From the Basement

September 15, 2010

On Pride, Self Pity, & Grace

(So after that last post, I started freewriting, and I figured hey, let’s just jump into my random thought process and see where it goes.)

I long for human recognition – it makes me feel like my life is worth something. Like people have noticed. Like they’ve cared. Like they were able to take something valuable away. Times like these, my life doesn’t feel like it’s worth anything.

That’s self-pity, I know. In my head, I know that Jesus loves me, that grace is free, that as that wonderful Third Day song goes, “you just call my name and I’ll be there.” In my head, I know those things. My heart is a different matter. My heart is traitorous, vacillating, easily swayed.

I have not yet learned humility. I don’t know how to be confident and hopeful while still being okay if I fail. Either I’m invincible or I’m in the land of self-pity. These days, the latter has become my coffeeshop of choice.

I don’t know how to have confidence in my own abilities. Thank God my mom reads over my cover letters because I do not trust one word I write.

The response to this is, we’re not supposed to have confidence in our own abilities. We’re supposed to have confidence in God, who gave us our abilities for a reason. Again, in my head, I know that to be true. The fact is, though, I still think I can imagine a better future for myself than God can. I’m not willing to trust him. Oh, there are days when I do, but so too are there days when it feels like darkness is all around.

Let me tell you, when you sit alone day in and day out for months on end, when it’s just you and your laptop searching for jobs for hours at a time, compulsively checking email, trying not to obsess about the future… you become acutely aware of how many times in a day you sway from Trust to Fear.

I have become acutely aware of my failings in this department. And acute is a great word so don’t accuse me of overusing it. Acute means sharp or severe – it’s brief and staggering, as opposed to chronic. It’s most often used to contextualize types of grief, sorrow, and pain – it’s the right word to describe the pain when you go from a spiritual high to spiraling downward in a matter of minutes.

When it’s just you in the silence, and you don’t have class, work, meetings, friends, or even bloody homework to distract you – when it’s just you, for days and months on end, trying to hope but utterly unable to sustain yourself – there’s a special brand of self-loathing that develops there.

It’s pride in one of its many forms, and it worships at the altar of “I.” Pride, above all, must be self-sustaining. It has a singular concentration on independence, on the ability to do it all… there is not a greater power, you are in total control – this is the lie of the “I.” It is pride that tells people they “should” have work when they don’t, because they’re qualified – pride trusts human ability over God’s design, my own imagination over my Creator’s.

I feel like if God’s put me in this prison – because I love my parents, but being at their homes day after day feels like prison – to rid me of pride, or even to try to get at the root, well, we’re going to be here a lot longer, because the pride seems to be swelling and growing more now than it has all summer.

Not to get all metaphoric, but the garden always seems like a good metaphor for the soul. If you put seeds in dirt, the sun and the rain will do almost everything. But you have to tend it. You have to weed it. You have to go out with the hose and water the damn flowers when there is no rain. There are dry spells and cloudy days and times when you feel like you’re not keeping the garden alive, even though it still is.

My mom recently went out of town on an extended trip, and I had to take care of the gardens. Now, I know relatively little about gardening, and I freaked out because during those two weeks, there was no rain, and even though I watered the plants almost perfectly on schedule, to me – the untrained eye – it looked utterly bereft. But when my mom returned, she said I’d done a great job and that the yard looked wonderful.

The untrained eye versus the expert’s eye… the human eye versus the master gardener’s eye. When I look at my life, I see loss and loneliness and despair. I see sin and hopelessness and wretched external forces weighing down. I see uncertainty and doubt and spiritual vacillations of bi-polar proportion.

But that’s not what he sees. He looks at me and sees his son. He looks at me and sees his daughter, redeemed. He looks and sees many broken pieces just waiting to be put back together in a form so beautiful no one else could have imagined it. He sees opportunities for restoration and renewal and rebirth. For growth and pruning and tending. He sees the big picture. He sees exactly how these moments – every moment, every acute pain and tender joy – fit into the pattern.

I’m not to the point where I can doubt and immediately lift it up to him. I still wallow in self-pity. I cross my arms and plop down in my mud puddle, a perfect picture of a childhood tantrum. But it’s taking less time for me to grasp onto his hand and let him lift me out of the mud puddle. So in that, there is growth. It is small and it is fragile, but it is there. And it’s only by his grace, because I’m a train wreck without grace.

Psalm 23:3: He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

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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.

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.”

May 8, 2010

On Identity in Christ

I’m writing this morning in a spirit of joy, gratitude, and contentment, though the contentment is slow settling in.

The last few days have been a rocky journey. I’ve been back on campus, seeing friends all around, something that should be a source of great joy. And it has been. But simultaneously, the poison that is bitterness has been seeping into my worldview. Over the last two days, I found myself interpreting others’ actions, wondering what they thought of me, feeling that disastrous need for recognition.

The need for recognition is a great spiritual struggle for me; it is hard to overcome. For the last two days, I’ve been wallowing in it, wallowing in bitterness, an emotion that feeds on itself, eating you from the inside out – I’ve been … well, not the most pleasant person to be around.

See, the harsh truth is that my “need” for recognition means that I want others’ approval, and the fact that I “need” their approval means that I’m not confident in my own accomplishments, abilities, etc., and if I’m not confident in those things, it’s because I’m not confident in who I am. So that need for recognition spirals into this need for others to tell me who I am – a good student/athlete/artist/girlfriend/friend/daughter/actress/poet … you get the idea.

Thing is, those are transient identities that will ebb and flow over the course of our lives. Athletes get injured. So do writers (just ask Stephen King). Marriages end. People die. Ultimately, the identities that flow from those other sources in our lives cannot define us, because the world can change in a nanosecond.

For example (and if you are the praying sort, your prayers are appreciated) – family friends of ours recently had their world rocked upside down. The husband is probably sitting in a hospital right now. His wife (who my mom used to babysit for) was driving her minivan with their three kids in the backseats. Someone ran a stop sign and blindsided them, killing their oldest boy and baby girl. The mom is in critical condition. The younger boy is injured but will be okay.

A nanosecond. That is all it takes for a life – a family – to be ripped apart. Our relationships, especially those bonded in love, are things of beauty; they give so much joy. But I use this tragic example to illustrate a crucial point: though the world may change, and though what we know may be ripped from us, the love that Jesus Christ has for us knows no bounds and is present in every situation, good and bad. Paul said that he had learned to be content in all things because of that awesome, never-ending, powerful, pervasive, stubborn, glorious love of his savior.

When life turns upside down, when tragedy strikes, when we perceive that our identity is in flux, when we ask “Who am I?” … Jesus answers.

You are my daughter. You are my son. You are saved. You are loved. You are blessed. You are the sheep and I am your shepherd. You are the branches and I am the vine. You are my beloved.

When life knocks us down, or when we listen to diabolic lies, or when we are faced with the uncertainty and mutability of our own flesh, there is Jesus’ voice … in prayer, in scripture, He tells us that we have nothing to fear and everything to gain. Jesus can tell me who I am. He can tell you who you are. The people around us cannot. Situations cannot. Accolades cannot. Recognition cannot. Achievement cannot. The world cannot.

But He can. And knowing who you are in Jesus Christ is an awesome knowledge that makes your shoulders slump in gratitude, and maybe your eyes fill up with tears, and maybe you breathe a sigh of relief because goodness, the weight of the world is too freaking heavy for a human being to carry.

The love of Christ does two things: it grounds us firmly in His presence, and it casts out all fear. When I totally rest in His arms, the worry, anxiety, fear, bitterness, anger … all of those things seep out of my body. When I claim His name and ask for a spirit of loving gentleness, of wisdom, of hope, He gives it freely. What joy is there in that! And what confidence. When we are confident in our identity, we are confident in our abilities. Confidence reaps freedom and love. When we are confident in who we are, we love people so much better. Our relationships are richer, brighter, fuller.

But that’s another post. For this morning, I will close with scripture. I’m sitting at a friend’s desk (this one’s for Bam Bam), and there are “scripture treasure” cards sitting here. The two I turned to are “Victory” and “Lordship” – how appropriate this morning.

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 1 John 4:4

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. John 15:15

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