Clenched Fists and Heart’s Desires


It’s a New Year here at A Life Overseas and as I type I’m looking out at the barely visible mountains that surround our home here in Northern Iraq. On clear days, you can see the snow-covered mountains in Iran and they are beautiful. Today as I look, the entire area is covered in milky fog and you can barely see their outline. On those clear days I want to live here forever; during this fog, I want to pack my bags and say “Well, we gave that a try….!”

It’s during the fog that I need to remember the story of how we ended up here and speak out loud the works of God, because it is a story about desires, confession, and release. It’s a story about miracles of the heart and it has changed me.

For years I had longed for an opportunity to return to the Middle East. My longing was unspoken, but deeply embedded in my heart. But except for short trips to help with humanitarian aid projects, our lives were centered in Cambridge and Boston and the rhythms of the seasons. The few times that I dared to be honest with God, I begged for “Just one more chance”  – just one more opportunity to live and work in a part of the world that we love so deeply. We had left Cairo, Egypt over 20 years before and though our lives were full and rich, both of us involved with refugees and immigrants at home and work, I longed to go back.

I had been birthed and raised on the “delight and desires” cause and effect teaching of Psalm 37:4. When I was a child it all seemed so easy. Delight myself in God and I’ll get my heart’s desires, which as a child basically meant I would get what I wanted. I didn’t begin to really think about what delighting in God meant until much later in my life. But a child’s theology, if not challenged to move beyond, stays child-like instead of growing into a greater understanding of faith.  Somewhere along the journey the roots of delight, desire, and all that meant got lost and mixed up with hurt and disappointment in what life brought to me.

Somewhere along the journey, too, I began to stop voicing my desires and began to hold them in a tightly clenched fist. I could hardly bear to hear of others who were living and working in the Middle East, and felt almost pathological envy when I saw or heard about their lives.

It was a year ago when my dear friend and sister-in-law, Carol, challenged me on desires in general, challenged me on bringing my desires to God. I remember hot tears filling my eyes. “I don’t trust myself to voice my desires,” I said, the tears leaking into my throat. “I know I will just be disappointed. I know that it does no good. What’s the use of voicing my desires if I’ll only end up disappointed?” I don’t remember how Carol responded, but I remember that soon after that I ended the conversation. I began to cry. For how long, I don’t know. The tears came from such a deep place in my soul that I could barely breathe.

Soul confession tears are difficult to describe, but anyone who has experienced them knows them. They root out far more than your initial thoughts, and clarity comes with the confession and the crying. You begin to feel what perhaps David felt in his profound confession in Psalm 91 when he cries “Have mercy on me O God according to your loving kindness…. against you and you only have I sinned and done what is wrong in your sight…wash me and I will be clean.” The entire Psalm eloquently captures soul confession. I don’t know about King David, but at the end, I was so tired. Confession and purification are humbling and necessary – they can also be exhausting.

I had so long clenched my fists and held in my desires that I didn’t know what it would be like to finally release them. I didn’t know the relief that I would feel in finally giving up. I didn’t know what it would look like to no longer be trapped in my head. But after that day in Cambridge my life changed in invisible ways. I began to see meaning in my friendships and my work that I had previously not noticed. I began to relax in ways that only I could know. I began to understand contentment and gratitude and I longed for the time I had previously wasted to be redeemed. The interminable New England winter was no longer a time of depression and anxiety but of slow growth and peace.

In her book, Teach Us to Want, author Jen Pollock Michel says We prefer the not wanting and not having to the losing.” This had certainly been my just-below-the-surface thought for a long, long time. To have this slowly replaced, not with resignation but with soul-deep surrender, was new for me. I slowly began to honor my struggle instead of simply enduring it. Michel also talks about struggle being the “prerequisite to surrender”  – perhaps the greater the struggle, the greater the surrender? I don’t know. I just know that in the great mystery of delight, desires, struggle, and surrender, I was at a different place.

The emails and phone calls from Kurdistan began last March and went largely ignored. Then came more phone messages, and more emails, and then more. They continued on until May. It seemed there was a university that wanted to hire both my husband and me in Kurdistan. We laughed as we ignored these messages.  We finally paid attention when they told us a visa was waiting for us at the Baghdad Embassy in Washington D.C. We responded in late May. In June we took a whirlwind trip to visit the university by way of Qatar, and three short and crazy months later we landed in Kurdistan.

I don’t know why God finally answered my unvoiced, but long-held, prayer to be back in the Middle East. I don’t think I “delighted in God” any more or any less than I previously had. As I said earlier, I find my delight and desires, my struggle and surrender to be an ongoing mystery. As I continue this walk of long obedience, delight and desire ebb and flow. There are times when my heart is centered and focused, when the alignment of my heart is sure and straight. There are other times when my heart is bent toward whatever joy or crisis is going on in my life. I don’t know why suddenly we had this opportunity to move to Kurdistan, to work at a university, to learn how to live and love well in this country. I will never know why. And I do not know how long we will be here. We are at the mercy of a place where we are guests. But that is not what’s important.

In truth, my life began to change many months before when, on my couch in Cambridge, I opened up a tired fist, full of desires and tension and anger and disappointment, and finally held it out to an invisible God.

In turn, he took that fist in his almighty hand, and as the tender, faithful father that he is, clasped it in his own.

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An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. After finally learning how to live in the United States, she finds herself unexpectedly living in the Kurdish Region of Iraq working at a university. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and Worlds Apart - A Third Culture Kid's Journey. Her writing appears in Plough Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and a few other places around the web. You can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries: Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture.

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