
How could this be? Besides hurting my friend, I’ve done plenty of other hurtful, shameful, sinful things, and many of them, on purpose. How could a holy God be delighted in me?
I found the answer in my devo:
“Lord, it is astonishing that I can bring you delight. And this delight does not wax and wane depending on my performance but is unvarying because I am in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3-4). Let me start every day from the platform that ‘the only eyes in the universe that count are delighted in me.'” Tim and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus.
Has it been God’s delight I’ve really wanted all along and just didn’t know I already had? What would change for me–how would I be different–if I really believed I had his delight and couldn’t lose it? And how would my relationships be different?
I don’t know.
But I’m sure gonna find out.
*The words that “came to mind” can be found here: