From the Basement

October 31, 2010

“Do you learn because you love?” – On Francis Chan, Humility, & Graduate School

One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, hands down, was Francis Chan’s message at the Think conference. I posted the link to the video in the last entry; you should really take a look, it’s fantastic. His talk centered on 1 Corinthians 8:1-3:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

Chan quoted John MacArthur who said “Knowledge is essential, but it’s not sufficient.” The pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking is absolutely crucial to the Christian life, but it must be girded, hedged behind and before, with the love of God, without which our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.

The focus of the sermon was humility, and even though Chan’s illustrations about speaking were obviously meant to apply to, y’know, speakin’ and preachin’, I took them heart even regarding my applications:

“I’ve told my preaching students, if you feel nervous, it’s probably because there’s sin in your life. And you’re thinking about a person, you’re thinking about pleasing someone, you want someone to approve of your message, rather than thinking about God. And the nerves often are not because you love the people, it’s because you want them to love you and you want them to like you.”

Before he preaches, Chan asks himself questions in order to check his heart, such as “Am I worried about what people will think of my message, or am I more concerned about what God thinks?” and “Do I genuinely love these people?” Because this is what he emphasized: when you are giving a message or leading a bible study or speaking even in a conversation, is your motivation to be loved or to love them? Are you asking God for the words that will best enable you to love them or are you worried about being seen as intelligent or articulate or [fill in the blank]?

Chan posed the question: “Do you learn because you love?”

Wow. Do I learn because I love? Is my desire to learn, to go to graduate school, for my colleagues, for those in my cohort, for my advisors – is my ultimate goal to love them to bring glory to my Redeemer, who because of his gracious nature alone saw fit to rescue me from the pit? Is my desire that they too would be rescued? Do I have, as Chan quoted the Apostle Paul, an unceasing anguish for the lost?

Sometimes, I feel like Jonah. I want the easy road; I am scared to minister to the people I think God’s calling me to (confirmation: when your fiance wants to minister to them, that’s probably a sign from God!). Sometimes, I think and pray, “Oh God, why can’t a literary agent just stumble onto my blog and I can write a book and go around speaking at Women of Faith conferences or something and just talk to other broken down Jesus Girls whose parents are divorced and who don’t know what love and marriage look like and who are looking to feminism and women’s studies as the answer and oh God, why can’t you just let me minister to women like me, women who need encouragement and who just want someone to love them?”

Because women like me go to college and grad school. Because women like me look to the life of the mind – to intellectualism – for answers. Women like me think we’ve got life beat. Women like me need Jesus.

My heroes are in academia. Some of the people who have had the greatest impact on my intellect, who I know God allowed to be my professors, who he put in my life in specific ways to nurture and guide my intellectual development – many of them are not believers. My honors advisor, who I love so dearly, has an utter disdain for religion and Christianity and marriage, and for the life of her, she cannot comprehend my faith. We’ve touched on it occasionally, but so much went unsaid throughout those four years. So many opportunities passed me by to share my faith with her, to try and help her see.

And you hear about how academia in the United States is one of the most hostile environments for faith, and I’m sure that many of you who’ve gone through college have encountered at least one openly anti-Christian professor on campus, and probably many more who were implicitly critical of religion, and I can’t help but think, what purpose would this serve, Lord? Evangelical Christians have zero cultural capital in higher education. To put it another way, they have no intellectual blue chips. My faith and my education are so seemingly at odds in the world, even if I see them as flowing beautifully together… and I ask again, to what purpose, Lord?

I think that we forget that people are watching. I think we forget that our calling is higher. Loving them in word and deed is far more important than being hailed as wise and knowledgeable in the ways of the world.

One of the writer friends I cherish most dearly is probably almost twice my age. She went to a top 10 English program, has written books, articles, you name it, she’s done it – and she cares about her students. She’s also one of the most ridiculously intelligent women I’ve ever met; she explained a complicated literary theorist to me using Harry Potter. I mean, come on!

Well, she and other writer friends of mine were at a convention, and apparently the conversation in her suite turned to faith, Christianity and Harry Potter. She sent me a message saying she wished I had been there to share my insights.

They are looking. They do notice that you’re different. I say to God, my professors – these are my heroes – they’re so smart – they write books and articles and prepare hour long lectures that leave me just mind-blown and they debate supreme court justices and went to top 10 and top 20 programs and – I get so intimidated by them. And so scared to talk to them about matters of faith. What could I have to say to them about Jesus and about what he has done in my life, how knowing I am loved by him gives me vigor and excitement that only further stimulates my mind?

Do I love them more than I care about them respecting me? That’s the question. Do I love them enough to risk my scholarship not being taken seriously?

In grad school, is it more important that I love people, emulating Christ, or that I produce groundbreaking scholarship?

And does what’s on the other side of grad school really matter? If God sends my fiancé and I to grad school, it’s to love people, pure and simple. Whether I’m teaching or writing or working in publishing or doing whatever on the other end of it doesn’t really matter – God will put me where He can use me. Here I am, Lord.

1 John 4:12 tells us, “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” It is by our love that people will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). Are we acting this out?

Chan reminded us of 1 Corinthians 12:7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” In response to this verse, he said, “Why did God gift you in the way that He did? It’s for us, it’s not for you! [The question to ask is] how can I build my brother up? How can I build my sister up?”

Today is my self-imposed deadline for the statement of purpose. Suffice to say, it’s not finished, even though there’s plenty written. And all day, I’ve been terribly nervous, trying to remember that no matter how I articulate my research interests, God has the final say.

Chan’s words have convicted me. Why on earth am I nervous? Because I want them to like me? In short, yes. But God’s the one who has the final say, and I can’t enter a program all willy-nilly over wanting to be liked. To repeat a phrase, if God puts my fiancé and I in grad school, it’s to love people. To witness to them. Plain and simple. Whether I’m teaching at an R1 on the other end doesn’t really matter.

This is what the LORD says:

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom

or the strong man boast of his strength

or the rich man boast of his riches,

but let him who boasts boast about this:

that he understands and knows me,

that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,

justice and righteousness on earth,

for in these I delight,”

declares the LORD. — Jeremiah 9:23-24


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What is the life of the mind without the love of God?

There is a video that was posted on the lit forum at thegradcafe.com which I then shared with various friends. Entitled, “So you want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” it has been hailed as alternately funny and depressing by friends who are professors and grad students – depressing because it’s true. (http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7451115/)

The video isn’t what took the wind out of my sails this week, but it reminded me of the numerous doubts and thoughts that creep into my mind unguarded:

Do you think this is a good use of your time, doing research that no one cares about?

Academia is one of the most hostile environments for faith in the United States. Do you honestly think you can make a difference?

Won’t any impact you have be impeded by your own intellectual pride?

This isn’t a Christian pursuit – how does teaching about women’s writing in the 1790s further the cause of faith, exactly?

Not to mention the concerns over the fact that I’m in a dual-academic relationship, so we’re trying to get into schools in the same geographic area (easier said than done) and then, on the job market (provided the Lord allows), we’ll have to limit our choices in an already difficult market to places that are hiring in both Physics and English.

Then there’s the fact that the first application is due December 1st and my statement of purpose and writing sample have yet to be written.

And then, that several of my professors or friends who are professors or grad students are suffering severe disenchantment with the field.

And then there’s the cloud hanging over all of this, that I got across the board rejections last year.

My friends, it is very easy to become discouraged, but in times of discouragement, we must cling to His hope.

I was spilling my guts to God and partly trying to remind myself of why this is a godly pursuit, and the line came to me:

“What is the life of the mind without the love of God?”

My brain is obviously taking cues from the Think conference I attended earlier this month, but it is so very true. To the doubts that look to the disenchantment in the academia, especially in the humanities, that say it’s not worthwhile, that say that God could not place this desire on my heart – of course the life of the mind is painful WITHOUT the love of God! Knowledge and intellectualism do not satisfy. We are human. We fail. But when the pursuit of knowledge and – more importantly – ministry to those who pursue knowledge is buoyed and anchored by a passionate knowledge that I am loved by God, oh, the mighty things that can happen!

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

I must remind myself, ever, that it is for His glory. I am aware of the danger in this pursuit, namely that it plays very close to a great weakness of mine, which is intellectual pride, but Lord, keep me humble. I pray for a passionate love for my future students, colleagues, and advisors –

My fiancé and I have often talked on how our hoped-for ministry as professors is sort of like going into the lion’s den. These are people who, for the most part, think they have life beat. They are the educated, the knowledgeable, the worldly wise, the philosophical elite who Paul tangoed with in Greece… they are the Seekers who have yet to find – who perhaps do not want to find. They turn down their nose at religion. Are there believers among college faculties? To be sure. But many of my closest advisors had a distaste for religion, especially Christianity, and of my peers… well, in college it’s cool to seek but not quite as cool to find.

I know that, should God choose to use my fiancé and I in this way, it would be powerful, and Abba, let it ever be for YOUR glory and not our own. That He chooses to use us in ways that magnify our gifts and give us great joy is truly beyond me. I remember hearing harsh scriptures or sermons as a child that had me convinced that God only used people who were in “Christian” careers. I thought, is it bad that I don’t want to be a missionary? It took me years to realize that He uses us where we’re at, in many, many careers “outside” official Christian ministry. That being a college professor, as a Christian, is your ministry. That teaching about women writers in the 1790s is a ministry!

We are all called to ministry in different ways. Writing is my primary calling, but I am inextricably drawn to academia, and I love to teach, and I see great opportunity, a great platform on which to build a ministry. Should God allow. I keep saying “should God allow” because this last year has been an exercise in being brought to my knees… he humbles us to draw us closer to him.

God has been putting this verse in my life through sermons and readings, and I want to share it:

Psalm 18:1-3: “I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies.”

And this verse:

Psalm 73:23-26,28: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by your right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever…. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge.”

We are called to place our hope in Him. To trust His plan. To know that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. To be assured beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is our Savior, our lover, our husband, our friend. He holds us. Even when we do not want to let him, he is still holding us.

In Angela Thomas’ Do You Know Who I Am?, she offers the following as exhortations to hope:

Hope ushers in the goodness of God: “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him.” Lamentations 3:25

Hope gives us protection: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His lovingkindness.” Psalm 33:18

Hope gives us strength, courage, boldness: “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who hope in the Lord.” Psalm 31:24

Hope gives us confidence for this life and our callings: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” 1 Timothy 4:10

And in closing, she writes:

He is worthy.

He is your comfort.

He is the God who sees.

He does not grow weary.

He is your sufficiency.

He is your Savior.

He is here.

He is your strength.

He is generous.

He is your King and Father.

He is your Redeemer.

He is your hope.

He calls you His daughter and treats you as His own. (211)

One of my favorite verses in all of scripture is Matthew 22:36-40: “ ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I love that. We are called to love God, and a means of loving God is using our minds. And then we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. And John 13:35 follows this line of thinking: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Love is the mark of a Christian. Not what we do as a career, but what we do in the everyday minutiae: when you’re in the break room, when you’re in the hallway, when you’re greeting your co-workers in the morning.

A struggle for me is making plans for myself while knowing that God has “better.” I struggle and think, since I’m applying to grad school, does this mean I won’t get in? Am I pursuing the right plan? What if this isn’t what He has for me? And then I remember: he places desires on our hearts for a reason. He places people and situations in our lives for a reason. And sometimes what we think is “no” just means “not now.”

I don’t know how these next few months will turn out. But I know that my Abba is good. I know that he loves me. I know that to love Him is the greatest thing I can do in this life. I know that only by His enabling will I ever be able to love him and other people. And I pray for the grace to endure, to persist in that truth.

October 21, 2010

“Love One Another”: On Jealousy in Friendships

Today, I want to talk about jealousy. This is an issue that I’ve felt called to write about because it’s an issue I have struggled with for many, many years. Thing is, it’s the sort of sin that usually keeps itself quiet, only occasionally rearing its ugly head in all its grotesque splendor… it was a thought here and there, a desire, a strong emotion, usually distilled by the passing of time and distance from those involved.

I have never had a female “best friend” – the quintessential best friend, the dynamic duo, the person you go to for everything. However, God has always given me an eclectic, dynamic group of close female friends. From the time I was in middle school, I have been surrounded by wonderful women, by one or two handfuls of close friends to go to for various issues, whether spiritual, emotional, familial, romantic, academic… you get the idea. I was never a “loner,” but because I didn’t have that BFF, I thought I was somehow less. Insecurity is a bee-yatch, you guys.

Because of this – the always having several close friends but never one BFF – jealousy has been a struggle, especially – exclusively? – with close friends who themselves are a “pair” of best friends – always together, roommates, you get the idea. Many times, though, it wasn’t a “struggle” because I gave into it immediately, letting it fester and poison several friendships, for which I am sincerely sorry.

It’s one of those deep, dark corners of the heart that you keep locked away, an issue that’s never talked about. But the problem with those sins is that though they seem dormant (or so it seems), they are really taking root, twining themselves around your heart, and the longer the sin goes unconfessed, the longer it’s not dealt with, the worse it gets.

Today was a big step: I confessed this jealousy to one of my closest friends – the friend I’ve asked to be my Maid of Honor. She has a BFF who is also a friend of mine, and telling her about this feeling of jealousy was a huge step for me. She immediately forgave me, and in turn asked forgiveness for any slights on her part, and oh, does it feel like a weight to have it in the open, freely confessed and forgiven.

Ironically enough, it was selecting my bridal party that brought this issue to a head. I had only ever planned on having my sister, which saved me from the inevitable drama of picking other people (and being reminded of how many of my close friends have a “bestie”). However, I’m getting married significantly earlier than I ever thought, which means my sister is too young to be my Maid of Honor. Also, my affianced is having four groomsmen, and as cool as I am with having uneven numbers of attendants, 1-4 is a rather awkward ratio.

So, I was tasked with selecting other attendants, and suffice to say, I ended up with 6 attendants total. 3 are the sisters – my sister and his sisters, who I love dearly. The other 3 are close friends – there’s my MoH, who was one of my closest friends all through college, and then two of my oldest friends.

It was here where the sin in my heart really became noticeable. Of the three friends in my bridal party, all have a “bestie,” and most have been bridesmaids in other friends’ weddings. The issue of jealousy was ugly, ugly, ugly. I was afraid that they didn’t reciprocate the friendship, didn’t treasure our friendship as I did. There was the knowledge that I may not be included in their bridal party, and thus there was the fear of rejection, of having a bridal party full of friends who I care about but who are “meh” about me. Fears of rejection – fear of what others think – insecurity – desperation for acceptance… all ugly emotions existing in me.

I’m only starting to deal with this sin, and turning to scripture is a must. But it’s not enough to go to scripture that condemns envy and chronicles its ill effects, nor is it enough to turn to famous verses on friendship. First, we must start with love – with God’s love. Bathing ourselves in the light that is the love of God is a direct attack on the sin in our lives – in the face of His awesome love, nothing can stand.

John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Matthew 22:36-40: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 15:12-15: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (italics mine)

1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 John 4:8: Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Galatians 5:22-26: But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

The greatest gift anyone on this earth will ever know is the all-powerful, all-consuming, incredible, passionate, unceasing love of God. And when we come to know this love, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, by which we are enabled to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christ tells us that the world will know we are his disciples by this: that we love one another.

Envy is the enemy of love. It is, by definition, self-serving and self-seeking: “A feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.” It is insecure. It is not satisfied, and it is easily spun into idolatry as we seek full satisfaction in something that is not God. It does not rejoice in the good gifts of the Father but whines and pines for more. There is a reason that “Thou shalt not covet” is one of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:17).

Envy of relationships is a particularly insidious sort, because not only does it give way to idolatry (hence poisoning your love for God by seeking satisfaction in something other than him), but it also poisons love for your neighbor. When you are jealous of someone else’s friendship, or relationship, or marriage, or children, how can you love them? How does Christ’s love thrive and edify? Answer: it doesn’t.

Scripture chronicles the consequences of envy:

Proverbs 14:30: A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

Ecclesiastes 4:4: And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

James 3:14-16: If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (italics mine)

Lord, I confess the sin of envy in my life and I beg your forgiveness and your mercy on the friendships it has affected. I want this sin uprooted, and that is only possible through the infusion of your perfect love into my life, the perfect love that casts out fear of rejection and unworthiness. You notice me. You love me. And that is enough; may that ever be enough. You have been so gracious in the relationships you have given me – family, friends, my fiancé – and I pray your blessing on them, that they may be fruitful and give glory to you.

I pray for a passionate, Christ-like love for my friends – all of my friends. Praise God that we are given a diversity of relationships! I am confident that he has brought these varied and wonderful friendships into my life for a reason. When I envy their friendships with other people, when I am concerned about whether my love for them is reciprocated, when I am worried about being accepted or valued, when I am insecure in my own value – these feelings have no place in friendships allowed by his love, and they are attitudes that have no place in the heart of a daughter of the King. He is my God, my Abba Father, and I will praise him:

“Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant. Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O Sovereign Lord? What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Sovereign Lord. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant. How great you are, O Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.” 2 Samuel 7:18-22

October 6, 2010

An Exhortation to Love (inspired by Glee & Joan Osborne)

I’ve been listening to the song “One of Us,” released by Joan Osborne in 1995, most recently covered by the cast of Glee, all day long.

Something in this song is provoking my spirit. I can sing this song in total worship, in the full knowledge that Jesus was one of us, convicted by the hard questions the song addresses (“If God had a face, what would it look like and would you want to see?”). Joan Osborne, the writer and singer, was obviously influenced by her Catholic upbringing, even though she has since left it and now professes Buddhist influences. And tonight, the cast of Glee, characters openly Christian, Jewish, agnostic, and atheist alike, closed the episode asking the titular question – “What if God was one of us?” – even as the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, said, “My point of view is that God is everybody’s collective goodness.” (Fabulous recap of the episode and Murphy’s quote  here – http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/watch_with_kristin/b204027_glee-dux_praise_cheesus_ryan_murphy.html)

As I wrote yesterday, the book I’m reading right now is Angela Thomas’s Do You Know Who I Am? – a question that every woman (everyone) addresses to God. As I was journaling and praying today, the immediate response was God saying, “Do you know who I AM?” (a response Thomas also chronicles in the book, incidentally – good to know God’s consistent in this! *chuckle).

A lot of lessons are coalescing right now – my reading in Piper’s Future Grace, which rests on the foundation that unbelief is the root of all sin and that the ability to walk in “future grace” comes from having faith in God’s promises, in knowing His character and trusting Him. This last weekend at Think, we were challenged to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and especially all our minds – not to let the means of loving supercede the Greatest Commandment, which is to love God, but to examine and study and learn of the character and nature of God, that we may not boast in our own abilities but in the great grace and love and awesome glory of His son, Jesus Christ.

This song – “One of Us” – it could be a prayer for this generation. It makes me think – we are so close. While religion will (most) always be used by those in power for destructive purposes (the Crusades, discrimination, slavery, etc.), the heart of the people… the heart I see in my peers, in this generation… is a desperate cry for love and acceptance. As depraved as we are – as depraved as any generation has been, for there is nothing new under the sun – there is a very public desperation for acceptance.

The call for acceptance and tolerance – cries at an all-time media high this week because of the tragic suicides of teenagers due to bullying, largely over their sexuality – are piercing. Church, do you hear these cries? Our culture is not desperate for your anti-sin propaganda; they are desperate for a transformative, powerful love – the kind of love that will wrap a gay teenage boy up in its arms and offer him a life he never dreamed of. Not only unconditional acceptance, but unconditional love. Grace unceasing. Peace that surpasses understanding. Purpose. And the promise of life hereafter with the One who holds you in His arms every day.

Glee creator Ryan Murphy said that tolerance is at the heart of the show – an attitude which, while commendable, is startling in its tepid insufficiency. It is not enough to tolerate, and I think that regardless of religious creed (or lack thereof), we all know it.

“Tolerance” was not something Jesus Christ practiced. He didn’t “tolerate” prostitutes and tax collectors. And He didn’t just accept them in the crowd as He taught. He ate with them. He loved on them. To the thief who hung on the cross beside Him, Jesus said, “You will be with me in paradise.” And this was a thief whose only “work” was to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God.

That’s love. That’s grace. Don’t give me your cock and bull good works propaganda. I don’t want it. Any work not founded in faith and any work not done in love is dead, and I don’t give a damn how good your motivations are. What message is there but the Cross, where people did nothing and Christ did everything? Tullian Tchividjian gave a fabulous message last Friday on how the church somehow feels a need to caution its congregants about grace, as if it’s this wild thing that could be let loose to great destruction if we let it – Lord forgive us that we would temper and dilute the power of Your grace! (Now I want to go find my notes on his talk, which was entitled “Giving Thought to Gospel Math: Why Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”)

In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Yes, discussions about doctrine and theology and transgression and the necessity of faith in action are critical to the maturing of believers… but people do not come to Christianity because of its rules. And might I add, they do not come to Christianity. They come to Jesus Christ, the giver of all good gifts, our savior, whose love for us is beyond human description.

People come because they know they are not enough.

They come because they know there is something greater.

They come because they realize that that something greater is the love of Jesus Christ, the son of God, our Redeemer.

Church, people do not need to hear the rules or how much of a sin [______ – homosexuality, adultery, take your pick] is – have the last few millennia shown you that that approach does not work? This is not a game where people come because of us. They come… they only ever come… because of Jesus Christ, who offers an unconditional love which makes words like “tolerance” seem pale and cheap.

The verse bears repeating… “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As humans, we fail in loving each other. I fail so much, every day. But in God and His son Jesus Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can love… and the beautiful thing is that His love is so glorious that even a hint reflected in this life makes me want to go running into His arms.

What if God was one of us? … what if God was reflected in us, strangers on a bus trying to make our way home…

September 3, 2010

And the Bride Wore… ?

Part of the reason I’ve not been blogging (on top of spiritual lethargy) is due to the fact that it’s a very, very busy time in my life: I just got engaged! My fiancé visited a few weeks ago, and he popped the question in a bookstore – very romantic. Suffice to say, we’ve been working on wedding planning.

My future father-in-law is a pastor, which means he’s doing the ceremony. He’s been wonderfully flexible, given that his son and I are not likely to pursue a traditional ceremony, but he raised the issue of the bride wearing white. This has sparked an inner debate for me, as I do not have strong feelings about wearing white and indeed am quote open to a variety of colors. Consider this my personal exploration of the issue.

To be sure, there are scriptural foundations for the bride wearing white. The basis for the claim is that the relationship between the husband and wife mirrors that of Christ and the church, and that as believers (the “bride of Christ”), we are washed “white as snow.” White symbolizes purity; the wife is, as it were, a pure gift for her husband. (Obviously, I start thinking, why doesn’t the groom wear white? Because shouldn’t the groom also be representing himself as pure for the bride?)

Of course, white dresses are supposed to be the mirror of an inward state: that is, a clean, pure heart before God. And I think we all know that plenty of brides who wear white do not have that inner heart attitude, just as many brides who wear color (in some form) surely do.

I think that if this has meaning for the bride and groom, it can be a beautiful thing. My main issue is that this is a suggestive tradition, not a prescriptive one. Just because sin leaves that crimson stain doesn’t mean that Christians refuse to don red, or indeed, that red isn’t found as a decorative color in many churches. And black is the powerful symbol of death, and yet we find black in churches and the clothing of churchgoers. And I know of many bridesmaids who have been dolled up in red and black by their friend, the Christian bride. So I can’t help but wonder if we take this color thing a little too far.

It seems like we pick and choose. Because the church is described as white, and because the bride represents the church, well then, we think, she should wear white! It seems we forget that the church is not literally white (whether we’re talking about the building and the people who fill it). Rather, it’s a beautiful metaphor, a visual clue for our limited human minds to help us fathom the greatness and wonder it is that God can look at us and, in Christ, find us clean and pure.

Incredible. Utterly incredible.

I think that the bride wearing white is a lovely symbol. (I think that a groom wearing white would be an even lovelier compliment, but, curiously, the church doesn’t seem too hung up on what the groom wears.)

But it’s dangerous to get so caught up in symbols that we forget what it is they’re representing. It can lead to thinking that if the symbol isn’t portrayed, then the purpose behind the symbol is also lacking. And nothing could be further from the truth.

The important thing for a Christian couple on their wedding day is not what they’re wearing. It’s the attitude of their hearts, towards each other and towards God. Christian weddings can – and do! – happen without the trappings of tradition: the dress, the flowers, the cake, the fancy readings. And those weddings are no less Real before Christ than are the ones that seek to include every tradition.

Here’s my question: if the bride’s heart is in a right condition towards Him and her future husband, is Christ displeased if she is not wearing white?

I cannot help but answer no. It is her heart and her faith that please him. Let us not be fooled into thinking that abiding by the traditions – however lovely they are – renders us obedient. Devotion to traditions can flirt with the line of legalism, of being bound by self-inflicted “rules.” (It is also worth noting that white wedding dresses are a largely Western custom.)

There are some subjects on which scripture is unfailingly clear (salvation, grace, “no one comes to the Father but through Me”). But on others, there is much silence, a point that has also been made by my future father-in-law. There is much said of marriage, but little of weddings.

Indeed, on the subject of weddings, the word of God leaves much room for interpretation. And just as there are Democrats and Republicans alike who are devout followers of Christ, so too are there “traditional” and “non-traditional” weddings which honor Christ as the center of that marriage.

The white wedding dress, then, is a choice – a beautiful choice, not a rule to be inflicted on every bride who follows Jesus. To those who defend its necessity, I feel compelled to ask a few questions:

  1. What shade of white? Are cream, off-white, ivory, and champagne acceptable choices?
  2. What color should the groom wear?
  3. There are some colors that have powerful symbols in scripture (red = sin, black = death) – are these wise choices, if we are considering the symbology of colors in a Christian wedding?
  4. Is it acceptable to have a color accent on the dress – for example, a blue sash or a gold lace overlay?
  5. There are explicit injunctions to modesty in both the Old and New Testaments. Where do we draw the line? There are many dresses on the market that are backless, have slits, or that are tea-length or shorter – not to mention the mermaid/trumpet styles, which hug the curves before flaring out below the hips or knees. And what necklines are acceptable? Are strapless, sweetheart, portrait, halter, or otherwise “low” necklines modest?
  6. There are also injunctions against extravagance. The following could be considered extravagant adornments: trains of any length, elaborate beading, antique lace, expensive fabrics, crinoline, lace overlays, fancy veils and headpieces, etc.
  7. The cost of the dress. We are called to be wise stewards of our money, which begs the question of whether a four or five thousand-dollar dress that will be worn once is a wise investment.

A few things to consider.

(Please note that I’m pushing those questions and issues as far as I can – I don’t think tea-length dresses are immodest anymore than I think a blue crinoline is extravagant.)

Last but not least is the question of beauty. It is readily assumed that most brides, regardless of creed, ethnicity, political belief, sexual orientation, or lifestyle, want to feel beautiful in a way that is authentic to themselves. Why do I bring up the question of beauty? Because, and this is so important, I don’t think you can read the Song of Solomon and say that Christ does not want the bride to feel beautiful, spiritually but also physically. The state of her heart is important – but so too is feeling content in her beauty before her future husband and Creator. Indeed, He extols His bride as beautiful time and time again.

Song of Solomon 4:1, 7, 9

How beautiful you are, my darling!

Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.

Your hair is like a flock of goats

descending from Mount Gilead….

All beautiful you are, my darling;

there is no flaw in you….

You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;

you have stolen my heart

with one glance of your eyes,

with one jewel of your necklace.

On my wedding day, I will promise lifelong commitment, fidelity, and love to my beloved. We will make vows to each other before witnesses and, most importantly, our savior, Jesus Christ, the third (and central) cord of our relationship. And we will become one, man and wife, united in this life until we are parted.

What I’m wearing is really not that important.

August 3, 2010

On Faith, Daughtership, and not being Superwoman

The one writer I follow on facebook is Angela Thomas. She posts words of encouragement regularly, and I take heart in her exhortations. I want to share something she posted the other day:

“I asked God to make me superwoman. He is choosing to make me more dependent.”

Amen, sister.

Lately, the writing has been very difficult – I’m still relying on my own strength. I’ve been doing a poor job of dedicating this time to God and praying through writing, and so my weakness is becoming ever-apparent and ever-crippling. A lack of focus has pervaded these last days – to quote David Mamet, “I have contracted to write a book about Vermont, and so find myself obsessed with Indiana.”

But – His strength is made perfect in our weakness, and He brings us to our knees to raise us up in Him. John 3:30 says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I was reading in Hebrews this morning and found encouragement in such verses as, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (10:23) and “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance…” (10:35-36a).

The author of Hebrews exhorts us in our faith, stating: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…. Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:1,6). And we are reminded that the reward – hope in Jesus Christ, the fruits of the spirit, everlasting grace, eternal life with our Abba Father – is so much greater than the things of this earth. “By faith Moses…. [esteemed] the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (11:24,26).

In chapter 12 comes the great exhortation of Hebrews, the “race of faith”: “Therefore… let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2).

And chapter 13, the last chapter of Hebrews, opens with what was my initial prayer for this month: “Let your conduct be without covetousness: be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (13:5-6).

To quote a popular worship song, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe, sin had left a crimson stain – He washed it white as snow.” What can man do to me, indeed? We have nothing to lose by casting our anxieties, fears, worries, and even our talents on the cross. “Oh, praise the One who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead!”

We decrease so that He may increase. We are not superwomen – we are women stripped bare of every care and concern, humbly clinging to our Abba. We crawl up in His lap and say, I can’t do this alone.

He desires to bring us to that place. And I can’t say it eloquently like John; all I know is that in our weakness and brokenness and utter failure, there is redemption. Because He delights to show us mercy and grace, to give us strength where we knew we had none of our own. It’s for His glory. And it is His pleasure to love us like that.

For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together – Romans 8:15-17

August 2, 2010

Don’t Give It Away: Notes from My Younger Self

Today, I was digging for books in the closet under the stairs, looking for books from a favorite series I’ve been re-reading, but I found a few other things, instead: books on writing, books on business, my long-lost Scrabble dictionary,The Sacred Romance, An Unfinished Marriage – all these books I remember from pre-college days but had long since lost and forgotten about.

There was one particular book I pulled from the pile: Don’t Give It Away! by Iyanla Vanzart, a workbook on self-awareness and self-affirmations for young women. Can I just say that I love my mom for giving me that kind of book as a teenage girl?  I learned to write through my emotions at an early age, and I was bad at keeping a consistent journal, so books like this one are precious to me – glimpses into the psyche of my earlier self.

True to form, my mom wrote notes to me throughout the book, many that were centered on Jesus, as Vanzart’s books – while spiritual – draw from a variety of faiths. Mom was wonderful, writing things like: Be patient and fearless. Let Jesus be the center of your joy! You are an original, unique creation. You are overflowing with linguistic intelligence – use it for good! Don’t worry over someone else’s opinion of you! Ask yourself, ‘Am I pleasing God?’ If the answer is yes, then let God take care of the rest. The answers to all of your questions can be found in God’s Word. Bury His Word in your heart!

My mom had a mom who did not encourage her, so she was always sure to affirm and encourage her daughters; she poured out her love into us and told us about the ever-flowing, gracious love of our Creator.

I wanted to share some notes I found in the book, notes from my earlier self and notes I wrote down today. Something I love about myself is how I date things; I’ve been like that since I was a kid. I like to go back and see what I’m thinking. The first notes in this book were between 1999-2001 (mom gave it to me on my first day of middle school).

And then, there are notes from 2004, when I was at the Crazy Church (I don’t think I’ve written about the Crazy Church, but I will at some point). Even if there weren’t dates, I would know it was that time – the language (the emphasis on being “sold out”), the belief that God would do what He wanted with me regardless of the desires He put on my heart, the overpowering guilt – these feelings are both tacit and stated in my comments. Now, being God centered is, of course, not a bad thing! But everything was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus – there was no enjoyment of the gifts He has given, and no faith that He would work in ways I enjoyed (He doesn’t always, of course, but feeling sure that He never will is not healthy). There are two extremes: being so about Jesus that you totally ignore the world and the gifts that are here and, alternately, being so consumed with the world and the gifts that we forget the Giver.  I’ve definitely been on both sides of that coin.

So, sharing a few notable items that stuck out. The first one caught my eye because I was talking about striving. At age 13 or 14. And thinking it was good. Oh goodness.

Prompt: The most perfect thing about me is…

2001, age 14: that I strive in my spiritual life. I nurture my talents. Note: this is when I still thought striving was a virtue. I say that because I’ve only recently realized that it isn’t.

2004, age 17 (at the Crazy Church): I am not perfect. I’m a work in progress, needing continual rebuilding. I can’t get through a day without God catching me at least 50 times. Note: that is so true! But I can feel the self-recrimination in my younger self’s voice (in this comment and others), and I know what happens to her the next year: total spiritual breakdown, total darkness. I feel her feelings of not being enough, of being constantly told she’s a sinner without being reminded that God’s grace extends beyond initial salvation! I feel her lack of mercy. Oh, I have such compassion for her!

2010, age 22, almost 23 (because I couldn’t resist making more notes): That I am a daughter of the King. He loves me perfectly, exquisitely! His promises are always true and His mercies are new every morning. When all is stripped away, there I am, in the middle of the road, walking hand in hand with the One who put the stars in the sky.

Another prompt demonstrates how changeable and glorious the young, imaginative mind is – I was always coming up with crazy new careers to pursue. What careers did you want to pursue when you were younger, and what did they say about your desires?

Prompt: I dream that one day I will…

6th grade: Save a premature baby. I will write a bestseller. I will score the winning basket!

7th grade: I will be a market-researching executive. I’ll write a bestseller. I’ll make varsity volleyball. I’ll get a full ride scholarship to UM. I’ll grow in Christ. I’ll own my own business.

8th grade: I’ll be a lawyer/writer. I’ll go to Duke and Harvard Law.

10th grade: Writer, business – but whatever God puts in front of me. (There’s that doubt that God would give me what I wanted… so pervasive in the 2004 comments; it wasn’t there earlier.) U of Chicago. Wheaton. U of Iowa. (I went to a private, secular liberal arts college, LOL!)

After college: write a novel, marry the BF, adopt kids, learn to rest! 🙂

Some things are so striking in their consistency across the years: a seeming inability to believe in good things, the prayer for wisdom, frustration with my baby sister, the song “Hold Me Now” by Jennifer Knapp, issues with control and striving.

Can I share a few funnies? I laugh when I read things my younger self wrote, but she is so right!

“When I look at me, I see a young woman with drive, ambition, and gorgeous lips! I love me! I am totally awesome – a rockin’ gurl who is 14 and one day!” (Yes, girl is spelled that way and it is underlined.)

“The best thing I can do for myself is eat healthily, read the Bible, and pray – and pamper myself!” (this was pre-Crazy Church, when I wouldn’t have written “pamper myself”)

My 13 or 14-year-old self, in response to The thing that really confuses me is: “Love! Everyone says it’s wonderful and horrible. I have no clue.” Amen, sister.

And last but not least… after one of the notes I wrote today, I added a P.S. for my older self:

I hope you are writing. I hope you are finding peace and joy in Him who loves you as no one else will ever love you. I hope you are resting in His arms.

July 22, 2010

How God used Hilary Duff & the Rascal Flatts to get my attention (again)

Tonight, I was going through CD’s from high school. In between the incredulity (all the rap!) and laughter (Girl All The Bad Guys Want, anyone?), I found inspiration and hope in the last CD I put in… God’s timing, man, God’s timing.

The only quote that seems appropriate to introduce these songs (which are few among many of their kind in my musical history) is something President Lincoln said – “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

“On the Way Down” – Ryan Cabrera

Sick and tired of this world; there’s no more air, trippin’ over myself goin’ nowhere – waiting, suffocating, no direction and I took a dive and –

On the way down, I saw you and you saved me from myself. And I won’t forget the way you loved me. On the way down, I almost fell right through, but I held onto you….

I was so afraid of going under, but now the weight of the world feels like nothing, no, nothing…. And I won’t forget the way you loved me…. All that I wanted, all that I needed…

“So Yesterday” – Hilary Duff (yes, Hilary Duff). The song is about a breakup, but the chorus is so full of hope and release – being able to let it go.

Cause if it’s over, let it go and come tomorrow it will seem so yesterday, so yesterday – I’m just a bird that’s already flown away. Laugh it off, and let it go, and when you wake up it will seem so yesterday, so yesterday – haven’t you heard that I’m gonna be okay?

“Feels Like Today” – Rascal Flatts. This bit is from the first verse:

But I know something is coming. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s amazing, you save me. My time is coming, and I’ll find my way out of this longest drought…

And hearing that song inspired me to go listen to my favorite Rascal Flatts tune, their cover of “Bless the Broken Road.” Rascal Flatts is a country band that has owned the faith-filled messages in their music. Even though Selah released a “Christian” version of the song that substitutes the word “savior” for “lover” at the end, I prefer lover. For Jesus is the lover of our souls, and his passion for us is overwhelming.

This is one of the most beautiful, humbling praises I’ve ever heard… even if you don’t like country, I exhort you to listen.

We worship a faithful God. In our darkest hours and our loneliest times, in the light of day and in the dead of night, he is there. We can just roll on home into our Lover’s arms – thank you Jesus for the mercy and intimacy, for how you are a refuge for my soul. When this world feels chaotic and hectic and frenzied, you are there in the midst of it. You are for us, therefore no one can be against us. And nothing – not the powers of this earth, not the government, not a difficult economy or crazy job market or concern over using the right words, not fear or pride – nothing can separate us from you and your will for our loves, from the awesome, terrible, awe-inspiring love you hold for us. Nothing can separate us from your love. Nothing can divide us from your purpose. We are in your light, and there cannot be dark where there is light. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

July 20, 2010

Curls, Control, & Contentment: An Essay on Faith

I wrote this back in January (hence the references to grad school), but I really needed to read it today. How awesome is it when God uses us to remind ourselves of His goodness and mercy…

~*~

I’m currently sitting at my aunt’s office desk, and for some inexplicable reason I have a bottle of hairspray next to me. It is extreme hold hairspray. It literally says that. Extreme. It is beyond strong, beyond maximum – extreme (Aussie Instant Freeze). On the front, it says that it “arrests your style.” Seriously? My hair is under arrest! That is the level to which I’ve resorted in order to feel like I’m in control.

Let’s back up. In 7th grade, I cut my budding curls down to a pixie cut. As in, early 1990s Winona Ryder short. My hair, which went from straight to curly during those peachy puberty years, absolutely terrified me. I had no confidence in my ability to manage my curls. So I cut them off until I was ready to grow them back out, ready to deal with them (it took a year).

This is me in a nutshell. I was so scared of this unruly thing in my life (it just so happened to be growing on my head), that I cut it off and kept it at a distance until I was ready to let it back into my life, where I timidly began to think about creative ways to manage it. I am now to the point where I’m perfectly comfortable letting my three (maybe four) day hair be shown in public – or perhaps that’s senioritis attacking my personal hygiene. Who knows.

At the root of this fear is a lack of confidence. I didn’t have confidence in what I was given. I also didn’t have confidence in my ability to manage the situation. But really, I didn’t have confidence in myself (or my Creator). We control-freaks hold things with a death grip, terrified that letting go means falling into the unknown – into the painful truth that we don’t control nearly as much as we think we do. The world does not revolve around our plans and schedules, wants and desires. There are plenty of things that are absolutely outside of our control, and we have to learn to accept that. Easier said than done. I for one am so not there yet, but it’s where my heart wants to be, and I think that counts for something.

As graduating seniors, we are concerned with getting a job, getting into graduate school – things that are decidedly outside of our control. Our conversations abound with negative prophecies and heart-heavy predictions. There are so many unknown factors, things that can have absolutely nothing to do with us – budgets, hiring cuts, smaller acceptance rates. Maybe… maybe… maybe… We love to torture ourselves with fantasies of worst-case scenarios. And to what end? Imagining the future only leads to heartache. It distracts us from the present as well as from the promises of our faith. As C.S. Lewis said, the future is the thing that is least like eternity. When it comes down to it, dwelling on the future merely feeds my lust for control.

It helps to get perspective, and that can come from both good and bad situations. I most recently got a reality-check from the latter. I met a friend for lunch the other day. That morning, I’d completed yet another application and for some reason, the anxiety was shooting through the roof, to the point where I ended up running to the toilet. Proof that all those negative anxieties and fantasies we indulge in affect our bodies.

So I met my friend for lunch. My news – applications (what else is new?). Her news – her cousin, who is around our age, was diagnosed with cancer. Talk about perspective. Now, this is not one of those “it can always be worse” exhortations – that’s not a productive method of coping. Rather, that lunch was a reminder. Even though there is the fundamental difference that I invited my situation and her cousin did not, life remains a series of unknowns for us both and, indeed, for everyone. It takes a lot of faith to get through each day.

The unknowns can bad things we don’t expect. Illness. The death of a loved one. A breakup, a divorce. Arrest. And then they can be things that we do – like knowing we’ll hear back, one way or the other, from prospective jobs, internships, schools. Getting to hold a newborn baby. Going home for Christmas to find the house chock-full of treats baked in anticipation of your arrival. And then, wow, there are the genuine surprises – like meeting the right person at the right time or unexpectedly finding a way to pay for something you’ve needed. The fun chances, the joyful surprises – these happen all around us, too!

We forget that it’s not our ability to predict or expect outcomes that matters. None of us have that kind of foresight. It’s how we handle those outcomes, those journeys. It comes down to having confidence in yourself and not in your trappings or expectations. It’s about trusting who you are. Because we each have worth, we each have value, and no matter what situation we are placed in, those things are sure.

As believers, we are the beloved of Christ, and it is in His eyes that we are made whole and complete. When we find our identity in Him – when we know that Jesus is at our side and that He is our Abba Father who is for us, offering the gifts of peace and joy and grace and love – when we can rest in His loving arms and say “come what may” because all things work to the good of those who love Him who have been called according to His purpose – when we know that if our earthly parents love us and want to give us good gifts, how much more does He want to give! – when we know these things and can rest in them, there is confidence. There is peace. There is light. And it is that light in a difficult situation, that peace that surpasses all understanding – those are the things that mark us as His.

I want more peace. I want to radiate joy and contentment, not anxiety and fear. I have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing! He has hedged me behind and before, and as long as I just crawl up into His lap and remember that, first and foremost, I am a daughter of the King, all is good. Because life with him is good.

I’m reminded of the Niebuhr prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The good news is that He gives us serenity, courage, and wisdom. All we have to do is ask. We should consistently turn our situations over to Him in prayer, but so too should we ask for the character and the mindset that will alter how we see the situation. More righteousness. More Christlikeness – more like Christ.

Christ is perfect love, and perfect love casts out all fear. Lately, my fear has been crowding out my excitement. I don’t always feel like I can choose excitement, and that’s partly due to my internalization of the world telling me that a good student and an ambitious individual should be worrisome, anxious, nervous for their future. But why on earth am I taking their advice? I have EVERY reason to be excited right now. Every reason to have faith that all will work to the good. I rebuke the words that tell me that sitting around every day nervously checking my email and mailbox is a proper way to manage my time. Like my curls, I have no control over what’s growing right now.

Another issue at play here is waiting. Waiting is a blessed time, truly. In the Bible (and in life), it’s a time of preparation. Of prayerful supplication. Of purification. In short, waiting is a process to be embraced.

And I want to embrace this time: the waiting, the joy, and the knowledge that come what may, my Abba has got me on His lap and He’s saying “Wait for what I do next – I’ve got so many wonderful things planned for you! You’re going to love how I have you do My work, the opportunities to love people, to reach people – you’re going to love it, you’re just going to love it.” I want to shuck fear off of me, to slither out of that skin of anxiety and worry, to just be joy. I want that. And as long as my eyes are focused on my Abba, the joy is for the taking.

July 18, 2010

Desiring God/Desiring Publication

There’s a set of questions that have been tangled up in my mind lately, and they go something like this:

Is publication a godly goal? Is publication the eventual end game of all this writing? What happens if I don’t get published? Is it even okay to desire publication?

I’ve been reading Desiring God by John Piper, and I highly recommend it. He argues that the pursuit of pleasure is absolutely essential to the Christian life; that anything done without that joy is not edifying to others or glorifying to God, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him (I am oversimplifying his thesis here, so bear with me). Over the last few days, the readings on love, joy, and giving have been blowing my mind, and today, I was struck by how applicable some of his discussions were to this issue of Calling.

One issue Piper deals with is the contention that pleasure and virtue are mutually exclusive – that as believers, we cannot (should not) seek pleasure or reward in our actions (he, of course, argues that we can and we should). To me, publication is one of many writing “rewards.” You see the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon connection game that my brain played in about five seconds?

Let’s take a few steps back and start small. Let’s forget publication for a few minutes and talk about the relationship between action and reward, and the supposed binary between virtuous acts/pleasurable acts. Can a virtuous act be pleasurable?

To expound on that question, should an act be virtuous in and of itself, without reward? I’ve never understood the phrase “writing for the sake of writing.” At its heart is a worldly wisdom which says that for an act to be virtuous, we shouldn’t seek a reward. If it comes, okay, but we should not expect one. To that assertion, everything in me says, what a load of bollocks! I don’t write simply to put words on a page anymore than a painter paints so that he can brush some red stuff against a canvas. I write so that people will read, and what’s more, I find writing to be an intrinsically enjoyable pursuit. Is it still virtuous?

In 1941, C.S. Lewis basically A-bombed the idea that pleasure and virtue are irreconcilable in Christianity. He preached, “I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires [our pleasures] not too strong, but too weak.”

John Piper further expurgates this notion of virtue/pleasure as a binary with his thesis that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. Piper writes: “If love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of other people, and if God loves such joyful givers, then this joy in giving is a Christian duty, and the effort not to pursue it is sin” (104, italics mine).

I write because I am pursuing joy, because it is the most powerful way in which I experience God. I hold no illusions about giving back to God; there’s nothing I can give that He hasn’t first given me. Thus, writing has to be a primarily hedonistic pursuit, even though others are reading my work. It would be wrong for me to write out of duty – to say I am writing for your edification and not my own, to abandon any pleasure in the act. Joy comes from above, and so if I am joyless, then my work is empty, and it is not going to edify you at all. Piper uses the analogy of marriage: how awful would it be for him to bring his wife roses on their anniversary if he were motivated by duty and not by love. And so it is with God: we are to worship because of an overflow of love rather than because it is our “duty.” Piper reminds us that yes, God loves a cheerful giver!

It is right – it is pure – to seek joy and pleasure in the act and to invite others to come and experience the joy as well. Thus, my joy is your joy, and your joy is my joy. There is a natural culmination, a natural reward of such overflowing abundance.

There are those who may say that it is wrong to desire public joy in the fruits of your labor, as it were. That it is unvirtuous or ungodly to expect reward in an act of love or calling. To them, Piper offers the words of C.S. Lewis, who writes:

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not…. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.

The proper consummation, or reward, of writing is readership. It is not wrong to desire to reach people, to hope that others are edified by your work, for their enjoyment and edification may be seen as the consummation of the act. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul exhorts believers to use their gifts for the edification of the church, of the body. Indeed, he places the public expression of gifts over private in terms of edification – that it is better to edify the body rather than yourself alone (for in edifying the body, you are edifying yourself).

Enter my desire for publication – and this is where things get tricky. The desire for publication, for readers, may well be satisfied by sending essays to friends in email form or by blogging – and I’ve done both. Given our discussion of joy and public edification, readership in any form may be interpreted as Lewis’ ‘consummation.’

And yet in me there is both a contentment and a discontentment. There is pleasure in what I have, but there is the intense desire to pursue more of that pleasure.

This is the relationship we are to have with God, yes? Piper talks about it; Lewis does, too. There is in the believer a beautiful tension – holy contentment and holy discontentment working in tandem to till the heart, to work the soil for the Maker’s glory. My utmost for His highest, as it were.

On a good day, this is where I am with God: basking in his love, yet desperate to learn more. This is also where I like to be in my relationship – content with my beloved, yet yearning for greater depth and intimacy with him. And so it is with my writing. I am content with what I do, but I desire greater skill, greater knowledge, and – frankly – greater impact.

So where is the line? Does “impact” mean more readers? I’ll be honest – I often think it does. Does “impact” mean getting paid for my writing? – again, I often think it does. And there’s the rub.

It strikes me that the idea of getting paid to do what you love is a worldly goal. This is not to say that it is never a spiritual outcome; there are plenty of doctors, craftsmen, and writers whose callings have become intertwined with financial security. Piper and Lewis, for example.

But there is a danger when we start seeing money/worldly success as the end game, when we perceive that if there is not that success, then we have not fulfilled or obeyed our calling, or – worse – that the calling is not important. Too often, I fall into the trap of thinking something like this: I’m not published, so my writing isn’t touching anyone.

Which is, of course, total crap. I’ve only to look at my own life for examples of the contrary. One friend is a marvelously gifted actress, and the fact that she isn’t on Broadway (yet) does not mean that her talent and joy are not being shared with her audiences. It does not mean that she’s not walking in her calling. It does not mean that God is not bringing fruit – quite the contrary.

When the endgame becomes worldly success – getting paid to do what you love, as it were – it dilutes the joy in the act. It dilutes my present contentment, and it confuses my definition of “more impact.” When concern for money or security creeps in, holy discontent becomes sin.

John Piper says, “The ‘eagerness’ of ministry should not come from the extrinsic reward of money, but from the intrinsic reward of seeing God’s grace flow through you to others’” (109).

Is that reward enough for you today? Is it enough for me? We must be careful, lest our desire for the gift eclipse our yearning for the Giver.

Paul said that we act for the joy set before us. Are we acting for that joy? Are we hoping for that joy? Are we expecting that joy? One of my girlfriends likes to say, “Expect good things.” And indeed, that is the promise that is made – not easy things, not secure things, but pure things, good gifts from our perfect Father. Joy. Love. Encouragement. Relationship. Mercy. Forgiveness. Hope. Purpose.

Those are reasons to praise.

Those are reasons to write.

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