Monday, August 27, 2012

The God Who Sees-- On an Airplane

This past weekend, Michael and I flew to SC to celebrate my sister getting married. I'm sure as I continue to process the experience that I'll have a lot more to say about it. But what is freshest on my mind is actually the experience we had yesterday, on our journey home. 

First of all, we visited a church with my mom that is similar to the one we attend here in Dallas. When I went up to receive communion at this church, the priest-- who had never met me before-- stopped to pray for me. He said, "Lord, I thank you for Hannah and I pray that you would bless her. I sense that people will be drawn to YOU through her. Please bless that. Amen." 

It was short and sweet, and I thought relatively generic. A nice prayer for anyone to receive. After church, we headed to the airport. We had a three-flight route home (budget style, baby!) and I was really enjoying a book I brought with me. On the last flight of our trip, I thought I could knock out the rest of this book and was planning to focus on it. The guy sitting next to us kept chatting, though, and so I'd periodically look up from my book to answer his questions, to chat back. Eventually, though, I got the sense, "I need to be available to really engage with this guy. It's more important than finishing my book." 

So I put the book down and we began to talk a little more. He'd been asking Michael and me a lot of questions, so I decided to ask him one. "So do you like to read?" His eyes lit up. Jack pot. After bonding over our mutual love for words-- and lots of them-- he had another question for us. "I'm in a really weird place right now, where I feel like I don't know how to send out the right kind of message about who I am. How is it that you could perceive something about me and knew what question to ask?" 

A little while later, he clarified a bit more. "I feel like I don't know how to take down the walls I've put up around myself, and I don't know how to really show people who I am because I'm afraid. But the way you've been talking with me tonight makes me feel like you really see the "me" inside. How are you doing that?" 

We had already shared with him a bit from our own stories about how when we met Jesus, things changed for us. Michael had more of a dramatic conversion experience-- his world changed practically overnight-- whereas I learned how to live "filled up" (to use our new friend's words) slowly, over a long period of time. We had shared with him how we learned that God created us and thus knows better than anyone else what it is to "live to the fullest," and how our walking in relationship with Him through trusting in Christ has changed the way we experience life for the better. We had shared with him that we know what it's like to put up walls to protect people from knowing who we really are, too, and how God's total forgiveness, acceptance, and delight for us in Christ is helping to melt the fears that made us put up walls in the first place.

But I didn't have a magic answer to his question. I didn't have a miraculous knowledge about his love for reading or about what was going on in his life, guiding me in which questions to ask him. But as we were talking, I did remember what the priest at church had prayed for me that same morning. So with that, I answered him, "I don't have x-ray eyes that can see the real you despite whatever walls you've put up. But I believe that God knows the real you, and that He cares for you. I think the sense of being known that you're attracted to right now through our conversation is really from Him, and that He wants you to know He knows the real you, and that He loves you. And I would encourage you to consider letting Him in to your struggle and letting Him heal you, because you weren't created to be able to heal yourself."

When we said goodbye, he told us, "I think our conversation was more than serendipitous." 

Why am I sharing this story? Because once again, I'm moved to tears at the heart of my God. That He loves us, enough to tell us so in very specific ways through complete strangers on airplanes! I don't know why the man next to us was so touched by our conversation, but I know that he was attracted-- not to us-- but to God through us. God, who knows he loves to read. Who sees the secret struggle of his inner life and speaks into it in unexpected ways. God, who doesn't greet him with shame but invites him into life. 

I'm moved that God would prepare me for that conversation through the prayer of another stranger, a priest at church, and nudge me to put down my book and really see the person-- the precious creation of God-- next to me. I'm moved that God would use me in even a small way to manifest His heart for another, and I'm moved that God would allow me to experience even one millionth of His love, knowledge, and delight in the person next to me on the airplane. 

Has God ever communicated to you something about His love or knowledge of your struggle through someone else? If so, what does that tell you about God? Have you ever thought God might delight in doing the same through you?


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

God at the Yoga Studio

Yesterday during yoga class, my instructor said something along the lines of "Spend a moment thinking of what you want to take away from this practice. Maybe it's one word." Being a bit, er, verbose, I gave in and allowed myself to pick two words. 

Worshipful rest.

If you've been reading along much this summer, you might begin to detect a theme. I've been realizing in the past few months how much I need to make rest-- mental, physical, and spiritual-- a part of my life, even in the busiest seasons. This kind of rest doesn't just involve sitting on a couch or sleeping in-- although that kind is important too!-- it flows from a deeply rooted realization that God is at the center of the universe, not me (talk about taking the pressure off!) and that He loves me and has already provided all I need in Him. 

So, it was nice and easy to focus on "worshipful rest" while lifting my arms to the sky, doing nice, friendly stretches, and breathing deeply. Ten minutes later, however, when our yoga instructor had us in positions that can't be described with words, "worshipful rest" was the last thing on my mind. In fact, I was enlisting every elbow, wrist, and knee to keep myself from melting down into the pose (something advanced yogis say feels "so good.") At some point during something painful involving muscles I don't typically bend diagonally, I heard Him whisper, "Will you rest even when I lead you through seasons of discomfort?" 

It was convicting because it made me realize, I like some kinds of rest-- when it involves Sleepy Time tea and beautiful mountain scenes-- but not others. I don't, for example, like to trust the Lord with the outcomes of broken relationships when I've done everything in my power to restore but they remain estranged. I don't, for example, like to rest in His timing for revealing where our next rent payment is going to come from or for providing the much-longed for healing from a past emotional wound. I don't even like to acknowledge the fact that He, not I, is at the center of the universe when my day doesn't go as planned. 

When I'm eating a delicious meal and looking forward to a good night's sleep, "restful worship" feels warm and fuzzy. But when conflict arises in a relationship or even when something silly goes wrong, like getting stuck in traffic without something "productive" to be doing, restful worship sounds like an impossible task. Just as I don't know how to physically relax when I'm stretching in a new and uncomfortable way, I don't know how to rest in the Lord when it involves remaining in discomfort. But He is a good and kind teacher, and He cares for me. He wants to see me grow and learn-- even if that means using something like a yoga class to help me understand better-- that it's possible to live in all seasons knowing that He is at the center. 

It doesn't mean my discomfort (or even pain!) will go away. It just means that I'll be able to rest in the midst of it, knowing that He loves me and has provided all I need in Him.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beauty for Ashes in August

This summer has probably been the busiest season of my married life so far, August being the climax. I wrote earlier this month about how a crazy schedule and an orphan spirit led me to burnout, and also to a greater realization of my need for quiet, rest, and beauty in the midst of even the most demanding seasons. Reflecting so far on the first half of a month that I wondered if I'd survive, I marvel at God's grace in providing just that-- in the most unexpected ways. 

In the height of my exhaustion, He provided a weekend in the country to do nothing but play Dominoes (in which I dominated, see below), read, and rest. 

(*Note- Michael had to look up the rules to one of our card games, just to be sure about something. We're only a little competitive.) 
During the most labor intensive trip of the month (where I slept in a house with 23 other people!), He provided moments of beauty, solitude, and worship with precious friends. 

Immediately on the heels of that trip, during the visit of our third house guest of the summer, He provided a weekend of recreation (which is code for amazing food), sleep, and fellowship.

(*Note: the black cloud type line in the lake picture is actually millions of bats flying out from under the bridge at dusk to go hunting! Oh, and the bottom picture- that is Tex-Mex.) 
It seems that once again, I'm learning that the Lord knows what I need better than I do, and that He provides it for me even before I know how to ask for it. I am so thankful for His tender shepherding in my life-- He doesn't point the finger and chide me for not resting and depending on Him as I ought-- instead, He revives my tired and parched spirit by extending to me the very things I neglected to seek. Once again, His kindness has led me to repentance and restoration. 

Are you running from Him in any way? Can you take the risk and confess? Experience His kindness. 

From a blog I read today: "I do find comfort in this: Jesus doesn’t shame you. He calls you by name, twice (“Martha, Martha”, the first time cutting through your heart, the second time healing it). He gets to the root of all your existential angst, and he shows that there is no need for the amount of space you carve out for anxiety, worry, righteous indignation."

(Read the whole post here.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Bride's Beauty

This past week, I was up in Canada for my friend Megan’s wedding.  This is a friend who loves big dresses and great hair, who thought a lot about what her make-up and accessories would be because she wanted to look beautiful. Even her sister’s “Maid of Honor speech” made reference to her stylish sensibilities and aesthetic interests. So it made sense that all nine (yes, nine!) of her bridesmaids were giggling about seeing her in THE dress and about how great she looked during the photo shoot, etc. etc. 

I got a pretty good view of her during the ceremony because as the shortest bridesmaid, I got to be right in the front. That means I got to see every sequin gleaming, every eyelash fluttering. But in the middle of their ceremony, she followed her husband to a station off to the side of the church where he washed her feet. Then, she (and all her tulle!) got down on her knees and washed his feet. At that moment, I watched her face turn away from the admiring crowd and her dress get squashed on the floor. I watched her perfectly manicured hands scrub hairy feet (no offense, Mr. Gardner) as she risked a stain or spill on her expensive and important outfit. I watched her do these things in order to serve her beloved and to seek his good. 

The “foot-washing” in their ceremony was a symbol of their commitment to serve and sacrifice for each other after the wedding day is over. But what about all the fuss of getting dressed up to begin with? Isn’t that a symbol too? Of what? Watching Megan wash Peter’s feet, I felt that I understood just a little bit better what all those layers of fluff are supposed to represent in the first place.

The Bible calls husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might make her holy, having cleansed her…so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

As I watched Peter, Megan’s earthly husband, lead the way in sacrifice and love toward his bride in washing her feet, I thought of Christ’s self-giving toward those who belong to Him. Then as Megan followed Peter’s example by serving him, I thought of the church—Christ’s “bride”— being made holy, Christ’s cleansing love and sacrifice being put on display as it transforms her into a spouse who can reciprocate in servanthood and self-giving.  In other words, the church’s “beauty” is her holiness and Christ-likeness; her spotless splendor is the beauty of love and service that reflects the love of her Savior.

So, it made sense to see a beautiful bride kneeling known in an act of selflessness, because the spotless, shimmering, white that arrayed her represented that very thing—her self-giving love, made possible by the love extended to her—the love that made her a bride.  As that reality washed over me, I couldn’t help but feel that there, on her hands and knees in the service of another, she looked more beautiful and more glorious than at any other point in the day.

What does that have to do with you? Whether married or single, male or female, with baggage or without, Christ extends His self-giving love to you; love that would make you His bride. It is His cleansing sacrifice that would wash you clean and array you in white— “spotless, and without wrinkle”— no matter what you’ve done or what has been done to you. And it is His unconditional love and commitment that would transform your shame into splendor, inside and out. 

The beauty of holiness His love bestows would be much, much more beautiful than a sparkling dress worn for a day.  It would be a restored and transformed life that will be radiant for eternity. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Chick-fil-A, Jon Stewart, and Jesus

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I’m pretty passionate about food.  In other words, I’m not one of those people who “eats to live,” but who will make scheduling-altering decisions to eat something tasty and healthy. I find great joy in planning, preparing, and eating meals. It’s fun! And beyond that, in the last few years I’ve come to see a deep connection between my relationship with food and my relationship with God.

That could be a post— or a series of posts— in itself, which may happen in the future. But for now, I’ll try to explain what I mean by that in just a few words. A lot of times we in the West want to separate the “spiritual” from the “physical;” we want to draw a distinction between the soul and the body, for example, saying one is “eternal” and therefore “more important” than the other.  However, both are created by an Eternal God who commands us to value both! From the beginning, humans were charged with the care of their own bodies, and all the physical things around them, as an act of “spiritual” worship of their Creator! 

So, learning to care for my own body by respecting both its function (ie. spinach makes it run, grease make it stop running) and its limits (even too much spinach can be abusive) and to care for the physical things around me by stewarding my consumption of those things in a way that shows respect and care for the Creator, is a very spiritual thing. I can show disrespect for my body by not caring what happens to it—by starving it or filling it with trash, for example. But I can also show disrespect for the rest of God’s creation by not caring what happens to it; by supporting, for example, an industry that genetically alters a chicken to such extreme proportions that it can’t even hold itself up so it has to sit in its own waste.

Today when walking through the airport, we passed a little girl who screamed, “but I want ice cream NOW!” Honestly, I can relate. A lot of times my passion for food supersedes my passion for its Creator, and I don’t care how the chicken gets on my plate. I don’t care if it’s unethical or if it means I’m sacrificing obedience for the sake of convenience and a few minutes of pleasure. I just want the chicken NOW. Oh, and cheap. Let’s be honest.  I’ve passed organic chicken more than once in the grocery store after seeing the sale price on the genetically enhanced, factory grown stuff. A few minutes or dollars spared often seems more attractive to me than obedience to a God who calls me to care for created things that are precious to Him and reveal His character.

So, if all that rambling was my introduction, what’s the point of this post? I’ve not closely followed the Chick-fil-A debacle. But Michael had The Daily Show on the other night and I overheard Jon Stewart mocking Truett Cathy. I was disturbed by Stewart’s attitude and language for the most part, but perked up when he pointed out the seeming hypocrisy in a company that would stand against “redefining marriage” and yet be comfortable with “redefining the chicken” into something genetically modified and treated like an object in order to be 95% breast meat, cheap, and en masse. 

As a follower of Jesus, I am saddened that my community of faith has upheld certain Creation mandates—and often in negative and divisive ways— to the exclusion of others. Jon Stewart didn’t actually use the word hypocrisy, but I think it fits in this case. I’m not writing to applaud or rebuke Chick-fil-A; but I am thankful that the Lord used the heated discussions concerning this particular business, and the Christian controversy surrounding it, to convict me about a larger problem in the church. 

The church claims to submit to the Lordship of the Creator. There wouldn’t be a case for “sexuality according to God” otherwise. He created us as sexual beings, and He created sex as the activity of intimacy. As Christians, we should want to take seriously our call to steward sexuality in a way that brings Him glory and us joy, even when it means inconvenience, sacrifice, and struggle— not because “we just should” or “it’s the right thing to do”— but because we love and honor the Creator.  I’ve blogged about what this looks like in my own experience as a heterosexual woman, and about the holistic transformation I’ve experienced as I’ve grown in my submission to One who Created my sexuality. But if that’s the case with sexuality, why shouldn’t it be the case with all created things?

I’ve confessed to my lack of follow through on areas of clear conviction regarding created things because “I want ice cream now.” I may be able to stand strong against “wrongs” that I’m not attracted to in the first place, such as violence against women or the slave trade, but I don’t as consistently stand against wrongs that give me a sense of comfort, pleasure, and security, like cheap and available fried chicken. I feel that my community of faith at large might at times be guilty of the same.

Why am I writing this post? I guess to ask a question. If you’re a Christian, would you pray for me, that I’ll be able to honor God as Creator more consistently with my spending and eating choices? And would you pray with me that the church would be awakened to our call to honor God in all of creation, not just in a few hot button issues?

If you’re not a Christian, would you forgive me for imaging and speaking about God in a hypocritical and inconsistent way, saying one thing and then doing another? And would you forgive the church for highlighting certain issues over against other important ones, often times in divisive and hateful ways?

Lastly, whoever you are, would you consider looking beyond a political or economic battle to see Jesus, who invites you to come to Him whether you are gay, straight, obese, anorexic, chicken-abusing or earth-worshiping? He doesn’t highlight certain issues over against others. He says we are all in need of His healing and forgiveness, and that we are all invited. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Discerning the Noise

In my last post, I wrote about being overwhelmed by the “noise.” For some reason, that word has pinpointed my particular struggle in this season. Katie Davis’ blog post is what I shared from last week, but I first read about “the noise” a month ago in a poem by William Alexander Percy:

“I have a need of silence and stars;
too much is said too loudly, I am dazed.”

(I highly recommend reading the whole poem, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can find it here.)

These words were like a mirror for my soul. They revealed to me my growing desperation; they hinted to me that the end of my rope was approaching. It has been helpful to identify that feeling, to know enough to take a few days “off.” But as I prepare to re-enter the noisy world from which I’m currently respiting, I realize the occasional emergency vacation isn’t a sufficient solution.

My philosophy professor said countless times in college, “Get out of the realm of metaphor!”  That instruction has entered my prayer life as I’ve realized it’s easy for me to throw around a word like “noise” and be all poetic about how I need “silence and stars.” It’s easy enough for me to identify that something has gone wrong—that “the noise” has grown too intrusive— but it’s not quite as easy to discern what, exactly, the noise is. So this past weekend, I spent some time getting out of the realm of metaphor; asking the Lord what dynamic in my life leads me to the sensation of drowning.

Surprisingly, a number of faded vignettes came to mind as I asked. I remembered crying in the car with my mom as we talked about how we were going to find money for college. She said to me, “Hannah, I used to get really depressed about this too. But you have to realize, it’s just money. You can do this. It doesn’t mean nobody loves you.”

I remembered moving out of our last apartment and the team of friends that came to help. One friend in particular said, “I’m cleaning your bathroom. Don’t think about it, just let it happen.” I remember peeking in at her on her hands and knees scrubbing my toilet and thinking, “That’s awkward. I wonder if she’ll still like me after she’s seen all that.”

I remembered talking to my counselor last week about my strange obsession with scheduling every minute of my life. I described to her the agony I felt over the decision of when to bake a cake for an upcoming dessert party: Wednesday or Thursday night? She laughed and said, “I hope you can see that that is excessive. Do you realize that you have a good and loving Father who wants to help you make those decisions? You don’t have to live like an orphan.”

Orphan. Another metaphor that triggered something buried deep within me. Something painful. But when I piece the memories together, I can begin to see a pattern that makes sense of it. In my young and vulnerable state, not having a father physically present (to help me find resources to pay for college, for example) felt like abandonment. It felt like nobody loved me. That’s why my mom had to tell me, it’s not true! But my heart grabbed hold of that moment and turned it into something else— into a commitment to not feel vulnerable and abandoned again if I could help it— to provide for myself. “I can do this, and I will. If I don’t have a dad, I’ll learn how to live without one. It’s better than feeling the shame of wanting someone to take care of me and having no one.”

So, I began to work really hard to be “responsible,” clocking extra hours through college, saving up for a car, learning to budget, and gaining more independence from my financially burdened mother—all “good” things, technically. And I’m thankful for the skills I learned! Lord knows I needed to get a little more organized. But it was the commitment underneath those actions to bury the sadness rather than admit the sadness, that separated me from my Heavenly Father. All along, I thought I was “making Him proud” by “doing my part” and not sitting around moping, when in fact, I was avoiding Him. What He wanted was to comfort me and grieve with me! But that meant leaning into the sadness I felt, which looked at lot like shame and rejection to me. So I just worked harder at “being good” and at distancing myself from my own vulnerability.

Jump forward a few years, and it makes sense that I was so uncomfortable when friends came over to help me in such a vulnerable way. Seeing the dust under my bedframe? Seeing the scum in my shower? Seeing how badly I need help cleaning it all? What a comical way for God to remind me, “You can’t do this. You weren’t created to have it all together and take care of yourself. Let me in. Let me help you. Don’t be afraid to feel your need for me, for I won’t abandon you.”

But no, I’ve gotten in the habit of taking care of everything myself, thank you. I’ll figure out what we’ll eat for dinner each night of the week and I’ll figure out when to bake the cake and I’ll make sure my next bathroom stays cleaner and….” 

It’s tiring. I can’t carry the burden of my life on my own shoulders. I wasn’t created to do so, and God doesn’t look at my attempts to do it and call it obedience. He calls it fear. Fear of asking Him to be involved; of asking Him to care; of letting Him be the Father I need Him to be, whether I admit it or not.
It is scary to open that part of my heart again when I’ve experienced the pain of loss before. It is scary to take the risk of more abandonment. But sometimes, doing the scary thing is the right thing, and the only thing that can truly heal.

It seems that my choices are to continue life as an orphan, feeling the pressure of “meeting expectations” every minute of every day until my quarterly collapse, or to accept my vulnerability. To face my fear and believe God’s Word to me that “though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me in” (Ps. 27:10). To see that He’s not like an earthly father who can get snatched away by cancer, or like an earthly husband who can grow unfaithful and leave, or like a fickle friend who can decide it’s time to move on— but to see Him as the fulfillment of those things— the Father whose heart won’t fail, the Husband who is faithful to the point of death, “even death on a Cross,” (Phil. 2) the Friend who “lays down His life” for my sake (Jn. 15), who has loved me “to the end” (Jn. 13:1).

That reality, and really believing it, changes the way I approach a grocery list, a Greek midterm, or a weekly schedule. A position of trust and dependence on Him tempers the expectations I put on myself to “suck it up,” to “make it happen,” to “have it all together.”  It takes off the tremendous pressure of everything being “up to me.”

I do have a noisy life, filled with good experiences and meaningful commitments and exciting opportunities. But choosing to walk through that life not as an orphan, but as a beloved daughter of a good Father, quiets the overwhelming noise of my own expectations.

“O Lord…I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Ps. 131:2