Of Nothing

(With many apologies after a long break, I’m back and hope to be more regular in my posting this year!)

I first came face-to-face with my nothingness in Cambodia. I went there full of hope and good intentions, sure that we were going to improve lives and change the world. What followed were years of disappointment, failure, and hard knocks. Unfortunately those tough times did relatively little to shake my confidence in myself as Something. I still had a lot to offer. The problem was everybody else—including God. They just weren’t cooperating with all my good efforts!

What finally did me in was a cat. One very small kitten. Too small, in fact. The vet gave me formula, warning she’d need to be fed every two hours, adding with a shake of the head not to get my hopes up. But my spirit shook an invisible fist at him, and at any other nay-sayer; but most of all I shook my fist at God. “YOU have let me down,” I railed. “I’ll take it from here. I’ll show You.”

After three days of ’round the clock feedings, the tiny thing finally died. Exhausted and crushed, I sobbed to my husband, “I couldn’t even make the world better for one little cat!”

His answer was simple, and revolutionary. “It isn’t your world.”

This was the first step in my journey toward realizing that I am not God. Somehow I had gotten the idea that if I just tried hard, thought hard, behaved right, prayed right, I could control outcomes and guarantee results.

That was about five years ago. I have been slow to learn. But over time God has been chipping away at my in-born impulse to take His place.

Will my worry make a relative’s surgery go any better or worse? No. Will lying awake at night playing out endless scenarios unravel a knotty situation? No. Will rehearsing imaginary conversations in my head make someone change or fix a relationship? No.

Why? Because I am nothing. I am powerless. I am not in control. That person, relationship, problem, situation, is not mine to carry.

The good news is that in counter-point to my nothing there is an Everything. There is God. He is in control. All these things belong to Him. He carries each burden. He holds all things together. He sustains all things by His powerful word. Him. Not me.

I don’t know that handing these things over to God changes the outcomes. It isn’t a magic bullet or a guarantee that all will be as I wish. But I do know that it changes me. I admit my nothingness. I kneel in submission to His sovereignty. I wait for His guidance. I learn what it means to trust.

I begin to live out Jesus’ invitation “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Whatever weighs you down as you enter this new year, I hope you join me in laying it down. It isn’t yours, or mine, to carry. This requires some crushing, some dying. But in the end, I truly have nothing (myself) to lose, and Everything to gain.

“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matt. 11:28–30, MSG

Handling It

Feb28I frequently hear people say that God won’t send us more than we can handle, and I’m coming to think that’s a terribly unsound bit of theology.

I have been very distracted the last few months. With the end of our sabbatical looming, I felt the pressure of questions unanswered, decisions pending, the future in general waiting to be sorted and straightened out. And, armed with almost a year of rest, prayer, and reflection, I set out to “handle” it.

The problem is that, in truth, we are utterly powerless. From the next breath we take, to our next meal, to next week, we don’t really control anything. But we are so deceived about the scope of our abilities that we actually think we determine our own destiny.

And so we struggle and scheme and worry, trying to handle things. We lose sleep, our minds churn, we fret and frazzle ourselves devising endless scenarios and solutions.

In the past weeks I have been a foolish sheep, scrambling off on my own to discover “greener” pastures. I have been Martha, worried and bothered by many things. I have been Peter sinking in the water—focused on the waves, the wind, the storm.

I got so busy trying to figure things out that I forgot my most basic responsibility: to keep my eyes fixed on Him—to surrender, to trust, to rest. I forgot to let Him handle it.

Now, I know what you are going to say. “I can’t just do nothing. If I stop now everything will come crashing in on me. I’m barely keeping my head above water as it is.”

I understand. I, too, am a problem-solver and a fixer. I have this optimistic idea that if I just try hard enough—work, think, even pray hard enough—that I will be able to unravel all the uncertainties and see the path clearly before me.

But the truth is, that simply is not within my power. My sole responsibility is to keep my eyes, heart, mind focused exclusively on Him—and sometimes that’s even a bit more than I can manage. All those other things that clamor for my energy and attention are diversions.

I am not saying our various roles and responsibilities are unimportant. I am simply suggesting that the surest way to excel in those areas is to stop striving so hard and simply sit at Jesus’ feet. It might seem like we are shirking our duties, but in actuality, spending time in His presence is the only way to be the best spouse, parent, worker, friend, we can be.

I am not saying He expects me to be inert. I think He asks me to come to Him minute by minute, moving when He does, only as far as He shows me and no further. He desires me to be utterly dependent on Him, and patient with His process and His timing. Every decision, every step should be His call.

This is not particularly comfortable. We prefer to have a bit more say in the matter. How tempting it is to step in and take control! “Don’t worry God, this is a no-brainer. I’ve got this one; I’ll take it from here. I can handle it.”

I believe God sends us things we can’t handle every day. But we are too stubborn to realize it, and we exhaust ourselves trying to manage in our own strength. We miss the joy, confidence, and peace that could be ours if we just kept Him as our center and our focus, and allowed Him to handle things.

Busyness; the God Complex

Oct10

As I observe the world around me, I am coming to the conclusion that busyness is one of the most wide-spread and damaging diseases of our day. Not only does it rob people of physical, mental, and emotional health, I see it fragmenting relationships and separating us from God. In our frantic attempts to live life to the “fullest” I fear we are missing out on what it means to be truly alive.

Nor do I think this is accidental or coincidental.

In looking at what motivates our break-neck pace of life, it seems that we have deeply internalized three insidious lies put forth by the Deceiver, working hand-in-hand with our cultures and our own fallen nature.

the God Complex

The first lie comes straight from the core of the Evil One’s heart; “I will ascend into heaven… I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isaiah 14: 13, 14) Whether we realize it or not, most of us carry a god complex and run ourselves ragged trying to take His place.

I have so often heard well-meaning people say, “I can’t possibly stop. This [ministry, job, person, etc.] needs me.” “If I don’t do it no one else will…” Change the words as you will, the central idea is the same: “It all depends on me. I am essential.”

I have even heard this inflated idea of our individual importance perpetuated by well-meaning evangelical speakers, “You are His hands and feet; God can’t touch the world without you,” and carried to the extreme: “If you don’t share Christ, you might be responsible for sending someone to hell.”

No, no and no.

I absolutely believe we should live, breathe, and demonstrate the gospel every moment of our lives. But I reject the idea that I have the ability to send someone to hell, nor can I save anyone. It is beyond my power. But if God has chosen someone, nothing I do (or don’t do) can thwart His purposes.

And when it comes to doing His work on earth, if I am essential to a project or ministry for its survival, there’s a good chance it is my work, not His; my vision, not His. Because if it is His work, He can handle it very well without me. To think God’s plan would fall apart without my involvement is mind-blowing self-aggrandizement.

In her book Sabbath Keeping, Lynne M. Baab writes, “…even though God has created us to be his partners in sustaining the universe, he is fully capable of bringing about his purposes without us. We are creatures, completely dependent on the one who created us and sustains us. God alone is in control, and God alone upholds the universe.” (p. 28)

Whether in ministry or in daily life, our efforts to manage or control our personal worlds is to step into a role reserved for God alone. Our fumbling attempts to “keep it together” are self-deception at best, and at worst, a blatant rejection of the fact that “in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)

We also equate ourselves to Him when we try to live as if we have no limits. We are finite. We must eat. We must sleep. We cannot be in two places at once, no matter how frantically we multitask. We can’t have it all; to choose one thing necessarily closes the door on other things. Our knowledge of the big picture is woefully incomplete, even with the amazing resources available to us today. To deny these God-given boundaries is to reject our humanity and claim something that belongs to God alone.

While most of us would never actually boast of possessing omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence, when we live on a practical level as if we are central to the grand scheme of things, we elevate ourselves to the level of the Most High and challenge His rightful place.

– – – – –

The two other lies that keep us busy will be unfolded in later blog posts.

Magic

May24

I used to think magic was the stuff of fairy tales. Later I understood that magic had a more real, sinister expression. But in any case, I always saw magic as something far removed from my every-day life.

Until I discovered it woven into the very fabric of my faith.

The realization came as I stumbled upon this definition of magic:
Magic is the attempt by humans to control their destiny through the management or manipulation of supernatural powers in such a way that results are virtually guaranteed. 1

Although the piece I was reading described pagan practices, as I thought the matter through, I realized I had little room to judge. In truth, I have subtly been raised to believe that I can control and manipulate God. For example, God blesses those who live in a certain way, He keeps His promises, He always acts consistently with His character.

While each of these claims is true, modern Christianity has twisted them into the mistaken belief that God must behave in a certain way. I have heard (and done it myself) people demand things of God, citing “promises” in the Bible, or holding Him to His character. I have seen others blind-sided when trouble comes their way, saying like Job, “But I did everything right…”

Peter Scazzero, in his book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” writes quite candidly:
“I like control… I also like to remind God of His need to behave in ways that fit in with my clear ideas of Him. For example, God is just, merciful, good, wise loving. The problem, then, is that God is beyond the grasp of every concept I have of Him. He is utterly incomprehensible.
“Yes, God is everything revealed in scripture, but also infinitely more. God is not an object that I can determine, master, possess, or command. And I still try to somehow use my “clear ideas” about God to give me power over Him, or to somehow possess Him.”

I see two problems with this kind of Christian magic. First, it puts us in the place of God. Any belief that we can manipulate Him, control Him, or demand anything from Him places us above Him. To insist that He fit within our finite definitions of “goodness” or “justice” or keep His promises as we interpret them is to insinuate that our judgment, timing, and understanding of the big picture reigns supreme.

Don’t get me wrong. I think God loves lively discussions and spirited debate with His children. Be real, be passionate, be persistent, reason with Him. In truth, people such as Job, Abraham and Moses actually argued with God, and were called His friends. But at the end of the day, they all allowed God to be God.

The second danger is that a faith built upon the mistaken belief that God is predictable or controllable, can be severely shaken when God does not behave in the ways we expect Him to. Believing wrong things about God creates an image of Him that is false. Indeed a “tame” god who we have comfortably “figured out” seems reassuring and safe. But, this is not God at all. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you understand, it is not God you understand.”

True faith in the one and only God of the universe demands that we fall to our knees in utter humility and risk letting go of control to Someone whose ways and thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth. (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Paul Hiebert, in his article “The Excluded Middle,” summarized the issue beautifully when he wrote, “…the church and mission must guard against Christianity itself becoming a new form of magic. Magic is based on a mechanistic view—a formula approach to reality that allows humans to control their own destiny. Worship on the other hand, is rooted in a relational view of life. Worshipers place themselves in the power and mercy of a greater being. …The difference is not one of form, but of attitude.” [italics mine]


1 From Paul Hiebert, “The Excluded Middle” and Clinton E. Arnold, “The Colossian Syncretism.”