From the Basement

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.

April 30, 2010

Freedom & Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2010

On Perfectionism

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

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

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

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

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

You get the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got a couple dents in my fender

Got a couple rips in my jeans

Try to fit the pieces together

But perfection is my enemy

And my own, I’m so clumsy

But on your shoulders I can see

I’m free to be me

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

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