The Fine Art of Failing

file000786402730Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve experienced an epic number of failures. I write about reading the Bible in a year and then have my worst Bible-reading year ever. I write about prayer and can’t seem to discipline myself to pray. Simple living–I haven’t done half bad on that one, but I haven’t done more than half good, either.

I mean every word that I write. I know what I should do, how to implement change, how to grow and improve. I just…don’t. Not always. Not consistently. Not diligently. I get distracted, discouraged, bogged down, and I struggle to get things back in order. In my head, it all works out–spiritual disciplines, schedules, Bible reading, community service, anything else that might help me to grow in Christ. It’s beautiful. I know it’s what I want more than anything in the world, to live what I believe, to be a beacon to the world that screams of Jesus’ love and the truth of His Word.

And yet, reality hits, and I lose myself in Facebook. I watch Netflix some evenings until I can’t see straight or start the day jumping into my novel writing and ignore my Bible reading. I fail.

I follow a few bloggers who are young women. And all of them seem to have it all together. I wonder if they grow at a steady pace or if they are sprinters like me who run, walk, stop, turn the other direction, get distracted by flowers and clouds, then run again, mostly in the right direction, and then do it all over again. Shouldn’t I be past this? If the young women are flourishing, what’s wrong with this older woman that she can’t make things work?

It makes me tired. Some days life is so wearying. Failing. Calling on God for help. Dropping my burdens in His arms and then scooping them back into my own so I can fail again. Over and over. A seesaw of chaos that never seems to get better.

This week I was faced with yet another failure. Earlier this year I forgot an obligation I had at church, and someone had to cover for me. I promised myself I would do better. So, last weekend I got things ready for church the night before. I looked at the volunteer list. I was going to do Sunday right. I got there on time, not too early or late (now that we live so far in the country I’m either way too early or late, so to get there on time is an accomplishment.) I was pretty pleased with myself.

Except I had failed. I had somehow missed one obligation again, and someone had to cover for me. I wanted to leave.  I was sad and angry with myself because I tried so hard and it wasn’t enough. How hard could it be to read a calendar and remember what it says for a day or two? Apparently it’s harder than one might think.

Failure. Feels like the default setting sometimes. I fail friends, family, everyone. And yet, however frustrated I get, however often I blow it, there is hope. Jesus always hands us hope. I am so very thankful for that.

We’re told in the Bible to abide, to be branches to Jesus’ vine. Cling. I may fail in a lot of ways, but I can still cling. I can hold on even when everything around me makes no sense. In light of losing a brother. In light of a chronic illness. In light of my husband’s employment struggles.  In light of being off schedule in Bible reading or misreading a calendar ten times. Sometimes the only thing I do is cling. Is that enough?

The Bible promises Jesus is working in me, that I’m improving and He won’t give up until I’m the way He wants me to be. I hope I don’t have to stick around in this realm until He’s finished, or I will have to live to be three or four hundred years old, and I’m way too tired for that. But I trust that if I cling, if I abide, then the failures aren’t held against me. Jesus opens his arms and picks me up and says “Try again. No stumble will ever be the one where I leave you on the ground as a failure.”

So I try again. Maybe everyone around me does better than I do, but that doesn’t matter. Jesus only asks me to abide, to obey, to trust. To cling. And that I can do. He does the rest, and I trust He will make my clinging into something pleasing to Him, something beautiful, even when I fail.

 

 

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On His Terms

sunset rays MGD©I’m writing a rough book right now. The main character has lived through an extreme amount of injustice, betrayed by the judicial system, his family, and his friends. He realizes that everything he’s done for the past decade has been on someone else’s terms–where he can go, what he can do, even relationships with those he lost. And those terms are rarely fair.

No surprise, I’ve been thinking about this in my own life lately, because of course what I write has to resonate in some small way with my own experiences, or I can’t empathize with my characters. And I keep coming up with the same phrase. Someone Else’s Terms.

I’m a peacemaker at heart. That means I will give ground to make peace. Or, I will relate on someone else’s terms to make them happy. I have friendships with women who work outside their home or have children, and of course we have to schedule our friendship on their availability, on their terms.

As an introvert, most of my relating is on other people’s terms. Often I’m expected to socialize in a group setting where I am so uncomfortable it’s laughable. I can show up and socialize on those terms, or I can be alone. As I get older, I bow to other people’s terms less often, and I kindly bow out of the most uncomfortable events. But in the past, when I was younger and it was more important to belong, it was on someone else’s terms.

This is part of life. We are meant to serve those we love, and that means discovering how to relate to them, how to love them. It means knowing them well enough to know the terms where they will feel love. Friends who know me and know I’m a diabetic don’t invite me to their house and eat pie in front of me. They know there are a few terms that are set in stone. And I am thankful for that. And it’s up to me to know the same about them. It’s friendship. It’s love.

God, of course, meets us where we are, but then He sets His terms. We are to obey certain commands and strive toward holiness. W

\hat makes Him different is that His terms are always, always for our best. He made us, so His terms let us live exactly the way we were meant to live. He makes terms for family life, sexual life, interacting with others, all kinds of things. So many people balk and feel God is unfair to dictate His will to us, forgetting that His will always trumps ours. He wants us to thrive, to live in peace, to experience great joy and comfort, even when hardship comes. That means reading His instruction manual and living according to His terms. Unlike some of our dealings with people, His terms are completely for our own good.

I’ve been letting things slide during our moving transition. Bible reading and prayer are happening, but not as consistently as they should. I’m not taking the time to drive back to town for Bible studies or fellowship opportunities. I am still figuring out the new normal. However, it’s good to know God’s terms haven’t changed. He still blesses the peacemaker or the poor in spirit the way He always did. He still loves the way He always has. And His terms for a life well lived are still the same, still written in an ancient manuscript by my bed, where I can find explicit instructions from the Creator on exactly how to get the most out of this fleeting life He’s given me.

I will continue to look for the terms for my friendships and family that are the best for all involved, and sometimes I will fail. But I take comfort in knowing God’s terms for our relationship are set and solid and will always bring me joy and lead me closer to the one who loves me more than anyone in this universe. Those are terms I can live with.

Back to Simplicity

Note: I wrote this a month ago while we were homeless. I have no idea how I missed posting it, but I still stand behind what it says, so here it is:

Just over three weeks ago, my husband, son, and I sold our house, five weeks before we could close on another one. In October my oldest son bought a house, and he invited us to stay with him. We said yes.

At this moment, 95% of what we own is in a storage unit across town. For the first few days we visited often as we added to it and tried to find the most important things to bring to my son’s house. But for the last two weeks, we’ve not visited our things at all.

I had been writing about decluttering and living a simpler life. I think this qualifies. My husband, son, two dogs and I are sharing a bedroom. My wardrobe is in a box, and for the sake of simplicity I haven’t dug down too far, so I keep wearing the same two or three items over and over again. We have nothing personal around–photos, art, decorations. Everything is my son’s. All of my hobbies are buried in the storage shed, so I do a lot of wandering and wash a lot of dishes to keep busy.

I don’t miss most of my things. I wish I hadn’t buried my planner or my son’s gradebook. I hope I find the grade book again, because his entire fall semester of grades is in there. Our cats were farmed out to family, and I really miss them. I want my dresser so I can lay out clothes so I can see them. But for the most part, my stuff is extra.

Granted, my son has kitchenware and dishes, so it’s not like we cook over a fire pit with sticks. He has towels and toilet paper. We’re living in a fully furnished house, only very little of it belongs to us. And I don’t really miss the stuff that does belong to us.

I’m excited about moving back to my own place. Not sharing a bedroom with a teenage boy. Room to spread out a little bit. A new yard that’s a wide open blank slate. But the time here with my son has been educational. It’s nice to know I’m not hopelessly attached to my stuff. We’re moving to the country, but my son lives in an urban neighborhood, and I’ve enjoyed that, especially the variety of races and ethnic groups we meet when we go shopping nearby. It’s good to know we can thrive where we didn’t plan to be and enjoy life when it doesn’t exactly follow the plan.

God blessed us with a place in the country, but I’m glad we had this little respite to hang out with my son and live a different kind of life.

A Story Shared

friends-and-coffeeAt the end of my last blog post, I invited readers to share stories with me. To my delight, someone took me up on that. A dear, dear friend who had been out of contact for a few years asked if she could share a story with me, and of course I said yes. The story was difficult, but that’s not where I want to go in this post. Those moments were intimate and personal and private, and I am so, so honored to have heard this woman’s journey.

What I want to talk about is the fear that went along with the telling, because it’s so very universal. She feared how I would react. She feared taking too much of my time. Her story was her own, but that fear–I think that was universal. We live in a fractured, distant society where too many of our interactions are couched in great fear, and I’ve spent a lot of time this week pondering that fear and wondering what it means big picture.

A few years ago a big social media trend was articles like “Ten things you should never say to…”. Insert single person, married person, person who lost a son, etc etc etc.  The idea was that anyone who doesn’t share my circumstances can’t understand me. Why do we think we can only share with someone who has experienced what we’ve experienced? What brings us together isn’t only circumstances; it’s also emotions. God has given us limited emotions. Almost all of us have experienced fear. Disappointment. Joy. Sadness. Because I haven’t experienced every circumstance does’t mean I haven’t experienced emotions. A friend might struggle with sadness because of a death. I might experience sadness because of a dream that didn’t pan out. We can share our stories, and even if our experiences are different, we can both relate because we’ve experienced sadness. Those emotions bridge the gaps in our experiences and lead us to see and understand each other in our different places.

We’re told to bear each other’s burdens. But how can we do that if we don’t share stories? Life itself is a burden. I know it’s a gift, but it’s also a burden. There is a reason God tells us to gear up for battle. There is a reason He tells us to long for heaven and a new kingdom and a new earth and new bodies. This life can be horrible. And yet we are to share that horribleness. We need to tell the stories. We need to carry each other when we are wounded in battle, and we can’t do that from some distant place of generalities. We have to know the details. We have to know the stories.

Also, I think the only way we can nudge each other back to center is if we know each other’s stories. Otherwise, we simply speak platitudes to one another. Our struggles and even our sins stem from complex situations, complex lives, complex pasts. We’re told to help one another stop sinning. We’re told to bear burdens and be united. But can that happen if we don’t know the stories?

I am the worst offender here, both at sharing my own story and digging into stories of people I love. I have divorced friends, and I know nothing about their marriages or even the names of the spouses who are no longer in their lives. I have working friends, and I don’t know where they work or what they do at those jobs. I don’t ask enough questions. And people know as little about me (except for the stuff I spew here on my blog…). It’s easy to fear judgment, to think someone won’t understand, to be safe and not dig. We fear offending one another to the point where we don’t find out even the simple things about one another. Or we don’t take the time  to discover who is behind the masks on the people around us. At least I don’t. Maybe I’m alone in this. I know I’m an extreme introvert, so maybe others do much better at this than I do.

Really, we’re not that different. I think if we shared the stories behind our emotions, we would be better equipped to help one another, to bear burdens. I don’t know how to make that any less scary. Of  course we need to be careful and find safe people. We need to be safe people. We need to stop worrying about only finding people with identical frames of reference, because nobody has an identical frame of reference. How I react to some of the issues in my life–chronic illness, sibling loss, miscarriage, whatever–looks very different to how other people react to the exact same events in their lives. Let the similarities and the emotions bring us together instead of letting the variations keep us apart.

I love stories. I need to get better at sharing my own. I need to become a safe haven for other storytellers. Jesus tells us more than once that we are to become one with our fellow believers. Paul says the same, imploring us to unite in a way the world can’t understand. People will want to join us not because of the way we love the outsider but because of the way we love each other, with our flaws and differences. We want to pull that outsider into our circle of love and safety. That love might have something to do with how tenderly we care for each other’s stories.

Up a Gravel Hill

img_20170217_075026Last Monday I was able to fulfill a long-term dream. My family moved into a little manufactured house on 3.6 acres, so we are now living in the country. Across the street is a farm where cows wander all day. Behind us are horses that occasionally top the hill so we can see them against the horizon. It’s quiet out here. Roosters crow from the horse farm, and red-winged blackbirds call from everywhere.

I spent a lot of time this week thinking about slow living. I like the idea of simple living, but I don’t focus on the decluttering part as much as the busyness part. I like living slow. And yet, I’m conditioned to  fight that.

I can watch an hour of television and feel no guilt. It’s entertaining, and it’s culturally acceptable. It’s even acceptable to turn on Netflix and binge every now and then and watch a season of something in a weekend.

However, if I stare out my window at cows for an hour, I feel like I am wasting time. Why? It’s interesting to me. I love to see and hear what goes on outside. Why is it wasteful to watch God’s Netflix but acceptable to watch man’s? And face it, what I watch out my windows is a lot more acceptable to God than some of the antics on the screen I call entertainment. Am I the only one who struggles with this?

As I was ‘wasting time’ this week watching skies and clouds, I was thinking about heaven. I wish God had given us more hints about what heaven will be like. But I suspect we can be present without guilt. We can take time to pursue a thing without worrying about needing to do something else. I want to stand on a cliff side and watch the sea for hours. I want to stare at the stars and listen to the wind or the rain and not ever feel the tug of time, not play a mental list of better ways to use my hours, never feel guilt about choosing to feed my love of beauty or my love of creation. In fact, people I love might stand at my side and stare in awe with me, for what will that landscape look like, when sin no longer causes creation to groan, when all is as it was meant to be from the beginning, when I can work with God keeping up the perfection of his world and never fear working against it?

I realize this is a blog filled with rather discordant ideas and thoughts, but that’s where I am this week. I left the home where I raised my children. Only one child moved with me. We’re not around the corner from the grocery store. I feel loss as well as gain, wonder as well as emptiness. There are a lot of emotions to process, because we all know a move has little to do with geography and a lot to do with memories and heart and people. And although we didn’t move far, only thirty miles, in the world of people that’s a long way. Things aren’t what they were a week ago. And it remains to be seen what our new life will look like.

I am excited about this new step on the path. But I also know location doesn’t change the deep things. I hope to see God here on the hillside, but my sin is still my sin. My struggles are still my struggles. I’ve added images of beauty and awe, but I am still me. And I knew that would be the case, but sometimes I wish it was as easy to change the inner self as it was to change geography.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling for this post. Next time I’ll try to be more organized. My physical life will be more organized as I work through boxes. The emotions should be calmer as I work through the new distances from my adult children and my friends. I might even post a blog entry with a specific point. But until then, if you find yourself on a meandering path, feel free to share that with me. I get to write to you all the time, and I’d love comments or emails with your stories, too. Everyone’s path includes stories worth telling, ideas worth pondering, insights worth sharing. Feel free to share yours. Here in the country I have time and space to hear and ponder with you.

God’s Touch

touch-fb This week I had the misfortune of dealing with the healthcare system, education system, and banking systems of the United States of America, all in one day. And not one of those dealings went well. I ended the day realizing I live in a huge system where I mean exactly nothing.

I think we all realize this with the healthcare system. I’ve always had great doctors, but the doctor is the tiniest part of the system. As a diabetic who wears two medical devices, I deal with insurance and bureaucracy on a daily basis. I know what it’s like to sit on hold for an hour to speak with a human being. I know what it’s like to rush to an appointment fifteen minutes early to fill out paperwork and then sit in an office alone in paper clothes for forty-five minutes to be seen. I’ve been in the hospital, where I am nothing but a chart on the other side of a door making work for harried staff.

We are moving, and this week was our closing date. Being homeless for a month with no permanent address and no printer, we had a horrible time getting all the paperwork for our loan officer, but I did it. I was so proud of myself when I turned in that final page with a couple days to spare. What I didn’t know was that I would be receiving one last email, and it would come six hours before an important deadline. I didn’t know that email would come after my husband was at work, and while he’s at work he can’t communicate with the outside world. I had told my loan officer a dozen times that we had to do our dealings before four pm, but that didn’t matter. The system doesn’t cater to second shift. It doesn’t cater to people who take more than six hours at a time away from their email. We missed the deadline, and our closing date changed. It doesn’t matter to the loan people. They’ll still get paid. Because of the change we will live in our house for a week before our belongings can be moved, but that doesn’t matter to the bank. Why would it? We’re just money to them. We mean nothing.

Finally, I registered my son for his SAT test. He’s sixteen, but he hasn’t gotten his driver’s permit yet. And because he’s home schooled, he doesn’t have a student ID. I should have thought about that, because I sat through the forty minutes of prying questions to register him, paid my money, and then realized he doesn’t have an appropriate photo ID. I can’t access the paperwork to get an ID for another week because I messed up our house closing and we can’t see our belongings for a while. I don’t know if I will be able to get it in time, and if I don’t, it will cost me money to change the test dates. Nobody in the department of education cares about this. He means nothing to them.

All of this because we don’t quite fit the molds. No ID, wrong schedules, internet behavior that isn’t the norm, illness… In America, it pays to look like everyone else, but nobody looks just like everyone else. We all know it. Our interactions on a daily basis are cold, impersonal, ‘fair’, and broken. We don’t matter.

Enter Jesus. I’m reading the Gospels right now, and it struck me this week that Jesus was weird. He could have entered a town and waved his hand over it, healing everyone. It would have been efficient and fair. He could have required everyone to show up with an ID, at a set time, and fill out paperwork to prove they were worthy to be healed of illness. He could have limited his healing to certain deadly diseases, thus allowing him to save more people.

But what did he do? He walked among the people. He spoke with them, building rapport. He touched them, and according to the law, some of them weren’t to be touched. Some of them hadn’t been touched in ages, because the system said they weren’t worthy. They didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t blanket heal a whole group. Instead, it was always individual, all the time. Each person got to look into his eyes. Each person knew he mattered to this prophet. And everyone he touched was changed. Some he told to be quiet, but how impossible was that? They walked up to him broken, faceless, hopeless. They didn’t matter and had no hope of ever mattering. And the rabbi stopped, took time with them, touched them, treated them like individuals, and healed them.

I am always going to live in the shadows. Every day I will interact with a society that doesn’t value me. But I can be careful not to let that harden me. I can care about individual people. Once a month I help feed people, and I can smile when I fill coffee cups. I can make sure my hand brushes another hand when I take the cup or set down the plate, offering harmless human touch to souls that never feel human touch. I can look someone in the eye and speak words meant just for that person, words acknowledging that none of us fit in this system.

In a cold, fractured, faceless society, it isn’t that hard to remind a person that he or she is allowed to be different, allowed to have thoughts and feelings and emotions and needs. So often we move through our days alone and isolated, so even the tiniest bit of care and tenderness speaks volumes. And I need to remember to do that. I want to be bitter. This week I was reminded that equality and fairness really mean being treated like we’re not human. But God never does that. Jesus never did that. The Holy Spirit has to prompt us because each interaction we have is with an individual, a special creature made by a special God, one with his or her own flaws, likes, joys, tears, and it is a privilege to deal with individuals and learn about their complexities.

I hope I can do better at that. Right now I want to leave the continent and never come back. I’m weary. I’m about to live in an empty house for a week, and those that made it happen don’t care and will never apologize. I feel like I’m at the mercy of a giant monstrous machine, and I can’t ever get out from under it. And all around me people feel the same. So it’s time to reach out and touch them and remind them that someone sees them, someone understands. In a way, loving people as Jesus has never been easier, because we live in a society where we’re all starved for it.

The Ugly Bride

img_4876I heard it again last week. A Christian blogger proudly announced that his focus was Jesus, and since the church was a broken mess, this person was going to honor Jesus alone. Just Me and Jesus, he said. Church isn’t for me.

I found myself imagining a conversation between two men, where one guy wants to warn the other about a bad choice for a wife. And being a novelist, imagining conversations isn’t hard. For this one, blogger dude is named Dude. And Jesus–well, he’s named Jesus. And the conversation might go something like this…

“So, man, I love you. You know that, right? I’d take a bullet for you, man. But I need to talk to you about this bride of yours. I mean, I hate to say this, but knowing who you are, and how you could have anyone you want, why would you want this bride? She’s kind of… well, she’s kind of ugly.”

“My bride is ugly?” Jesus asks. “Tell me what’s ugly about her.”

“Well,” Dude says. He’s warming up to this. Jesus wants his opinion. “Okay, sometimes she comes out with her hair a mess. Her clothes don’t always match. I mean, how simple would it be just to keep herself looking good, you know? She’s the bride of one impressive guy, right? And the way she acts… Sometimes she laughs way too loud. Her jokes can be crude. She doesn’t always say the most politically correct things.” He lowers his voice. “I’ve even noticed her scratching in public. That’s just not done. I’m just saying it might be better for you to keep looking. There are plenty of brides out there.”

“But I love this one.”

“Okay. I mean, you’re a fair guy. She must have something special, but why doesn’t she show it? People would like you a lot more if your bride wasn’t so difficult. Unpredictable. That cackling laugh, the wild hair, her inability to behave right in public…I don’t get it.”

“Have you seen her feed the poor?”

“Well, sure. And that’s good and all. But she doesn’t always feed the poor. There are still a lot of poor.”

“And have you seen her take in the orphans?”

“Of course. But there are still orphans. I’ve also seen her turn her back on orphans and poor. I’ve seen her do a lot of things I don’t agree with. You just never know what she’s going to do.”

“Regardless, she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

“Man, you need to get out more,” Dude says, frustrated. Jesus just isn’t seeing it. “She can be rigid and fanatical. Or she can turn around and be blase. I don’t know how you find that beautiful.”

“Have you heard her sing?”

“Sing?” Dude is perplexed. “So what if she can sing? A lot of people can sing.”

“She sings to me. Sometimes with an organ, sometimes just with her voice, and sometimes with flutes or drums. Beautiful love songs.”

“I hate to break it, but she doesn’t have that great a voice. Nothing about this woman is spectacular in any way. I just don’t want her to hold you back or bring you down. You have a mission, right? She’s in the way.”

“Her voice is angelic. And she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” Dude asks. He’s angry now. He loves this guy, but wow. Like talking to a brick. “She’s not beautiful. You asked me, so maybe I’ll ask you. What makes her beautiful?”

“You mean other than feeding the poor and holding the orphans and singing to me with the voice of an angel?”

“Um,” Dude says. This isn’t going well. “Yes. Other than that.”

“My father made her just for me.”

“What? Your father made her?”

“He put together all her parts, exactly for me. Everything I need for my mission. Everything I love. Everything I find beautiful. Her vocal cords are just for me. Her hair is for me. Her clothes are for me. And crooked toes and each finger and every part of her. In every part of her I see my father’s love for me. And he sees my love for him when I woo her, when I sing back to her, when I hold her in my arms and we dream of our future together.”

Dude coughs. This guy has it bad, and he realizes he might have said the wrong thing here. It probably isn’t a great idea to anger someone so powerful.

“Fine,” he says, panic giving way to anger. “Fine. Your father gave you a gift that’s average at best. You want everyone to know you through that woman? Really? It’s the best either of you can do? That’s fine, but I don’t want any part of it. You and I can be friends, but she has to stay out of it.”

“I don’t think that will work,” Jesus says. He shrugs. “She’s everything. I don’t have room left for anyone else. But if you talk to her, spend time with her, get to know her, I think you’ll see. Look at her the way I do. See my father in her, when she feeds a homeless man a sandwich, when she holds a door for an elderly man, when she sings a song off key with a sparkle in her eye. See my love for my father when she compliments a harried waitress or holds a victim of violence or mows her neighbor’s grass when he’s ill.”

Dude hangs his head. Jesus’ bride embarrasses him. She might have Jesus duped, but he knows the truth, that she’s not classy enough for Jesus, not sophisticated, prone to fits of anger. But what can he say?

Jesus smiles. “I know what you’re thinking. But if I only accepted perfection, I couldn’t be your friend, either. I love her. She is and always will be the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. And I would easily take a bullet for her. Already have, in fact. And the scars I wear–they just remind me that while her songs are off key and her hair can be wild and sometimes she makes no sense to the world, she is mine. And I am hers, all she needs, all she wants, all she loves.”

—-

I feel sad for the blogger who thinks he’s doing Jesus and Christianity a favor by maligning the bride Jesus loves, the bride for whom Jesus wears scars, the bride that signifies such eternal, omnipotent love. I hope that man spends some time getting to know the bride, even with her unpredictable behavior and mismatched clothes. Even when she scratches in public.

Because regardless of anything else, Jesus loves her. She is the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. One day all will see her vibrant beauty, and the flaws of this world will fall away. And wow, that’s a scene I can’t wait to see.