Delight and Joy, Pain and Tears

Gentle Reader,

One of my required courses in seminary is entitled Sabbath & Jubilee. In this class, we consider what it means to live within the rhythms of God’s gracious design, rather than at the frenetic pace the world sets. This has been profoundly confrontational, which surprises me greatly. For years I have thought that I rest, because I have to rest often for the sake of my body’s functioning. Surprised am I to find that I do not practice Sabbath well at all. Resting is far more than taking a nap or two. And so, these thoughts:

A Christian who desires to live with Sabbath in consistent view need not focus on what should or shouldn’t be done, but should instead focus upon God. What does God will in this moment? How is the Holy Spirit leading? Sabbath is not about a day or a list of rules. It is about choosing to submit ourselves to God’s authority. One person’s method and mode of rest will look different from another’s, and this is perfectly fine. The bottom line is to walk in sync with Jesus. 

As I begin my studies, I am faced with the necessity of sitting at the feet of my Savior and asking Him to show me what I need to let go of and what I need to take up. I desire to love, please, and serve Him, but I see that am out of step and running ragged. It is time to take a deep breath and trust that the world will keep on spinning. I am especially convicted by Wirzba’s statement that “our most important task as disciples is to open the table of welcome to others, not because the tables of gifts is ours to give but because we are always already beneficiaries of and witnesses to grace upon grace. When we do this, we say yes to God’s invitation to joy.” 1 It’s not about programs or keeping on top of every single task, though working well does matter. Ministry is about the people, me included, taking a seat at God’s table.

________

Reflecting on the concept of delight, my eyes drift to gaze out the front window, the first, whispering Autumn breezes rustling the rose bushes just outside the door. Autumn is my favorite season. The changing of the leaves on the trees from vibrant greens to flaming hues of orange, red, and yellow never fails to remind me of God’s goodness and faithfulness. God could have bathed the world in shades of gray, but instead God took the time to create the color spectrum and splash is across all that God made. My breath catches as I realize that these colors are not even displayed in their fullness; when Christ returns and restores all, I will at last see the world as God meant it to be.

In the shifting seasons, I see both delight and joy. “To take delight is finally to relish the goodness and beauty of God’s work,” 2 Wirzba writes. To slow down long enough to observe nature’s movements is surely an act of relish, surely an acknowledgement of God’s goodness and beauty. To delight, then, is to be amazed by the interworking of mystery and simplicity. Mystery, for who can know God’s mind, who can understand why God created this world as God did? 3 Simplicity, for what is simpler than to sit and watch the play of sun and shade upon the grass?

Yet, the experience of delight is incomplete without relationship. We are called to “see in each other the trace of God. … To move beyond the superficial… [W]e must learn to see every member of creation as a gift of God, a reflection of God’s love.” 4 This also requires slowing down. We must battle the temptation to isolate and choose to sit across the table from each other, looking into each other’s eyes and engaging in the kind of face-to-face relationship that our ancestors knew as normal, but from which we, in our hyper-connected age, continually shrink. In so doing, we remember that “[n]one of us can live well alone.” 5

As in all things, Jesus is our example in the pursuit of delight. After encouraging readers with many examples of faithful people, the author of Hebrews writes:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake ofthe joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 6

The joy was not the cross. No human being, Jesus included, approach that instrument of tortuous death with a smile. The joy for Jesus was found in looking beyond the moment of the cross, and into the moment when the work would be completed and relationship between God and humanity restored. Joy, then, is not uncomplicated emotion, just as delight is not. Both are tied up in choosing to believe that God does and knows what is best. Delight and joy are acts of faith.

Why, then, is it so difficult for us to delight in anything? Why does joy seem so elusive?

We have bought too far into the prosperity non-gospel. Surely we can only experience delight and be joyful when everything is going smoothly? But when is “smoothness” the default? When is life without conflict and trouble? Storms are the norm. Pain is the reality. It is time for us to accept this. We continue to live in a Genesis 3 world. A Revelation 21 people, yes, knowing that better and more is come, but not ignoring or over-spiritualizing the now.

Delight and joy, then, must exist within the context of and be part of “our response to suffering and pain. … What we need to learn is the honest, patient attentiveness that will enable us to be more merciful members of God’s creation.” 7 To learn this lesson, we need only turn our attention out the front window, taking deep breaths as we watch the leaves change and then drop to the ground. Beauty and decay, found within the same space; both may move us to praise our Creator, though that praise may come through the sound of sobs.

________

1 Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2006), 48

2 Ibid, 53.

3 See Rom. 11:34, 1 Cor. 12:16

4 Wirzba, 59

5 Wirzba, 68

6 Heb. 12:12, emphasis mine

7 Wirzba, 88

Pastor Marie

Gentle Reader,

Well, I had a panic attack this morning. Been awhile. I lay in bed, heart pounding, mind racing, unable to focus my vision. I closed my eyes and waited for the sensations to pass. They always do. Feels like forever, but it’s really only minutes.

Panic Disorder, it’s weird. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is no reason behind the onset of terror. It simply is. The brain’s just like, “You know what would be fun? A lot of adrenaline. A woo hoo!” Stupid brain.

Then there’s that one percent, when I can connect the panic to something I haven’t processed in a healthy way.

Four-and-a-half days until seminary begins.

On the one hand, no shocker. I’ve known for years that this is something I’m supposed to do. On the other, very shocking, because I only applied in mid-May. For someone who likes method, order, and routine, that feels a bit whip-lashy.

I look at the tall stack of books sitting nearby and feel overwhelmed. It’s not the reading. It’s not the writing of papers. The actual academic work itself – okay, fine, no problem. School’s always come easy to me. I enjoy learning. I know it’ll take me a few weeks to get into a routine, to figure out what professors expect of me, but I’ll get there. The assignments are all plotted out on my calendar. I know what I have to do, and the time it will take to do it.

Nevertheless, anxiety.

I know. I’ve presented you with a paradox. How is it possible to logically know that I can tackle this work and yet feel afraid to begin? If you can untangle that mystery, you’re far smarter than I am. All I know for sure is that my head and my heart are consistently at odds. The war is ever-raging, humming beneath the surface of my skin, where nobody but God can see.

That’s why it’s strange when people confess to being intimidated by me. Apparently when I walk into a room I do so with an air of calm self-assurance. Let me tell you the truth: I hide the fear behind a face that gives little away, unless you’re really paying attention. I definitely don’t have it “together.” I don’t have all the answers (never will) and any stability others sense in me comes directly from the Holy Spirit’s response to my desperate cries for help.

Also gotta give credit to the little green pill I take every night. Zoloft for the win. Don’t make enough serotonin on your own? Manufactured is fine.

Some of the books are thick and heavy. Commentaries on Genesis. Some are slim volumes, thoughts on Sabbath-keeping and community living. I’m drawn to the commentaries, because in them, I can lose myself. I want to know as much as I can about the Bible, and then learn some more. The books that repel me, the ones on knowing yourself better, especially within the context of ministry where strengths and weaknesses are readily apparent, are probably the ones I need to read the most. I can feel my nose crinkling as I write that.

Because I know myself. Yes, I struggle with self-condemnation, as everyone does to one degree or another, but on a good day, I have a very clear idea what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.

And therein lies the fear of failure.

You see, seminary is not simply graduate school. I was reminded of that the other day as I read something by a pastor that I should have bookmarked but didn’t. Attending seminary is an act of obedience and worship. The goal of this education is not the mere retention of information, but to be transformed in the renewing of my mind, as Paul counsels (Romans 12:1). It is to be equipped to preach and teach, that the Church might be strengthened and the Gospel spread far and wide, to the glory of God and the good of creation. It is to learn to care for others, to sit with them in sorrow, celebrate with them in joy, encourage them to keep moving toward the good even when it’s hard, and to lovingly confront error, that relationships might grow and the world might truly begin to know we are God’s by the love they see displayed among us.

What if I can’t do that? What if, at the end of the day, I am just a nerdy lady who likes to read, and pastoral care and leadership is beyond my reach?

I have wrestled with this question all summer. This is not what I imagined for my life. This is not what anyone imagined for my life. At teen camp, I stood near my cabin one night, out of sight of everyone, and looked to the sky, wondering just why I was there.

It’s that word, “pastor,” that throws me. I have a lot of ideas as to what and who a pastor should be. Didn’t even realize that until recently. And I don’t, you know, fit a lot of those ideas. What kind of pastor often needs to take a nap during the day? What kind of pastor requires significant amounts of solitude in order to re-energize after interacting with people? What kind of pastor is startled, nearly to the point of tears, by sudden loud noises? Aren’t pastors supposed to be charismatic, energetic, tough people?

So I’m annoyed, because I know that this first semester is going to be emotionally stretching, as God breaks down my ideas and replaces them with His own, as He reveals the path to me, step by step. And I really don’t like dealing with my emotions. Other people can cry and rage and whatever else around me, and I’m happy to listen and provide support. But me, letting myself feel what I feel, in the moment I feel it? Ugh.

I easily fall into the trap of believing my value lies in accomplishments. (Silly, because the sense of defeat inevitably follows when discovering that another has accomplished more and greater). So of course my mind jumps years into the future, to graduation day, and the idea of graduating with honors. Imagine my shock, then, to realize that such an end could actually be sinful. Prioritizing the wrong thing. Stick with me. Yes, I believe that everyone should do their best at everything we set out to do. I have no intention of slacking off. But I’ve learned something this summer, in the hustle and bustle (that’s left little time for writing): What God places in front of me, here and now, is the thing that matters.

In short, I will fail seminary if I come out the other side with an excellent knowledge of exegesis and Greek, but without having grown in love for God and people.

Achievement at seminary might mean accepting less than an A+, because that might mean that I’m out there putting what I’m learning into practice, instead of spending every waking hour stressing over getting an assignment just right. However many years I spend in school can’t be just about the schooling itself. This journey has to be about God, from beginning to end and beyond.

Maybe this is all very obvious to you, but it’s a major shift in thinking for me. The academic world is one I’m comfortable in, one I know how to navigate. The pastoral world, not so much. And there’s another shift: Maybe I’m a pastor right now. Maybe that’s who God made me to be. The process and the ordination and all that, it’s good and right and I can go along with no fuss. But maybe that endpoint is just a confirmation of what is already true.

A pastor who takes naps and needs quiet and is quiet and hates loud noises. A pastor who uses slang and wears ripped jeans and is too lazy to dye her white hairs to match the rest of her strands. A pastor who is not and will not be your superhero, but will gladly point you to the Savior you need. A pastor who longs for all to know the grace, love, and truth of God.

Maybe that’s enough.

To be the Nurturer

Gentle Reader,

I guess I’m a hugger now.

For someone who’s a bit of a germaphobe and is always trying to protect her right side, this is a complicated development. It does not naturally enter my mind to reach out and gather someone close. That’s why I know this urge has been planted in me by the Holy Spirit. I begin to recognize how much people long to give and receive healthy touch. To know that they are cared for. And I am deeply moved by that recognition.

Attending teen camp a couple of weeks ago was quite the experience. The pendulum swung wildly between the highest highs and the lowest lows. The first two days, I wondered why I was there. A definite sense of not belonging, because while I do like to play and have a good time, I am wired for the quiet moments and one-on-one conversation. Contemplativeness is not a trait generally associated with youth ministry; we think hype and loudness and messiness when we think of teens. And there is a place for that, of course, but there’s only so much loudness I can take before I teeter on the edge of a complete meltdown.

So, what could I bring to the table? What was the point in my being around?

The third day, it clicked. Teens don’t always express exactly what they need (really, adults don’t do that, either), but as I sat in the chapel and watched students wrestle with the message they’d heard, I didn’t have to think about how to respond. I just started praying with people. I put an arm around each person, and, without exception, they sighed heavily and relaxed against my shoulder. And Jesus smacked me on the head, as He often does, and asked me, in that quiet way of His, if I was going to stop wondering why I don’t fit in and just do what He’s called and designed me to do

You don’t design your ministry. That’s how we approach it, and that approach is all wrong. God designs us to do what only we can do in the way He’s asked us to do it. For too long we’ve focused on programs and processes and been content with slotting people into “leadership positions” that don’t require leading, but rather just replication of a party line and way. I wish you could hear me speak these words aloud, because there is no condemnation here, but rather a sense of clarity, an understanding of what I’ve been battling for so long and why I don’t need to battle it anymore.

The Church does not value the nurturers, but the Church needs them. Or us, I should say.

Believe me, I never imagined using that term to describe myself. Yet I know in my bones that people need to understand that they are loved. That they are safe. They need to know that they can have conversations, ask questions, and just be themselves. this doesn’t mean that I don’t speak and teach truth, because that’s a vital part of nurturing. But instead of lecturing someone from a lofty position of cold authority, I grab their hands and invite them to follow Jesus as I follow Jesus.

For most of my life, I have run away. Kept myself hidden as much as possible. Some of the reasons for this are valid, and ones that I will continue to work through. But mostly, it’s the dread and fear, pounding in my chest. Now, I want those feelings to be replaced by the holy love that pushes me to run toward. Even if I get beat up, or looked over, or stepped on.

I must be about my Father’s business and will, come what may, even though my approach to that work looks different from others’. Oh, I’m going to keep stumbling and falling and crying and doubting. Highly doubt I will ever be one of those ministers who seems to have it “together.” I think that’s okay, because the consistent sense of my own fragility keeps me grounded in grace. And so I can stop beating myself up for not being whatever it is that I or others think I should be. What freedom! What sweetness! What joy! What great adventure!

Wind in my hair, sun on my face, flowers in my hands. Arms ready to embrace all I encounter.

I’m going to love lavishly, because that’s how God loves me.

Yes, Jesus. Grant me the eyes to see as You do, the mouth to speak as You do, the heart to love as You do, and the willingness to go as You do.

To Love as God Loves

Coming back to a post I began a month ago. A month! I have much to share with you about that month, but before all that, this, which flows into and provides context for the that.

Gentle Reader,

I stare into the mirror. An ordinary-looking woman meets my gaze. The afternoon light shifts, highlighting the gold tones in her brown eyes and the red in her brown hair. She looks a little tired, but she always looks a little tired. There’s something else about her face today. A sadness. A weariness.

Time is short, my dears. The days seem to stretch on, but before we know it the clock winds down and the alarm sounds. Breath, God-given and sustained, leaves a loved one’s chest. The spirit flies into eternity, waiting for the day when the Father tells the Son to go and fetch His Bride.

And so I think we have not minutes to waste in petty squabbling. Yes, some hills are worth dying on. I may be mostly a gentle puffball, but I’ve enough of a fighter in me to know that to be true. But most of the things we spend energy on, the conflicts that rob us of both peace and sleep, are pointless. Useless. Do not, in any way, impact the grand scheme.

Perhaps we can choose a holy way of expending the energy and passion that fuels these fights. Perhaps we can throw ourselves, body and soul, into love. Loving the way that God does, something beyond affection and deeper than preference. The kind of love that means something. Costs something. The sort of love that we all ache for in the middle of the night.

Romance is not dead, my darlings. It is greater than the longing glances exchanged by couples in cheesy movies, more than eroticism. Romance is the deep mystery, the grand adventure, found in walking with Jesus. He beckons. He calls. He woos.

Then, somehow, He creates a family out of the called.

Like any family, we are dysfunctional.

But we’re still family.

And so our language must be seasoned with love and tempered with grace, for these are brothers and sisters, beloved ones, with whom we interact. Do you realize that? Do I? God calls us His beloved. Are we that kind of community? One that operates out of belovedness? Beloved of Him, beloved of each other?

What if we cared? Really, truly, cared? Paused and actually listened to that prayer request, and prayed then and there? Laughed with each other? Cried with each other? Were all up in each other’s business, not out of mere curiosity or nosiness but because that’s what people who love each other do?

There is a radical quality to the love of God, a quality that I begin to see is passed on and pressed into those who call upon His Name. The sort of sacrificial, selfless love modeled by Christ is ours to learn and share with the world. We do not drum up this love within ourselves by force or will. No, it arises instead out of time spent at the feet of Jesus. Sometimes that looks like hours of quiet contemplation. Sometimes that looks like a full day with hardly any room to breathe. Sometimes that looks like something in between the lull and the busy. But it always looks like a person devotedly – not perfectly – seeking the Savior’s will.

What an impact we might have upon this place, if we loved as He loves!