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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

To Be Known

    The small room was almost full, but it could have been an amphitheater of thousands, I felt so unseen, so insignificant. The meeting began, and I listened to the volley of ideas. It was like a game of Double Dutch, and the voices slapped the floor while I watched for an entrance. Then, the uncomfortable moment when we split into breakout groups; not one woman asked my name, no one moved a purse or bag as an invitation to sit together. I left the evening an hour later unseen, and more sadly, unknown.

    Haven’t we all been there? Back in the gym lineup waiting to be picked. Hoping to be called on in a group. Praying to be invited to the table at lunch. Wanting to be known. I have known it, and in my darkest hours, desired it most. It is the heart of us all: to be known.

   I am comforted to feel known and loved by God.  “But you, O Lord, know me; you see me, and test my heart toward you” (Jeremiah 12:3). He promises, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27) and Luke writes, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” I have felt God’s deep love for me and understanding of me. In some dark moments, I felt only His love and understanding carrying me through.

    But we are relational people. We crave understanding. We engage in dialogue, write blogs and op-eds hoping to share our deepest thoughts, to be heard and understood, meet for dinner or coffee just to chat. And when we feel alone, misunderstood, ignored, we wonder how to connect. I have been there at points in my journey,  and I have made it a mission to know others. In knowing others, I become known. In investing in relationships, I gain understanding and empathy, compassion and care. I believe that knowing others is how I show God’s love and devotion, how I become His hands and feet. I don’t want to be part of any group that does not aim to know people in an authentic way, to meet needs and carry burdens, to love through understanding, not ignorance.

    It is also why I question groups or events or ideas that forget about people. If God has made His priority to love me by knowing me intimately and wholly, I can only know to reflect Him in that same endeavor. Knowing people, and allowing ourselves to be known, is messy, time-consuming, and sometimes disappointing. It requires risk, on both sides. To be known, I have to be honest; I have to tell my story unflinchingly; I have to trust broadly, with hope rather than fear. To know others, I have to be willing to take late-night phone calls, to reserve judgment, to bear burdens that are not my own. It is of little surprise that we are so averse to the reality of it, in spite of the beauty of the thought of it.

    But I am not one to flinch from a challenge or shrink from a command. I am confident in this: I have felt unknown, and it felt much like being unloved. Had I not known the love and acceptance of Christ,  I would have felt fully the despair of being alone in my struggle. As part of the Church collective, I cannot fail to reveal this love through my efforts to know and love others. God commands us to, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). He reminds us to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). I am early on in my true endeavor to do this actively and purposefully, but I am confident that it is a step toward knowing and being known, and that in doing it, I am closer to finding the heart of God, who promised to know each of us so fully that we would understand the depth of His love for us.

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Sneak Attack

I can go back to the wood slat pews of Sunday School and repeat a song all about putting on the armor of God. At middle school church camp, we sang a revamped version that ended in, “I’m ready for the battle” and because we were rad 90s preteens, we played up an echo…”ready for the battle…ready for the battle”. It seemed as easy as throwing on your clothes in the morning, and I thought I WAS ready…until I wasn’t!

We spend our fair share of time planning the battles we will enter in our own lives. We create a little model battlefield in our head and strategize. We pray for strength, and wisdom, and bravery. But we also make many prideful assumptions. We ignore chinks in our own armor, or evidence of the enemy, or we pretend to know what battles God may allow us to endure. And suddenly, we are ambushed by a sneak attack- an unexpected disease or death, a personal affront or unbearable relational pain. And instantly, we are bereft. Our well-laid plans are scattered. Our faith is shaken. Our enemy gains ground in our mind and in our heart. We are overtaken with Whys?

I was talking to a friend about marriage and this thought came to me. We write our “for better or for worse” and then are shocked when our marriage goes off-script. Not only do we dream about what For Better will look like, but we define what For Worse we will face. I could handle A, B, C, but I could never survive: an addiction, infidelity, loss of a child. So when one of those never-could-imagine evils shakes us, we are overcome.

I have watched plenty of these scenarios play out in my life and those around me, and I feel helpless to answer the well-worn question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” All I can come to in my limited understanding is that our world is full of pain, but our God is full of healing. And because I can’t answer why He doesn’t protect us from all pain, and I avoid most theological debates, I will focus on the healing. I will consider what the Worse moments in my marriage have taught me, and I will be happy that “I’m not there anymore”, waiting for my husband to get home safely from the bar, for example. I will allow myself to feel pain, and to question its allowance in my life, but I will turn that pain to God’s  glory. I will focus on redemption not only as a one-time salvation from sin, but a constant redeeming of situations beyond my control or imagination. I will chant in good times and whisper in bad, that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  I will tell the Enemy, like Joseph told his conniving brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” (Genesis 50:20).

I have been walking alongside many friends and family carrying unbearable burdens lately, and I feel so lost in it all. I flounder in questions, I withhold advice, and my unflappable optimism feels, well, flapped. I go back to my own moments of pain, and I try to think what I needed in those moments, and I try to just be THAT…empathy in action.  And I lay at the feet of Jesus and fight the urge to question and force myself to believe that God intends it all for good, and I just stay there, soaking in the love and promises until I am ready to face it all again. And I suppose that over all that spiritual armor is a cloak of God’s redeeming love that takes us through all those battles and ambushes and attacks. For now, I’ll cling to that.

 

New Year, New Me?

I am spending my final hours of 2018 disinfecting surfaces and purging leftovers, outgrown clothing, and unnecessary expectations.  Those all need to go. And as they go, I’m reflecting on the year. It was a good one; by far not my most exciting, but certainly not my most tragic.  And amidst all of the crazy and the mundane, one truth stands out: I was more relaxed and less stressed than I have been in the past. I’ve been more able to shed stressors, ignore negativity, and experience fulfillment.  On a practical level, I’m sitting in my pile of stuff today, bagging it, trashing it, or setting it away, hypothesizing why.

I’ve spent a long span of my lifeline caring an awful lot about tangibles and intangibles that, if I’m honest, don’t matter.  I have cared what people thought about me way too much. I have thought about financial competition far too often. I have worried about success measured by weight loss, number of volunteer hours, fleeting happiness, and other gauges that are at best, unreliable, and at worst, a distraction from what matters.  

As I have sifted through all of the variables to get to some scientific reason for my greater contentment this year, my focus has continued to return to one element: my conscious decision to live authentically FOR ME.  My prayer has been constantly to know what God wants FROM ME and FOR ME, and to lean into that expectation. That has happened in many ways, from how I’ve given of my time and finances, to how I’ve let go of expectations of time and effort that, while good, were taking away from His plans for me.  

I see this tug in all of us in some way.  We feel inhibited by expectations. Our boss wants one thing from us, our spouse another, our friends want something else.  We become overwhelmed in the balancing act of all of it. Sometimes we feel empty, and we fill that longing with tasks, hobbies, items,and ideas that grow beyond our control of them.  Maybe we simply feel lost. I’ve been there, too. I didn’t know at all what I needed at turning points in my life, and I became frustrated, sad, and lonely. I blamed circumstances, I blamed others, I blamed God.  

As I write it out this way, I realize that the part of me that has most changed in recent years is that I have learned how to recognize what I need and balance it with contentment for what I have.  Knowing yourself is a lengthy and sometimes scary endeavor, but it is a journey that is well worth the trouble. There is vulnerability in being honest with yourself, but there is also strength. I choose daily to love my life and the choices that got me here.  Dwelling on mistakes I’ve made or what I don’t have does not make me who I want to be.

I can see that this sounds like a real “rah-rah” know yourself hug fest.  It’s why I sometimes avoid this topic, like I avoid vapid self-help books.   I am all about it: personal strength, contentment, self-love, but I can’t let this moment flit by without emphasizing what truly makes this work for me.  God has made this work for me. Sounds trite, I know. I could quote a bevy of Bible verses here, but instead, I’ll just say that my belief in a Creator has allowed me to accept the way I was created and also to know that I am part of a plan.  There is nothing trite about that. I know for me, that learning about myself, instead of breeding selfishness and self-love, has turned me outward more and more. I don’t have to worry about myself. I can set personal goals, have hobbies and interests, and be fun, silly, serious, as the situation requires.  But I also have much more time and energy to be something for someone else. I have more time to listen, more time to help, more wisdom and love to share. New Year’s is often a selfish time- our resolutions are wrapped up in our wants and needs, our well-laid plans, our meaningful attempts at change. But in all of this climbing toward contentment, I have found myself most able to shed selfishness and live a life reflective of Christ.  I’m certainly not there yet, but I’m proud to see progress. Tracing God’s promises fulfilled over the years, His provision during emptiness, His wisdom in my trouble, I am confident in His plan, and I’m thankful for contentment. It has taken me a long time to find it.

I’m not a real proponent of New Year’s resolutions, but I pray for all of you, as well as for me this year, these things: opportunities to grow, an ability to know yourself, an abiding faith in positive outcomes, a deep understanding of God’s plan for you, and contentment that breeds joy rather than competition that breeds anxiety.

God Knew

I imagine the night as cold and bustling, noisy and confused.  It might feel like the stereotypical family vacation: tired children, stressed mamas, frustrated fathers.  It probably didn’t sound like silence, look like glittering candlelight, feel like a fireside.  Welcome to our world, Jesus.

For the many, many years that prophets had told of Him, you would think the world would have been better prepared.  Glistening garlands, choruses of carols, abundant presents, and above all, lives scrubbed clean for the arrival of a Messiah.  But just like the last-minute shoppers, the impatient workers, the frustrated families, the people weren’t ready.  God knew; there was no facade of preparation and perfection that could trick His omniscient eye.  He knew, and He sent Jesus anyway.

God knew that Jesus was coming to a stable, not a palace.  He knew that His first bed would be a manger, not a crib.  He knew that Jesus would be denied, hated, discounted, and betrayed.  He knew, and He sent Jesus anyway. As Chris Rice sings, He “wraps our injured flesh around Him”, “Breathes our air and walks our sod”.  He is with us, among us, one of us, but Holy. Oh, so Holy.

Today, not much has changed.  He knows our world is broken, violent, ambivalent.  He knows my heart is selfish and self-righteous.  He sees my unpreparedness, and He gives me Jesus anyway.  Like the neighbor with no pretense, He invites himself into our mess, if we are willing.  And, whether ignored or rejected, He keeps offering to walk among us, with us, beside us.

It feels fitting that the first Christmas was housed in a stable.  Because really, our lives are so much more like stables than palaces.  At best, mundane and simple; at worst, dirty and unkempt.  And at the center of it all, God births Holiness right onto the earth.  He knew how badly we needed Him.  And He knew that no matter how long He waited, the world would not be ready.  How could we be?  Yet here He is.  Emmanuel. God with us. The most timely gifts come at the most unexpected moments, and the most needed presents are often the most surprising.  God doesn’t wait for us to ask for what we need; He knows, just like He knew then.

jesus christ figurine

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