Sunday, January 1, 2017

A New Year's Thing (NOT Resolution)

Welcome, hi, Happy New Year.  I hope you spent last night eating some pigs in blankets and sparkling grape juice, because that is what I did and I want to impose my lifestyle on you. (sarcasm, but real talk pigs in a blanket are a seriously underrated appetizer.) Sometimes I think that when I write, my real self comes out.  Or I just get really bold because I am hiding behind a screen (#21stcenturyprobs? #millenialprobs? #allielangeprobs?)

It's January first.  Time to resolve to do things. I don't think New Year's resolutions are a joke, even though they often fail. There's definitely something to be said for a calendar change that brings extra motivation & the feeling of a fresh start, even if it is technically just a calendar change. The only beef I have with New Year's resolutions is the extra traffic at the gym for the first few weeks of January.  Or maybe that's what it's always like . . . I'm only ever at the gym for the first few weeks of January, so not really sure on that one.

I almost always resolve something on January 1.  Usually I create a comprehensive list of things that I could be doing better and resolve to fix all of them.  I can be kind of idealistic, and man can that kill in the New Year's resolution department.  Talk about impossible.

This year, my New Year's / January 1 thing (I'm refusing to call it a "resolution" because I feel like resolutions have a higher change of failure than unnamed "things.") looks a little different than it has in past years, due to an enlightening conversation with my mom.

I grew up going to church, but for someone who has logged a decent amount of Sunday School hours, there's a lot about Jesus and the Bible that I don't completely get.  One thing that's always stumped me is prayer.  Growing up, I'd learned that prayer is talking to God, that God likes it when we pray and that it's a privilege that he does because God is in charge of the universe and he doesn't have to let us talk to him.  I'd experienced times of feeling really close to God through prayer, and I get that it's an important part of having a relationship with God, like talking to a friend is an important part of a friendship.  The conversational, I-love-you-God kind of prayers make sense to me: God loves me and wants me to talk to him, I love him back so I do, and we get to know each other better.  That's really cool.

But then there are the asking for stuff prayers - and whether you come from a Christian background or not, you know these ones. I'd become kind of jaded toward asking for stuff prayers.  People get sick or have a test coming up or run into relationship problems and we respond with, "I'm praying for you!"  I don't doubt that, occasionally, the promised prayers are actually said.  But I think that in a lot of cases, "praying" has become a way of saying "I feel bad for you and I hope your situation improves."  I might send up a quick "God, help _______", but I often don't really expect him to do anything, or I don't think to follow up with the person to see if God answered my prayer.  And so, assuming that I'm not the only person who this is true of, praying for people (or saying we're going to) has become an item of social decorum rather than genuine requests made to a God who can do anything. That frustrated me.

Then I'd see another, radically different kind of asking for stuff prayer scattered throughout the Bible. The Israelites, who are slaves in Egypt, cry out to God for help, and he gets them out of slavery, which includes making a path through a sea for them to walk through.* Moses asks for clean water for the same nation of people, now traveling in the desert, and God makes clean water out of bitter water.*  Joshua asks God to make the sun stand still in the sky, and it does.* IT DOES. What even.  And how bold is it to ask God to make the sun stop in the sky?

All of those asking for stuff prayers resulted in God doing something that displayed his power and his willingness to give people what they need. But something nagged at me as I thought about those stories - why did people even have to ask? If God knows everything and wants to give us what we need, why didn't He just let Israel out of slavery before they asked him to?  Add to that the numerous examples in the Bible of asking whatever we ask for according to God's will. What would prayer look like, then? Let's say I need a mountain moved.  I'd pray, "Hey God, please move that mountain!  I believe you can.  But only if it's your will."  But God already knew that I needed the mountain moved, plus He was going to do his will anyway.  So why did my prayer matter? That frustrated me.

So, after a while (and by a while, I mean a possible range of a few months to a few years) of not understanding and being frustrated about prayer, I asked my mom about it. I think my question was, more or less, "I don't get prayer.  If God already knows everything, and he's going to do things according to his will anyway, shouldn't I just let God do his thing and accept it?"

She explained it to me this way:

Think of God's relationship to us as a parent's to their child. (Jesus uses this same analogy when describing prayer in Luke 11, so it's legit.) My mom told me about a day when my little sister was struggling to put her coat on before preschool.  She was getting progressively more distressed, starting with quiet complaining that built up into tears and screaming and a losing battle with the impossibly twisted jacket.  Things were not going well.  My mom couldn't step in to help at that point - my sister was hysterical and intent on getting the jacket on all by herself despite how things were going (relatable, am I right?) My mom could try to talk her out of the course of action, but as long as my sister was trying to get the jacket on her way, my mom's help would be useless.

That's us and God. God's given humans the right to do what we want; in doing so, he's relinquished his right to step in and control what we're doing without our asking him to.  If we're not ready to receive God's help, we will continue to try to get what we need on our own, by our own means. When we ask God for stuff, we're showing him that we're ready for Him to provide things. It's a heart adjustment on our part, a shift from "I'm going to try to provide this for myself, but if God would intervene and provide it for me, that would be great" to "I am going to ask God to provide for me in this area, and I am ready to receive what he gives me."

Her explanation made sense.  I still don't know everything about how praying works, but I get it a little more. So, this year, I'm excited to start asking God for stuff and expecting him to answer.  I've got a list in my journal titled, "prayers going into 2017."  My goal is to keep returning to this list consistently, like, multiple times a day, asking God for the things on it, and checking myself to make sure I'm prepared to accept the things I'm asking God for. I want to persist in asking God for stuff until he's answered those requests clearly. I also want to be open to changing my requests - as God makes me wiser, I think it's likely that I will realize that some of my requests were self-seeking, or not good for me right now.  (I.e., dog. I cannot support a dog right now. Acquiring a dog at this stage of life could only end in heartbreak.)

In addition to "prayers going into 2017", I have also vowed to eat more vegetables, do homework on time, become an earlier-rising, more cheerful morning person, etc., etc. (When you use "et cetera" twice, does that just indicate a really long implied list?) The idealism has not gone away, friends. But, above all, I am so ready to pray for stuff and watch God work.  Let's go.

*Exodus 3:7-9, Exodus 15:24-25, Joshua 10:12-13, respectively

Monday, November 7, 2016

I'm a Trainwreck but Jesus Loves Me

I carried my laptop an hour out into the woods on a very muddy day to write this.  Maybe not wise, but definitely the most pleasant blog post writing experience I've had, except for the occasional mosquito.

I’m not even surprised that anxiety is such a thing for people my age.  I tend to be laid back to a fault, but today I felt that chest-tightening, tear-welling monster creeping up on me as soon as I got out of bed.  I usually fight that beast by tearing the kitchen apart in pursuit of some really elaborate dessert, but since the sink was already full of various chocolate-goo-covered baking implements from my escapade last night, I put on my Chacos and my best / ugliest flannel from Goodwill and disappeared into the woods behind my dorm.  I think Thoreau might have been on to something, because walking in nature does me so much more good than it seems like it should, considering how simple it is.  Greater than the sum of its parts, or something. 

Today I flipped through my well-worn mental list of things that could possibly be making me anxious. Homework That I Have Not Yet Done and Assignments That Have Received Less Than Satisfactory Grades are a given; I am rarely not undergoing some variety of low-level, GPA-related stress.  And next on the list is usually My Relationships With People, followed by How Messy My Room Is and How Many Hours of Sleep I Got Last Night.  Today, I’m settling on My Relationships with People as the cause for my anxious heart.  Dude, people are a mess.   I love them, but wow, would my life be simpler if all I needed or wanted was myself.  Or if they and I were less messy.  A favorite professor last year often told my class (and he meant this in the best possible way), “You’re all little trainwrecks, which makes you endlessly fascinating.” I’m weirdly obsessed with that line, despite the fact that it calls me a trainwreck.  I find it beautifully accurate.  I think it’s comforting to hear what I already kind of know said aloud: humans are anxiety-inducing, inconsistent, trainwrecks. 

Today I feel like an extra-wreckable train, or maybe a train that’s come into contact with one too many other wreck-prone trains.  I realized that a lot of the anxiety I’m feeling goes beyond the typical relational worries of whether I’ve called my mom enough lately or supported my roommates like I feel I should be (and are my dirty dishes still sitting in the sink? probably); it’s brought on by fear caused by the leftovers of having been hurt.  Like, really well-hidden, long-forgotten leftovers, shoved in the back of the fridge to pretend they don’t exist.  I am most certainly speaking from experience.

Over the last couple weeks, my roommate and I started to notice a weird smell in the kitchen.  We ignored it for a while; we took out the trash and pretended that the smell got better when we did or made the air flammable with apple cinnamon Febreeze (because, fall).  Eventually, we investigated a couple Tupperware containers and checked the expiration dates on the dairy products.  The smell shifted a little bit in its composition, but mostly it got worse.  One night, she’d had enough and took every single item out, putting every container through a rigorous inspection and disinfecting everything.  And she found the most evil smelling old chicken beast that has ever disgraced anyone’s nostrils.  I kid you not, I cried when I smelled it.  Ew.  We threw it away promptly, took the trash bag to the dumpster, and with that room 117 rejoiced because the smell was gone.

Maybe the analogy is obvious:  we (unknowingly) hid the chicken breast in the fridge, probably because someone was too busy to deal with it one day, and eventually forgot it was there.  We couldn’t see it, even when we tried, but we most definitely felt the effects of its disgustingness.  Kind of like when I’m hurt and I act like I’m not.  I eventually get busy and forget that I’m hurt, and maybe other people can’t tell, either, because the change starts out subtle. But it affects me.  I end up living hurt – I’m a little less willing to trust, slightly more easily offended, and unsure of my worth.

I’m really good at letting old chicken rot in the fridge of my soul.  Don’t judge me; that’s a great analogy and you know it.  Admitting to having been hurt and then cleaning up the mess of that is so unpleasant, and often the easy way to avoid that responsibility is to fake that I’m fine.  I tell myself that what other people do doesn’t affect me; or that if it did at one time, I’m over it (side note:  isn’t it funny how much easier it is to admit to a past hurt than a present one?); that I don’t have a right to be wounded by a certain thing or another; that I should expect that this will happen – (people have, after all, a trainwreck nature – and haven’t I done my fair share of damage?).  This rationalization takes about 35 seconds, and shortly thereafter I realize that I have a paper due like yesterday or that I promised to call my little sister, and the raw chicken breast that I’m refusing to acknowledge exists is shoved to the back of the shelf.  (Honestly I’m kind of weirded out by this chicken analogy but I’m sticking with it.) Forgotten and rotted and making my life stink, unbeknownst to me.

So, whether I know it or not, the hurt continues to exist and it causes me to live the way that someone who has an unhealed hurt lives.  People with unhealed hurts are (and this is not based on extensive research; I’m speaking only from my personal experience) above all, afraid of being hurt again.  They protect the places where they’re vulnerable.  For me:  I don’t allow myself to care too deeply for people.  Specifically, I’m the first to let go of hugs and to leave conversations and I’m careful not to be too excited to see someone unless I know they’ll act equally as excited to see me.  Big-picture, I wait and try to measure how much someone cares about me before I decide what my actions towards them are going to look like.  I think it’s a very rational approach.  As such, it results in my spending a lot of time in analysis of how I’m being treated by other humans and plugging that into algorithms that output my reciprocating actions.  And then consequently worrying about whether I got it right. 

And yes, it’s highly possible that that’s an anxiety-inducing process.  (By “highly possible” I mean: it definitely is anxiety-producing.)  But, in a really backwards way, when I’m in a place of hurt it makes me feel safe to limit the ways that I love people, therefore limiting my vulnerability and the risk of re-injury.  In a world where people are overwhelmingly likely to be imperfect and I’m so prone to being hurt by their imperfections (or mine), any other less rational, less careful approach would be idiotically reckless.

Except, Jesus.  I’m learning right now about how the presence of Jesus in my life means that what makes sense in my head is not the be all, end all.*  That the standard against which I measure myself is not other human beings, but the holiness of God.  Lol at that concept, because I think if me and Jesus were on a bar chart you probably wouldn’t be able to see my bar.  I KNOW, wow.  Just for fun, let’s run that comparison and see what that looks like. 

Let’s compare me to Jesus.  The God of the Bible didn’t run statistics to decide how to love people.  (I do, informally.)  He created and fiercely committed himself to generations of trainwreck people who would most likely be really ungrateful for it.  They wouldn’t love him back.  They would ignore his existence while he watched, wanting desperately to be close to them.  They’d walk away from him and get into trouble, and he’d bail them out again and again – just for an uncertain chance at a relationship. He would pursue them with the open offer of his whole self while they chased after cheap, fake substitutes.  I can’t imagine how heartbreaking it is to love like that.  Create that story quickly for yourself: what would it look like to pursue every single person with all-out love?  God’s heart is wounded again and again and again, but he hasn’t held back even a little. 

If God loved me like I love people, he surely would have removed himself a safe distance from me as soon as he knew me.  If I met me, and knew my tendencies fully like Jesus does, I can see myself saying, “Wow, is this girl a mess.  She’s volatile.  I don’t think it’s worth the risk.  I’d really, really rather not go there.” All while slowly backing away on violently shaking legs.  But God looks at the mess that I am and knows without a doubt that I am not good enough for him and fully expects that I will hurt him countless times and says, “I don’t care.  I love you.  I love you.  I love you.”  And when I forget about him he stays in hopes that I’ll remember.  And when I love him he rejoices.  And he says the same of you and he does the same for you, whether you ask him to or not.  Are you crying yet?  I’m crying. (I cry at everything.  This is worth it, though.)

You see, my God doesn’t love rationally.  Not even close.  If he did a risk-reward analysis for loving humans and was in this the same way people are in this, he’d be way out – but he’s not.  He fully knows the certain danger that comes with the way that he loves, and then he does it anyway.  That is the kind of love that the God I believe in is made out of.  I am constantly receiving love that isn’t based on the way that I act.  That has big, big implications for the way that I live.

When I make my “How Much Love I Give People” algorithm, the input should no longer be other-people-based.  It’s Jesus-based, because his love is so true and real that it makes everything else irrelevant.  And with that simple (yet astronomically important) change made, the output is me loving like Jesus does rather than loving like a hurt Allie.  Aka, in a way that risks getting hurt, in the same place and way that I was before, again.  It’s knowing that the love I give won’t always be returned to me and caring deeply for the people who won’t return it.

Love like that cannot come from a place of back-of-the-fridge, ignored, unhealed hurt.  Instead, it has to come from a place of perfect love – like, love that is completely independent of outside influences.  Kind of (as in, exactly) like) the way that God loves. 

To be broken and love people wholly at the same time means that the love I give has to have nothing to do with me.  The more that I can be drinking of the perfect love that Jesus gives me constantly, the closer I can be to giving people a love uncolored by how broken I am.  Which allows me to love without fear or the anxiety that comes with desperately protecting myself where I’m vulnerable.  It allows me to be real with myself about how I’m hurt and to love people well at the same time.  And in that way, the perfect love of Jesus can reach in and heal me and the people around me.**

(FYI, my favorite way that I’ve learned about God’s love is in the book of Hosea.  Go read it.  It’s so dang beautiful.)

Recap:  I’m hurt.  I can’t love people when I’m hurt.  Jesus can. So I’d do a lot better to love with Jesus’s love than my love.  I’m still going to mess up.  Maybe something of that sounds like you talking.  If so, it would appear that we’re in this together - let’s do this.   

*What the heck does “be all, end all” even mean?  And why am I using that phrase if I don’t know what it means?

**Before publishing this post, I sent it to my dad for editing.  He responded with, among other things, some pretty wise advice, which I’m using as a disclaimer to what would otherwise be a somewhat unrealistic picture of how relationships between people who know Jesus will look.  Disclaimer: People will still hurt people.  Dad says, “I am certainly one of the people who has wounded you in our relationship with my sometimes blunt words and tendency to be too preoccupied with my own thoughts to listen to others carefully.  I don't lose sleep over it.  A wise Christian writer (Henri Nouwen) clued me in that all human beings wound other human beings because we ourselves are wounded.  Though I have great parents who I wouldn't trade for anything, I have wounds that I carry from them, though I consider them pretty minor.  So I am confident whatever wounds I have inflicted on you will be used by God in his way.”

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...