Saturday, November 23, 2013

On the Loss of an Illusion

The amount that I've blogged this fall is an example of the kind of mental energy I've had this year so far. Often I'd sit down to write and not be able to think of, well, anything. Thankfully, I have (for the most part) accepted that it's OK not to blog as regularly right now. But, I've had a more difficult time accepting that it's OK to be in a mental funk in general and not know why. 

See, I like to know what's going on; I like to analyze and name and explain things, especially as they pertain to my own emotional state. But this fall, explanations (much less solutions) have evaded me. Every time I felt I'd found "the reason" things weren't clicking or "why" I've felt less awesome this semester, I'd address it; and things would be better for about, oh, 48 hours. Then I'd be right back where I was-- swimming in an ocean of 'blah' (and sometimes 'wahh')-- with no rescue boat in sight. 

For this "Type A" (and "Straight A's," thank you very much!) this has not been a pleasant experience. To be less than 110% is bad enough for a perfectionist; but then to not even be able to figure out why or how to "fix it" is pretty much like water-boarding. See, that's what perfectionists do-- they figure out what the problem is and they fix it. They take control. They feel a sense of accomplishment. They pat themselves on the back for being able to handle even their own weakness and limitations. That's why I laughed out loud when a certain book exposed this in me: 

"Either way, it is easier for us to handle an illness when it has a clear name and a precise cause...we hate the feelings that come with unfixable and uncontrollable moments. We do not know how to do a day with unfixed feelings, so we flail about and knock the dishes off their counters instead. At least we are exerting our power, we justify. We feel like we are doing something." 

By God's grace, I haven't broken any dishes this semester (at least, not on purpose). But I've definitely flailed about in anger at "unfixable and uncontrollable feelings." As I reflect, however, I realize this is exactly what I prayed for this year-- a greater realization that I am not, in fact, in control. That my sense of accomplishment is in many ways an illusion, a game I play of pretending to be God. And this year, I haven't been able to pat myself on the back for fixing my mom's cancer, or even for being able to adequately provide for my family in need. I haven't been able to pat myself on the back for securing my own future beyond seminary, because it turns out that I don't get to hire myself. I haven't been able to even pat myself on the back for maintaining emotional stability or mental stamina in a difficult season, because frankly, that stuff has been mysteriously absent too. 

The point? The point is that this year I've lost "control" over big things-- like the lives of my family members and my future-- AND little things-- like my own ability to think creatively for a paper or feel like a sane human being. And after about three months of seeing that as the problem and desperately reaching to regain the "control" I felt last year, a lightbulb came on: maybe backward (to a false sense of control) isn't the direction I should be longing to go. Maybe instead I could thank the Lord for this reality check and practice doing what I was created to do: depend on Him. 

I am a creature. I'm not sovereign-- over the cosmos, the outcome or behavior of others, or even my own life. And in a "perfect" world (you know, my favorite-- perfect) this would still be the case. I was created to delight in dependence on the One who created me and who is sovereign, not to try to supplant Him. Because even in a perfect world, if I tried to take His job, I would utterly fail at it. 

So practically, what does it look like to accept reality? It doesn't mean giving up, not trying, or not still looking forward to the return of mental energy. It just means that in the moments (or months) of unfixable feelings, putting my hope in Him to sustain me rather than in trying to figure it all out and make it go away. It means not loading my mom's cancer, my teachers' expectations, or myself onto my own shoulders and instead, embracing the fact that I've been hoisted onto Another's shoulders-- the Man who carried my perfectionism to the Cross. It means rejoicing in the truth that I don't have to be able to explain what's going on with me right now; I don't have to know because He knows, and He is trustworthy. And I don't have to know exactly how to "fix me" because even in seasons in of cancer, change, and the loss of control, He is able to save to the uttermost all who draw near to God through Him. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Always Enough

As part of our “internship” at our church, Michael and I lead a morning prayer service on Wednesdays. It’s been a good opportunity for us to take turns offering short reflections on the Scripture passage that is read during the service. I wrote this one a few weeks ago, but presented it today. As it turns out, the timing was just right, because it's just what I needed to be reminded of today. The passage was from Matthew 15, when Jesus fed four thousand hungry people with seven loaves of bread (I know, right? Read the story here). Here's an excerpt from what I shared this morning:

The miracles of Jesus sometimes get categorized as random displays of God’s power, sort of like magic tricks he did to prove that He was from God. “See? Jesus multiplied food! He must be who he said he is.” And, I think there’s some truth to that; at the beginning of his ministry Jesus does appeal to his miracles as evidence that He’s the long awaited Messiah. The book of Luke recounts John the Baptist sending messengers asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” His response is, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up.” So it’s safe to say that Jesus’s miracles do tell us something about who he is. But I think they do that in more ways than we expect.

This miracle tells us something about who Jesus is. “Jesus called his disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd.” Compassion. Care for the people who came to him with weak bodies, blind eyes, lame legs, empty bellies. It’s his compassion that motivates him to provide against all odds. It’s his love that sees their need and meets it. This story stands alone in expressing Jesus’ character, but it also whispers to us something more. Do these words sound familiar? “He took the loaves and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples.” See, later, Jesus’ compassion would come to full fruition, and again he would again provide against all odds. Only this time, the provision would be himself. “This is my body, broken for you.”

When I think of Jesus’ death and resurrection in light of this story, I like the ending Matthew gives us. “They all ate and were satisfied.” Sometimes as weak and hungry disciples, the extent of our own need weighs heavy on us. We realize how anxious, overwhelmed, wounded and burned out we are. We realize our dysfunction and we wonder, does Jesus have enough for me? Does he really care about my pain and if so, can he really help me? Let this story remind you that Jesus has compassion on you; that he doesn’t despise your weakness, and in fact is unwilling to send you away hungry. Eat and be satisfied. With Jesus, there is always enough. 

This year of transition has worn me down-- emotionally, physically, spiritually. The snowball effect has been, at times, despair. Realizations like, "Wow, I've still got a lot to learn," and "I don't know if I have the energy to make it to Christmas" have caused me to wonder, "Does this weakness mean Jesus despises me?" I mean, I kinda "work" for Him now-- doesn't that mean I need to start carrying my own weight? Yet here I am, weak and hungry. Then I read about his response to the crowd and find hope. He knows my weakness (the only surprised one in this situation is me, apparently) and yet He doesn't tell me to "get it together." He has compassion. 

What's more, His provision for the crowd started with seven loaves-- a "meal" that made the disciples scratch their heads-- but it ended with seven baskets of leftovers. A little dramatic irony, perhaps? I think so. And yet I'm no better; when I look at the resources it seems God has given to sustain me through this season, I too scratch my head. "How will this be enough to get me through? Don't you realize how needy I am, Jesus!?!?" Oh, me of little faith. I don't know exactly how my story will end this year, but I do know that what was true for the crowd is true for me:

With Jesus, there is always enough. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Strong Women And Strong Men

My husband and I are watching Alias right now, which is a spy show starring Jennifer Garner. Can we talk about strong female leads? This chick makes me want to learn karate (and makes me wish I could memorize complex codes at first glance-- that would come in handy with biblical languages!) In short, she's a power-female saving the world, and we like it. We get excited when these women's stories are told, when their irreplaceable contributions in beating the bad guys are celebrated (think Eowyn defeating the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings), when they get some prime screen time doing their part to save the world. 

We like feisty female characters. This is one of the reasons I was intrigued to see the Disney movie Brave, which was about a Scottish princess who preferred shooting a bow and arrow to lacing up corsets. I wanted to see how a "tomboy" (for lack of a better word) princess would be depicted and what "finding her place" in her royal family would look like. But Brave disappointed me, not because they were unfair in their depiction of wild-haired tomboys (if there's one thing Disney always gets right, it's memorable hair), but because I felt they were unfair in their depiction of regular boys. The main male character in the movie, her dad, was basically a big buffoon who kept messing things up. One subliminal message I felt they were communicating was, "Good thing the women are around to make sure the men don't mess everything up."

It reminded me that there is a sad polarity at work in our world: either women are sidelined, forced into a tiny box (or corset), treated as insignificant and unable to help "save the world" (enter Jennifer Garner), or they prove themselves as people to be taken seriously, and suddenly men get shoved into the box. Somehow the realization that there are strong princesses results in the depiction of doofus Kings. It seems that often the subliminal message is someone has to be on top; so in order to get there, men and women step on each other. 

I've wrestled with this polarity in various ways as a young woman, whose hair-- though not quite wild enough for Disney, is a little unkempt-- and who wants to help save the world. Growing up, I ingested certain messages about a woman's intelligence, competence, and value, and they deeply rattled my confidence. Then when I began to realize some of those messages weren't true, when I began to get a sense of my own strength and courage, I wondered if that would scare off a man. Though subconsciously, I bought the lie that Disney sold: strong women means weak men. I thought I needed to "tone down" my own strength-- that I had to take the "power" out of power-female-- in order not to threaten the strong man I wanted. Mercifully, I met a man who impressed and inspired me with his own greatness, but who didn't ask me to stuff mine in a box. I met a King who was attracted, not threatened, by my feistiness, and who actually helped me feel secure enough to live into all that God created me to be. Unkempt hair and all.   

The Bible helps me to make sense of this. It's the story of our humanity, and it starts in a Kingdom where royal men and women stand side by side in their glorious calling to steward the world on God's behalf. And when sin got involved, guess what was one of the first things to go? It's actually spelled out, right there in Genesis, that a broken creation means one in which men and women will try to step on each other. Sin wreaked havoc on our relationship with God and therefore also with each other; the result is a tension between the genders that is still felt from Saudi Arabia to North America. 

But the story goes on to introduce Jesus Christ, who came to set things right. He took the brokenness of creation onto Himself on the Cross, and battled the sin that disfigured the people He loved. And He won. He rose to new life-- a life victorious over the dark forces that turned a loving partnership between men and women into a nasty competition to get ahead. He now lives beyond the brokenness of gender wars, and invites all to share in that life through trusting in Him. 

The story of the Bible has helped me to realized that because of sin, the tension I felt and still feel as a woman-- the polarity depicted in movies, in stories from friends, and on the news-- is real. And yet, the Bible also helps me to realize that because of Jesus, it doesn't have to be that way. Through my study of God's Word in the Bible and through my experience of God's word in the love of my husband, I've slowly began to realize is that it doesn't have to be a competition. There can be strong women and strong men, and nobody need get stepped on. 

That is good news for Scottish princesses and their dads, and it's good news for me.