In which I keep crying…

I’ve been crying a lot more recently.

I never used to cry. I sort of hate it. I get all wobbly-mouthed and my throat seizes up and I can hardly speak. And then, my nose runs. Yuck.

I don’t know what has brought this change about, but more and more often I find myself tearing up at unexpected times. Like in the middle of a super logical sermon, after a not particularly emotional but rhetorically powerful statement. Or like when I re-read for the umpteenth time Walk Two Moons, a favorite book from childhood — even though I already knew what was going to happen.

Today I teared up bigtime — but this time I think I know why.

Today I had the privilege and honor of interviewing someone about his life story. I went to this man’s house, met him and his family, sat down at his kitchen table, and listened. And I was literally overwhelmed. With words that seemed to just spill out of him, for starters. Then by a tingly feeling of awe.

To make a long-ish story short, this man had previously been, as he put it, “Full of pride, and all about living for myself. I didn’t care about anything. And I did some bad stuff.” Then, he survived an accident and, as he also put it, “God was sending me a message.” He turned his life around. I could plainly see the fervor with which he talked about his love for his children, his devotion and respect for his wife. “Not every man would say this,” he said, “but even though I work hard, my wife works way harder than I do. 24/7. She is the pillar of our family, and I’m not afraid to say it. She has always been there for me, even when all my friends left me. She’s the reason I want to have a home for our family, because she deserves it.”

This, my friends, is a redemption story. When one who is selfish and lost (as we all are) can be so deeply transformed into selfless Christ-like-ness (as we all hope for). And this is why I tear up all the time. Because in the midst of the struggles and the bad stuff and the confusion and the brokenness and the pain — especially there — there is Jesus. And there is redemption. The kind of redemption that makes your heart squeeze and your eyes burn and your face flush because it just doesn’t make sense, but all the same it is so beautiful.

I don’t much like crying. But for this, for beautiful Jesus-redemption in the midst of the dry deserts of life, I will cry every time.

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How Contented Is Too Contented?

In the comments on Daniel’s recent post on overemphasizing the “buddy system” as an ethical model, a friend asked the following:

“How content is too content?  I’ve been feeling very happy lately, and it’s making me a little uncomfortable.  Should it?”

I started to respond in a comment but realized I had a lot of thoughts on the subject. So here’s my answer:

First, I think that even pondering the question “How content is too content?” is evidence that you are unlikely to ever be “too content” for very long. If you are truly self-examining to the extent that being “too happy” or “too content” is a cause for question, then I think you are doing a great job of carefully considering the course of your life. Keep on paying attention!

Second, I think a huge part of considering this question involves defining “content”. Do you mean “content” as in “happy and fulfilled and feeling that I am responding well and fully to God’s calling”? Or “content” as in “happy and satiated and feeling that I don’t want to get out of bed ever”? (Confession: fighting this one right now!) Or “content” as in “sedentary, happy, and sitting back on my heels with a feeling that I have arrived and thus can coast through the rest of life”?

I think the “bad” kind of contentedness comes around when we allow happiness to lull us into inaction or a sense of achieved permanency. For example, one way I struggle with contentedness right now is my desire to find one place to live, take root there, and resolve never to leave because I want to be from somewhere and not from everywhere, as I was growing up as a PK. My “poor-me plea” line is, “I’m not really from anywhere — I’ve never lived in any place for more than seven years. I want to plant roots and have a hometown and be FROM somewhere!” Implicit in this near-whine is, “God, after all I’ve done for you, don’t I deserve this? Don’t I deserve being able to rest on my laurels for a while and enjoy my happiness?”

Again, the desire for contentedness is not “bad”. BUT, as we see in my example above, it is extremely easy for a desire for contentedness to “take over” and become an idol, something that we feel God “owes” us. In short, contentedness becomes problematic when we let it block our responsiveness to God’s call.

Let’s return to my “planting roots” example from earlier. Let’s say that Daniel and I have a lovely, happy, financially responsible housing situation that involves living with other Christians (we do). Let’s say that I struggle with feeling like a meandering wanderer with no past roots and I want to make a long-term commitment to a geographical community as a part of my spiritual calling, etc. (I do.) Let’s say that I get so caught up in the importance of planting my roots in my current geographical community that I completely ignore and run from God’s call for us to move to Peru. (This is where it gets hypothetical, but you never know!) At first, my desire for geographical community roots came from a desire to serve God and God’s sheep where I am. That’s a good thing. But as soon as my interpretation of God’s plan for me becomes more important than God’s ACTUAL plan for me, I place my own contentedness higher than God. I no longer want what God wants.

So, how content is too content? …It depends. Do you feel lazily-and-sedentarily contented, like when you never want to get out of bed? Or do you feel actively-and-vocationally contented, like when you feel awesome after a tough workout? Are you sulkily clinging to your contentedness as if God owes you some happy, easy times after “all you’ve done for Him”? Or does your contentedness come from a sense of peace and trust in God’s plans for you, no matter where those plans take you in life?

Of the first kind of contentedness, I want none! (In the big-picture, that is. In the small picture, I want it all the time.)

Of the second kind of contentedness, the kind that comes from having the “peace that passes understanding down in my heart” (Where? Down in my heart!), I want more!

So go ahead and be content — but make sure it comes from God and not from you.

A Deep Question From An Old Friend

Recently I received a letter from a friend. While going through some papers, he had found a letter I wrote him while I was a camp counselor almost six years ago and he decided to respond to it anyway. (Super fun!) Apparently we had been discussing some pretty heavy stuff back then, because one of the questions he asked me was this: “How has God informed the decisions you’ve made daily? How has he influenced you in your interactions with your husband and your decisions, including [leaving] teaching and your return to Minnesota? What and who is God to you?”

What a fantastic question!

It took me by surprise a little at first, but after a few re-readings and some thought, this is what I came up with. I hope you enjoy reading my answer to the question — but I also hope that you will take the time to answer it for yourself.

——————

To your question about how God has informed my decisions and who God is to me, first let me say that I don’t really understand God. Not fully. That’s probably why God is God and I’m just little ol’ me.

But what I do know about God — what I believe, and what guides my whole life and all my decisions — is that God is a good God who desires above all things for we his children to be close to him.

I believe that one day we will be very close to him, in heaven. The way I bring the feeling of God close to me now, here on earth, is by choosing actions that I believe serve God’s ultimate purpose and desire for the world, which is that it be good and right as God is good and right.

So when I choose content writing over teaching, it is partly because it makes me happy but even more so because when I am happy I am more productive in bringing about God’s kingdom. When I teach, I am overworked and exhausted and constantly wishing I could actually help my students. When I write for non-profits, I am confident and productive and constantly seeing evidence of the ways that my work helps organizations help families love each other and stay afloat. THIS (my current work) is how I best help my students (or at least kids like them): I serve in the ways that make the most difference in bringing about God’s good kingdom in their lives.

Scenes from Exodus Four: Part One

So Moses is pretty self-deprecating. I mean, I get that he’s literally looking God in the face (in the branches?) here in Exodus 4, but he sure comes up with a lot of reasons for why he’d make a lousy spokesman. He’s too slow, he wouldn’t know what to say, he’s not worthy, and so on. Eventually, after several lame excuses including “I’m a bad public speaker”, God finally lets Moses have it, Job-style:

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and teach you what to say.” (4:11-12)

Sounds pretty final, doesn’t it? I’m sure it’d knock my socks off. God gives Moses a little smack-down to remind him of God’s sovereignty and ends the matter with “now go” — but he also throws in a little reassurance at the end, promising to help Moses and teach him what to say. How nice! Let’s see how Moses responds:

But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” (4:13)

WHAAAT??? Props for manners, but didn’t God say “now go”? Isn’t this over with? Did you really just get called on running out of excuses and then point-blank REFUSE God’s command with a petulant “I just don’t wanna”? I’ve never seen anyone be so brash on behalf of their own incompetence!

Moses’ statement here reveals what’s really behind his excuses: defiance. It’s not about being a bad public speaker — he simply doesn’t want to follow God’s commands. He just wants to sit around with his isolated little desert tribe and take care of sheep. Much simpler that way.

It’s funny how we humans can even use humility to defy God.

Of course, we’re all aware of the prideful side of defiance; Satan is an oft-cited reminder of the dangers of self-elevation. But there can be a sort of defiance in excessive self-deprecation as well. When we refuse to acknowledge the gifts God has given us — when we bury our “talents” in the ground — that is defiance. When we insist that we can never do it and deny God’s ability to help us overcome the challenges he’s given us — that is defiance. And as we see with Moses, defiance looks just as prideful, stupid, and shocking when it grows out of self-deprecation as when it grows from self-inflation.

But before we rag on Moses too much, let’s remember that we’re not exactly lily-white angels here.

It’s never easy to admit, but we, too, defy God, and like Moses we try to hide our defiance behind excuses. “They’d never want me on the worship team — I’m just not good enough.” “I can’t bring that up at a board meeting — I’d only mess it up anyway.” “God can’t really be calling me to do that — I must be hearing things.” We gasp at Moses’ impertinence to suppose that he can say “no” to God — and then we do the exact same thing.

Yes, we should make sure that what we hear is really God’s call, but once we’re reasonably certain the call is from God, it is our job to follow, not avoid.

Do we really think that God doesn’t know about our failings as well as our talents? Do we really think that God doesn’t already know how busy our schedules are, or how much we hate public speaking? Do we really expect God to say, “Oh! Well, I thought you would be just the right person to love this neighbor — but now that I know you couldn’t possibly drop anything from your busy, busy schedule — what was I thinking?”

Seriously, folks.

We are not called to be perfect at the cost of never taking risks. We are not called to tell God what we can and cannot do. We are not called to sit on our arses and tend our little sheep in comfort and isolation.

We are called to be faithful. To God.

That’s not always easy. The experience of most people today is that God’s communications with us are vastly more ambiguous and subtle than burning bushes that say “now go”. But it would be foolish to assume that ambiguity equals no communication at all. God’s call and voice can come through observation of the world (Rom 1:20), through quiet whispers (1 Kings 19:11-13), or even through “just knowing” that something is the right thing to do. These may seem like fuzzy and unclear half-calls to us, and following them could possibly even be a mistake if we’re wrong. But even in the midst of that uncertainty, sometimes we must lay aside our fears, our self-deprecation and our hidden pride and simply “now go”.

In Which God Gets Sarcastic, and I Know Nothing

Yesterday I finished the book of Job, and because it has been a while since I read it, the ending was quite a whirlwind experience for me! We’ve spent 37 chapters building up and building up, hearing ABOUT God, but not FROM God in regards to Job’s suffering — and then finally, in chapter 38, BOOM! God arrives — in a thunderstorm!

“Where were you [Job] when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? … Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!” (Job 38:4-7, 21 – emphasis added)

WOW. God is sarcastic!! He is clearly on a mission to put Job in his place and remind him Who’s really in charge here! And Job gets it pretty quick, because after God’s first speech all Job can say is “………….Oh. Right.”

God goes on to deliver yet another speech where he specifically addresses Job’s questions about justice — namely that Job has no right to question God’s justness. But what I love the most about God’s response here is that after he totally chews Job out, he then gently and graciously affirms Job’s perseverance and righteousness throughout this whole ordeal. (And he totally puts Job’s “friends” in their place at the same time!)

“I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. … My servant Job will pray for you and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.” (Job 42:7-8, parts – emphasis added)

Let’s break this down here. Job, while he did complain and question a lot, never went beyond questioning God’s motives. He speculated that perhaps God was unjust, he cried out at his own suffering, he protested his innocence and demanded that God allow him a chance to vindicate himself — but he never definitively said that he knew what God was doing. In other words, Job never allowed his sense of theological rightness to eclipse his devotion to God. Eliphaz & Co., however, did nothing BUT that. They were focused only on telling Job what they “knew to be true” about God. They acted like they had all the answers and refused to either empathize with Job or admit their lack of knowledge (and thus God’s supremacy).

So what does this mean for us? I think the entire book of Job can be boiled down thusly: God is God, and we are not. That’s SUPER simple, and I wouldn’t suggest telling that to someone who’s just lost a loved one and is struggling with grief as Job was, but I really think that’s the point God’s trying to make in this story. Just because God usually punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous doesn’t mean it’s okay for Eliphaz & Co. to put God in the box that he always does that. God is bigger than their box. And just because Job is a righteous man and healthily questions God doesn’t mean he couldn’t stand a reminder that he doesn’t run the world.

The point here is that none of us really knows what God is like, or what God might do, or why. We may know a part of God. We can learn some about God from reading the Bible, and from living our lives with God and experiencing what that means to us. But we cannot fathom God, and anyone who says they can is kidding themselves.

The true basis of faith, then, is uncertainty.

Real faith doesn’t mean knowing God will save you in the nick of time — real faith means not knowing if God will save you and trusting God anyway. And that’s really, really hard. Because uncertainty is a pretty shifty thing to build your whole life on. But for me, the only thing I know is that I just don’t know. And that will have to do.

Thoughts on Job and Eliphaz

Today’s Bible reading was NOT from Genesis, but from Job! (This is part of the reason I love reading the Bible chronologically — it totally makes sense that the story of Job is old, but I never thought about it!)

Anyway. Today I read the first five chapters of Job, and there is some SERIOUS food for thought in here. Here are a few of my thoughts (and questions):

  • As always, I am immensely curious about the brief mentions (in 1:6 and 2:1) given to the angels and Satan (who apparently tags along to the Weekly Angelic Council Meeting?? What???). I wish there was more in the Bible about all that angelic backstory… though I’m guessing the lack of information has given rise to many, many wonderful works of fiction. =)
  • Poor Job!! I mean, I remembered that Job really got pooped on (yes, that’s a literary term…) in this story, but MAN! I had forgotten that the four messengers LITERALLY arrive back-to-back, each successive one entering while the previous finishes speaking, to tell Job that “All your oxen/donkeys/sheep/camels/servants/CHILDREN are dead, and I am the only one who escaped to tell you!” OUCH!
  • Job impresses me.Like Atticus Finch. Even after his wife in her grief sort of “tempts” him to “curse God and die”, he simply replies, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” Wow.
  • And then, there’s Eliphaz. Oh, Eliphaz. This would be Job’s “friend”, the first of the three to give him “friendly advice” about how to deal with his situation. He’s pretty much a pompous arse. He basically sits with Job for a while and then says, “Well, since bad things are ALWAYS punishment from God, you must have done something wrong to deserve this. So just confess and accept God’s correction.” Wow. This is his word-for-word quote at the end of his speech: “We have examined this, and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself.” UGH. He’s so arrogant and assured of his own theology that he assumes he can instantly diagnose Job’s problems, tell him what God’s doing, and then lecture him on how he should get with the program when all his children were just murdered. Ick, ick, ick. I have probably done something like this when someone I knew was dealing with grief…. but I really hope I haven’t. And/or that I never do it again!

So, the moral of today’s story, children, is that you can’t use human theology to put God in a box, and you ESPECIALLY should not do this when someone is going through grief or hard times, because it only makes them feel worse. I am very much looking forward to the rest of Job. I don’t recall exactly what lovely rationales the other two friends use that are supposed to explain Job’s suffering for him. But I’m sure they will be instructive.

What are your thoughts?

Faithful Followers — Sometimes.

I’m reading through the Old Testament at the moment, and I have a confession: from time to time, I skim a bit. Especially the parts about “who begat who” and where they say who got what bits of land. But last week, as I found myself in the book of Joshua, a part jumped out at me.

On this particular day, I read about the end of Joshua’s term as leader of Israel. Joshua was getting old, and he knew that his time had come. Before he died, he spoke with the Israelites to make sure they would continue to follow God. “Of course, of course,” they all said, “we will TOTALLY follow God!”  “Are you sure?” he asked. And this is what it says, right in the Bible:

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods!17 It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God. ”

19 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”

21 But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.”

22 Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.

23 “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

24 And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”

25 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he reaffirmed for them decrees and laws. 26 And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord.

27 “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.”

Joshua knew that sometimes the people of Israel could be a little… how do I put this?… unfaithful. So he actually asks them three different times if they’re SURE they want to serve the Lord. He even warns them of the consequences – “You know this God will not tolerate your philandering with other gods…” – but they INSIST – “We will SO follow the rules! We’ll do everything God says. Pinky promise!”

Well, surprise surprise, guess what happened next? Joshua died, many of his contemporaries also died, and people started to forget the promise that Israel had made. So yet again – despite their fervent promises to the contrary – the fickle Israelites broke their promise. As I continued to read about how the Israelites backslid right into their former behaviors, I found myself smirking at them a bit. Those silly Israelites! They just can’t stay away from those idols!

This past week, now that school’s out for the summer, Daniel and I have been reevaluating some lifestyle things, like time management, food, and exercise. As I was cooking a fun new recipe, I was all excited about this healthy new commitment that would get us back on track –

–and all of a sudden I had a Joshua moment. Didn’t I have another “I’m gonna eat healthy” moment in college? Where’d that go? Didn’t I promise Daniel at Christmas that I was gonna be better at getting up off the couch and exercising? And how many times do I have to think about calling my grandpa before I actually DO it?

You see, as much as we deny it, as much as we protest, we are just as fickle and unfaithful as the Israelites. To quote 1 John, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” That’s a nice way of saying that even though we PROMISE we’ll change – REALLY, we mean it this time! – we always go back to our old ways.

I’ll never forget my dad gleefully telling me one of his favorite “unusual” Proverbs over dinner one night: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”

So, even though our old, idolatrous ways are like vomit, we still go back to them.

Can you imagine having the flu, vomiting in a bucket, and then having to have someone make you promise them not to go back and eat it? …And THEN you sneak back when they’re not looking and eat it anyway? That’s disgusting! …And yet, that is what Israel did, and that is what we do. We get a big ol’ spoon and we scarf down the vomit of our bad habits and unkind thoughts even though we KNOW they’re bad for us.

So what do we do about it?

First things first, let’s call a spade a spade and fess up – we are fools who return to our smelly, nasty, selfish behaviors just as mindlessly as a dog returning to its mess. Our selfishness isn’t cute, or ok, or justified because that other person made me mad – it STINKS. Let’s not cover it with false perfume.

Secondly, even though we KNOW we’re gonna return to that bucket eventually, let’s try to run toward the heavenly feast as long as we can first. We are human, yes, and we will mess up because we are fools. But always remember that God calls us not to be successful, but to be FAITHFUL. God is the ultimate example of faithfulness – giving Israel and us chance after chance after chance to do the right thing, just because of His great love for them and for us. Although we cannot meet his example, we need to keep picking ourselves up, moving on from our follies, and giving ourselves another chance to faithfully serve the Lord as best we can.