From the Basement

October 31, 2010

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 15, 2010

In praise of the Great Restorer, the Giver of Rest

God works in mysterious ways. He’s used a job offer – the thing I wanted, prayed for, desired for months on end – to lead me back to Him.

I’m not taking the job, and that is incredibly freeing. I’m declining for aforementioned reasons – budget and timeline issues – but, more importantly, because there are things happening here, where I am, that lead me to believe this is what He has for me. Worldly wisdom says take a job, any job. Worldly wisdom says it’s necessary to live independently.

But living with my parents, healing my relationships with them, releasing the baggage from the divorce – this is one of the healthiest steps I can take for my marriage.

Living at home, saving money, putting it aside for the early days of marriage, for our first month’s rent, for an emergency savings fund – this is an investment in my marriage.

I want to volunteer. I want to be donating money and tithing. My prayer tonight is Lord, bring me to you. Please let me serve you – for the first time in months… years?… this is the prayer. Where can you best use me? I don’t think it’s at the place where I was offered the job, where an “ideal” employee was described as someone who burns the candle at both ends, a single person working tirelessly into the night.

I had a wonderful conversation tonight with my friend Kayla, a great blessing who is willing to act as a sounding board for my many questions and curvaceous conversations (in that thoughts tend to twist and turn in unusual directions to get to their point).

There are changes that need to happen in my life re: discipline with body, mind, and soul… but God has me… this is where He’s put me, for some reason… for His reason, for His glory, ever for His glory.

The events of the last few months defy worldly wisdom. The decision to turn down a full-time job defies worldly wisdom. Abba, I beg your peace and strength. I pray against weakness and fear and anxiety. You will provide. In all things, you provide. You are Jehovah Jireh but also Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals, and it is your mission to heal and restore your people to yourself that you may be glorified and we may be filled with the joy that comes in knowing you. Where is the joy? Follow the joy. While there are opportunities to pursue my calling, I will not relent. I do not want to settle for anything less than Your very best, and I know that Your very best does not necessarily come with a hefty paycheck and a worldly definition of success. It does not necessarily come with independence, a car, an apartment, etc. Your provision and hope come in unusual ways – but they come; that is the promise, that is the everlasting promise.

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” 2 Corinthians 1:9

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

Today, my reading in Angela Thomas’ Do You Know Who I Am? was in the “Do You Know I Am Worn Out? He Does Not Grow Weary” chapter. How fitting. After last night’s emotional exhaustion followed by today’s confusion, worry, and fear, I was feeling very worn out. Thomas opens the chapter by quoting Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester: “I am worn to a raveling.” How my body collapsed in exhausted understanding upon reading that line. I am worn to a raveling. Oh, I am. The chapter’s title fit today: do you know I am worn out, Lord? Do you know I feel too tired to make any decision?

But Thomas reminds us that God’s character is self-sustaining (69). He does not grow weary; indeed, he provides the rest we so desperately seek.

“But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:31

Oh, how I long to run and not grow weary! Today, the longing to serve the Lord, loving people, is at the forefront of my desire. Today, the desire for a “good” job is secondary. A job that will provide for my present needs and help store up for my fiance’s and my future – yes. But something that will serve a higher purpose. His purpose. Let today’s rest sustain into tomorrow.

Lord, let me rest in you. I pray against those spirits of anxiety and fear that so seek to take root in my heart. You have me right where you want me. And sometimes, as Kayla said tonight, we are challenged to have the courage to remain where we are – ever pushing towards the goal, our eyes unwavering in their focus on their Creator, ignoring the world’s distractions, trusting in the only One who both offers and renews our hope.

Thomas puts it beautifully: “A hope that is firmly centered on the Lord renews our strength” (70). How true. My body wearies, my mind grows faint, my emotions fluctuate, and the world itself is always spinning, but He remains constant, the same yesterday, today, and forever, an ever-replenished spring of healing, restorative water. He does not grow weary. He provides the comfort and love and rest we so desperately seek. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

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…

October 4, 2010

On Desiring God

Oh my friends, it has been a long time, and I apologize for my lack of faithfulness. I have been crippled by fear, by anxiety, by the overwhelming apathy of feeling there is nothing to say, nothing worthy to share.

I’m a bit on God overload right now – a much needed… well, I’d call it a kick in the pants, except it more feels like that hug you get from someone who you’d rather not have hug you right now, but they just keep hugging you and eventually your heart starts to soften as you are overwhelmed by their incredible love and persistence… that’s God right now.

This weekend, as I wrote before, I attended the Desiring God National Conference with my father in Minneapolis. I’ll be writing up my own impressions of the conference at some point, but in the meantime, you can find notes and audio from the talks on the Desiring God website, under “Resource Library,” then “Conference Messages,” then the Think conference. While all messages are to be listened to, may I highly recommend those by Chan and Mohler.

Then today, I arrived back at my mom’s to find that Angela Thomas’s latest book, Do You Know Who I Am? and other brave questions women ask, was waiting for me. I just finished the introduction and the first chapter, which is entitled “Do you know I am afraid to dream big? He is worthy.”

Right now, I am confronted by the mass of my own inadequacies – my stinking pride and selfishness, fear of what God will do in my life, fear of what God won’t do in my life… all of these lies which bundle together to create one enormous ball of yarn entitled Unbelief.

The root of sin, as John Piper writes, is unbelief, and Jesus’ constant admonition to His disciples is to have faith – “O ye of little faith!” One of my favorite verses in all of scripture is the man who cries, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Yet even while sitting in a puddle of my own fear, my own pride, my own fear of being successful for the knowledge that I would likely attribute it to my own skills – even in this state, even proud, even selfish, even untender, even fearful – God gently touches me and says, “Do you know who I AM?”

It’s funny – a few months ago, when I learned of the title of Angela Thomas’s latest book, I thought, that doesn’t really apply to what I’m going through right now. Oh, how my heart has changed! Oh, the pride in my soul that has been revealed! The questions in this book are the ones I have been crying to the Lord –do you know I’m afraid to dream big? Do you know I’m lonely? Do you know I’m afraid? Do you know I’m undisciplined? Do you know I’m disappointed? Do you know I’m ordinary?

The good news is that none of these questions are too big for Him. He is the One who created all. As R.C. Sproul told us this weekend, He is the only helozoistic being in the universe! – the only one who, by mere will, can move Himself and all creation! And the verse that opened this first chapter in Thomas’s book is Revelation 4:11: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” As Francis Chan reminded us in a powerful message on love and humility that was loving and humble because Chan himself was so evidently filled by the Spirit with loving humility and a desperation for Jesus Christ – he reminded us that the marvel is not that we know God, but that God knows us! As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” And in her introduction, Angela Thomas quotes J.I. Packer, who wrote:

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it – the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.”

This is overwhelming. His grace never fails. His love never fails.

This weekend gave much thought to loving God. A central verse to the conference was Matthew 22:37, which is one of my favorite in all of scripture. In it, Jesus replies to the question, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” John Piper especially focused on how thinking is merely a means of loving – to think or to feel or to be spiritually moved are not synonymous with love. They are means of loving God, but loving God, Piper exhorted us, is treasuring God, cherishing Him, desiring Him, resting in His arms…

The greatest thing God desires of us is our love, the sort of love that transforms life itself. As authors far greater than I have written, we can only love Him because He first loved us. Thus, when certain world leaders say that they came to Christianity because of an admiration for its precepts, I am aghast! You admired Christ’s teachings? To be a Christian is to cast yourself on Jesus Christ, cognizant of all your own failings and iniquities, knowing that you deserve punishment, but being utterly blown away by the incredible knowledge that God sent His only son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, that we may believe in Him and not perish but have eternal life – that we would have the marvelous experience on this earth of being transformed by His awesome and all-encompassing love for us.

I am a believer in Jesus Christ because I love Him, but ultimately because He first loved me, and that knowledge is utterly mind blowing. Me, guilty of unbelief? Me, who is afraid to let Him fully work in my life? Me, the unemployed? Me, the daughter of divorced parents? Me, with the genetic predisposition for alcoholism? Me? Really? You’re picking me, Lord?

He chose me. He chose you. He has cast our sins as far as the east is from the west – as the group Casting Crowns extrapolates on that psalm, from one scarred hand to the other. His love is overwhelming. It covers every sin. He is worthy. He is worthy. He is worthy. He is the giver of all good things; all good gifts are from the Father (James 1:17).

Who am I, Lord? Who am I?

I am your daughter… your beloved… your friend… your disciple… one who is longing and desperate to be in your arms… one who falls… thank you that you use broken people struggling in the dark, grasping at straws, desperate for your light… thank you thank you thank you… I want you… I want to know you more… I want to be more like you and less like me… I want to cast my own dreams for my life at the feet of the one the one who gives dreams… at the feet of the one who willed creation into being…

August 12, 2010

Trusting God vs. Trusting Numbers

I want to let numbers determine my success, because numbers are easy things to measure.

It’s easy to feel like a failure when I have written approximately 0 words in a day. It’s easy to feel like a failure when I get on the scale and see that I’ve gained weight (when I can also say that I have worked out for approximately 0 minutes in a day). It’s incredibly easy to feel like a failure when I look at my grad school record – 11 rejections, 1 offer for an unfunded MA. Ouch.

On mornings like this, I whine and bitch and moan and want to throw up with the anxiety. I ask God, what is the point of taking a month off from job hunting to write if I have written very little? What about all those missed job opportunities?

It’s easy to get distracted by other things – good things, but other things which take away from our time with God and (feeling convicted here) from the things He has called us to do. It’s easy to forget that, like Angela Thomas said, God doesn’t make us superwoman; He makes us more dependent. And the thing is, He promises to make us more dependent. Isaiah 41:10 says,

Fear not, for I am with you;

Be not dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you,

Yes, I will help you,

I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.

When we are afraid and feeling weak, God’s response is that He will help us, that He will strengthen us. 1 Peter 5:7 tells us, “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares for you.”

This morning, I’m in need of His comfort and strength. I have asked Him for strength and self-discipline, but I’m still learning about what to do with what we receive… how to focus on Him, focus on the task at hand. I’m in a lazy slump and am in desperate need of a push to get out of it (the image of Jesus lifting me out of a pit while my feet are on his shoulders and him pushing my butt to get me over the freaking edge is rather funny).

Mornings like this, I read Isaiah 41:10 over and over and over, and I listen to songs like the one below, desperately reaching up for my Abba to take me in his lap once again, to take me back after my own failure, to comfort me and coax me back onto my feet again.

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

July 14, 2010

The Light in the Tension

I haven’t been posting regularly due to a two-week excursion in which I visited various family and friends in four different states. Five modes of transportation, one great lake, and countless cups of coffee later, I’m a little tired but mostly rejuvenated.

Curiously, though, I’m not feeling rejuvenated in my writing. This is a really strange sensation. I wrote a lot at the first lake I visited (the “From the Lake” post), but after that… not much. I write longhand on yellow legal tablets, so I spent a lot of time typing up those notes, but aside from that – nada.

I attended church this last Sunday with my boyfriend’s family (the last stop on the trip). During the sermon, the pastor briefly discussed what he called “the tension between promise and fulfillment.” Those of you who have been reading can certainly understand why this phrase appeals to me; you’ve read my thoughts and prayers as I learn to negotiate the teeter-totter that is unemployment/contentment. But over the last two weeks, I’ve shared that information with a lot of people and, honestly, I’m a little burned out. I’ve spent so much time explaining that I’m focusing on my writing that I’m… err… not focusing on my writing.

These conversations have stoked the fire that is expectation. Expectation is one of those double-edged swords – on the one hand, it’s good to have goals, expectations, hopes, and dreams. But on the other hand, those expectations can turn into little monsters, things that make us cower in the corner because they seem too big. And I’m going to quote Nelson Mandela, who quoted Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

Sometimes, I’m as afraid of the work it will take to achieve as I am of total failure. It’s the tension between promise and fulfillment. For example, I know I will finish the novel I’m writing. This is a promise I’ve made to myself that will be fulfilled. But sometimes (like right now), I’m like a deer in the headlights, scared stiff in the middle of the road. My own expectations have spiraled out of control, and as a result they’ve halted my progress, halted my running.

This seems to happen when I forget the foundation of the promise. The foundation is the knowledge that writing is a gift from God. The foundation is knowing that He didn’t give me a gift and a calling only to leave me out in a barren wasteland. When I am centered on him and him alone, and not on myself and worries about success and reaching people and whatnot – in that, there is peace and security and love. There is no fear when we are walking in the light.

Marianne Williamson continues:

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

In Philippians 2, Paul says that we shine like “stars in the universe” in the midst of darkness and depravity. And Jesus calls us the “light of the world.” When we are walking in him, we are walking in the light.

His light in us is the gospel: his love, his mercy, his graciousness, his forgiveness, his faithfulness. And that light is manifested in many ways: relationships, words, actions. Through writing. Through acting. Through dancing. Through singing. Through… (your gifting here).

As the childhood song goes, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” The song exhorts us as children to not hide our light, or to let Satan “pff!” it out. What a powerful message this is for adult believers. Don’t hide your light – don’t be ashamed of the gospel or of the form ministry takes in your life. And above all, do not be discouraged. As Angela Thomas writes in Do You Think I’m Beautiful?:

In case you have missed it, there is a battle going on. The battle is for your soul. And if your soul belongs to God, Satan will go after your heart and your mind and your passion. You will still make heaven, but eventually he will turn up the fire and try to scorch your dreams, your enthusiasm, and your very life. …. As long as you and I are hauling that stuff around, Satan wins. And I’m so tired of him winning. (180)

Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Lately, my light has been dim. The beautiful thing is, all we need to do is look to the Lord for comfort, renewal, joy, love, peace. We can sing praises over our barren places and watch our Redeemer tenderly and faithfully work that land. What was (or is) barren can be fertile. What feels dry can be watered, renewed. What once was dim can shine anew.

In the tension between promise and fulfillment, there is light.

May 14, 2010

On Waiting

Fact: since I got into college, I have not received or been accepted to any job/school/internship to which I applied. Before every summer, I would be filled with anxiety about where I’d find work, because I’d apply and apply and apply and nothing would come through. So the summer after my freshman year, I waitressed at Perkins, a job I got via my mom’s connections. The summer after my sophomore year, I interned at a regional non-profit in my hometown, also received because of my mom. Last summer, I was the lead teacher for the K-5 kids in a summer program at a local daycare, something I got via my boyfriend’s connections.

God always came through.

And then this year, it was across-the-board rejections at graduate programs. I’ve also been rejected from a fellowship and an internship, and there are several positions that I started to apply for but that were filled before I could finish the application. Right now, I’m waiting to hear from a place I interviewed with about 2 1/2 weeks ago, and I’m also waiting to see if the resumes I sent out to some contacts are going to turn up anything. I’ve submitted my resume online to several job openings; nada.

You know what? God’s still coming through.

I’ve been learning a lot about waiting this past year. I don’t know what exactly this post is shaping up to be, but I want to encourage you – in whatever you’re waiting for – to keep persevering. There’s this great quote from Oswald Chambers that says, “He works where He sends us to wait.” There is work being done in the waiting. We learn so much more through waiting than we do through immediate gratification: patience, trust, and maybe wisdom, too.

This has, thus far, been the least anxiety filled May that I’ve had in the last four years, even though by others’ standards, it should be the worst. I’m graduating in two weeks. I don’t have a job. I didn’t get into grad school. I have few job prospects. Networking has not turned up anything thus far. … and yet God is faithful. He is doing a good work. I can sense it. I trust it.

There’s a reason I am not going to grad school this fall, and I think it has to do with learning to trust God and the gift He’s given me: writing. I am officially taking a year off, and I am feeling called in a powerful way to begin to send out my writing. To keep producing work and to start sending it out. It took closing every door possible to get me to pay attention that voice, that still small voice that’s been nagging at me for years.

In the midst of resounding silence, I’ve found a calling.

But I’m also learning to trust. To not freak out. To know that my Abba will do things in his own way and time, and that I’d just better keep praying and waiting. My dismal record of job applications shows that I’m pretty bad at getting work on my own, and yet He has always brought the perfect thing at the perfect time that taught me just what I needed to be taught. And so I’m trusting that He will find a way to provide for me. A voice of worry says, “You need to start paying student loans back in November.” And I pray, Lord, please help me find a way to pay them back. Trust.

I have grown so much more over the last few months because I’ve been waiting – and I am so grateful. At times, the months were anxiety filled; at times, my head was (literally) in the toilet, my emotions exacting a heavy toll from my physical body. But worry accomplishes nothing. Anxiety and fear accomplish nothing. That voice that says, you could be doing more, you should be doing more, you can do it alone – lies.

Ultimately, my confidence cannot lie in my own abilities. Plenty of people do everything right and have nothing turn out. My professors and various others have expressed fury on my behalf that [fill in the blank] didn’t work out. And you all probably know people like that, or perhaps you’ve been in that position or are in that position.

The good news is, we can have total confidence in the promises of our Savior. That he who begins a good work will be faithful to complete it. That he is with us always. That he gives wisdom to those who ask. That he will grant prayers for patience (oh, will he grant them!).

I’m going through a book by Angela Thomas, and the section for today was entitled Pray & Stand. I started to cry when I read one of the verses; it very much articulates where I’m at, and it is an awesome encouragement.

Ephesians 6:13 – “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

He gives us the strength to stand in the face of adversity, of trial, of desert places, of pain, of brokenness … even better, he is there with us. We can trust that he has a plan and a purpose, that – as “Desert Song” says – “All of my life, in every season, you are still God, I have a reason to sing… I have a reason to worship.”

When I’m unemployed, I have a reason to worship God. When I’m worried about how I’m going to pay the bills, I can trust him. When I’m filled with fear and anxiety, I can invite him in and watch as his awesome love casts everything else out. I know in my heart of hearts that he fights for me, that he loves me, and that even in the waiting – especially in the waiting – he is shaping me into the woman he wants me to be.

Psalm 118:1, 5-9, 13-14 – “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever …. In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free. The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper … It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. …. I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”

April 30, 2010

Freedom & Family

It is the greatest longing of my heart to walk every day fully in the loving freedom that Christ so generously gives. Freedom to love, freedom to write, freedom to express, freedom to move, freedom to live without condemnation. For there is no condemnation for those who walk in Christ Jesus – who the son sets free is free indeed! His love and mercy covers all of our sin; he offers us the chance to come cleanly before God.

It’s such an awesome gift. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I’m grateful for it. The struggle – mine, at least – is living it out day by day.

There are a lot of things in this world that can cramp the freedom that Jesus gives. Fear, anger, loneliness, bitterness, mistrust, anxiety, and a variety of other sins can leave us feeling less than free – we walk in the shadow of sin rather than the shadow of His wing. And that is no place for anyone to walk. But sometimes, those shadows feel so powerful.

I think one of the most difficult shadows we can live under is that of our family, be it our family history, our past mistakes, our family members’ past mistakes, or just difficulties in general. Heck, it could even be under the pressure of having to live up to your family! And for every Cleaver family, I bet you that any one of us can point to dozens and dozens of “broken homes” and, of course, the people who come from them.

Quick aside: I’ve never much liked the term “broken homes.” First off, it sounds like it can’t be fixed. And I don’t like that. Love covers a multitude of sins, and our faith guarantees us a redeeming love, a redeeming power – the love that can cast out bitterness and brokenness, love that can heal. So I don’t much care for the term “broken home.” Also, there’s the simple fact that it puts homes in a binary opposition: they’re either broken or whole, and it seems to be a naive assumption that there’s such thing as a totally-broken or totally-whole home. As an old pastor of mine once said, “Everybody’s walking on broken floors.” Everybody – even the Cleavers – has some issue they have dealt with or are dealing with that has affected their family. So no, I don’t much care for the word “broken” in this application, but seeing as it’s so prevalent in our culture, you all get what I mean when I say it.

This was one of my greatest spiritual struggles during my freshman year of college. I was away from my family for the first time, away from the pain and the fights and the grievances. Basically, I felt a lot of guilt: guilt and pain at being separated from my then-15-year-old sister, who was still in the middle of everything; guilt for not being able to be there for my mom, as I had been for so many years; and guilt for feeling, above all, a sense of relief and freedom, that I was finally out from under my parents’ roof.

But I continued to carry my family’s burdens with me. I’d been carrying them for so long that it was normal. I had lengthy conversations with my mom, listening to her, and there was one particularly vitriolic argument I had with my dad on the phone. My sister started to say things like, “You don’t understand. You don’t live here anymore.” And all the while, I was trying to form a new life with new habits, better habits, cleaner habits. But I was still parked firmly under my family’s shadow. Even away from them, I did not feel free. I was relieved, yes, but not free.

During second semester, God started to pull out all the stops. There were these tiny study booths at the end of the hall (we called ’em phone booths since people only used them to talk on the phone). One night, I was in a phone booth with my friend Laura, a source of great spiritual strength and comfort, and I was bawling my eyes out about my family, railing on about abuse and addiction and awful marriages and all those things I was sure I was never going to get away from. I can’t remember our whole conversation, but I do remember that at one point, she looked me square in the eye and said, “God is bigger than family history.”

It felt like a slap in the face, but that was one of the first moments where I remember being forced to reckon with the fact that God is bigger, and that if I wasn’t letting him in, that meant that I didn’t think he was who he said he was. It meant I was proud. It meant I was refusing healing from Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals. … Ouch.

Soon after, I was talking with a senior, Jessika, who really mentored me that year. She gave me a copy of Do You Think I’m Beautiful? by Angela Thomas. I’ve mentioned the book in this blog before, and I even think I mentioned the thing that most spoke to me. Her discussion of our sacks of ashes – how we carry those sacks around for so long, bent over so far, not knowing what way is up, just knowing that we’re very, very comfortable carrying it around. I realized the extent to which I’d been carrying my family’s ashes around and that – wow – I didn’t have to. Those burdens can be laid at Christ’s feet, a fact I knew but hadn’t grasped.

And then the women’s bible study went to the Women of Faith conference, and that year’s theme was Amazing Freedom. go figure. So yes – God did wonders in my life that semester. Wonders that started me on the path to freedom.

Four years later, I have been freed in so many ways, but, living at home, I find myself in a different struggle. It’s the struggle of having had everything change – your perspective as well as the family itself (divorce) – and yet still being surrounded by… is the ghosts of yesteryear too Dickensian? Without going into too much detail, it’s become a struggle for me to try and love on my family and remain free from taking on the burdens. Whenever I do, fights happen. And there have been fights this month, with my parents and my sister. I’m trying to figure out how to live with them, love them, and move forward without falling into those old traps, those old places where I’d pick up a sack of mom’s and a sack of dad’s and start walking with it.

I wrote recently on the struggle to be honest in my writing – how to cull details and themes from my childhood and adolescence without causing pain to my family. A part of me is very afraid of hurting them, upsetting them.

But I can’t go back under that shadow. I love my family, but I love my Creator more. And He loves my family so much! I’m learning how to honor and respect my parents (perhaps for the first time, honestly) and how to love my sister while remaining free – free from what they think of me, free from their opinion, free even from their own personal struggles. I cannot take on their pain. I can only deal with mine, and the best way to do that is to lay it all before the throne of Jesus and say “Here! Take it! I don’t want it!”

And then he takes it, and he gives beauty for ashes. How cool is that? How blessed we are to have such a loving, loving God!

It seems that the sources of struggle in our lives can evolve in their nature just as we mature and evolve in our faith. The good news is that Jesus is right there with us – and who the Son sets free is free indeed. Freedom, beauty, joy, contentment, peace … I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

April 22, 2010

On Perfectionism

There’s this great line in the song “Free to Be Me” by Francesca Battistelli. It says, “Perfection is my enemy.”

How true. How terrifying, how limiting, how crippling is that perfectionistic streak that runs through so many of us.

Lately, perfectionism has been blocking my writing. Obviously not on this blog – having a daily goal and a few people reading does a lot in the way of accountability. But there’s this story I’m writing that’s due in five days to an online exchange and I have had the assignment for months and I cannot for the life of me find the focus to finish the second chapter.

Perfectionism, so defined by Webster’s, is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” The question is, why do we hold ourselves to that standard in the first place? No one does something perfectly the first time. Heck, people don’t do things perfectly after years in a business – years of writing, of professional athletics, of making deals.

I have some friends who struggle with this. I have struggled with it – but I find that my struggle doesn’t usually focus on the goal of perfection. My struggle has been my own intense dissatisfaction with what I’ve produced, what I’ve written. It could be better. It could be a bestseller. Why can’t I write bestselling material on the first try? Why can’t I finish this story? – my perfectionism manifests itself in intense negativity. Usually, I can get work finished. But I have a passionate dislike for it. I say it’s the worst paper I’ve ever written or it’s the worst story I’ve ever written or…

You get the picture.

We cart around skyscraper-high standards all day, forgetting that the only way you scale that building is one inch at a time. The goal of moving an inch forward is a lot more reasonable than our desire to make a Spiderman leap to the top. Nobody can be Spiderman. Nobody can be perfect. Spiderman wasn’t perfect. So there you go. (Now I feel like the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding…)

We forget to break it down. Short assignments. Attainable goals with an eye to the finish line. And, ultimately, laying down our pride, our need to be the best, our need to prove something to other people, our need to prove something to ourselves.

In her book Do You Think I’m Beautiful?, Angela Thomas talks about how we carry around ash sacks full of regret, sin, and shame. We are doubled over with those sacks on our back, and there’s Jesus standing in front of us offering to take the burden, and we say, “No, no, I’ve got it – see, this is my sack of ashes. I’m comfortable carrying it. I’m used to it.”

And we’re really saying, I don’t know what I’d do if I had to stand up straight.

I think that perfectionism is like a sack of ashes. We carry it around with us every day – something that started as a bundle of expectation and dreams becomes weighted down by the disappointment of shattered hope, bitterness, self-loathing, and regret.

Perfectionism is self-flagellation on a daily basis. Really, it is. We will never meet our own standards. What does a first-time bestselling author do? Freak out about the pressure they now face – that they’d better write another bestseller.

Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing ever satisfies. Getting everything you want does not bring peace. There are oh so many examples of that in the world around us, and not just the rich and famous, but the people we know – co-workers, fellow students, bosses, people at church, people in our neighborhood, maybe even people we love.

The standard is not our own worldly concept of perfection. The standard is Jesus Christ and the example He set with His beautiful love laced with jewels of mercy, threads of passion, and the comfort of His peace. He calls us to lay down our lives and follow Him. Lay down your need for acceptance, and be accepted in His arms. Lay down your need for perfection, and become enamored by the perfection of your awesome Creator. He is enough when we are not. And we are never enough, so He is always enough.

When we rest in His arms, we can be at peace with ourselves. So often, I “strive” for peace – what a joke! I am trying, trying, trying to feel peaceful just for a minute when all I need to do is sit back and bask in the warm love my Savior, my lover, my comforter, my friend.

When we call Christ our savior, we are in turn called to show His love to others. And it is very difficult for others to feel that they could be loved by someone who holds themselves to an unattainable standard of perfection. When we hold ourselves to that standard – even if we don’t think we are inflicting it on other people… we are. How hard it is to love others when we never feel we can do it successfully. How hard it is to accept love from someone who is never satisfied.

Rest. Lay back in His arms. Accept His love for yourself. And then show it to others. Lay down your own standards. He is enough. He is always enough.

The chorus of Francesca Battistelli’s “Free to Be Me” goes like this

I got a couple dents in my fender

Got a couple rips in my jeans

Try to fit the pieces together

But perfection is my enemy

And my own, I’m so clumsy

But on your shoulders I can see

I’m free to be me

In the freeing, peaceful, awesome love of Jesus Christ, we are free to be ourselves. Free to write imperfectly, dance crazily, and love wholeheartedly. And that is news worth celebrating.

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