Thursday, June 30, 2011

That being blessed doesn't mean life will be fair!

I wish I'd figured this one out several years ago. My husband has often told me that I rankle too much over things not being fair. I think it's easy to unconsciously follow this logic that comes across as sound, yet the premises and conclusion are flawed. It is this.

God blesses those He loves
Unfair treatment/events are not a blessing
Therefore, unfair things don't happen to those God loves

This is not a valid logical progression for more than one reason. 1) The conclusion doesn't follow automatically from the two premises. Although God does indeed bless those He loves, and although most people might agree that things we deem 'unfair' are not blessings, the two premises taken together don't add up to the conclusion that people God love can expect nothing BUT blessings. I think we can expect a combination, because even though He blesses us, we still live in a fallen world which is subject to the free will of many, many capricious people. 2) The opinion of whether something should be deemed unfair may be subjective anyway.

Anyway, enough philosophical ramblings. The fact is that annoying, unfair things do happen so we shouldn't be surprised or taken-aback when they happen to us. And when we look at the evidence of people in the Bible who God was clearly blessing, several unfair things happened to them too. For example:

1) God was with Joseph but he was still sold to Egyptian slave traders by jealous brothers and later, framed unfairly by a lying woman with a grudge.
2) God was with David but he was still hounded and pursued by a jealous and bitter rival, King Saul, who was higher in the royal hierarchy for several years after David had been anointed.
3) God was with Jacob but he was still tricked by an unscrupulous uncle to devote twice as long as he'd expected looking after livestock and land that were not his own.
4) God was with Isaac but he still had his wells clogged up by crazy, jealous enemies (and people who'll fill up anyone's well in a parched, famine-stricken land are crazy indeed).
5) And how about poor old John the Baptist? God was clearly with him before he was ever conceived, but he ended up holed up in prison, after all the work he'd done for Jesus, hearing about the miracles Jesus was doing for other people. Surely it would have occurred to him to say, "Hey, it's not fair, what about me?" He was only human.

So it happens! Do you think it would have occurred to the five men I mentioned above to cry to God, "Hey, this isn't fair!"? When annoyances and trials have come my way in the past, I've been quick to assume that doors are closing and that I'm out of favour. In fact, Jesus did his best to prepare his disciples to expect that trials and annoyances will come, to help them not fall into the trap of getting depressed and making mistaken assumptions about God's love and intentions for them.

What God does promise is not to prevent all unfair trials and annoyances from reaching us but to work through them and transform them into things that have helped build our characters. Our lives, including all the unfairnesses, are eventually woven into the good, overall tapestry as blessings. I think we can safely trust that all the events of our lives will turn out for good and that God's specific promises in His Word can be relied on, even when circumstances don't look as if they're taking place. (And see my former post To Choose my Weapons and Seeds Wisely for an overview on the law of sowing and reaping.)

- Joseph got audience with the Pharoah, was able to offer his help, and found himself suddenly raised from the dungeon to second-in-charge of the whole country, surely one of the greatest promotions in history.
- Jacob's son, Judah, through Jacob's set-up marriage to Leah, became the direct ancestor of Jesus.
- David became king when he hung onto God's promise and didn't give up.
- Isaac made peace with those who plagued him, and continued to prosper.
- And John, well, poor old John reminds us that this life is not the end of the story.

So my simple summary, without wasting any words, is this. LIFE ISN'T FAIR BUT IT IS STILL REALLY, REALLY GOOD!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That I might be a platypus person - someone God made in a random mood

The platypus is a weird and unique animal. I can understand the confusion its discoverers would have had in classifying it. Is it a duck or an otter? A mammal or a reptile. Would you be more likely to find it in the water or on the land? They finally decided to call it a mammal and classify it as a monotreme. Perhaps the platypus is the animal God created in a frugal mood, when He'd finished everything else and just wanted to put something together from the parts He had left over. Maybe it is a sign of our Creator's random sense of humour, or simply a message that not everything can be easily classified.

Do you know, I've been similarly confused when I've been thinking about my own role in this world. When people have tried to pin me down and ask me what sort of person I am, I haven't been able to tell them. Emotional books, films or events which seem to draw tears from the majority may leave me dry-eyed while a simple, throw-away remark has me sobbing like a baby, embarrassing my family because they can't understand why I'm so touched. I used to think I have some characteristics of a hermit but I definitely value some sort of steady social input. I also used to think it would be nice to be an intellectual, but I'm definitely not one of those. Intellectuals frighten me a bit, yet I do like to spend a lot of time thinking and learning. Like other girls, I used to think it would be nice to be a model when I was in my teens, yet I was too short and even though I was anorexic at the time, my bones themselves were still too chunky. Recently I bought a book about discovering your chief spiritual gift from a list of seven, and I got frustrated because I couldn't fit myself comfortably into any one of them, although I could certainly place other people I know.

I always wanted to be the sort of person who fits into a niche. People who give themselves some alternative label such as 'hippy' or 'emo' have a distinct style and seem to know what shops to go to. They all look 'different' in the same way. How I would have loved a label during my life's journey, but I'm not a yuppy, hippy, yummy-mummy, eccentric or anything in between. I'm not even a 'random' (unless you could count this post as something like that).

Once I almost talked myself in to placing myself and my son, Logan, into the category of 'eccentric' because they appealed to me. My husband pointed out that we definitely aren't, because we lack many of their characteristics, including one crucial one. "Eccentrics don't care what people think of them but you and Logan definitely care what people think." So, in the end I had to call myself "weird, style-less nothing-person!" I don't seem to fit anywhere and defy definition.

So I can relate to the platypus. The introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes in my Message Bible says, "Unlike the animals, who seem quite content to be simply themselves, we humans are always looking for ways to be more than or other than what we find ourselves to be." So maybe, like the platypus, my wisest course is simply to be happy being my patchwork self, appreciating the people and things, books and activities that make me smile. I guess the most valuable and acceptable gift we can offer to God and others is to be grateful and content with the way He's made us and all the good things we find in our lives.

We might as well put a good spin on our self-descriptions too. Instead of "weird, style-less nothing person" I can be a lover of beauty, a free spirit, an appreciator of good things, a seeker of interesting things and theories. (And of course there are always the old standards such as 'homeschooling mum' and 'fiction author' and 'Aussie woman' to fall back on.)

I'm wondering whether I'm the only platypus person out there, or whether others have considered themselves "platypus people" too. Let me know if you think this describes you too. I'd be interested. Perhaps this thought is more widespread than we all realize. And let's celebrate because after all, our namesakes are considered unique and cute enough to place on a twenty-cent coin.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Not to seek imaginary gremlins and monsters

These voices are around us every day, disguised as common sense, reason and even love. They masquerade as having our own best interests at heart. I'm sure the sources of these neurotic voices are often convinced that they are on our side. The problem is that even if there is not an ounce of truth in these voices, when they present their ideas, we have that germ or seed planted and can't easily dismiss them.

I was doing a bit of Bible reading and came across this event in 2 Samuel 10: 1-4.
For those who don't have it handy, here's a quick summary. King David sent condolences to Hanun, the new king of the Ammonites, when his father died. "I'd like to show some kindness to Hanun, the son of Nahash-treat him as well and as kindly as his father treated me." But when David's messengers arrived, Hanun's advisors regarded them with suspicion and warned their leader, "Do you suppose for a minute David is really honoring your father? He just wants to snoop around our city and size it up." So Hanun seized David's men, shaved off half their beards, cut off their robes halfway up their buttocks and sent them packing. The aftermath of this misunderstanding was humiliation enough to begin a war. All because of a couple of duffers who thought searching for ulterior motives was wiser than taking something on face value.

One of my daughter's favourite movies is "Julie and Julia" as Emma is a keen cook herself. During the movie, Julie was jumping with excitement to see that somebody had actually posted a comment on her new blog. It turned out to be from mother, saying, "I seem to be the only one who is reading this. Why don't you get over this time-wasting delusion of grandeur and be sensible?" or words to that effect. I reckon it would have been easy to sigh and throw in the towel. But Julie plugged on and now her story has been made into a movie!

Here are some of the voices I've grappled with over the years.
1) Just put your manuscript in a drawer and get on with something else. Nobody is interested in Christian fiction by Australians.
2) You haven't got the right connections or personality to get far in life.
3) These miscarriages of yours seem to be an entrenched pattern. You'd be wiser to stop putting yourself through the pain and get used to having no kids. Or you could try adoption.
4) Homeschooling won't work. They need the structure of school to make them into decent citizens.

Another thing I noticed is that when I achieved each of the things these voices warned me I never could, the human sources behind them seemed to conveniently forget their former words. It was not a case of egg on their faces. Their gloomy predictions just seemed to have never been made.

I'm not advocating a heedlessly naive approach to life. We do have to put some thought into it, of course. But heedless naivety might be preferable to excessive reasoning with its brakes on. I do believe that following the passions and guidance that you know are deep in your heart certainly beats seeing imaginary gremlins and monsters everywhere. There are people who dare to try following their dreams and risk making mistakes along the way. Then there are people who never make mistakes because they're too neurotic to step out and do anything except warn other people not to make mistakes. This lack of mistakes may be the biggest mistake of all.

Friday, June 10, 2011

That I dealt the spirit of fear a major blow

Some years ago, I passed through a shadow of deep depression when I was convinced that I must be dying of something really serious. In retrospect, I call it ‘hypochondria’ but it was absolutely terrible at the time. I’d look at the three sweet faces of my children and groan deep inside my heart, convinced that I’d never live to see them grow up. It was all I could do those few months to get out of bed and plod along without bursting into tears. I’d been to doctors, who were not encouraging and suggested alarming tests for various conditions. I was terrified of going through with the tests, but just as petrified not to.
One evening while I was out walking, a sudden thought popped into my head. I wondered if depending on these gruff doctors’ dire words and grueling tests for absolute proof might mean that I was ‘relying on the horses and chariots of Egypt,’ as it says of the Israelites in the Book of Isaiah. The more I pondered it, the more reasonable it seemed that modern people may find it too easy to rely on medical ‘horses and chariots’ for their well-being.
I said one of my most heartfelt prayers ever. I asked God to please send me a sign that He loved me and would bring me through this heartbreaking trial. I felt so sick and exhausted that I wanted to receive an unmistakable sign before the end of the night! I don’t think I can wait another day! And Lord, just so that I’ll be sure to recognize your sign, could it please include something about Egypt?
I went home longing to see something as simple as an image of a Pharaoh or pyramid on TV. How I would have pounced on that as a possible ‘sign’ but nothing happened. There was an illusion to north east Africa in a book I was reading, but I miserably dismissed that as too vague. At last I went to bed disappointed and flipped open a little book that I’d borrowed earlier that day from my in-laws. It was an old book from the 1960s, “None of these Diseases” by S. I. McMillen. There staring up at me on the very second page was a quote from the Bible and it was Exodus 15: 26. If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His eyes, if you pay attention to His commands and keep all His decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you.
Those written words caused something like a bolt of electricity to pour through me. The tears I cried were full of relief and joy for the first time in months, instead of terror and fear. I had my first sound night sleep for a very long time. In the morning I felt confident that I could cancel those looming tests. By far best of all, I’ve been able to cling to those beautiful promises of Exodus 15: 26 whenever I’ve felt looming anxiety about some health issue, and immediately, my spirit begins to rest.
Do you agree that this was a wonderful, generous sign from God? Every so often, in my depressed moments, the thought crosses my mind, "It was just a coincidence!" Then when I remember the remarkable accuracy and impeccable timing, I find my courage renewed again.

Monday, June 6, 2011

that I might have been the 2nd willy wagtail

I live in a place with lots of beautiful walks and trails. I was having a walk around the block last week, enjoying the final touches of autumn, and stopped to admire the antics of a spry willy wagtail. He was eating miniscule seeds from the path and every so often, he'd stop to wave his tail feathers. The cheerfulness of these birds impresses me. If I had a tail as long as my body and probably even heavier, I imagine I'd find it a drag and complain about the weight of it. But willy wagtails are masters of the 'If you've got it, flaunt it' principle.

I stood watching him for a long time, but then had to move on home to get the day's work started and see what the kids were up to. Further along the path was another willy wagtail doing the exact same thing as the first. I said, 'OK, you're pretty cute, but I can't stop.'

Only later did a funny thought occur to me. I know it's too ridiculous to be true, but what if preening for passers-by gives willy wagtails their value? Then, the first willy wagtail might have felt flattered by the length of time I stood there for. He might have allowed himself an extra worm and thought, I'm quite the man. I know how to attract an audience. But the second willy wagtail might have wallowed in a flat and let-down mood with a sense of, I didn't perform well enough. No matter how hard I try, I always fall short. Yet both birds were doing exactly the same thing!

Human beings have been endowed with greater capacity, nobler brains and spirits than the animal and bird kingdoms but it comes with a down-side. We let ourselves become hung-up with the implications we read into things.

Last February, I ran a workshop about the craft of fiction writing at the SA Writer's Centre in Adelaide. During the morning tea break, two ladies came and told me, 'We just want to let you know that we're going home because this is beneath us.' Instantly, my stomach started spinning with a horrible swoopy, sick feeling that didn't stop during all of Part Two. I kept looking at the faces surrounding me, feeling certain that were probably bored but decided to grit their teeth and stick it out.

After the session, some of the others congratulated me on a really interesting presentation. That only helped ease the stomach swirling slightly. They might have just been polite. Later, the staff at the Writer's Centre reported that the written feedback on the forms was overwhelmingly positive. I was relieved that nobody had written mean comments.

After last week's walk, it occurred to me that the action of the two women was probably nothing to do with me at all. From something they'd mentioned, I suspected that they'd spent months attending many similar workshops, each time hoping the presenter would stun them with something really different. I was just the second willy wagtail (or in their case, maybe even the fiftieth or hundredth).

My willy wagtail theory explains a lot. It's possibly the reason why you may find it so hard to get positive feedback from other people in your line of work, and why University professors like to give harsh grades. It may be why food and movie critics tend to write reviews at odds with each other. Think what a difference it may make if your offering happens to fall at the end of the line. For some reviewers and critics, you might have been new and fresh while others have seen it before. The point I'm trying to make here is how sad and shortsighted it is to judge yourself harshly on the basis of feedback you receive from others, whose attitudes and history are a complete mystery to you.

You are welcome to borrow my willy wagtail principle if you like, whenever you have to deal with less than flattering feedback.

"I was probably just the second willy wagtail," is a perspective that makes you feel refreshingly better.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

that you wouldn't want to taste these brownies

I once read what was reputed to be a man's true story which he sent in to an inspirational website. The guy (we'll call him Ned) was arguing with his teenage children about a certain MA-rated movie they'd planned to watch at a friend's house. In his opinion, it contained smut, lewdness and gratuitous violence which he didn't think was fit for them to see.

"But Dad, it's a harmless story with good morals and only a little bit of that stuff," they tried to reason.

He gave a non-committal, "We'll see," and while they were at school the following day, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. They arrived home at 3.30 to the beautiful, warm aroma of freshly baked chocolate brownies.

"I've made you some afternoon tea," their father said. "Come up to the table and grab some."
But just as they were about to sink their teeth in, he folded his arms and said, "Before you indulge, you might want to know my secret ingredient."

The smugness of his smile made them pause. "What is it?"

"Dog poo! But don't worry, there's just a little bit. It's mostly flour, chocolate, butter and sugar. So do dig in."

Instead of saying, "Dad, you're a freak!!" as my kids would have done, these teenagers learned the lesson he'd put all that effort into. "This is about that movie, isn't it? We totally understand now and there's no way we want to go and watch it if you paid us. Thanks for thinking so much of us to go to all that trouble, etc etc." So the brownies were dumped into the bin by one happy, highly-principled parent who'd made his point. And I guess he cleaned his cooking utensils with a lot of care, feeling that it was well worth the effort. It seems families like "The Brady Bunch" are thriving well into the 21st century, although I wonder if even Mike Brady would bother to pull this one off.

My family thought this story was a real hoot. Just to imagine him stepping out with his poo-scooper to scrape off a little bit for his brownie recipe gets us giggling. But when I think it over, I guess he did have a valid point. Here's some things I've learned to my cost in the past.

A little of bit of envy or jealousy is enough to sour up a nice, celebratory occasion.
A little bit of disappointment or discouragement is enough to ruin an otherwise flawless day.
A tiny smidgin of gossip or criticism may taint an otherwise uplifting conversation.
A miniscule grain of fear or misgiving has the potential to swell like yeast if left to fester.

We may become used to these added ingredients and indulge freely. Perhaps there is a flickering impression, not even conscious, that goes something like this. "I'm not sure what the flavour is in these brownies, but I don't really think I like it."

We all agree that the tastiest cooking has the most high-quality, pure ingredients. We like to avoid factory-added, artificial gunk which shouldn't be there. Then let's get rid of all the bad-tasting ingredients that we tend to add to the recipes of our lives. Let's stir in plenty of pure faith, generosity, hope, gladness, peace and contentment and leave out all those extras which leave a bitter, unsavoury after-taste.
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