Broad Strokes Paint Poor Portraits

I know this has been happening since time immemorial, but in the past year, I have been increasingly disappointed by seemingly rational people casting wide, sweeping generalizations of all sorts over all types, classes, races, religions, and genders of people. The Left is ________. The Right is ________. Gay people are ________. Evangelicals are ________. Millenials are ________. Gen Xers are ________. Men are ________. Women are ________. Feminists are ________. White males are ________. Black Lives Matter are ________. Police are ________. Christians are ________. Muslims are ________.

Things, unfortunately, are not that simple. I think viewing the world through the filter of Facebook has made it feel like a growing epidemic because 95% (this is not a real statistic) of the people on the internet say things that they would never say if even one human being from whatever populace they are discussing were standing in front of them. And therein lies the problem.

Broad strokes paint poor portraits. Anytime you try to categorize people, shove them into a box, make them fit whatever stereotype helps you make sense of the world, you are distorting them as individuals.

Because each of these groups of people is made up of hundreds of thousands of individuals who have hopes and dreams and mostly want good things just like you do. Whether they agree with what good is or go about getting it the same way you do is not the question. Disagreement does not even come into play in this discussion. We’re not discussing ideologies, but humanity and the intrinsic worth and complicated emotions and desires that come with it.

Portraits are unique and distinct. They are nuanced and shadowed and, in good ones, there is something intangible that helps you almost feel like you know the person portrayed. If you could look at the details, the histories, the loves, and the fears of each individual within any person your world view has tried to turn into a cliche, you would find a soul just as worthy as your own.

Our broad strokes are embarrassing. It is like drawing a stick figure and saying it is the spitting image of everyone in whichever subset you are discussing. This is not only rude; it is illogical. It is the thing children do when they are afraid. We are scrawling children’s drawings on people’s faces and turning them into boogeymen instead of human souls.

I am completely aware that some people fit stereotypes. That’s why they exist. But only the ignorant actually judge people by them. Because there are many, many more who do NOT fit the blanket categorization applied to them. No person is just one thing. They are infinite worlds unto themselves that we will never be able to fully comprehend.

Portraits are not something you create overnight. You must be engaged with someone in order to see them fully – to see them around corners and in the dark, behind doors and when the curtain is pulled back. It’s not always pretty, but let’s refrain from painting over three-dimensional people with our flat preconceived notions.

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Not Perfect

Are you perfect? I know I’m not. I don’t even want to pretend to figure a percentage. I fail – a LOT.

When I was younger, I had some notion that I could manage any situation – that even if someone thought I’d done something wrong, I could work hard enough, spend enough time, say enough words, to make someone know I intended no harm or did the best I could. As I have aged, I’ve learned this is not always the case, and this is a HARD lesson. I really believed that if I tried hard enough, didn’t give up, all situations could be resolved.

Boy, was I wrong. No matter where the blame lies, you will never be able to make everyone happy, and this is a lesson worth learning early:

You can’t fix everything.

There will be people you can’t please. There will be relationships you can’t mend.

Sometimes, the relationships are worth mourning. Sometimes, they are not. Sometimes, you are at fault. Sometimes, you are not.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

You will disappoint people despite trying your very hardest. As someone who placed an inordinate amount of importance on friendships, I will pass on what I have learned:

You will lose friends if you have kids; you’ll lose friends if you don’t. You’ll lose friends if you’re too ‘Jesus.’ You’ll lose friends if you’re too secular. You’ll lose friends if you’re fat. You’ll lose friends if you’re too thin. You’ll lose friends if you drink. You’ll lose friends if you don’t. You’ll lose friends if you’re tolerant. You’ll lose friends if you aren’t. You’ll lose friends if you are true to yourself. You’ll lose friends if you try to be a chameleon.

Point is, no matter what you do, you will lose friends over the years, and this is OK, despite how it makes you feel.

I know.

It makes you feel like a failure. You think that if you were perfect, all of your friendships would remain hunky-dory and no one would ever dislike you or think you should do anything differently in your life, but that is NOT true.

I *sort of* finally accepted this.

Did you know Jesus was perfect and that some people hated him?

WHAT???

And since I know I’m NOT perfect, if some people hate me, why should I be shocked?

So, my conclusion?

Live Biblically. Love Biblically. And if people hate you, well, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” John 15:20

You will still have nothing to regret. EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT PERFECT. Live the best you can according to your conscience – according to the Holy Spirit – and if you fail, Jesus sacrifice has still covered you, and if your friends, or family, or whomever, cannot not accept you and your failures – your struggles –  along the way, it does not matter. Keep going. The Lord knows your heart, knows you are not perfect, and accepts you anyway.

YOU ARE LOVED.

 

Conflict Unresolution

Hello, All!

I’ve been dealing a lot with the idea of what I thought was “conflict resolution” in my head lately, until I realized that what I needed to be focusing on was conflict UN-resolution.

I have this obsessive compulsion to force things into some sort of resolution when there is conflict.  So, any time that cannot happen because one or both parties cannot or are not willing to attempt to come to a satisfying middle ground, I find myself unable to let the situation go.

It’s such an amorphous being, though…conflict, I mean.  It never looks the same twice.  How do you take something to the mat (Conflict, as an entity, not the individual on the other side of it) when its face is always changing?

I will go over and over everything that was said on both sides, trying to see if I missed something, if I said something I shouldn’t have, if there was something I could’ve done differently.  The situation will eat at me for basically as long as I let it, and even then will pop up in my mental microscope at the most surprising of times, sometimes years later, and that same feeling will arise.  It’s the feeling of self-doubt, of injustice, of longing for some way to understand what in the world happened, and wishing there were judge and jury to determine if, as I usually believe, I did everything I knew how to do in order to resolve it.  Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ve made mistakes in my efforts to resolve conflict.  But when I DO believe I’ve made a mistake, I try to acknowledge it, and hope that the effort is recognized in the proceedings.

And so I find myself with an ever growing list of conflicts that just feel…open.  Unfinished.

Examples, you say?  Everyone is always squirming for an anecdote.  I don’t feel like going into details, but I will attempt a generic list. (Aside: my list proved to be thoroughly opposed to condensing itself.)

The most recent is an ongoing customer service issue with a group of people with which I must continue doing business for a time, and in a personal setting, not over the internet.  After a number of unsatisfactory events, where I would calmly express that I was frustrated, and calmly ask for a little more communication next time there was an issue (you get the idea), I was sent a very defensive, sarcastic message.  I responded with a message that was a good deal more to the point, though still nothing I feel the need to apologize for.  This interaction was completely ignored by the recipient.  *Queue obsessive over-analyzation.*  My next week was spent in dissatisfaction, trying to determine whether a) I really did go to far, b) they are just insanely bad at customer service or c) is there a c?  Someone help me out if there’s another option.  After that week of misery, I decided it was clearly not going to be resolved to my satisfaction unless I was pro-active.  I didn’t want to make enemies of those people, but I also did not want to seem copacetic towards being treated like that by someone to whom I was paying money.  So, I took them a box of chocolates with a card that said, essentially, “Hey, I don’t want to be enemies, so let’s make peace, thanks.”  I didn’t apologize, still not feeling that one was needed, though I’m sure they thought otherwise.  The devil on my shoulder didn’t want me to do even this, as it could be misconstrued an apology, but the angel won out.

I will say that this is one step towards accepting conflict unresolution – doing what you can to make peace, despite ongoing differences, and then letting the chips fall where they may, so to speak.  My inner soul still does not find it overwhelmingly settled…it’s like a song that someone brought one chord closer to finishing, but still did not complete.  It continues to linger, though no longer in manic waves.

Another recent event involves a person…a friend…whom I feel is frequently trying to manipulate me (and others) into doing various things.  If a tag showed up under this person’s name when you introduced them, lately I feel it would be: “Donna*: Always Wanting Something from You.” (*Names changed to protect the living.)  This is one of those different faces of conflict..the conflict that arises in you to which the other person may very well be entirely ignorant.  To raise or not to raise?  That is the question.  And even this is different for every person, in every situation.  There is no hard and fast rule.

Historically, in my life, I have been a conflict raiser.  If something was wrong, you were going to know about it, and truthfully, because I wanted to fix the issue that I was having trouble dealing with so that we could all go on living happily and peacefully, and not (generally) because I wanted to be able to complain to you about your faults.  I clearly have not always done this successfully, but it was my goal 90% of the time.  The other 10%, I admit, amounts to something akin to verbal abuse as a way to satisfy my feelings of injustice.  I’m not proud of that, but I am going for full disclosure here.  I have tried to come to a level of moderation in this, because I felt that I was becoming, myself, defensive and imperious…not who I want to be.  Accepting the injustices done to you, after all, was a trait carried by Jesus to a level that most of us will never even understand.  And what I call “injustices” are generally so petty, that I would be ashamed to face the Lord and tell him about the level of wrath that was kindled because of some minor inconvenience.  Hebrews 10 discusses the new Christians having faithfully and joyfully accepted the stealing of their property as well as many public punishments and reproaches.  How foolish are most of my complaints?

However, interpersonal issues are real, and must still be dealt with.  In this particular scenario, I realized today that I was allowing someone else’s expectations of what I should do cause me to feel pressured, guilted, and often, in the end, forced to do something I didn’t want to do.  And that is on ME.  Not them.  Someone else’s expectations do not have the ability to force me into those actions.  Boundaries, people.  Simple boundaries.  The expectations are theirs, but I get to decide what I will do with them.  If saying, “No,” and disappointing or angering someone is the result, then so be it. I don’t have to get mad, I just have to not do things I don’t want.

The last face of conflict I’m going to talk about is on the flip side: when you think someone has internal conflict involving you, but instead of trying to resolve it, they just disappear.  The disappearing is usually when you begin thinking they have said internal conflict involving you, because I’m not talking acquaintances here.  I’m talking about people you’ve been through stuff with, people you opened your soul to…friends you thought would be around forever.  And then suddenly, they’re gone.  As an introvert (I’ve been reading a lot of books about introversion), I don’t make close friends easily, nor take them lightly.  So, the sudden absence of those people with no explanation (or in some cases, just inadequate platitudes) becomes something close to, if not an actual, traumatic event.  The lack of information creates a world where anything terrible they could have thought of you becomes a possible truth, playing and re-playing the chart-topping broken records of self-accusation and self-doubt, whatever those might be for you: “Am I boring? Too serious?  Too intense in friendship?  Critical?  Judgmental? Negative?”  And then, because you want to feel OK, you run to the other extreme and start considering good traits that maybe they just couldn’t handle in you:  “I’m probably too honest or too spiritual.”  The problem is that you don’t believe any of them. You feel that there must be some glaring flaw deep down in your soul that you’ve never even considered and you will never know, because no one will be honest or brave enough to expose it to you.  And by “you,” I mean me.

This one, I don’t have an answer for.  I’ve been trying to figure it out for years.  How do you learn from mistakes you don’t know you’ve made?  On days I am putting my confidence in the Lord (as I should always do) and not basing my emotional stability on my own capabilities and persona, I can look at this philosophically, distance myself from it, and realize that whatever flaws I have, Jesus is well aware of them and loves me anyway.  And that if those people were still needed in my life, God would’ve left them there.  But on days when my conflict unresolution obsessive-compulsive disorder rears its head and I am focused on my faults and downfalls, my broken record still plays the top ten, and sometimes throws some new ones in there, too.

This is a tough post for me.  I usually won’t let myself say anything until I’ve got it mostly figured out.  I bet that there are some folks out there, though, who are further along in figuring this out than I am, so maybe I’ll get the chance to learn a few things.

The Up-Side of Humility

So in my last post from ages ago, I stated that I wasn’t really sure why I hadn’t written in a long time…now I am, so here you go:

I think that in the past two years, I have been learning valuable lessons in humility…but it hasn’t felt very good.  I guess that for most of my life, whatever might have been going wrong around me, I always had this sort of confidence in who I was; that I was largely capable, smart, intuitive, etc.  Even when I knew I had failed, I would somehow morph that failure into a lesson learned, thereby making me smarter instead of it making me doubt myself more in the future.  You may, on the surface, believe this is a good quality.  I don’t see it as such, having lived in it.  I see that even while I acknowledged God’s hand in many things, I also always got a certain self-satisfaction from being able to handle things, being the one who had it under control, etc.  So, in short, when this self-confidence began to crumble due to various circumstances and relationships, I felt that I had nothing of worth to offer.  If I couldn’t handle things myself, why would I want anyone to listen to my thoughts or expect them to glean anything from my ramblings?

I really do feel that all of my acknowledgments of weakness or failure prior to this period in my life were mere intellectual nods…my heart did not really feel its own frailty or understand how helplessly it needed God’s Holy Spirit, at least not on a regular basis.  Maybe in flashes, I felt a sense of failure or doubted my own sensibility, but I would always pull myself back to feeling OK about myself.

As with all things, learning humility has a very fine line…cross it too far, and you end up spending a little too much time going over your mistakes, letting self-pity move in and render you inert for fear of what other thing you may mess up.  I guess I lived there for a while. It has been a hard adjustment going from self-assured me to solely God-assured me.  I don’t guess I will ever have it exactly right, but I am always growing a little, even when I feel like I am going backwards.

Thankfully, I have a wonderful Saviour who never ceases to chase me when I am floundering, and loving people around me who remind me of His mercy and forgiveness…the renewal that He offers.

So I feel like I am definitely on the other side of a big mess, coming out on the upside of humility – a place where I know I will fail, and use that only as a reminder to lean wholly on Christ; a place where when I fail, I can trust His words, “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.”

Here are a few more verses that are helping me stay there:

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

Psalm 51:1-17 –  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.  Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict, and justified when you judge.  Surely, I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.  Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.  Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquity.  Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.  Then I will teach transgressors your ways,  so that sinners will turn back to you.  Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, You who are God, my Saviour, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.  Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.  You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.

Why?

Hello, world.  It’s been a very long time.  As to the why…I don’t really have a reason.  If anyone cares to read the last post from Dec, 2008 (Pursuing What You Love), then I guess I could kind of continue from there with the fact that I did get the job I spoke of in that post, and have been in it ever since.  I think, at first, I did not write because I was focusing on trying to do what I spoke of in that post…learn how not to sub-consciously put myself in some position of superiority, but to really live out love with the people I encounter.

I would say that at first I did pretty well with that, reigning in internal grumblings that would usually cause me to become frustrated with co-workers or work in general, i.e. my schedule being changed from 8-4 to 10-6.  I wasn’t a fan of that, but in trying to live the servant life, took it all in stride and figured God had it all in control, so I didn’t make a fuss.

However, as with all things, I am confessing now that the novelty of being loving seems to have worn off, and I am back to being grouchy with others and thinking about myself and what I want all the time instead of living in the knowledge that most of the things I am wanting or I am frustrated with are not important AT ALL.  Realizing that I have slowly allowed satan to creep back up on me in this area is just making me frustrated with myself, and I have not managed to pull out of the cycle yet.

It comes back to re-surrendering “self.”  Allowing the Holy Spirit to take control again, which will in turn cause me to live as Christ did, unconcerned with self-promotion, unfazed by injustices done to me, actively seeking the good of all I come in contact with, whether friend of foe or some intertwined mess of both.  Most people are that, you know.  Most of the time, the people we have a hard time with are those we would call our loved ones and our friends.  They are not enemies, and yet we treat them, or at least feel inside that we must always be prepared to stick up for ourselves and our own rights against them, or else they will all constantly be taking advantage of us or taking us for granted.  The bottom line is that even if that’s true, it’s not our job to make sure we are treated correctly or recognized sufficiently by everyone around us.  That is not the reward.

The reward for acting like Christ is never shown as a warm, fuzzy existence in which no one will ever get mad at you or treat you unfairly.  Paul was repeatedly imprisoned and held on false charges which the government knew to be false, people routinely tried to kill him, and he was in multiple shipwrecks.  Christ Himself had it no better.

This is not to say that we should react smugly to poor treatment as if we are martyrs who must be living the Christ-life to be treated this way…that only comes from condescension which has nothing to do with love.  Our responses to others must not be based on their responses to us.  Love your enemies and the Golden Rule do not give conditions.  If I am walking in love because I am waiting for the world around me to applaud my behavior, I will always grow weary, because there will never been enough praise.  There will always be at least one person around me who cannot be pleased or who finds something wrong with what I do.  If I walk in love because Christ is in my Spirit, and He is living through me, nothing can burn me out…on the condition that I continue to seek Him above all things.

That is the key.  I believe through this after a time, I stopped seeking my strength, my identity, my validation in Him, and started looking to others for approval and reward.  That is when my spirit grew cold, and “loving” started to seem like an impossible drudgery.

Love?

I read a book called “The Shack” by William P. Young over the last couple of days.  I think it’s one of those books that everyone in “civilized” Christendom will end up reading, like “A Purpose-Filled Life” by Rick Warren was.  I usually shy away from those books, because of my proclivity towards thinking that anything popular must be stupid.  However, I have been humbled in this position before (you can read about this in my “Literary Arrogance” post), and therefore have learned not to judge a book by its popularity.  A friend of mine read it, and it changed her world so much that she bought it and had it shipped to every friend she could think of, including me.  So, then I really didn’t have an excuse not to read the book. 

It is a fictional allegory about the nature of God and how He relates to us, and it gives amazing illustrations on what love really is and what it looks like.  I really needed a refresher course on that.

I told you in my first post of yesterday (sitting around doing nothing has a tendency to make one very prolific) that my boyfriend and I are broken up, and have been since April.  But that we also still have a non-defined relationship and neither of us are clear on where God has planned for us to end up.  And that for the moment, due to circumstances also outlined in yesterday’s first post, I am staying in the apartment off of his mom’s house.  However, the hurts that caused us to break up have continued and the relationship has become more and more strained, with bits of good moments scattered in.

As I read “The Shack”, I realized that my “love”, especially towards him, lately has been very flawed, and I became more and more aware of the damage my demands and requirements have done to him and our relationship.  Many (not all) of the things I was asking of him were and are justified from most people’s standpoints, but that does not justify the harshness, disapproval and anger I have shown to him in trying to get him to meet my expectations.  I felt compelled this morning to apologize for hurting him, because in many ways he has been trying very hard and he has received, in return, my complete unresponsiveness.  God knew I needed to do it today.  Yesterday things were OK; but this morning he had put this wall up against me…it was like he didn’t even want to look at me.  I feel that if I had been in the same place I was yesterday, that would have been it, because I would have seen him today in the same light I have been, and would have treated him in the same way.  But I went in to talk to him under God’s orders and in God’s strength because I still feel I have nothing to give, and I really was humbled at how my “love” was hurting him.  We talked through some more things.  I still don’t know what the future holds, but I think that this was all very necessary.  He apologized as well for his part in everything, and it was the first time both of us have said, “I forgive you.”

What healing words those are!

Hope, Take III

Let’s just continue the theme here.  I have obviously been dwelling on this thought!  But it keeps coming back up.  I guess it could be my own mind interpreting everything in light of what I have been thinking of, but who can really say?  Either way, I believe that God is really just trying to drive it home…to root it firmly in my soul as truth.  And not just as the word “truth” – I mean, as truth that is something to live by.  There are a lot of truths that I hold in my brain that never make it to my heart and my actions.  I think God is trying to make sure this is not one of them. 

Every verse I read has been about hoping in the Lord or waiting in the Lord.  These words are often interchanged between different translations…what is “hope” in one translation might be “wait” in another, and vice versa.  As a conglomerate, it is like the Word of God is screaming at me, “Put your belief, what you are waiting for, in the eternal, and the promises you seek will be realized.”  I have to list a few verses (and maybe commentate a bit on them along the way).  To have their full effect, you should go read them in context, but I’ll leave that to you and just pull out a few.

Psalm 39:7 – And now, Lord, what do I wait for?  My hope is in You.

This one hit me particularly hard.  The psalmist’s question in the first part of this verse is a question simply asked to make a point.  He is trying to say that he does not wait for anything, because he HAS the thing he is waiting for…it is fulfilled in God.  In God.  He seeks nothing past God, because God holds all things.  What a disservice I do to God when I tell Him that He is not enough!  My attitude says, “I know I have you, God, but I am still not satisfied.  I need you to make MY plans come to pass.  You who created the universe – you must not know what needs to happen in my life.”  I seem to have forgotten about the verse a little further along in Isaiah 55 – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.”  He sees and knows more than I do…infinitely more, and I still seem to question His methods and doubt His wisdom.

Isaiah 55: 1-2 – Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come buy and eat.  Yes, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.

Here, it speaks of our striving…striving for things that pass away and do not fulfill.  He says that God does not even require your desperate striving…He is giving you what you need without any cost and because of nothing that you have done.  It is His to give, and He is giving it, but we have to take Him up on it.  I believe this speaks not only of salvation, but of all of His promises.  His abundance is there, but we have to accept it.  We can choose to spend our souls in squalor on this earth even as Christians if we do not choose HIM first and step out of the world…He is “what is good.”

Matthew 6:33 – But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

This is the most obvious, and also the most succinct of the verses with this theme.  It is surrounded with verses telling us not to stress, not to hold onto the things of this world – telling us to trust the Most High God with our every worry.  This verse also means something particular to me because about 5 years ago God gave me a dream about this verse.  In this dream, I was given a gift.  I was an adult, but I was back at the church I went to as a child for some special thing, and one of the older members gave me a gift.  I went home and opened it.  When I opened it, I could not tell what it was supposed to be.  There were no instructions in the box.  It was a bunch of pieces of stirofoam that were obviously supposed to be put together.  There was also a presence with me – a presence that I never looked at, but that was helping me try to piece the gift together.  I was conversing with it as I went, and it was guiding me somehow, although never speaking out loud.  As we began to fit the pieces together, all of the sudden I realized that they had now changed from stirofoam to plastic.  I still had no idea what it was supposed to end up being, but we continued to try to make sense of the pieces.  And as we continued, they changed to wood.  I thought for a moment that it was going to be a wooden wall shelf, and thought that was a pretty good gift.  But we continued to work and it continued to change, and I realized that it wasn’t.  And then it turned to stone.  And when it turned to stone, it was no longer in my hands, but outside my window in the ground.  It was a tombstone.  Only I was not looking directly at it.  I was looking at it through the reflection in a mirror.  In the reflection, I could see myself, a clock, and the tombstone, which was engraved with the words, “Seek Ye First.” 

Now, if you can’t interpret that on your own, I’ll do it for you.  I’ve had 5 years to analyze the subtleties and infrequently take it to heart.  When I was young, a gift was passed on to me – the knowledge of the true God and His saving grace.  When I received it, I did not fully understand it.  It’s implications were not formed or sturdy in my life.  I was not taught how to fit it all together, but along the way, God’s presence was always there with me, patiently guiding me, watching my clumsy attempts.  This understanding grew more sturdy as God continued to guide me.  It became something less breakable (plastic) but still something that I did not know how to make use of.  Time went on, and it became something stronger yet (wood) and at this point, I sort of thought I saw it taking shape.  I only just, in typing this, recognized the significance of thinking it was turning into a wall shelf, and being satisfied in that.  A wall shelf…a thing never used for much except to look pretty – to put your decorative things on display.  I would have settled for using God’s salvation as something to look at, something for others to look at, but still serving no real, functional purpose in my life.  But God did not let me stop there…and His gift turned to stone.  Solid.  Immutable.  And then it was no longer mine.  When I understood the gift, it was not even something I was supposed to hold on to…it was something I was supposed to let go of – my life.  It was truth.  It is not something inessential and decorative like a wall shelf.  It is gritty and real and hard, but true.  So true that it makes you only do things that matter.  And of course, the clock and my own reflection – my days…man’s days…are numbered.  The only thing that matters is to seek God first as it says and to do the following:

To die to self (I Corinthians 15:31 – I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.),

Realizing that my days are numbered (Psalm 103:15&16 – As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes, for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.)

And recognize that only God’s purposes will have any lasting value as Job does here (Job 42 2-5 – I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.  You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’  Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  Listen, please and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and and you shall answer Me.’  I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.)

I love what Job says there.  He says he said things, questioning God about things that he did not understand…things too wonderful for him to understand.  God’s plans are so great and so good and so far above our heads that we can’t even fathom the magnificence of them.  In other words, the God “who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” (Ephesians 3:20)  And then Job says he finally gets it.  He says, in effect, “I had heard about You before, but now I have seen You…now I KNOW You.”  He got it. 

I’m not sure I’ve “got it” yet.  I’m not sure what stage I am in from that dream.  I like to think I am getting close to a place where God’s place in my life is so grounded and real that I live it as the Word of God says we should in I Corinthians 7:30&31 – …those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not mis-using it.  For the form of this world is passing away. 

To buy but not possess, to use but not mis-use.  And to stop waiting for anything, realizing that God is THE good thing (as illustrated in the passage from Isaiah above) and possessess all other good things in His hands, where He is also holding me (John 10:28 – And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.) 

May I learn to not be as Martha in Luke 10:41&42 who was “worried and troubled about many things”, but may I be as Mary who chose “the ONE thing that was needed” – to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear His words.  That is where hope is found.

Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, unity.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Where these is darkness, light

Divine Master, grant me that I may not so much seek,
To be consoled, as to console,
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love,

For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Disturbed

That’s the word I used to describe my spirit the other day in talking to my boyfriend.  Not like mentally disturbed.  Disturbed like if I was a lake, there would be lots of ripples.  There has been a lot inside me that has just been sort of heavy for a couple of months now.  Somewhat to the point that I chose escapism by keeping busy with mostly mindless things and not trying to work on it.  Just letting it gurgle and churn and fall in whatever pattern it chose without taking a good hard look at it.  So that’s where I have been, as evidenced by shallow (but hopefully amusing) posts as of late.

For a while, I was not even sure what was working on me.  Probably because I chose not to, but when asked, all I could say was what I told you above:  my soul was disturbed, my spirit heavy.  If you could get a spiritual/emotional illness, that’s how I would have described it.  The Flu of the Soul.  Tired, aching.  You might think I’m saying I was depressed, but it was different than that.  It was, I now know, God urging me to change.  And although I am not yet sure what or how exactly He wants me to change, I am more ready and more prepared to change when faced with whatever He has in store because of finally paying attention to the stirring.  Tension, my pastor would call it.  A call that makes me uncomfortable.

If you’ve not read my post on Ambition, you probably should before you continue or you’ll be starting this journey at its apex.  Despite the fact that the apex of a journey is usually its most interesting, and the only thing our fast-food culture has the patience to hear, the meat of a journey cannot be grasped without the whole struggle from start to finish.  It means nothing when watching the Lord of the Rings to see Frodo fighting with Gollum and watch Lord Sauron’s ring fall into the fire if you have not seen the treacherous journey before.  I guess that this may not actually be the apex.  I thought I was finished with this revelation before, but this could very appropriately be called “Ambition II” if I chose.

My mind is still pretty jumbled about how all of the various things I want to share are connected.  I’m actually hoping that in writing it down, it will become more clear, even to me.  This is usually what happens, to be honest.

I guess I should start with the fact that there were various moments during this disturbed phase when I was acutely aware of my shortcomings.  There are plenty of them to choose from, but the one that kept coming up was my individualistic nature.  I have always flown the flag of my individualism with much pride, heralding it as a virtue which the masses did not possess.  This might be true, but in doing so, I allowed its virtues as well as its vices to take hold in me.  Unfortunately, this is possible with any quality.  Though good, I placed it on a level higher than it deserved, giving it the chance to root too deeply in my soul.  Individualism came to mean alone.  Not in the lonely sense.  I have not been lonely.  But in the sense that very little I did was done with any intent for it to affect another person’s life.  I was quite responsible and quite creative and quite busy with various and sundry daily things.  But none of these things meant a darn thing in anyone else’s life.  I’m sure I will have some say it was not so bad as that.  I have friends that tell me they were inspired to do something outside of their comfort zones because they watched me do something similar.  The problem is that those things that I did were not outside of my comfort zone.  I was doing things that I knew others would think daring and brave, but that to me were not by any means scary.  Normally, I would just rush madly into the next thing so as not to have a moment where I had a need to trust God or wait for His guidance on where He wanted me to be and what He wanted me to do.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration as well.  There was some trust in God required, but not nearly what might be perceived from the outside.  The decisions I was making (often regarding careers and jobs or lack thereof) did not require the same kind of stretching of my faith for me as for others.  I’m not sure why. 

OK, I kind of glazed over a couple of important points in that paragraph.  One is that people would look at my life and say that I have done many brave things (not in the sense of soldier brave, but in the sense of life direction brave); things that those people say they would not have had the courage or fortitude to try; new jobs, new cities, etc.  I already explained above how to me, that is not necessarily brave.  The actions those people would point to were, for me, mostly an attempt to create a little excitement because I was bored.  Or an attempt to get out of something I knew I didn’t like into something different.  Or, here’s the embarrassing one, an attempt to cause those same people to look at me in awe and say, “Ooooh, look how brave and daring she is.”  I like it when people do that, because I can shrug casually and say, “Yeah, it’s no big deal,” and those people just think I am more brave. 

Newsflash: I am not brave.  Is it bravery to do the things that create no fear in you?  It is simply because I do not value career for its own sake or money for its own sake, that I am willing to toss them both away with no hesitation.  There is no bravery in that.  See my Thirty? Really? post to see thoughts on different kinds of courage.

Do you want to know what I fear?  People.  I am terrible with people.  I am scared that I will not know enough to help people or to show people the true God.  I am scared that people will not like me.  I am scared that people will let me down and not live up to my expectations.  Mostly I am afraid that I will look like a fool.  Or that I will make God look like a fool by proxy if I try to be His servant.  In this fear, I have no stories of bravery to share with you.  I have only ever been a success with people when those people pursued me as a friend or confidant or advisor.  What I am after is making an impact for Christ, which you cannot do when you live life as a hermit(ess?).  In this, I am terrified.  And to hide my fear, I substituted flashy things, i.e. my semi-dramatic life choices, that made me look fearless.  I faced another man’s fear to hide the fact that I could not face my own.

All of the perceived risks I have taken were never once done for the purpose of, or with any ideas of impacting another person’s life.  It was always about me.  And this is what I have been looking at, since I did finally gather up the courage to look the tiger in the eyes.  I am all wrapped up in selfishness and fear, and until I get over it, I am hindering God’s ability to work through me.  I say hindering because I know that He can use even the lowliest vessel, and that no matter what, all of my “righteousness will be as filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)  However, even the lowliest vessel is more effective if it wants to be used and tries to make sure it is prepared. 

I guess I’ll tell you more about the process of this, which consisted of my being constantly inundated with messages and situations that made me feel this sense of inappropriate individuality more greatly.  At one point, I was sitting at dinner with three friends, one of whom was saying that she has been influenced by watching me.  I don’t remember the context prior to this, but in stating that, I think she thought about it conversely and said out loud, “I don’t think that I have influenced you very much, though.”  This is a person who is worthy of influencing me.  She has been through some tough things and come through them with a big heart for God.  When she said that, it was one of those moments of “tension” inside of me.  I knew that her inability to see any way she had influenced me was because of my determination NOT to be influenced by anybody.  Apparently, I had taken this to both extremes, meaning that I would not let anyone (or at least very many people) influence me for bad OR for good.  I can give you further evidence for this attitude from my “My Space” profile page.  The profile asks you to list your heroes.  My statement ends with this: “I’ve kind of always been antihero. I want to be myself.”  What do you read here?  No one else has anything to offer me that is worth emulating.  This is a wrong and arrogant attitude when exaggerated to this point.

Another situation was that which I wrote about in a recent post, My Journey to Vegetables.  In itself, it would not mean very much, but as a symbol it is very indicative of the way I operate.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, basically, in lieu of asking a friend for a favor, I spent 4 hours of my day off to do something it would have taken someone else 30 minutes to do on its proper day, rendering me quite unproductive.  Such is my life.  I have mentioned this desire for self-sufficiency more than once.  In my desire to grow my own food (Letting the Cabin Out of the Bag) and in my desire to know the “basics” of many different facets life (Gettin’ Down to the Roots), there is this underlying message that says to everyone, “I don’t need you.  And I don’t want to need you.” 

So, now we have, “I am completely self-sufficient” and “You cannot influence me” coupled together in a neat little package.  Inviting, isn’t it?  I really did not realize how deep this problem ran until I saw that it really goes through EVERY aspect of my life.  I have had friends and relationships in the past where people complained that they wanted me to “need them,” because they felt disposable.  I knew that I did not exude an air of even comfortable reliance on people.  I just did not realize that it was so strongly to the opposite extreme: rather, I exude an air of defiant self-sufficiency that runs so deep I don’t even want to “need” a grocery store.

I am sure that you could call me enterprising or handy or something because I try to do everything myself.  And I’m not saying it cannot be an asset in my life to have this quality, as well as the part of me that does not like to be notably influenced by others (which renders peer pressure virtually impotent).  Let me just state again that I have taken it to a ridiculous extreme, causing others to be excluded from my daily walk…keeping them at arm’s length so that they can neither help me grow nor harm me.  I am so encased in this mindset, that even as I write about it here, I have to keep reminding myself that I am trying to tell you it is negative.  I am teetering, virtually by the minute, on the fence of falling back into being proud of this quality.

Follow my relevant journal entries to see how long I have been mulling this:

November 19, 2006:  “Ineffectively busy?  I do things, but not with people.”

February 18, 2007: “Do I have love?  Where are the people who feel my love?”

September 2, 2007: “Stop being individualistic – trying to be innately self-sufficient.”

October 21st, 2007: “Fought fear by being self-sufficient and not needing anything or, rather, anyone.”

I’m not sure how long this has been going on.  I have a poignant memory of a conversation I had when I was away at college for a couple of years, and came back home to visit.  I ran into my uncle at the mall.  He asked me if I missed my family.  I remember shrugging, nonchalantly, and saying, “I don’t know.  Not really.”  He asked me if I missed my friends.  I gave him basically the same reaction.  I remember saying something like, “I mean, I love them, but I don’t really miss anybody.”  I remember him looking at me quizzically and saying, “You’ve changed.”  Even then, I knew there was something wrong with how I was interacting with others.  I went away from that conversation feeling the same “tension” I mentioned above.  There was something wrong with how I was interacting. 

That was over 10 years ago, and I haven’t fixed it yet.  I didn’t even acknowledge that there was a problem.  I even embraced it as a protection…a shield.

My pastor’s message on December 2 brought it all home.  It was the first time I have ever seen him broken up through the whole service.  I’ve seen him get choked up before, but this was continually throughout his sermon.  It was obvious God had really made this apparent and important in his life.  I’m not a sports fan, but he was basically telling us to get off the bench of Christianity.  I’ve heard that before, and it means something…but what he said that really got me was something like this: “Christians are mostly life-long students, never engaging in the real world applications of what we learn.”  Analogies about sports are one thing.  Analogies about knowledge and learning are another.  I shouldn’t have to hear an analogy pertinent to myself in order to enact it in my life.  But, I guess it never hurts.  I like to learn more about God, about His word, about spiritual growth.  But it is pointless if I never use it.  My pastor actually said another thing a while back that is applicable here.  He said, “If you never learned another thing about Christianity, you would know enough.”  I am inundated with knowledge.  There are people in countries where Bibles are not available who build monstrous ministries and only know one verse.  I know enough.  I SIT on what I know…letting it work in me, trying to become a better person…that’s all well and good, but it is not the goal.  It is the means to the goal, and it doesn’t mean that you get to pretend the goal does not exist along the road.  Just because you’re not the best player on the soccer team, doesn’t mean you run around practicing during the game and not trying to make goals because you are scared you won’t make it…if it is during the game, you try to make goals, i.e. effect people’s lives for Christ.  I’m not talking about chalking up souls so you can get a gold star.  I’m talking about showing people the love of Christ.  And to do this, I have to get over my fear of being affected by people.  Because if I am interacting appropriately with people, I will be affected.  I will care, and it will hurt. 

I think I have had this revelation before.  I remember about 7 years ago, realizing how open Christ made Himself to being hurt.  He loved freely and was rejected over and over and over.  That rejection will be a natural part of following in His footsteps.  Loving someone is giving them the opportunity to reject you.  Saying, “I will love you, but I do not need your love in return,” is not valid.  I don’t mean that the love is conditional based on the response…I just mean that a response is called for.  He wants our love in return.  He is asking for it.  He does not hang it out there, and then walk away from it for us take it or leave it, no worries for Him.  He embodies it, so when we accept or reject it, we are accepting or rejecting Him.  In other words, it is not love if it means nothing to me.  If I say I love you, but am not affected in any way by your actions, it simply is not love.  It is some mind-manufactured system that I somehow feel can fulfill the manuscript written out for me – some rote method I have concocted so I can feel OK when I read, “though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:2 – NKJV) 

I am sorry for trying not to love, and for trying instead only not to get hurt.  If that is my goal, then Christianity is not my game.  (I Peter 4:12-13)  If Christ suffered it, it is not a thing that I should avoid, for “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24 – NKJV)

Now that I have worn you out explaining my desire for self-sufficiency, I have another issue to discuss before I get to the answers God has been giving me.  This one is back to that whole “Ambition” thing.  It’s all related in my mind.  I know that at this point, if you went and read my initial Ambition post as I requested earlier in this one, you are now thinking, “Why did I have to read that?  Exactly how is it related?”  Well, it is.  The problem is that my two major issues seem different, but they have one answer that is all jumbled up together.  So, I have to go through both things in order for the answer to make any sense.  Here goes.

I have also been feeling the same desperation that I used to feel regarding my music, and how, then, I felt that I was lacking something if I did not succeed in it.  Only this time, it was much more generic.  I was back to feeling overwhelmed with the mundane, and how it seems to take over your life…back to feeling that my existence was uselessly consumed by every day circumstance and necessities.  In other words, back to that fear that I would never do anything “important,” and somewhat consumed with this ambition.  

If you did, indeed, go back and read my “Ambition” post, you will know that I went through years of desperation, and even depression because of this fear, only then it was specifically attached to the success or failure of my musical endeavors.  It was a fear largely based on the need to satisfy my own ego, and put in front of my love for God.  It consumed me.  It has been a little over two years, probably, since I wrapped that package up and threw it up into God’s arms.  It has been the most free-ing two years I have had in my entire adulthood, because I was just trying to become a person and not a persona.  But somehow, I let that fear creep back in.  It was wearing a new cape this time, though, and I did not recognize it.  It was not clothed in my desire for musical acclaim, but only in a general desire to be someone or do something important, and stop the mundane cycle of work/sleep/cook/clean/errands/laundry, etc. which I, obviously, think I am above. 

The thing is, I thought I was done with ambition.  Like I said, I got rid of that burden a couple of years back.  I thought.  Now, I can recognize that I only got rid of it in one form.  My ambition was a cancer, and I only cut out part of it.  I still, in the back of my mind, had this vague notion that if I gave up that ambition, that God would grant me some bigger, better thing to do so that I could feel good about myself.  I really just told Him that it was OK if He did not use me in that way.  So, now, over two years later, the problem is that I am still here.  Still doing unimportant things.  No big break-throughs or obvious paths He wants me to take.  I was getting antsy…thinking He didn’t come through on His promise that if I would lose my life for His sake, I would find it.  (Matthew 16:25)  I didn’t figure that out, though, until I was talking to my boyfriend one day.  I was telling him that I was feeling frustrated with feeling like I was stuck doing unimportant things all of the time (in many more words than that).  He said something to the effect of, “You just need to give that up and trust God with it.”  And I said, “The thing is, I thought I did that two years ago.”  That was when it hit me that I didn’t really do it.  I only kind of did.  That fear was still fully alive and well in me, just focused in a new vein.  The fear of being nameless.  I want to be recognized.  I thought I only wanted to be recognized musically.  Turns out, I didn’t really care how as long as I was.  And THAT is what I need to give up.  The need for others to look at me and say, “Look how cool that girl is, and look at all the cool stuff she’s done.” 

Here is where the two meet…my two biggest fears. 

1) Being rejected, hurt, disappointed by others

2) Being a non-entity, ineffective, unimportant

When I look at it this way, I kind of think they are all mixed up together.  To get beyond one, I have to get beyond the other.  I have a feeling that until I learn how to interact with people in a Christ-like manner, i.e. opening myself up to hurt, rejection, disappointment, I will remain ineffective, a non-entity and unimportant to the Kingdom of God.  If there is such a thing.  I realize that God loves me just as much regardless.  I don’t mean that He will love me more.  I mean that He will be able to use me more effectively.

The answers started coming in, oh wonder of wonders, when I started studying my Bible diligently.  God has this way of putting in my mind exactly what I need to read before I even open the Bible.  It just pops in my head, “I’m supposed to start reading Jeremiah.”  And this is what I read. 

“Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.’  Then said I: ‘Ah, Lord God!  Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth.’  But the Lord said to me: ‘Do not say, “I am a youth,” for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.  Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.  Then the Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth….'”

My first fear of people was immediately addressed when I opened the Word of God.  God has called me, because He has called all of us who follow Him, to share Him with others…to BE Him to others.  I cannot do this until I let my fear go.  God basically tells Jeremiah (and me) not to give Him any excuses.  But, He then tells him (and me!) that there is nothing to fear because God would give him the words.  If God is giving me the words when I am faithful to speak them, then I truly have nothing to fear.  All I can do is speak, and the rest is up to Him.  Sort of takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? 

Immediately after this, I resumed reading a work by G.K. Chesterton on St. Francis of Assisi.  He first discusses how Francis’ emerged at the end of the Dark Ages, and was part of the beginning of the reintroduction of poetry and nature love (not nature worship).  In this section, Chesterton contends that the Dark Ages were, at least possibly, necessarily employed by God.  The Dark Ages are known for their lack of any great literature, art or really anything of any beauty.  Chesterton theorizes that the culture prior to the Dark Ages was so inundated with paganism in any of its artwork, literature and in its nature worship, that God was forced to remove those things from an entire age of people in order to “purge the system,” as it were.  That, at that stage, humanity was so conditioned that it could ONLY view beauty in conjunction with its paganistic connotations, and had no capacity to enjoy it purely as God created it to be, as a reflection of Him and His goodness and power. 

Whether it would be necessary for God to plunge whole civilisations into such a void for hundreds of years in order to cure a spiritual sickness or not, I do not know.  I DO know that the concept is applicable and validated in my own life.  I have even imposed this type of treatment on myself at times, although I did not connect it quite so largely as a broad method at the time.

One example of this was when I ceased praying and reading my Bible for a time, because I realized that the only reason I was doing it was because I knew I was supposed to.  Based on II Corinthians 9:7, which states, “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver,” I recognized that I was only “giving” grudgingly or of necessity.  I made the conscious decision that if there was no love or true desire for Him in my actions, that there was nothing really to give.  I needed to “un-learn” the religiosity I had associated with those actions so that I could regain the purity of them and enact them with their real purposes as my motivation.  My friend at Zephaniah 3:17 discusses this same topic in his “Ought” post.

Another, less spiritual application of this concept has to do with black coffee.  I am a coffee-drinker, to say the least.  There was a time, in the past, where I put an inhuman amount of sugar in my coffee.  I made a decision that I needed to significantly reduce the amount of sugar I put in my coffee if I was going to continue to drink it at the desired quantity.  However, of course, I didn’t like it with less sugar.  So, in order to train my senses, I made myself drink only black coffee for two weeks.  Amazingly, when I began putting sugar in it again, I required less than half of the amount I had before in order to enjoy my coffee.  I’m sure you have seen this employed in some way in your own life.  You want to regain a sense of the meaning of Christmas, so you do not give gifts one year.  I’m sure there are other common examples, but I have not thought of them yet.

The point is that censorship of some good is sometimes necessary if it has become associated with only perversion and/or done with wrong motivations.  When the good is all mixed up with the negatives, maybe the good needs to cease for a season in order to regain its innocence.  I could not regain my love for reading God’s Word and spending time in prayer or understand the value and meaning of those things until I lost the idea that I had to do them in order to earn His love.  I could not learn to enjoy sugar in its appropriate quantities until I ceased using it altogether for a time. 

The point is that I believe whether THE Dark Ages was a mechanism for this or not, I believe we must all go through our own personal “Dark Ages” if God is to use us.  I have mentioned this somewhere else in some post, but you can also see this in artists of all kinds, who often report a desertion of their creativity after they come to believe in Christ.  If your gifts or your dreams have an inappropriate place of importance, or if they have some perverted motivation, or if they are strongly associated with some sin in your life, God must remove them if you are to put Him in that place of importance, or re-evaluate your motivations or cut out the associated sin.  How fast you get them back, or if you get them back at all, is, at least according to my theory, dependent on how readily you allow God to fill the void they have left.  Unless we are super-smart and wise, and then God doesn’t have to do that, because we give up all of our dreams and attachments willingly to Him.  “Giving up” sounds so negative to us in this world of “take charge.”  I don’t mean it in the sense of quitting, and I think most who have gotten this far in this insanely long post will understand that.  But on the chance that someone else made it this far, what I mean is that we let God be in control of our lives in their entirety, which means that we are all right with whatever decision He comes to.  If we truly believe that He is good, knowing, loving and all-powerful, then that is the best decision we can possibly make.  And we claim to believe that.  Or, at least, I claim to believe that, and I think most other Christians would as well.  Our human natures are hesitant, though, because we are trained to want to be in control of our own destinies.  The fact is, we are not in control of them anyway, so we are better off letting Him worry about it, since we don’t know what in the world will hit us next.  It is quite free-ing when you actually manage to apply it, which is what Christianity is supposed to be about.  Unfortunately, some never manage to apply it at all, and some, like me, only manage to apply it in fits and spurts.

In other words, I believe the “dark ages” end when you let go of trying to control the things you fear, but then will start up again if you start trying to control it (or another fear) again.  Jim Palmer who wrote Divine Nobodies (which I have not read, but seems like it would be great), spoke at my church a couple of months ago.  He stated, “What you fear is where you have put your misplaced dependency.”  So true.  I fear being unimportant, because I have placed my dependency and identity on hoping I become important.  I know people who fear never marrying because they have a misplaced dependency on the institute of marriage and family.  Again, I hope you can see that I am not saying these things are bad.  Marriage and family are great.  It is when the desire for them (or anything else) becomes a desperation because you do not trust God with whatever outcome He has planned that there is a problem.  Along this theory, possibly God withholds those things until people are capable of putting them in their proper level of importance, which is always, necessarily below Him.  This, by the way, does not diminish their importance in any way.  On the contrary, it increases it, because I guarantee that God’s rules and recommendations for marriage and family (or, again, anything else) will bring about a better situation than any personal or earthly precepts will, however good the intent.

Let’s go back to G.K. Chesterton, and his discussion of St. Francis.  He tells another story about St. Francis that magnificently illustrates the whole process I have just been discussing.  St. Francis is sometimes viewed as a gloomy character because of his known penchant for asceticism.  The stories about his life do not represent a gloomy man of some sort of sad discipline.  They represent a man of passion and action.  He was just passionately ascetic.  This story actually begins before his true “spiritual awakening” if you can call it that.  I do not call it his salvation, because he was possibly a Christian before that, I am not sure.  It is said that his initial goal in life was to be a war hero.  He had a certain thirst for glory which caused him to boast, upon leaving for war, “I shall come back a great prince.”  Francis had apparently even had some dreams which made him believe he was to be some sort of lauded warrior.  This dream came crashing down around him before he even made it to the battlefield.  On the way to the front, he had his second bout with an illness which made him unfit for a soldier.  Apparently, he was very much rattled by this, and had no idea what he was to do at this point.  It was the only plan he had.  And now I shall quote the story from Chesterton, as I do not think I could illustrate it better.

“It was his first descent into a dark ravine that is called the valley of humiliation, which seemed to him very rocky and desolate, but in which he was afterwards to find many flowers.  But he was not only disappointed and humiliated; he was also very much puzzled and bewildered.  He still firmly believed that his two dreams must have meant something; and he could not imagine what they could possibly mean.  It was while he was drifting, one may even say mooning, about the streets of Assisi and the fields outside the city wall, that an incident occurred to him which has not always been connected with the business of the dreams, but which seems to me the obvious culmination of them.  He was riding listlessly in some wayside place, apparently in the open country, when he saw a figure coming along the road towards him and halted; for he saw it was a leper.  And he knew instantly that his courage was challenged, not as the world challenges, but as one would challenge who knew the secrets of the heart of a man.  What he saw advancing was not the banner and spears of Perugia, from which it never occurred to him to shrink; not the armies that fought for the crown of Sicily, of which he had always thought as a courageous man thinks of mere vulgar danger.  Francis Bernardorne saw within and not without; though it stood white and horrible in the sunlight.  For once in the long rush of his life his soul must have stood still.  Then he sprang from his horse, knowing nothing between stillness and swiftness, and rushed on the leper and threw his arms round him.  It was the beginning of a long vocation of ministry among many lepers, for whom he did many services; to this man he gave what money he could and mounted and rode on.  We do not know how far he rode, or with what sense of the things around him; but it is said that when he looked back, he could see no figure on the road.”

This is so parallel to what I feel is going on in my own life, that I almost do not feel the need to explain the parallel.  Almost, but not quite.  🙂  Just pretend I am talking about myself when I expound on this section and use the name “Francis.”  (Not that I am pretending I am half as far in my commitment as Francis was, but for illustrative purposes and brevity.)  Francis had this grand life dream of being a noted public figure, praised for his important deeds.  This dream was destroyed, plunging Francis into “these dark and aimless days of transition that followed the tragical collapse of all his military ambitions, probably made bitter by some loss of social prestige terrible to his sensitive spirit”.  I can relate to “dark and aimless days of transition….”  This initial dream that was wrecked did not cause Francis the same fear that it caused others.  Apparently, he was full of bravado at the thought of fighting in mortal combat, as I am full of bravado at things that other men fear (mostly financial security and career stability).  But that was not what God called him to.  He did not call Francis to do the things he did not fear.  God made him face his REAL fear, the leper (for me, taking risks in forming real relationships with people).  His secondary fear (not doing anything important) turned out to be ludicrous.  Can you imagine us knowing more about St. Francis if he had been some war hero in the 12th century?  Whether the leper did disappear when Francis looked back or not, the allegory is superb.  The fear was a sham fear.  It was not even real.  He just had to face it full-on before he could move forward in God’s plan.  And he did.

I guess that is where I must break off from Francis.  I have not yet embraced my leper.  I feel that God has been preparing me to know what I must do in order to move ahead and grow.  He didn’t give Francis as much of a warning.  I feel that I know I must be open and vigilant in watching for the moment God tells me, “Here is your fear.  Embrace it.”  I do not know exactly what that means, but I am strongly compelled to believe that it will mean I will have to be face-to-face with a human in a very uncomfortable situation saying things that my human self probably does not want to say or at the very least, feels foolish saying.  I must take an interactive risk with all the possibilities of failure and rejection that I have been avoiding.

God has not left me hanging in the meantime, though.  A couple of days after I read this story and acknowledged all of its portent, I was studying the Bible again.  I was looking for something completely unrelated to this, and ran across Luke 21:14-15, which says, “Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate before hand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist.”  I’m being told, straight out, not to worry or stress about the coming trial.  Again, that God will give me the words.  And the wisdom.

God is amazing when I am not running from Him.

Recipro City – I live there

Get it?  Recipro City = Reciprocity.  Weak, I know, but it’s how I was thinking about it, and it’s true, I do live there.  I wish I could say that I didn’t, and I try to improve, but for the moment, more often than not, I feel like I am quite firmly rooted in that settlement.  This municipality is based on the economy of merit=favor.  And the amount of merit necessary to gain favor is completely subjective and left up to me in my not-so-fair city.  There is very little grace, and very high, though also very selective, measurements for the standard. 

I realized how entrenched I was in this mindset a few weeks ago.  I find that I am very derisive and patronizing to those whom I believe are not living up to the standards.  The standards, again, that I have set for them…how hard they should work, how much time, effort and thought they should put into things, even the things they should say or not say.  I find that the more someone does not meet my standards, the worse I treat them…the more condescending and unbearably arrogant I become.  One of the ridiculous things about this is that I seem to be the standard.  If someone is not working as hard as I (think I) am, or demonstrating as much common sense as I (think I) do, or putting as much effort into something as I deem necessary, they become the target of my merciless superiority.  I seem to take it as my right to treat them in a manner openly derogatory and demeaning.  I assume an attitude purposely (although not exactly consciously) designed to make them feel stupid.  At least it wasn’t conscious until recently…I don’t think I knew I did this.  I have several people in my life at this moment whom extract all of the feelings of disdain I am speaking of here.  For months, I have been slowly more and more convicted about my behavior in response to my frustration with them.  I seriously turn into a pompous you-know-what when dealing with what I have decided is unworthy behavior. 

And the unworthy behaviors I have picked are not even particularly “evil,” they’re just annoying…things like carelessness and lack of forethought and disorganization.  If I was going to get so miffed over any types of conduct, I would like to think it would be injustice or cruelty or something like that.  But, no, it seems that I am just as society trained me up to be, egocentric to the point that my blood only seriously begins to boil at things that specifically inconvenience ME.  I am rarely at the other end of serious injustice or cruelty, and so I can dislike those things from afar.  But catch me after I’ve had to work harder to correct someone else’s mistakes or pick up someone else’s slack at work or answer someone’s stupid question, and you’ll get an earful. 

So, not only am I the standard, but the standard is based on how helpful your existence is to me.  The less helpful your existence, the less worthy of respectful behavior you are.  I think this attitude is not only linked to human nature, but to the consumerism of our society.  Not to blame society.  I like to think I have “beat the system” as far as falling into societal traps, but clearly this is not completely true, and sometimes the societal traps I find so repulsive are just behaviors that cater to our human nature, so whether it’s society or not, it’s still me allowing my own selfishness dominion or some part of my life.  And I mean to talk about consumerism, so here we go.  Consumerism generally teaches us that we should more highly regard and respect those who have something more important to offer us.  You go to the doctor and show him deference.  You check out with the convenience store clerk and show him superiority.  I do the same thing.  I wish I could say I didn’t.  After all, I have most often been in positions in which I was the one looked down on…waitressing, fast food (even the title of manager doesn’t get you much respect), catering server, nanny.  These are jobs where the whole point of your being there is to “serve.”  And that’s how people treat you.  Like a servant.  Mostly.  I mean, obviously, there are exceptions.  But, honestly, even the exceptions are often very patronizingly trying to make themselves feel better by being nice to “the help,” and it is very painfully obvious.  My point is that you would think I would be above this kind of what-you-have-to-offer equals how-well-you’re-treated-by-me mentality.  But I’m not.  As soon as what I have to offer begins to exceed what I think you’re offering me, I begin to treat you in a degrading fashion. 

I know it seems like I got off-point with that consumerism thing, but can you see how it’s connected?  The point of this whole thing is that I am not valuing people.  In my economy, people who do what I expect of them deserve my acceptance.  I am valuing what they have to offer me instead of valuing them, seeing people as only a means to a good for myself.  Even in the first instances I was discussing, because in those, it’s when I begin to believe that my employer is gaining more benefits from having me as an employee than I am gaining by being employed, when a friend is gaining more benefits from having me as a friend as I am gaining in return.  When I start to think the balance is off in someone else’s favor in any relationship (by relationship I mean any interaction with people), I become dissatisfied, judgmental and, often, just plain mean.  However, when I think the balance is off in my favor, I smugly embrace it as just repayment for all of those times it was NOT in my favor.  Since, you know, I am wise enough to recognize all of these situations in their true light. 

My economy is not the same as God’s economy.  Thank God.  Literally.  If He rolled His eyes at me every time I did something He knew to be stupid, ignored me when I stopped being useful or thought me unworthy of consideration because I could not offer anything as important as what He could, I would be completely and totally in despair, because this is my inherent condition.  God, through Jesus Christ, offered everything to people completely unable to repay Him, unable to deserve Him, unworthy to look at Him.  And, yet, I choose to see myself as important enough to dismiss people right and left simply for annoying me.  I have really been trying to control my condescending impulses and be nice even when I find people’s behavior to be incompetent.  Controlling the outward impulses of open disdain is nothing, however, to controlling the attitude causing them.  When I can look at a person and see value regardless of what they have to offer, it will be cured.  There is a statement that I’m sure you’ve heard: “Use things; love people.”  This is in contrast to the bulk of my existence, which tells me, “Love things; use people.”  I consider myself to be fairly non-materialistic.  I am coming to realize that I am just materialistic in a different way than materialistic is usually meant.  It is not necessarily rampant in the area of wanting lots of things, but it is monstrous in the area of wanting everything I offer to be equaled in return.  C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, “There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit….”  If I could wake up every day and see this in people…in every person…their intrinsic worth and significance as a being loved and sought by the One True and Perfect God, how different would my responses be? 

I would like the rule of my life not to be reciprocity, but grace, mercy, love, respect.  I don’t want people to feel like they have to earn this from me, and constantly fear losing it, and, yet, there are people in my life whom I know do fear this.  People I have made to feel ignorant and unworthy because their performance was not up to my standard.  People who feel intimidated by my scathing condescension.  I have seen it in their faces, heard it in their tentative replies, felt it in their attempts at reparation.  I don’t want to be that person.  I apologize for being that person.  Whoever you are, I want to love you unreservedly and unconditionally.  I have a ways to go, and I can only get there by allowing God to work in me, but acknowledgement is the first step, right?  Everything is baby steps from here on out.

What If They’re Right?

The day before yesterday, I was sitting talking to my neighbor.  I loaned her a book by one of my favorite authors a while back, and she told me that she had finally started reading it.  She had first loaned it to her granddaughter to read.  The book was Patrick by Stephen R. Lawhead, and it is about the famous St. Patrick whom we all celebrate, depending on our lifestyle and culture, with wearing green and leprechauns and four leaf clovers or excessive amounts of beer or some varied combination of those things.  I’ll be honest – I don’t know much about the real St. Patrick.  I’ve never looked into how much Lawhead may have embellished in his novel, but I know he does not claim it to be anything other than historical fiction.  Either way, what Lawhead wrote is all I know about our beloved Patrick, and that is scant as it has been some time since I read the book.  So, as my neighbor began discussing it, I have to admit that my recollections, for the most part, failed me.  I cannot confirm nor deny her allegations against Patrick until she completes (if she completes) and returns my book.  However, this is what she thought of him.  She said that she got to about page 235 or so, and had grown increasingly more angry with Patrick, culminating, at this point, in her throwing down the book and refusing to read any more.  She said she was thinking something like, “If what he’s got is Christianity, I don’t want any part of it.”  Now, my neighbor is a Christian, so she was just upset with Patrick’s version of it, I guess.  She went on to tell me that she was frustrated by Patrick’s ingratitude, arrogance, selfishness and lack of personal growth in the face of undeniable truths.  She asked me if he redeemed himself, and although I feel like I remember that he did, I cannot remember the story well enough to be certain.  To be honest, I don’t remember being angry with Patrick once while reading this book.  In fact, I remember identifying with him greatly.  I almost told my neighbor this, but then I was afraid she wouldn’t like me anymore.  Sorry, guys, I’m getting to a point here, really I am.   

My point is about my knee-jerk reaction to people saying anything like what she thought about not wanting Patrick’s kind of Christianity.  This reaction is composed of myself saying something to the effect of, “You can’t blame God for how stupid Christians act,” or “That’s why we need Jesus, because we’re not perfect” or “Of course Christians make mistakes, too.  If they didn’t struggle with things, no one would listen to them because they would not be able to relate to the masses.”  Or it may contain a reference to what Ghandi said when asked what the biggest obstacle to Christianity coming to India was: “Christians,” he stated.  Now, I didn’t say anything of this sort when talking to my neighbor yesterday for a couple of reasons.  One being, as I stated, this lady is actually a Christian, so Patrick was not really a stumbling block for her; she just disapproved of his kind of Christianity, and by this I mean the way he lived (or didn’t live) it out.  Another reason I did not give any of my usual retorts is that my neighbor is nearly seventy, and, well, I am not quite thirty, and somehow my trying to impart my version of “wisdom” to her seems a little silly if not presumptuous.   

But there is another reason – just this: of all the arguments against Christianity, which is heard the most?  Christians are hypocrites.  What if they’re right?  I’m starting to believe maybe I should pay more attention to it than giving it the canned answers I usually do…that maybe my responses carry within them a lack of accountability that is part of the reason Christians are such hypocrites.  The Bible does say that we will be known by our fruits.  I am sitting here trying to imagine if I could see my life as a tree; branches extending out to everyone I’ve come into contact with and the people they’ve come in contact with and so on.  I wonder what my fruits would look like.  I think I’m kind of glad I don’t know, because I can recall far to many times when I’m sure the fruit is not pretty.  Now, here’s the deal: I’m not advocating a kind of legalistic Christianity that crushes you and throws you out when you mess up.  Grace is the most beautiful part of Christianity…the fact that it is unconditional is astounding.  However, I’m afraid the problem is that there is not enough grace.  I, as a Christian, am not very grace-ful to others in return.  And I’m not talking about balancing books on my head.  I’m talking about extending that unconditional love to everyone I come into contact with.   

I realize that I also said something about accountability above, and somehow that may seem counter to unconditional love.  However, accountability should be a reaction to wanting to help others become their best, do their best, be what God created them to be.  I don’t mean a schoolmaster running around cracking a whip and threatening you with beatings, just itching for you to do something wrong.  We’re so screwed up in America that we can hardly even understand the concept of loving correction.  I try to talk about it here, but feel like I have to explain its validity to do so.  Accountability between Christians is encompassed in this unconditional love that I was speaking of, not opposite to it.  And by the way, God never tells us to call un-believers out on their sins.  He just tells us to take them the Gospel.  Why should we expect them to live by a morality they do not believe in?  This is why I consider all the boycotts in the world to be hopeless failures.  (It wouldn’t take me a far stretch to say that I think they are completely contradictory to Christianity, but I’d have to study and ponder a bit more to go that far.)  All of the Christians pointing fingers simply make everyone else want to point fingers back, and I would wager that it brings no one to Christ.   

You could all be reading this post and thinking I am being very condemning and making you feel like a useless dirt bag as a Christian.  That’s not my point.  I’m not saying that we have to be perfect.  I am saying that for all of the people out there saying, “Christians are hypocrites,” I wish I could find a few who said, “Well, I don’t know…I know this one guy….” I am conceding to non-Christians that they are valid in their mistrust of us.  And I’m not claiming to be included in the precious few good examples.  I don’t think I’m very good at showing people the love of Christ.  So, even though all of my customary answers to this accusation are still valid – God should not be blamed for our stupidity, etc., etc., there is a better answer to this.  Let’s change.  When people look around and find no positive Christian examples in their lives, no one who breaks the mold, no one who lives differently, makes them feel differently or treats everyone differently, then there is something wrong.  Where are we? 

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