From the Basement

January 27, 2011

“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?”

English departments have begun the arduous process of notifying applicants for graduate work. Stanford and Emory are interviewing, and Northwestern has already sent out acceptances and rejections. None of the programs I applied to have begun notifying yet, to the best of my knowledge, but an interesting few months are upon us.

Last year, I went through January in a state of relative bliss, not thinking about my applications, only to be hit with a truckload of force by my first rejection letter in early February. The resulting anxiety—will I get in? won’t I?—affected me on so deep a physical level that I was throwing up every morning for the month of February. I remember it vividly: wake up, make coffee, check email, work on some homework, and within a half hour to 45 minutes, I would be wretching in the toilet. The feeling was terrible—this focal point in my belly that felt black, that was wound tight with nerves and fear. What if I don’t get in? What does that mean? What if this isn’t God’s will? What if… what if… what if?

It’s that time again: the end of January, where a handful of schools are beating their peers to the punch by sending out acceptances and rejections. The majority of programs will notify mid February through late March, with wait-lists being accepted/rejected even through early May. Like I said, a long process to wait through.

But my perspective is different this year. Last year, I couldn’t imagine not going to graduate school. I was afraid of wasting my life, somehow. A year later, I know that anything we do—even if it’s unexpected, even if it’s not “using” our degree—is certainly not wasted… not wasted when you are seeking the Lord’s direction, however imperfectly, not wasted when you know that he holds the future in his hands.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. —Matthew 6:28-33 (NIV)

My fiancé loves to quote the verse 27 of this chapter, which states, “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (NKJV).

Worrying will not make answers come more quickly. It will not affect an outcome, and it will not even make us feel better. Rather, it makes us feel worse and encourages the vines of self-doubt and pride, anxiety and fear to twine about us, choking out the good that is being nurtured in us.

Scripture tells us precisely what we are to do when faced with this sort of situation. 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast your anxiety on him, for he cares for you” (NKJV).

The sin often referenced in verses dealing with worry, anxiety, and/or fear is unbelief. John Piper articulates in many of his works that unbelief is the root of all sin: not trusting, not believing, not hoping in the promises of the Lord. Look back to the verse in Matthew 6: Jesus does not tell the disciples that they haven’t prayed enough, or haven’t turned to scripture enough, or haven’t worked hard enough, or haven’t done [fill in the blank] enough. No—he reproaches them: “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

You of little faith. This is how Jesus addresses those who worry about whether he will provide, who do not fully trust his promises and live like they trust them.

Because this is the question: are we living like we trust Jesus? It’s one thing to say we trust him, but really—do we? Last February, I would have said with my mouth that I absolutely trusted God with the outcome… whilst my body betrayed the truth of my belief by wretching all my worry and fear into a toilet bowl.

When a situation is so terrible it is difficult to see how good could come of it, it is hard to believe on the promises of Christ. On the flip side, when we want something so badly and are praying for it fervently, casting all our hope on that to do something for us… it can be hard to take a step back, hold out an open palm, and let the Lord take that dream, saying “not now” or perhaps even “no.” But even in these times—especially in these times—we must hold fast; we cannot doubt his promise in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (NKJV).

The first chapter of James offers a step-by-step manual, if you will, to dealing with these situations where we are tempted to worry, whether they are trials wrought by our own sin or by external circumstance, whether the outcome will be immediate or long-awaited.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. —James 1:2-8

We are not only exhorted to be patient, but to ask for wisdom. How often do we ask for wisdom as to how to handle a situation in a godly manner? So often I pray for outcomes when I should be praying for the proper, Christ-like attitude. And we should be praying with faith, with total trust, not doubting the promises of Him who is Faithful and True.

This passage ends, of course, with a rather convicting verse about the double-minded man. Oh, have I been the double-minded woman, doubting that the Lord would provide even as I prayed for provision. Or couching my A prayers with B and C prayers, rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel—“If this doesn’t happen Lord, then please let this happen, and if you see fit to do this but not this then…” You get the drift.

James calls this out for what this is: unbelief. Sin. How dare we approach the father and pray while doubting him—doubting his promises, which are his very nature—in the back of our minds? We have “some nerve,” my grandmother might say.

James’ words are harsh, but the point is made. We are exhorted throughout scripture to believe on his promises, to let them dwell in our hearts so that our transformation may be from the inside-out, our trust in the promises of God a direct correlation to our growth in Christ-likeness. And here’s the thing: we have no reason not to believe. He has told us that his promises are true, and I don’t know about you, but I can look back on my life—even these short 23 years—and see with stunning clarity how “his grace has brought me safe thus far.” And my prayer is that “his grace will lead me home” – and that I will be receptive to that leading.

He is good. He is faithful. He is true. He will never leave us or forsake us. He holds our lives in the palm of his hand. He is Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, and he knows our beginning and our end. There is nothing to fear. He is freedom from fear.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the strength of my life;

Of whom shall I be afraid?

….

Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord!

—Psalm 27:1, 14

Advertisements

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 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.

Blog at WordPress.com.