Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Life Gives You a Lemon Like This, Take a Bath

The lemon tree out front must have Bert and Ernie on its mind...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Banishing the Worrywart

When I was a little girl I was overcome by nervous butterflies before every swimming lesson (what if I had to go off the diving board alone—without floaties?). I don’t remember a single Easter Sunday school lesson as a result of the nervous adrenaline that shot through my body while awaiting our annual after-church cul-de-sac Easter egg hunt (what if everyone took all the good eggs before I got any?).

As a teenager my throat constricted before class presentations (when I was a freshman I had to take a puff of my inhaler during one of my class presentations), and I almost threw up before every track meet (once I actually did. Thank God for track-side outhouses). In college I grew weak and shakey before first dates (all two of them), and felt sick before daily track practice (there was always the possibility of just dropping dead mid-practice from its intensity).

Today, as a grown woman of 26, I haven’t shed very many of my worrywart tendencies. Sometimes I stare at the ceiling late into the night, preoccupied with hypothetical health complications. Occasionally (sometimes often), my chest tightens when I’m faced with the financial unknown, and the slightest change in my life plans sends my heart racing and my mind spinning.

For years I’ve tried to eradicate my anxious tendencies by replacing my worrisome thoughts with true thoughts about God’s goodness and his grace in my life. This is certainly a step toward banishing my worrywart, but I know that I can’t ultimately “fix” my brokenness in this area on my own. Instead, I need to put myself in positions that open myself up to the Holy Spirit’s work in this area of my life so that he can restore my anxious soul. One of the first steps in this journey of learning to open myself up to the Spirit is knowing myself.

Theologians identify two types of human beliefs: conscious and subconscious. Our conscious beliefs are the intellectual beliefs we’re most often aware of and espouse to other people. Our subconscious beliefs are those beliefs rooted deep in our hearts that we are usually unaware of. As Jesus taught, we live from our hearts. Naturally, our subconscious heart-beliefs become quickly evident in our reactions to life’s curve-balls and difficulties.

Most often, our subconscious beliefs look very different from our conscious beliefs. I tell people I believe God is a faithful provider, but I prove the opposite by fretting that he won't provide when I'm without a job or a place to live. I’m quick to assert that God is merciful and good, and yet my doubt of his character becomes apparent when I grow anxious at the first sign of pain or difficulty on the horizon.

Developing an awareness of my untrue subconscious beliefs and the lies they are rooted in has been helpful in my journey toward anxiety-free (or free-er) living. Over the years I’ve recognized that a mistrust of God’s sovereignty most often fuels my peace-decimating beliefs. I fear that God might let things come my way that he’s not aware of or hasn’t “okayed;” that he may fall asleep on the job, or post a “Be Back Later” sign above his desk. And so, like the bumbling 1950s cartoon firemen that scurry too and fro with their small net, assuring the victims in the burning building above that they’re there to catch them, I race back and forth, holding up a safety net should God fall from his throne, assuring him that I’m here if he needs me, that I’ve got his back and have devised Plans B, C, and D should his plans be foiled.*

In an effort to surrender my back-up "net" I’ve been studying the Holy Spirit’s work in time and space, surveying history's panoramic view of God’s sovereignty as he works for our good and his glory. I’ve been bathing my mind in tales of pioneer missionaries, martyrdom, and the church around the world. The testimonies of provision, protection, and an awareness of God’s presence in the midst of suffering are seeds of truth planted in my heart. As the Holy Spirit faithfully tends these seeds they’ve begun to crowd out my subconscious belief that God's sovereignty can't always be trusted, slowly freeing me from the suffocating weeds of worry that so easily squeeze the pleasure out of life.
Here is some recommended reading if you’re interested in checking out some of these incredible stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness throughout history. Please, add to the list! What books have been an encouragement to you in this area?
  1. Mission to the Head Hunters, by Frank and Marie Drown
  2. Through Gates of Splendor, by Elizabeth Elliot (there is a documentary by this same name on Hulu for FREE! that I recommend)
  3. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe
  4. The biblical book of Acts
  5. The testimony of Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim:http://www.acts17.net/articles/nabeelstestimony.htm
  6. Testimonies from Muslims that became Christians: http://www.answering-islam.org/Testimonies/index.html
  7. Heroes of the Faith: Amy Carmichael, by Sam Wellman
  8. Mission Possible, by Marilyn Laszlo with Luci Tumas
  9. From East to West, by Ravi Zacharias
  10. End of the Spear, by Steve Saint (there’s a great movie by the same name)
  11. The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom
  12. The entire Old Testament (it has so encouraged me with its overarching picture of God's sovereignty!)

*Thanks for my momma for the clever comparison of my panicked mistrust of God to the scampering cartoon firemen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Evidence for the Historicity of the Bible: Tidbit #2

The first chapter of the biblical book of Ezra relates a decree written by Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaiming freedom for Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. An archaeological find called the Cyrus Cylinder contains Cyrus's decree, verifying the biblical account.

You can read the prophecy foretelling Cyrus's decision to free the Jews without a ransom payment in Isaiah 44:28; 45:1; and 45:13. This prophecy was made 150 years before Cyrus was born, and the probability of its fulfillment was 1 in 1015!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Evidence for the Historicity of the Bible: Tidbit #1

Archaeologists have discovered fragments of an Aramaic royal inscription that tells the story of the 9th century defeat of the the kings of Israel and Judah by an Aramean king. This inscription is called the "House of David Inscription" and is the only contemporary reference to David outside the Bible.

You can read about the defeat of the Kings of Israel and Judah in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles!

To Be Emptied

The moon hangs low reflecting the sun’s muted light onto my brick patio, the inky sky stretched smooth behind it. Far off the crickets cue their evening symphony and the shadowlands hush, settling down to enjoy this serenade.

I step onto the patio, leaving piles of dishes, grading, and homework in my cozy [cluttered] kitchen, and I notice that, for the first time in a long while, my spirit is still, as silent as the night sky before me. The voluble critic who took up residence in my heart years ago has, for a moment, ceased her incessant chatter.

I’m not sure when I first noticed this critic, but life’s growing pressures and accumulating responsibilities have certainly made her louder—she thrives on that kind of thing. She is loudest, though, when I fix my eyes on something that I am certain would be very good for my life (this job, that degree; this relationship, that success), do not ultimately realize this great “good,” am instead given something that I certainly would not have chosen for myself, and continue to cling to the good I thought I should have rather than enjoy the good that is actually in front of me. It is at this point, when my heart is too preoccupied with the “lost” good to actually revel in the good that God has given me, that the critic lapses into loud moans of “If only you had…!” and, “What if you hadn’t…?” and, “So and so has such and such” and, “Why did she get it right but not you?” and, “It would have been different if you had…” and on and on and on.

I realize this tendency to cling to the good I think I need is the same tendency that sent Lucifer soaring from the high heavens to the bowels of hell, and got Adam and Eve booted from a garden of Paradise into a cursed life of thankless work. This tendency is life-sucking, satisfaction-snatching, and joy-stealing. It is poison, and I want to be rid of it.

Of course my know-it-all critic believes I can rid myself of this tendency—that I can somehow rid myself of myself. But in the whole of history no human has ever been able to do that, not alone. And so I’m learning that in order to be rid of the part of me that idolizes my own ideals, the part of me that fuels my insufferable critic, I must be emptied.

I’m learning that being emptied hurts.

I'm learning that being emptied means smacking straight and hard into the insurmountable wall of my weakness, shortsightedness and ineptitude as I try to run fast toward the destination of my choosing. It means falling to the ground and having the things I value the most—the temporal things that make my life feel significant, safe and pain-proof—burned to ashes. It means waiting. Waiting, instead of crawling toward another dream destination full of “good” things I’m certain I must have. Waiting for God to fulfill the promises that I’ve doubted because I’m convinced somewhere deep down that I’m a better life-manager than God is a promise-keeper. Waiting, lying in this bed of ashes, wondering how in the world life could spring up from them, and then lifting my eyes and noticing that I’m sheltered by the emerald canopy of a towering tree and surrounded by green pastures, watered by the stream that surges through them. Being emptied means staying close to that murmuring, rippling brook even as shadows darken my resting place, and becoming keenly aware that I am not alone—I am never alone. In this waiting there is a stirring to life somewhere in my heart as I realize I have been made to lie down in green pastures because I couldn’t dream big enough to choose this reality on my own, and I think that this must be what it means for goodness and mercy to follow me, and maybe I should stop chasing them after all.

I am learning that being emptied means surrendering myself to the only One who could truly empty Himself; the One who surrendered Himself to death so that I could forever escape the dead end of living for the good life I think I deserve. It means lying still before Him in these green pastures and letting Him use the scalpels of failure, sorrow, sickness, and loneliness to cut open my heart so that the misplaced hopes and poorly ordered priorities that have been lodged in its tight crevices can come tumbling out. It means having my inner landscape littered with these piles of heart wreckage, fully exposed to me and to God, and it means letting Him remove the rubbish, instead of trying to hide it away, or even will it away with sheer desire. It means learning severe mercy. It means living grace.
I am learning that being emptied means letting the scarred hands that once dripped deep red love dip into the stream beside me and rub Living Water onto my heart, washing away the layers of the fear of loss that have been plastered thick and hard over the eyes of my heart. It means fixing these eyes that can finally see on His fierce and tender gaze and seeing—really seeing—that in Him to die is to live, to lose is to gain, to be weak is to be strong, and to be emptied is to be filled. Filled with a peace that pulses with gratitude, the conviction that even now my understanding of God’s goodness is but a tiny drop of an infinite sea, and a hope for the future that is as sturdy as the tomb is empty. This filling, it weakens and silences my voluble critic. And this silence, it is being filled with the still small voice that once spoke the cosmos into being and now sears sacred words hot in my still soul: To be emptied is to be filled is to be freed.
© by scj

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

For Those Of Us Who Scarf

Several months ago, after scarfing down a plate of scrambled eggs, ground turkey, and avocado, I realized that the seconds hand on the clock had only finished one short lap during the time it took me to eat breakfast.

This is what happens when you teach third grade for three years and are used to eating lunch while copying homework packets, talking on the phone to disgruntled parents, making last minute changes to afternoon lesson plans (or writing them for, say, the first time), comforting the kid who just got hit in the head with the tether ball, yelling (in the kindest, most affectionate way possible) at the fifth graders who just sprinted past the door, and rounding up paint for the last minute art project you're going to do that afternoon—all at the same time. In about three minutes, give or take.

When you are a third grade teacher (and grad student) your work becomes your life, which means you don't leave your work at work, which means you don't leave your Road Runner-style eating habits at work either. Enter: meal-breathing; the act of inhaling your meal in just a few short breaths while solving the world's problems. You've gotta breath anyway; breathing in your food is just a clever way of multi-tasking.

After years of eating so fast I couldn't actually taste my food, I decided to make some changes in my dining experiences. So I did what any balanced, well-adjusted 26-year old would do: I got out a stop watch and timed myself eating breakfast. And let me tell you, slowing down took F-O-R-E-V-E-R. It was torturous. It was with great delight that finished my meal, pushed my trusty timer's stop button, and looked down at the final time for my slow-motion meal: five minutes.

Folks, this is not healthy. Not healthy at all. A healthy person doesn't find a five-minute meal a grueling marathon. Healthy people recognize that meals are not just a few steps in a daily routine; they are a snapshot of a lifestyle that spills out of the heart. They are the outer evidence of an inner state; a mirror reflecting the noise and upheaval swirling around in the heart. Healthy people carve time out of their day to rest, to open themselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit in their noisy heart, and they may even use meals to do it.

I really want the healthiness of my meals to go beyond the fact that I've got a plate full of whole foods with the proper proportion of carbs to protein to good fats. I want to be the kind of person who is okay with silence, with being alone, and with slowing down to absorb and be thankful for life's little details, even when I have a mile-long to-do list. I want to be the kind of person who lives in the moment rather than trying to blaze through it; who has a well-ordered inside that results in a well-ordered outside.

Slowing down at breakfast and dinner is one of the steps I'm taking toward giving God a still and silent opportunity to order my inner landscape, since he's the only one who can truly do that kind of thing—our job is to put ourselves in a position that invites him to, thus partnering with him in this inner-ordering. So for all you fellow speed eaters and just plain speed live-ers, here are a few changes I've made that are transforming my breakfast and dinner dining experiences:

1. Set the table for yourself. Use your nice dishes (no paper or plastic allowed), stemware, and a lovely placemat, if you have one.

2. Light candles if it's dark.

3. Make sure there is always a vase (even a small one) of flowers at the table. Putting a vase of flowers on the table is like putting lipstick on after getting all dolled up for a night out. It is the final touch; the cherry on the sundae, the sprinkles on the donut, the generous dollop of sour cream on the taco salad. Furthermore, I once heard that having flowers around the house makes you live longer. To compensate for the hundreds of hours I spend in traffic here in Los Angeles, hours that no doubt raise my blood pressure and are accelerating my death, I have flowers in virtually every corner of my studio. I have also taken up gardening, just to cover my bases.

4. Do not turn on the T.V. I repeat, do not turn on the T.V.

5. Put your fork down after each bite (this is Nancy Jackson wisdom). Look around, lean back in your chair, and take a deep breath. If you're having trouble loosening up from an intense day, try this breathing technique: Let your stomach totally relax so it's sticking out (you may not need to think about this, depending on where you're at in the meal), inhale through your nose (your stomach should expand, rather than your chest—work on that), and breath out through your mouth. I got this breathing technique from the Pioneer Woman, and let me tell you, she never steers me wrong. Except the time I tried to make her best ever frosting recipe and almost gagged from the copious amounts of butter. Other than that, she's very reliable.

6. Eat outside if you can. Between bites feast your eyes on the different shades of color around you, and if you live in Los Angeles, notice the different textures instead (cement, chain link, aluminum...). Smell the breeze and listen for birds.

7. Ask Jesus to join you. He will. He's great company. And company always makes meals seem like celebrations, especially if your company turns water into wine and parties with angels anytime somebody transfers their trust to him. Life should be celebrated.

8. Think back over your day; pray. Ask God what he's doing in your life and heart. Listen. He often talks into the silence, with a still small voice.

I know a lot of you have families of your own and dinner is a rich time of gathering with your home community, rather than a silent time of reflection. But I'm guessing that having a family of your own means you must pace yourself just to make it through the week, so I'm wondering, what do you do to step out of the chaos and into the stillness for a bit?

That goes for all of you: I'd love your suggestions for slowing down as I learn to revamp, not just my meals, but this life I've turned into a rat race. What works for you?

© by scj