Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 40: On our way...

Yay!!! We made it!!!

Today is the final day of our season of praying and fasting, and that's a cause for celebration. Some of us might not FEEL like celebrating at all: perhaps we're discouraged, or haven't seen any real movement in the area we've been praying about. But here's an important spiritual principle: Our emotions are not the truth. They don't get to decide what has and hasn't happened as the result of our prayers...unless we let them. They are not the governing force--God is. That, I think, is worth celebrating.

Here's how God's answers to prayers have mostly looked for me in the past: I pray and pray and pray and pray. Then I get distracted by life, maybe direct my attentions and prayers elsewhere for a season or two, then maybe circle back to pray for that first thing a few times more. And then a day comes, one that started out like any other day, when everything changes. And then it just seems so obvious that of course God heard my prayers, and of course He had a good plan all along. But still, even though I've seen this happen time and time again, it's tough to feel like I'm on a journey toward His answers when it feels like I'm standing still.

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes looks like a grim one if you read it quickly, with lots of talk of aging and the meaningless of life. But as I prayed about it last night, asking God "How can we end on that note?" and wondering if you'd notice if we just skipped it, He showed me another side to the story, to our story. Yes, it's true: most of the things we run around doing in life are meaningless: changing the oil in the car, washing laundry that will only get dirty again, deciding what to have for dinner. Who cares? But there's a bigger picture here, if we choose to play at a bigger level.

God reminded me of some observations my friend Jeff, a pastor in Minneapolis, shared on our friend Dave's website, about the things he sees in our reaction to the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. He grew up in a conservative home and so has the interesting perspective of looking at both of these lives from the end back, rather than as people he’d “known” all his life. What struck him was how we loved both Farrah and Michael, even as their lives were complicated and textured:

“Perhaps there is something important about faith in all this,” he says. “We look at Jackson and Fawcett and we see ourselves- yes, we are flawed. Yes, there are things about us that are deeply embarrassing. There are responses in us, sexual or otherwise, that at times we'd rather not admit to. And yet we are capable of courage, beauty, love, and compassion, even in the midst of our flaws. And, perhaps, this insistence is something of the reflection of the Divine within us. We will not be owned by our flaws, by our mistakes, or our personal demons. We are made for something larger, something better, something infinite. There is an almost messianic streak in some of Jackson's music- heal the world, we are the world, we don't want to be alone. I wonder if some of that resonates in everyone.”

I think Jeff is onto something. We don't have to be owned by our flaws, mistakes, or personal demons. And we don't have to overcome them before God will bless and use us. As we finish this season of investing in God's plan with our prayers and fasting, let's not be limited by what we can see in front of us right (or inside of us) now. Let's not be limited by what we feel. Let's look to God and ask him to connect us with the courage, beauty, love, and compassion he created us to live out...and for the ability to see it while it's happening!

I couldn't sleep last night, so I grabbed this book off the shelf to quiet my churning mind. I thought I'd read it before but I hadn't, because it's not at all what I thought. It's essentially a field guide to a happy life, where every single day is filled with joy. I can't imagine that quite yet, but if Brother Lawrence pulled it off back in the 1600s, hobbling around his monastery doing dishes, than it must be possible. I'm going to reach for it, starting today. So if you're looking for next steps now that the 40 days are over, grab a copy of this book and join me.

THANK YOU for being part of this season with me, for joining in and cheering each other on, and for believing God's big promises. Here's to keeping our arms and our hearts open in the days to come, ready to receive everything He has for us.

Amen :)

Day 39: Ready to go (really, this time!)

Two things from Ecclesiastes caught my eye today--practical suggestions I'm trying to figure out how to implement.

First, from chapter 10:
"If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success."

Second, from chapter 11:
"Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.... Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well."

The first passage seems like an invitation to sharpen our ax, so to speak (because a skilled woodcutter starts there, before he ever approaches a hunk of wood). And this makes sense--I'm a better writer, here as I finish my book and it's crunch time, than I was a year ago when I was just drifting back into writing. I'd gotten out of the habit, my ax was dull, so it took a ridiculous amount of fortitude for me to tap out a blog post, let alone a chapter. Now, even as I look longingly toward next week's vacation, I'm hoping I'll remember this when I get back, sharpen my ax, and sit right back down to work on my next project, so I can rely on skill instead of just strength. I wonder if we don't all have areas in our lives (different ones, at different times) that need sharpening before they can work optimally?

Where are you working with a dull ax, relying on strength instead of skill to get the job done?

The second passage invites us to diversify, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket. Social media experts are abuzz with this advice these days, suggesting that anyone with a message should shout it from as many online rooftops as time allows, because none of us know which ones will catch on. Entrepreneurial advisors suggest the same thing, touting the benefits of having multiple streams of income, so if one fails, we can pick up with another.

I like this idea--it seems like a more interesting approach to life. But I get caught up in the concern that I'll diversify my way right past what I'm supposed to be focusing on--that I'll never succeed because my efforts are too divided. I even feel this with prayer sometimes, like praying for many things dilutes the impact of the prayers that matter the most. I'm not saying that God works that way, but inside, that's how it sometimes feels.

Are you too focused? Too spread out? Or just right? (Sounds like Goldilocks!)

I think the answer to this for those of us who are off balance is to ask Jesus for help. One of the benefits he offers, when we invite him over for coffee and ask him to direct our lives, is that the Holy Spirit will live inside of us, helping us make good decisions. So we can ask, "God, where does my ax need sharpening?" and expect to receive an answer. We can ask, "God, how should I spend my time/how should I diversify?" and He will tell us.

The tough part, sometimes, is to act on the answers we receive. Especially if they're counterintuitive (or not what we wanted to hear). Life is about choices. We can make a choice to follow Jesus, which is great. But the greatness of it is, I think, directly related to how we handle the what comes after that, how freely we choose to follow when he says, "Here we go..."

This is why Around The Sun is my favorite song. It captures that sense of excitement and fear, as God takes us somewhere we can't get to on our own. But (and how seldom do we think about this part?) for Him to take us, we have to be willing to go.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Day 38: Better than Nothing?

"Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do." -Ecclesiastes 9

Sounds good, right? But am I the only one who finds it tough to make an entire life out of eat, drink & be merry? Does anyone else ever get frustrated or disappointed or heartbroken? What do we do then?

This has been my dilemma for the past week as I write. I'm wrestling with a chapter about how I've dodged and avoided this question for the past three years as certain areas of my life didn't work out the way I'd hoped, and certain prayers remained unanswered. I've tried various approaches--believing without question the idea that "God is always good;" or trying to accept that even if He's something beyond just "good" (because that seems a little simplistic to me, like a bigger term is probably necessary) that He has some sort of plan going on that I'll be glad about someday, even if that someday isn't until after I die.

I've failed at these attempts. Miserably. And that has left me scrambling for a way to end this chapter with something other than the idea that maybe we can't count on God. That's not the book my publisher expects me to write...but more importantly, it's not what I believe. It's just what I'm experiencing right now, which is--let's be frank--a bummer.

I mentioned yesterday that I'm reading a book that's helping me wade through some of the messier aspects of real-life faith. It's called Is God to Blame? In it, theologian Greg Boyd suggests that there are two ways of looking at how God's will plays out on earth:

The first, the one he is writing to dispel, is called The Blueprint Model. According to The Blueprint Model, God chooses everything that does and does not happen here on earth according to his divine plan. So even when our lives take a sad or tragic turn, we're to take comfort in the notion that it's part of this big plan. Boyd is not a fan of this, arguing (and I won't go into all of it here, but will recommend that you read the book) that it's inconsistent with what God tells us about himself in the Bible, particularly in terms of what we see revealed in Jesus.

In place of The Blueprint Model, Boyd suggests The Warfare Model: the idea that in addition to God, there are human and evil factors that go into how life on earth plays out; that for every plan God has, Satan wants to thwart that plan and will do everything in his power to do so (including tempting us into making choices that lead us away from God).

So say, for example, you're praying for a husband. The Bible seems clear that this is God's will for most of us (see Genesis, or the the Apostle Paul's concession that every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband). Satan hates marriage, because it is, the Bible suggests, a foretaste of heaven. So he schemes. He brings men who are okay, but not great. He brings guys who seem great, but aren't into God. He points to the fact that we haven't had a date in 15 years and suggests, "You're so old now...God must want you to be single forever..." And in this, we make choices. Some of them (at least if you're me) bad choices, choices that take me away from my belief in God's best: to date the guy I'm not that into because he's better than nothing, or the guy who's not into God because, hey! maybe I'm the key to his spiritual development! Or to give up, lose hope, try to move on with my life and pretend I'm not angry, confused, and heartbroken.

We live in a spiritual battle zone, Boyd argues. And if we don't know and acknowledge this, it's awfully tough to fight. How do we fight?

We pray. We believe. We line our words up with what God says, instead of what we see. And we make smart, prayerful choices, even when they're hard.

That's our job, one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time. Today, do these three things, in whatever segment of time you can pull off. I'm told it has cumulative power :)

(And fasting counts, too! We'll be fasting through to the end of Friday, then breaking our fast on Saturday morning. Yay!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Day 37: Words to live by

Hi All! How was your weekend? Mine was largely spent in front of the laptop, but at least my office has windows. The sun was shining, fluffy clouds rolled could have been much worse :)

I woke up this morning thinking about our personal commandments idea from last week. Here's what I've come up with so far. They're not rules exactly...just things I've noticed that make my life work better when I remember them:

1. Smile
2. Pray first, argue later
3. Eat, drink & be glad...don't go through my days in a frantic, numb rush. Notice when something tastes good or quenches my thirst, and be happy even when it doesn't make sense.
4. Don't fret, it leads only to evil
5. Guard my careful what I listen to, watch, believe.
6. Guard my tongue...keep things positive, lined up with what God says about my circumstances (rather than what my circumstances might indicate about God)
7. Live by the Spirit...without God guiding me, I'm sunk
8. Believe (as singer Brooke Fraser says, "To believe is to begin...")
9. Remember Luke 18:27 "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
10. Floss

We're a little behind in our Ecclesiastes reading, but I'm going to apply #4 here and decide that that's okay :) Here's a link to three chapters to catch us up.

"When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future."

Interesting, right? I just started a book a friend recommended called Is God to Blame? that deals with questions around making sense of bad times in light of our faith in a loving God. More on that tomorrow.

For now--what are your commandments? Anything you can share?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Day 33: Field Trip!

Happy Independence Day weekend everyone! In honor of summer, and the very brilliant idea that is the long weekend, I thought we'd take a little field trip beyond our 40 Days blog world, and check out how someone else is shepherding her ducks into a row. (I feel like Mr. Rodgers, right before he boards the little train that takes us into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe...)

Today, we're going to visit my friend Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen runs one of my favorite blogs, called The Happiness Project. On THP, she has gathered the most interesting, diverse, and unexpected collection of information on the subject of happiness that I've ever seen. I love her approach: not everything will be for everyone, but she casts her net far and wide and then lets us step up to this buffet of options to choose what we'd like to try.

One thing I'd like to try is her idea of creating your own commandments. These aren't meant to be an alternative to the ten God provided, but rather a personal supplement, sort of like the little kid bumpers at the bowling alley or training wheels on a bike--reminders of who we are and what matters to us that keep us from falling over. The point of commandments is that you don't violate them--or when you find that happening, you do a gut check, figure out why, and recalibrate. That intrigues me. I suspect that I already have personal commandments that I live by, but it seems worthwhile to think for a bit about what they are.

This weekend, check out Gretchen's site. Take note of what catches your attention and come back and tell us about it. Tell Gretchen, too--introduce yourself and say hello. You can even congratulate her on her book, which comes out at the end of this year.

Our field trip dovetails interestingly with today's chapter from Ecclesiastes, which tells us how when God enables us to enjoy our lives, it's a gift. One of the hallmarks of this gift is that we "seldom reflect on the days of [our lives] because God keeps us occupied with gladness of heart."

Gladness of heart sounds an awful lot like happiness. So I wonder if perhaps our ultimate Happiness Project might be to ask God to give us what King Solomon calls "satisfaction with our lot in life"? I don't mean that we force ourselves to settle--just the opposite, actually. I mean that we ask for the supernatural peace that allows us to enjoy where we are on the way to wherever God is taking us. That's my prayer for today :)

Have a wonderful weekend!!!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Day 32: Envy = Motivation?

"And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."

Today, I charged into our chapter of King Solomon's wise musings ready to hop up on my favorite soap box, chant my "life is not meant to be lived alone!" refrain, and encourage all of you who are praying for a husband to keep on keeping on, because I think God is with us in this particular dream. I even had a nice little illustrative story I was going to trot out, about the benefits of determination, perseverance, and not giving up (tennis player Venus Williams and all the times she's been on the brink of defeat with the whole world watching, and somehow she digs deep inside herself and fights back, usually winning the tournament, in case you're wondering. I was going to tie it into the fact that she's never really alone out there--that unlike most players, her sister and the rest of her family are on the court with her. I think that sort of teamwork is exactly what God intends).

But before I reached my favorite line, the one about how "two are better than one" and "a cord of three strands is not easily broken," I was stopped in my tracks by the line at the top of the page. Envy as our primary motivating force? That sounds so grim! And yet so true...

Right now, I'm busting my hump to finish revising/editing my manuscript for my second book. It's been an absolute bear to write, truth be told. It's due in to my editor, in final form, a week from tomorrow. I'd stop to throw up because I'm so panicked, but that would only waste time. Yesterday, I typed so long, my fingers got an odd tingling at the tips that sort of freaked me out.

But why?

Don't get me wrong--I'm not against hard work, or going above and beyond to honor our obligations. Part of me enjoys cruch time, because it's when my most creative juices flow. But if I take a nanosecond to consider WHY I'm working so hard, King Solomon's point really resonates. I love it when an author I admire has a whole array of books for me to read. I love when someone pushes themselves to think about a variety of life's slices (and then pushes even harder to capture those thoughts on paper). I look at writers from the past like Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis and see how much they wrote, in so many different genres, and I want to do the same. I want to push myself, to take up some room on the shelf. But wanting it isn't enough. Bookstores and libraries don't just give you that space--you have to earn it. So that's what I'm trying to do. But is envy mixed in there as a primary motivating force? Absolutely. I'm not sure what to do with that, but it's worth thinking over.

We typically think about envy as inherently bad. I think it's even one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But can it ever be good? Can it spur us on to greater things than we might otherwise attempt? (Granted, this falls apart if our envy includes NOT wanting the other person to have the thing in question--that gets pretty ugly. But what if their having it simply stirs up in us the desire to have or accomplish something similar ourselves?)

When I first started coming to church, I openly envied some of the couples I saw there. (And yes, I could ditch the word "envy" and replace it with something more socially acceptable, like "admire," but that would be a total lie.) At a certain point, I made the connection that to get where they were, perhaps I should do what they were doing. This lead to a pretty radical restructuring of my life. Tough, but worth it.

Think for a moment about the thing you're working hardest on right now--mentally, physically, spiritually. It might be a project a work, a friendship you're trying to save, getting into shape...
What's your motivation? Don't judge it, just think it over, maybe talk it over with God.

Let me know how it goes :)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Day 31: Big Eyes & God's Timing: It's Alright

"Me and Ryan G. can make the best of things, almost anywhere, and it seems to me a metaphor for life: We go from town to town and make the best of what's around. And it's alright..."

Today's part of Ecclesiastes is about timing. God's, not ours. (It's a good one, and encouraging in a unique sort of way--if you don't usually read the passages, this is worth the extra click to check out). King Solomon talks about pulling back to see the big picture, and how even with our best human effort, we can't possibly see how God is fitting pieces together over the broad span of time and space. During our lifetimes here on earth, he suggests, we'll never understand. But we'll keep trying. Why? Because God has "set eternity in the hearts of men." That line captivates me. It describes how and why we're caught in this tension of seeing the beauty around us and yet still always longing for something more.

C.S. Lewis put it well when he said, "“If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." But for now, we're in this world, longing for things. What do we do about that?

I think Ryanhood has a great starting place. It sounds glib, but it's not, not really. We could do worse than to go from town to town and make the best of what's around. This looks different for each of us, of course. During some seasons of life we go from office cube to office cube, or grocery store to post office running errands, or doctor's visit to treatment center. But with God, we can make the best of what's around. We can ask Him to give us eyes to see, to expand our awareness of His big picture.

Doing this, for me at least, is like flossing or working out. Every single time I've tried it, it's been a spectacular improvement, making me wonder, "Why did I ever stop?" (the question that has no answer). The truth is, it doesn't matter why we stop, just that we start up again.

Today, let's go from town to town and make the best of what's around. And when you see part of that "best," drop a comment so we can notice, too.

My first "best" this morning? Opening Ecclesiastes (with a little bit of dread, expecting another meditation on meaninglessness) and seeing this encouragment about how God's got a time for everything. Nice surprise :)