Then and Now
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” - Matthew 6:22-23 Oh, how great it was back then. It yawned vastly like a bottomless cavern emanating with a miasma of decay, a death-bouquet of emptiness, nihilism and despair. My whole body was clotted with it and the idea of hope seemed a flickering wraith, a child’s thing, a quaint and flaccid make-believe trinket that could not stand in the onslaught of darkness. My eyes were more than unhealthy. They were putrid, rotten, veiled with hatred and fear. I looked nice then, sure. “Miss Ashley, why are you here? I wish I looked like you,” the curvaceous nurse said, with a broad smile, after handing me my daily medication in a tiny plastic cup and tapping over the old-fashioned scale to take my weight. “You be lookin’ like a model.” I felt contaminated in her presence. She seemed so clean, so sweet, so good. If only she knew. I may have looked nice, but I felt irredeemably ugly. I had used and exploited and devalued people and allowed myself to be used and exploited and devalued and ran from God, disavowing his very existence and hiding from him in terror in a garden that appeared, to my eyes, to be crawling with rot and sewage with hideous beasts lurking behind every shadow. The enemy stoked my fear and hopelessness to rattling crescendo and here I now stood, between the rock of death and the hard place of interminable despair. Words left me and there were only tears. So my parents checked me in to a psychiatric facility and here I dwelled, feeling a bizarre paradoxical mix of deep belonging among these seriously ill people and perspective that I wasn’t, perhaps, quite as damned as I’d feared. My roommate was a slip of a woman, a sweet and unassuming alcoholic who neatly folded my clothes for me. There was a man who’d staged an epic standoff with police before surrendering to inpatient treatment. He was loud, brash and aggressive, a braggart who proclaimed in group therapy that he’d slept with over a thousand women and attempted to coach me like a drill sergeant during our rec basketball game, but who turned meek and warm when he introduced me to his petite wife during visitation. There was a young man, a boy really, who beat me at chess and said he’d been hospitalized for violent outbursts but who cried like a child when his mother and girlfriend came to visit. There was my best friend that week, a 20-something around my age with a droll sense of humor who had been on lithium for as long as he could remember for schizophrenia. And there was the near-silent, pale and wasted woman without a stomach who I sat with on a couch one evening who spoke softly of how the doctors couldn’t figure out how to get her body to absorb nutrients. I was sobered. Listen: I tried everything to fix myself. I sampled liberally from the vast smorgasbord of cures which clever and glittering marketing inflates to panaceas and came away only more hollowed out than before. Jesus is the only remedy I know of. What inexpressibly sweet relief to hear his voice beyond the noxious din of the world, telling me at first hard truths: yes, it was true, I was really, really messed up. Fatally flawed, even. I was headed down to death. But wrapped up in his hard truths, inextricable from them, was a brightly dawning undercurrent of hope, like a new movement within a suite, the movement which will change everything and swell to an exultant blaze of joyful triumph, was an unless. And that unless was everything. Unless you turn toward me and receive the free gift of everything you’ve ever truly desired. Unless you give your life to me so I can give you mine. Unless you come home. And eventually, that unless became not a mere unless, defined by its preceding truths, but instead an ecstatic, victorious, ever-blooming YES in Jesus, a riot of color and surprise and delight. I used to think my story was embarrassing. But I am not ashamed of it any more, only because I am not ashamed of the gospel. I look back at my asylum week and my numerous mental breakdowns, and I see God weaving them in to the beautiful whole of how I falteringly came to him, a story full of backsliding and stops and starts and hesitations and pride and finally, a fear-filled leap. I’m still stunned to find myself with a place at his table with a sumptuous feast laid before me, my head anointed with oil and these wonderful vessels of the holy called friends sitting around me. And Jesus says that he and I are family!!!! What is this miracle of grace?!?!?! There aren’t enough exclamation points or exclamation point-question mark couplings in the wide punctuated world to express my astonishment. Friends, I was and am so unworthy. I was the sinner of sinners. I railed against God. I told people he didn’t exist. I sneered and scoffed and treated his people like trash and murdered them in my thoughts. If there was and is hope for me, I am absolutely confident that there is hope for you. Praise him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can hope for or ask. His grace is there waiting for you. I promise.