Monday, September 4, 2017

Pillars and Threads

Coping is not the same as healing. And, if I’m observing correctly, it is also the exact opposite of processing. That’s where I found myself this summer. My shelves are full of books I anticipated reading along the lake shore or curled up on the couch. Yet I found myself unable to exert much emotional or spiritual focus. I barely cracked open one of these books.

The reading I did do, I consumed like my life depended on it – middle grade fiction of every sort: historical fiction, realistic fiction, stories with diverse characters in diverse settings, and even my very first graphic novel series. They were fun and informative, and fuel for children’s literature articles I’m work on, but most of all, they kept my mind distracted.

But a few things happened this summer that reminded me how much of a rut I’m in. A new health concern arose. My hours at work got cut, forcing me to piece together three part time jobs (including a library internship!). And I had a bike accident that left me achy and bruised. Together, these three events helped me realize what I may have learned all along if I’d read those books. However, seeing these lessons played out in real life made them tangible pillars to look back on.

My lowest times are when I allow my mind to dwell on the “what ifs” and the “why nots.” I’m not that into pep talks or self-motivation, and in the same way, I tend to shy away from reading scripture just to console or inspire. But I am a master at the other side of the coin—letting twisted and untrue messages permeate by brain.

Until this year, I had never heard of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I’m not sure why. But in the last few months, I have heard this quote from him no less than five times:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?”

He goes on to reference Psalm 42, in which David gives us the epitome of self-talk:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God
. (v.11)

Questioning God should not become a pattern in our lives. But the Lord desires honesty. Honesty in prayer and honesty in the ways we speak to ourselves. If I am raising up the events of this summer as pillars, that means I need to continually speak truth about them in my heart. My body is weak—but He is strong. My financial security is unsure—but He provides. The seemingly unexpected can happen and send pain searing through my limbs—but God is my wise protector.

It is so easy to look at the jumbled mess of our lives, the things that don’t make sense and dwell on these. It takes a lot of work to shift my thoughts to an eternal perspective. I read an analogy in the First5 Bible study app the other day which, describes this perfectly. Teaching on Job 21, the author writes:

 “One of my favorite memories as a little girl was watching my grandmother cross-stitch. I remember the first time I watched her nimble fingers stitch a mess of x’s into a masterpiece. I usually sat on the floor at her feet looking at the underside of her work-in-progress. We had a little game where I would try to guess what she was making. But the underside was such a mess! From my perspective it was an indistinguishable mishmash of string and knots. But what was utter confusion to me was perfectly known to her. She was looking at her work of art from the front. I was only looking at the back.

Job and his companions are trying to guess God’s plan. Job says, “Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest?” (Job 21:22). Knowledge comes from God; we don’t tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Whether wicked or good people, whether blessed or afflicted circumstances, God is in control. He has a plan that we simply can’t see from our perspective. God has knowledge. God imparts wisdom. God judges rightly. In our suffering, God is doing something.

Suffering isn’t at all like the game I played with my grandmother. We aren’t just passing the time trying to guess what God is up to. We are often sad, lonely, hurting and afraid. But our best guesses won’t make that pain go away. In fact, if we get the picture wrong or begin to doubt that there’s a masterpiece in the making, we can hurt even more. 

You may be looking at your life as a jumble of frayed thread and messy knots. But there is a patient hand with tender, nimble fingers stitching the masterpiece of your life. You can trust Him. Don’t judge the brilliance of His artistry from the wrong side of the fabric.”

This summer, I was caught looking at the wrong side of the fabric. In coping through fear, loneliness, and pain, I focused on the inter-woven pieces of my life, and not the full picture. These threads aren’t meant to be untangled. We are exactly where God has us. Scripture reminds us constantly of God’s perfect sovereignty in our lives, so why is it so hard to see it? I’m learning that it is a daily choice. To wake up in the morning and say, “I choose to lift up these bumps in the road as reminders of God’s faithfulness.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Longing and Dreaming, a Lesson for this Sensitive Soul

You are not mistaken... the calendar and the weather channel have made it very clear that summer is upon us. Please bear with this rather delayed reaction:

Some say that winter is the hardest season of the year. I’m not going to lie. It’s difficult to trudge through the dark and the dreary. But for me, Spring is often the hardest.

I wrote in the fall and winter about leaning in, embracing the weight of my circumstances and tilting intentionally towards God’s grace. But as the days began to get a little warmer and the rains fell more freely, I forgot to lean in. Even before naming this mental and spiritual discipline, I can recall the worst seasons being those without that intentional shift in my perspective.

And so, this Spring I found myself seeping into a certain kind of numbness; a usable vessel, remaining still, gathering dust on the shelf. I read a lot of books and articles that inspired and provoked me, but I couldn’t seem to transfer those static words into life-giving reflections—either privately penned or worthy of sharing. This conundrum did cause me to reflect, however, just in a different way. Why was it that I could write in angsty times and even periods that felt like the depths of despair (to quote the incomparable Anne), but this numbness would cause my thoughts to clam up?

After some time, this realization came to the surface: I have a sensitive soul. It’s taken me a long time to articulate this, not because it’s something I fought against, but because I didn’t know what to call this heightened alertness to the “off”, the chaotic, and the empty. It is exhausting work, being so sensitive. Most days I’d rather not be. And that’s when numbness sets in the deepest.

But cutting myself off from the sensitivity of pain, fear, and loneliness also means thwarting grace. Not capital-G Grace, because that is ever-flowing from the Throne. But the grace needed to even see the big-G grace, the beautiful simple moments that make up each day, and the intricately woven thread of all the days put together. Thwarting grace means the sunsets aren’t as bright, the blossoms aren’t as full, the music isn’t as sweet.

And I don’t want that version of life. I’m the person who finds joy in the shadows cast because the sun is brighter still, the flowers with a million intricacies, and the solid reverence of a harmonized tune. God made these things to bring me joy. And that is what they should do. Further still, my joy in them is one of the many ways I can bring Him glory.

It’s when I let the weight of my circumstances cloud my perceptions and actions, that they are cloudy indeed. How do I reconcile this painful perceptiveness of circumstances that have me yearning for more? And why does yearning have to hurt so much?

The well-quoted C.S. Lewis put it this way: "If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that we were made for another world." Such a pity that I have dreams waiting to be fulfilled on this side of heaven. And that's saying a lot, as someone who has been called a horrible dreamer. It's not even a topic I seek out very often. Yet when a friend recommended Suann Camfield's The Sound of a Million Dreams, I reserved a copy at the library right away.

God has the most amazing way of bringing the right book at the right time. And I’ve learned not to question it, especially in the numb times. So on Memorial Day, with the sun shining through my front windows, I sat down with this little book and read it cover to cover. Then two days later, I read it again, this time taking six pages of notes. Needless to say, it left an impression. In discussing the themes of dreams and longing, I found that Camfield was actually speaking my “language.” At many times, I was sure she was reading over my shoulder or at least siphoning off thoughts from my own mind.

What’s more, in between all this, I witnessed the tangible promise of a full arch rainbow. After months sitting useless on the shelf, that’s all it took for my perspective to tumble into focus. Standing at the lake shore, watching the last vestiges of color seep into the atmosphere, three things came to mind: God’s design is true, God’s promises are true, and God’s timing is true. Now, I knew these things to be true before I saw that huge arch of a rainbow, but apparently I’d forgotten. It is so easy to forget. With a million and a half other thoughts shooting through my mind, it takes great discipline to safe-guard Truth.  To put it another way, taking my thoughts captive and making them obedient to Christ can sometimes be as hard as herding squirrels.

But what does this have to do with dreams?

As I mentioned earlier, I am a terrible dreamer. I’m a have-a-plan kind of girl; dreaming often feels a little too wishy-washy and dramatic. Yet at the same time, I am someone who longs. And for a sensitive soul, this can be very dangerous. As I read Camfield’s book about dreams and longing, I was washed with a new perspective on each. I wish I could paraphrase what she had to say, but that wouldn’t do it justice, so I will quote it at length. Bear with me:

“We long for relationships we’ve never had, intimacy we’ve never known, joy, peace, contentment that escapes with the fickleness of a hopping toad. We long for wounds to stop bleeding, forgiveness to begin healing, and disease to relent. We long to create, to work, to matter, to love to know, to be known. We long for purpose. . . We long to live in such a ways that when memories illumine and fade in the hearts of others, they are savored with fondness, even if it’s only by those few souls who had the courage to dance alongside us through the muck and mundane. . .

This is the way it is with life, and this is the way it is with the Stirring [the phrase Camfield uses to describe the Spirit-filled nudging that prompt her dreams]. We often have no choice but to live with the longing in both the doing and the becoming, to accept the difficult truth that maybe we’re not living the life we’ve always imagined ourselves living or that we will never achieve all that we’ve aspired to accomplish or that there will always be a version of ourselves that we long to become that will, despite each good intention, be smothered by the dirt of our sin. . .

Perhaps the most delicate (and maddening) intricacy of longing and what sets it apart from our dreams, is that. . . longing propels us into the dark holes of our souls, shining light on those things that we yearn for so deeply but have little hope of ever coming to be. Saudade, the Portuguese call it. “A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present” (from Aubrey Bell’s In Portugal). As we grapple with our longings, we face the stark reality that they very well may spend a lifetime lying with the crumbs on the floor. . .

Longing is anguish. And yet longing is beauty. Its paradox carries within it a mixture of pain and grace that causes the human race to thirst for that which is unquenchable, but also that which will someday drift from outside the reach of our fingers and slide to rest in the palms of our hands. Because the truth about longing is this: it rightfully reminds us that God pressed eternity into the fabric of humanity so that when yearning moans from the deepest recesses of who we are, we have no choice but to wet our lips with the sound of his name and beg for the only home that will ever satisfy all our needs. The unattainable nature of suadade postures us toward paradise like nothing else can. . .
And so longing must be confessed. And longing must be embraced. And longing, if it is not to suffocate us as we wrestle with the Stirring, must always be accompanied by faith, faith that there is a vast space that one day will relieve us from the aches of this earth. The unattainable will finally be made whole. For longing without faith is longing without hope—and that’s not the people we’ve become. . .

Our dreams and our longings often become so entangled we lose sight of how to pull them apart, to separate their strings and put each in its rightful place. A space exists between them in which we need to make peace. We need to make peace with our home.”

That last bit hit home. This is what life on this earth is made of, the disentangling of our dreams and our longings. We were not made for here; but here we are. Here is where God has placed us to seek His face, His beauty, and His grace. If we weren’t in a place where longing exists, we wouldn’t need a Savior.

And here I am: full of longing, full of my need for Christ, with dreams in my hear that I am often too afraid to voice. The lie I tell myself is that I can be free to dream when I am less afraid. Well, that is where faith and courage come in. Fear will always exist, I need to constantly ask God to out-balance my frightened heart with trust in Him and Holy Spirit-filled gumption. Oh how much easier said than done!

But back to the rainbow which spoke these three things: God’s design is true. God’s promises are true. God’s timing is true. When I get wrapped up in the tangles of dreams and longings, I need to remember that the goal of this mess is becoming the person God created me to be. Camfield gently reminds me of this fact: “If we believe God only ever cares about what we want to do when we grow up, we’ll forget that his primary purpose for us lies in the person we choose to become” (p. 54). If we believe that, we will never really fail. The fruit of our dreams will ultimately not be about the destination, but the process. And if we stop telling God what we can and aren’t able to do, He may surprise us still! His design is true. His promises are true. His timing is true.

I need more rainbow-filled-sky moments. More reminders. More pillars in the desert to point the way. Because there will always be times when it seems easier to seep into numbness than confront my flawed self and thwarted dreams. Camfield describes her own struggles with this and assures me that the Designer’s hand is indeed behind this reconciling of longing and dreams: “the becoming causes me to recognize my sin for what it is—part of me whose ashes will always struggle within—but it also forces me to listen, and by faith believe, that I still belong to the song of the redeemed” (p. 124).

I am still a far way off from being call a good dreamer. But I am slowly learning how to welcome their sound. And that makes all the difference. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

On Not Celebrating Lent This Year

We have almost come to the last week of Lent. And a tiny part of me feels as though I’ve wasted it.

If you know me, you know how much I love Lent’s sibling, Advent. Advent comes as a sweet relief when winter’s chill is just beginning to settle in. The cheer of Christmas preparations brings anticipation, reflection, and joy. Lent, on the other hand, sneaks in when the dregs of winter can’t seem to let go. Of course Lent is about looking to the hope of the resurrection. But in the way we are taught to “celebrate” it, there is no merriment in its celebration; no angels singing Alleluia, no pleasant feelings of expectation like with Advent. Instead, the season of Lent is a vulnerable preparation; a time of brokenness, repentance, and sacrifice. These are not bad things. In fact they are exactly what we need if we are to live as humble servants of Christ. But sometimes the dreariness of the weather calendar and the struggles of our personal calendar mixed with the humility of the church calendar can seem like too much. This year when Lent began, I didn’t feel like I could or should give up anything. “Even if I did,” I told myself, “it would be for the wrong reasons.” At first I felt guilty. But then I read four articles that changed my mind. 

I’ve been writing a lot about suffering and pain. I don’t pretend to have experienced more than anyone else. But I think I am uniquely aware of  it in this long season. That’s why Tish Harrison Warren’s words in her article, Giving Up and Taking Up: What we do (and don’t do) when we keep Lent struck such a chord. She says,

A few years ago I began Lent burnt out and harried. . . I didn’t know what to give up for Lent. I felt stretched so thin, that the thought of any more deprivation made me feel unhinged. A very wise friend and priest said to me, ‘Don’t give anything up for Lent this year. Your whole life is Lent right now.’” So instead of giving anything up. She added intentional time and space for God to speak into her life. Time of slowness and reflection in the midst of harried life.  It is easy to get caught up in the pursuit of happiness, success, or resolutions without acknowledging the presence of anxiety, depression, and sin. “The Christian calendar,” she reminds us, “allows us time to admit the reality that things are not the way they are supposed to be, a reality our hearts know all too well.”

There can be no resurrection without death. In our daily lives we see it as death to sin, death to self, death to our own ways of controlling and planning that which God already holds in His hands. When we stop to reflect on our relationship to Christ’s suffering, that is when we meet the vulnerable place where He is King and we are not. It’s a painful place. But one that “speaks” louder than spiritual platitudes that so accompany Lenten abstinence.

Writer and professor Heather Walker Peterson puts it this way in her article On Not Having it all Together: Lent isn’t Advent: “This is the season to remember the now and the not yet, that the full culmination of Christ’s restoration of us is yet to come.” This is exactly in line with the theology of loneliness and suffering I have been seeking. Jesus conquered death when he rose from the tomb, but he has so much still for us to learn about living a holy life like Him. These preparations, lessons, and seasons are hardly ever comfortable, but they are good and trustworthy. Living by faith, and sharing in Christ’s suffering and humility are exercises in holiness that I too often would like to forgo, but they are reminders that nothing God moves us through is in vain.

Just like this season in my life, the characteristics of Lent seem the opposite of comfortable. Yet Desiring God writer, John Bloom argues in his article, Jesus Will Not Leave You Alone, that Jesus desires our comfort, peace and joy. “He so desires your ultimate comfort that he will make you very uncomfortable in order to give it to you. . . He wants to give you the true comfort of learning to fear only God, so he will give you the discomfort of facing your false fears. . . and He wants to give you the true comfort of resting secure in the promises of God, so he will give you the discomfort of living with apparent uncertainty.”

These are mercies. And these mercies are gifts. Jesus’ life on earth, in a human body is a gift. His sacrifice on the cross is a gift. His resurrection and redemption are gifts. We can’t muster up emotions or actions that would ever come close to matching the magnitude of this gift. But during Lent, we decide to take part in the gift. Author and blogger Addie Zierman reflects on her own anxious feelings about Lent in her article Of Lent and Emptiness, After completing a round of the Whole 30, which she argues, was not meant to be a Lenten practice, she says, “It occurred to me that maybe the practice of abstaining from things at Lent was never actually about trying join Christ in his suffering or impress him with my selfless devotion. . . Perhaps it was always just about coming back to our bodies, allowing ourselves to feel the emptiness that is always there, underneath all the things we use to dull it. Maybe this giving up of something was always meant to be not a sacrifice but a gift. A way to feel the truth of our need without having to muster it up ourselves.”

I cannot muster up the truth of my need. And so I’m thankful for Lent, my hesitancy to celebrate it, and God’s faithfulness through each season, including this one.

"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." 

- Romans 8:31-34

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"The Valleys are His"

The last time I posted, I wrote about courage. Well, you’ll never guess what was attacked by the devil after that! That’s right, my courage. Instead of boldness and confidence, my weeks were clouded by anxiety and fear. And it really shook me. I am sensitive to a lot of things, and my own unease is high on the list. As my fingers fall to writing these reflections, a part of me feels like I’ve come a long way. But then I look at the past weeks and I see how difficult it is for application to sink in. It makes me feel two-faced and faithless; unequipped and weak.

So I stopped typing. I literally wrote the above paragraph and then left it sitting there with lots of blank space beneath it. It wasn’t until 11 o’clock last Sunday night that I felt I had something more to share. And the irony of it: it’s about how unworthy I ultimately am, in all of this.

I’d already been in bed for a half hour. But thoughts kept nagging at my brain. So I got up and began typing as quickly as I could by the light of my laptop screen (I’m not a great typist—there were lots of mistakes). If I’ve learned nothing else: when the inspiration hits, write it down.

I used to really love worship music. Summer camp was a spiritual high as we sang songs that were buoyant with praise and expectation; the early years of attending a church that sang modern music made me feel vocally connected to God. But in recent years, and in recent months especially, these cheerful songs have rubbed me the wrong way. Give me a good somber hymn, or at least a modern version of one. This trend parallels my spiritual appetite as well. As I follow blogs and look at the books on my to-read list, I don’t gravitate towards the ones that are too uplifting or cheery. I find comfort and relatability in the struggles, suffering, and yearnings of those who have walked ahead of me.

So on Sunday morning, when the congregation began singing a children’s song before the little ones were dismissed for Sunday School, I had quite an epiphany. The words are simple enough: My God is so Big. So strong and so mighty. There’s nothing my God cannot do. But then the next part hit hard: The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are His handiwork too.

The mountains are His. The valleys are His. The highs are His. The lows are His. I should not feel “unspiritual”, unworthy, or hypocritical for dwelling on the hard things. They are God’s, just as much as the times when my soul is ready to respond with praise. What fortuitousness!—as I continue to carve out this theology of suffering—that a simple children’s song would speak volumes to my heart.

Now, with most of the things I’ve learned in this journey, this Truth had a big impact in the moment, but later on I am left wondering how to apply it. I feel like a peddler with a cart full of useful trinkets but no idea how any of them work. I can share them with you (and I will), but I am still learning what they mean for my life. And in the same way, you will have to go through the process like I am. My experiences are not the same as yours. But I take comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit uses any truths that come out of suffering to speak to us, in our own unique ways.

With no planned connection to the month that hosts Valentine’s Day, the following are heart descriptions I have had- , and hope to have. If the valleys are His, my heart in the valley is also surely His. Each of these helps me take a step closer to understanding what that means:

A BROKEN HEART: A few evenings ago I was speaking to my friend (who moved to another city in October) on video chat, when she said, “Becca, we left you with a broken heart didn’t we?” Unquestionably, I was distressed by my friends’ departure (then and also through the years) and the ripple effect this has had on my life, but I hadn’t thought of my pain in those terms. But the brokenness is important. Where there is pain, there can be healing.

The image of light helps make this point: I thrive on light. I don’t often like to be in the dark, especially metaphorically. But when there are times of great contrast—of sorrow or pain—it is those times that speak more deeply to my soul than when my life is full of light. The challenge is to look for these contrasts and respond rightly, even when the heart doesn’t “feel” it. That’s why, since the beginning of January, I have tried to be extra diligent about reading a Bible devotional each morning. Some mornings nothing I read seems relevant or impactful. Other mornings, my heart is itching for some healing and the following nuggets of truth sink in.

A MINDFUL HEART: I read the First 5 devotional app every morning, and this month we are going through Judges. If you’ve ever read the book of Judges you’ll know that it’s full of stories of God’s people doing stupid things, but then being turned back to the truth of God’s faithfulness and plan. These are reminders that we need to seek God’s wisdom in all things, and at all times. Not just once, but as a repeated action.

AN OPEN HEART: I often feel ill-equipped for what God has or might have for me. This is what I like to refer to a pre-worry. I’m really good at it. But there’s a story in the third chapter of  Judges (and similar instances later on), where the Israelites succeed in battle with tools much simpler than war-ready weapons. I often grumble in my heart, “I’m too tired; I don’t have enough money, or time, or faith to do x,y, or z.” But do I have a willingness? Perhaps that’s what needs to change. The writer of the Judges 3 devotional reminds me, “God’s hand is never limited by what we have in ours.”

A STEADFAST HEART: Do the next thing. I have read multiple devotional and articles this month that reiterate this. I think it’s a natural response to the dreariness of winter and the very real seasonal depression that can settle in around us. Elizabeth Elliot often spoke of this. She would quote an old Saxon poem by the same name:

"At an old English parsonage down by the sea,
there came in the twilight a message to me.
Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven
that, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven.
And all through the hours the quiet words ring,
like a low inspiration, 'Do the next thing.'

Many a questioning, many a fear,
many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from heaven,
time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus, do the next thing.

Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing.

Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
working or suffering be thy demeanor,
in His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
the light of His countenance, be thy psalm.
Do the next thing."

Whether it’s spiritual or physical exhaustion, this plus God’s grace is what gets us through the valley. We are not left to our own devisies. The Lord places people, and events, and circumstances in our path, urging us to do what is next with diligence and trust.

In Judges 6, God saw Gideon as someone who was faithful in the small tasks set before him. So He confidently says to Gideon, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14). The author of the devotional for Judges 6 states, “God often uses the weak and lowly things of this world to accomplish His will (paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 1:26-29). . . He is not looking for our ability. He is looking for our availability.”

A HUMBLE HEART: There’s a section of Judges 7 where God tells Gideon that he will not allow Israel to boast in their own strength when they go into battle against the Midianites. So He diminishes the Israelite army from 32,000 to 300. But God goes on to say that He will give Israel the victory—and He does! The writer of the Judges 7 devotional puts it this way, “Any time I make myself bigger, I make God smaller. Our God refuses to be made small.” This is a reverse comfort to me because in this current season, my life feels very small. My influence, my circle of friends, my accomplishments—they all seem to be shrinking rather than growing. In earthly terms, this doesn’t look good. But in the light of this story from Judges 7, it’s the “right” place to be in. God demonstrates time and time again that He chooses to work from the desperate, seemingly impossible circumstances.

This is something I can hold onto! But it is also a warning. Only once chapter later, in Judges 8, Gideon arrogantly seeks his own glory after the victory over the Midianites. I often don’t think of my desires for a new job, a steady income, friendships, and relationships to be about “my glory,” but they can easily fall that way when my focus, and even the direction of my prayers is too inward. For both James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 says, “God opposes the proud bu gives grace to the humble.”

Knowing that in the valley, my heart can be both broken and mindful, steadfast and humble—these are the things that help me understand the lyrics of that song: 

My God is so Big. So strong and so mighty. There’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are His handiwork too.

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