From the Basement

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.

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August 5, 2010

Suffering & the Christian Church: A Question

A question I’m wrestling with right now:

How do I reconcile the call to suffer with the fact that I was born in the USA to parents who did not have the means to travel internationally? I’ve never been out of the country. Never witnessed an atrocity. Am living a plush middle-class existence. Even in the face of economic crisis and unemployment, my parents are (thus far) still employed with health insurance and enough money to cover dental and vision costs w/o insurance. I. Am. So. Effing. Blessed.

So how exactly can I claim the promises of God and a “mature” (snort) faith when I am obviously not suffering?

(It should be noted that this post comes in the middle of a meltdown over how awful the writing is going and doubts as to whether or not God wants me to write, etc. etc. etc., blah blah blah)

It’s coming in the middle of extreme emotion, but the question is honest. Obviously, the answer isn’t for every American Christian to move to third-world countries, get rid of all possessions, eschew all dreams/hopes that extend beyond basic survival, and minister to other people (or is it?).

How do we reconcile the two?

Thoughts from a Christian Feminist

I am a Christian. I am also a feminist. I triple majored in English, Politics, and Women’s Studies in college – suffice to say I sought answers in feminism that I could not find in the church. In the church, I saw leaders who told women they should stay at home, who said women’s primary purpose was to be wives and mothers. There were fellow congregants who stood aghast when I declared my ambitions, who were equally appalled at all the original oratories I took to speech competitions on gender pay equity, violence against women in advertisements, and women and the presidency.

For a long time, it seemed like I was on the outskirts of both groups. I was too liberal for the church, and I was too church-y for my women’s studies classes, what with my views on, well, the church (or rather, should I say, Jesus Christ).

For the last decade, any mention of Ephesians 5 has been enough to make my blood boil. Suffice to say that I grew up in a home where headship was abusive and un-Christlike, even after my father’s conversion. Male headship was something to be feared. A husband could do anything he wanted to the wife, and she had to obey for “the good of the family.” And let me tell you, much as I heard pastors rail against abuse and male domineering within marriage, I watched again and again as pastor after pastor ignored my parents’ situation. (It is my personal opinion that for every pastor out there willing to confront an abusive marriage in his congregation, there is one who cowers in his office, fearful of confronting it, hoping he can just pray it away – particularly if it’s not life threatening to the wife and children. Cynical? Maybe. But it’s just my two cents.)

So to say I have baggage regarding marriage is an understatement.

But over the last few months, the Lord has really brought me to a place where I’m reconsidering crucial questions within a biblical light – often for the first time. It’s grace. Total grace. I still have fears, and the desire to control is very strong within me, but I’m learning – slowly – what marriage is about, what it was intended to be. (To spell it out, I affirm Christ-like headship and submission.)

Part of my reluctance in discussing this is that feminism is viewed as an enemy by prominent Christian theologians; it is very much figured as a war on the church. I’m in a unique position in that I am intimately familiar with both sides of the war, as it were. I’ve read Grudem and Piper (the experts on complimentarianism), and I’ve read “evangelical feminists” like Craig S. Keener. It goes without saying, given the Women’s Studies major, that I have read at least the basic texts in each major feminist theory. (Which is – I think – more than Grudem and Piper can say, given some of their arguments.)

This post was inspired by something that struck me tonight; it’s a very small point but I do feel the need to introduce it within its larger context. A friend recently blogged about her frustration with extremism in the feminist blogosphere, and the discussion brought up issues of identifying as a feminist and as a proponent of gender equality.

The term equality has never sat very well with me. It posits a binary in which Man is Equal and Woman is Unequal; at its core is the assumption that women need to be “brought up” to men’s standard. And man is not the standard!

This is what I love about Christianity: it eradicates having “man” or “woman” as the standard – Christ is the standard. Look at how Christ treated women – he was an absolute feminist, for at its core, feminism is about acknowledging the value of men and women, and how much more can you affirm the value of both sexes if not by offering both eternal life? (Notwithstanding the fact that both were created in God’s image to begin with.)

Like I said, small point.

I’ll be blogging about feminism and Christianity in the future, but can I leave you with some thoughts? Both “sides” – the church and “feminism,” so called – make terribly general assumptions about each other. Of particular concern to me is how the church discusses feminism. The Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, and Faith is not an excuse for:

a)    Rash generalizations (e.g. feminism is responsible for the downfall of the family)

b)    Not doing your homework (e.g. not reading feminist texts and theory)

c)    Poor arguments – the result of being uninformed and general

And it seems that most discussions of feminism in the church today are, frankly, all of the above.

This is not to say that writers like Grudem and Piper have not produced outstanding scriptural exegesis on passages like Ephesians 5 – quite the contrary. Piper in particular gives the best explanation of Ephesians 5 I’ve ever heard. While they sometimes push too far for my liking (e.g. stating that mothers should not work), I think they’ve done outstanding work.

It’s when the church starts blaming feminism for everything that it displays a remarkable lack of self-reflection…

But that’s the beginning of another post.

P.S. Here’s a link to one of Piper’s sermons on marriage, entitled “The Beautiful Faith of Fearless Submission.” http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/2007/2088_The_Beautiful_Faith_of_Fearless_Submission/

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 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 25, 2010

Fighting for Faith

Over the last few weeks, I have been digging into the word, reading wonderful literature (John Piper, C.S. Lewis), and writing (and not writing) the novel. But while the weeks have been full of learning, growth, and challenge, so too have they been full of doubts. The fight for faith, the fight for joy, seems to get harder every day, and some days are better than others. No one can take my joy – this I know. Thing is, sometimes it feels as if I am standing in the way of my own joy.

I’ve been writing and praying a lot, and there several topics that are vying for more detailed attention. These include what I’ve dubbed “Lies I Believe”: that I am too young and inexperienced to be used by God, that my fear stands in the way of being used by God, that I must fully let go to be used by God – all of which culminate in feeling separated from God when I know I am not. (See a pattern?) I’ve also just finished the book of Ecclesiastes – I zipped through it in two days and wow, is it rife with rich material. I would like to write about it, though some themes tie in with youth/inexperience. And the last category is more fully addressing how some notions of “Biblical” femininity are culturally informed (e.g., women shouldn’t work outside the home).

Because I’m digesting a lot right now, including this morning’s wonderful sermon, I’m not really in a place to offer cohesive or cogent thoughts. Rather, I’d like to offer a few quotes and verses. It’s funny: fear and pride have been my daily companions, yet I forget that I’ve posted encouragements for myself in places I visit every day. Namely, the computer desktop and Facebook. So those are the encouragements I’m going to share.

Posted in my “Religious Views” is a quote from John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Towards the end of his life, Newton wrote:

“I remember two things – that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great savior.”

And in favorite quotes, Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On the desktop is a verse from my favorite hymn, Be Thou My Vision.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise.

Thou my inheritance, now and always.

Thou and thou only, first in my heart.

High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.

And because the last verse is so beautiful —

High king of heaven, my victory won!

May I reach heaven’s joys, oh bright heaven’s son.

Heart of my own heart, whatever befall –

Still be my vision, oh Ruler of all.

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.

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.

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