In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness
was over the face of the deep.
Genesis 1:1 (ESV)
Walking up Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee, you wouldn’t immediately call it a great place for meditation. Especially not at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday—when suit-clad office workers come streaming out of the buildings, scrambling for the car keys that will whisk them off into another lazy weekend.
The tallest buildings in this small-big Midwest city line that street. One end of Wisconsin Avenue stretches all the way past Marquette University and out to the suburbs. The other, which was the direction I happened to be heading, dead-ends in the white wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum, spread against ribbons of Lake Michigan blue.
No, Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee is not at all a good place to meditate on a gorgeous day. But it’s where I happened to find myself, pairing my even footsteps with my uneven heartbeat that Friday afternoon. My headphones were in. The worship music was blaring. I had just come from a routine trip to the local bank and now, on my seemingly routine trip home, I found all sorts of reasons to “meditate.” Which was, at that time, really just my shorthand for asking of God how long, exactly, until He sent me everything I wanted.
At that point in life, I felt I had some decent reasons to demand something good.
The year of 2016 had been brutal but transformative for me: an unforeseen divorce, business highs and lows, the carving of a new life from the rubble of the old. I had faced each challenge head on. Brave (with a few lip quivers) Uncomplaining (well, mostly). My body was bruised from repeated falls from grace, and my fingers bled from clawing my way back. But claw I did, fighting every day through that crazy year to create a different future for myself.
By early 2017 I had moved into a brand new apartment I actually liked with a sliver of a Lake Michigan view. I had built my freelance marketing business up to a bona fide small agency with twelve contractors. I had new clothes to hang on a body I actually felt good in, had just bought my first-ever designer purse and driven home a new-to-me Fiat that represented the first car I had not relied on a man to buy on my behalf. I had even just gotten my dream couch: one of those delicate antique settees with scrolling mahogany woodwork. (I considered this my personal down payment to myself on settling in to an altered existence where I had finally achieved some semblance of peace and prosperity.)
Yet something was missing. Well, actually somethings, to be precise.
Money was flowing in, but thanks to all the contractors it took to actually do the jobs I got, my bank accounts always looked anemic. The business had grown, yes, but I was now chained to a desk twelve hours a day selling projects and managing what I had sold. I had finally begun to rediscover the artistry that went into hiding after my ex-husband broke my heart.
Yet even there my progress was fitful at best: the one-off pieces of art that sputtered from pen and paintbrush were a shadow of the complex projects I had once finished regularly. I had even gotten a new handle on body love, health and exercise—things that had plagued me from childhood—but the stress from the divorce and its fallout had taken a toll on my health. Chronic digestive issues and fatigue seemed to eat up every little physical gain I made.
And then there was the matter of my love life. I had done a ton of work on myself post-divorce: really delving in to where I was blocking love from my life, not just romantically but from friends and family too. I had made a lot of changes. I had learned to be really present with the people I love. And yet, I found myself burning from the heels of two broken dating relationships, both of which had started out with great potential.
Oh yes—that sultry, blue-skied Friday in July might not have been the most opportune moment to tell God all of my troubles. But while I dodged the suit-clad on their rush for the suburbs, tell Him I did.
The strange thing was, in my heart of hearts this time, I knew He would answer.
Leaving the bank, I wound my way up Wisconsin Avenue, past the twelve-story, rust-red Railway Exchange Building, Victorian architecture at its ornate finest. On the tenth floor, less than a year prior, my ex-husband and I had sat in separate rooms while his lawyer gave mine an ultimatum: accept the paltry settlement he was offering—far beneath the amount stipulated by Wisconsin law—or face an ugly divorce trial that would wipe out what little I had left. The memory still burned in my conscious as I stepped quickly past the door. Less painful for the resources in question than for the agony of realizing my tender college sweetheart had become my stone-faced enemy.
Beyond that was Amalinda, a red-and-gold painted lintel the only announcement that the city’s finest Spanish and Portuguese food might be found within. Here, in the midst of my divorce, I had sat the previous July with a dear friend. We had talked until midnight over the dessert of the day. Dating soon followed. Being seen and heard for the first time in my life, I fell for him. And I fell hard. But by September, we were parting ways in deep anger and disappointment. Just the thought of eating another dessert there still left a bitter taste in my mouth.
The memories flew by me with each passing buildings, each of them more painful than the last. There was the Pfister Hotel, where I had spent the day roaming with my most recent boyfriend, a gifted professional photographer. We had broken up just one month prior. And then there was a cramped little Starbucks, where one of my best business mentors had encouraged me to up-level my freelance business into an agency. In my heart, I blamed him for the overwork and constant stress that had been mine since adopting his recommendation.
Further beyond that soared the tallest building in Milwaukee, the U.S. Bank Building, though soon not to be the tallest anymore, its rigid white bones were knit together with glass. I ignored the twirl of the revolving doors as I passed them, trying to ignore, as well, all the times I had tried to get inside the upper eschelons of that building, seeking any toe-hold for my business in the endless climb for entrepreneurial success. All I had gotten was after fall. More blood. And more bruises.
“When is it all going to show up, God?” By now I was asking the question out loud, not caring in the least which fleeing office worker chanced to overhear. “I’ve been asking You for so long. Doing all the things You have told me too, as far as know. But did I miss something? Am I not obeying you in some way?” The tears came now, unbidden. “What am I missing here, on the path to everything?”
At the moment I let these words escape, I was still traversing the U.S Bank Plaza. Just then, I happened to glance up to the left. I was startled to see a series of limos, lined up bumper to bumper at the curb. The nearest one’s license plate read THINK 1.
Seriously? Did I just really see that?
“Okay, God.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll think.”
So I thought.
Nothing came to mind.
I glanced at the next limo’s license plate. It read THINK 2.
“No really, God. I’m thinking. I promise. Okay?”
Still, nothing came to mind.
“Seriously, God. This isn’t funny. I’m thinking, okay? Thinking thinking thinking! Do you see me over here thinking? You can hear my thoughts. I know You can!”
God was mercifully silent in that moment, relegating Himself to satisfaction of a visual joke. No matter how hard I thought, I came up with Nothing. And yet, though I kept walking, I could guess by now where this was going. Limo after limo, each had the same license plate with the same minor adjustment:
THINK 4. THINK 5. THINK 6. THINK 7.
Seven limos, altogether. Seven calls to think.
Seven is the number of perfection in the Bible, I knew. But I wasn’t perfect; that much, the last year had taught me. Now, as if I any doubt left, my feet hurt and the rising stress in my gut was making short work of my lunch. I could feel another of the endless digestive attacks coming on. Suddenly, all I wanted was to be home, stretched on that antique couch with a blanket pulled over my head.
“I’m not perfect, alright?” I shouted to the Heavens. “You should know this by now! And I cannot figure out what you are saying! If you’re going to answer me, You’re going to have to just say it Yourself, God. Just say it!”
I shouted this last sentence so loud, even the most frazzled commuters paused to stare.
Leaving the limos in the wake of this last plea, I rounded the bend in the street. To my right, the orange arms of the Apostrophe Statue spread over Spaight Plaza, punctuating the wings of the Calatrava-designed Art Museum behind. Just a few nights prior, I had gone to this park in the cool darkness of an early July night. I had kicked off my shoes, rushed the grass and danced with manic ecstasy to the tunes in my earbuds. The same tunes that, now, mocked the warm tears streaming down my face.
Ahead was the corner of Prospect and Mason. This, to me, was the end of Wisconsin Avenue, the place where it turned sharply east into Prospect, while Mason stretched to the east, to the east toward War Memorial Plaza, overlooking the Lake, and to the west toward the jagged glass column that would one day become the Northwestern Mutual Building.
In the shadow of this monstrosity, the soon-to-be tallest building in the city, I stopped to cross the street. The no-walk signal flashed. I held myself at the corner, all the pent-up anger and sadness burning inside. Finally, a walk sign. Relief! I stepped into the street. But as I did, a rattle-trap car pulled up at the intersection in front of me. It was so unremarkable that I hardly noticed it, save for the fact that it was a jalopy in every sense of the word.
I had had enough with license plates for one day, thank you very much. But sometimes God causes us to look where we don’t want to, if for no other reason than to remind us that He is still in control of all things, even the trajectory our gaze.
The car was a broken-down wreck, yes: a peeling blue Buick so beat up, its very presence on the road was clearly an exercise in faith. It grumbled and growled at me as I passed it. I made it a point not to look the driver in the eye; to this day, I still don’t know if it was a man or woman. But there was one thing I could not help noticing: a license plate so unmistakably clear, this time, that I stared in spite of myself.
That was the license plate, yes. Due to letter restrictions, the Latin phrase had been shortened, but my mind immediately filled in the details.
Ex Nihilo. Out of nothing.
I knew that phrase, oh yes.As a good little Bible college girl years ago, with one of those good little theological educations, I knew the phrase Ex Nihilo. Though it never appears in the Bible, it is often used by theologians when debating the origins of life. Some say when God created the world “In the beginning,” as it says in Genesis 1, this means creatio ex materia—creation out of something that already existed. (A few versus in the chapter appear to suggest there was water or some type of matter already present in the world at the creation.) But other theologians say no, it was creatio ex nihilo—an artistic act that called up everything we see around us out of absolute and complete Nothing.
My purpose here is not to convince you of one or the other theological takes on Genesis 1. But if you’re curious, yes, I do come from the lineage of the Ex Nihilo. God knew this when He sent a beat-up Buick with a crazy license plate my way. And when I saw that license plate, I knew that God had decided to answer my prayer.
Before my foot even hit the opposite curb, I heard His still, small voice thunder in my spirit.
Everything you want will come out of Nothing.
I paused on the opposite curb. This was my answer; I knew it even before the voice of God had coiled again into its majestic silence. I glanced back. The light changed; EXNIHLO was rattling its way on up Prospect Avenue, spewing black clouds as it went. I had never seen that car before, and I have never seen it since. Sometimes I wonder if it really existed at all—or whether it might be some sort of joke, a cosmic illusion conjured up by God’s considerable humor and powered by angels for the sheer purpose of putting me on notice.
My prayers had been heard. The season was shifting.
Everything you want will come out of Nothing.
Had I been more perceptive at point in my life, or perhaps more receptive, I would have seen immediately that “nothing” had already been my portion for some time now. From the first day my ex-husband announced his desire for a fast, surgically-precise divorce, everything in my life had been receding like the slow ebb of a tide. But I had fought the tide. This was the supreme lack of perception that, at this point in my life, had kept me from seeing the truth so long that on July 21st, 2017, I actually had to ask for it. For every inch of bare sand in my life that the ebbing wave had exposed, I had scooped that same water into a jar and splashed it back over the sand, trying to keep it all wet. Now, even the jar itself would soon be swept away.
But I was neither that perceptive nor that receptive back then. Instead, I took comfort in the explanation, though I did not really understand it. My stomach settled. My feet softened. I had no idea what this directive meant, but it didn’t really matter. I walked the last four home, utterly content with what I had heard from the Most High
As miraculous as this experience had been, there was an ominous edge to it. What I did not understand on that boiling-hot Friday of July 21, 2017, was that my attempts to grab hold of everything were not just premature to my personal process. They were in direct violation of how God actually enacts transformation. He cannot bring us everything He seeks until He wrests from our grasp everything else that keeps our hands balled into a fist.
The visitations of THINK and EXNIHLO—and His subsequent pronouncement—were the only warning He would give me that the hour of complete Emptying was now at hand.
There would be no art without destruction. No progress without regression. No making of anything without the unmaking all that had come before.
That day, God said to me,“Everything you want will come out of Nothing.” And I am here to testify: He always makes good on His words.
This is the story of how I lost and gained it all.