Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Why I'm Struggling with the "Gratefulness" Concept

     Thanksgiving. It marks the beginning of a season of traditions, family, and food. It's the time of year when we're especially grateful for our blessings - even those extra-crazy family members. A time of reflection and warm fuzzies. Of celebration and contentment. Of sincere goodwill among all the great majority of random passers-by.

     In Sunday School yesterday, we considered gratefulness. We discussed how it is often the foil, in the Bible, to sin (Romans 1:21), and how its simple expression can completely change one's perspective and attitude. We listed several daily "taken-for-granted" aspects of our lives for which we ought to remember to give thanks (health, cleaning supplies, clothing). We touched on the fact that grief and thankfulness are not mutually exclusive.

     But what I didn't volunteer in the course of our discussion was that, for me lately, the emotion which follows gratefulness most closely is guilt. In the evenings, climbing shivering-ly into bed (we have heat, but I have a sis that sleeps with her window open), I whisper a quick thanks to God for thick, flannel sheets. Almost immediately, though, I'm ashamed of my opulent life in which I'm coddled by flannel sheets which I had ample money to buy, a quilt sewn by my mum because she's alive, healthy, and loves me, and the thick wool blanket I bought while visiting Scotland several years ago on pleasure. What am I doing with such luxuries? Is it right to live like this, with people around the world in such want? When my own brothers and sisters in Christ have had their possessions confiscated? While they cling to God, am I clinging to comfort?

     This past weekend, hurrying to my car after a concert, I passed a homeless man, arranging his belongings around him for the evening. Ice is in the air, and for a moment I wondered if I should give him my scarf, but I held back. "This isn't just a random scarf. Mum made it for me. It'd be different if it was one I'd bought for myself..." - my mind flurried with these comforts as I quickened my stride, but are they true? Thankful as I was for the warmth in which I was wrapped, I walked right past someone who probably would have benefited greatly from my "blessing". Is gratefulness genuine - God-honoring - if it results in hoarding? Do I really understand imitating Christ if I receive things and fail to turn around and give them away again?

     These questions are genuine; I don't know the answers. I know guilt is never from my Father, so of course that is misplaced, but what should my response be when inundated with all my belongings and reminded of the destitution of others? Is it right, as a Christian, to live in comfort, in excess of basic needs, while others do not? How can it not feel like a mockery, a callousness to suffering, to sit in our warm homes surrounded by comforts and thank God devoutly for all our "stuff"? Are we grateful, or glorying in gluttony?

     "[Giving] thanks in all circumstances", as the Scriptures instruct, is not the same as "giving thanks for all circumstances." I think this is how people can be grateful even in the face of the ravages of sin. Death, disease, devaluation of life - these realities are not how life was meant to be; they are not what God pronounced "good"; they are the results of sin, not the blessings of God. But the grateful person  gains a perspective beyond his immediate pain, grief, shame, or despair. He knows that "yet God sits enthroned," that because of His multitudinous grace, things will be brought together for good, whether the individual lives to see that good or not (somewhat like Hebrews 11:13).

     I'm not quite sure how, yet, but I feel the above thoughts are the beginning of my answers. That while I can give thanks for flannel sheets, or warm scarves, my habit of gratefulness should not actually be tied to physical comforts - or even necessities - but to an awareness of who I am in God's sight, and yet what He did for me. If my value is not in possessions, or health, or friends, and yet I am grateful, what changes in my lifestyle?

     This doesn't answer the persistent, discomforting feeling that it's wrong to live in such ease, to not be giving everything but the bare minimum away; I want to know how I should respond.

     How do you practice gratefulness? Do you feel guilty giving thanks for comforts and extras? How do you resolve your comforts with the great needs in the world - particularly those of our persecuted brothers and sisters?

Photo 1: LABabble. Fall Leaves. 18 October 2009. Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo 2: ryry17. Poverty. 28 December 2007. Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, April 23, 2018

To Have a Broken Heart

     We're a world full of broken hearts. Tragic losses, disappointing relationships, unrealized dreams - poets and songwriters thrive upon words which express our human pain. Bookstores abound with how-tos for overcoming grief, realizing or recreating life goals, or moving on from the scarring end of a relationship. We gather strength from the sympathy of others, confidence in the steps of those who have gone before us. Because if we mortals share one thing, it is the disappointment of our expectations. We hope for more than we can achieve; we plan our lives, oblivious to our lack of control; we expect our loves to be returned in kind.

     I've been struck by how often I hear someone referring to being "brokenhearted". Exaggerations and forms of expression aside, heart-wrenching pain surrounds us, always. Children in sin, loved ones leaving this world, friendships being abandoned - these sorrows are not strangers to us, or those we walk beside each day.

     But are these heartbreaks the cracking of our being, or an exposure of the holes? What if our dreams were to fill in gaps that are intrinsically missing from our existence? What if our love has become a desperate search to find the perfect pieces for our gaping hearts? What if it is sin, not circumstances, which crushes us so?

   What if I am, in my very essence, broken?

     The pain of which we speak when we bemoan a broken heart is terribly real, but the repetition of this word - "heartbroken" - has challenged my definition. To be brokenhearted, I've realized, doesn't mean that I was whole and something - or someone - shattered me, because I'm already shattered. Incomplete. Sick. In need of repair. Rather, seasons of "brokenness" or heartache are poignant moments in which the scales fall from my eyes, and I realize who I am.

     This isn't something "God did to me", but an unveiling of myself: a broken, sin-smeared individual in desperate need to be fixed and filled-in by her Savior. Sometimes I try to help, thinking I understand how to make myself whole, thinking being sick means I know the cure, but this only results in flimsy life pillars which must in turn be demolished to allow for proper supports. These demolitions too, as I say, "break my heart," and since I've thus supported my hopes and affections, I suppose they do. But only in proportion to the expectations I've placed upon the work of my own hands.

     Don't misunderstand me, though. Our pain, what we call "brokenhearted-ness" is not because our loves, hopes or dreams were wrong - although we should be daily evaluating them. Nor are they because God ruined us, or delights in our pain - though He does make everything work for good. We are broken because we are full of failings in a sin-saturated world, and we feel the vacuum of this incompleteness most acutely in moments of barefaced loss. Sometimes our loss is caused by sin in the world - death, betrayal, need - and sometimes by sin in ourselves - idols, pride, misplaced affections, disobedience. But being forced to acknowledge these shattered pieces does not break my heart. It reminds me of my need to be made whole.

     So to those acutely aware of their broken hearts today: I am crying for you. My heart hurts for you. Let me pray for and with you. Yet, in this season, in this your time of seeing chips and shards and cracks, savor who God reveals Himself to be. As you throw yourself before His merciful throne, staggering under your burden, realize that this is an attitude we should cultivate: the lamenting of sin, of pain, of imperfection. It is only through this discipline that He can work to heal far more than our temporary woes; He will cure our thorough incompleteness. After all, He has come to "bind up the brokenhearted."

     And that means all of us.

Photo 1: Skley, Dennis. Broken Heart 294/366. 20 October 2012. Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo 2: Skley, Dennis. Pain of a broken heart. 21 August 2011. Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo 3: Vortexas32. IMG_2625. 29 March 2012. Flickr Creative Commons. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The One {Not} About Singleness

     I feel the pressing need to preface this post with a disclaimer: there is great irony in my writing it at all. Why? Because on principle, I'm against the "for-singles" (especially single girls) genre; so allow me to begin with a couple clarifications of what this post is not:

  • This post is not about "waiting for Prince Charming", because there is no place for a heaven-bound, Spirit-empowered, Christ-called girl to be twiddling her thumbs - literally or emotionally - waiting for "that special someone" to show up and give her life purpose. A special One already came and gave meaning. His name is Jesus, his purpose is the work of an evangelist and/or disciple-maker. These are not tasks to "bide your time"; this is your sacred calling.
  • This post is not about "how to serve God as a single girl" - for so many reasons. Anyone reading those kinds of articles has probably spent far more time in her life single than married, anyway, so these "encouragements" inevitably contain the underlying vibe of "until Prince Charming..." even if they explicitly state that you shouldn't have the mindset of a "waiting room." No. Wrong. God has a calling, a mission, for you as you. You, my dear, have been specially created with gifts, abilities, and understanding to accomplish great things. Single, married (rich, poor, young, old, guy, girl...) - it's irrelevant, so stop stereotyping your service options based on your title in society. Yes, I'm sure marriage is wonderful. I'm also sure it has challenges of which we have no concept. And I know it doesn't hold water in heaven. So stop putting yourself in a box and go do whatever in the world God has laid on your heart.
  • This post is not about "finding contentment as a single", because the last prepositional phrase is superfluous. If you struggle with contentment not being married, you'll probably struggle with it being married. You are probably currently struggling with it in more areas than mere marital status. Take a step back. Examine your life, your heart. In my experience, the "I just wish I was married" phrase can hide a whole lot more than discontentment. Laziness, bitterness, jealousy - these are only a few of the potential pitfalls that can be hiding under the surface of such a "longing". Why, then, should we be catered to or excused in them?

     So what is left in a "post to singles" if it's none of the above? Simply this: stop with the singleness already. Why box yourselves in, obsessively gorging on blog posts and podcasts and articles and books and motivational catchphrases and  promises of "God has someone for you" and lectures and testimonies all focused on one aspect of your life that is irrelevant in eternity? Why would you choose to be so defined by something so indifferent to your value as a Christian? Of course, as a girl, I know the answers from at least one perspective. For myself, this desire stems from a longing for someone to have my back, to always be there for me, to be committed to loving and challenging me. But will this be fulfilled in a marriage? Is my fictional husband never going to let me down? Always going to make me feel valuable? Always going to build me up, and point me in the right direction? In my head: absolutely! In reality: absolutely not.

     I forgot to add the last "not" in my list. This post is not about how evil it is to imagine or wish for marriage. It's not evil, but it is hardly beneficial, and rarely realistic. When we're tempted to discontentment with our societal state, we should call a hard stop and examine our hearts. What longing, desire, or need are we imagining will be filled by marriage? What has distracted us from our purpose, and how does God meet the need (or teach us through its lack) that we think should be filled by a boyfriend, a fiancee, a husband? Don't naively blame your struggles on singleness. Identify your deficiencies - perceived or real - and allow God to fill them. He made you; He knows how you can best be fulfilled. And He wants to fill your purpose, full to overflowing.

     Our culture is in a strange place of wanting each individual to be unique in his/her struggles and insights, while wanting to simultaneously relate to everyone else. We have communities (often virtual) for introverts, for writers, for Star Wars fans, for quilters, for gamers, for singles - you name it, it's out there. In them you find members operating off the presupposition that they "get" everyone, but they themselves  have some aspect no one else can "get". In the realm of unmarried, Christian girls, this results in a kajillion articles, written for and by them, on their unique "paths of singleness," along which they bandwagon together, unknowingly holding themselves back from potential as they center their identities around a label they have created and cultivated. 

     Can we stop? I don't want to walk through life as "Single Sarah" (although I admit the alliteration makes it tempting); I want to be known as "Sarah, daughter of the King, worker of His will." When talking to my married friends, I'm still occasionally [pleasantly] surprised to realize that we single and married girls do battle with the same challenges. Sure, they may be manifested differently, but my struggles would look different if I lived in a different state, a different country, or a different family, too. Location, physical or emotional, does not change my battles, but only a Christ-centered life can win them.

    So, to the singles out there: stop thinking of yourselves as singles. You are as you were created to be: glorious beings in the image of God, surrounded by opportunities to live to your fullest potential as you make His will your own, building up and being built up by the church, conquering your battles in the power of the Spirit, taking every thought captive.

   Let's go change the world.

Photo1 Credit: schabeadles. single?. 11 April 2010. Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo2 Credit: Roman, Luo. Alone. 31 May 2008. Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo3 Creditきうこ. Overflow. 15 May 2008. Flickr Creative Commons.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


     One of my favorite things about serving at a tea room was how the day began. After greeting my fellow tea lovers - boss and coworkers - I would work my way through the Florida, Cat's Meow and Bonbon rooms, turning on lights. Seven wall switches controlled the various lights overhead; stained-glass lamps in abundance were plugged into the wall or flipped at a master plug throughout the tea rooms and gift shop; twinkle lights, draped over floor screens and curtains, sparkled to life as I plugged in their cream or purple strands. There was an order, a rhythm. Methodically, I'd work my way around the walls in each room, brightening one corner and another with cheery, often colorful, light.

     The idea of preparing the tea room for use delighted - and still, when I sub in, delights - me. The concept that no business can be done in the day until darkness is dispelled resonates with me. The very ritual of walking through the shadowy, expectant tea rooms, watching the light sunrise across the floor, soothes me. Teacups and centerpieces wait, grey in the shadows, until all becomes shining chinaware and gleaming tabletops. Because before one can actually enjoy a proper tea time, she must be able to see her instruments of use, right?

     Just as the poetry of such a task gives me great pleasure, it also instills a desire to echo these preparations in my soul's morning. Before I can be about my business for the day, shouldn't I cultivate the discipline of dispelling shadows? To know the wall switches that give over-all perspective for my day's tasks; to search out the dark corners of moodiness, selfishness, or discontentment and brighten them with a light the color of my Savior's love; to sparkle the otherwise-unremarkable moments and mentalities with unexpected strands of hope - this is the way I want to prepare each morning, in the rooms of my soul, before my feet even hit the floor. Responses and attitudes lurk ambiguously, until the surrendering of my "rights" and priorities to the LORD sharpens them into brilliant clarity. Because before one can truly live a light-steeped life, she must plug into its source, right?

Photo Credit: Young, Megan. teacup. 4 March 2013. Flickr Creative Commons.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Waiting for Rain

Tuesday, 5 September 2017
     The air is so thick with acidic smoke that a couple deep breaths could make me sick to my stomach. A layer of ash covers my car; the sun is the ominous, radioactive-red glow I've imagined it to be in Ray Bradbury's "August 2026: There Shall Come Soft Rains". Our sky is obscured by thick, grey-yellow clouds which drift down with the ash as a haze. Even as all eyes are on Houston, and our hearts are with the displaced, homeless, and hurting in Texas, the West Coast is burning.

     If I drove toward our newest, earth-razing flames, it would take me less than an hour. I was supposed to go hiking this morning, but all my favorite spots are being turned to charcoal. When one steps outside, all is still; no birds sing.

     Suddenly, the utter destruction of fire is very real, as it begins to touch individuals on the fringe of my awareness. Coworkers of my brothers, extended family of friends, even unnamed faces with whom I've shared a smile when grabbing ice cream after a hike, or making a coffee stop en route to a friend's home.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017
     At night, the man in the moon cries, his cloudy, orange face burning tragically. Even as the starless world cools, the air remains thick, sticking to my skin like sunscreen. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017
     The smell of smoke is nearly gone, but the haze remains. Fires still burn. Rain - besides a few rallying droplets - has not come. Reports say the fire is 5% contained. 5% of 30,000 acres of one of my favorite pieces of land in the world. I don't mean to be dramatic, but this is my home being ravaged. 

     And yet, even as I pray desperately for rain, for the lives of these brave firefighters, for the people displaced, the animals running - even as I pray for relief, I am keenly aware of how spoiled we are, because we have hope. This is the Northwest. Rain is most assuredly on the way - be it today, tomorrow, the next day. We wait for rain. We know it will come.


     Over a month ago, during Memorial Day weekend, a gigantic fire was started which would burn well over 40,000 acres within an hour's drive of my house. It is still burning, not projected to be put out until the end of next month. It's funny how the danger and ruin of a thing can be known yet unknown until one actually experiences it. We hear of California's fires, we smell hints of smoke from Canada's burnings, but I have never realized how hopeless one feels as fires grow, and multiply, despite man's greatest efforts. Even still, I have no idea of it's total potential: I have not had to worry about my friends, or what it would be like to be rendered homeless. 

     Still, as I wrote last month, I have been struck with the differences in the degree of helplessness we felt, compared to places like California, where rain is so much more rare. Washington isn't the Evergreen State for nothing (with, you know, Oregon as our twin) - rain is as much a given as sunshine. Or more so, depending on the time of year. We asked "When will it rain?" but it wasn't with a hopeless tone in our voice. We prayed for rain, holding in our hearts no doubt that it was well on the way.

     And the metaphor was not lost on me. It seemed last month as though each morning brought news of new disasters - hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis. Lives lost, homes destroyed, families torn apart. Yet, as Christians, we know this chaos is not our end. Amidst wars, and rumors of wars, we have a sure and certain hope: the redemption and coming of Him who will set all things right. Like the weather in Washington, we have no doubt that this relief will soon flood our hearts. As our world burns ever toward condemnation, we reach hands to our King who "will come to us like the rain."

     May the fire end and our King come soon.