“A Harvest of Goodness”

Some more Eugene Peterson quotes to provide a contrast to last night’s post.

By contrast, “he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit inherit eternal life.” Sowing to the Spirit opposes sowing to the flesh. It is a life that is lived openly and responsibly–a life of mutuality. Spirit is that aspect of the Godhead that breaks the other into relationship. It is that person of God by which we experience all that God gives. Sowing to the Spirit is participating in the community that experiences what God is giving: loving, saving, healing, caring. “Christianity,” wrote von Hugel, “has taught us to care. Caring is the greatest thing–caring matters most.”

Because there are no quickly perceived cause-effect relationships between moral acts and quality of life, some jump to the conclusion that there are no connections at all….Acts of giving are not like pebbles dropped in a pool that make a few temporary ripples and then sink to the bottom inert. They are not pebbles, they are seeds planted in the soil of life, and they will come up one day. The harvest is inevitable. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Decisions are seed. Attitudes are seed. Acts are seed. Prayers are seed. Thoughts are seed. All of it will come to harvest….

Persistent, faithful, plodding belief and hope are necessary if we are to remain free to give. Despair, which descends by dungeon steps to depression, is one of the major afflictions in our society. People seek relief from it sometimes in entertainment, sometimes in violence. Christians make their way out of it step by step, sometimes with great effort, on hardly visible footholds of sharing. The besetting temptation of the life of the Spirit is simply to quit….

When we are released from self-centered fears, when we learn to trust God’s power instead of our own, we are free to give ourselves to others.

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Free from Self = Free to be Myself

I’ve been blogging in my head for weeks.

Funny how the posts never show up here when I do it that way.

The other day I finished reading another Eugene Peterson non-fiction book, Traveling Light. It’s his articulate-as-usual commentary on the book of Galatians. And (no surprise to me now) it’s excellent.

While there are gems throughout the book, the final chapter struck me hard and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the ideas since. So much of faith is mystery, and the deeper I walk with Jesus the greater is the mystery. Yet it is not a confusing, messy mystery but a source of awe and a deep assurance that everything works together. For good. It’s the kind of feeling that comes from so deep inside that I can’t quite pinpoint it, but rises up like the excitement of anticipating a trip to Europe or eating a dark chocolate truffle. It makes me smile because even though I have and will experience times of doubt, ultimately I know it’s true.

But I’m not ready to write about the last chapter’s topic yet. It’s too late to start that. So I’ll quote instead from the chapter called “Free to Give.” In it, Peterson explains how freedom from self is true freedom: freedom to be more truly ourselves (seems a contradiction, but it’s not).

“He who sows to his own flesh” is the person absorbed in himself, in herself. This way of life is encouraged by greedy advertisers, self-indulgent celebrities and self-help psychologists. Obsession with self necessarily pushes others to the sidelines and assigns them the rule of validating my self-esteem. “How do I look? How am I doing?” It is not, though, by using people but by serving them that we increase our freedom. An admiring audience is a necessary adjunct to the person who “sows to his own flesh” since there is so little to be gleaned from such meager acreage. A person all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.

(Man, I love this guy’s prose!)

Selfishness often disguises itself with the designation “self-sufficiency.” It is laudable, is it not, to feel good about oneself and take care of oneself? And if I am forever meddling in someone else’s life, I am probably in danger of encouraging dependency and sloth, robbing them of the delights of taking charge of their own lives. Henry Fairlie sees through the deception. He rightly discerns that for most people taking care of the self first is a “denial of one’s need for community with others, which is in fact a form of selfishness, since it is always accompanied by a refusal of one’s obligation of community with others. The steps from a reasonable self-concern to an utter selfishness are short and swift. Most of the prescriptions for ‘self-actualization’ today are rationalizations for an aggressive self-centeredness and, in some of their forms, for violent aggression by one’s self against other selves that get in the way. If it is not aggression it is manipulation and the end is always the same; always striking or maneuvering to take first place.”

It’s hard to stop quoting this man. After this section (which is aptly titled “Manacles to the Spirit”) he presents an opposite approach which I cannot quote now but perhaps I will take up this post again tomorrow.

conversation with God

Me: Right now, everything feels precarious and changeable. Sometimes I feel like time, and with it my life, is slipping away from me. Why do I feel so out of control?

Him: Are you ever in control?

Me: No. But you usually let me feel like I am.

Him: Isn’t it better to know the truth?

Me: I guess so. But it’s hard. I’m anxious. My life looks different than I planned.

Him: Hmm, I thought you wanted me to do the planning.

Me: Well, I do. But why don’t I have all the things I’ve prayed for? Why do I still feel, in some ways, like a helpless child even though I’m nearly 30? Why are the people around me suffering? Why am I suffering?

Him: Pain is part of life. Through it you can truly know me, because when you are in pain you let me get close. You stop pushing me away, and let me really love you.

Me: I know. I’m so glad I know that’s true. There’s nothing better. But…I still feel like there are missing pieces. I’m confused.

Him: If you look at what is lacking, you can’t see what I have given. You can’t see what I am doing. Jesus says:

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself. (Luke 12:29-32, Message).

Me: I love that. And I love you. Adjust my perspective again. I want to see things your way.

checking my baggage

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

I read this verse the other day and later, maybe while I was washing dishes or in the shower (I don’t remember exactly), I thought about it again.

We often use the term “baggage” to describe past emotional trauma, family drama, or other internal issues. In a literal sense, baggage is what I take on a trip. I pack my suitcase and backpack and drag them through airports and onto planes. Traveling is made more difficult with baggage. I have to lift up my suitcase and cram it into the overhead compartment. My back aches from the weight of the book-filled backpack. Even on wheels, luggage is awkward and uncomfortable to manage while trying to navigate an airport or public transportation.

If I didn’t have to carry baggage on a trip, I wouldn’t do it.

Luggage is needed on a physical journey, so I assume it’s the same on my spiritual journey. My suitcase is filled with guilt, regret, frustration, anxiety, anger, fear, impatience, and pain. Once in a while I unzip the baggage and sort through it, but when I try to stuff it all back inside, the contents seem to have multiplied.

Why does it seem pious to carry guilt? Why do I rationalize fear as “caution” or “self-protection”? Why is my impatience always someone else’s fault? Why do I hide my pain, covering it like it’s an embarrassing blemish?

The truth is, I don’t have to carry any baggage. Jesus said if I come to him, he will give me rest–and when I do, he does. And I wonder why I didn’t drop my bags earlier.

good girls need [a lot of] grace, too

I’m in the middle of a book called Grace for the Good Girl by Emily P. Freeman. The subtitle is “letting go of the try-hard life.”

Let me tell you: this book resonates with me. I grew up “good.” I had a happy family life, PG-rated at most. I fell in with a sheltered crowd in high school and, as a homeschooler, I didn’t deal with the issues or temptations I would have faced at public school. As a teen, I never really rebelled against my parents.

In the book, Freeman writes:

This innate desire to be good indeed protected me from a lot of heartache and baggage. It protected me from teenage pregnancy and bad grades and jail. But it did not bring me any greater understanding of God. It did not protect me from my own impossible expectations (p. 26).

I don’t regret the happiness of my childhood. I do regret how I’ve felt about it.

I’ve been proud of it. I’ve been proud of myself for being “good,” for staying out of trouble, making decent decisions, and avoiding pitfalls. I’ve been proud of a “goodness” that wasn’t mine, that was soured at its core by pride.

This book, along with other things, is helping me see myself and my life in a new way. Although I’ve embraced grace already, I am beginning to understand it in a deeper way. I’ve tended to fall, again and again, into thinking that I have to work to become Christlike.

When we believe that God expects us to try hard to become who Jesus wants us to be, we will live in that blurry, frustrating land of Should Be rather than trust in The One Who Is. We will do whatever we believe it takes to please God rather than receive the acceptance that has already been given. We will perform to live up to what we believe his expectation is of us rather than expectantly wait on him (Freeman p. 32).

“…The acceptance that has already been given.” Yes. It’s done. God accepts me through Jesus Christ, and adding my own “good works” done with my own two hands to win his approval just doesn’t do anything for him. He is decidedly unimpressed by my attempts to impress.

What does that mean? That there’s no work involved? I should be free to do whatever I want, chasing my personal pleasures, because I’m secure in his grace?

No. There’s work involved. But it’s not my work; it’s his. It has to be – all his, or no good will come of it. Yes, I’m free to do what I want, to chase after the attractive butterflies of personal fulfillment. He won’t reject me…He never does. I’m the one who runs away. Always.

I’m learning a better way. I let him do his thing. Let him work inside me, even when I don’t understand what is going on. When I let go, he can live through me.

…Service is an act of faith. It isn’t me doing work for God, but it is me trusting God to do the work in me. That is what Mary [mother of Christ] did. She believed the angel, and then she offered herself as a servant. She didn’t pull herself up and get to work. Instead, she ran to her cousin Elizabeth and began to sing. Worship, not work, flows out of the hearts of those who believe (Freeman p. 63).

What a relief. I don’t have to perform for God. He isn’t scrutinizing my every action and decision. He tells me the truth about myself because he wants to heal me, but always extends his hand simultaneously to remind me that I’m accepted. I am loved.

Anything we do to get life and identity outside of Christ is an idol, even service to Christ. He doesn’t want my service. He wants me. And from that life-giving relationship, “streams of living water will flow from within” (John 7:38 NIV) (Freeman p. 65).

to know and be known

Blogging is akin to stepping out from stage left and standing in front of an audience you can’t see because of the blinding lights in your eyes. You don’t know how many people are out there, and you’re paralyzed with fright. Writing should be conversational, people say, but writing is not always a conversation. Sometimes it is a mini-speech sent into the unknown, invisible world beyond the computer screen. It’s scary to know that anyone could read this. Anyone could.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will. Perhaps a few will skim these lines as I do for my friends’ blogs each day on Google Reader, looking for gems of wisdom, information, news, inspiration.

We have so many ways to connect with other people these days, but do we really know each other? Sometimes I wonder. Writing a blog post and sending it out into thin air feels risky in a way. Vulnerable. My breath catches in my throat a little as I think about it, and I wonder if I should just delete this paragraph, this post. Maybe I shouldn’t write at all, for fear of revealing too much of myself (even though this doesn’t tell you very much).

Yet even if I wrote reams every day, describing every thought I wanted to tell you, would you really know me? Would you know how I laugh, how I use chap stick every five minutes? Would you know my voice and my eating habits and my propensity to explain things starting at the end of the story and backing up to the beginning? Unless you’re one of the few people I spend hours with each week, you wouldn’t. You would have an image in your mind of who I am, but it wouldn’t be me.

The internet creates a false sense of intimacy in so many ways. Used well, it is an excellent tool. Used as a replacement for reality, it is anemic and sickly. We can connect online. We can exchange information, and even pour out our hearts to our friends in private Facebook messages or e-mails. But I’m convinced that real knowing, the best kind, only comes through face-to-face time. Humans are created for relationships. Not virtual relationships; not images or words; but real relationships with real people.

Those kinds of relationships are harder than these. I can blog, and you can comment, and I can write you back. We aren’t sharing lives or even coffee. But if I sit across the table from you, make eye contact, eat together, laugh together, cry together… Then, you know me. If you reject me, it hurts more because I know you are rejecting me, not just an image or set of words. It’s dangerous to know people.

From there, of course, there are many levels of knowing. There are friends, and there are best friends. There are family members and spouses.

And there is God. The one who, whether we know him or not, knows us better than we dare to imagine. I’m convinced of this. And I do know him, in ways I cannot describe with any adequacy in spoken or written words. I know his peace, I know his love. I know his grief when I am hurting. I know his laughter.

But despite the closeness I feel, a special nearness lately, I only know him a little while he knows me a lot. I see glimpses of him, but he sees me completely with a single glance – the ugliness of sin and the beauty of redemption. He sees me fallen and risen, kicking against him and finally at peace, transformed into the person he made me to become. He sees everything and doesn’t hold any of it against me. That is grace.

And that is the sort of knowing I want with the people around me. The kind of graceful closeness. The insightful truth and the unmerited favor. It’s God’s perfect recipe for relationships.

Audrey brightens my sick day

I know, I know. This is becoming one of those blogs that is mostly abandoned, and only surfaces with song lyrics or quotations. I suppose I have forgotten that people read this, and instead have been using it to preserve words that mean something to me. Perhaps soon I will again write my own words here, but for now…

Today I bought Audrey Assad’s new CD, “Heart.” Since I was sick in bed all day with a bad cold, I had plenty of time to listen and ponder – and as I expected, I love it. Audrey’s lyrics are full of imagery, depth, and understanding. I listen and listen again…and find something new each time. And her voice is consistently strong and beautiful.

Here’s one set of lyrics from the new CD.

“The Way You Move”

I know that the hardest part of love
Is not the things I have to give
It’s what I give up
I’m giving up ground
And I’m trading in my solitude
For safety now
Oh, and all my pride
It doesn’t stand a chance
Against the way You move
You’re tearing up roots
And breaking down walls
And I don’t stand a chance at all
Against the way You move

You’re like a lion
Standing in my house
And You’re taking off the doors
On your way in
‘Cause I’ve got nothing left
To hide behind
You’re reading all my faith
And all my fear in my eyes

And all my pride
It doesn’t stand a chance
Against the way You move
You’re tearing up roots
And You’re bringing down walls
And I don’t stand a chance at all
Against the way You move

You’re tearing up my roots
And You’re breaking down my walls
And I don’t stand a chance at all
Against the way You move