From the Basement

January 6, 2011

Paul Wrote Letters – Realizations and Reflections

Filed under: Faith,Writing — jeannablue @ 6:11 pm
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I started reading Colossians the other day, totally random and a bit out of the blue, given how out of scripture I’ve been over the last few weeks. I was reading the commentary on the first few verses, in which Paul greets the church at Collose, and it noted that this was a letter Paul wrote from prison.

Paul wrote letters from prison. Let that sink in a minute. We hear it talked about so often that I think the incredible point is missed: Paul was in prison, his body bruised, his days confined to a solitary place with little opportunity for activity. He could not visit churches… to put a modern day spin on it, he couldn’t attend classes or host bible studies or go to a talk by returning missionaries or [fill in the blank here]. He couldn’t preach from a pulpit, in the traditional sense. He couldn’t do so many of those activities we in the western church seem to consider essential for a vibrant Christian life.

But he wrote letters.

Over the last few months, I have reflected on the purpose/direction of my life, which mostly included questioning it and typically being very frustrated with God. On the worst days, I lamented the amount of time spent applying for jobs I didn’t get, and the futility of various other aspects of life: being confined to my mother’s home for months in the middle of nowhere with no transportation and virtually zero social interaction – those feelings of isolation and loneliness and despair that breed when you question the futility of the situation in which God has placed you.

But I blogged. A lot. I am not about to compare myself to Paul, but the principle of the matter – that he wrote letters while in a confined space, trusting that God put him there for a reason and that no amount of isolation could separate him from others, as long as he could put words to paper – that is a source of hope. Paul did not know how his letters would be received. He wasn’t even guaranteed assurance of their arrival. But he wrote, and he trusted, and he sought to exhort others in their pursuit of Christ and conformity to Christ’s image.

The observation raises a lot of questions, of course. A blog is not a letter, and it doesn’t necessarily have an intended audience. A blog is somehow intrinsically more personal – akin to “this is what I’m going to, let me share” – than the letters Paul wrote to instruct and exhort the churches which, while personal, were definitely others-focused.

This year, I want to live more intentionally, which also includes writing intentionally. So I’m sort of coming back to the drawing board on why I blog and who I blog for – for myself, for God, for my friends, for random strangers who encounter this writing – or some mix thereof? I’ve always considered myself a writer, but if I’m not working on a novel I tend to think I’m failing, and the fact is that the majority of writing I did last year was on this blog. So reevaluating what “I am a writer” constitutes as well as stepping back and seeing the varied ways in which the Lord works through our words, in their varied formats, is also a must. And how do we define “success” in writing? Paul’s goals are the ones I need to adopt. Getting a literary agent and selling a novel does not mean that I am walking in the gift God has given me. Am I writing to love and better understand him? Am I writing to love others? Is the writing others-focused, or does it constantly dwell on my own problems?

Lots of food for thought.

But back to the point. The fact that Paul wrote letters from prison is an incredible encouragement to those of us writing letters from seemingly isolated places. You could be surrounded by dozens of people and still feel isolated. Paul’s ministry is an example and an encouragement – that our words are seeds that, sent out on the wings of the Holy Spirit, will find fallow ground. It may not be in our lifetime, and we may never receive even an inkling that those words have encouraged, convicted, exhorted, or brought forth fruit. But I have faith that His word does not return to Him void.

October 4, 2010

On Desiring God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I, Lord? Who am I?

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

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.

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