Speaking of grace…

I got a new job, and it’s too big for me.

Next year, I’ll be teaching 7th and 8th grade humanities at a private school that serves students from the Richmond city school district. I’ve had my eye on this school for several years, and I am thrilled to join the work there.

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching at a rigorous classical school. Most of my students there come from privileged families. Their parents invest in them in ways that lead to longterm flourishing and academic success. My own children attended the school, and I benefitted from a kind of cultural shorthand with my students that made them easy to teach. I loved spending time with these sweet children, but I sensed the Lord moving me on.

My new students have backgrounds and families that look very different from mine. I may know how to teach, but I’m keenly aware of how much I don’t know about these students’ lives and communities. Faced with my ignorance, I’ve been doing what I usually do which is binge-research. But the facts are sobering.  I have so much to learn if I’m going to serve these kids well. There’s a good chance that I’m never going to be the best person for the job.

I’ve got some other leadership gigs this summer and fall, and as it turns out, I am out of my depth in those areas, too. I’m coaching a marathon training team for the first time. It’s a group I’ve been running with for a few years, so I know that many runners on the team have much more experience than I do. You got a lot of nerve, Peacho.raceBanner-4jjLVMmE-bAa3SP

In July, I’m heading back to Uganda to help lead a marriage and parenting conference with some local ministry partners there. Even after twenty years of marriage and raising three children, I’m groping along, always looking for wiser women to copy. In fact, my sisters and I say that we’re Benjamin Button when it comes to raising teenagers. We are traveling backwards. With each passing year, we grow less sure of our methods. What parenting tools can I possibly offer women raising fifteen orphans in a refugee settlement? What will I say to second and third wives who are dependent on the same man for protection? I’m overwhelmed.37107662_1164610390343830_136606240917684224_n

It’s got me thinking about what it takes to be a good leader, and why I have the audacity to take on these roles. I need wisdom, and I don’t have it. It’s a problem. Here’s why I’m not utterly paralyzed by this reality:

In her book Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason explores the relationship between humility and wisdom. She argues that a person can’t learn unless he recognizes that he doesn’t know what he ought to know. Wisdom can only grow in the soil of humility. What’s more, humility is “absolute, not relative. It is by no means a taking of our place among our fellows according to a given scale, some being above us by many grades and others as far below. There is no reference to above or below in a humble soul, which is equally humble before an infant, a primrose, a worm, a beggar, a prince” (283).

It’s not like people need to exercise humility until they find themselves at the top of the information/experience heap, and then they can chuck it. We’re always going to know a few things and not know most things. We’re always going to have more things to learn than we have to teach.  We can’t wait until we have nothing left to learn before we begin serving others, or we will never do anything.

I know the Lord gives grace to the humble, and He grants wisdom when we ask. He tells us to give [ourselves] fully to the work of the Lord, and to let nothing move us.

My confidence comes from who He is, not what I know. I am excited to spend the year learning.

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Speaking of needs…

As you two know, I watched Terrence Malick’s beautiful film The Tree of Life the other day. I can’t get over it, not only because it’s different (weird, even), but because it addresses all the big questions of life in a single, two-hour event.

The Tree of Life focuses on both one family’s ordinary, often pain-filled existence and the goings-on of the entire universe. Malick pulls out a magnifying glass to show us the lip twinges of a disappointed pre-teen boy. Then he employs a telescope to demonstrate the intricate movements of the stars. We watch a father explode in anger and a volcano explode with pent-up lava.

Through it all, the characters whisper, “Where are you, God? Why aren’t you answering me, and why do I believe in You anyway?”

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By the end of the film, we come to understand that God is answering them simply by existing, by holding the universe together while nudging their inner thoughts. The characters can’t not believe in God even when God doesn’t immediately assuage their grief. Somehow, they stumble upon the way of grace. They learn to relinquish their right to a happy ending, and by this they are saved.

The themes in The Tree of Life play out in our own lives. We enact plot points in our little stories, and they feel ultimate to us. Yet the Lord of the universe sees the amoeba and the galaxy with equal clarity. He exists outside of, and beyond, us. Our stories do have meaning, but not apart from Him.

The Bible tells us God is intimately involved in our tiny lives, but in order to find freedom we must remember He is ultimate and we aren’t. We’re told He is up to greater things than we can imagine. We glimpse them, sometimes, when we let go of our craving for a pain-free life–when we stop demanding answers and let ourselves be loved by the One who made us.

Because, it turns out, being loved by Him is the only thing we really need.

Speaking of freedom…

I’ve been thinking about what it means to need. It’s a word I use a lot. I need to grade this stack of papers. I need you to stop making those mouth sounds. I need a break.

Last year, I read When People are Big and God is Small by Ed Welch. In it, Welch seeks to define human need from a biblical perspective. He says we often conflate our outsized desires for human connection, approval, and security with God-given needs. This critical misunderstanding underlies many of our broken ways of relating. Our clawing desire for human love and acceptance is what the Bible calls fear of man. It leads us to do mean, weird things. He describes the different and sometimes surprising ways that fear of man manifests in our lives.

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Secular psychologists call fear of man codependency, which makes it sound more like a mental health issue and less like the sin it is. The crux of Welch’s argument is this:

“Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God).  The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more” (19).

He explains that when we mistakenly believe that we need people to love and accept us and treat us right, we place ourselves under their control. This isn’t freedom.

Welch explains: “You are controlled by whoever or whatever you believe can give you what you think you need.  It is true:  what or who you need will control you” (13-14).

We are slaves. There’s no getting around it. But believers are slaves to Christ, not each other. We do have needs, but we should make sure we know what they are so that we don’t become enslaved to false masters.

If we do not understand what God has designed us to need, our love will be self-serving, abusive, and idolatrous in our attempt to get our faux-needs met. We won’t know what to expect from God when He promises to “meet all [our] needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Secular psychologists suggest cures that exacerbate rather than relieve the fear of man. Love yourself, find your tribe, use “I” statements to communicate your needs, etc.

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The other day, my friend Michael told me about  a new model scientists have developed for predicting who will commit suicide. When analyzing the writing of people who have committed suicide, researchers found that these depressed individuals used significantly more personal pronouns than average.

Psychologist Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi explains:

 “Those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as “me”, “myself” and “I” – and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns – such as “they”, “them” or “she”. This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves […] Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words.”

When we focus on ourselves, the fear of man only grows and morphs into new, sneaky expressions. Focusing on ourselves drives us deeper into fear and despair, even when we try to think positively and practice self-love.

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Welch makes the argument that the antidote to fear of man is magnifying the Lord. We magnify the Lord when He looms large in our hearts. We help ourselves see Him clearly when we worship Him, read and memorize scripture, talk to Him, serve each other, and tell each other about His goodness, power, and beauty. We need to worship. If  we don’t worship God, our hearts reach toward idols to fill the vacuum.

Speaking of birthdays, an exit interview…

It was Hannah’s birthday this week, so I (Rachel) conducted a brief exit interview with her to assess her 40th year. I used to do exit interviews with my kids on their birthdays until they told me they hated it because it “felt like pressure.” I don’t even know what they mean. 

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How did you expect yourself to be different at 40 (but you actually stayed the same)?

I expected to be less reactive and more patient. Alas, I have a clump of small, orange charcoals for a heart, and the passage of time has not cooled them, so please chew with your mouth closed. And turn that music down.

What was better about being 40 than being 30?

I’m running now, and I wasn’t then. It’s made the most surprising differences in my life. As far as the body goes, pretty much everything else is worse ten years later. Well, I take that back. I sleep more now. Probably due to the running.

What is something you think about every, single day?

I have a spiritual answer, a mom answer, and an I’m-not-quite-sure-where-it-fits answer. They’re all true and as follows: God, my kids (because I homeschool them, and they’re rarely out of my presence), and my debut novel The Excellent Ones. If you’d asked what’s something I think about 216 times per day, it’s the novel.

What is the best thing you ate this year?

Pot roast made by an ex-Amish lady.

What women do you have your eye on as mentors? (Who seems to be doing life right?)

I’ll tell you who I stalk on the Internet: Karen Swallow Prior, Rosaria Butterfield, Jen Wilkin, Andrew Peterson (not a woman), my beloved Sara Groves, Patty Griffin, and my pretend dad, John Piper (also not a woman). My far-flung missionary friends remind me that this world is both big and small, and that God so loved it that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Also, I love Mary Oliver and am enduringly sad she’s gone.

What do you look for in a friend these days?

I don’t really look for friends, to tell the truth. They find me. It’s either a mystical connection, or it’s DOA. My dance card is full.

What are you reading right now?

If you’d asked but a little while ago, I might have said The Old Man and the Sea, Silence, or The Power and the Glory. As is, I confess I’m reading John Grisham’s The Firm. The writing is clunky, and I already know the ending. Yet here I am.

What do you find intolerable at age 40?

The exact maternal fanaticism I embraced as a young woman. I see a certain gleam in a new mom’s eyes, and I fail to feel the sympathy I ought to feel. Instead, I try to switch seats. I have enough intensity raging in my own soul (see above) that I don’t need it reflected back to me in the form of opinions on breastfeeding. It’s mean, but what can I say?

What do you hope to accomplish this decade?

I plan to write and publish at least seven full-length novels that reflect the truest things I know.

What do you know about God that you didn’t know when you were younger?

I’m coming to believe in my heart what I always believed in my head: that His love for me is sourced from his love for His Son. That means it’s more durable and irreversible than I can understand. This is freedom.

 

Speaking of burdens too big to bear (and how to bear them anyway)…

I turn 41 in a few days. Since we don’t have much time in this season of raising three teenagers, my husband and I decided to get away last night to celebrate. I should have been excited, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the time.

I’m not good at drumming up positive feelings I haven’t prepared for. And, frankly, I wasn’t prepared for a fancy meal and an overnight stay in a hotel. Not because I don’t like those things, but because recently, I’ve been a witness to sad, hard things both in the lives of my friends and in the world. It’s hard for me, A). to shut off the sadness I know exists in order to have fun, and B). to do it right now.

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My struggle to lighten up is likely due to a number of factors, one being my Myers-Briggs Type, but the reasons don’t really matter because the result is the same: I have to gear up to have fun, now more than ever.

Am I just an incurable Eeyore, or is it nuts for any of us to think we can pretend we aren’t living on a groaning planet–even if only for a couple of hours? I go back and forth on this.

On the one hand, I can’t believe we’re meant to stay in a perpetual state of sadness as we walk through this life. (Jesus seems to suggest otherwise). But, then, how do we notice the suffering around us without it ruining us? How do we look elsewhere for a minute?

I asked myself these questions when I lived in India, and their answers felt like the keys to the universe. I’ve been back in the U.S. for seven years, now, and I’m still asking…

So, last night, I prayed the Lord would help me look my husband in the eye at dinner and savor the artichoke fritters. I prayed he’d help me not to let my mind wander when we watched a movie afterward. I prayed I could stay in the moment.

And He did help. I forgot about Big, Heavy Things for little while. I laughed when I wasn’t trying. I had fun.

Maybe this is what daily manna looks like for me right now: Grace to dive deep and grace to come up for air. Maybe it will be like this for the rest of my life, and maybe that’s okay.

Speaking of teeny tiny lives and big love…

My son is a profuse little human. He has always been this way. He’s got a triple dose of personality in his teeny, tiny seven-year-old body. For example, this was his response to a plastic plate he got for his third birthday…

And these are the kinds of notes that my husband and I receive on a daily basis:

The funny thing about this kid is that he is obsessed with his quiet, introvert dad, but he is exactly like me–his spazzy, extroverted mom. (Don’t tell him that, though, or he may devolve into tears, arguing emphatically that he is “exactly like him”).

I woke up yesterday (Valentine’s Day) to him coming into my room to get the space heater to bring into the bathroom. I queried why he need it. He responded matter-of-factly, “I’ve got to shave for Christmas Eve, today.” I said, “You mean Valentine’s Day?” He nodded and shuffled off to the bathroom, heater and fake razor in tow.

This little guy has taught us all about love. He’s easy to love most of the time (although his sisters can give evidence otherwise). He loves others profusely, and he’s not afraid to show it.

This Valentine’s Day, he made each of us, sisters included, this little valentine–a paper heart wrapped in a ribbon and tied with yarn.

His love is simple but big. It reminds me of this song. It also reminds me of wise words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have decided to stick with love because hate is too big of a burden to bear.”

Mostly, it reminds me of how important love is. So important, that some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples were, “They will know you are my disciples by your love.” (John 13:35).

In our teeny, tiny lives, may we show the big love of Jesus.

 

Speaking of hard things (and one easy thing)…

Here’s how my conversations with Hannah and Miriam go: One of them says something—maybe mentions something she’s read–and I say Funny you should say that because I’ve been thinking about that same thing. One thing leads to another, and all of our thoughts seem to connect, and so it has been for the past 40 years. My relationship with these women feels so easy.

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Hannah lives in another state, but we stay in intellectual cahoots at all times. Today, she sent me this article about Abraham Lincoln. The article recounts Lincoln’s response to losing his son, Willie. In the article, John Piper marvels at “how personal and national suffering drew Lincoln into the reality of God, rather than pushing him away.” 

Last Sunday, unbeknownst to Hannah, I talked to my Sunday school class about a similar idea. I mentioned how I experience my love of God to be such a miracle—especially the fact that I lean into Him for comfort when I am suffering. Before I became a Christian, I put God on trial in my heart for all the suffering He allowed. Crimes against humanity! Now, suffering drives me to Him and reminds me that He is the source of all my comfort and joy. The truth of His goodness covers (although does not answer) my questions about pain. It’s a miracle.

Years ago, I lost my fourth baby when I was 19 weeks pregnant. At the time, my grief nearly swallowed me. I was due to give birth in February, so our child would’ve been 13 this month. I told my Sunday school class about this loss, and I mentioned that I found comfort knowing that God called my baby’s life a blessing, and He called his death a curse. I agreed with Him—the baby’s death was a curse. The Lord has pressed me to Him and kept me loving Him all these years since that terrible season. February is an anniversary of His faithfulness to me.

Piper ends the devotional by saying, “I pray for all of you who suffer loss and injury and great sorrow that it will awaken for you, as it did for Lincoln, not an empty fatalism, but a deeper reliance on the infinite wisdom and love of God’s inscrutable providence.”

I am praying the same thing for one of my daughters who is sensitive to the horrors of this world. She’s a lot like me. Sometimes I worry that her love of God will grow cold as she tallies up the suffering in this world. I’m afraid she’ll grow suspicious of His goodness like I did for awhile.

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My daughter drew this picture when she was 12. It was about the way sorrow feels in the throat.

Last night, she came to my bedroom, and her eyes were red. She asked me to read a paper she’d written about factory farm conditions for her Comp class. I did not want to read it. I already know how bad factory farm conditions are, and I didn’t want to think about animals suffering. Often I walk wide arcs around sad realities to protect myself, especially when I believe my efforts won’t make a dent in the problem.

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My daughter and a bird she raised

She said, “I know that if I stop eating meat and dairy, I won’t really help any animals because the world is too broken. The problem is too big, and it will never get fixed until the New Earth. Also, people are suffering even more, and I can’t fix those problems either. Everything about this world is ruined.” 

I nodded. We don’t play games around here.

But then she said, “But I want to stop participating in the suffering. I know God cares how we treat animals.” I nodded at that, too. God calls cruelty a curse, and I agree with Him. I know how comforting it is to agree with Him, and I want my 15 year old to experience this. I want her suffering to draw her into the reality of God like Lincoln’s did.

We have these teeny, tiny lives. We give what we’ve got to God, and He loaves-and-fishes-it, as Miriam says.

So we’re trying to avoid factory farm meat and dairy, and I’ve got to be honest–this is hard. It was not my intention to eat less cheese and ice cream during the longest, shortest month.