From the Basement

July 26, 2010

Youth is not a Limitation for God

In the last blog, I wrote that these last few months have been turbulent times filled with spiritual challenge and learning and growth, but also pain, heartache, doubt, fear, and anxiety. This week – the last few days – in particular have brought an avalanche of revelation.

What I would like to focus on tonight is one lie that has seeped into my life: that my youth and inexperience will keep God from using me, particularly in my calling. I put my faith in conventional wisdom that says that countless rejections must be collected before “breaking in”; what’s more, I measure success in human standards of being published. And when it comes to the ever-frightening idea of writing a non-fiction book on Christian living, or just meditations on faith from an unemployed college graduate, I practically freeze with fear, knowing that I lack the credentials – the degrees, the experience – to be published.

It’s really hard to put it out there and say that yeah, I have those dreams.

One caveat here. Over the last few months, I’ve read a flood of articles on unemployed college graduates and on the “Entitlement” complex of Generation Y – how we think we’re entitled to better work and whatnot. Personally, I’m totally willing to do the grunt assistant jobs. Get coffee for someone for years before “making it”? Sure! I’m willing to pay my dues. And similarly, when it comes to publication, I’m willing to start at the bottom. Rejection will happen and a thick skin is necessary. I recently sent out my first story to a professional publication, and I hold no illusions about making it in – it’s valuable experience and you know, I’m putting myself out there. We’ll see what happens.

Here’s my issue: conventional wisdom says that youth = inexperience = lack of wisdom, lack of success. And it’s common wisdom for a reason – it’s common!

BUT. With God, all things are possible. Do we really believe this? Youth is not a limitation for God. Inexperience is not a limitation for God. And it is dangerous when the youth internalize this “conventional wisdom” – that they must wait for wisdom, wait to be used, wait for Their Calling, simply because they are young.

It’s about keeping a right perspective. The fact is, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority are some of the most powerful tools Satan can use to keep us down.

It is crucial to remember that God doesn’t call the equipped – he equips the called. We are called to lean on him and not on our own understanding; we claim that the joy of the Lord is our strength and our salvation. God does not require an advanced degree or decades of experience to be used. In fact, he delights to show his strength in our weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, Paul writes:

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

A dear friend of mine is going to a foreign country for ten months to set up an organization in a field she is not trained in. She’s the one who first told me that God equips the called, and it was a blessing to be able to repeat her words back to her when we had lunch a few days ago. Skills and knowledge can be learned – the content she’s working with can be learned – but she has an invaluable knowledge going in: the knowledge of the mercy and grace of Christ Jesus and her ability to show His compassionate love to others. Jesus will make a way where there is seemingly no way.

Our youth and inexperience are perfect opportunities for the Lord to make manifest His glory, for we really cannot boast on our own wisdom and understanding. Indeed, God recently slammed a door in my face that would have brought me that advanced degree and the worldly respect that accompanies it.

It is not wishful thinking or naiveté that gives me so powerful an assurance in this wonderful quality of God’s, but rather His own words. God delights to use the ill equipped, the young, the “wrong” choice to bring about His glory. Two examples come to mind: Moses and Esther. When God drew Moses to Himself via the burning bush (such an awesome idea), He said: “Come now… I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Moses’ reply falls from his lips before he can stop himself – “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

He protests. Even though we can see how Moses is uniquely, wondrously called to this task (saved from Pharaoh’s edict as a baby, raised in the palace, familiar with Egyptian customs, and y’know, he’s sort of the brother of the current Pharaoh) – in spite of all this, Moses clearly felt himself ill qualified. He doubted himself. He didn’t think he was worthy.

God’s response to Moses’ fears? “I will certainly be with you.”

We are never enough; He is always enough. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.

Of course, God’s assurances do not assure Moses – a chapter later, Moses is still arguing with God, saying he’s not eloquent enough to speak. And yet God provides for this weakness, as well (Moses’ biological brother, Aaron, is a gifted speaker).

God will make a way where there is no way.

Similarly, Esther is called to act in a radical way. She is a young Jewish girl hiding her beliefs from her new husband, who just happens to be the King of Persia. She’s inexperienced and, in spite of the presence of her cousin Mordecai, frighteningly alone. However, she is thrust into Purpose headfirst when one of the king’s advisors, Haman, hatches a plot that would destroy all Jews in Persia (the Holocaust, only thousands of years earlier).

Mordecai implores Esther to go to the King and beg his mercy, and she protests, reminding Mordecai that no one can enter the King’s inner sanctum unless personally called (death is a possibility for such radical disobedience). Mordecai’s response to Esther’s fear is famous: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)

In spite of their youth and inexperience, even in the face of their fear and anguish, God used Moses and Esther to deliver His people in marvelous ways. In fact, he positioned them perfectly. They acted against convention, against “common wisdom” – they were willing to risk death in order to obey the call of God on their lives.

They were willing to be used. Humility and submission: these are the qualities we are all to cultivate in terms of obedience to God. The aged and the young, the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated – regardless of status, a humble, submissive spirit before the throne can and will be used by the Father.

One example of awesome humility and submission was Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the angel Gabriel came to her, she was 14 – eight years younger than I am right now. Luke tells us that Mary was “troubled” at the angel’s appearance and greeting; Gabriel exhorted her to not be afraid. When he told her of her calling – to bear the son of God! – her one question was an understandably logistical one (that she was sort of a virgin). The angel answered her question, finishing “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary then replied, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

Wow. Wow.

Mary then visits her cousin Elizabeth (who is preggers with John the Baptist) and her song is just incredible.

My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior.

For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.

For He who is mighty has done great things for me,

And holy is His name. (Luke 1:46-49)

She is 14, engaged, pregnant with the son of God, and about to face ridicule, condemnation, and public gossip. (Remember that Joseph almost leaves her over this.) She is no fool – she is well aware of what happens to women in her situation, and yet her faith is absolute. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior” – let that be an inspiration and exhortation to us today.

(I realize that it may sound as if I am implying that youth and inexperience are inherently limitations and weaknesses. Not so! We all are possessed of limitations and weaknesses that seem like mountains, but these are nothing for our God.)

How glorious it is, as a young person, to know our savior, redeemer, lover, friend. How wonderful is it to be pursuing His heart, His right thinking this early! To not waste decades and years on the pursuit of vanity – things that cannot possibly fill us. How awesome to be walking in His light, to be seeking Him, to be latching onto our callings at such a young age! Oh, my prayer, friends, is that we would all walk in our callings, for how beautiful will they unfold – like flowers opening under the sun – over the years and decades of our lives to come.

I would like to offer a snippet of a sermon from John Piper on this subject of youth and wisdom. He uses quotes from Ecclesiastes and Job that are just outstanding sources of encouragement on this topic.

To bring our minds into conformity with God. Job 32:8: “But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding.” To walk in the Spirit, pursuing His calling on our lives in our youth, for indeed, we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

I really like the song “Song of Hope (Heaven Come Down)” by Robbie Seay Band. And there’s one line that gives me chills – it’s the first line of the chorus.

I will sing a song of hope, sing along

God of heaven come down, heaven come down

Just to know that you are near is enough

God of heaven come down, heaven come down

I will sing a song of hope. That is our calling – all of our calling – on this earth. Not literally singing, perhaps, but proclaiming the perfect Hope we have in our Creator.

Lord, I pray that I would have the courage to sing a song of hope, in whatever form you want me to sing, to whoever you want me to sing to. That I would not let my own fear get in the way. My own insecurities, my own anxieties about youth or inexperience or pride or whatever else I’m dealing with. Jesus, your strength is made perfect in my weakness. You are enough. All of you is enough for all of me. I pray for the strength to proclaim your word boldly, to love boldly, to sing boldly, to hope with a boldness and strength that can only come from you. Amen.

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.

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.”

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