God’s Will for Your Life: It May Not Mean What You Think

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Image credit: Tom Woodward

Moses tried to weasel out of being God’s chosen prophet because “I’m bad at public speaking!” Samuel somehow mixed up God’s voice with his teacher Eli’s. (And Eli wasn’t much help figuring out what had gone wrong.) Jonah got called to Nineveh and ran in the opposite direction.

At least I’m in good company. Over the last ten years of following Jesus, I have done a lot of hand-wringing about wanting to know God’s will for my life when really, God’s will is not that complicated.

Okay, so actually it is kind of complicated. Because while the basic instructions are the same for everyone (love God with whole self, love neighbors as self, check and check), we all have to figure out how to live them out in our real lives, as the real people that we are.

Even Jesus didn’t call everyone to do the exact same thing. Some people he called to follow him; others he sent home to share their story of encountering him. Some people he sent out into the world without guarantee of food or shelter; others he let feed and shelter him.

Back before I actually read the Bible, I used to be rather confused about this and thence, I think, the cause of much of my angst. I knew my life wasn’t like other people’s lives, and sometimes I didn’t feel equipped to do the things they did, so I thought something must be wrong with me.

In college, with many opportunities and no shortage of enthusiasm, I tried out a lot of different kinds of service, but most of them didn’t seem like “my thing.” In fact, I sucked at most of them. I worried that the fact that I couldn’t seem to figure out “where my deep joy met the world’s deep need” meant I was somehow constitutionally unfit to follow God’s will.

I figured I probably had too much baggage from my childhood traumas. None of my awesome servant-hearted friends seemed to have relatives with addiction or mental illness. At least, they never talked about it. And good Christians didn’t seem to let such things stop them, so I kept my mouth shut about my emotional struggles.

I got out of college and I really, really wanted a job where I could serve others. I applied to so many postings from Idealist, you have no idea. But because of my earlier lack of focus, I wasn’t skilled enough at any type of service to get a job doing it, especially not in a tough market. Eventually I ended up working in customer service, which pretty much convinced me God had a cruel sense of humor.

I worked my dumb, glory-less, seemingly totally meaningless job. I asked, “How can I help you?” a million times a day.

I cleaned the apartment I shared with the love of my life, and I cooked her dinner.

I did the jobs at church no one else wanted to do, so they didn’t care if I sucked at them. Like fundraising calls. No one seems to like those.

I struggled with my conscience during this time because I wasn’t doing anything glorious and world-changing.

And yet, the whole time, God was changing me. God was teaching me the meaning of true service. I learned it might not look like I thought. I learned there had been calls to serve others all along, but I hadn’t heard them because I was expecting them to come with praise or a warm fuzzy feeling or a paycheck.

I started to realize there were unmet needs in my own family that I was, by definition, uniquely fit to address. There was material, emotional, spiritual poverty in my own family. I started to realize that by calling my mother on the phone every week, I had the power to change her world.

Up until that moment, my past had been a burning building I tried to flee. But now that God had healed me some, I found I had the strength to go back in there and try to help other people get out.

And now, God is starting to open my eyes to the real truth: all this means much more than I originally thought.

I finally have eyes to see that the very family experiences that broke my heart can also be opportunities to empathize with and help others. I finally have eyes to see that, in a country where suicide and mental illness and addiction of many kinds are seemingly everywhere, no one should have to feel like the only one whose life is shadowed by these things.

So what will God call me to do next? I know I’m just getting started with really learning how to love God and my neighbor.

I’m going to have to learn to love people enough to fight alongside them for the things they need to survive.

I’m going to have to learn how to speak my story even when I’m terrified, because stories heal both the teller and the listener.

And I’m going to have to learn, as I’ve learned so many times, to stop listening for what I think the call is and just listen. On all frequencies. Because you just never know how the message is going to finally, finally, finally get through to you.

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This Is the Day the Lord Has Made: Learning to Stay Present

Sunset

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

I’ve been thinking about that Annie Dillard quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

A scary thought, considering how many of my days I spend in a gray, windowless building answering the phone for eight hours.

Here’s an even scarier thought: I don’t really mind it. Many people recoil at the mere thought of taking a corporate cubicle job. Not me! Even when I don’t love my work, I do what I need to do to get through it. I have at least a brown belt in dissociation, distancing myself from my surroundings.

I’m another prodigy whose skill, it’s revealed, is just thousands of hours of childhood practice. A spiritual Houdini, again and again I threw off the chains of family dysfunction and my own complete lack of social skills, only to have to perform again the next day. I lifted my soul out of reality and into books and daydreams and self-deceptions.

Is it any wonder I have trouble with mindfulness? With prayer? My mind has been so conditioned to flee the scene that I find myself disconnecting even from the necessary and good: bolting my food, sabotaging my productivity with another glance at Facebook, obsessing over what I should have said while sunsets melt away in my unseeing eyes.

I don’t want to spend my days, my life, running away from what’s right in front of me. I want to believe, to live like I believe, that my whole life is God’s gift to me. The food, the friends, even the cubicle job are reflections of God’s goodness to me, but I have to stay in the moment to truly understand that.

They say do what you love, but whose life isn’t made up, by necessity, of many things they don’t love? Even my dream job would involve doing my taxes or cleaning my desk. Can I learn to love these things too? Can I train my mind, like a loyal dog, to stay close to the Master through all kinds of nasty weather and difficult terrain, happy just for a sight of that beloved face?

I realized another meaning to the Annie Dillard quote: I can see today as a microcosm of my life. When the day is over, when my life is over, what choices do I want to have made? Eight hours at a job I don’t love seems like a long time, but if I escape, the day is over and I wonder where it went.  My dreams dissipate and I’m left with nothing lasting.

If I can’t make it through eight hours of mild unpleasantness by looking forward to the end of the day when I can come home to my beloved family, how can I look forward to the end of my life with confidence that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing”?

By grace, I know it’s not too late to learn to stay in the moment, to keep my eyes and ears open to God’s voice. May I look and listen for signs of God’s love and places where love is needed in the world – because in the end, that’s what my life should be about every day.

Some Tenth Anniversary Gifts: Reflections on 2014

me and dadOnce I heard this Francis Chan sermon where he said something like, “Let’s say you have a choice about next year. You can choose to have a year that’s easy and fun, where everything pretty much goes your way and you’re constantly having a great time, but you don’t really get any closer to God. Or you can choose a year with grief and pain, a year that challenges you, a year where you learn to love and depend on God much more. Which one do you choose?”

I really don’t remember picking one. And of course it’s not always a choice between those two things. And yet, I know which one I got.

I remember one time in the thick of it, back in August when my dad was in deep depression and threatening suicide almost constantly, when he wasn’t speaking to me, when the last words he said to me were words that condemned me and I wasn’t sure those wouldn’t be his last words to me ever. I found it hard to make it through the day, to go about my normal life, to talk about what was weighing me down.

On one particular day, I cried the whole mile-plus walk home from work. I cried as I grieved the Dad I remembered, who I wasn’t sure would ever be back. And I cried because dying to myself hurt. I wanted to believe I was such a good person who was kind to everyone and loved The Poor and other people who were Jesus in disguise, and I’d just been smacked upside the head with my own apathy and complacency and brokenness.

I picked up the ten-thousand-pound phone, to steal yet another bit of truth from Anne Lamott, and I called my friend Joel from church. I hate calling people when I know I’m going to ugly cry on the other end. I’d rather be fake as hell but presentable, at least. But I called him, and I ugly cried out the whole story, ending with how I was pretty sure I was a goat, not a sheep, to Jesus after all. Forget Jesus, how could I even face our Super Social Justice Loving Church when a homeless man, my father, had outright cursed me for not caring enough?

Joel listened and made appropriate noises (he is in the field of psychology and everything). And then from the other end of the phone poured the most beautiful Scriptural wisdom, words that saved me all over again.

He reminded me of a few little things, like Jesus didn’t come to condemn us. Satan is called the Accuser. And feeling pain, horror, guilt over how wrong the world is and how you’re a part of it doesn’t mean You’re Doing It Wrong. We’re called to weep with those who weep. And we shouldn’t be surprised when people seem to reject us. Suffering is part of the deal. We are guaranteed trouble – but we are also guaranteed that Jesus will be there with us helping us overcome.

By the end of the call, I was laughing through my tears and joking that all this was God’s gift to me on the ten-year anniversary of my conversion. Surprise!

In the darkness, a flash of light, a glimpse of God’s glory. My friends, it’s been that kind of year.

This year, I started therapy as part of my slow but sure realization that I need to be healed from a lot of stuff: anger, fear, sinful and cruel ways of treating myself and others in moments of stress. I’m a broken part of a broken world. But through the patience and kindness of my therapist, I saw an echo of the great love of my ultimate Healer, who will stop at nothing to help me.

This year, I lamented losing some of my first love for God after ten years as a Christian, and I made a conscious effort to remember the story of how God relentlessly chased me, won me over completely, and continues to cherish me.

I wrote about what the Cross and dying to myself means to me, and then I learned that it’s just empty talk unless I cling to that cross when things get hard.

I tried to help people, and ultimately my efforts failed. And I learned a little more that, as my friend Joel likes to say, “There’s a Savior, but He’s not me.” Jesus died seemingly a total failure, but the story wasn’t over yet.

Neither was the story with my dad. He and I are reconciled, and he is no longer in such a dark place. I visited him last month in Arizona, a crazy wonderful story I’ll tell some other time. We hugged (pictured above) and talked for hours and he served me fruit salad, and it seemed like the biggest miracle of all.

But there’s one more big fat glorious thing that happened in 2014.

Several people in my life got closer to Jesus themselves. Some of them gave their lives to him, others just leaned on him for the first time. But everyone in my immediate biological and step-family called on the name of Jesus this year. In the midst of all the collective pain, everyone tasted a little of that joy and that peace with which nothing in the world can compare.

And knowing that brings me a kind of deep happiness no circumstance can take away.

Yes, my Jesus, the last ten years have been worth it. And no one gives gifts like you do. Here’s to following you for however many years I’ve got left.