Letter #8: For Jonah-days

Dear Aglet,

I’ve started writing this probably five times over the past few weeks. Just now I saw that it’s my thirteenth blog post I’ve written a draft for and not published. They’re about various, unimportant things: one is called “Purple hair dye and communion wine” and I think it’s about dressing up as Madam Mim for Halloween.

In other words, I’m not sure I have anything worth saying, but I’m writing anyway.

That last sentence may end up being my autobiography in one sentence.

I tried doing NANOWRIMO for the fifth or sixth year in a row, and all I have to show for it (so far) is one page, handwritten on front and back, about a young preacher’s wife who moves to a town called Marysville, TX, where it’s always dusty and dull and she has to do good all the time and she misses the trees in Arkansas.

I don’t like how it’s heading, so I’m retiring that story, maybe forever.

Everything ends in autobiography with me, Aglet, which is a real shame, because I’ve not gone and done a whole lot with my life thus far. Hence, I’m not sure I have anything much to say. There have been some Jonah-days here lately–days where your soul feels like the grayest of days in November, and it doesn’t seem like anything can make it better.

There have been wonderful days too–days like today, when the sun came out and various poems by e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins kept popping cheerfully into my head and distracting me.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

I cry about everything, mostly, even lovely things. Even while laughing, sometimes. I heard my dad’s voice and cried; heard a sad song and cried; thought about what it would be like to have cancer and cried; thought about what it would be like to have someone I loved have cancer and cried.

Worried about what might happen tomorrow, or in five years. And cried.

It’s ridiculous, especially because I have been down this road so many times, and I’ve made a choice over and over and over not to fret about what happens next (or five years from now), but instead to trust God, who’s infinitely worth trusting.

I need help trusting God and being more honest than simply stuffing my fear into my pocket and pretending that means I don’t have it anymore. Jonah-days will come to you. Whether you’re terrified of things not turning out perfectly or whether you think you’re so strong that hard times will just bounce off whatever rationalistic armor you’ve been layering on as a defense against overwhelming emotion–something will happen that’s too hard for you, Aglet.

You’ll have to decide where to run and what to do when you are overwhelmed with fear, or depression, or anger, or grief, or any of a thousand troubles that won’t be a reality anymore when we’re in God’s presence. But they’re reality now, and they needn’t be pointless. If, when you discover you’ve been horribly wrong about something important, you yield to despair, thinking you’ve ruined everything and you somehow can’t ever fix what could have been, you’ve missed something.

You’ve missed (and when I say “you” you better know I mean “I“) grace, in a way, and the precious illustration of your own desperate need for grace. Feeling heart-sick, or lonely, even feeling rage at the wrongness of the world–all these may drive us to prayer: to wrestling with how on earth lovely things and wretched things exist together, and to asking our Father to fix what’s broken, to fix us.

So yes, on Jonah-days, read Hopkins, read cummings, even read Whitman, but most of all take comfort in knowing that God is both good and great, and He blesses the poor in spirit.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

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Turk’s Cap

[Lately, I’ve been working through some things I haven’t dealt with before, but I’ve known people who have lived their lives within the framework of anxiety. So, that said, I am offering something that touches a topic I haven’t thought through as much as others have. There’s a lot I don’t know, so I ask for patience while reading this whatever-it-is. I’m hoping it’s helpful, not hurtful. Here goes.]

 

Turk’s cap, brilliantly crimson,
Perfectly formed, set against green–
It could be Christmas if it weren’t
High summer.

White moths and big tadpoles,
Hummingbirds relishing the shade
Of my father’s butterfly weed.

I wasn’t always anxious–I remember,
I’ve thought of myself as brave,
Plucky
Stouthearted
(at least I’ve wanted to be).

Maybe anxieties can be developed
Same as allergies.
You’re free, then one day, later in life, you aren’t.
You feel constrained
Helpless
Absolutely idiotic
Quite possibly you are insane.

You know the right answer even before the tears come:
Don’t worry
Do NOT fret (don’t you dare!)
God is good.

And God is so good.
But you still might cry.

What is wrong with me?  you shudder.

Nothing.
Not a damn thing
Except being human like everyone else.

Tears need no reasons;
Anxiety asks no one’s permission
Before it attacks.

Here is something
Reminding me I am not invincible.
Huge emotions besieging all my cool logic
Sometimes winning
Or subsiding,
Only forcing a few leaks from my eyes
Randomly.

I am small
and helpless.

You are great and good.

Hide me til it passes over.

Music and Graduation

Waiting to graduate is like waiting for a train to actually come into the station, when it’s still a mile out and creeping along. You can see the bright light, you can hear it whistling, and the bar at the railroad crossing has just lowered and is flashing and dinging like mad. Exciting times–but hard not to rush these last few weeks. Motivation has made herself pretty scarce these days.

I wrote that a month ago as the beginning of some unfinished blog post. I think I’ll leave it unfinished. It certainly felt true at the time, but today the graduation train is closer to the station and I don’t feel so impatient. I feel downright sentimental about that train. And while I’m still glad to be finishing college, I don’t feel as much like getting the heck out of Dodge as I did a month ago.

It’s kind of like how, when I was a kid living in the country, I wanted to live in a neighborhood, with a cute, normal house instead of a crazy in-construction mobile home. But when we moved to said cute, normal house, I yearned more than anything for the freedom and space of the country. I’m not exactly digging in my heels to stay in college forever, but I feel really glad for every second I’ve spent here.

Tonight I went to a choir concert, the 200th or so of all the concerts I’ve been required to attend as a music major. Just a few days ago, I tossed that figure out as a complaint–“ugh, look at all the music stuff I’ve had to go to since they wouldn’t let me quit music!” But oh goodness, tonight I looked up at all the lovely faces of new friends and old friends and started bawling like a baby.

Not literally bawling. My eyes just started leaking, and I tried to shield my face from my friend sitting next to me, even though we’ve known each other since the first day of freshman year. Every song was more beautiful than the last, and I praised God for the wonderful, gorgeous gift of music. I was smiling, too, but mostly through these crazy tears because I am so thankful I had to go to those 200 concerts, if only so that I’d be there tonight.

Most of the things I complain about are precious gifts that I’m failing to recognize as such. Having to go listen to music as homework is one of those, I guess.

Last night I played in a concert–an extremely loud, raucous, steel drum concert–where I got to play an African drum, a Snapple bottle, and a chicken waterer, among other things. Oh, the fun I’ve had in that group! Looking back, it was a big factor in reminding me why I liked music in the first place. It brought some of the fun back into it. Sharing music with others to bring them joy is a lovely privilege that I’ve enjoyed for four whole years.

Tomorrow is my last piano lesson–maybe ever. That’s a hard thing to think about. My parents have ensured that music lessons have been available to me almost every week of my life since third grade. I’ve had a rocky relationship with some of my teachers–and especially with the reality of practicing–but dear God, thank You for the lessons.

Thank You for teachers who encouraged me to play well in order to make music, not in order to live up to their personal expectations of what I ought to be.

That last part sounds bitter, but it’s not. I learned a great deal from all my teachers, but I guess I’m especially grateful for those who recognized that music is best when it’s enjoyed, both by the listener and the performer. I know that excellence ought to be striven for in everything, but I think that the joy people derive from music is the most precious thing about it, even if we’re talking about a two-year-old banging on a cooking pot with a wooden spoon.

If I could learn how to present music–my study of it, my listening of it, all of it–to the Lord in recognition that He’s the one who made it, how much more value it would have! I was listening to a sermon earlier about how it’s often the “good and precious gifts” we’re given that we’re also tempted to make into idols–into things that we treat as more valuable than God. It’s the same everywhere–those wild surges of joy we feel when we experience something we really love; those tears I shed when I was moved by the music; the delight we see in seeing someone smile–all of these we’re tempted to think of as being the best it can be.

But these are only glimpses.

I hope that the glimpses of joy you see will remind you of the coming Joy that’s in Christ.

Thanks for reading:)

 

About Mercy

One time I was getting a root canal and the endodontist took one look at me, found out my majors were English and Music, and flat out told my mother “Oh this one’ll never get a job, I can tell.” That root canal was a painful experience for a number of reasons, and after that comment the tears in my eyes weren’t really caused by the whine of the dentist drill.

However, you know what they say: sticks and stones may break my bones, but comments made by complete strangers over a dentistry chair will never hurt me. Or something like that.

It seems pretty clear that people have a hard time seeing any practical value in the majors I chose. The assumption is something along the lines of “Oh, so you want to teach?” Welllllll. No, not exactly. I promise I do have ambitions for my life other than to sit in my parents’ basement and read all day and all night, but in college, I’ve loved studying what I enjoy. And I guess that’s why I picked English, and why I actually stuck it out with Music.

I’m thinking maybe those people who assume I’ll be a teacher someday are right–because if you love something enough, you’re likely going to tell people about it. People are evangelistic about their passions. Maybe I will become a teacher of sorts; maybe I will become a nerd.

I don’t know that much, but I can tell you about what I’ve been learning lately. Usually I reserve this sort of raving about English Literature to one (or sometimes two) friends, but tonight there’s several things I’ve thought about. There are three authors, mainly: a guy named William Shakespeare, his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and a poet named Edward Rowland Sill, who was not only decidedly not a contemporary of the previous two, but was also not their countryman. He was born in Connecticut in 1841 and I don’t know much else about him. I’m not sure anyone does.

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, one of the characters makes a lovely speech about the ‘quality of mercy.’ It’s a well-known section, so you may recognize it:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty, 

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself:

And earthly power doth then show likst God’s 

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice, none of us 

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy (MOV IV. i. 184-203)

Perhaps it’s more beautiful in the context of the play, but I can’t get over it. I can’t get over the concept of mercy, which is odd because I often go about my day more-or-less unconcerned that I trust in a just and merciful God. The Sill poem I’ll include further down talks more about this lack of mercy in the world–it proposes that, while good men may be just, anyone who recognizes his own foolishness must plead to God for mercy, because God is the only one who grants grace.

I think there must be a balance there that’s hard to grasp: understanding both the bad news of the Gospel–that we’re all sinners deserving of death–and the wildly good news that Christ offers grace. Sometimes we downplay the bad news and say that we’re not really that bad–or, as Dorothy Sayers says, we consciously or unconsciously think God’s standards too picky or unrealistic to be worth striving for. From The Mind of the Maker: “The God of the Christians is too often looked upon as an old gentleman of irritable nerves who beats people for whistling.”

Other times perhaps we think of grace as something God owes us. To be fair, we think, God has to offer grace to everyone. But that’s starting to sound more like justice, which God does extend to everyone. God is just. And that justice would lead to one sentence for everyone, were God not also merciful…

Anyway,

In Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the title character is thinking through all the things he’s learned in his study of various disciplines. One of these is divinity, which he rejects on the basis that man’s nature compels him to sin, and since sin’s wages are everlasting death, there is no hope or recourse to be found. That seems logical, and it might be true except that Faustus leaves off the second part of the verse he quotes. In the verse Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Faustus stops after the word “death.” He doesn’t consider the “gospell-y” part of the verse. Nor does he accept that he does have sin; rather, he’s so proud of all his learning that ultimately he desires to be as God.

If you haven’t read Faustus, I’ll just tell you now–it all kind of goes downhill from there.

So here’s my favorite of the three things that’ve been going through my head:

The Fool’s Prayer, by Edward Roland Sill

It’s pretty long, so if you’re interested, there’s an external site you can find it on. It’s beautiful, and I think it speaks for itself pretty well, so I won’t ramble on about it, except to say it always reminds me how precious God’s mercy is–and how undeserved.

I just finished a book called Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by a man named Nabeel Qureshi. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Near the end, when contemplating the incredible pain his conversion to Christianity will cause himself and his family, he reads Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, verse 6, and writes the following:

“I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I do, but I can never attain it. God will bless me anyway? Who is this God who loves me so much, even in my failures?” (Qureshi, 276)

Having grown up with the concept of grace, I take it for granted. That’s crazy. These are things I’ve been thinking through, and if you want to chime in, comment away:)

Have a lovely day, and thanks for reading.

<><Jo

Things I’m Thankful For

Every year of college, I’ve written a prayer for that particular year that I feel captures some of the essential things that happened that shaped me more into me as I ought to be. The essential things, I mean, that, if I’m not careful, I forget to thank God for. So there’s a freshman prayer of thanks, and a sophomore prayer, and a junior prayer. And I’m working, at the moment, on my senior prayer of thanks. Which is crazy to me. Four years goes by fast

So here are some things that happened recently that I’m thankful for.

A conversation I didn’t think I needed to have with an old, dear friend–several of these conversations, in fact, with several such friends–that came at the sweetest time and helped me clarify my very confused and frustrated thoughts.

A hilarious talent show, an apple pie, and my family just being my family.

Going to a football game with my sisters and remembering why I like football, lame English major though I often am. Playing backyard football with my sister and niece, and being tackled into a gigantic leaf pile, after which my niece proceeded to bounce around on top of me (flagrant personal foul). And then just lying there looking up at the trees beginning to change color, and feeling glad to be an aunt and a sister.

While being rambunctious with the niece, I got a slight cut on the inside of my finger, and my dad, for the first time since I was 12 or so, watched meticulously as I washed it, dried it. Then he put the ointment on the scratch, unwrapped the bandage, and put it on my finger. In that moment, I remembered what it feels like to be a daughter, with a dad who takes care of her, and I thanked God for the moment.

I’m realizing as I write this that life doesn’t always look as pretty as the things I’ve just written about. I am in the middle of making decisions I don’t really know how to make, where both alternatives promise to hurt, at least for a while. I’ve listened to other people and the things that make them hurt, and it makes me at once angry and terribly sad.

I have a hard time keeping joy in the midst of tragedy. Sometimes, I can’t feel happy. I have a hard time trusting that things will turn out okay, someday. Better than okay, really. I assent to God’s providence with my head, and then sometimes I simply am not content with how the world works. I murmur. Restlessness consumes my thoughts, and I mope around, as if this life weren’t a gift.

Life is a gift.

Let’s thank the Giver.

A Small Reminder

It might be helpful to think of this as a sequel to something I wrote a couple months ago, entitled Like a Headless Chicken. It has to do with the idea of being content with not knowing everything about the future, but rather simply doing what’s next, with a willing heart and a soul that rejoices in God’s provision.

I’ve been thinking more about this, and about the description of Christian discipleship as being “a long obedience in the same direction.” It’s the same, I think, with anything we decide to make of our lives. We never succeed by worrying about every hardship and struggle until we’re past it and on to the next struggle.

It’s more like my dad’s two kinds of glasses: one pair for seeing long-distance, and one for seeing up close. We look, on one hand, at who we want to be; at how we want our lives to be meaningful, and then we put on the up-close vision and simply do what’s next.

All this to say, I think I finally understand why I am both an English and a music major. I can look back and see instances where opportunities came from both of those studies–opportunities that shaped my character and interests. Currently I’m studying a literary work called “Epithalamion” by Edmund Spenser, which is a beautiful poem describing a wedding day. I’m also listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’s choral work of the same name, and it’s lovely.

It’s just one of many realizations that where God has placed me is good, even if I didn’t see it at the time. There are so many instances where I can’t see what’s next and it drives me crazy. But it’s encouraging to remember that I don’t have to see everything in the future in order to trust that God is good.

As always, thanks for reading:)

I Should Have Said It Louder

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be timid, as opposed to being naturally shy or introverted. So that’s what’s been in my head, especially the similarities I sometimes see between timidity and humility and this weird pretend self-confidence that turns out to be based in a feigned apathy.

…I just used a lot of words that may or may not make sense by the time I finish rambling–we’ll see.

I wrote some doggeral once about what it looks like to be timid–a different thing, I thought, then being a concerned person or even an insecure person. Here’s what I’d written:

 

I keep myself busy

With all the art required for

Endless exercises in timidity.

A teacher asks a question

I rack my brains for the answer

And then don’t say it. Ever.

I consciously keep it inside my mouth.

I am a silent smartypants.

It’s cheating, what I do sometimes in an attempt to make something prosey poetic. Just chop up the thoughts and put ’em on separate lines and you’ve got poetry, right?

Ha. No. Silly Jo.

Anyway, here’s one picture, anyway, of timidity: it’s knowing the answer to a question and then keeping it consciously inside your mouth. It’s deliberately not saying something.

Timidity means being a “silent smartypants.”

Timidity is being so afraid of other peoples’ thoughts about you that you sometimes keep quiet on matters about which you do, in fact, care deeply. You deny that part of yourself, and, chances are, you miss knowing someone else who cares deeply and who was simply waiting for another voice to speak up.

Sometimes I try to pass off my timidity as humility. I convince myself that the reason I don’t say the answers in class is because I don’t want to show off-no one likes a show-off.

There it is.

No one likes.

No one likes a know-it-all. And I want to be liked. More specifically, I want to be liked by the people I perceive as being cool, maybe even popular. I want to be highly regarded, highly thought-of, and what people think of me is frustratingly high in my subconscious list of priorities. Without even thinking of it, I daily perform for whatever audience I happen to be concerned with at the moment. I tailor my performance based on what I imagine they’ll like the most.

How can I make them like me the most?

The safest course is usually apathy. This is unfortunately what my most common perception of high school is: a place where you’re popular if you can convince people you don’t care. You’re cool if you don’t talk about anything; if you just do what’s required in classes and, aside from that, don’t get too invested what’s going on around you.

I could be very wrong about that. I observed high school from the outside, and so I don’t know if I’m being overly influenced by Disney’s atrocious/in-some-crazy-and-illogical-way-appealing high school dramas.

In some ways it makes perfect sense. Things are just so strange and uncomfortable for most of those middle-school and high school years that, of course, the ones who don’t open their mouths and let loose all the crazy thoughts bouncing around their heads are as a matter of course going to come off as cool, calm, and collected.

I think that’s when I learned it–that keeping quiet is a safe bet, generally. After a while, people get used to you being quiet and attribute it all to your natural introvertedness. And while nothing is required of you, nothing is really expected, either. And it gets increasingly hard to break the silence, to say things louder.

If this is coming across as critical of those who are naturally anxious or introverted or maybe just plain shy, I apologize. I’m a pretty timid person, often, but my point is that anyone–even extroverts–can be timid.

If being timid is having something to say or do, and then not saying or doing that thing because of fear of what others will think, then anyone can be timid.

I’m realizing that maybe a lot of people I think of as never having these problems of fearing others and overconsidering reputation probably do face the same sorts of fears. Maybe the ones who seem most confident and put together–who never seem to feel any uncomfortable passion about anything–maybe they are the ones struggling most with fear and timidity.

I just don’t think apathy comes naturally to humans. We are wired to care, and to care deeply. Apathy is a cultivated sin.

And I do think it’s a sin, or at least it can be a marker of some other sin. I need to unpack that more, maybe, for it to make sense what I’m thinking of. It’s kind of a rabbit-trail, though.

My main point is that, when people care deeply enough about something, they are going to speak up.

It can be an important something or a sillier something. Otherwise intelligent people care an awful lot about sports, and a certain nerd (yours truly) cares very much about the writings of a portly old man named Gilbert Keith.

When I see that someone cares an awful lot about something–and it might be important or silly, I don’t care–I’m somehow reassured that said person and I can be friends. Real friends, maybe, on more than a surface level. Because not caring about anything seems unnatural. It seems lonely. If you haven’t been called a nerd at least once in your life, and looked at yourself and thought, hey, yeah, you know that’s pretty accurate about This Particular Interest, then just consider. You are practically alone in the human population.

Every one is a nerd about something. And rightly so.

Revel in your nerdiness, in your capacity to care for more than survival. Humans have been given so many options for their priorities: as beautiful as the instinct of, say, Monarch butterflies, might seem, they lack some inherent freedom in choosing what to make their lives stand for. It’s a freedom that you have.

I don’t seem to be getting back to talking about timidity verses humility. I’ll try once more but if I can’t do it, then I’ll try again another time.

First, a story. Today in choir was audition day, and I had already determined not to try out for a solo. I had all kinds of reasons: I was out of practice/hadn’t sung all semester; I didn’t really want a solo anyway; and I didn’t need to prove my self to this choir of practical strangers. I felt so confident in my own abilities: Oh no, I thought, it’s not cause I’m scared. It’s not that I’m self-conscious about my voice. It’s only that I prefer to sing with family and close friends. I don’t feel the need to make an exhibition of myself to somehow prove that I’m brave.

Ha.

Choir starts: people audition, some sounding good, others…not so much. I start to get this self-satisfied feeling of hey-what-a-good-plan-it-was-not-to-audition-holy-cow-you-would-have-embarrassed-yourself-like-that-kid-over-there-just-now. Not a very holy feeling, if you know what I mean. Comparison, Envy start to hover around my shoulders, and Timidity keeps turning the pages for me.

So the next song starts, and it’s a solo I love and have loved for years. It’s one I would love to sing, except I know that I couldn’t sing it the way it needs to be sung. I get this picture in my head of what it might be like to audition for it.

Jo stands up confidently and smiles calmly at everyone. Jo sings through the solo winningly, bestowing a gracious, genuine, and down-to-earth air on all who listen. Jo finishes and sits down, perfectly content with just having tried the solo, perfectly content that someone else will sing just as well, or even better.

Ick.

Here’s what actually happens: I stand up, and the director doesn’t see me. There start to be these whispers about how he doesn’t see me–everyone’s nervous for me. I start to care, a little, and I start to think of how silly an idea this was. I shake it off, trying to reclaim that apathetic confidence–remember, Jo, you don’t care how you sound to others, you just wanna enjoy singing this song you love. It doesn’t work. I start to care more, and when the director signals for me to begin, I open my mouth and nothing of what comes out sounds how I thought it’d sound. It’s laughably bad.

It sounds like someone who’s terribly nervous and insecure, who is trying to audition purely to convince herself she’s brave, and who has some skills that regrettably don’t actually include auditioning in front of a choir of eighty people.

It sounds like me.

And I’m fine with me, mostly. I’m fine with that extra shot of humility the experience gave me. I sure as heck wasn’t as judgmental of the person near me who auditioned after I did. Rather, I kept thinking, how are you all so brave?

Way to go, friends. Way to try, even if you weren’t sure of the result.

Complete tangent, sorry.

Let me go back, briefly, to something that got said earlier: that, when people care deeply enough about something, they are going to speak up.

What’s gotten me thinking about this whole thing is some episodes in the book of Matthew. There are these places where Jesus works a miracle for some people, then instructs them not to tell anyone that he did it. So yeah, one of those places is Matthew 9:27-31: Jesus heals these two blind men, and “sternly warn[s] them” not to tell anyone, and the next verse says that “when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.”

I sort of get why Jesus is, at this point, not having people proclaim his miracles,but what I’m curious about is to what extent was the disobedience of those two formerly-blind guys excusable? I mean, if you were blind, and then a man healed you, I’d imagine it’d be hard to stay quiet.

If I’m a Christian, and I believe that “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see,” how is it that I can stay quiet? How on earth am I in any way apathetic about the Gospel? If I believe the Bible is true, how can I think of Jesus Christ and say, “meh, whatever.”

Here’s where I think apathy indicates sin. It seems like there’s something I value more than I value God and His word. At least that’s what I’m indicating by my willingness to keep quiet. So I’ve been asking myself what I’m ashamed of, and how I can possibly reconcile that with Romans 1:16.

Maybe I’m afraid of coming off as a smarty-pants.

Maybe I’m afraid of annoying people.

Maybe I’m afraid of not being liked.

Maybe I’m just afraid.

There’s a myriad of reasons to be afraid of the world if you don’t know Christ. If you do know Christ, there’s exactly this many reasons:

Zero.

After this long doozy of a ramble, I’d like to encourage you if you are a Christian that timidity is neither how we have to live nor is it how we ought to live. God replaced that spirit of timidity with one of “power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

If you aren’t a Christian, then I’d like to tell you what I’ve been learning about how Christ gives us freedom from fear and a glorious hope in which we can place our trust.

As always, thanks for reading:)

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