The contemplative spiritual journey is a journey into the unknown. The more I know God the more I realize how much I don’t know about God. This can be frightening and frustrating, or we can allow it to fill us with wonder and awe. The mystics refer to this as The Cloud of Unknowing. We are all called, like Abraham, into this unknown and it is there in this cloud of unknowing that we experience God in pure spiritual faith.
Yet few of us want to step into the unknown. In fact, in my experience, “knowing” is one of the pillars of the western evangelical Christian tradition. We are taught that we can know God, know our destiny, know the Bible, know how to pray, know right from wrong, know God’s will in everything. We know so much there’s no room to wonder, doubt, question or debate.
There I was, a little girl standing before Jesus, with a basket in my arms. My basket of loaves and fishes. Everything I had to offer was in that basket.
As Jesus stretched out his hands for my basket, I hesitated. Dipping my chin, I took one last look at my offering. Suddenly, shame covered my small frame like a wool coat five sizes too big.
I had worked hard to fill that basket. And while I felt the weight of all my attempts to get it right, to do something good, to bring something special, my basket was filled with nothing but moldy crumbs and eyes and scales and bones. It might as well have been empty.
I wanted to run, to disappear, to make excuses – but there’s none of that nonsense when you’re face to face with Jesus. Shaking and uncertain, I looked up at him through tears. What would he say? What would he do? Would he be disappointed? Or angry? Would he yell? Or shake his head and pass me by?
Outward toward the outside Toward that other
I am pulled by you
By eyes that linger
By songs of laughter
Rushing up and out until
I slam face-first into the glass shell
The one I almost forgot
I can see outside
The world spinning by in streaks of blue, white, yellow, green My hands splayed, nose pressed to the cold, slippery glass Longing for something Real, something Out There
Perhaps to get out
I must first go in
Inwardly to my insides
Winding down the winding staircase
Down down down
Into the darkness
Creeping still into the shadows
Nothing but the sound of breath
Bare feet brushing on a cold dirt floor
Until I hear the thrumming
Faint and far away
Or do I feel it
In my soles
The blackness presses and
I lay me down
My hands splayed, my ear pressed to the hard earth
To the beating, yes, the beating of a heart
Foreign yet familiar as my own hands
Her heart – my heart – packed away, piece by piece, day by day, year by year
Deep inside this packed-earth shell
The one I almost forgot
The one that keeps me here
Neither in nor out
But somewhere in between
Aching always to be free
Last week a friend emailed me asking to borrow some books for her vacation. In her note she wrote something like this, “I want good, enjoyable fiction. I don’t want another book on how to live a good Christian life. I already have more of those than I can count.”
I thought, “Preach it, sister!”
Self-improvement books are burdensome. Because somewhere deep inside I know the truth: I can’t improve myself.
I have books stacked on my bay window, books lining the shelves in our basement, books piled on my nightstand, books overflowing onto the floor and books creeping under my bed…oh yeah, and books on my Kindle. And while some of them are fiction and poetry and science geeky kind of stuff, a whole lot of them are “how to live the good Christian life” books.
Which is interesting, because I’ve never liked how-to-be-a-better-kind-of-anything books. Actually, I may be the only parent in the history of modern parenting that hasn’t read a book on how to be a better parent. (“Ah, that explains it,” you remark to yourself. I can hear you!)
Despite my disdain for such books, they’ve still found their way into my home, like sugar ants crawling over the countertops in the springtime.
Sure, books like that can be helpful. Sometimes. But I can only think of twoorthree that have genuinely impacted my life. (Admittedly, my avoidance of such books may affect the odds.) Most of the time self-improvement books, even the Christian kind, wear me out. With every turn of the page, every latest idea, next step or new plan, I feel a heaviness descend upon me, and I am weighed down by could-haves and should-haves and have-tos and want-tos and before I know it I’m carrying 10 times the weight of the book on my back.
Books weigh a lot – just try moving a box of them – but self-improvement books are burdensome. Because somewhere deep inside I know the truth: I can’t improve myself.
None of us can. We can’t fix the brokenness we inherited nor mend the brokenness we cause. That’s why we need Jesus. Yesterday. Today. Every day.
I know there’s some verses out there on this topic…let’s see:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain…Psalm 127:1
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Matthew 23:27-28
Sadly, many self-improvement books are just instructions on how to whitewash ourselves. No wonder they’re burdensome! Any attempt at righteousness is more than we can bear.
I felt not only burdened but trapped, caught in the sticky web of do this and be that.
I can’t fix myself. I can’t improve myself. And I can’t even pretend very well. Because deep inside, I know…I know what’s deep inside. I know what I’ve done and I know how I think and I know what I fear and I know what I hate and I know that sooner or later, I’m going to screw up again. (And chances are it’ll be sooner.)
I’m not saying that every “how to have a good Christian life” book is worthless or that you should never read them. But if my friend feels this way and I feel this way, well, chances are that some of you feel this way too.
Last week, after reading my friend’s email, I realized just how much this self-improvement mentality was once again weighing me down. I felt not only burdened but trapped, caught in the sticky web of do this and be that. And I wasn’t even in the middle of a self-improvement book.
What does that tell you?
This self-improvement/life-improvement mentality pervades our atmosphere. It’s runs through the veins of our culture. There’s almost no escaping the madness. And yet there’s a way. There’s always a Way. Which leads me to my next point: self-improvement mentality keeps my focus on me and off of Jesus. And “me” is a small, murky, unpredictable place to be.
So while I’m not suggesting you throw out all those books, I do encourage you to throw off the weight of self-improvement, or life-improvement or whatever you call it. Just let it go. (Oh gosh, now I’ll be singing that song all night – by the way, a post on that movie is in the works.)
Surrender to Him your feeble attempts at making yourself better, making your life better. Lay it all down. Again. But not because I say so. After all, this is NOT a self-improvement blog. In case the previous two paragraphs weren’t evidence enough of my questionable methods, let me just say it outright: I can’t make you better. I just happen to know Someone who can, Someone who will. Which is why I write a drive-my-readers-into-the-arms-of-God kind of blog, and hopefully make you smile while doing it. (Contrary to what you may think, my goal is not to drive you into His arms screaming and crying…but hey…if it works…)
And feel Him slip the burden off your back and free you from the tangled web of lies and wash you clean. Let Him hold you in his arms and quiet you with his love and rejoice over you with singing. (Zeph. 3:17) And let His song heal you. He’s the only one who can.
Some days – far more often than I would like to admit – I feel like God has pulled the rug out from under my feet. Or better yet, that I am Charlie Brown and God is Lucy, who’s just swiped the football away from me, again. I try and try and try and no matter what, I miss, I fail, I fall. And there I am, lying flat on my back, staring up at the sky shouting, “Really? Really?!!”
Oooohhh, can I get angry. I mean the breaking-things kind of angry. On my worst days, you can find me shaking my mental fist at God, silent screams reverberating in my gut, “I am doing my best here, God! I am trying! Why…do…you…keep…making…this…so…impossible?! Do you want me to fail?!”
But on the very worstday, I spat out something pretty much exactly like this: “You know what, God? That’s it. I’m done with You.”
Yes, I actually said that. (I shudder every time I tell this story.) And there’s more….
“You and me, God. We’re done. I’ve had it. I’m sick of you bailing on me, on my kids, on my family. So that’s it. No more. No more quiet times. No more prayer. No more me relying on you for anything. We. Are. Done.”
It’s awful, I know. Horrible, dreadful, treacherous. What was I thinking?! Well…I wasn’t.
In mother terminology, I was what we call OUTOFCONTROL. And I knew it. But that’s the thing with being OUTOFCONTROL, you can’t really help yourself.
I immediately braced for the death blow. Any second I would be struck by lightning…or hit by a bus, at least. I mean, you don’t say things like that and get away with it. In more mother terminology, I was cruisin’ for a bruisin’ and the cruise was over. Somebody get the wooden spoon, already!
Well, a few minutes later, still alive and breathing, I realized that my new plan actually had some practical implications. At the time, I was leading a women’s Bible study and co-directing a kids program at church. Oh yeah, kids! What about my kids?! I quickly determined that I would put up a good front; I would take the kids to church and perform all my nice, Christian duties. I would “pretend.” I would “play Christian.”
And so I did. I went on. I went on asking nothing from God. Giving nothing to God. Expecting nothing good because I deserved the worst. And surely the worst would come.
Several days passed without any catastrophic acts of divine retribution and I suddenly understood that such a fate could hardly be God’s worst. No. His worst wouldn’t be a bolt of lightning. His worst would be to just leave. And so I waited for Him to leave – for Him to leave me ALONE.
And so I waited for Him to leave – for Him to leave me ALONE.
What would it be like, I wondered? Would I know He was gone? Would my mind and soul, once awash in Light, suddenly go dark? Would my heart, once warmed by His ever-presence, turn cold and barren? Surely life without Him must be like life without air.
The days turned into weeks and still I waited.
Raging waters from angry clouds beat violently upon the earth, overflowing banks and uprooting trees. But after the storm squeezes dry the clouds and the wind runs out of breath, the waters begin to slow. Smoothing out and away, moving almost imperceptibly, they find their way home, around rocks and through mountains, over fields and through the rush, back into the lap of the ocean.
So too, riven lovers find themselves pulled again, as if by lodestone, into that familiar embrace.
And even the rebellious, petulant child, once again finds her little arms wrapped around her daddy’s neck, though his strong arms do the holding.
And so weeks later, to my own surprise, I found myself resting quietly in the lap of my heavenly Father. Perhaps because my own father left me so easily – and more than once, too – I wondered at the strangeness of this God who stayed even in the face of my betrayal.
Then He answered the question I dared not ask:
“You see, Nichole, you were done with Me, but I am not done with you.”
Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits– who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s…
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love…he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust…but from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him…Praise the LORD, O my soul! Psalm 103
One of our favorite traditions is our family Christmas Card. For the most part, Christmas cards have been Doug’s responsibility. If it had been left up to me, we would never have sent a single one. But for years, Doug faithfully picked out the cards, signed, addressed and mailed them.
In 2004, I wrote my first Christmas letter. That was year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. (You can read part of it here as I resurrected it for the 2013 World Series win.) Every Christmas since then, card creation has been a sort of game where we try, as a family, to come up with something new and different to mail to family and friends.
DO Have Fun!
We have done letters like the one in 2004 and another one titled The Pits from 2010.
One year we purchased beautiful, decorative envelopes and mailed them out empty, but on the envelope flap we printed “What’s missing in your life this Christmas?” (We did, however, send traditional cards to people who’d lost loved ones that year.) Tip: Don’t have fun at the expense of others, especially at Christmas.
We’ve sent family photos. Some traditional:
And one year, we sent a handmade, paper snowflake to everyone on our list. THAT was interesting.
And some years, just to keep everyone on their toes, we don’t send anything at all.
After a great year, we can feel a bit of Christmas card performance anxiety. It can be hard to live up to the previous year…like the year we dressed up like, well…see for yourself:
We signed our names “The Usual Suspects.” It took some people days to figure out who we were, especially because my brother and his wife were also in the photo.
The point is, we have fun. Lots of it. Sure, there’s fighting involved and yelling and usually some tears – (Just ask my mom who has been privy to some of our behind the scenes action.) – but mostly, there’s fun. At least, that’s what I choose to remember.
Don’t you love watching your kids enjoy life with some good clean fun? I think that God, our Father, probably feels the same way. So please remember, even at Christmas you are allowed to have fun…so have some!