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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.

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.

An Unglamorous Word

I wrote a post this week sort of tearing down the American idea of goals and resolutions, or at least questioning it. And now I’m going to participate in one of those very things. So, bear with me. I might not always make much sense.

A lot of people like to choose a word for the year. I wasn’t going to do that this year. I was simply going to let this year happen without a specific word or thought or Bible verse guiding me. Not that I’m opposed to that idea–I often do it myself. Last year my verse was Jeremiah 6:16 This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.

This year, the word came to me in the middle of the night, a long night when I was feeling sick because diabetes and I were warring, and I was losing. I felt terrible. And while I was awake, I was worrying. About where to live. What to do with a few hard relationships. Aching for lost family members. And all the while, feeling that somehow I needed to fix all of it, that if I was just better/smarter/kinder/wiser, everything and everyone in my world would be happy, God-loving, and ready for anything.

I didn’t get a magical, beautiful word. I’ve had friends choose lovely words like Pursued, Loved, Princess. Nope. Mine isn’t like that. I’ve seen people’s words become the tip of an iceburg of change. But my word didn’t seem to be a life-changing word. It’s just a word. Maybe it was just in my head because I was sick and miserable. But I suspect it’s deeper. And although it’s at the bottom of the list of glamorous words, for this year it’s mine.

Regardless. Yep. That’s it. Regardless. On its own, it’s not much. You might need a little context, so here it is.

In school, I was an A student. It’s a great way to win approval. As an adult, winning approval comes through different means. A good job, well behaved kids, important church positions. All of us work to do well in things that we do. And knowing we’re succeeding–tell me it doesn’t feel good.

God doesn’t hate us for doing a thing well. He says those who are faithful with little will be given much. It’s okay to be successful at something. It’s okay to work hard as though working for God Himself, because we’re working for God Himself.

And yet, God then turns around and offers us life and love for no reason at all. And lately I’ve been struggling with that one. It goes against all the rules. All I have to do is…nothing. And God can love me. I find over and over and over that I try to be worthy in some way or another. And when I fail, I worry. Maybe He’s not going to want me now. I failed. I wish I could change things about my decisions, my parenting, just about every aspect of my life. I would do better. I really would.

Then in Romans 5:8 Paul writes But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Or put it another way: Jill, regardless of anything you’ve said or done, any failure or success or judgment, I love you. My son died for you when you were a hot mess, because I love you just that much.

Regardless. He doesn’t regard any of it, not when He determines to love me. It sounds like total nonsense, but there it is, not nonsense at all.

I think I’ve posted a million times how much I want to believe this. And I do, but I don’t live like I do. I don’t act like I do. So. Maybe this year I can make this word and this verse and this thought my mantra. He loves me regardless. In spite of myself, He loves me. Before I ever did one thing right, Jesus died for me.

Regardless. That’s how God loves me. I don’t get it. I  don’t always live it. But at the same time, I’m staking everything on its truth, because try as I might, I sure can’t get to Him and secure His love on my own. I fail every single time. Maybe this will be the year I will finally relax and trust and stop trying.

On Failing 2017 Ten Hours In

file0001417654154(My musings at 10 am New Year’s Day.) It’s that time of year again. January shows up, and we infuse everything with special meaning. Time to wipe the slate clean, start new, make goals. And I admit some years I do exactly that. I take January 1 to have some kind of mythical, spiritual power, and if I treat it right, I can secure happiness and joy for the next 364 days.

Except this year it started wrong. January 1 is a Sunday, and my family is skipping church. I had a terrible blood sugar night, and I felt nauseated all night, and I can’t make myself leave the house yet, not without feeling icky. And my husband, who’s been fighting something for weeks, is asleep. This is miraculous, and no way am I going to wake him up. Unless the house is burning down or zombies come, I’m not messing with him.

Also, we’ve been packing and house hunting, and I haven’t given even five seconds of thought to the year ahead. Nothing. Currently I’m living a life unexamined and unplanned, simply moving one day to the next.

So. Does this mean my year is shot? Have I started a trend that will bring down our family before the year is over? I doubt it.

God likes rhythm. Seasons, days, years–He made those. He gives us rhythms of work and rest. Ecclesiastes points out the rhythms of life more than most, with times to heal and kill and grow and reap. So there’s something to be said for awareness of the rhythms of the world around us, of aging times and growing times and all those other times. And it makes sense that the first of the year is a great time to reflect and think and look to the future.

But this is America. We’re the place that takes good things and goes crazy with them. I don’t believe a bad Monday means the week will be ruined. Or a bad morning kills the whole day. I’ve never been good at goals, not like those people who have everything planned, specific and measured and weighed. Seems God can take my bad Mondays and finish with an amazing Friday. A harsh winter can lead to a mild summer. And a goal–He seems to delight in upending my goals and substituting His own, and usually they look like chaos until that final moment when it all comes together and something beautiful happens.

If you have no goals this January, it’s okay. I have one. We sold our house a few weeks ago, and we haven’t bought another one. So my goal in 2017 is to end it not homeless. Pretty basic goal. I don’t have any specific spiritual goals, because last year I failed. I think I’ll just read the Bible and ask God to put together some direction and goals. I want to sell more books, and I have a few goals there, but honestly what I think will work always falls short, and things I never even considered will suddenly encourage people to buy for reasons that make no sense to me.

Sure, it’s good to have goals. The Bible talks about planning before doing. But I think this year my goals will be small. They’ll be flexible. They’ll be general. And while I wait for Him to put meat on the bones of my hopes and dreams and goals, I want to learn patience and trust. Trust most of all. Sometimes goals are a way of avoiding trusting God. At least they are for me. I struggle to trust God more than any other struggle. So maybe I do have a spiritual goal, but I haven’t the slightest clue how to make that happen. No actionable steps (ooh, I struggle with that word.) Just a vague notion that I’m failing and only He can bring victory. Clearly I won’t be writing a seminar on setting goals this year.

Okay, God, your work is cut out for you. Be my goals. Be my plans. And all You wish to do for and through me–do all of it for and through me.

 

God Can Get Your Dog Out of a Tree

skye-watchingOne night this week my small cattledog Skye began to bark like crazy from the back of my yard. It was dark. It was raining. I called for her, but she wouldn’t come inside. No, whatever had captured her attention back there was much more interesting than I was.

I grabbed a flashlight and headed back. The back of our yard is filled with trees and scrub, so I had push through. I heard her, and I swung the flashlight all over but couldn’t see her. Then I saw motion overhead, so I flashed the light and found something black and white in the tree. Ah. A neighbor cat. Explained the barking. She loves to tree cats. Again I flashed the light under the neighbor cat, but still no dog, although I could hear her.

At this point I flashed up at the neighbor cat again. It was on a large, wide, broken trunk of tree, seven feet off the ground. Only it wasn’t the neighbor cat. It was my dog, over my head, in a tree, barking and whining like the world was coming to an end.

I thought she was stuck. I climbed over the back fence to the other side of the tree and began to coax her down. If she got close enough, I could grab her and pull her from the tree. She was still barking like the apocalypse was near. Then I happened to glance to my left, and I almost dropped the flashlight, because I was staring at a possum, six inches from my face at eye level, tucked into the crook of the tree.

I had no idea what to do next. Possums aren’t generally dangerous, but when you’re flashing a light in its face and your dog is above it barking like a wild monster–well, I would bite, too. So now I’m trying to coax my dog to the side while attempting not to get bitten by a terrified possum.

In the dark.

In the rain.

I yelled at the dog. I guess eventually I sounded angry enough to catch Skye’s attention, because she turned around, walked along the broken trunk (it was arched over the fence like a bridge, something I hadn’t realized until this very dark, very wet moment), and headed back down into my yard. I climbed the fence, grabbed the dog, and stomped into the house, both of us wet and tired.

The whole time I wished my husband had been there. I kept thinking if he hadn’t been at work, if he’d been here, he’d have known exactly what to do. I have known my husband more than half his life. I know for a fact he has no experience coaxing dogs out of trees while trying to avoid possums. In the rain. In the dark. But I also know for a fact he would have helped me. I always believe he can do anything. He’d have been out there in the rain with me because he loves me. Together we’d have figured it out.

As I was thinking about this, I came to a sad realization. It’s a truth I’ve posted about more than once this year, and I think it’s time to deal with this little problem. My husband loves me with an imperfect love. He doesn’t always have the skills to help, even though I tell myself he can do anything. And yet I trust he will always come and always help.

God loves me with perfect love. He always has the skills I need. And yet, I don’t always trust Him to come and help.

It’s a big deal right now for Christians to try to know their identity in Christ, to know what they mean to God. I realize I need to back up a step. Once again I am faced with the truth that I still don’t know God. Not very well. I’m pretty sure if I knew His character, understood His love, knew His real compassion and power and knowledge, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him to get my dog out of trees. I’d be able to trust Him with the souls of my children without fear. I could face ageing with a chronic illness without worry. I could line up my days with joy and not doubt.

So. This year I crashed and burned with my Bible reading. And I  think I know why. I need to simplify. Someone once told me I need to read a Bible passage and ask “What does this say about God? What does it say about me? How can I apply this?” Well, I need remedial Bible reading. For now, the question needs to be “What does this say about God?” And then I need to stop there.  Until I can answer that with some wisdom, until I can be consistent and stop falling back to the idea of God as angry or distant or unloving, I can’t possibly know myself or how to behave. (Okay, within reason. I’m not going to throw obedience to the wind. But the focus needs to be HIM.)

I have no idea how to keep our dog in the yard now that she knows she might find possums in trees. Now that she realizes she can climb trees. But at least now I know where to look if she goes crazy again. And I know who to call. Part of this is knowing God. Part of it is putting that knowledge to the test and calling on God all the time, for all things. He loves me. He’ll come. I never have to slog through the dark rain alone.

Never Quite Enough

never-quite-enoughI suspect everyone has days like this. Or weeks or months or even years. Those days when Satan sits at your ear and says, over and over and over, You’re not quite enough.

Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not good enough. Not outgoing enough. Not quiet enough. Not creative enough. Whatever it is, the message is that the best you have to offer the world doesn’t quite measure up. And that voice can get loud and harsh and so, so easy to believe.

I recently had one of those weeks. Honestly, I haven’t quite worked through it yet. In my writing business, I spent a week insanely busy working on promotions with very little return for my time. I’m putting my house on the market, and no matter how hard I work, the to-do list doesn’t seem to get smaller, and it seems everything I loved about my house–all of that has to go. My tastes apparently will not appeal to another soul on this planet, so I’m leaching the personality from my house, and it hurts. A ministry I’m involved in had a rough month, and it seemed that if I just changed everything about the way I do this, then people will catch the fire and help me.

All I can do is my best. And with God at my side, or with God in the lead, the expectation is that my best will be enough. But how often that isn’t the case.

I hope it’s enough for God. I hope the Spirit, who chooses not to let my best always be enough for the world, has a purpose. I could be Midas, where with God’s help everything I touch turns to gold, but that isn’t how He planned it. We believers fail. We stumble. The world tears us up and breaks us down. Other believers tear us up and break us down.

The Bible warns us the world will hate us and we will suffer and life here, while a gift, is a bittersweet gift at best. And in the midst of it, spiritual battle begins. One of Satan’s favorite lines is You Are Not Enough. You Have Failed and That Means He Doesn’t Want/Love/Need You.

I attend a church that sings few traditional hymns, and lately I’ve been reading old hymn lyrics. Recently a hymn was printed on our song sheets at worship, and I compared the old hymn lyrics to the newer worship song lyrics, and I noticed something interesting, something that might help explain my fatigue and frustration and feelings of failure. (No, the songs themselves aren’t at fault, but maybe it points to a bigger problem.) Old songs seem to focus more on who God is. Immortal, invisible, God only Wise. Man of Sorrows, what a name. Praise to the Lord, The Almighty, the King of Creation. On and on. And the newer lyrics? An extraordinary use of the words I, my, me… More about who I am because of God and less about who God is just because of Who God Is. Different focus. And I think I let that focus follow me into all of life.

I understand the desire to make God personal and intimate. Make Him a little closer and easier to deal with. But sometimes that makes me feel a little bigger, maybe too big, like my failures can ruin things. But a big God, an immortal, invisible, mighty bulwark, the one who comes on the clouds with a mighty roar to rescue his bride… Suddenly my focus turns off of me and onto this mighty, amazing God who is infinitely bigger and more complex and more unpredictable and wild than I can imagine. This is the God David sang about in his songs. This is the God who can overlook my failures because they are so very small compared to His greatness.

That God is big enough to shut up the voices in my ears.

I haven’t quite puzzled all this out in my head yet. I’m still not enough. But that huge, wild God doesn’t ask me to be enough. He knows I’m frail, and he puts me in his hand and covers me with protection and simply asks me to hang on for the ride. I’m a child, small and limited, and He loves me enough that my failures mean nothing. My trust means much, much more.

In the world, my failures mean everything, because often the story is about me. They are a litmus of how God and I doing as a team, of how much growth I’m experiencing. But they’re not. The Old Testament, especially, is filled with men and women who were not enough, who crashed and burned all over the place. But God wove the tapestry of life around them, pulling them in and protecting them and making beauty of even the worst messes. He is the central player around whom the entire story unfolds. It has nothing to do with me or any of the rest of us.

I told someone this week I was tired of trying to be perfect. I am called to be holy through the Spirit. But in this world, I will fail more than succeed, and that’s okay, because I can simply sit in God’s hand and not jump out, simply trust that this amazing, giant God has it all figured out. My successes and failures don’t change one iota of the tapestry.

The world does not hinge on me or anything I do. And today, I’d love to sit and sing hymns about God. Today, I don’t want to matter in a personal way at all. I just want to focus on Him and leave myself out of it, just sit in the hand and peek through the fingers and be safe and loved and precious, and know my abilities don’t mean a thing to anyone. And I know it sounds crazy,  but it doesn’t feel crazy. It simply feels freeing. And there’s plenty of room in here, so feel free to sit with me for a spell and watch Him work His wonders in spite of us.