Lies I’ve Told

I’ve mentioned before what a liar I used to be. You may or may not be interested in knowing that I haven’t really changed.

As a kid, some of the phrases I used the most included:

I didn’t do it.

She [insert sibling’s name] did it.

He [insert another sibling’s name] made me do it.

I don’t know what happened.

Most of them were a panicked response to the trouble I’d found myself in. Motivated by the desire to avoid detection of whatever-it-happened-to-be-that-I’d-done-wrong, and resulting punishment. I tend to think I’ve grown past these kinds of lies (aka Garden of Eden Lies), moving on to less harmful ones, such as:

No, it’s fine.

I don’t care one way or the other.

I’m sure whatever you decide will be fine.

Feel free to correct my mistakes.

That [insert anything here] was very interesting!

I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular.

Yes, I’m sure.

My middle name is Frances.

I have a twin sister.

I really don’t have an opinion either way.

I’m completely content with what’s been decided.

I completely understand.

 

I classify most of these as the Polite Lies, the ones that almost no one calls me out on. Social niceties, I guess, dictate that, if someone wants to withhold her opinion, she’s allowed to lie and say she had no opinion to begin with. It’s okay to say something you don’t mean, sometimes. When the situation calls for it. And they aren’t always lies, just sometimes.

There’re other categories of lies, I think–Pointless Lies is one, of which “My middle name is Frances,” would be an example. I tell these mostly out of curiosity, just to see if people will believe me. If I think about it too hard, it sounds kind of sinister–almost as if I’m trading on a reputation as a generally honest person.

I suppose I could classify any sort of fiction or stories I write as lies–seeing as they don’t match up with reality, strictly speaking. But that’s not really what I’m getting at. The strangest thing for me is this idea that we say things we don’t mean. That I say things I absolutely do not mean.

Sometimes, I think, my motivation is pure–that I really am trying to be “completely content with whatever’s been decided.” So, rather than keep saying what I really think, I give that opinion up. So then I guess I really don’t have an opinion. But I did have an opinion at one point.

I don’t know. This is a ramble and I have no answers to the questions I haven’t even asked yet. What got me thinking about it in the first place was a quotation I read by A.W. Tozer, in which he claimed that the Christian is prone to lying whenever he sings certain hymns. Hymns such as “I Surrender All,” I mean, where it’s easy to just start singing the chorus over and over without getting into your heart and mind what the words mean.

I know what he meant, I think. Growing up, my church would sing this one song in particular that bothered me to sing. It’s called “Are Ye Able, Said the Master,” and I think you can find the text here:

Are Ye Able, Said the Master (hymnary.org)

If you’re reading this, and it happens to be your favorite hymn, please comment and share with me why it’s so good. I’d genuinely like to know.

Anyway, I understand it’s important to be conscious of what we sing in worship to God. Sometimes I can’t sing hymns, because I’m all too conscious of something in my life I haven’t surrendered to Him yet. Generally when that happens I read the words, still, and pray that I would be able to sing them earnestly.

That only brings me to the other category of Lies, which is Lies I Tell to God. Which is ridiculous that that’s even a category, because the God I believe in is omniscient and already knows the truth about whatever-it-is-I’m-attempting-to-disguise. Ridiculous.

These lies include but are by no means limited to:

I want you to humble me, God.

I desire Your will to be done above all else, even if it’s uncomfortable for me. Even if it’s not what I wanted or had planned.

Guide me even when I can’t see the end clearly.

Teach me patience.

I am content with where You have me, in the situation in which You’ve placed me, and with the gifts You’ve given me, and I need nothing else except you.

 

Okay, okay, now. Are they always lies? No. Sometimes, I mean it when I pray for patience and humility. Then I remember that He answers those prayers and, I further remember, the process by which He teaches those particular lessons is not exactly my favorite. Being taught patience requires practicing patience. Ditto for humility.

So sometimes I think it’s possible to pray nice, lovely things and not mean a word of it. Because I’ve done it myself. And what I’m wondering is this: isn’t it a sin to lie to God? So I would think someone like Tozer would advise not praying if I’m not gonna mean it.

Okay. But what if it’s more that I don’t mean it, but I want very much to mean what I say. When I say, “I am content with what You’ve given me,” maybe what I really mean to say is, “I want to be content with what You’ve given me.” I just don’t see how I can mean any of the things I pray if God doesn’t help me to mean them.

If He does not answer that very first prayer–“Change my heart, God”– before we’ve prayed it, I don’t understand how on earth our hearts are ever changed.

Thanks for reading. Comment if you’d like!

The Story of My Life

The power at my house went out around 8:00 in the evening, and so we all went to bed early. I’ve been tossing and turning for the 4 ½ hours since then, and I think I know why.

I need to tell you a story.

This story begins with an early memory, such an early memory, in fact, that I can’t place it for certain. It might be from when I was four or three or even two. It’s just a glimpse—it’s like watching a fifteen-second clip, and I can only reconstruct what must have been its context. For those who care, my sister says these kinds of memories are called “snapshot” memories. Or maybe it’s “flashbulb” memories, I’m not sure.

Anyway, one of these memories is just of me and my mom, where she draws me this simple diagram and explains it, clearly and simply.

If we were talking in real life, I’d ask if you had a pen and paper so I could draw it out for you, it’s that clear in my mind.

First, she draws a large circle, with two stick figures inside—one big and one little. I’m not even sure they’re full stick figures; they’re more just like smaller circles. The figures in the circle, she tells me, are like God and you, Jo. When you’re in the circle with God, that’s when you’re happiest because that’s when you’re obeying him. But sometimes, Jo—here she draws a line from my figure to a place outside the circle—sometimes you decide not to obey God; you might lie, or do something naughty, and that keeps you away from God. It’s not happy, being outside God’s family circle, she says. But do you know what God does, when that happens? He comes—she draws a line from the God-figure towards mine—and brings you back to where He is—she completes the route from the two figures back into the circle—because He loves you and He knows that’s where you’ll be happy.

Is it a perfect analogy? No, probably not. Is there such a thing as a perfect analogy that three-year-olds can understand? If you know of one, please oh please let me know about it.

I’m sure at some point there was discussion of four-year-old repentance, and this particular conversation, I feel sure, was more in response to little me having done something requiring disciplinary measures than specifically sharing the gospel. The memory’s just slightly hazy.

However, there’s the beginning of my story, as I see it. God saw fit to put me in a family where the parents talked to their children about Him when they were young, and it’s something I haven’t forgotten. Now, that very fact used to make me feel insecure about my testimony, as if, somehow, it wasn’t a very powerful testimony at all; that maybe I should live a little more dangerously/stupidly so I’d have a “real” story to tell. I’m pretty sure there’s a verse about that; pretty sure Paul says that’s a terrible idea. Which it is.

If I can just interject something here—in between the beginning of this story and the end (which isn’t really the end, just the chapter I’m on at the moment)—it’s to say that often I’m tempted to be humble about the wrong sort of thing. I look back and reflect on choices I’ve made and things I’ve done, and I think, man, Jo, what an idiot. You haven’t learned anything. You thought you were all smart at such-and-such an age, and you really had so much growing to do.

Well, okay, that’s fine, up to a point. Humility about my own efforts? Yes please—I need more humility than I have. The danger is that, in focusing those negative thoughts on what my past has looked like, I forget God’s great work in my life. In trying to negate my own worthiness, I risk negating God’s power in having changed and continuing to change me into the person He designed me to be.

Do I continue to grow and become more mature? Yes, I hope so and I pray that’s the case. Will I probably look back at this very blog post and think, ugh, you sound as if you had it all together, which you didn’t. That doesn’t change God’s role in all this. I forget so many times that we can boast in who Jesus Christ is, and in what He’s done for us. The trouble is remembering that during the times when I have messed up, and all I really feel like doing is crawling in a hole until the elephants forget me. So here’s me, remembering.

Once there was a little girl named Jo who, as we’ve seen, often had to have a disciplinary talk given her, involving a circle and two stick figures and God. I lied a lot back then. And I stole candy one time from this store called David’s, and when I tried to share the loot, my mom marched me back into the store to apologize through my tears. That did the trick.

I know my parents had several talks with me about Jesus and how I could be saved, but I always point to one day in the backyard when my seven-year-old brother told me all he knew about God, and I prayed and was saved. Now I know there’s all kinds of opinions of just how “saved” a five-year-old can be, and that’s fine. Debate it all you want. Here’s what I knew: I’d been taught that God was great, and that He was good. I believed it. I’d been taught that I fell short of who He wanted me to be; that I’d disobeyed and “gone away from the family circle.” I believed that. And I’d been taught that He loved me so much He sent his son, Jesus, to die on the cross for me, thereby bringing me back into fellowship with Him. I believed that.

Was that the end of the story of salvation? No, of course not. But it was a good beginning, and I think there are many things children can know and understand, even if they no knowledge of the intricacies of theology and Scripture and, yeah, all those gloriously confusing grown-up things.

As Jo grew, her outsides looked pretty dang good, spiritually. She knew all the Sunday School answers, and she was pretty much the top of her AWANA class at memorizing scripture. Looking back, it’s so tempting to negate all that, knowing how much of my success at AWANA was driven by competition and pride at being the best. But God was working.

Inside was kind of a different story. From the age of eight to when I was twelve or so, I remember really struggling with the assurance of my salvation. I was terrified of hell; I had a recurring nightmare involving judgment and the end of the world and a whole lot of darkness. I still remember bits of it, and it still frightens me just a little. I’d wake up in the night crying; asking God to save me from hell. I wasn’t convinced, I guess of a couple things: 1. That I’d truly done all I needed to be saved and 2. That He would keep His word and keep me.

Fast forward a few years: a move to a different town, a different church, and one lady—about my mother’s age—who shared with me something that changed my life. I don’t know how we’d gotten started talking, but I respected her for her kindness and her gentleness towards me and my family. When we’d joined the church, I had publicly rededicated my life to Christ. I wanted to have a certain date in my mind; a date on which I knew that I believed in God. So I did, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve done—still—because I actually took the microphone the preacher was offering me and said something mumbly about why I was making the decision.

This sweet lady came up after the service and told me something I never would have imagined. She said that she had struggled with the same sort of doubts when she was my age. She encouraged me in my desire to have a certain date that I could defend against the enemy’s lies that I somehow had not done enough, or that I’d imagined the whole thing, or that God wasn’t faithful to save. With her words I realized I wasn’t alone—that people of all ages struggled with doubt, and that I was important enough to her for her to share her story with me.

It was also around that time that I started writing prayers in all my journals instead of normal entries. My sister and I joke that, once I hit eleven or twelve, my old journals cease to be as interesting/embarrassing/fun to read back over. You can still find mentions of events and phases, but there’s a lot of “Dear God’s,” and “Heavenly Father’s” to wade through. I’ve become increasingly thankful for those prayers, silly as some of them were. Remember how I said it’s a temptation for me to think that I’m always starting from scratch spiritually—that nothing that’s come before has really been anything of worth? Well, yeah, none of my goody-two-shoes effort has been of worth, but those journals are a testimony to God’s working in one preteen girl’s life, and some of that teenager’s concerns are going to seem pretty silly, in hindsight.

Did I mention that I still had a problem with pride? Well, I did—pride, and what others thought of me, timidity (another thing altogether from humility!)—these marked my inward life. I had an ungracious, hostile mindset toward one of my sisters, which I halfheartedly would attempt to fix every now and then, when the guilt got too uncomfortable. Over the years I let the broken relationship stay broken, until I’d pretty much hardened myself against listening to her or trying to understand her. It might be helpful at this point to be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son—especially the ending. See Luke 15:)

It’s such a lovely, lovely story, what with the father running indecorously down the road to meet his wayward boy. But there’s a sour note that comes when the elder son refuses to celebrate his own brother’s return. It’s not fair, are his words (sort of). I do everything right, and no one notices. He does everything wrong, and you celebrate.

Oh, God. That was me. That older brother who didn’t have enough understanding to see that his father’s love for both of them was made evident in his grace for the one “who did everything wrong.” As if the older son had done “everything right.” NO! He hadn’t. He lacked any sort of love and compassion toward his brother, who had been running to darkness and was brought back to the light of his father’s love. His brother, whom God had brought back into the family circle.

It’s funny, what ways God chooses to make Himself known in our lives. His grace takes many forms: more than once in history, God’s mercy has been displayed through a baby. At this point, my story intersects with the stories of others. I can’t tell their stories, because I am not them and they aren’t my story. This is what I know, however: God brought me and my family into a situation where there couldn’t be all this faked unity in public and lack of grace in private. He began to soften my grace-less heart, and gave me love for someone I hadn’t yet met. Slowly, He mended my relationship with my sister, and I praise Him for it.

That was the previous chapter in my life-story, and its effects are still being seen in the current chapter. There have been other things that have happened; other things I’ve learned and am continuing to learn. I have seen Him restore good, old friendships that I had let die, and, despite how lukewarm I can be, I have seen how He draws me back—even if that means taking me through times of despondency and emptiness. I have realized more and more that faith is a gift, that the very desire to know God is given by God Himself.

I have seen that God is very great, and that He is very good.

 

If you ask me, I will tell you all this in person. If you have a question, either about my story or about the God I’m talking about, leave a comment and I’ll figure out a way for you to contact me.

Thank you, so much, for reading.

<><Jo

 

The Crucial Thing

“[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.”
― A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories

Ouch. I love sharing quotations from authors and thinkers I admire, and I like to imagine I think through what the authors are trying to say before I quote them. I do admit, however, to having a particular quotation on my Facebook page that I don’t quite understand all the way. I know nothing of its context; I only gleaned it from an introductory philosophy course I took as a freshman.

It’s from a philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard; an existential-y sort of person, as I understand it, who happened to write a thing at one time that I liked and subsequently ripped out of context and quoted him. Here’s what he said:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
–Søren Kierkegaard

I like the quote because it makes me feel inspired and noble and hopeful that I do have something I believe to be true and for which I could live and die.

It makes me think of other quotes that affirm the ideas that, even as there is Great Possibility, some things are certain.

Like this one:

“What is true deserves to be known and to be believed. What is good deserves to be embodied. What is beautiful deserves to be enjoyed, to be loved. And what is just deserves to be defended.” ~Kevin James Bywater

That’s from the director of a study abroad program in England called Summit Oxford, which seems like one of the neatest opportunities I can imagine. You should all check it out! I think you can find it through www.summitoxford.org but if not, let me know and I’ll fix the link thing.

What I’ve been wondering is this: what do other people think important enough to live for or die for?

What is one thing you think so wrong with the world that you’d die in the effort to make it right?

What’s one thing you think so right and marvelous that it motivates you to keep living?

Is there an idea that’s important enough that you’d fight for it? Or one that’s awful enough that you’d fight against it?

If there’s something worth dying over, is there anything worth killing over—and what on earth would that thing be?

What stirs your soul and your mind and your body to action?

All these questions I’ve been mulling over for myself, and I’d like to hear your thoughts, if you’d care to share them. Maybe they aren’t thoughts to share, but to mull over for yourself, I don’t know. All I know is I think Kierkegaard was on to something. People ought to know what the “crucial thing” is for them.

Maybe A.A.Milne is right too, though. Those crucial things aren’t passed down through heredity, like the color of our eyes or hair. Nor can we depend solely on what others say; we must face the “laborious business” of thinking for yourself. To own a belief, we ought to engage with ideas deeply and seriously.

I also think of the scene in Lord of the Rings, perhaps my favorite scene in the Peter Jackson’s movies, where Frodo turns to Sam and asks for a reminder of what it is, exactly, they’re risking their lives over.

Oh! it’s a great scene! Because, as Sam explains, they’re fighting for something unseen but real nonetheless; a hope that this ruined world is not all there is.

And because I think it’s very much worth quoting the whole thing, here it is.

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

Thanks for reading!

<><Jo

Letter #3: In Which Grandma Jo Goes Blind

Dear Aglet,

If, by the time we meet each other, I happen to have gone blind, here’s why.

I am in the habit of staring at sunsets. Isn’t that awful? I’ve been told since I was a little girl not to look at the sun, and that doing so would hurt my eyes and eventually blind me, but I can’t seem to help it. I’m sure you’ll never disregard what your elders tell you solely for your own good, Aglet, but I’m telling you now that if you ever decide to disobey, you better have a durned good reason for doing so.

I have a great reason for staring at the sun when it rises or sets. Here it is: it’s beautiful. And I’m drawn to the sight, even though I know my eyes aren’t strong enough to handle all that light.

[That is why they told me not to, isn’t it? Something like that? Oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter now. Not now that I’m blind and I can’t see what my own (imaginary) grandkid looks like.]

I’m frustrated that I can never look at the sunset for as long as I’d like to. I can only take a glimpse, then look away–and when I glance again, the lighting’s changed just a little. It’s like taking a new and lovely photograph with every blink.

Someday you’ll be reading this and thinking, “Grandma, grandma, grandma. You were/are so strange. You chose looking at a couple of boring old sunsets over preserving your eyesight into your old age.”

I’ve already apologized in a different letter for being strange. Get over it, Aglet.

Here’s what I hope, though. I really, really hope that people can still notice sunsets in that weird, dystopian future I imagine you growing up in. Sometimes it feels like we humans are losing our ability to appreciate anything that isn’t technological or made from a machine. And while I’m here wailing the same warnings older people have been wailing since the invention of the wheel, I may as well say this.

[But seriously, can’t you see Grandpa Cave Dweller shaking his fist at the youngsters on the first unicycles hewn out of the cave walls? “Durn kids! Always playing with their useless, newfangled toys! Now, when was a youngster…”]

What I was going to say, Aglet, is that while it might seem silly to say “beware of technology” and it might seem foolish to resist all the change that’s happening in the world, there’s something to be said for listening. Listen to older folks when you can, especially when they talk about their lives and what they’ve learned. People like to talk, and if you can learn how to really listen, you have a shot at gaining wisdom when you’re young.

One of my favorite books is called “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry, and it has to do with memories and emotions and what it means to be human. It takes place in a society in which nothing seems to be lacking…except, curiously enough–grandparents. The Old, in this society, are kept by themselves, perfectly tended to, perfectly comfortable, while the younger members of the society go about their practical, smooth-running occupations. There’s no overlap between the generations. And it’s tragic.

You should read the book. I think that what you might find is that the lack of grandparents only reflects the loss of many other things that make us human.

There are certain memories I have that I hope I will get to pass on to someone–if not you, then someone else. There’re certain experiences that I hope are universal to the human soul.

Sunsets are one of them. Holding my niece for the first time is another. Playing hide-and-seek in the curtains with my nephew. Seeing someone I love smile. Reading words that assure me of God’s presence. Listening to the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D.

All sorts of strangely specific things that conjure up a swelling in my heart. These things are real, somehow, in a way that watching other people’s lives on social media can never be real.

In Sunday School, when the teacher reads Genesis 1.1 and a kid pipes up with “Did He create smartphones,” the teacher says God created the minds of humans with the ability to make smartphones, and in that way, He’s responsible. And yes, there’s a deeper truth there about human tendency towards creating and how that reflects the creative aspect of God’s nature.

My point is that it’s easy to think we humans are so clever to have designed this or that new innovation. We look at our own creations and congratulate ourselves.

Look at what God has done. Look at what He still does, every day. That sunset or that sunrise is just one of an infinite number of things God creates every day to display His glory. The way our bodies work is marvelous, and scientists discover new aspects to His design all the time.

Another book I think you should read is by C.S. Lewis, called “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Heck, if I haven’t lost my vision completely by the time you’re born, I’ll read it to you myself. And oh, I can’t do justice to it here, but there’s a place near the end that I love. I’ll only say that when I read this book, I’m not ashamed of my fascination with sunsets, rather encouraged.

I’m looking for a place where I can look at the sun in all its glory, and not look away.

Love, your grandma,

Jo