Ethan hugged me from behind. I loved when he did that. “Go for a walk with me?” he asked, the words brushing against my face as he leaned in to kiss my cheek.
“Sure,” I said smiling under his kiss.
I didn’t know how we had gotten here, this place that was as natural as it was thrilling. We were in love. And yet, love seemed like too common a word to fully encapsulate what was happening between us… or perhaps, it was simply that I did not yet know the full meaning of the word.
We made our way outside and Ethan took my hand in his as we turned toward the rocky desert hills behind his house. The sun would be setting soon. Just as the pavement turned into dirt, he asked me, “What has God been doing in your life lately?”
I smiled as I watched our feet fall into sync, loving that he would ask such a thing. I thought for a moment and then replied, “Freedom… I think He has been trying to show me how to live in more freedom.”
“How so?” Ethan asked.
I took a deep breath and then proceeded to try to articulate this thread the Lord had been pulling at in my heart. “I spend so much time trying to make sure that I do things the right way, that I get it right… sometimes I feel like I barely know what freedom in Christ even means,” I was exposing a tightly held secret to Ethan, and it felt good to be able to put this inner tension into words. “I want to demonstrate that there is freedom in Christ,” I continued, “but I try to do it so carefully and calculated that I end up white-knuckling my faith, like the slightest misstep will send me onto the wrong path.”
He just nodded, listening, processing this information as we began to pick our way through a desert land wrought with tumble weed and sage brush.
“I know God is inviting me to live in more freedom,” I went on, “but I am a little confused about how to get there.” I thought for a moment, then added, “Maybe its because I feel blocked in accepting my identity in Christ.”
“What do you mean by that? “ he asked as he stepped over a thorny bush.
“Well,” I took a deep breath as I thought about it, “I suppose its because to me, being loved has so much to do with being seen and known for who I am. But they say, finding your identity in Christ means that when God looks at you, He doesn’t see you and all your disgusting flaws and sins, he sees Jesus… I know that that is a beautiful truth, and I should find it a relief, but instinctively, I totally resist that picture.”
The sun was getting low in the sky, “It might sound foolish,” I went on to explain, “but I want to be seen, to be known.” I looked up at him, smiling a bit shyly for exposing such a deep longing. Ethan’s eyes locked on mine. “I know I have sin and flaws, but still my heart longs to be seen by my God, and loved for me, not for someone else… Is that totally sacrilegious?”
Ethan hadn’t taken his eyes off me for several moments. “What do you think, Ethan?” I asked.
“I think,” he began, “that its hard to focus on what you are saying when you are so beautiful… backlit by the sun… and those blue eyes.” He smiled then, and continued on, sounding more introspective then flirtatious “when you smiled at me, it literally took my breath away.”
I blushed deeply. No one had ever told me anything like that before. I wondered if it was okay to enjoy the way he loved me as much as I did. Accepting his words and letting them nourish my soul felt indulgent. It was so hard for me to let go and dive in. He stirred a desire in me that felt dangerous—he was rewiring what I thought love was and everything was uncharted territory.
Finally we reached the mountain and climbed up into the boulders a ways until we found a rocky ledge to perch ourselves on and watch the sunset. He pulled me close, wrapping an arm around me.
“And what has God been talking to you about lately?” I asked him.
“That He created them ‘male and female’. The role, the design of each.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said without a trace of insincerity, “I have been thinking a lot about how this design points us toward the love of God. How together we can be more then the sum of our parts.”
“Go on,” I said, wanting to hear more.
“Well, I’ve also been thinking a lot about marriage, how to have a good marriage. How to keep the love of God a constant within it.”
My heart skipped a beat. This was the first time he had brought up the topic of marriage with me.
“You often see parents trying to put the kids first, but I think that’s backwards,” he began to explain, “I think its a better picture of God’s love for the kids to grow up in if they see their parents putting each other first.”
“I agree,” It was easy to imagine throwing my arms around this man’s neck at the end of every day and welcoming him home with a passionate kiss. “It would take the pressure off the kids if they weren’t the center of their parent’s relationship or their family’s functioning. I think it would give the kids security to know that their parents’ love existed before and will exist after they leave the home.” But even as I spoke it, I wondered if it were possible. Could we build a home on a love that would last?
The love God had woven Ethan’s heart and my heart together with was a cord taken from a secret vault in the heavens–it felt utterly beyond this world. What I had with Ethan was real and it exceeded expectations, of that I was certain. What I was less certain of was this mysterious, destructive force that I feared lurked in the shadows of marriage and would try, at every possible opportunity, to erode our love. I knew that other people had been in love before us and things had gotten all messed up for them. I didn’t want to be naive.
Ethan stood up and helped me to my feet just as the sun was touching down to kiss the earth and sink below its surface. A breeze picked up and made my hair swirl around my face. He held me there on that mountainside, eyes locked on mine as he reached up and tucked a hand behind my neck and pulled me into a kiss. My heart began to race and my head began to swim. He’s the feast, I thought. There is no more manna here, this is a feast more satisfying than anything I had ever dreamed up. It is too good to be real.
Then I felt God remind me of the dream of just such a moment that I had handed over into His care months ago. God was there in the breeze around me, “Do you remember?” He was there in the kiss “This is for you, my darling. He was in my soul, “Keep trusting me.”
Oh how I wanted to melt into the moment and let it carry me away, to accept such an outpouring of love, from Ethan. From God. I was living a dream come true!
And yet, God’s wasn’t the only voice there that day, there was another– a sinister creature with a cynical voice vying for my attention. The cynical voice said, “dreams don’t come true. He maybe well meaning, but his love won’t last. Love never lasts.”
I was very well practiced in distrusting love… and I am pained to admit that it was more natural for me to believe the cynical voice than the voice of God that day.
As the doubt began to gnaw its way in, I suddenly felt on-guard and I didn’t know where to look.
The mysterious destructive force was already showing his ugly face and I cringe to realize how much airtime I allowed him. It is so easy to see now. That was the vortex that was swallowing my freedom, stealing my joy, playing on a severed place in my mind, determined to saw in two the heavenly cord between Ethan and I, between God and I.
(And it was this break within me that God would go to incredible lengths to restore to wholeness).
Ethan looked into my eyes for a long moment. Searching. I struggled to hold his gaze. He tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear, “you okay?” he asked, “you seem a little distant.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “this just feels… surreal.”
“Surreal?” he repeated with a slight raise of the eyebrows.
I looked up at him, nodded and swallowed. I wish so much I had ignored that slithering voice of doubt that day. I wish I had not paid a bit of attention to the ill-advised caution that was insisting it was always wise to doubt love–safer than letting your guard down and getting blind-sighted.
Ethan kissed me again as the sun disappeared completely. And I wanted to cry. If this turned out not to be real, if love was, as I suspected in my doubt, one big deception, then God was torturing me by showing me a better reality than I knew to dream of.
“Ready to head back?” Ethan finally asked.
“Yeah,” I said. And I followed him off the rock and down the slope. I reached for his hand once we reached bottom, feeling desperate in the torture of my double-mindedness, like I might lose him any minute.
The stars were out now and the city lights where shinning in the valley below in dazzling colors. We walked in silence for a long way. I chewed my bottom lip and wondered how I would ever find the freedom my soul craved.
Ethan finally broke the silence, “Why don’t you sing?” He asked as we made our way back to his house.
“Sing?! Me? Um, NO.” I said definitively.
“Why not? I’ve never heard you sing before.”
“That’s because I don’t sing.” I said, full defensive shield moving into position.
“Oh, come on.”
“No,” I snapped, “I am not going to preform. I refuse to earn your love that way.”
“Whoa,” he said, taken aback. “That was not what I was asking for at all. I was just being playful.”
My words startled me as much as they did him. Is that what I really thought? Where did this edge come from? I knew I shouldn’t have snapped at Ethan that way and I was embarrassed that I exposed how much I feared that his love might actually end up being like the other loves I had previously known–performance-based and easily lost with a bad production. (How quickly the downward spiral of doubt begins its descent).
Ethan was constantly goofing around by singing some song or another. He was actually a very good singer and when he wasn’t being funny his musical talent was at once deeply attractive and extremely intimidating to me.
I am not sure when I stopped singing, all I knew was that I hadn’t sang in years, not even in church. The darkness was targeting yet another severed place in me. I secretly longed to share music with Ethan, all my life I hungered to be able to play music and all my life I had carried the grief that my inability to make music was one of my greatest deficiencies as a human being.
It never occurred to me that I could have chosen a different response. I could have done something playful, I could have been free (even if imperfect) and trusted that he wouldn’t throw me out of his life because I might hit the wrong note.
We walked in silence for a few minutes, I was still holding his hand, but now I felt the weight of a wall suddenly between us.
“Makaila,” Ethan finally broke the silence, “I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to earn my love. I just want to see you loosened up and carefree.”
I was confused and frustrated. I hated that it felt like he was pointing out another flaw of mine. “I don’t have a problem being carefree. I just don’t sing, okay?”
“Okay,” he said. And we walked on in silence again.
“Makes you love me less, doesn’t it” I was in full self-sabotaging mode, “that I won’t sing?”
“You saying that is more frustrating to me then you not singing.” He exhaled roughly. Then stopped, took a deep breath as he closed his eyes and shifted into a gentler tone, “But no, let me assure you. You cannot make me love you less.” He stopped in the road and made me face him, “Makaila, I love you. You. All that you are, just as you are. Nothing is going to change that.” He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it, maintaining eye-contact, willing me to believe him. “You never have to earn my love,” he went on to say, “You already have it and you always will, come what may.”
How could anyone love me this well? It was so hard to compute. How could something this good actually be real? It was still hard to fully believe, but Ethan could melt the walls in me with his eye-contact alone, it seemed, and his words worked their magic to dispel the darkness that was trying to splinter my mind further that night.
“I’m sorry.” I offered. I was sorry for all of us. I was sorry I snapped at him, he did nothing to deserve that. I was sorry for everything else too, all the slight and subtle betrayals I had been committing in my heart against him and God with every unwarranted thought of doubt that had stolen joy from the gift of this moment. “I love you too,” I said as I slipped my arm around his waist and found that place where I fit so well against his side as we walked the rest of the way to his home. And somehow, because God is good and love covers a multitude of sins, the cords of love between us miraculously grew in strength that night.
Ethan would make that beautiful moment into a habit, committed as he was to breaking though all my fears. Many times following that desert walk he would reiterate the words he had spoken on the road back home, usually it happened when we were driving around town in his car. He would be holding my hand, his contemplative silence filling the space with a substance I had come to love, and he would raise my hand up to his lips and kiss it, pouring so much feeling and sincerity into his touch. And he would say again, “I love you Makaila, I always will. Nothing is going to change that.”
The memory of those moments still makes my heart thunder. I love him so incredibly much… how could I not?
It wouldn’t be until a year later, after Ethan was gone, that God would show me the deep, soul-altering work He had been up to that day on our walk through the desert, my own Shavout atop Mount Sini.