Feelings are our Friends

I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”

Yep.

Me too.

As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:

Feelings are our friends.

There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.

Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.

For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.

Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.

This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.

I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.

I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:

“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”  

He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”

It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.

 

Fueled by laughter

Driving home from a laughter-filled evening last night, my good friend told me a story about a seminar she’d led where she was asked, by way of introduction, to describe her sense of humor. This struck me as a most marvelous question: sharing what makes us laugh is surely a better way to get to know one another than sharing our favorite toothpaste or where we grew up?

It also got me thinking: how would I answer that question? The answer came fairly quickly: my sense of humor is fairly indiscriminate. As in, I will laugh at just about anything.

My husband describes me as a cheap date this way: not only can I not handle more than one glass of wine anymore, but I also have a rare combination of having both a great love of and also a terrible memory for jokes… which means, he cane buy me a $7 glass of merlot and tell me the SAME set of jokes every month, and I will laugh just as much. Every time. When I started this blog and had to come up with a tagline, the first thought that came to mind was “fueled by grace, caffeine, and laughter.” I think this is still true. I can’t imagine a day without any of these.

Maybe there was a time when being able to tell a joke straight-faced was seen as something cool to aspire to, but I gave up any hopes of being cool a long, long time ago and have since come to embrace that I am a person who laughs at her own jokes. I laugh at dumb jokes, pun jokes, and knock knock jokes. I laugh at slapstick humor and charlie chaplin. I laugh at cats on youtube who misjudge their jumping distances. I laugh at stand-up comedy (check out Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King on Netflix if you haven’t already as a great example.) I laugh at satire and SNL sketches and stories on podcasts. I laugh at clever turns of phrase (the Hamilton lyrics had me chortling throughout.) I laugh when anvils fall on cartoon character’s heads. I laugh at googly eyes on milk jugs and—I say this with some parenting shame—I laugh when my children fart. I know I shouldn’t. But I do. Every time.

And, I am no longer embarrassed about this. I used to be. I used to be embarrassed that often I was the only person laughing, and I would blush CRIMSON red on realizing. I still laugh when I’m embarrassed, and I still blush, too… but I’m a little older now and teasing doesn’t feel as heartless as it did then. My Mom always used to say there was a difference between laughing with you and laughing at you, and one of the delightful parts of aging is realizing she was right and even so… much of the time, it doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it does, though. I may find a thousand things unapologetically funny, but one thing I no longer find funny is humor that is made at someone else’s expense. I have no time for jokes with racist and sexist slurs. Political satire is different, I think: clever humor can add give both insight and levity to serious conversations. But jokes aimed at people of color or different cultures or where women are mocked as sex objects or men are vilified as dummies won’t get any laughter from me. People are made in the image of God and it just isn’t funny to me anymore to joke as if anyone is anything less than that. In these things, I’m decidedly NOT funny any more. Don’t you dare pull a sexually aggressive move on someone and then, when called on it, tell me “you were only joking”. Hell no. That isn’t funny anymore.

“So what are you, the funny police?” you might ask.

Not exactly. But I think of it this way: if humor is a grassy field – then I think of my sense of humor as being a big, wide, green expanse. Lots and lots of room for funny. Internet funny and book funny and fall-down funny and youtube funny and fart funny and pun funny. Bring it on. But my field has some distinct boundaries. Jokes that make anyone feel shamed or less-than fall beyond those fences.

But inside those parameters? Bring on the funny.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Howard.

Howard who?

Howard you like to hear another joke?

YES, PLEASE. And this time next month, you can tell me the same joke again 🙂 I promise, I’ll laugh.

Terminal and Loving Every Minute

My guest today is Andrew Budek-Schmeisser. Andrew is a reader of this blog and his comments have left me deeply moved so often that I asked him to write a post for us. Andrew is terminally ill, and it has changed the way he views the world in remarkable and beautiful ways. I want to take notes on living from the dying.

Yes, I’m terminally ill. My wife went to the doctor last week, and the receptionist asked, tentatively, “Your husband…is he still alive?”

That was a weird feeling, when she told me.

The doctor himself thinks I’m pretty far past my sell-by date…and he’s always surprised, too, that I’m still here. He’s thinking of writing a paper for a medical journal.

Really weird feeling, yeah?

But it reflects the truth. I’m losing ground steadily, and now spend large parts of each day lying on the floor in a fetal position, waiting for the pain to, well, not pass, but moderate to the point that I can get up again and do something. If nausea, incontinence, and fatigue allow for it. And if I remember what I wanted to do in the first place.

Something like writing this. It will take me quite awhile. I run out of physical and mental resources pretty quickly now.

And I still love my life. I would not trade this life for anything, including having my old health and vigour back.

It’s not because I’ve overdosed on Scripture like James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, your afflictions and trials…”) or Romans 5:3 (“…rejoice in your sufferings, because suffering produces endurance…”)

Make no mistake, James and Paul are right, but it wasn’t something I could take on faith. I had to learn these lessons myself, through facing the abyss, day after day. Looking for blessings in my life became vital for survival, a necessary antidote to the despair that could so easily overwhelm me.

Yes, illness brought blessings, and the fact that it seems like there’s no way out makes them even more precious.

It took time to recognize them, those blessings that came in frightening garb. I was a high achiever, and always had multiple projects going on, projects which I thought defined me, and validated my worth.

But now…those aspirations won’t come to pass, and it’s OK.

The goals are not what made the dreams worthwhile. They never were, and I’m so glad I saw that ere the end. It was all about the process, and the marks that the process made on my soul.

Each moment is a gift from God, and like the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert, each is perishable. Moments can’t be hoarded for later use, and they’re not intended for replanting in the hope that they will raise some of some future harvest.

We can come to each instant in our life fresh, with the heart and eyes of a child, taking hold of this precious uniqueness of now in wonder and delight…or we can choose to be jaded, and to pile the moment in with the past wreckage that attends present circumstances.

I choose wonder. I choose delight. And I choose to hold these tiny time-intervals dear, and as a direct line to the God that loves me in spite of my mistakes, and through my current ordeal.

It is an ordeal. The pain is real; I could see it as a prison; I haven’t been off the property in eight months. Riding in a car hurts too much, and there’s nowhere I can sojourn in comfort. I can’t do the things I would have liked to do, and much of the time is spent trying to build strength and resolve to do the things I have to do.

It isn’t a penitentiary, though. It’s more of a hermitage, a place in which the fires of adversity can temper my soul to become an instrument of God’s love, and the hammering of pain forges my heart to become that love.

Each moment from the Almighty that I choose to treasure, and which I choose to do my best for His sake, it adds to the storehouse of love that I can show.

Each stab of pain builds compassion for those who are worse off; there are so many suffering with no place to call home, no one to love them. I have a wonderful wife, a group of devoted dogs (some of whom know how to save my life, doing a canine version of CPR…they’ve done it several times), and friends I’ll never meet in person but whose hearts have reached out to me through the Internet. How can I complain about a small thing like dying?

Each realization that yeah, this could be the last day, it makes the sunlight brighter and the air sweeter, and the touch of a cool breeze on a summer day a gentle benison from Heaven.

With all this, how can I keep from singing? And more importantly, how can I keep from loving?

Achievement is nice, but it’s not for this that God made us.

Success is grand, but it isn’t God’s ultimate plan for our lives.

A bright future is wonderful, but it’s not something God ever guaranteed.

What we have is now, and we have a simple mission statement – to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

We learn to love God through the practice of loving others, and we can only truly love others when we let go of ourselves. Jesus was and is the servant and sacrifice to those He loved and loves. He laid the stones along the path we are to take.

And in dying, I have learned to let go. I have let go my earthly hopes and aspirations, giving them over to God. I’m sure He’ll treat them with care; He saves each tear we shed, and can we expect He will do less with the dreams He gave us, that we couldn’t fulfill in this life? They’ll be waiting.

I’ve learned to let go of my concern for myself. Yes, it hurts, but it’s OK that it hurts; I was never in control of this, though I tried to pretend through defiance and will that I was, but God is in control of it all.

I’ve learned to let go of possessiveness in relationship. I don’t want my wife, who is quite young, to make the rest of her life a monument to our time together. I want her heart to go on from the point where I leave this life, hurt for sure but healing, and hoping. I don’t want to see her lonely.

And may be most important, I’ve learned to let go of my preconceptions about God. I wanted to believe that I was favoured in that things went ‘right’ for me; the breaks fell my way.

And then it was me that broke.

I saw that favour was not the good job or the research contact or the book deal. Favour was being led by the hand by the Almighty, into a place where I could accept, without resentment, the hand that is dealt me, and embrace, without anger, the further pain that will surely be mine before this life is done.

By not looking back in resentment or forward in sullen dread…only along this road can I fully love in the now.

And as I love, so am I Loved, and so, further…I’m terminal and loving every minute.

 

Andrew Budek-Schmeisser is the author of two novels, “Blessed Are the
Pure Of Heart” and “Emerald Isle“, and three short e-books. Formerly a
security contractor and teacher, he lives on a remote mesa in New
Mexico with his wife and a number of rescued dogs and cats.

I am very grateful to Andrew for his willingness to share such hard-won wisdom and perspective with us. Live in peace, brother: in this life and the life to come. Readers, if you’d like to respond to Andrew – leave him a comment below or reach out to him via his blog. He is house-bound but our words can reach his living room, and our prayers can reach on high.

Knocking on Death’s Door… with Cookies

We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.

When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?

I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.

I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.

My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.

I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.

I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.

This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.

One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.

So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.

I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:

“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.

Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.

Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.

Let’s show up.

 

 

Teach us to weep

Jen Michel’s book Teach Us to Want remains a highlight of my reading in the past few years. What does it mean to want things as a Christian? Is it okay to desire things, or to have ambition? What place (if any) do those have in the life of faith?

This past weekend I got to hear Jen speak, and she reminded us of both the caution of desire (we should be wary of wanting, because we want wrongly, willfully, and dangerously); as well as the call of desire (because wanting lies at the heart of prayer, and transformation, and discipleship as we learn to want what God wants). Jen’s words are soul-mingling with a number of other voices of late: Paul E Miller’s practical and profound insights in A Praying Life, the beautiful paths of spiritual formation mapped out in the novel Sensible Shoes, as well as the wise mentoring of Ruth Haley Barton in her podcast Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership.

What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we pray for? And how do we cope with the glaring gaps between what we hope and pray for, and the grueling realities of how life sometimes is? How do we discern where God is at work, and what he has for us in each of these? What happens if we wanted and desired good things, and they were withheld or lost?

I have a journal full of questions and confessions and thoughts that have no place on this blog, but I do want to share this one thing, because perhaps you’re wading through some deep waters, too:

There is no path to spiritual wholeness that does not walk through the rocky terrain of grief and lament.

I’m learning to grieve. Right alongside, “Teach me to want, Lord”, I’m praying “teach me to weep”. Teach me how to notice and name the losses and disappointments of this life, and to lay each of these before you. Teach me to feel the hard feelings. Teach me to process pain in your presence.

Grief is not only a feeling we feel with the loss of loved ones. It’s what we feel when we lose anything: friendships or dreams or hopes or the change in a situation. There are good things about each life stage, and when change happens (even for good reasons!), there is still some grief we feel in losing what we had before. Noticing it. Naming it. Calling out the elephant in the room… or prayer closet as the case may be.

My friend Alastair Roberts made an insightful observation about the role feelings play in our spiritual lives: we are not to be ruled by our emotions, but we are not to be dismissive of them, either. Instead, the Psalms teach us to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them (for our emotions, like our minds and our bodies, each give us some information about the world and ourselves), and respond appropriately.

I can have all the “God is good and God is sovereign” theology firmly tucked under my proverbial Belt of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness… but all of that does not muscle out the fact that sometimes, my heart still hurts, and disappointments still come. It is true that we can say, with Paul, that “in all these things (including death! disease! disappointment!) we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loved us” (Romans 8)… and at the SAME TIME to acknowledge that we feel hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist.

And then he lists the ways. There is no fast forwarding to hope. Joy may come in the morning, but sometimes there’s still a long night to endure before then. In truth, I think sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a situation is to cry.

I made a list of all the things I’m sad about right now: not a prayer list asking for help. Just a “I’m sad” list. This is not the kind of list I would have thought it was okay to write in a journal, but I’m learning that there’s a good and right place for lament.

Teach us to weep, O Lord. May all our longings be laid before you, all our sighs heard by you; and in time, would you lift our heads.

I believe because…

When I was six, I first believed because the Sunday School teacher told us a story about who could be with God forever in heaven. We needed our own ticket, he explained, holding a carefully folded piece of paper in his hand as an example. We couldn’t get in with someone else’s ticket, or by snipping off a corner of a ticket. He snipped a corner, and then another, and then another. He unfolded the piece of paper to reveal a cross. Our ticket was Jesus, he said. The snippets were just…. trash. Jesus was a friend who would never leave us. Jesus was the one who would bid us welcome into heaven. And anyone who asked Jesus for a ticket could have one. And my six year old heart—longing for a forever friend and a welcome to heaven—believed.

When I was twelve, I believed because—like ballet and piano and reading books—Christianity was part of Who I Was, and What I Did. I belonged. And my well-worn copy of the NIV with its randomly highlighted verses (because it was the highlighting itself that seemed spiritual, not the verse itself), did bring comfort and hope and stability in a time when so much around me was unstable.

When I was seventeen, I believed because the Holy Spirit seemed powerful and I heard stories of mighty answers to prayer. I believed because belief was the gateway to a community of really nice, welcoming people, with a place to use my piano gifts in church, within easy Sunday walking distance.

When I was twenty, my world was turned upside down and I believed because everything else was falling apart. Again and again I was drawn to John 6:63, as the disciples stared at Jesus, incredulous about the difficulty of what he was saying and asking. “Will you leave me, too?” Jesus asked Peter (and me). And my own heart would echo Peter’s reply: “To whom else will be go? You have the words of eternal life.” I had no answers for why God allowed suffering or why He seemed silent in the face of heartbroken prayers, but no other community had answers either. At the very least, Jesus had compassion for the brokenness and had chosen to enter into the heartache. So, he understood. Even if I didn’t. To who else would I go?

When I was twenty five, I believed because I sifted through all the evidence for the resurrection. Compelled by law school’s training to have sufficient evidence and witnesses for anything that claimed to be truth, I learned about the historicity of documents and textual criticism and how it was that we established anything from history to be true. Turned out, the evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was significantly better attested in history than any evidence for Genghis Khan or Julius Ceasar or a multiplicity of other things we accepted as historical fact. I believed because it was true.

When I was thirty, I believed because I held my newborn child in my arms, and marveled at the wonder of life. How could ears be so perfectly formed? How was it that my body—without any research or intellectual effort on my part—had known exactly how to grow what was needed to house this beautiful life? Surely that was God. Shell-shaped ears and eyes that looked at us and baby breath and the ability to find breastmilk from the first moment? I believed.

When I was thirty six, I believed because again, and again, and again, and again… things happened that could not possibly have been “coincidence”. I would reach the end of my limits on something, send up a quick prayer in desperation, and seemingly out of nowhere an offer of help would come. We would totally run out of money, or time on our visas, or out of patience with our kids… and a gift would arrive, or an official would extend mercy we hadn’t expected, or some moment of delightful laughter with our children would reset our tolerance limits and we would find breathing space again. I’d be tangled up in a relationship, and just “happen” to read a verse that spoke directly to the situation. There were signs of God’s attentive care and involvement all around, if only I had eyes to see.

Last week I read Psalm 107:2:

Has the Lord redeemed you? Then SPEAK OUT.

He has. Again, and again, and again. He has forgiven more sins and healed more wounds than I can recount. He has answered more prayers and paid closer and more loving attention than I could ever give him credit for. I still have days of believing because I feel his presence and know the truth of Jesus… and still have days of believing because I don’t have any other better options.

But I believe.

I do. It’s more than habit or culture or community. I believe there is a living, active, loving God who gives each of us life and breath. I believe he wants relationship with us and a restored world where all of creation (including us) live in harmony. I believe he sent Jesus to make that possible: that pain can be healed, the worst of sins and failures can be redeemed, the most alienated of people can be drawn in.

I believe, and therefore I have spoken (2 Corinthians 4:13).

And, Lord willing, will keep believing and speaking.

Which is more blessed: poverty or plenty? (Some thoughts on wealth, faith, and the feelings that go with that)

Gilted Guilt.

I’ve been wondering about this recently: the feelings of guilt that—for me and many other Christians—seem to attend the having of things and money.

There’s a Scriptural basis for the call to financial simplicity:  ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, said Jesus, and ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. ‘The love of the money is the root of all kinds of evil’, warned Paul. And I hear it around me, too: from the Kon-Marie call to purge and simplify one’s life, the rise of Buy Nothing communities, to the hilarious-yet-convicting Jen Hatmaker read 7: An Experimental Mutiny against Excess… there’s a lot out there that commends buying less, having less, living more.

What complicates it further is increasingly realizing how privileged our wealth is. We work hard, yes… but there is no way that I can say I worked for and deserve all I have. I am, from birth to death, the recipient of bucketloads of privilege. Born with a white skin to educated parents in a country where the legal system opened doors to whiteness that it slammed to brownness: I got health care, education, opportunity. I was born English-speaking in a world that favors English. Having financial stable relatives opened doors to being able to do things like buy homes, travel, secure loans for entrepreneurial ideas. Privilege cumulates: it wasn’t just that I was born into privilege… it’s that the system continues to reward it. (For a brilliant explanation, read this on how riding a bike taught this guy about privilege).

So then, what does it look like to be a privileged, wealthy person of faith? Jesus has called me to simplicity and to

Our cherry tree. Oh, the bounty.

pursue the Kingdom first and to beware of greed and the love of money which is like bermuda grass to the soul… and yet I live in this place, in this time, in this skin. We own a car. We own a (big) house. We have fruit trees that produce cherries and plums and tongue-tang perfect oranges. We live in a safe, well-resourced community with a school district that is the envy of surrounding cities. Having more (food! savings! travel! cute shoes!) is not only possible, but desirable… and is strongly encouraged by every glossy-paged advert that gets stuffed into my mailbox.

It’s so easy to be greedy.

And, coupled with news of those starving all over the world and the realities that it is not merit but mercy that separates my living conditions from theirs, it’s so easy to feel guilty.

I’ve been wrestling with this since we moved into what is admittedly our dream house a couple months ago. What does it mean to live amid such abundance? I am tempted to downplay the gifts (“oh, this old thing? let me point out the faults so you aren’t too jealous…”), or just ignore them completely. Or feel guilty. Guilt is always knocking at the door asking to come and play.

However, as I’ve wrestled and prayed over this, God is gentle\y reminding me of some additional truths. Yes, it is true that Jesus had no possessions, but it is also true that his ministry was supported by wealthy women of independent means. While it is true that for our sake, Jesus became poor 2 Cor 8:9., it is also true that  God himself is rich in every way (power! goodness! all creation is his!), and that the Father has no Gilted Guilt over it. Instead: he is GENEROUS with his riches. He lavishes his grace on us. He shares his inheritance with Jesus and all those who are his.

So, rather than feeling guilt and greed over wealth, I am called to gratitude and generosity. 

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do food, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17)

It baffles me that God has set up the world where evil and good thrive side by side: where we will “always have the poor with us”, while others are “richly provided with everything for their enjoyment.” And it baffles me all the more that we are in the latter rather than the former category. Why? Why? I don’t know. It is a mystery; it is not merited.

I may not know why, but I do know what God asks of us, should we find ourselves among the fed/clothed/free/literate/privileged. He asks us not to put our confidence in that, but in Him. He asks us to enjoy what we have as gifts. And he asks us to be generous. Generous with our time, generous with our money, generous with our home.

Yes, there are those who identify with the sufferings of Jesus in his poverty; but perhaps there is also a place for us to gratefully identify with the God who has plenty and throws his arms and doors open to the world and invites them to share in his goodness. And so—following his example—we say yes, we can host that dinner. Yes, you may borrow our car. Yes, we can help with this or that.

Not guilt, gratitude.

Not greed, generosity.

Remind me of this if you see me getting tangled (again), please? And come over and eat bread and pick fruit off our trees: come and taste and see with us that the Lord is good.