I Will Fail…

    If ever there was a time for failure, that time is now. The odds are toppling over and spilling around my feet that I will forget, or simply not know, something that carries the weight of my career, my childrens’ education, or my general wellbeing. The routines that became routine from 17 years in the classroom, 12 years of parenting, and 39 years of life lessons will not be the scaffolding that supports me in what is to come.

    I did not grow up comfortable with failure. If I might fail at it, I likely wouldn’t try it at all. I padded my nest with approval and successes, and I was satisfied to stay there all through high school and most of college. Fortunately, at some point, my honors college perfectionism was replaced with a little more adventurous nature. Adventure often equates to errors, so I cozied up to the idea a little bit. I adopted the mantra that fail means “first attempt in learning”, and in doing so, I followed many new, sometimes unusual, pathways.

    Now I teach high school students who are very much like the honor roll me of 20 years ago. They fret over a point or two, stress over college admittance, and cry over things that I likely once cried about but now have the distance to laugh about. I spend much of my time in AP telling them, over and over, that it will all be OK, that taking chances is worth the risk, that a failure is not forever. This year, I think it is time to take that advice to heart.

    I have spent many hours reframing my course to fit an online platform that is unfamiliar. I think that next week when my students join me virtually, it will all unroll without a hitch, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it is that the reality of that happening is highly unlikely. Probably in the first week, I will have at least one computer crash, one failed live meeting, and one faulty link. Perhaps even that is an underestimation. I will forget to pack Carys’ extra snack because her lunch is at 1:40 this year. I will miss a Zoom meeting with Anika’s teacher or forget to turn in a health slip for Maeve. I will cry at least twice over both monumental and inconsequential issues. There will be multiple miscommunications in my personal and professional life, and I will struggle to wrangle my increasing memory issues into some semblance of order. This is not a defeatist attitude; it is an acceptance of how life is and how it feels right now.

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    But I am ready. I am not afraid of failure these days. I am proud that I have learned programs and technology that I would not have tried a year ago. If they don’t work flawlessly, I know it is not for lack of effort, and that there is always a way to troubleshoot technology into submission. I am not worried about what my own kids will, or won’t, learn. At the end of the day, if we can go to bed with love and patience for each other after virtual, in-person, and every other imaginable learning happening here at home, I will count it a success. The rest will come.  If failing is a first attempt in learning, then I am happy to count each failure as another step in the right direction.  

    This may seem to some a laissez-faire attitude, but I can tell you it is anything but that. Facing failure has made me braver. It has made me more creative. It has given me confidence to try even when I know it won’t be perfect. And arguably, it has made me more successful. My second-guessing nature is not what will get me through a pandemic, an election year, an educational reenvisioning, or any personal upheaval that results from any of this. Confidence comes from overcoming failures, and this year seems like a better year than most to practice that. And perhaps the best attribute that has come from accepting my own shortcomings is that I am ready to handle my students and children with more empathy than usual–hopefully, others will have the same patience with me.

Your Friends are NOT Fine

I went camping last week- a nice, relaxing getaway with family. But the first night, I lost my lid over a missing FedEx receipt for Nick’s business. Lost…it. Tears, anxiety, some yelling. I realized what I have been trying to ignore for months- I am not fine. And throughout recent weeks, as I’ve talked to friends and family, I have realized, they are not fine either.

We are all doing our best wading through things we never thought we would face. What to do about our kids’ education? What to do about our jobs? Who to trust? How to protect our children? How to school our children? The questions go on and on.

There’s so little familiar to grasp. I believed in March when schools shut down that by this time, there would be some normalcy. Now there is less that feels known than in those first days. We have all been through some stuff- work concerns, financial concerns, health concerns, family concerns- that has exacerbated problems that were already simmering- marital unrest, mental fatigue, job unhappiness.

And now I vacillate between the polarizing political fights on social media and the news, and pictures of kittens and kids at half-empty beaches. You feel it too, I’m sure. There are so many times you want to say something, but it feels like just one more opinion lost in the chaos. I personally have never felt so lost as a parent and as a teacher. I am weighing options, worrying about outcomes, and I am so tired.

That lost receipt feels like a clear metaphor for the breaking point my brain is in right now. I have tried taking my own advice: walking away from social media, finding ways to decompress, focusing on the controllables. And even still, I find myself quickly swallowed back up by it all. This is not my cry for help, or my asking for more techniques to manage stress. It is my realization that if this is me, dear goodness, I’d better check on my friends.

The truth is, many of us are teetering right now. It comes out in explosive arguments over education or masks (seriously- we are fighting over fabric smaller than my underwear?), it comes out in withdrawal and silence, it comes out in overcompensation- pictures and reminders that life is perfect, or almost so. It reveals itself in agonizing focus over future maybes.

We need to check on our people.

First, we need to get better at listening, even to what is unsaid. Call that friend with the Facebook rants and just say, “How are you feeling?” then listen. Chances are, they are less angry and more terrified. Avoid offering myriad solutions. We already have so many decisions to make, maybe we don’t need MORE options, but MORE understanding of the options we are choosing. Stop fighting over uncontrollables. I will tell you this, in the toughest parts of my life, I have had to give up controlling certain things. It is the hardest work I’ve done as an adult. But it is so important to our mental stability. Now I see people I care about fighting over things we have literally no control over. Just stop. That is not to say you must stop engaging in meaningful political, religious, and social discussions or activism. Some of my closest friends have taught me much in all those areas because they are so devoted to them. But, know when and how to stop and who to avoid fighting with. Not every argument is worth the cost, to you or your opponent. Offer concrete help; if someone in your life seems to be slipping under, platitudes are not going to cut it. Do something, even if it seems trite. A month or so ago, a friend showed up on my porch with chocolate, a meaningful note in a card, and a cold drink. We sat on my porch and watched the sun set, and I felt in that moment that things were going to be OK. She didn’t ask, she just showed up. Show up for someone. Sometimes it is all a person needs to stay on the cliff, not go over it. And as long as I’m going there, if you are worried about someone’s mental health beyond what your friendship can offer, tell them. Tell their spouse. We are great liars to ourselves and those closest to us. Saying, “I’m worried about you. Have you talked to a professional? Are you considering self-harm?” is scary to voice out loud, but it can be a life line to someone who hasn’t been able to say it to themselves or those they love.

And this is a special note to my fellow believers- some of you have taken a lockjaw hold on issues that you can not control. You post angry, sometimes violent, vitriol against seen and unseen opponents. I have been shocked by the violence and vehemence with which you speak behind the security of your screen. I have two reminders for you: 1. God is in control. If you are missing out on the peace of knowing that God is in the midst of this, please stop and do some reading and praying. He is still there. Throughout the Old Testament, His people suffered, often unimaginably, but He was there. His timing was perfect, His protection was clear. Yet we want answers, now. We want political power to support our ideals. We want our voices to be heard above others. I think often behind anger is fear- and “perfect love drives out fear”. Stop obsessing over the uncontrollables. God is in control. 2. God is peace. Whatever this storm is for you now, there is a way to feel peace and calm. There is a way to BE peace and calm to those around you. “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3). Is your mind stayed on God? If so, that anger, fear, restlessness will dissipate like a morning fog. You will become the peace in the storm around you, and people will wonder where your power comes from. Isn’t that a larger witness to your friends who are struggling than a fight over a political view?

If you find yourself in a puddle over a missing receipt like I did (by the way- did you know your FedEx confirmation number shows up on your bank transaction? I wish I’d known that before my meltdown), know that you are not alone, know that it is OK to ask for help, know that while we cannot control this crazy world, we can manage our reactions with the proper help and focus. It is OK to not be OK. It is OK to break up with social media for a while. It is OK to call a friend and just ask them to sit with you in whatever you are struggling with. It is OK to check on those you love and ask the hard questions. I’ve decided as the days pass by that life will likely never be what it was before, but God will always be who He has always been. And I will be fine again.

Tending the Garden

I was weeding in my sorely neglected vegetable garden today, a garden that has graced my backyard for all 5 summers I have lived in this house.  Every fall, I have new hopes that I bury in the dark dirt, but each spring, the weeds of frustration or despair or anger creep back in. Some years, like this one, new weeds crop up. There is no evidence of their origin, yet here they are. It is a taunt against my sporadic tending- you will never keep us at bay; we can grow anywhere, and faster than you can dig and rake and hoe. The most tenacious of them sometimes make me feel as though I am not a gardener at all. If I were a gardener, my garden would boast clean dirt rows and neat green shoots. I consider giving in, but if I see even one little bud or blossom of promise, I can convince myself to fight the weeds again.

My life, and yours, likely, are much like my vegetable garden. We carefully plant ideas and hopes and plans, everything we will be and do, all that we value and treasure. Yet every spring, nay- every day, the weeds come back. Dissension with a coworker, unfulfillment in a marriage, fear of the future, judgment of others, regret and shame of the past. We pull and pull, but the weeds are tough. I’ve always secretly admired the tenacity of weeds- beautiful flowers are so easy to destroy, but weeds do not give up the fight. And sometimes, a new weed crops up. We didn’t even see it taking root. It evidences itself in inward, then outward, biases, in misunderstandings and dislikes, and for some, eventually in anger and even violence. We may be caught unaware by the weeds. A neighbor looks over the fence, pointing and identifying, wow, I’ve never seen a thistle that big! Ashamed, we start to pull, but that thistle has rooted itself firmly. We are going to have to dig deep to rid the garden of that one.  

The process of weeding is perpetual and purposeful. It is daily tilling of the soil, watching for tiny strongholds and uprooting them. Yet the repetition of the action is the promise that the plants we have sowed so diligently will grow and thrive. Perhaps that is what I actually like about keeping a garden- it is a practical action with a visible reward. Sowing literary knowledge into my students does not always guarantee fruition, at least not in the ways I may expect or plan. Sowing kindness through volunteering is fulfilling, but there is not always a visible return. Even tending to my internal garden and weeds does not always ensure my best response, my ability to lay down myself, or my willingness to see my own flaws and uproot them. 

This spring, the metaphorical garden feels so full of weeds that I have moments I despair of any growth of sustenance at all. One weed is pulled only for another to spring up. The roots are ages old, an underground system of tangled history. But, one tiny green shoot reminds me that gardening is a constant task, not a hobby for the laissez-faire. We can tend to our rows, teach our friends and students and children to tend theirs, and so on. Whether the sun is beating on our backs or the rain is pounding on the windows, a garden will not wait. For what we sow, we surely shall reap, as the saying goes. Or as Galatians warns, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (6:9) We either tend to the weeds, or we are overtaken. So we must put in the daily rooting out of evil and tending to good, with the promise that a harvest of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of love, of hope is the potential in each green little moment that is planted.

Rooted

I have always loved the Church. I grew up in the church, my family firmly rooted in Sunday morning worship and Sunday evening testimony, impromptu after-church pizza with friends and sharing life that wove in and out of the walls of the church building.  When I married, we looked for a church right away. We found a group of other young married people who were trekking through life together, and we joined their caravan. For a number of years we met, growing baby after baby until we were bursting out of the biggest classroom while our children sat on laps and cried in arms of the older generation who willingly watched them while we fellowshipped.  Church was safe, it was comforting, it was meaningful to our journey.

Photo Of Old Tree

Then my life changed.  I realized that my husband had drifted foggily into alcoholism, and we had ignored the signs and symptoms.  He asked for help once. A friend from our church group came and prayed with him. I cried. He changed, but it was temporary.  His friends at work drank daily. His friends at church drank casually. He drank occasionally, then daily, then incessantly again.  I felt lost. We still met with our burgeoning group, but I became withdrawn, distrustful of the people I thought might help us through, but didn’t.  Eventually, Nick spoke the word “alcoholic”. He went to AA. He prayed…a lot. He committed to quit, and he did. Over 9 years later, alcohol does not have a hold on him.  But I still worry. Alcoholism is devious and wily. It does not respect boundaries. I feel it sometimes, waiting on the sidelines to attack. In that detour of our journey, I also felt the first sense that the church was not equipped to help us.

The years that have followed have been years of healing, but they have not always been easy.  Without the crutch of alcohol, Nick had to relearn how to handle his depression and anxiety, and eventually, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a word that is thrown around casually but rarely understood for what it is.  In those years, Nick and I devoted, at times, all our efforts to the church, and at other times we pulled away. In my darkest times, I often felt displaced in the church. The interweaving of life and church that I had grown up in seemed a relic of the past.  A few older men spoke into Nick’s life in meaningful ways, but the church collective was often distant. Still, I always lived in hope and vision of what God called the church to be. My brokenness became, in a way, my ministry. I wrote about my experiences and healing.  I talked with others who were struggling with marriage, addiction, depression. I listened. I tried to fill the empty spaces I felt when I was journeying through difficulties myself.  

This past year, I have felt the weight of the journeys of people I love and people I walk alongside.  I have felt the despair of not knowing how the church would, or could, help. I stepped away from ministries and responsibilities in the church building, but I stepped into lives and efforts that aimed at lessening the suffering of others.  I felt needed, and I felt God’s presence strongly when I actively sought out those opportunities. In this time, church has also drifted further from my grasp. In a stressful year of losses, uncertainties, and difficulties, culminating in a mental health issue with Nick that was far beyond my scope of understanding, I found myself slipping to the back in church.  Most Sundays, tears flowed unbidden during services. I felt lost, lonely, and confused in the place where my roots have planted me for over 30 years. In my own sadness, I also have become bitter, questioning, frustrated by the role of the Church. I have pored over Scripture and through religious writings to try to define what feels so broken to me. I have meditated on my role.  I have felt restless and uneasy, unable to define the dichotomy of my vision of the church with the reality of it. I have labeled the church a country club of sorts, when I want it to be a hospital. I have ghosted the greetings of 5-minute surface conversations on Sunday mornings, but I have sat on the porch in the twilight for hours discussing church with my minister neighbor.  

For the first time in my life, I do not feel drawn to the church as a collective building. And that is a scary admission.  Ironically, I feel like this internal battle has drawn me closer to God, even though I feel adrift in our culture’s traditional religious scaffold.  

I do know that church is still my sanctuary and my home.  My feelings and actions in this moment may belie that truth, but I am confident in it.  I know that I do not sojourn alone. I know that God’s plan for the Bride of Christ is not so fragile as to be destroyed by mistakes of man, by unintended sidetracks of society, or by the irresolute spirit of an individual such as I.  The church has survived thousands of years in various forms, and I know it will survive countless more. I do not fear the future of my life in the church, but in the moment, I am scared of the present. I don’t know in this moment how to connect my ministry, my relationship with Christ, my desires for my children’s walk with Jesus, back to the church.  But I am working on it. Should you wonder when you read this how lost I may be, please know that it is in seeking that you find, and I am seeking. I am reading more than ever, I am praying fervently, I am meeting together with others, and I am seeking wise counsel. It is in digging in the dirt that you find the roots, and I am dirty, but I will find them- the weaving of the church into my life and my life into the church that will grow into something beautiful and whole again.  If you are digging, too, through whatever pain and confusion you might have, keep the faith. The roots are steadfast.

  Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

 

Dilemma

I have read Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country at least 12 times.  Its poetic prose is beautiful and worthy alone of close study, but his message is searing.  I read it today, across an ocean and many decades, and I feel convicted.  His passionate denunciation of apartheid as harmful to both natives and Europeans, and his scathing criticism of the powerful, Christian colonizers feels modern, a mark of a true classic piece of literature. This excerpt was a speech written by a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who awoke from his privilege and his ignorance and vowed to fight for equality in a country separated into stark contrasts of color.

“The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement. We go so far as to credit Almighty God with having created black men to hew wood and draw water for white men. We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them. Alongside of these very arguments we use others totally inconsistent, so that the accusation of repression may be refuted. We say we withhold education because the black child has not the intelligence to profit by it; we withhold opportunity to develop gifts because black people have no gifts; we justify our action by saying that it took us thousands of years to achieve our own advancement, and it would be foolish to suppose that it will take the black man any lesser time, and that therefore there is no need for hurry. We shift our ground again when a black man does achieve something remarkable, and feel deep pity for a man who is condemned to the loneliness of being remarkable, and decide that it is a Christian kindness not to let black men become remarkable. Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. Is it strange then that our civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma? The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions. 

This last line struck me in a conversation I was having with a close friend about how we are so fearful of living open-handed.  This statement, written over 50 years ago, feels so applicable even today, not only with race, but with so many social issues in which we find ourselves embroiled.  You can hear the fear in the voices of even the powerful.  What if we lose what we have worked for?  What if someone becomes more important, more wealthy, more powerful than we have become? What if someone else’s opinion takes precedence over ours? Alan Paton had it right in his novel.  The “haves” will always fear the “have-nots” because they have the potential to overtake, and therefore, they will seek to keep them down, whether through outright oppression or denied microaggressions.

I don’t understand the antithetical nature that many take to their faith.  They claim great love, but they show veiled and open hate. They mark the benefit of peace, but they live in anxious uncertainty.  Their charitable nature is overshadowed by Paton’s claim of a “fearful clutching of possessions”.   We want God’s word on earth, but we are afraid to show His love.  We want to legislate our faith into forced action, but we don’t want to model God’s plan through unwavering compassion and diligent service.  We want to help the outcasts, the poor, the underserved and (to our minds) undeserving, but not at the expense of our time, our money, or our superiority.  If you are bristling at this, it is likely it somehow applies to you. Some spoken or silent thought about immigrants, homeless, or other group that WE marginalize and judge into submission may come to mind. You may feel guilt, but worse, you may not.  You may justify, justify, justify your thoughts and beliefs about many things, because we are all excellent defendants of ourselves, aren’t we?  I look at the second part of each antithetical statement Paton makes- “fearful practice…desperate anxiety…fearful clutching of possessions”. I have seen it in myself.  I am hesitant to help that person- for what?  Fear, anxiety, self-preservation. I want to be the judge of someone’s situation to determine what they deserve, rather than loving openly and leaving the rest to God.

God does not legislate people into His arms. He does not undermine or coerce people to believe in Him.  He does not check bank statements, criminal records, immigration status to determine value. And He does not call us to do that either.  We are simply called to love, to serve, to model.  We have it all, and none of it is lost by sharing.  It is a loaves and fishes mentality of peace, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, unmerited favor, and boundless love.  There is such a divisive history Christians find themselves in of holding so tightly to things that God wants us to loosen our grip on, an intermingling of power with religion, of assumed superiority. But I go back to Philippians, where Paul so simply lays it out for us:

 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2: 1-8)

What is compelling to me about the character of Christ is that he was the antithesis of a powerful leader, both then and now.  He served with selfless humility, and He asks the same of us.

The world is loud; God is quiet

I like quiet. Ask why I teach high school, or why I had 3 children, and I will tell you I don’t know- kids are by nature loud.  I have a low tolerance for noise; music blaring in the car, the girls yelling up the stairs, motorcycle engines revving- all of that sets me on edge.  Noise feels like auditory clutter to me; I have trouble focusing, and I get lost in the midst of it.

What I’ve found is that people are noisy; noise is bossiness, it is demands, it is force.  Listen to me.  Do this now.  Don’t forget _______.  The noise comes in many forms- texts, emails, Instagram feeds, business meetings, family dinners, club outings, church services.  The clamor of noise demands immediacy and attention; it forces its agenda on you. The noise of people, whether well-intentioned, forceful, or simply neutral, is hard to ignore, but often it should be ignored.  We live under clutter and clamor in an effort to do more, to be more, but often it is spinning wheels, it is empty promises, it is busyness without purpose.

As I age, I become less and less willing to listen to the incessant sound of expectations and ideas that overwhelm me.  And as I find more opportunities for quiet, I hear more from the One who created me.  I know He was there all along. But God is quiet.  He is not rattling to-do lists or yelling demands down the stairs.   He is at times whispering, at times waiting.  He is polite; he does not interfere in my daily clamor without my invitation.  So at times there are stretches of silence, not because of Him, but because of me.  I let the volume of everything else mask Him.  God can speak in thunder and fire and earthquake, but He so often chooses to speak in the still small voice He used with Elijah.  And I miss it, so often, because my senses are simply overwhelmed.  What is left for Him after the clutter of daily modern life?

But His voice, while soft, is firm.  He knows my fears, and He can soothe them.  He knows my plans, and He can guide them.  He knows my gifts, and He can use them.  There is power in silence.  Before a storm, there is that moment when all is still. The earth is mustering strength.  And so am I.  I will fight for stillness in a world of motion, for silence in a nation of noise.  And I will muster in that moment all the wisdom and courage that He has for me to move as He asks.

I am working toward simplicity in my faith.  We have complicated it all with so much extra.  Books, podcasts, meetings, groups- even the good stuff can get in the way.  God is stirring us to action, to truth without pretense and works without attention.  He is waiting on us, but instead of listening, we are talking, arguing, and attention-seeking.  I want to go back to front porch stillness, to expectant listening, to promised answers and direction.  I will turn down the volume of the world, and I will listen.  Because the world is loud, but God is quiet.

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Prosperity Gospel Promotes Privilege

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I am a cynic. I’m not sure if I was born this way, or if life shaped me into this, but either way, I question long before I believe. I am a car salesman’s worst nightmare, a televangelist’s biggest critic. I read voraciously, sometimes a book or more a day, and I probably leave more advice and ideas than I take. One thing no one has ever had to sell me on is the character of Christ and the life He has called me to, so when I see the world twisting the Truth, I get nervous, and sometimes angry.

The twisting that concerns me most is prosperity gospel teaching. Whether well-intended (“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” Psalms 37:4) or blatantly self-serving, the message is both deceptive and dangerous. Following Christ is about Him, not us. We are molding our will to His, not vice versa.  Teaching that our desires for health, wealth, etc. Is about us is self-serving and dishonest. We as Americans love the idea that God will provide in ways we deem necessary, but that is not His promise. We teach our kids about needs and wants, and the girls are finally getting it. We need to eat, but we want Olive Garden. Not in the budget? Ask and you shall receive! But that is not Truth. I consider missions trips I have taken to impoverished countries. I have seen God praised and glorified in shacks more highly than in beautiful cathedrals I visited in England. Are the needs different between those 2 dichotomies? I’d argue not. Humans have the same basic needs wherever they are. Is their understanding of blessing different? Certainly. And sadly, I think we as Americans align more with cathedral worshipping. Prosperity gospel is selling us a lie that God will provide beyond His promises. We are setting people up for constant disappointment with God. Why didn’t I get that promotion? Why wasn’t I healed? Why didn’t He save my marriage? If I go back to that verse in Psalms, I see that if I am aligning myself to God, my desire will be to do His will. I may not see the role a job loss or end of a relationship might play in a bigger Plan. But He promises me peace, strength, wisdom as I face it. Selling prosperity as a biblical promise ensures people who will turn from God when they need Him most.

Recently, I have found myself thinking more and more about how this dangerous prosperity gospel relates to privilege. In just the first chapter of bestselling book, Girl, Wash Your Face, Rachel Hollis writes, “You are meant to be the hero of your own story…You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”  Yikes. Great advice for self-love, but terrible advice when marketed as Christian nonfiction, along with numerous other culprits. But as I thought more, and read more, about it, I became more deeply troubled that so many Christian advice books are written by white, wealthy, privileged people, and read by the same. This self-love, pull yourself up by your bootstraps writing is nice, but it isn’t reality. Jesus sat amongst the broken, the poor, the outcast, the ill. Now we publish books selling an idea of self and prosperity that for many is out of reach. So they set it aside, along with the flawed picture of Jesus that accompanies it. We have taken the dangerous gospel of prosperity and made it also a wedge of privilege. 

I’ve come to read fewer and fewer Christian books about self. Sell me gospel or sell me nothing. The world does not need another wealthy, privileged person branding herself as a self-love guru, parceling out bits of the gospel in between drivel of “work harder, be better” and all this can be yours. We are living in a society deeply divided by haves and have-nots, by bigots, by self-idolaters. And among the piles of books and blogs, I go back to the one thing that promises the same advantage to everyone- the gospel. Jesus does not promise us equal health or wealth or happiness. He promises equal love, grace, and forgiveness, something we all need. 

Read what you will. Winnow out the truth and throw away the lies. Read thoughtfully and critically. Speak the same. Someone’s understanding of Jesus is at stake. Recognize privilege and prosperity for what they are, divisive and dangerous tools to continue to draw us away from the God who created all in His image. 

Ghosted

bench chair friends friendship

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Pain has a way of curling us inward.  Our protective spine furls around our soft hearts and suffering. Pain has a quiet way of separating us, of muffling our cries for help and hiding our hurting souls.  And as we huddle into our spirits for safety, others fold away like the petals of a dying flower. It is slow at first; a peeling back of a layer of closeness. Fewer phone calls, avoided conversations, awkward responses become commonplace.  The separation is quiet, at times hardly noticeable, but nonetheless full of hurt. As the flower dies, the petals brown and crumble, and what was once one unit against the elements is now skeletal and fragile.

So it is with life.  There is a ghosting that surrounds pain, layering hurt upon hurt.  It is sometimes slow, even unnoticeable. Other times it is an obvious gaping division between the ghosted and the ghoster.  Much time is spent blaming the person in pain: for not reaching out, for handling criticism poorly, for failing to share. Less time seems to be spent on self-reflection by those most capable of helping carry the weight of the pain of another.  Many do not want to, or feel they simply cannot, sit with the suffering of others. It takes peace, inward and outward calmness, fortitude of faith in God and humanity, and perhaps above all, humility. Humility says, “I can’t fix this for you, but I can sit in the broken pieces; I cannot clean this, but I can accept the mess right now.”  Humility creates the opportunity for empathy, the choice to take on suffering to lift someone else.  

Sharing in someone’s suffering is a holy responsibility, but it is one often shirked by those who most highly tout it.  We are uncomfortable in our society to over-involve ourselves in the lives of others, and someone who is suffering is at times prickly, tenuous, and even invisible.  To help the hurting, we must see beyond painted smiles, we must approach rather than retreat. We also must be willing to hold on to faith, but accept that the other person may be letting go.  To be there for them, the tired cliche we tell people when they are struggling, we must actually be there. Telling someone who is suffering to call you if they need anything is akin to ignoring them.  Even if the person would ask, they sometimes simply can’t. Instead, show up. Make the phone call. Knock on the door with a meal in hand.  Sit in silence if they need to talk. Pray continuously. Be there without excuse, without explanation, and without judgment.  

I have made a mess of this so many times.  I have retreated. I have ignored or assumed. I have forgotten.  But sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I think I have been there in a God-ordained way.  And the more I study the character of Christ, the more I want to bear burdens alongside others. There is a lightness in the communal experience when done right.  It might not heal the pain or change the circumstance, but it affirms the sufferer that she is not alone. And sometimes, it changes literally everything. When Moses grew weary of holding up his arms in the battle with the Amalekites, Aaron and Hur were there to help him.  It was a simple task: just raise those weary arms up, but with help, it changed the course of the battle. Consider the friends who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus. Think of the symbolism there. Out of no fault of his own, he was separated, unable to get to Jesus or bring about his own healing.  His friends were willing to carry him and wise enough to find a way into the crowd. Their willingness changed his life completely. Not every experience will be miraculous, but every experience will be valuable. Every offering of time and concern will change something for the person who needs you.  Suffering wears so many faces in our society, and we become immune to its power. But worse, we often become immune to our calling to help ease suffering. God, let me never forget to be the hands and feet.

Busyness is not Evidence

Every year about this time, I start a list highlighting my contributions at school- how many times I covered another class, how many letters of recommendation I wrote, how often I attended games or concerts or dances. I account for time; I consider every minute and hour precious; I don’t want to miss any effort I put forth. This same accounting of time happens in conversations with friends: how many hours we spent at our kid’s practices, at work, in the car. And frankly, I’m over it. I’m not wearing busyness as a badge anymore. If, as the aphorism says, Actions speak louder than words, then I would argue, Purpose speaks louder yet. Busyness, in itself, is not evidence: of success, of importance, of value.

grayscale photography of people walking in train station

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Busyness prevents quality. You may be doing all the things, but none are likely flourishing. Your desk may be free of piles, but your family may have eaten peanut butter and jelly all week (that would be quality meals in Anika’s mind, but that’s another argument). Your kids made it to every practice, but you missed numerous opportunities to minister to someone. Busyness is often self-focused, actually. We do all the things for all the accolades. We live to be deemed a great mom, an excellent worker, an active member of any group to which we align. We feel important, needed, fulfilled. But numbers (of time, activities, achievements) do not equal value. They may not reveal our heart or our priorities. This year I have tried to become a curator of purpose. My choices of time spent are museum exhibits of my values, my skills, and my goals rather than checklists of accomplishments.
I don’t engage in comparisons of time to feel important. Tell me your kid went to 7 synchronized swimming practices this week. Boast that she will be ready for the Olympics in no time. Good for you! You have won some invisible battle of whose kid is busier and whose future goals seem more attainable. I’m not in that battle, parents. My kids may do only two practices a week. Why? Because I’ve decided to curate balance in their lives, too. I value strength and skill, but I also value rest, quality time, and curiosity and ingenuity that are built in unscheduled moments. Tell me all the list you accomplish weekly, too. Mine may be shorter, or not, but I have shaved it back, on purpose. I was volunteering for many activities, but when I stopped to fit them into an exhibit of my values, I realized that some of them were simply filling space; they weren’t fulfilling my value of helping others build independence or revealing my love for Jesus. I still volunteer, but my list is shorter and my expectations are higher. I align myself to organizations and efforts that put people first. I focus on moments that I can build relationships, that I can make a future-focused difference in the life of someone else. I take my faith outside the walls of my church. For example, I gave up providing food for events I used to be frequently cooking and baking for and started taking birthday meals to teens living in a group home. I’ll bet you can guess which feels more fulfilling, which reveals my heart for teens in need. I don’t miss the weekly expectation of food preparation for meetings and events, but I love moving my schedule around to sit and sing Happy Birthday to a teen who needs meaningful relationships. I am working very hard to prune my branches. The best fruit comes from a trimmed tree. Overgrowth is a tangled mess; that’s how I would define myself when I take on too much. My fruit is small and meager the more I overfill my schedule and my mind.
You, if you live in our modern American society, might be wearing a badge of busyness too. Your schedule might be teetering on the brink of implosion; you might be weary; your family might be suffering from one too many evenings of minivan meals to and from practices. I get it. I still have busy days. I overcommit, then scramble to fulfill my responsibilities. I’m a work in progress. But I don’t let busyness be my badge of honor. I am taking the reins. My lists are more in response to the big question: How does this show Christ to others? How does this teach my children strength, character, and empathy?
We all have busyness brought on by careers, by babies and children, by family expectations, by hobbies and interests. But when we make busyness our measuring stick of success, we are missing the mark. We are failing to fulfill what makes us useful and purposeful. We are creating a legacy for our kids of stress, of anxiety, of quantity over quality. We are not bearing healthy fruit or making lasting marks. We are exhausting ourselves in futility. If you feel this way, make a list- not a to-do list. Been there, rode that ride. Make a list of values. Then align your activities to your list. If one does not match to a value, cut it. It’s out. You will be surprised how many things we do out of expectation, obligation, or routine rather than out of purpose.  You will also be surprised how much fulfillment comes from a well-pruned schedule, one that allows your life to reflect your heart.

*Read Haggai 1:5-11.  It has me thinking me about purpose in a completely different way. That’s a conversation I’d love to tease out sometime.  

All Things New

The soil is kicked up by the weather-weary chickens, its darkness covering the garden and spilling out over the walkway and the drive.  Frustrated, I brush it back with a shop broom, for what feels like the millionth time this late-arriving spring. As I cover the garden in black soil, I see the beginnings of hostas, the evidence of lilies; their shoots are small, but they are there.  The greenness declares itself, unfurling a sliver of hope on a dark Michigan April afternoon. The life is always there, actually. Reverberating beneath the snow with the hum of hope, a promise of fruition.

white petaled flowers

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It was dark, I imagine, and rainy, in the sense of an angsty melodrama, that day the Christ was buried in the tomb.  The stone was gray and foreboding, the dirt dark around the feet of the followers. There was sadness, surely; the deep loss of a friend, but also a trusted and revered leader; there was something else, too; the anger and frustration of hope crushed, dreams destroyed.  Questions without answers swarmed in the heads of those who followed. How could this darkness be redeemed? What was gained in the loss? The shortsighted nature of humanity was left to piece together a plan that didn’t include their irreplaceable Guide. Three days of wonder, of question, of desperation, felt like eternity.

And then: resurrection.  God’s promise was revealed in an empty tomb.  The desperation fell off like the grave shroud of the Savior.  Hope was renewed. A sense of purpose and promise was restored; imagine the rejoicing!

The short span of three days held the grief, the disbelief, the joy all in one story- the ultimate Story.  Yet people live so often in the brevity of darkness between Christ’s death and His resurrection. We brush back the dirt of daily struggle and ignore the sprouts of hope pushing through.  We feel lost without a plan, without expectation or anticipation. We are paralyzed by what feels like emptiness. But we are the fortunate ones who can see the story from start to finish.  We are not the followers who, in that moment, may have vacillated between trust and fear. We see the triumphant nature of the resurrection in the shadow of the cross, not the face of it.

So why do we despair?  To me, the resurrection means all things are made new.  His resurrection means my suffering is always temporary.  No matter what I face today, or tomorrow, or years from now, God willing, those tribulations are already redeemed.  My life is already redeemed. The promise is already fulfilled. I am not waiting in doubt, but in anticipation. He is risen!