squeezed margins

I’m so loving/hating the 31 Days series on “margin” over at The Stanley Clan. I have read this most recent post about 6 times already, trying to lean into a version of those words that the author’s friend shared with her. They are so true and timely for me too, and I just don’t have a clue what I should do with them.

I know what needs fixed but just don’t know how to fix it exactly. An improvement in one area seems to inevitably mean suffering in another. Balance seems to be something always (way) beyond my grasp. I can’t figure out how “normal” people make it happen. I kind of feel like I’m setting up a bunch of those Jenga game towers, except none of them has all their pieces, so I keep having to take some from one tower to add it to the other, but then I turn right back around to figure out a way to get the first one built back up before it falls completely over.

Lord… Show me how to make even one margin. Just one.

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Monkey Town Read-Along: Week 1

The back cover of the book states, in bold print at the top:

KNOWING ALL THE ANSWERS ISN’T AS IMPORTANT AS ASKING THE QUESTIONS

For some things, this statement doesn’t sit very well with me. For example, if I’m going in for surgery, it’s not a motto that I’d like to see hanging on the wall next to my surgeon’s med school diploma. I’d kind of like him to know the answers when it comes to the why and where and when and how of cutting me open. Because surgery is something that must be precise. There’s not a lot of room for doubting and questioning, you know what I’m sayin’? I like my surgeons to have lots and lots of definitive answers…not questions.

But faith is not surgery. No matter how hard we try to make it so, it’s really not exact and precise. In fact it can get pretty messy and even uncomfortable at times. That’s why it’s faith.  Scripture, the scripture that I believe to be wholly inspired by God, even tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we cannot see.” (Heb 11:1) I think that in almost every way, our entire lives are spent pressing toward the place where we become content with that exact definition of faith.

Last week I started a new summer read-along that I’m doing with some folks over at my new friend Marla’s blog. The book is called Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans. It’s about one woman’s journey through the questions we all (likely) ask of our faith. She just had the cojones to ask them out loud, on paper, through thousands of copies out in front of the world. If she can be so bold, can’t we??

Part of the reason it’s taken me a week to write this post is because I felt the need to establish a bit of context for my comments about this book. Much like Rachel, I felt like I needed to tell my own personal faith story in order for anyone to know where I was coming from in reference to this book or my own questions about faith. So I took the time to go back and piece together story of how my faith was born. If you’re interested, check it out here, but be warned, it is looooooong.

Okay so let’s get on with it, shall we?

This week’s assignment was only to read and comment on the preface and introduction to the book. Lemme tell ya…that was plenty for me. Here are some things that stood out to me:

  1. Deep breath…..I forgive you, Rachel, for referring to apes (via Koko the Gorilla and Dian Fossey references) as monkeys. It’s a common problem and a personal pet peeve of mine. I am going to assume you did so on purpose so as to keep up the clever reference to the Scopes Monkey Trial throughout the book. Enough about that.  Deep breath….
  2. The introduction is actually entitled “Why I Am An Evolutionist.” I thought this was a very good use of this sometimes-dirty word. I don’t really get what the big deal is. To evolve means to change into something new… evolution is actually defined by the good folks at Merriam-Webster as “a process of change in a certain direction.” By that definition, all of us are evolving, either into something more and better than we are now or something less that we hoped we’d be. The direction is what matters. As Christians, we are called to constantly becoming more Christ-like every day. That is an evolution if I’ve ever heard of it, and certainly in one specific direction. So if our actual being is changing to become more like our Savior, then wouldn’t our understanding of that process (our faith) constantly be changing along with it? It would have to. I know that because of God in my life, I understand more about Him, myself, and others around me that I ever have. Therefore my faith itself has changed. For example, I love my husband. He is one of the most important parts of my life. But when I learned, through studying the Word and prayer, that he could not be THE most important thing in my life, the way I interacted with him changed. I no longer looked to him to give me my identity or my worth. That’s a job he couldn’t do. Those things only come from God, so I have to go to Him with those needs. When I do, my foundation is firm and I can live confidently and love my husband better because I am not expecting him to do things that he cannot do. My faith in God is actually bigger because that understanding has changed…it has evolved into a faith that allows me to put God before my husband, which enables me to honor both. So I am not scared to say that indeed our faith evolves. In fact, if it does not…are we living fully and growing at all?
  3. My faith began with lots of questions. I have a feeling it will always include and even end with questions upon questions. That doesn’t scare me either. I feel like if I had everything all settled and felt like God was figured out and I could explain every miraculous event and I had a quick, neat little response for everything God-related… then how big could God really be? Isn’t the fact that we humans cannot figure him out and explain his reasoning and all that just more proof that He is in fact, God? God is enigmatic, and if He weren’t, then what would about him would be worth worshipping? I have experienced many cool things in my life, but none of them were worth reshaping my whole world around. God is. And the sheer fact that he is so awe-inducing and beyond my tiny understanding is what makes Him worth giving my whole life to. I know there will always be things about Him and His decisions that I do not understand. But if I allow them to produce anxiety and fear and doubt in me, then really I think He’s keeping something from me that I need and I question His motives. If I do that, then do I really trust Him? Not so much. If I believe that God is good and loves me and knows what is best for me, then I’ll understand that He gives me knowledge about what I need to know (and what I can handle) when I need to know it. I trust that whatever I don’t know yet is just because I have what I need to know right now. He gets to call the shots when it comes to tell me more details. I am okay with that because I know that He gives me only good things.
  4. What about monkeys (APES!!) and evolution and old earth vs. new earth and evolution and all that stuff?? I do not believe science and faith to be mutually exclusive at all. The bible says that God created everything in 6 days. It also says that a day in the Lord is like a thousand years. So does that mean He created everything in 6000 years? Hmmmm. I think this: God created everything. All I have to do is look at a newborn baby or see the Fibonacci sequence in nature to know that there is a rhyme and reason to all things. Things like the way food chains work, the way that our body heals itself, and the vast diversity of species on the earth and deep in the sea… those incredible things don’t point to a happy accident that resulted in a long line of events leading up to the birth of human beings to me. No way. There is purpose in everything, everywhere. Those things point to a Creator who knew what He had in mind when it was created. It doesn’t matter how long it took for Him to create it. The point is…whether is was 6 days or 6000 years or 60 billion years, humans couldn’t have made it happen. A couple of molecules and some heat couldn’t have done it. It’s beyond our understanding…it’s an unfathomable task, regardless of the time it took. I am not dismissing the discussion about it, but again, I love the wonder it creates in me….it’s not going to shake my faith in any way shape or form. God chose men to breathe his Word into. Therefore, when they penned the writings that He knew would eventually be the compilation of what He wanted to say to us in that way, He had to allow those scribes to put it in language that we could wrap our minds around. So whether he had allowed the scribe who penned Genesis to say “6 days” or “6 billion years” we would still question it. It’s amazing that God created everything and He still loves and cares for us. He is outside of our complete understanding, outside of time and space. The fact that He’s let us in on even some of His big story is amazing.
  5. On page 18 of the introduction, Rachel uses this sentence: So fearful of losing their grip on faith, they squeeze the life out of it. She is referring to fundamentalists, or people who “think God is pretty much figured out already” and He’s “done telling us anything new.” (pg. 17) I’ve known a few people like this in my day, haven’t you? Those churchy folk who refuse to allow their children to participate in science class for fear of what they might learn. Those people who don’t believe in healing because that only happened “back in bible times.” Those church leaders who insist their congregants dress a certain way and cover any tattoos and cut their hair because by golly, that’s what Jesus would have looked like if he’d had the modern conveniences of a suit and a shave. Um, yeah…those folks. Don’t they just seem to drain the life out of everything? If that’s what people want to believe, then that’s fine…but don’t go slapping a Jesus fish on it. Because that’s not what Jesus was like. He questioned things. He rebuked the folks who looked like they had it all together. He shot straight to the heart when people came around wanting to look cool on the outside. He didn’t have time for all that. He was busy trying to bring life to people. And I would rather do that too. I’d rather focus on bringing life to people around me rather than holding tight to the way someone should dress or act or think or whatever. I’m perfectly okay with asking questions. As long as they inspire wonder and awe for God, rather than causing us to simply grasp for knowledge just for the sake of feeling like we know something more than the next dude.

Okay then, there’s a lot more that I could say about this, but I need to get started on my next reading assignment anyway. If you’ve made it through this long-arse post and you have another sec, why not leave a comment telling me a faith-question (or maybe an anti-faith question?) that makes you a little uncomfortable. It may end up being one of the same question asked in this book later on. I can’t wait to find out.

Good advice

I’m always amazed at how incredibly gracious God is to us messed up ragamuffins, especially to me. . You poor folks who actually read this thing…I didn’t mean to worry you too much. I know how squirmy you people who love me can get when I have a little huge freak-out and start writing posts like this and I’m not my perky self. I understand how you worry about me because my moods swing from one end of crazy to the other, and with serious quickness. It’s really happened too many times this year. I’m chalking it up to my terribly short memory. You know, the one that always seems to forget somehow that God is completely in control of my everything and that usually when I’m freaked out it’s because I haven’t spent enough time with Him and my eyes are looking in another direction. Yeah, that short memory.

I want to thank you for your prayers…many of you mentioned that you had been praying for me, and I certainly did need it. Several of you sent me messages with encouraging words, telling me what you have experienced in times similar to this, when everything just seemed too…well, too everything. Like things were spinning out of control and you felt imbalanced and unsure of the next step. Thank you for all of that encouragement. What did I ever do to deserve friends like the ones I have? *sigh*

So as you know, all this craziness has been brought on by my workaholic personality. I’ve known about it for a long time, but in the last couple of years I’ve really been thinking about how to make it better. I haven’t exactly figured out the root cause, but it seems as if it is likely several things all together. God’s still showing me all that. But this week, Todd asked me to read a part of a book he’s reading (The Christian Atheist-I read the first few chapters then he hijacked it and I hadn’t finished yet!) because he said that it reminded him of me and my current situation. The author relates his own struggle with being a workaholic, and the process he went through to change. But this part was at the beginning of his real journey, about him basically telling his counselor, after much probing and prodding,  that he didn’t feel like he would change because this was just who he was. The counselor leaned over to him and said something like “So, basically, you’re saying that our God isn’t big enough to change you?”

THAT was his turning point. When he admitted that he really was telling God “You can’t handle this job,” that made a world of difference for him. I mean, who says that to God? Who ever could? Obviously He can handle anything.

Okay, that’s great…but I didn’t think that really related to me specifically because I wasn’t telling God that I couldn’t change. I have been telling Him for a long time that I needed Him to show me what the deal was so I could figure out how to fix it. Right there was my first hint,  but I didn’t really get it until later in the weekend.

Fast-forward to Saturday morning. I woke up, so happy that I could just reach over and grab a book and read in bed for a while before ever having to get up to do anything. I grabbed a couple of books (nerd alert!) and my bible.  I started praying and thanking God for an awesome morning, and asking Him to speak to me. I did that thing that I do sometimes where I ask God to speak to me through His word and I just let my bible fall open, then I read whatever catches my eye on that page. It’s not rocket science, I know. Maybe you have a better way, but I know He has been faithful to speak to me many times like that. I may be random, but He isn’t.

This time, it fell open to Psalm 107, which starts out: Shout praises to the LORD!   He is good to us, and his love never fails. Everyone the LORD has rescued  from trouble should praise him… Alright. Check. Moving on…

Then it starts explaining all these different types of people and the situations they’ve gotten themselves into, and how when they finally cried out to Him, he rescued them from their circumstances and restored them back to an even better place than when they’d started out. It talked about people who were homeless wanderers, hungry and thirsty, depressed, imprisoned, distressed, foolish, rebellious, enslaved, sinful, physically ill, sailing on high seas, discouraged, etc… Do you see yourself yet? I didn’t. Not until I read the verses again, and in 10-16, I saw my face:

Some of you were prisoners  suffering in deepest darkness  and bound by chains,

    because you had rebelled  against God Most High  and refused his advice.

    You were worn out  from working like slaves,  and no one came to help.

    You were in serious trouble,  but you prayed to the LORD,  and he rescued you.

    He brought you out  of the deepest darkness  and broke your chains.

    You should praise the LORD  for his love  and for the wonderful things  he does for all of us.

    He breaks down bronze gates  and shatters iron locks.

Whoa… that’s me. I’ve been worn out from working like a slave. No one was helping me, or even able to. I was bound by my own self-made chains, suffering  with self-scorn and spiraling into a funky depression. So…all I had to do was pray to God? Well that’s weird because that’s what I have been doing and nothing is getting better.  But then my eyes fell back on to that part about refusing His advice. Then the part about calling on Him and He would rescue me.

You see it?? All this time, here I was thinking that I had called on God, but all I had really been doing was talking at Him. Remember what I said? I had been telling Him to show ME what the problem was so I could figure out how to fix it. Never once had I called on Him to fix it all for me…to swoop in and rescue me from this latest ridiculousness that I’d created for myself. Never once had I just turned it over to Him and said God, unless you come through for me on this and fix it for me, I’m not gonna make it.

So there it is, all back to trust and obedience. I saw Him just sitting back and shaking His head, with a grin on His face that said finally, you’re hearing Me. That was the key all along…not thinking that I was going to figure out a way to fix all this junk, not that I ever could have, but trusting Him to fix it for me, and to become a little more like His Son along the way somehow.

The coolest part was later when I was meditating on these verses and I couldn’t stop thinking about that word advice. That was the part that I was stuck on…okay, God, what specifically is this advice of yours that I haven’t heeded? I really sensed Him tell me that I’d find out soon enough. So I went about my morning, getting ready to just enjoy an entire day doing nothing related to work, but just loving the beautiful weather (this is my favorite time of year!) and visiting with family and spending time with the delicious man that He made for me. I was nearly giddy just thinking about it. While I was brushing my teeth, I decided to go check the Bible Gateway verse of the day on my phone, which I frequently do as a way to kick-off my day. It said simply:

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children -Ephesians 5:1

Thank you, Abba. That’s good advice. I AM your child. I don’t need to worry about anything else.

Those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.

I hate this question.

I’m in the second week of the James read-along and I literally just had the thought that maybe my current near-nervous-breakdown (don’t freak out on that one…I use that term fairly regularly to describe my ridiculous overly-dramatic reaction to things) might be related to it. It’s going to take a while to piece it all together, but I’ll put that little idea in my back pocket for a sec.

Anyhooooo….moving right along from that ADD moment…Here’s the killer verse this week:

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Flashback to The Help movie, which I just saw a few weeks ago with my book club gals. I keep thinking about how Hilly the Terrible (that’s my personal name for her,  a high-society, self-righteous, racist snob in the 3rd degree)  responded when her maid asked her for an advance in pay in order to be able to send both of her boys to college, rather than choosing which one she would be able to afford to send. Hilly the Terrible responded by saying that she, as a Christian, was going to “help her out,” and you could see the smile faintly crack on the maid’s face. That is, until Hilly the Terrible continued on to explain that “God doesn’t give charity to those who are able” and told the maid that she’d just have to find a way to come up with that money herself.

Nice.

So what does that have to do with the book of James? Specifically that chunk above? Well it has a lot to do with me, a high-society (aka richer than 99.9% of the rest of the peeps on this planet,) self-righteous, (albeit non-racist) snob in the 10th degree. You know why? Because even though I have my moments where I feel that double-edged sword cut through me and divide my self from my spirit and I truly feel love for someone else to the point where I would just meet their needs (like Danny, for example) …the other side of that coin is that most of the time I catch myself thinking: How far does that verse really go? I mean, if I have the means to do anything I can to meet the needs of a fellow human being, how detailed do we get here? Does that mean in the big stuff that comes my way, like sponsoring a child in a faraway land? Because I have that box checked, twice (yay, look at me, right!?) But does it even “count” if there’s no sacrifice involved for me? I mean, I can provide education, clothing, food, shelter, medical care, stability, and spiritual growth for  a child for less than it costs to fill up my gas tank 1 and 1/2 times. So….what did I really do that cost me anything?

And even if that stuff counts, then how much am I expected to give, really? Giving (money, anyway) is not really an area where my husband and I struggle. Now I’m not saying that to sound all awesome, because believe me, there are a million other areas where we do struggle that others just plain have it goin’ on in, you know? But that’s one we’ve always been on the same page with since we’ve met, and I believe God has given us a great measure of grace regarding that area because He led us to begin teaching others about financial responsibility and giving. Makes sense, right? But if I think I’m doing just fine and then I’m holding a $6 Starbucks, did I really show my faith? That $6 could go a long way in India, my friends. The other night I was at a party where goods were being sold from a catalog.  Accessories, not necessities. (UUUGGHHH I can’t believe I’m telling this story….) When it was over, the total sales were tallied up and they amounted to several hundred dollars. HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS. Enough to sponsor another girl for an entire year. I pushed down the little twinge of guilt I felt when I heard the total because I wasn’t sure if it was real conviction or a piece of equipment on the devil’s playground, so I pushed it away and decided I’d deal with it later, that I’d ask God to clear all that up for me. This is the first time I’m revealing it at all. In fact, I kinda forgot about it until just now.

So did I, in effect,  silently say, “go, be well and have a good day” to an orphan somewhere overseas because I pushed away that feeling, that thought of Oh, my goodness, a room full of people just spent enough money to take care of an orphan for the next year without saying anything or doing anything differently? I mean, I did want my new purse, after all. And plus, mentioning that after everyone has purchased their items isn’t exactly the best way to keep a party going, now is it? [Here comes Debbie Downer!]

Now, I am certainly not against Starbucks or pretty purses or any of the people who buy them. But those are good examples of the things that race through my mind when I hear this whole “faith without works” verse. HOW MUCH is really expected of us? I know we are allowed to enjoy some pleasures here on earth, but at what point is it just too much excess? Is it wrong for me to enjoy something even though I know choosing not to enjoying it could benefit someone else? In my mind I think well, it’s not like I’m directly hurting anyone or taking something away from someone who needs it. Or…am I?

The fact that I am even thinking so much about the details involved with how much good I have to do is disturbing to me. Since when did my faith become that I-still-want-to-get-away-with-enjoying-as-much-as-I-can-for-myself-while-still-meeting-my-Jesus-quota kind of thing? While I don’t consciously think that whenever I’m going through my daily life, this digging through the book of James business is making me want to get to the bottom of this It’s  like digging out a splinter. Ouch.

Lord, help please dig out this splinter before a full-blown infection takes its place.

What about you? Is this a valid concern or more false guilt? If faith without works is dead (and it is, because, um…the Bible already told us so) then how are you doing? Thoughts, please.

I am being torn up.