Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gonna live what I believe

When I was very young, Amy Grant's music constantly played in my parents' house. (I can still picture her leopard print jacket on that record sleeve.) And now, after many, many years of relatively Amy-Grantless life, the words of this song still go through my head: "I have decided / I'm gonna live like a believer / turn my back on the deceiver / gonna live what I believe." Not a bad idea, really. I'm all for "practicing what we preach," "walking the walk," and all those other cliches.

Because we believe we're saved by grace, we should stop acting like we're not. Because we believe Jesus loves everyone, we should love everyone, too. Or, m0re frequently harped on, because we believe we're not supposed to do certain things, we shouldn't do them.

I'm afraid that by arguing against this idea, it's going to sound like I'm advocating either hypocrisy or license. That's not what I'm saying at all.

Here's the thing. I think that how we live is inextricably tied up with what we believe. Ultimately, I think, we all live what we really believe. That's why what we believe is so incredibly important.

If we really, truly believe that each individual is precious to God, then we'll treat them as if they have incredible value. If we really, truly believe that God loves us, then we'll be more free to love others. When we fail to love others, or when we fail to live like we are loved, I think it really comes down to the fact that we don't really believe everything we claim to believe.

I think that we can tell a great deal about what people actually believe by observing the way they treat those around them. For that matter, we can learn an awful lot about what we believe by paying attention to what we're thinking about ourselves and other people.

Now, I'm not saying that we should give up on trying to believe these things or that we should stop acting on these truths until we've finally become fully convinced of them. But I think that acknowledging our lack of belief is an important first step. In order to counter falsehood with truth, you have to confront the falsehood. As one desperate father told Jesus, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).

Sometimes, I think we have to just live what we're trying to believe-- and I think that living as if we believe helps us to actually believe. To a certain extent, belief is a choice, and living as if we believe is an important part of that choice.

I don't have everything figured out, but, to borrow Amy Grant's words, "I'm gonna live like a believer." And I believe, by God's grace, one day I'll finally fully be one.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

As I was digging through my closet the other day, I rediscovered the fact that there is a shelf in the back of it, hidden behind my hanging clothes. (Please note, family members: the clothes were hanging, not piled.) Stacked on the shelf were a bunch of my old journals.

Now, I've never been very good at keeping journals, but, for some reason, when I travel, I become somewhat more disciplined about such things. This means that I have a pretty faithful record of my travels in Spain and my year in Guatemala. (The only other time I tend to write in journals is when I'm in a horrible, horrible mood, so, other than records of my travels, my journals consist mostly of hysterical rantings. So, if I die young, burn them.) :)

Rereading things that I wrote years ago is always a half-pleasurable, half-painful experience. Sometimes I laugh at the person that I was then-- so concerned about such silly things, so bad at reading myself and other people. Sometimes my laughter is mixed with embarrassment that I would think--much less write-- such things. Sometimes I'm surprised to remember struggles I had, concerns that seemed to overwhelm me, because they seem so petty now. And sometimes I'm surprised because they seem so relevant to the things I am experiencing right now.

The journal that I wrote in while I lived in Guatemala was a graduation gift. The inscription in the front reads, "May this journal give you a way to always remember how God has blessed you and allow you to watch the growth that is present in your life." I'm not sure that I really paid attention to that inscription before, but the wish it offers has come true. This journal chronicles so much about who I was then, who I had been before, and who I am now. (So I guess this one journal can be exempt from the burn pile.)

While rereading this journal has provided me with enough entertainment to last awhile (see excerpts below), it's mostly been an encouragement to me in seeing how far I've come. So many struggles that I had then seem so unimportant now, so many issues that I thought would never resolve have been resolved. Mostly, it serves as a record of God's faithfulness to me. Things that I wanted that I shouldn't have had, I didn't get. Things that I didn't want but got anyway have truly proved to be blessings.

Sometimes I forget these things. Sometimes my current problems and concerns seem so big that I lose perspective. Sometimes I seem to be moving so slowly that I forget how far I've come. But God is faithful. And, every once in awhile, I'll dig out this journal to remind myself.

A few highlights from my Guatemala journal:

Skippy (7th grade) told me that, for his birthday, he wanted me to swear in Spanish. I didn't comply with his request.

The eighth grade girls told me that they thought I was going through menopause.

My host mom told me I look like a barbie, based solely on my fair skin and curly hair, since I'm pretty sure I'm not proportioned right.

The eighth grade girls attributed my singleness to the fact that I "talk about math all the time."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Loving a Blemished Bride

Sometimes I don’t like the Church very much. Sometimes sermons make me furious, church rules make me want to cry, and churchgoers leave me wondering if they really believe anything Jesus said. Sometimes the “bride of Christ” is just plain ugly.

[Note: This is not written about any one particular church.]

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I wish this depiction were not true, but, too often, I have found it a painfully accurate portrait.

I heard the environmental movement dismissed as a bunch of “tree huggers” from the pulpit once—and far more frequently from Church members. Recently a friend of mine listened to a sermon in which the priest dismissed, off-hand, the work of a brilliant philosopher, whose work he had clearly not taken the time to understand. Even John Piper, some of whose work I respect very much, pronounced a couple of weeks ago that a tornado that hit a Lutheran church in Minneapolis was a warning from God to the ELCA (even trying to back up his point by using a scripture in which Jesus specifically states that disasters are not necessarily indications of special judgment).

It breaks my heart to see the church so quick to condemn, so unwilling to take the time to listen, so far from showing Christ’s compassion. Sometimes, I think that we would get along better with the Pharisees than with Jesus.

I wish I could say that I, unlike all of these other people, am never judgmental, never cruel, never self-righteous, but I may be the worst of the bunch. While I memorized James 1:19 long ago, I am still slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.

I wonder if the reason we are so quick to judge others is that we somehow think that it makes us look better. If we point out the zit on our neighbor’s nose, perhaps no one will notice that we accidentally put on our sweater inside out. Maybe it will make us forget how ridiculous we must look. It feels like junior high all over again.

These reflections used to depress me, and sometimes they still do. But my perception is slowly changing. It’s not that, this time, I remembered to put my sweater on right-side out. It’s that this time I’ve realized that God loves me no matter how my sweater looks. And, not only that, but he doesn’t really mind that zit on my neighbor’s nose.

In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul writes that Christ, “loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” I am getting to know a God who knows all of my wrinkles and blemishes but who loves me deeply anyway—a God who died to make me beautiful.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Teach Us to Sit Still

Hello. My name is Leta, and I’m an overachiever.

This is not a new revelation for me. It’s something I’ve been working to change for a long time. (Please note the irony that I’m working on not working too hard.)

Even though I’ve known this for a long time, it hit me anew the other night, when one of my friends commented, “You know, all of the really good things that have happened to me have just happened. I didn’t do anything to make them happen.”

The truth of what she said struck me immediately. In my life, as in hers, good things have come when I haven’t expected them, much less deserved them. So I asked myself, once more, why on earth I keep trying so hard. I have seen, again and again, that blessings are just waiting for me to stop running after them.

Jesus promised, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Whatever yoke it is that I keep trying to carry, it is obviously not this one. I want this one.

I’ve decided to give up on praying that God will help me to achieve whatever little goal I’ve decided that I must achieve next. Now I’m praying a new prayer. Lord, give me the grace to stop trying so hard.

While I in no way endorse some aspects of T.S. Eliot’s life and thought (and I frankly don’t understand many others), lately I've found myself praying these words along with him:
I no longer strive to strive towards such things….
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain….
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will…
-- “Ash-Wednesday”
This is what I want, and this, I believe, is what God wants for me.

The first of the 12 steps of recovery programs is to admit that we can’t control the things that control us, that we are powerless over our own lives. I’ve decided to take that step—to stop running around frantically trying to fix everything.

Lord, teach me to sit still.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Trouble with "The Trouble with 'X'"

One day, in heaven, I plan to have C.S. Lewis sign my copy of the Chronicles of Narnia. Or, since I suppose that it's probably true that "you can't take it with you," I'll probably have to borrow a copy from heaven's library to have him sign.

But, one day, in my heavenly book club (which I will invite him to join), I'm afraid I'm going to have to take him to task for a few things. One of those things is his short essay "The Trouble with 'X'." (You can read it online at

This essay, in short, argues that all of those people that we have trouble getting along with-- collectively named 'X'-- are really just like us, and it would really be more worth our while to think about our own faults than about theirs.

I more or less agree with him, but there are a few places where we disagree, and I think those disagreements are significant.

My first disagreement is his statement that, even if all of the other circumstances of our lives were all in line, "real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with - and ... you can't alter their characters." I agree with the second part-- that we can't alter other people's characters-- and I can certainly testify that those around us affect our mood. But I don't agree that other people can destroy 'real happiness.' I believe that real happiness is not based on anything as fickle as other human beings. If our happiness is based on people whose characters are anything like ours, then I don't know that we'll ever be really happy. I don't believe that we were designed for that.

But enough disagreement for now. This next bit I agree with:

He [God] sees (like you) how all the people in your home or your job are in various degrees awkward or difficult; but when He looks into that home or factory or office He sees one more person of the same kind - the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself. That is the next great step in wisdom - to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs.

Further, Lewis says, "We must love 'X' more; and we must learn to see ourselves as a person of exactly the same kind." Both true. We like to pretend that we're innocent victims, and we use this to justify our anger and self-righteousness. Instead we need to realize that we're often as much in the wrong as everyone else (if not more so), and we need to love them as they are, not as they might be if they stopped annoying us.

This next bit I agree with for the most part, but here, I think, Lewis has the main idea right and some of the details wrong:
Abstain from all thinking about other people's faults, unless your duties as a teacher or parent make it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one's mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one's own faults instead? For there, with God's help, one can do something. Of all the awkward people in your house or job there is only one whom you can improve very much.

First, I don't think that ignoring people's faults-- or "abstaining from thinking about them"-- is always right. In most cases, this is the best option, but there are exceptions. In some cases, it is our unpleasant duty to confront people about their faults. (If we don't think it's unpleasant, we probably had better keep our mouths shut.) In other cases, when other people's faults involve abuse-- emotional or physical-- we must respond to their faults by distancing ourselves, either emotionally or physically. It is not loving to allow people to continue self-destructive behavior or to allow them to abuse and manipulate us.

The second part of this paragraph that I have qualms about is Lewis' suggestion that we should replace ruminating on other people's faults with mulling over our own. To a certain extent, Lewis is right. For the most part, it would be beneficial if we thought less about what other people do wrong and more about what we do wrong. But this can be gone about in the wrong way, and it can be taken too far. If we simply replace our angry thoughts about our brothers with angry thoughts about ourselves, we haven't made much progress. And if we spend too much time thinking about our own faults, we may, in fact, be going backward, not progressing.

I believe that instead of replacing our anger toward our brothers with anger toward ourselves, we must replace both with grace.

Lewis is right that we are the only people that we can change. Unfortunately, however, I have found that the amount I can change even myself is pretty limited. God is the only one who can change me or anyone else, and, fortunately, his grace is much more abundant than mine.

I suppose that my heavenly book club will probably have better things to discuss than how much to think about our own and other people's faults, since it'll be a moot point by then anyway. But I'm pretty sure we'll never get tired of talking about the grace that covered our faults-- that took away all of "The Trouble with 'X'."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bueno es Dios, siempre fiel

It's been a long time since I've posted on here. Last time I wrote, I didn't even know that I'd be going to Guatemala. Now, I've gone and come back.

My trip to Guatemala was sort of last minute-- a group from my church was going and invited me to come along as a translator. Not having been back to Guatemala since I left three years ago, I was happy to accept.

On this trip, as before, I was struck by the ironies of life in Guatemala-- beauty contrasting with squalor, joy with pain. I think the whole group struggled to know how to deal with these issues, after seeing a few of the 10,000 people who make their living scavenging through the refuse of Guatemala City's "sanitary fill" and being welcomed into the tiny, dirt-floored homes of indigenous Christians in San Pedro La Laguna.

After the group left for Guatemala City, en route to the US, I headed further north to Xela. I've traveled by myself in Guatemala before, so I wasn't particularly worried, even though I had heard that the country has grown more dangerous in the last couple of years. It's funny; in the US, I worry about everything. In Guatemala, I pretty much accept the fact that I don't have control over anything and thus worry very little.

I hadn't realized traveling with the group how much the situation has gone downhill in the last couple of years. It wasn't until I saw increased security measures in places where I had been before and talked to Guatemalans that I had known when I lived there that I realized the degree to which things have changed. (Don't be alarmed, those of you who tend to worry about me. I am always careful and was never in danger.) :)

When I visited my host mom, Flor, she told me that my host dad and brother had been held up at gunpoint at 10:30 in the morning just a few blocks from the house a couple of weeks before. She seemed concerned about me traveling back to the city, although my host brother assured us both that the likelihood of me having problems was very low. Before I left, she told me, "Go with God in your heart, and you'll be fine." Not quite the kind of assurance that I think my mother would want!

This kind of assurance seems much more real to me when I travel, for some reason. God seems more real when everything else seems uncertain. Parts of the Old Testament, too, seem much more relevant when read in this context. After seeing the dump and the poverty in San Pedro, I found comfort in Jeremiah's words in Lamentations 3:
For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.

After hearing about frequent armed robberies, I read Psalm 10:
the wicked man...lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, waiting in secret for his victims.... Arise Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.... But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand....You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

When I'm living my comfortable life in the States, I can ignore some of life's harsher realities. When a few of my physical comforts are removed, I find it much easier to turn to my true Comforter.

The words in the title of this post are from one of my favorite Spanish songs, which I had the opportunity to sing at a couple of church services we attended. "God is good," it proclaims. "He is always faithful. In the darkness, his love will shine. God is good, God is good, always faithful."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Irony and awe

As most of you probably know, I am far more at home with irony than with awe.

Every once in awhile, though, wonder breaks through my shell of cynicism. As I was sitting on my back porch the other day, reading, drinking coffee, and talking to God, I was overwhelmed with God’s goodness. The grace was almost palpable, carried on the breeze of a glorious spring morning.

Since graduating from college four years ago, I have lived in two countries and the same number of states. For an introverted, change-resistant girl like me, this is has involved an awful lot of adaptation, forced extroversion, and reluctant courage. It’s also involved a lot of learning, and most of the lessons have not come easily.

Before coming to Wichita, a little less than a year ago, I began praying that God would prepare a place for me here. Frankly, I’d gotten a bit tired of the whole process of picking up my life every year or two and starting over, so I asked him to smooth my path, and to give me courage.

He answered that prayer far more abundantly than I could have imagined. I had gotten used to praying and assuming that, while God would hear, he would end up giving me something far more difficult and unpleasant than I had been hoping for.

I really do believe that God works for good in everything, and that he has done that, visibly, in my own life. I see the good fruit of my difficult times every day. But God has given me rest in the last year, and I am unspeakably thankful. He knew that I had had about as much as I could handle, and he, like a good Father, knew that I needed a break.

This year hasn’t been perfect, of course; it has certainly had its ups and downs. But, overwhelmingly, God has provided. I feel like David in Psalm 31:8; God has indeed “set my feet in a spacious place.”

The irony of it all is that the difficulties I have come through make me realize and savor God’s goodness in ways that I would never have been able to without them. And this irony leaves me in awe.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Falling through the cracks

I’ve been looking through the World Health Organization’s 2009 Mortality and Burden of Disease Statistics, in preparation for some grant writing. The numbers are overwhelming, to say the least. As I scrolled through the document, looking at numbers representing life expectancy and infant mortality, I reflected on the immense size of the need.

All of these numbers represent human beings—people with families, people who are of incredible value to their Maker. And these people are dying of diseases that could be cured, of wounds that could be healed. They have fallen through the cracks of our support systems.

At Hospitals of Hope, we’re working to serve as many of these people as we can. But what we can do is limited. Even within our existing ministry, we constantly have to prioritize among the many pressing needs we’re presented with. There are far too many people that we can do nothing to help.

As I’m faced with this problem day after day, I think I’m finally beginning to gain some perspective. As my sister told me a few weeks ago, God never asked us to solve all of the world’s problems. He only asks us to do what we can, where we can, with his help.

God never asked us to save the world. That’s his job.

He sees every sparrow that falls. He knows the number of the hairs on our heads. When people slip through the cracks in our society, we can rest assured that they will fall into his hands.

Monday, May 4, 2009

So much for wisdom...

Lately, I’ve been realizing how very little I know. My younger brother asks me for advice, and I have none to give him. My friends struggle with difficult decisions, and I am silent.

This is rather unusual for me. Those of you who know me well (and, probably, even those who don’t know me very well) know that my initial quietness is only a thin veil for my strong opinions.

And yet, more and more, I am speechless.

It’s not that I don’t still have a lot of strong opinions that I’m willing to air to anyone who will listen (and a good many people who’d rather not). Rather, I’m beginning to realize that all of the answers that I thought I had don’t account for the complexity of life. Life is bigger, and scarier, and better, and more beautiful, than I knew.

Supposedly, the wise are those who recognize how very little they know. This means that, right now, as I’m claiming to be realizing my ignorance, I’m secretly hoping that this actually reveals how very wise I really am.

So much for that.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Soloist

Yesterday, as the rain was pouring down and the tornado sirens were blaring, I sprinted through the rain into the theater to watch The Soloist—a movie about the relationship between Steve Lopez, a journalist, and Nathanael Ayers, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was once a student at Julliard.

After emerging from the Warren, still damp from the drenching I got on the way in, I reflected on how much I appreciated the movie. It does not trivialize mental illness; it does not make fun of its protagonist, as do so many depictions of the mentally ill. It was a touching tribute to the relationship between these two men. That’s why I was so surprised at some of the reviews of it I have since read. The film was not brilliant, I suppose, but I don’t think it deserves many of these criticisms.

The criticism that perplexed me the most was that the film is not realistic. I suppose that is true, in some respects. Perhaps not all of the characters were completely developed; perhaps the imaginary orchestra that begins playing whenever Ayers lifts his bow is a bit over the top. On another level, though, the filmmakers got it exactly right.

For those of you who have experienced mental illness or have loved someone struggling with mental illness, I recommend this film because it illustrates some of our pain, fear, and joy. For those of you who have not been affected by mental illness (or, at least, not yet), I recommend this film because it may help you to catch a glimpse into our world.

It captures the frustration and pain of feeling deep mental anguish while surrounded by those who cannot see that anything is wrong. It captures the struggle of caring for someone who doesn’t always want help, who doesn’t always recognize that they need help. It captures the confusion of caretakers trying to decide how hard to push for a treatment that is unwanted. It captures some of the societal issues that have contributed to the problem of mental illness—homelessness, overly strict (in my opinion) laws about patient consent. It also captures some of the joy when those we care about are well enough to accept—and to give—love.

Some say the film fails because it tries to do too much—that it can’t work out all of the complications brought in by having a homeless hero with schizophrenia who also happens to be a brilliant musician. This is one of the things that I like about it. It’s messy, and so is mental illness. If it tied the story up in a nice little package, it might leave viewers happier, but it wouldn’t be true. It doesn’t try to pretend like Ayers is suddenly healed because someone cares for him; it doesn’t pretend like the progress he’s made is irreversible. It rejoices in his happiness, precarious as it is, all the while reminding us that people aren’t just cured from mental disorders, that relapse is always a terrifying possibility.

Most of these reviews I disagreed with, but only one made me truly angry. This reviewer complained that we are given no explanation for why Nathaniel Ayers developed schizophrenia—a complaint that, to me, reveals how very little its author knows about mental illness. I, too wish I had some explanations, but they aren’t forthcoming. No film director can simply explain away mental illness.

Those of us who have seen mental illness up close and personal often wish that we had an explanation. We think up lots of them—genes, parents, friendships (or the lack thereof), poor eating habits—the list never ends. But we never really find the answer. We narrow it down to our best guesses, and we know that genetics and environment both play a part, but we can never know for sure if a different set of circumstances might have led to a different result.

And we never stop wishing. Even when we see that good has come from all the pain, we can’t help hoping that, in the future, good will choose an easier path.

I hope that the next time I visit the Warren, it won’t be in the midst of a tornado warning and that I won’t be dripping by the time I enter through the door. Even if those circumstances repeat themselves, though, I’d be happy to run through the rain again as long as I find another movie like The Soloist inside.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Balancing on a broken world

For I have time for nothing
But the endeavor to balance myself /
Upon a broken world.
--Amy Lowell, "September, 1918"

I feel as if the weight of the world were crashing down on me tonight.

I just finished watching a movie called "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"-- a documentary about the way women in Liberia helped to end their 14-year civil war. It's an inspirational film about women who decided that someone had to end the war, and, since no one else was going to, they would. It is a decidedly hopeful film, one where a seemingly unsolvable situation is resolved.

This is accurate. Those women helped to bring peace, and Liberia has made incredible strides since the war ended just six years ago. But as I watched the film, I found myself again and again bombarded with facts that I already knew, yet preferred to forget. Up to 10% of Liberian children were used as child soldiers. Women and children were senselessly raped and maimed. Thousands were killed. Thousands more were displaced.

Since the war ended, Liberia has begun to recover. Infrastructure is slowly being rebuilt, and democracy is taking hold. Despite this, the Liberian people remain desperately poor; their condition has improved, but it is still far below what most of us would consider livable.

Difficult though this situation is, to me, that is not the worst of it. It seems to me that physical hardship is nothing compared to the psychological and spiritual damage that has been done. How can a child begin to recover from seeing her parents killed? How can a child recover from being forced to kill his own parents? How can a mother forgive those who raped her child?

If this were just the case in one country, I might be able to push it to the back of my mind, to act as if it were an isolated incident, one that is heartbreaking, but, ultimately, an event that has no effect on me. But more and more I see this as simply indicative of the human condition. Guatemala, the Congo, Sudan, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan-- this is just a smattering of the places that have seen unimaginable evil during my lifetime.

I wish that I could say that those who have committed such atrocities are unlike the rest of us. But I don't believe they are. I believe that I, in the right circumstances, could be just like them.

I bought a book this weekend called Good News about Injustice. It is by Gary Haugen, the president of the International Justice Mission. I've only just started reading it, so I can't tell you much about it, but I believe the gist of it is that the good news about injustice is that it is temporary-- that God is just and will bring justice, and that he uses us to do it. I believe that this is true.

I also believe, though, that God's justice is not the best news. In places like Liberia, where many of those responsible for atrocities are victims of even worse atrocities, where does justice even begin? If there is only justice, where is hope?

I believe that better news is that God is merciful.

Yesterday was Easter, and a few days before was Good Friday. Good Friday commemorates the worst of crimes against humanity-- and against Deity. The name seems bitterly ironic, at first, for a day on which Evil put Good to death. But I believe the day deserves its name. On this day, Good defeated Evil by bearing all of the pain and sin of the world. "The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).

It is because of this that I have hope.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Letting Him work through my work

A volunteer at Hospitals of Hope asked my coworker a couple of months ago, "When you get up in the morning, do you look in the mirror and think, 'I save lives'?"

I don't know about for him, but for me, the answer is "no."

Part of the reason for that is that it's easy to get caught up in the details of all of the day-to-day work and easy to forget the reason why I'm there. It's easy to forget the ways that God is using our work to make a difference in the lives of people around the world. Far too often, my focus is on completing the task in front of me and moving on to the next one without thinking about the point of my work. Too often, I view it as a job, not a ministry.

The other reason is that, in reality, we don't save lives. We do our best to make sure that the proper people and equipment get where they need to be, but ultimately only God can control the results. Nothing that I can do will have any effect unless God blesses my work. It is frequently humbling to see the ways that God uses us, often in spite of our best efforts.

John Piper writes in Don't Waste Your Life, "the essence of our work as humans must be that it is done in conscious reliance on God's power, and in conscious quest of God's pattern of excellence, and in deliberate aim to reflect God's glory." I just read these words the other day, but they reflect an effort I've been making. I want to learn to live in reliance on God's power, reflecting his glory through my work. As I work, I want to keep in mind that I am here to serve but that the results of my service are in God's hands. And, really, God's hands are a pretty good place to be.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Learning honesty

Over the last couple of years, I've been working on being more honest. It's not that I'm a particularly deceptive person; I'm probably more concerned with telling the truth than most people. But I've realized over the last few years that I'm dishonest in a much more subtle, but damaging, way-- my words and actions frequently disguise who I really am.

I don't think that I am alone in this. I think all of us, in some ways, have learned to hide our true selves to keep ourselves safe.

To a certain extent, this is an important defense mechanism. We should not bare our souls to just anyone; we must learn whom we can trust.

I believe, though, that in many cases this self-protection has gone too far. Too often, we hide who we are because we are afraid of what others will think-- because we are afraid of letting others know the truth. In my case, this usually takes the form of me acting as if I am some kind of superhuman who isn't affected by my circumstances. I act as if I'm not hurt when I am, I pretend I don't care when I do, I claim I don't need help when I really wish someone would lend me a hand.

I don't think that this dishonesty is always-- or even often-- intentional. I think that too often we are dishonest about who we are because we don't know who we truly are. Re-reading Psalm 139 recently, I was blown away by the verse, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made." This may have been the first time that I realized that that verse applies to me-- I should praise God because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Ephesians 2:10 tells us, "We are his workmanship"; I once saw the word "workmanship" here translated as "masterpiece." If we really believe these words, it will make a radical difference in the way we view ourselves and in our ability to open our lives up to other people.

In Much Madness is Divinest Sense, Kathleen Greider writes of "the cost to our souls of social emphases on competitiveness, extroversion, and intelligence, as compared to Christianity's gospel of grace, which asserts that our worth is a gift to us from our beginning." We have immeasurable value, no matter whether we fit into the mold we and society have set for ourselves. Hiding our true selves is a denial of this value.

This doesn't mean that I think we should ignore all of the negative things about ourselves. On the contrary, I think that is part of the problem. As James Bryan Smith says, "As long as we continue to try to think well of ourselves we will have to distort reality.... We will have to create a facade, participate in a charade, and avoid looking closely at our true selves." Part of our misrepresentation of ourselves is due to our unwillingness to look at our selves as we really are-- sinners, yet God's masterpieces, nevertheless. If we cannot admit our fallenness, we cannot accept the grace God gives.

I think that in order to be honest with each other, we must begin by being honest with God and with ourselves. Julian of Norwich wrote, "it is very greatly pleasing to him that a simple soul should come naked, openly and familiarly"; we must come to God as we are, not pretending to be someone else. One of my favorite written prayers is by Brennan Manning; he writes,
I pray as I write these words for the grace to be truly poor before you, to recognize and accept my weakness and humanness, to forgo the indecent luxury of cling to my humanity, to accept the limitations and full responsibility of being a human being--really human and really poor in Christ our Lord.
It is only once we have done this--accepted our weakness and humanity and admitted it to God and ourselves--that we can begin to be honest with anyone else.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Praying in my real voice

Some have raised the question of how important a concern must be before we bother God with it. This has never really been an issue for me; I tend to be self-centered enough that I assume my concerns are all worth taking up God's valuable time. But this is a valid question, since most of the things that I spend my days worrying about are probably not really matters of cosmic importance.

Even though I know my perspective is often fairly skewed, I truly believe that God wants me to bring my concerns before him. I first came to this conclusion after stumbling upon Psalm 62:8, in which David instructs his hearers, "pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge." We cannot take refuge in God if we try to keep all of the things we really care about to ourselves.

This is backed up, I think, by the fact that a lot of the heroes of the Bible say some pretty ridiculous things to God. How about Job telling God about how unfair he is? Or David harping on how innocent he's always been? And Jacob actually wrestles with God. I know that truly saying what's on my mind might sometimes come across as irreverent, but, since God already knows what I'm thinking, trying to hide those things won't work anyway. (I'm not saying we should be disrespectful; I'm just saying that expressing ourselves to God is a much better option than acting like he doesn't know what's going on in our heads.)

I've frequently found that when I pour out my heart to God, things get messy. Or, more acurately, the messiness that is already in my heart became much more visible.

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis' retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche's sister Orual relates her complaint against the gods. After she has repeated her story over and over again, the gods stop her, and she realizes,
the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice.... Lightly men talk of saying what they mean.... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words.
This strikes me as being a pretty good summary of what happens in prayer, when I'm truly pouring out my heart. I often find myself repeating, "idiot-like," the same concerns over and over, and I'm often shocked to find what they reveal about the center of my soul. Sometimes what I thought I meant isn't really what I meant at all. In prayer, God helps me to realize what it is that I truly mean, and through this realization I begin to change.

It's certainly true that my prayers often focus on things that are not all that important in the whole scheme of things. But they're focused on things that I will be focused on, whether or not I talk them over with God. In Prayer: Letters to Malcom, C.S. Lewis writes, "we want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray being as we now are.... It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us." If I pray merely about the things that I think I ought to care about, I will leave out many of the things that I really care about.

God, of course, already knows all of our deepest fears, needs, and desires. But relationships are built when people communicate with each other, not when people simply know information about each other. If we love people, we lay our lives open to them. If we love God, I believe we should do the same.

Henri Nouwen writes, "God wants to be together with us where we really live and, by loving us there, show us the way to become a complete human being." This kind of prayer is not about telling God things he doesn't know; it's about inviting him to be with us in our experiences and, by being with us, to change us.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Learning to Follow

I recently re-read Matthew 26:31-75, in which Peter goes from promising Jesus that he would never leave him to swearing never to have known him. What struck me this time reading the passage was that early in the evening Peter really was ready to die for Jesus—he attacked the servant of the high priest, even while an armed mob was standing by. I’m not sure I’d realized before that Peter’s desertion was not necessarily from a fear of death; he proved that by his desire to fight. Peter’s abandonment of Jesus seems to spring from another cause.

To me it seems that Peter didn’t really mind death; he just wanted to die on his own terms. He was willing to go down fighting, to go out in a blaze of glory defending his Lord.

He was ready to die for Jesus, but he was not willing to lay down his life for Jesus. An active death, one where he would get to make a big show of his loyalty and feel like he was making some kind of statement, appealed to Peter. Simply following and, in all likelihood, dying the same kind of death as Jesus didn’t seem so appealing.

I’m afraid that no situation I’ve ever been in can really compare with the one Peter found himself in here, but I think I do share a few of his characteristics. I’d much rather serve God (and, by extension, others) in my own way, using my own strengths, than follow on his terms.

Over the years, I’ve really thought of some great ways God could use me. But that is never the way he does it. He tends to put me in situations where I have pretty much no idea what I’m doing. (For example, teaching middle school math and science. I think that this is proof that God has a sense of humor.) This does not seem logical to me; to me it would make much more sense to put me in situations where I could use my multitude of talents (please note irony), rather than situations in which I make a fool of myself on a regular basis. But it is in these situations that God chooses to use me. And I think he does that on purpose. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the Lord tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I believe that it is when I am weakest that God is working most powerfully through me.

Not that I’m usually particularly good at recognizing that this is what’s happening. I tend to whine and want to abandon ship; I usually don’t recognize that this is the kind of sacrifice Christ asks of me.

John reports that, after his resurrection, Jesus told Peter, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Then Jesus tells Peter, yet again, “Follow me” (John 21:18-19). Jesus is letting Peter know that he has been given another chance, and the fact that Peter is now willing to follow on these terms shows how much he has been changed.

I'm hoping that someday I will be a bit more like Peter, but for now I'm still trying to learn how to lay down my life day by day and to let Him lead me even to places where I don't want to go.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Something Human

I realized recently that, although I love to write and it's frequently the best way for me to think through things, I've been doing very little of it lately. The times in my life when I've written the most consistently have been the times when I've known I have to show my work to others on some sort of regular basis (in creative writing classes, for example). So I decided to start a blog. (I also write on our blog at work,, but the subject matter of this will be a bit different.)

You may be wondering what, exactly, the title of my blog means. It comes from the poem "Home Burial" by Robert Frost (which is, by the way, a beautiful, heartbreaking poem and which you can read online). The poem tells the story of a couple that has lost their child. The husband is begging his wife to share her pain with him. "Let me into your grief," he asks. "Tell me about it if it's something human."

The poem is, to some degree at least, about human isolation and our failure to communicate with each other, to let others join us in our experience of the human condition. The human condition is something I think rather a lot about (it's sort of the subject matter of a lot of my graduate work), which means I'll probably be writing a lot about it on here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living. / God's command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you." This is what I'm trying to do, to come out into the tempest of living--to learn how to be human.

One last note-- someone else started a blog with this name, once upon a time. They only wrote one post, and it was in 2006, so I don't feel too bad stealing the name, but please note the hyphen in the url. Otherwise, you'll go to their blog, not mine. And that would be very sad.