Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Backwards Branch

My mom is an avid Facebook-er.  She grams a lot and can hashtag with the best of them.  Also, her emoji use is on point.

All of those skills add up to her being able to share what's going on in her life in a consistent, direct,  eloquent way (because, let's be honest, can you really express what you're feeling accurately without  emojis?)  She makes me ashamed to call myself a Gen-Yer.  I, on the other hand, am not conscientious about communicating, regardless of the medium.  If I have something going on, I won't yak about it.  I won't talk about it.  I won't write you a letter, nor will I text you.  I won't sign language.  Nothing.  So, if you interact with my mom on any social media platform, you probably know more about my life than if you speak to me in person on a regular basis.

This is my public apology for that.

This is also my public announcement that there's a good chance that that will never change (although I'm trying.)

This is also my public attempt at trying to amend that a little bit.

Sorry attempt at said amendment: Hi, friends. My family's moving.  Which you probably already knew.  Because of my mom (see above).

We're peacing out of our home in the inner suburbs of Detroit, Michigan and will eventually dump everything out of the cardboard Home Depot boxes into a new house somewhere in the vicinity of a single stoplight in westish central Missouri.  Why? God closed doors in Michigan and opened them in Missouri.  The story could get a lot more detailed than that, and if you want to hear the specifics of how good God has been showing Himself to be please ask.  We'll talk.  At the heart of it, though, we're moving because God showed us a better place to be than where we are.  Better as in: closer to where He can shape us and teach us and help us best use our gifts.

I've spent most of this summer away from my family at camp in northern Michigan, but I'm home this weekend to share some lasts with the family.  Eating in the back yard with 15+ years' worth of people who have shared life with us.  Finally getting up the courage to check out the ultrahipster coffee shop I've had my eye on.  Making a final trip to the 2-minutes-away Kroger and chatting it up with Pearli, the check out lady who's watched us grow up.  Having church in the place where my siblings and I spent our grade school years.  Throwing away as much as possible and packing the rest.  Enjoying our home and our neighbors for a few more days.

Around the same time that I started to become a less permanent fixture in our house, my family decided to start planting a garden during the summer. One of my favorite things to do when I'm home is to look out the kitchen window and see how our plant babies are growing - everything from tiny pokes of green to almost-edible ears of corn is exciting.  This morning, I stood by the coffee maker and looked out the window. A couple green beans are hiding behind leaves in one row, and other plants are weeks away from producing tomatoes or peppers or pumpkins.  As I looked at the yet-to-bloom plants, I mentally rewound them back into the ground, where they were the day we planted them months ago.  The seeds were laid with full anticipation of eating the grown up version of them on the back porch - not just this year, but over and over again.  While seeds began to take root in our backyard dirt patch, we had no idea that we'd be asked to tear ours up and start again somewhere else before our garden was through.  I wonder if we'd have planted anything had we known how soon we'd be leaving it. 

Can I tell the truth?  I'm kind of bummed that we don't get to eat the vegetables from our garden this year.  I feel a little bit entitled to the final product since I was a part of the planting.   And by "eat the vegetables from our garden," I mean that I'm bummed that the dozens of little things that my family's started here and claimed as ours aren't going to continue to grow where I can see them.  My mom has a successful business; my dad was building a varsity volleyball program; my little brother's been growing a swing dance event at our church; my little sister's connecting her community in preparation for high school; we've all got a rich network of friends and support people.  All of that stuff promised a lot for our future here, and it hurts my heart a little bit that those things are being cut off as we're transplanted.  It feels like there's a lot we're missing out on.

The pain that comes with being cut off reveals how thick and tough my connection with the things I've gotten used to has become - it's the kind of connection that should only exist between me and the Giver of all of it.  As usual, Jesus has something to say about that:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. | john 15: 3-8 |

I absolutely love this image of Jesus as a vine and myself as a branch.  Only in him do I produce fruit; (fruit - read: business, volleyball team, dance, circles of friends) without him I simply can't.  In this passage, I'm commanded to remain in Jesus.  I think that, too often, I choose to cling to the fruit rather than to the vine that gives me life.  It sounds really backwards, doesn't it?  But it's such a thing for me.  Instead of abiding in Jesus, I claim whatever he's produced through me and don't let go.  And it works, kind of, because I get to hang on to the fruit.  But before long, my connection with the vine gets weak and the fruit gets heavy and it and me go tumbling off. Which is the opposite of abiding in Jesus.  Which sucks. 

My tendency towards being a backwards, confused branch means that I need regular pruning via the gardener (that's God.)  He cuts away the fruits that I start to depend on too much for comfort or self-promotion or enjoyment to remind me of where the life-giving connection is, apart from which I can do nothing.  I have to be continually shown that "remain in me" does not mean "remain in the circle of friends I gave you" or "remain in the ministry that started here" or "remain in the job you're passionate about."  It means, simply, to grow my connection with the vine and allow fruit to be produced and harvested as it will - acknowledging that it was God's fruit all along, not mine.   Allowing someone else to sit on the patio and eat my green beans. 

The book of James begins with a beautiful picture of that kind of steadfastness to Jesus.  

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."  | james 1:2-4 |

Again, we're asked to remain - over time and regardless of circumstances.   That in which we remain is of huge importance.  If we attempt to remain in the way that we've chosen to interpret Jesus - our beliefs, how we feel comfortable practicing our faith, a place we want to be, relationships we want grow - we chase after those things rather than Jesus himself.  We remain in the image we construct of the vine rather than, um, the vine.   I didn't make up that analysis by myself - I'm reading a great book about James by Everett Hill.  He goes on to say,

"The steadfastness that James proposes holds faith with an open hand.  This means being willing to admit fault and deeply desiring to seek out the truth.  Sometimes we overcomplicate simple things and becomes so wrapped up in minutia that we no longer see the cross.  Other times, we build our own religious traditions that pull us away from our main focus, who is Jesus.  No matter how beautiful you make a padded cell, it is still going to keep you from going anywhere.  Sticking proudly with the sinking ship of your own piety is ridiculous when Jesus is right there to rescue."   

With that in perspective, I want to embrace the discomfort that comes from letting go of things that I unrightfully hold tightly as mine,  knowing that the purpose of the cutting-off is to draw me closer to the One from whom all good things come.  I want to broaden my gaze so that I can see that God's vision is way, way bigger than the branch of me and the fruit that I produce - that it's He, not I, who is entitled to see things grow full circle.  Why? Because it's all about God's glorification, not anything to do with me. Jesus said.

"This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."

That's it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

One for the Procrastinators

You know those times when it's the weekend before finals and you tell your group for your very important group project that your part of the paper is going to be done tonight for sure but then somehow you find yourself casually stalking . . . yourself on Facebook?

If you hadn't known about those times before,  you're about to because I bet you're probably trying to write a paper or do something similarly productive right now and you'd rather be stalking yourself on Facebook so now that you know that that's an activity you're going to do it. Yo welcome. (Also, I am about to put forth what I believe is a pretty solid argument for the benefits of stalking yourself on social media. So.)

Not going to lie, I stalk myself on social media pretty frequently.  It might be because I'm obsessed with myself, but usually it's either on Instagram or it's my Facebook photos, so I like to think of it as looking through a scrapbook. Reminiscing, reliving memories, etc. Also, perhaps casually glancing at the rating given to said memories by other people.  Such is the world we live in. I digress.  Today was a Facebook photo stalking kind of day.  As I endlessly clicked the arrow on the right side of the picture to scroll further and further towards August and the beginning of college, trying to numb the guilt of not working on the important group paper that I'm still refusing to write, I was reminded of several things:

1. I ran a half marathon in October.  What?  It was not fast.  It was not pretty.  I stopped being nice to my running buddy around mile 3.  But we didn't stop and I have the t-shirt to prove it, and as I sit on my couch eating cookies, it doesn't seem real.

me 10.17.15

              1. b.  I am definitely no longer capable of running a half marathon.

me currently

2. I go to college in the coolest place ever. The area between Allendale, Grand Rapids, and Holland on the west side of Michigan is beautiful and interesting, with a lot of great places, both outdoorsy and indoorsy, to explore.  Which keeps me really happy.

3. I had my nose pierced for a minute.  (Note:  I kept it in long enough for our family Christmas.  My grandma wasn't a fan.)

On that note, I got to spend Christmas in a giant cabin with a big group of my extended family who I love a lot and rarely see and that's wonderful.

look how cute they are

4. College was really hard at first. (See: This photo from move in day in which I am forcing a smile but am secretly terrified and sad and trying to act like I am enjoying the process of slowly being ripped away from my family like a Bandaid or something else sticky that you get stuck to you and have to rip off yourself.)

 It still is really hard sometimes.  Because life is hard and, although college is a fun part of life, it's still life.  Ya dig?

5. I have been given (by God) some truly amazing human beings throughout the last 9 months.  (I wish I could come up with a less cliche phrase to describe these people than "truly amazing" so that I could better convey their true amazingness.  Maybe that'll happen in the editing stage of writing this post. Let's be honest, this post probably will not be edited.) This is one that really makes my heart (and eyeballs) melt.  The amount of times this year that I've looked around at the people who I get to be around, here at college and at home, and have just been actually amazed, is a lot.  The phrase "my cup overflows" comes to mind.  (Yeah, that's right - I quote the Bible in my thoughts.)  The scariest thing about coming to college was finding new people, and WOW has God showed up. Wow, wow, wow.

6.  I really like my family.  I've spent an above average amount of time with my immediate family this year compared to most college students, partly due to the fact that I love them and partly because I tore my ACL and had to come home for about 4 weekends in a row for doctors' appointments.  Confession: I definitely had some frustration with being at home so often and feeling like I was missing things at school.  Don't worry; I got over it.  God's been teaching me to be content with where I'm placed and to see him working there rather than plotting an escape plan.  I'm not good at it yet but I am at least to the point where I know that it's a thing.  And I realized that, even though now feels like a time that I'm supposed to be very independent and an adult and doing things on my own and not living at home every other weekend, this extra time with them has been a really unique gift that not all college kids get.  Also, my family rocks.

the easter bunny in the bottom right photo is my sister. so yes, it does belong in the family collage.

7. #blessed.  I hate using the word "blessed" to talk only about the happy, comfortable things that happen to me because that implies that the hard, frustrating things aren't of God, and I believe that they are.  So let me take this opportunity to not use "blessed" in that way and to dispel any idea forming in your head that I've spent my year being stereotypically hashtagblessed, buying greeting cards, watching sunsets, eating fancy dessert, laughing nonchalantly with my friends, and doing similarly Insta-friendly things - because, no.  I've spent this year doing those things sometimes, plus having lot of other experiences that haven't been that fun but that I know God's used to grow me and that have probably been more important than the fun things. I've cried frustrated tears a lot of times, and a lot of times they're directed at myself because I've messed up something again and for some reason I still expect perfection of me. I've had pretty heartbreaking conversations with friends.  I've watched family walk through stupid, scary, crappy health issues.  I tore my ACL and crutched around for 3 weeks - not the biggest of bad things to happen by a long shot, but it would admittedly have made my life much easier if my ligaments would have just remained intact.  I've felt lonely and I've said the wrong thing at the wrong time. I've tried to be friends with people who I can't be myself around.  One time my socks got really wet and I had to dry them off in the hand dryer of the Taco Bell bathroom (alone).  It has not been easy.

I don't have pictures of that stuff for whatever reason.  Largely because I feel like it would be really emo to take a picture of myself crying while talking to my mom on the phone.  It's not like the thought has never occurred to me - you guys, I take photos of EVERYTHING.  BUT if I did, if I just took the photos, emo or not, and posted them on social media and then stalked myself, I'd have such a cool picture of the way that God has worked this year, especially in the hard stuff.  Which is what I'm referring to when I say "#blessed".  I'm overwhelmed by his goodness when I'm just looking through the social-media safe pictures, so whatever the next step up from "overwhelmed" is, that's what I am when I consider everything else he's been up to.

Basically, I'm forseeing a very quiet car ride home from school for the summer when my mom picks me up in a week.  As we drive past the place where I had a hole stabbed through my nose - not once, but multiple times - by a man named Eric with dimple piercings.  As the vehicle keeps moving right on past the bus stops.  As I sit in a private car with enough room to shift weight without snuggling up against a stranger in the seat next to me.  As the scent of a million ounces of fried food being prepped at the cafeteria grows weaker.

 I picture myself shedding a single tear. Or several.  Or my eyes might just get a little more moist than usual.   I have a summer worth looking forward to and I love being home with my family and I'll be back in four months, so I'm not sad about leaving.  I do know, however, that driving away at the end my freshman year of college definitely marks the end of a season, and I've never been great at endings.  I need closure and I need to process. So I sit with my laptop and don't study and write this big long mess of stream-of-consciousness and photos.  And then I post a link on Facebook.  And then I maybe study.  Or got to bed.

God has been good this year.  Just like all of the other years.  Don't worry; he hasn't changed.  If you're reading this, he's probably used you to provide for me in some way, because I do not have it together and I would not be okay by myself.  Thanks for letting him do that.  May the knowledge of his goodness, which never ever changes, stay rooted in my heart and alive in my actions.

 And may I also get 100s on my finals.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

He Chooses Me - Anyway

The goal here is to be open.  Not too open, of course, because this is the internet and nothing goes away and we both know that oversharing is a thing, but maybe a little more open than I'd usually like to be, because that terrifies me so it's probably a good thing to do.

Confession: I just logged into my Webkinz account again and I'm not proud of how long I've spent with my white terrier named Snowflake.  That's not even a joke, I'm actually not proud of it at all.  But I'm pretty close to beating my high score in Goober's Atomic Adventure, and then I'll stop.

Confession:  My roommate made Oreo cheesecake and told me "It's good! You should try some!" so I ate like 3/4 of the pan. But it had Greek yogurt in it so it was healthy. And it was over a span of days, and Oreo cheesecake can definitely be a part of a balanced diet. Get off my back.

Confession: I was craving chocolate yesterday and the only chocolate I had in my room was all cute in a mason jar because it was supposed to be my friend's Christmas present two months ago ... I ate it.   I plan to replace it, but still. #classy #donttellbecky

Okay, it's about to get real. Better writers than me would transition smoothly into the more serious portion of the post so that you wouldn't even notice the shift in tone until it had happened, but I'm struggling so I'll just tell you: we are now moving to the more serious portion of this post. Thanks for your cooperation. Here it is:

Confession:  Jealousy is so real, you guys, and I know firsthand that it's real in my heart.  I'm pretty sure that the root of jealousy is in fear, and I know for a fact that fear isn't from God.  So, as a person who's striving to become more like Christ and to rid my heart of everything that isn't Him in favor of knowing Him better, that's a problem.

Since I was little, writing has been my thing to some extent.  I dictated stories (and elaborate pictures) to my mom before I could handle a pen myself.  As soon as I could write, I started my first novel, which went on to span three pages in a thick red notebook.  I even remember my dad telling my middle-school self that what I wrote was easily better than what some college students produced - so, yeah, I'm kind of a big deal.  I started a blog in high school and enrolled in writing classes in college, and words have always come to me pretty easily - I see it as a skill that God's given me to work with.

Let's not assume that the fact that I just told you that my talent is God-given means that I'm always mindful of that.  I'm just not that good - or good at all - and I don't give him credit.  I forget really easily that I can't claim any skill that I have, because it was God who knit me together in this way.  I've definitely used my writing ability to wait until the night before to begin essays for school, to write cover letters that make me sound better than I am, and to produce clever Instagram captions - meeting self-serving, ultimately meaningless ends. The biggest investment of my talent has been the hours poured into a blog that I secretly kind of hoped would make me famous. (It hasn't, if you were wondering.)  Because I know that writing is something that's naturally pretty easy for me, it's always been a matter of self-centered pride that I do it well. 

Recently, a bunch of other people who do writing well have been brought to my attention, via the Odyssey, via Facebook.  If you're not familiar, The Odyssey is an amalgamation of various average college-ish age people who are either hired to write or submit pieces to the website.  It's  a collective blog.  And apparently, everyone I know has a friend who has had something published.  At least daily, I see a shared post from someone's friend paired with a line or two about how talented and wonderful the writer is.  A lot of them are posts about Jesus, and the praise often includes a bit about the author's pursuit of God and how He is working through them.  And I didn't realize it at first, but every time I'd see one of those posts, there'd be a twinge in my heart. I'm a talented writer too, right? Why isn't it my name at the end of the page with a headshot and a byline? The similarities between them and me - a love for words and for Jesus - make it way too easy for me to draw comparisons; the one glaring difference - level of worldly recognition - makes it way too easy for me to see myself as coming out behind.

All of this heart build-up (that sounds like a commercial for cholesterol medication - maybe that's why I'm not famous yet? I try to write about spiritual turmoil and end up eliciting images of little molecules sticking in an artery.) culminated in one final post from The Odyssey - I don't know what it was, but eventually the jealousy that I didn't know I had got to me. I saw another post written by a passionately Jesus- loving person, and I lost it.  And you can stop picturing a technically-adult girl throwing a temper tantrum because I promise my distress wasn't visible.  But my heart ached; my chest is tightening as I write this.  I read all of the comments, things like "Beautiful words!" "You're so talented!" "You have such a heart for Jesus!" - things that should have made me, as a friend and follower of Jesus, full of joy.  My sinful heart couldn't stop asking, "What about me? This is supposed to be my gift.  I should be the one being praised for my work and used by God. Why is she the one who gets all of that?" 

There is so much pride and insecurity tied up in my questioning, and both of those are rooted in fear.  My fear of being seen for what I am - not good enough - makes me insecure.  My insecurity leads to puffed up, selfish pride in what inconsequential things I can do on my own - because I feel that I need something that I can control to hold up and say "I'm good!  I'm making it!"  Fear is the root of that whole mess, and it's been made clear to me that fear is literally a lie from the devil, always.  Fear is a lie because Christ's victory over everything that I'd ever need to be afraid of is reality - fear cannot exist in the presence of that which has defeated everything truly scary. 

I've seen a pattern develop in my life - the enemy loves to make me afraid so that I'm paralyzed.  He's stronger than me, and brilliant, and so he can use even the beautiful way that my friends serve God to wound my fragile pride, revealing incompetency and insecurity, and keep me from moving into what God wills me to do.  When I see my friends living for Jesus, the enemy loves to whisper lies of "You'll never be like that - why bother?"  and "What you have to offer is already being done - you're not needed" and "Your heart is not devoted to God fully enough - he can't use you." It makes sense that he'd do that.  If I were him, I'd do anything I could to keep the church from being encouraged by God being glorified.  I'd do my best to breed resent and insecurity and negativity among those who, when united, could be used powerfully for God's kingdom.  That's exactly what he does.  And sometimes I'm like, "Hey, you're right.  What I do probably doesn't matter.  So I'll just sit here and play some Webkinz and not try to do anything that could have a lasting impact."

Maybe we can dig into the evils / addictive nature of Webkinz another day.

Let's be aware of the existence of those lies and of the very fact that they. are. lies.  I believe that God can use me incredibly, not because I'm good, but because he's good enough to use even someone like me.  He doesn't need me to be perfect - but He does need me, even in my imperfection, to move.  I need to do something, no matter how much I seem to suck at it, but even the task of doing something badly feels daunting in the face of paralyzing fear.  Why bother. You're not needed.  God can't use someone like you. I don't even want to try, because the devil's lies get so loud that I'm distanced from the fact of how big and strong and good my God is.  All I see is me - incapable, with a divided heart and feeble will, standing afraid as I'm faced with the truth of my weakness.

I can't do things perfectly on my own.  I can't even do things imperfectly on my own, because I'm afraid to.  Praise God that the words of 1 John 4 are true: "God is love. . . . There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear."  The presence of God drives out my fear.  When the enemy tells me:

You'll never be like that - why bother?
What you have to offer is being done - you're not needed.
Your heart is not devoted to God fully enough - he can't use you.

my loving God says:

You are fearfully and wonderfully made. All the days ordained for you were written in my book before one of them came to be.  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. 

When he tells me that, I believe him.  Unlike my dad telling his eleven-year-old daughter that her writing is as good as a college student's, God has no bias.  He is holy and all-knowing and just, so he's very aware of all the ways in which I fall short. He's the almighty creator of the whole entire universe, so I don't think he has to be nice to me.  My strength compared to his is so small - he doesn't need me. 

In his great love, he chooses me anyway. 

With a God whose love is powerful enough to override every way in which I don't measure up, what can I possibly be afraid of?  What insecurity is so big that God's "I love you anyway" isn't enough to put it to rest?  I don't ever have to be afraid that God can't use me, and I definitely don't have to compare myself to any other person.  My God calls me his, so what does anyone else matter?

Praise God for all of that, am I right? Wow.

May I remember that I'm not good enough, but that my not-good-enough is covered in His more-than-enough, always. 

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