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1. Even if you have all the power, splendor and resources of God himself, come into the world unattractive, poor and in a social standing generally regarded as powerless.
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
2. Spend decades of your life, perhaps even the most “productive” years, living off the radar in complete obscurity. For example, leave no verifiable records of your actions or activities in your teens or your twenties.
3. Spend time with people who have no power to change things. In fact, make them your partners. And maybe throw in a few people that most of the world would scorn and might not even necessarily trust or believe.
1 Corinthians 1:26-28
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.
4. Do extraordinarily kind and loving things. Things that could make you famous and bring widespread attention to your good work. Then encourage people to tell no one about them.
Matthew 8:4, Jesus heals a leper and tells him to tell no one.
Mark 7:36, Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak and tells him to tell no one.
Matthew 9:30, Jesus heals blind people and tells them to tell no one.
5. Even though you know you only have a couple of years to personally spread your message as far and wide as possible, spend time mostly with individuals or in small groups in quiet and intimate settings. You may even consider generally avoiding situations where your message will be heard by great numbers of people, especially if those people will want you to take a widely recognized place of power within the culture at large.
When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.
6. Get to know people. Really know them. Intimately. Their bodily functions. Their foot odor. Their addictions. Their shame. Their jealousies. Their selfishness. Their brokenness. Their weaknesses. Their most ugly habits. Their hatred of you and everything you stand for. And love them anyway. Love them until it kills you. In fact, love them until they kill you.
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.
7. End your mission on earth when your life is still at its prime and just when it seems you might be gaining some momentum and perhaps even a small following. Surrender your life into the hands of the people who hated you. Even though a noble death might make you more likely to be favorably remembered, die a shameful, criminal’s death. Do it for the sake of those who worked the hardest against your purposes, your mission and your message. For your enemies.
The Message (MSG)
You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don’t walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted. There is no other Message—just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message.
8. Do it to make a place for your enemies in your home. To share with them all your inheritance. Offer them your friendship. Offer them a place in your family. And then let them take all that you’ve given them and reject it. Over and over again. And keep loving them anyway, rejoicing when they finally do turn towards you.
20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.[a]’
22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
You know how when you’re having a conversation with another person and one of you has bad breath, it can be so distracting that it’s difficult to even really hear what the other person is saying? If we’re the bearer of the odoriferous breath we may, a bit self-consciously, cover our mouth with a hand, turn our faces slightly in another direction or speak with as little breath expelled as possible, hoping that which comes from us that might possibly offend would not reach the level of their attention.
But the whole conversation becomes a little bit awkward that way. It’s hard to see eye-to-eye when we’re doing everything we can not to stand face-to-face. Sometimes I feel like having a political conversation with someone who knows that I happen to be a person of faith is like doing that strange bad breath dance. I’m so conscious of offending the other person, I don’t articulate clearly enough what my actual position is. Today I read a blog post that insinuated that having religious beliefs is something that should be done outside of the voting booth, but not in it. So for the sake of a clearer and hopefully more authentic conversation, I’m going to put my face straight forward to look at yours and say what I really want to say: My religious beliefs do affect my vote.
That is because my religious beliefs affect my values. And all of us, every single one of us, votes based on our values. Our values are shaped by our families, our cultures, our gender, our experiences, our education, and countless other factors. But religious beliefs are undoubtedly one of the things that help shape our values. And it’s not just me. I hate to break it to you but, whether you have a religious affiliation or not- whether you consider yourself religious, spiritual, agnostic, atheist or none of the above-your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) affect your values. And your vote is affected by your values.
But let me tell you what that doesn’t mean:
- Just because my religious beliefs affect my values, doesn’t mean that when I vote I am trying to impose my religious beliefs on the state. I am simply casting my vote based on my own values, just like anyone else. Asking me to set aside my values before I vote would simply be asking me to put aside my humanity. I believe in separation of church and state specifically because I appreciate living in a place where we don’t do things like force people to separate themselves from their values when they exercise their right as a citizen to vote.
- I am no more trying to impose my values on you than you are trying to impose your values on me. Just as your votes may result in policies which go against my values, my votes may result in policies that go against your values. The nature of a democracy is that each person has the ability to place their single vote, whatever their vote may be and whatever their vote may be based upon. We each have that one single vote. That’s it. (Consequently, we also have a really, really good Constitution for which I am very thankful. It protects us from a tyranny of the majority, which can be a dangerous thing.)
- Just because I have religious beliefs does not mean that when I vote I do not use my brain. If you think that having faith means not having an intellect, I challenge you to find a realm of human achievement where you don’t find people of faith. Arts, sciences, literature, philosophy….we are everywhere. And we do enjoy using our brains when we vote just as well as any other person does (or does not. Democracy is a funny thing like that. We don’t give tests to determine upon what a person will be basing their vote to see if it is appropriate before we hand him or her a pencil and ballot.)
- And just because I have particular values, doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep talking with you about this. Even if you have dramatically different values from mine. I truly enjoy a good, intellectually honest, respectful debate. And if we can agree on those ground rules, I’m all about digging in. Let’s not disrespect each other by assuming we can’t handle an opinion that dissents from ours. My favorite conversations are the ones I’ve had with people who are not threatened by ideas different by their own. That’s the place from which the absolute best policy-making is done. So let’s get at this!
I walked down the dirt road on which my in-laws’ cabin sits and let the beauty of nature wash over my senses. The sun does not not neglect to generously warm each inch of my skin. The breeze offers a cooling balance and stirs the long grasses to release their sweet scent. The ferns on the forest floor stretch out their fronds in endless configurations of orderly beauty against the rakishly disorderly backdrop of the forest floor.
It is all there, whether I choose to enter into it or not. This feast for the senses, almost an embarrassment of riches in a place like the cabin–the sun, the breeze, the sweet grasses, the fern fronds, the birch forest- it all would have existed even were I not here to experience it. This uncultivated beauty is unlike the more civilized variety that we humans maintain or mold by our own efforts. Natural beauty simply IS. By no effort of mine it exists in glorious splendor, free for me and all the rest of humanity to enjoy.
I walked and I felt the tongue of my soul thirstily lapping up all that was around me, I started to wonder why I am made like this. Why is natural beauty the food that feeds my particular soul? In my life as a mother of three young children there are a long list of things I need to do in order to receive the benefits of healthy relationships, a passably hygienic home, meaningful work, even recreational pursuits require a lot of effort at this time of life. For every single arena of my life there is a litany of requirements for maintenance.
Yet the beauty of nature excites and soothes. It inspires and humbles. It wraps around my senses in endless varieties and provides satiation. But I do nothing to receive such a lavish feast as is provided by a place where natural beauty prevails.
I do not need to pay nature in order for it to administer these gifts to me. I do not need to feed it. I do not need to work for it. Entertain it. It seems as if it would balk like a strong but good-natured grandfather if I tried to coddle it.
Natural beauty requires nothing of me. In fact is one of the few things, perhaps the only thing, that I feel no sense of guilt as I enjoy it. It is undoubtedly good, so I feel no shame as I bask in it and I do not accumulate debt as I accept its gifts. I can be free to receive what it gives me with no sense of needing to reciprocate. It takes nothing from me, not even requiring my appreciation of it as sometimes I feel about beauty that has been produced by human hands.
Natural beauty does not require me to maintain it in order for it to be.* It existed before I came along. It will exist after I am gone. It is remarkably persistent, tenacious even. Fire consumes acres and dainty, green tendrils begin to shoot through stricken soil soon after. Disasters occur to wipe out entire landscapes, but natural beauty reappears before humans can even begin to rebuild. Destruction may seem to have overcome, but glitter spills in night skies above and the sun will rise amidst a never-identical show of enigmatic shades of color the next day. Natural life will unfurl its tentacles wherever chaos strikes and slowly but surely begin to re-order itself.
And for a soul as hungry as mine, it is a blessing and a wonder that inherent in the character of natural beauty is that it is perpetually available. There is not a time of day in which it does not exist somewhere around you, most likely within immediate reach of at least one of your senses: loamy soil’s scent, a dancing tree’s shadow play, smooth stone rubbed between finger and thumb. It. Simply. Is. Moment upon eternal moment. Cycles of light and life never ending. The beauty of nature is there to take in.
As I round another curve on that dirt road only to arrive upon another landscape ripe with pleasure for the senses, I realize that I cannot think of any other thing besides natural beauty of which I can say this is true of its relationship to my soul: It requires nothing of me and yet my whole self- mind, body and soul- feel saturated with enjoyment of it. I receive so much without giving a single thing to it but my attention. And even if I do not give it my attention, it still exists within my reach for whenever I do tune myself to it again.
And as I turned back on the path towards the cabin again, the brilliance of the sun’s reflection on Lake Superior dazzled my eyes. In the same sort of flash I realized why this natural beauty is food for my soul. Because the beauty of nature is, to me, as clear a picture of God’s grace as I can seem to experience. And none of us can survive even a moment without grace. Grace is that which is present around me at every turn, whether I call it or not. Whether I recognize it or not. Whether I do anything to deserve it or not. It requires nothing of me and yet exists for me in the tick and tock, hum and drum, press and pull of every moment. This is what grace is: It is the thing which is there for us to receive freely and be filled.
I may not always be tuned to appreciate it, but as sure as natural beauty IS whether I choose to tune my attention to it or not, so is Grace.
Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. Romans 1:20
What feeds your soul and why?
*Though, of course, if we are not stewards of it we do squander it. But sometimes I question if humans have the ability to completely destroy it. Though our efforts contribute, a hand greater than ours truly holds the power of life and death. And I think we see this common grace and the faithfulness of God in the persistence of natural life despite our best and sometimes worst efforts.
We had one of those fights yesterday that was based on an old theme in our marriage. It sent us down a well-worn path, the soft, grassy buffer of newlywed naivete had long worn away from it. It’s a path that’s we’ve trudged many times before, choking on kicked-up dust or getting entrenched in the deeper muck when it rains. Ruts have been worn and on darker days one or another of us might get hurt tripping and falling into one. Exhausted by the end of it, sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the effort to clean up again all the way before we get on to the next thing. We think we’ve washed clean enough, forgiven enough, but the time is too short before we’ll put on those dirty, wet walking sneakers again and blisters result. And then we’re rubbing against raw on our next trek.
This thing is not something that is about a difference of opinion and I don’t even know that it’s totally about a particular sin either (though it certainly is true that without sin we wouldn’t feel this disunity). We’re coming up against a fundamental difference in who we are and how we see the world. Talking about it doesn’t seem to help and ignoring it doesn’t seem to help either. I’ve prayed about it (a lot) and we still don’t seem to be able to find unity. SO, where does that leave us?
I’ll tell you where it left me at about 4am this morning when I woke up after something fell off our bed to clatter loudly on the floor: feeling hopeless. Wondering if he’ll ever really get me. Agonizing over how to live a life of one flesh with a person when it feels like the only way to fit together is to kill off some part of me. But maybe then without that gangling part of Me, could we at least be a more neatly fitted We?
I try it sometimes, just kind of a light neglect, not exactly starving that part that doesn’t seem to fit but maybe putting it on a rigorous diet. It doesn’t work. Instead the opposite seems to happen. The more I ignore it, the more it demands to be seen. It takes on a life of its own over there in the periphery to which I’ve relegated it. Flashing all sorts of colors and morphing into shapes and dimensions unexpected, it’s impossible to kill it. It’s so alive. It’s even kind of winsome, doing its own charming thing in the corner. Like a toddler in a time out after I’d forgotten I’d put it there too long, it starts singing some beautiful song to itself and I just want to join it. It’s no use. It’s just an inextricable part of who I am.
So what now? Does this mean I chose the wrong life or that God dealt me a harder hand? I honestly don’t know. Theology is tricky like that. But I know that the more married women I connect with, the more I realize that this kind of marital imperfect-fittedness is not rare. In fact, I think it may be the norm. There always seems to be something that husbands and wives don’t get about each other, even in the best of marriages. And we learn to live with them, hopefully appreciate the differences even, because we’re committed and because we chose love and we continue to choose love every. single. day.
But what about that pain? What about wondering if we’ll ever be understood, appreciated, “gotten?” What about the deep and fulfilling intimacy that we think marriage should be?
The answer was made undeniably clear to me this morning. It’s nothing new, but it’s the kind of bread I need to eat daily in order to be sustained by it. I subscribe to a service called Go Tandem. It’s awesome and it makes it really hard to ignore Truth in the midst of my busy life. It sends me mini, individualized devotionals throughout the day. I get texts and emails and voice messages and calls at times I’ve chosen. It’s just the right amount of intrusive. (And free. Sign up now, I know you’ll love it).
Anyway, usually I get one automated call in the morning around the time I get out of bed. And then if I don’t answer, it sends me the same message via email. Well today, I got this same call THREE times in a row. And then I ALSO got the same email THREE times. Now that’s just weird. Actually, it’s just God. The message was clear and the Messenger was beautifully and faithfully relentless in His pursuit of me, like the most devoted of suitors. I could barely hang up the phone before the call came through to me again. And then appeared in my email. Again. Ok, that may seem a bit stalkerish. But sometimes I need that because I’m dense when it comes to feeling loved.
I pasted it below, but basically it was a reminder that my husband isn’t meant to totally get me. He’s not meant to fulfill me. He’s not meant to complete me. If he could, I might be too easily satisfied and neglect to go after the real prize: a profoundly deep, intimate, fulfilling relationship with God.
You Can’t Complete Me
Hear from God
|Listen to today’s CallIt’s so easy to look to other people to satisfy our needs. Let’s be honest, they’re here, human, tangible. But don’t fall for that junk! Jeremiah explains that only God can truly meet our needs–and he will!
This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans,
who rely on human strength
and turn their hearts away from the Lord.
They are like stunted shrubs in the desert,
with no hope for the future.
They will live in the barren wilderness,
in an uninhabited salty land.
“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord
and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.
They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.”
Satisfaction only comes from God.
Please don’t judge me too harshly, but there was a carpenter ant crawling across my bathroom floor today and I squished it with my sandal. And I felt a pang of sadness and still have a vague sensation of lingering guilt about it. But I felt no differently about that particular ant than I would about any of the other ants in the whole world that could have been wandering across those tiles at that particular moment.
Sometimes I wonder, am I like that ant? Just this one human being among billions of humans on the earth or maybe trillions if we look across the span of time. Am I anything more to Him than a tiny creature whose existence is meaningful in relation perhaps to the others who share my space and time but not very significant in the grand scheme of things? Does it matter if it was me who was inhabiting this space and doing this work in this moment or could it have just as well been any other human being doing the same thing to basically the same end? Does my individual existence, my personal purpose or a relationship with me as a single entity matter to Him? Or He mostly just concerned with the larger picture, beautiful and awesome picture that it might be?
I had a professor who was an atheist until he attended a conference about the cosmos and he listened to scientists in a field not his own discuss the way the world was put together. And he wondered at the way it was all so purposeful. So not random. And he said it changed him. He knew there must be some sort of Greater Force out there, putting it all together. Holding it all together.
It has never been a challenge for me to experience God like that. I see God in the grand, sweeping scale of the universe and I can look across the span of history and see the ways He has brought beauty out of destruction or how compassion overcame brutality. I can see that His love for the human race has conquered death and disease and war and hatred. That His love for us has held off the tide of destruction that we have created in our own arrogant ignorance: the way we consume and destroy and pursue always more because it’s never enough at the cost of all things holy. Instead of letting us obliterate ourselves and the earth, He is faithful and gracious to us. He lifts the sun up from the darkness each day and He coaxes the tender buds of life from the death freeze each winter. For it all. For the Universe. For all of us. For humanity. But was it for me?
What I struggle with is seeing Him as personal. I can see where His beauty and His might are poured into the world in a grand scale: Mount Everest and The Grand Canyon and the Pacific Ocean and the Milky Way. I can see how His love for humanity is reflected in creation but it is hard for me to discern how this kind of love is personal. Is it for me? And in the same way, I can see how the love that He poured out on the cross is a lavish kind of love for humanity. A son slain for his enemies’ sakes. He who was perfectly good sacrificed for all that was wretchedly wrong. But I wonder sometimes, was that really a sign of love for me or was it a general display of love for all of humanity? To sacrifice One for the good of many, this may be considered general benevolence, but is it indicative of a personal love? Of care for each one? Would Jesus have died even it were just for me?
For me and for any others who feel like an anonymous ant crawling across the bathroom floor of the universe today,
God who clothes grass in the field, daily trodden upon and then finally fodder for the fire, with greater splendor and glory than even the most majestic of kings, please show me that you desire to make beauty with my life as well.
God who says that He would leave ninety-nine sheep in the field to go after just a single one, please find me where I’ve gotten lost in the wilderness. Come and scoop up this foolish sheep and rejoice over me with singing and quiet me with your love.
Let me know in my deepest heart of hearts that you formed me, fearfully and wonderfully, crafting every part of me from a single cell,
and that you have a plan for me and that not even one day of my life-even the day that turns to a week that turns to a year that feels wasted- is outside of that plan. That plan to use every single bit of pain, every ounce of talent, every hope and fear and foible and success for good.
Help me to truly believe that you are intimately acquainted with all my ways, that you even number the hairs on my head and know my words before one escapes from my tongue and that you care for me as if to capture every tear that falls from my eye.
Give me a sense of this truth: That your thoughts towards me, towards just this one single ant in a crowd of many, are too vast and numerous to be counted.
And help me to live in the reality of a love for me that is lavish. A love that rejoices each time I turn towards you. The “let’s throw a party in heaven” kind of love.
Disappointment has been an aggressive and mean-spirited stalker who relentlessly pursues me. His only goal in life, it seems, is to be present every single time I let that majestic hot air balloon of hope start to lift me into the sky. He is there before I barely get off the ground, plunging the cold, hard needle of reality into the billowy fabric of my dreams.
I made choices too that tethered me, keeping me bound to the ground at times. Sometimes because a tether seemed like the safer choice and other times because a life without the ties of commitment is one without impact. And that kind of life seems like a waste, too ephemeral to be worth the breath. So commit I did, allowing the ties to be strung around me, pulling down on me with ever-increasing strength. I had always imagined something involving More. More views awe-inspiring. More exposures breath-taking. A life aloft. Alight. Transcendent. Luminary. But those are not so much the defining characteristics of my life as a stay at home mom living in suburbia with a mortgage and a water-logged basement and a husband who has the gift of being more easily contented.
I try to keep the fire ablaze, glorious balloon filled, ready to soar. But the ropes that I bound to myself strain against the effects of the burner, and the basket remains grounded. The more tethers I accumulate the more self-defeating and exhausting it feels to keep stoking that little fire on the chance that it might someday blow me aloft. There are some tethers I’d be willing to let go, cut even. But others are just too precious. So rather than strive to keep the light glowing, I feel like I’m slowly letting that magnificent balloon of hope lay, slackened and deflated, behind me.
It’s a lovely basket I’m living in, but it feels like only a small part of the life I’d thought would be mine. In fact, that basket sans balloon seems sometimes almost like a mockery of the life that might have been. I can be painful, even shaming somehow, to look at that impotent artifact too closely. It seems more merciful to just forget that the balloon of hope ever might have been something I connected to the basket of my real life. Maybe it’s better to resign myself to the idea that the hope of More is just an demanding, hungry balloon, better left unfed by that energy-sucking fire I’ve been stoking. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but perhaps if I could just deflate my hopes a bit, it’d all be a little more manageable.
There’s a message I hear a lot lately and it’s one that I think is helpful. The message is that we should focus on the positive. That if we set our thoughts, our consciousness on what we do already have then we will be more content. We will be less dissatisfied. I believe there is truth in this. Enough truth that I have been battling for a full week over this same piece to decide if I should even finish it and post it. Is the answer to my restlessness and my disappointment with the world to have an attitude of gratitude? If I could just change my patterns of thinking to get me to arrive at a place marked “Opportunities” rather than “Challenges” then maybe I’d be more content. I know there is science to support this and more important that it is the truth that I need to give thanks in all circumstances.
So I try to make my lists of all the things for which I’m grateful and whip my synapses into submission to make them travel on paths more positive. But the moment I pause to breathe, I can’t help but think this: Yes, it’s not all bad. But is it as good as it should be? Is it good enough to be worth all of the pain and the toil of life? Is it good enough to satisfy the hunger of a human soul?
I identify a lot with the author of Ecclesiastes lately. “All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” The book of Ecclesiastes expresses the same sense of restlessness and disappointment I too often feel. There’s a lot on this earth with which to fill a life: work, pleasure, relationships, discoveries, wisdom. But is this really all there is?
Is it wrong to dare hope for more than what I have here? I have asked myself if my disappointment is sin. I have wondered if I have done something to attract this stalker Disappointment. Have I left out the welcome mat of my heart for it? I have mulled over the distinctions between disappointment and discontentment. I have explored sermons about the sin of discontentment or ingratitude. I’ve wondered over and over again what is wrong with me that I can’t be more easily satisfied. Is the deep hunger I feel my own fatal flaw?
Yes, there are times when I blame my restlessness or disappointment on not having been given something specific here on earth; on a perfect job or dream or marriage or family life that I pined after and didn’t get. And I need to get over that because it’s a lie and because it robs me of the appreciation I might feel for the gifts God has given me. They truly are wonderful gifts. But they were never meant to fulfill me. Perfect satisfaction won’t come from anything I’ll find here on earth. So should I just ignore the hunger I feel, blaming it on brokenness, chastising myself for not being satisfied with the things I have on earth that are good enough?
This thing, this longing, it’s a persistent bugger. It is something that I can’t seem to just wish or gratitude-list away, this desire for More. There is a hunger in me that simply refuses to be satisfied with all that I experience in this world, even all the best of the things here on earth….
….And when I look at the Bible, I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with that hunger. In fact, I think there’s biblical support that confirms that we were not built to be satisfied by this world. 1 Corinthians 15:19 says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
When I read in Hebrews about ” a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” I begin to realize I’ve gone wrong imagining hope as a balloon that would lift me above the circumstances of my life. In fact, I may need to bring the precious balloon I manufactured myself to the cross and give it up altogether. But maybe that’s not such a big sacrifice for a hope that is an anchor that tethers me to a heavenly habitation. One that relentlessly draws me up instead of pulling me down. One anchored in a love from which I can’t be separated. One that has been secured by Someone who promises immeasurably more than all that even I, perhaps the loftiest of lofty dreamers, could ever ask or even imagine.
If we follow that rope all the way up to where it leads us behind that veil, we find that the anchor has been tied to the throne of God by Christ himself by His work on our behalf on the cross. He did this because we were actually created to be in relationship with that God. We were designed to long to be in Him who is the source and fullness of all radiance, power, awe, might, majesty, light, life, glory, grace, truth, justice, mercy and goodness. No wonder I am disappointed with all I find here on earth!
So the hunger is not the sin. In fact, it is this hunger that causes us to reach out to taste and see that the Lord is good. There is a blessing in hungering. Because those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for being in that perfect state of relationship with God, will be satisfied. The truth is that if we were not afflicted by this hunger, we might not be motivated to seek the perfect food. Being easily satisfied, we might stop short of seeking and finding and filling ourselves with the Bread of life.
So yes, I have to be careful that I don’t deceive myself into thinking that this plague of disappointment I feel will end when the circumstances of my life change. But rather than beating myself up every time I feel it, could I use it as a reminder that there is a reality of More? And pray that I could see and smell and taste and feel some of it, of Him and of His Kingdom, here on this earth.
Please Lord, let your Kingdom come. Let it even come here and now in my water-logged, mortgaged, suburban house with my kids screaming at me in the background. Within the boundaries of this habitation and the ordinary life I live, as I grope, let me find You. Because I know then that this soul, yes even this ravenously hungry soul, will be satisfied.
” …and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist” Acts 17:26-28
I was born in Minnesota to parents of mostly Swedish and English heritage. As if the genetic stock weren’t good enough reason to master the arts of passive-aggression and suppression , the tundra-like plains of the prairies in winter are no place for feelings. Generations of hearty Minnesotans survived frigid, stark conditions probably specifically because they were not overly sensitive. Those Swedish farmers just buried their feelings right along with the potatoes. Now that I’m an adult and I’m finally privy to the honest version of some family history, I can see that plenty of those things didn’t actually stay buried with the potatoes forever.
I used to think that people who always maintained their emotions, neatly kept within a certain acceptable range, were stronger than me and that those who never seemed to have any negative emotions, like anger or fear or disappointment, were probably better Christians than me altogether. I fought very hard for a long time to try to have the “right” feelings and to not feel things so deeply. I still struggle with a lot of shame not being able to be one of those Christian women with a sweet and gentle smile perpetually on her face. I heard a lot growing up in the church about how we shouldn’t give too much clout to our feelings, because they weren’t “truth.” (Yep, I’m coming back to that one later.)
So when I started seeing anger seeping out over the last few years since I’ve become a parent, I thought something was wrong with me. I had never really thought of myself as an angry person and, in fact, had a hard time admitting when I was mad at someone. Being angry seemed like one of those not “right” emotions. Sure, I could get angry at injustices like genocide and oppression, but only because that seemed like righteous indignation more than anger. I didn’t think I had a right to get angry about things that happened to me because they didn’t measure up to that level of injustice. Things that happened to me weren’t important enough to afford me the right to that emotion.
I’m starting to finally unravel the mystery of why becoming a parent unearthed those feelings of anger that had been buried in me. But now I have to figure out what to do with them. I still live in a culture where emotions are clearly not things that you take out in polite company.
But is that truly the most “Christian” or even sane way to live?
Something in me really changed the day that I remembered that David, primary author of the Psalms, was described in Acts as “A man after God’s own heart.” I mean have you read the Psalms? They are most definitely saturated with emotions. Fear, despair, awe, love, betrayal, confusion, abandonment, devotion, thankfulness, insecurity, bliss, anxiety, they’re all there. Expressions of these unmistakably strong and often enough “negative” feelings are included in the very word of God!
In writing the Psalms, David honestly and even graphically pours out his emotions to God. There is a pattern often repeated in the Psalms in which he first expresses his anguish, fear, despair or doubt, second recalls God’s character and then thirdly, as a response to his meditations on the goodness and faithfulness of God towards him, offers praise and thanksgiving. I’ve come to use this as a pattern upon which to build my own conversations with God or about God, especially when blogging.
This last week or two I’d been struggling with some things and so I was digging around in the Psalms again for encouragement. I opened up to Psalm 38 and read through and then, finding it didn’t exactly end on an uplifting note per the pattern I’d expected, started into Psalm 39 as well, hoping it would somehow get better.
I said, “I will guard my ways
That I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle
While the wicked are in my presence.”
2 I was mute and silent,
I refrained even from good,
And my sorrow grew worse.
3 My heart was hot within me,
While I was musing the fire burned;
Then I spoke with my tongue
In the opening verses, it appears that David is going through something very intense with emotions to match. He seems to have been so disturbed that he was bridling his tongue, even choosing not to let any good words come out, for fear of saying something not-so-great in the presence of non-believers, perhaps for fear of leading them to believe He didn’t really have enough faith in God. But as he suppressed his emotions, he found that his sorrow only got worse and that he felt as though he was burning up inside. I noticed a cross reference in my bible to Jeremiah 20:9 in which something similar seems to plague Jeremiah: But if I say, “I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name,” Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it.
Holding things in didn’t seem to be doing anything good for either of these guys. They seem to be challenging the old idiom “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So I began to think about how I might have been getting overly concerned again, particularly in blogging, with wrapping everything up in a nice and pretty package. Maybe it was alright to not always end on an “up” note.
Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean that my only and immediate reaction to what life throws at me has to be happiness or peaceful acceptance. In fact, it isn’t a surprise to God when we feel troubled by what is happening in life. He says, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” He then goes on to say “But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). Sometimes I think we skip too quickly to the “but” in that statement of truth.
I don’t know if it is a Minnesota thing or what, but I have some people very close to me who have a difficult time talking about what they are feeling because they think of it as complaining. In fact, I love one person who feels so strongly about this that she won’t even tell her own doctor about some significant and real ailments she’s facing for fear that it would be complaining.
As a mother who hears her fair share of complaints daily, I can certainly see the downside of complaining. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the difference between complaining and expressing emotion. My latest working definition is this: Complaining is about persisting to express our displeasure about a situation to someone who doesn’t want to hear about them or to a person who cannot or will not do anything to help.
When we’re reading the Bible, we’re seeing stories unfold with characters who aren’t always at a place where they can wrap everything up in a nice bow of perfect understanding and faith. In the context of the verse I quoted from John 16 verse above there are just going to be plenty of times in which we are still in the “many trials and sorrows” part of the story. Maybe we’re moving towards it, but we simply haven’t yet gotten to the “But take heart!” part.
This verse in John 16 appears at the very end of a whole chapter in John in which Jesus is describing and acknowledging the reality of weeping, lamenting, anguish, pain and grieving that we will experience in this world. And as you read the chapter, He doesn’t tell us to just stuff all of our emotions in. He is encouraging us that when those painful emotions inevitably come upon us, we should go to our Father and ask Him for what we need to make our joy complete. It’s not about donning our special, Christian happy face or just suddenly conjuring up some faith from out of thin air. We are instructed in Lamentations, in fact to “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!”
And we hear this going on over and over again throughout His perfect story. We hear Jesus cry out to His Father, agonizing about why He has forsaken Him, because sometimes apparently silently and stoically bearing our emotions just doesn’t cut it!
Rachel bitterly weeping at losing her children because maybe sometimes a pretty cry is actually just not appropriate.
David dancing and leaping for joy, recklessly even, because maybe there are times when it might actually be wrong to hold it all in.
I am not advocating here for letting our emotions rule us and having the final say in all that is reality to us. And certainly there are plenty of admonitions in the Bible not to let our tongue or our emotions lead us to sin. But to have emotions is not to sin. And what I am suggesting is that to hide them might not be truth.
This brings me to that big issue that I hope the church is moving past: This idea that feelings are not truth or that having negative emotions is evidence of lack of faith. When Jesus wept at his friend’s death, got angry at greedy profiteers, or agonized over God forsaking Him, was he acting out of unbelief? Was anything about what he was doing NOT truth?
So, taking our example from Jesus, what exactly should we do with this sometimes painful reality of emotions with which we live? Recognize them. Feel them. Certainly don’t get stuck in them, but don’t ignore them either. Deal with them, bringing them always to the One person for whom our emotions are never “too much” and who, in fact, time and time again entreats us to come to Him with our burdens, worries and cares. And maybe bring them to one or two other humans as well.
And when it comes to blogging I’m starting to think, perhaps always ending on an “up” note isn’t just a sort of a dishonest and inauthentic way of representing myself and my relationship with God. Maybe smoothing things over too much actually isn’t expressing enough faith in God. Because faith isn’t about always being happy. It’s about representing a life in which, even when things are inevitably difficult, I’m waiting on, hoping for and expecting an answer from a God who I trust is capable of handling it all– even my emotions.
I remember it as an old-fashioned bike painted shiny black and it was heavy. Or at least it felt heavy to me. I was probably eleven and the bike was made for a man, not a child. The problem of the bike’s weight was compounded by the large kiddie seat molded from grey plastic that was firmly bolted to the back. If I sat down on the bike’s seat my toes couldn’t quite reach the ground, so to ride it I had to balance on the pedals while standing, swinging my body from one side to the other over the metal bar in the middle. Everything about that man-sized bike was unwieldy to my child-sized self. It wasn’t a bike I rode for fun, it was the one required to perform my assigned duty of picking-up my little sister from daycare.
To ride this beast of a bike, I’d throw one leg over the middle bar to get on and then kick my feet against the ground a few steps to gain some momentum. Once it was moving forward, I’d hop up, one foot and then the other, pushing the pedals down hard to keep going. I’d carve a swervey, tippy line down the busy road, kicking up dust as I hugged the shoulder trying to avoid getting into the cars’ way. On the downhills, I made an effort at respite by sitting while I could. But the up hills were really a trick. Even on days when the sun’s rays didn’t beat on my neck, I’d get hot prickles of sweat from the exertion of pushing that heavy bicycle up the hill. It was a cumbersome and awkward venture, one that always made me self-conscious of who might be driving by.
When I’d reached the daycare, I’d loaded up my pudgy, baby sister into the child’s seat. If I didn’t have an adult to help me, I’d have to balance the bike against my hip to keep it upright while twisting and bending to lift and heft her up, buckling her in. Then I’d start the process all over again, getting on and moving the three of us now- the bike, the wriggling toddler and me-down the road. Tipping and turning, it was perhaps sheer will rather than strength or skill that kept us upright. I was never quite in full physical control of that bike. I was aware it could have easily come to a disasterous end if I lost my balance, me or my sister propelling through the air, scraped skin bloody with road rash and pocked with implanted gravel. A few times, I remember slipping off the pedals, trying to catch the bike’s weight against my body before my sister hit the ground.
Fortunately nothing worse than bloodied knees were the casualties of those clunky, ponderous rides. It wasn’t really a venture designed for a child. But really, looking back, there were a lot of bikes I was asked to ride that weren’t actually fit for a child; adult-sized responsibilities that shouldn’t have been mine, burdens too heavy for a kid to gracefully bear.
I was the type of kid who took responsibility when it was given to me, clasping it as if it were a gift. As the oldest of five kids, it felt good to be useful. When my parents were pleased with me, I was pleased with myself. Each time I was asked to do something, I saw it as a sign that I had some value to others.
I must have been good at taking responsibility because soon enough it was given to me a lot. As early as I can remember I was often left to care for other children, first for small spurts of time and later for much longer. Hours grew to long days and as years went by, I remember times when one day would pile on top of another, sometimes without knowing when to expect the adult to return. There was a lot of waiting. I remember often feeling the strain of anxious tension, a child carrying a heavy load, wondering when I’d be free to hand off the responsibility, throw off the weight and be released. I would long for someone to say, “You don’t have to worry, I’ll take care of that.” But it wasn’t just being relieved of responsibility that I ached for. It was for someone to say, “You don’t have to worry, I’ll take care of you.”
I don’t think it is wrong for children to be given some responsibilities or for siblings to help care for each other. But something changed in me, I think, when caretaker stopped being an activity and it started being an identity.
Just like that cumbersome bike sometimes felt like it might crush me, I think that the disproportionate sense of responsibility I felt when I was little outweighed my sense of self. As the child’s job of becoming who I was became eclipsed by my duties to others, “you are responsible” started to become a bigger reality than “you are Rachel.”
Eventually when we get older, we all bear more responsibility which can be difficult but ultimately fulfilling when developed appropriately. Most of us, like weight lifters, have built up the ability to bear that weight slowly, over the course of several decades. But when it happens too young, we develop inappropriately. We bear more weight than we should on our child’s frame and our disposition towards responsibility distorts.
As we grow, we get so used to feeling that disproportionate heaviness that it feels strange to be without it. We find ourselves as adults taking on more than we should, even taking responsibilities for things we shouldn’t, threading more and more weight onto our barbell until we experience that familiar almost crushing experience that we did in childhood.
Our outlook on the world and our place in it also becomes ill-formed. We develop a perspective that is so used to looking out for others that it seems wrong to sometimes look out for ourselves first. I’m still pretty sure if I were in a plane accident with my children, I’d be almost physically unable to honor the flight attendants admonition to please put the oxygen mask on myself first.
And if that’s not enough, it feels even stranger still when somebody else tries to watch out for us. I feel a deep sense of discomfort every time someone offers to help me.
I saw tweeted the other day the question: Who were you before someone told you who you should be?
Who was that me before Responsible and Caretaker became my identity? I was creative. I was a child that saw fairies in the moonlight and tiny worlds in the woods. I was convinced that nature sprung to life, dancing and singing, when we weren’t looking.
In going through boxes of my childhood things, I found evidence of poems and songs and plays that I had written in those early years. Before I learned to be the bearer of heavy things, I was fanciful. I was lighter before I had to develop those responsibility-wielding muscles. I had time to fill my head with “to be” lists rather than “to do” lists. I was a bleary-eyed dreamer who saw the future in softly-lit, glowing possibilities instead of a sentinel who had to keep perpetually open the watchful eye of responsibility.
Yes, I’m describing a cotton candy world that is airy-fairy and sentimental. But I was in grade school! That was what I was supposed to be like. I was supposed to be like a child.
Previously, when I heard people speak of having faith like a child, I understood it to be an intellectual simplicity. It seemed I was being admonished to push aside rational or scholarly concerns and just accept what was being told. This always disturbed me.
But now that I have children myself I think about having faith like a child entirely differently.
When I am with my children, they do not doubt that I am the one who is looking out for them. (Psalm 91)
That I will come for them when they call. (Micah 7:7)
They take for granted that it is my job to supply their needs, not their job. (Philippians 4:19)
When we go out, they just assume that I know when it is time to come and when it is time to go from a place (though they might complain a bit). (Psalm 121:8)
And that I will carry them when they get tired. (Isaiah 46:4)
They trust that if they get lost I will come for them. (Luke 15:4-6)
And they actually think it is silly and ridiculous if I try to give them a load too heavy for them. They assume it is a joke, in fact. (Psalm 68:19)
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, starting in verse 25, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
Jesus knows that children would not doubt the way He is about to describe a loving Father! LISTEN to this verse with faith like a child. Let this sink in today:
He goes on to say in verse 28, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
I am praying for myself and for any who read this who feel themselves loaded heavy, burdened low– that we would have faith like a child today. That we would be confident in our Father who has made it his job, not ours, to daily bear our burdens (Psalm 68:19).
I love this passage in Psalms in particular in the King James Version. It actually reads, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation. Selah.” In this version, the picture is not just of him taking on our burdens, but actually loading us up with benefits! This is the reality of life with Him that I want to know. Not only does he ask us to cast our burdens on Him, but then he gives us an easy yoke and a light burden. Admittedly, in past readings of the passage in Matthew, I’ve thought to myself, “Well geez, if you’re such a powerful and mighty and loving God, can we just skip the burdens altogether?” But today as I reflect on the KJV of Psalm 68:19 I’m letting myself wonder if this is, in fact, the kind of burden He had in mind: He daily loadeth us with benefits! Could it be? And how does this change everything!?!
Sometimes I wonder what I might have become if I could have been childlike a little longer. Would I have developed my creative gifts more? Would I have thought of myself as a writer instead of perpetually sublimating that part of myself to being a caretaker? If I hadn’t grown up under a heavy load, would I have stretched higher to achieve greater success in other areas of my life? A part of me still grieves these paths not taken. But I also know that I am the child of a God who redeems, who restores lost years (Joel 2:25). For me, that is part of the reason I’m writing again.