How to Eat a Book

THE START

(Photo credit: whologwhy)

I was hungry for bread, but my mouth was full of wheat stalks and wild yeast.

That’s what it felt like when I tried to read the Bible all the way through the first time. I was home from college on vacation, with a view of miles of desert that invisibly morphed into Mexico. Perhaps that’s why I decided to read it Lone Ranger style: no rules, just me and my paperback NIV in my room. I started on page one with Genesis, those familiar Sunday-school favorites igniting my hope that I’d finally learn the whole story.

I made it as far as the book of Judges.

I couldn’t muddle on anymore through the darkness, the violence, the lists of names. I couldn’t see a big-picture Story in this; it seemed like a bunch of disconnected episodes for which I’d never figure out the context. The Jesus story I felt I understood (mostly), but what was all this about animal sacrifice and marriage taboos and census numbers? What did the one thing have to do with the other? Why were they part of the same Book?

I was hungry, and it wasn’t feeding me. So I gave up on it for years. I did enough reading for class, I reasoned. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started reading it regularly for the first time, finishing the entire text a year later. Since then I’ve reread it three times in full and just started again. I’ve found that each time, it gets better and more satisfying.

The problem was that trying to read the Bible alone, with no guidance or vision, was like trying to choke down wheat berries and yeast and call it a loaf of bread. All the nourishment I sought was there, but I couldn’t take it in until the text was properly “cooked.” For those whose reading experiences have been similarly unsatisfying, I have this hard-won advice to offer.

First, don’t go it alone. One thing that really helped me during my first read-through in 2010 was my partner’s unexpected and kind commitment to read along with me. Without her encouragement, I might never have made it through. We’d read out loud to each other sometimes, and each of us would remember connections the other forgot. Reading in a group, especially a faith community, is great if you can manage it. Don’t forget to lean on the scholarly community as well – a good study Bible has often been my best friend when figuring out context and narrative structure. And finally, when you feel like you just can’t make it through another genealogy, asking for understanding from God (as you understand God) can be truly invaluable.

Second, make it bite-size. As with any big goal, reading the entire Bible is easier for many of us if it’s broken down into relatively easy steps. Luckily, there are many plans out there that have done the work for you, breaking down the number of chapters you need to read daily to finish in a certain amount of time (most commonly a year or two years). Some, like those through Discipleship Journal, even factor in extra days so you can catch up if needed. Bible reading plans also make it easy to give yourself variety if you don’t want to go straight from beginning to end – some plans will give you a variety of readings from different parts of the Bible each day, while others have you read from a different “genre” of book each day of the week. Just in case you feel, as I did, like you’ll be stuck in Judges forever.

Third, keep the big picture in mind. Many folks find the New Testament far easier to read than the Old Testament. We Christians often don’t know what to do with the Hebrew Scriptures – what do they have to do with us, we ask ourselves, and when will we get to the good part? The fact is, the New Testament is intimately related to the Old. Both Jesus and Paul reference the Hebrew Scriptures constantly; the love story between the Israelites and God is their native tongue. So especially if you’re reading from beginning to end, keep your eye out for Old Testament symbols and promises that will form the backbone of the New Testament. One great resource that’s helped me practice seeing the big picture of Scripture is The Jesus Storybook Bible (written for children, but beloved by many adults).

Finally, don’t forget to savor and enjoy! Choose a translation that speaks to you, or even a modern paraphrase like The Message or The Voice. Create rituals for your Bible time that help you focus and enjoy, like reading outside on sunny days or curling up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea on rainy ones. Mark passages you love, things to which you want to return, words that spark questions in your heart, words that satisfy your hunger. Read out loud. Slow down, lectio divina style. Sing Psalms, dance prayers, retell the stories in your own words, feast your eyes on great religious art. Let it make you laugh, cry, hope, and dream.

As for me, I’m still chewing on this book. On my plate today is a few chapters of Exodus with a side of Proverbs. After a few complete read-throughs, while some parts have always gone down like candy, others have become acquired tastes for me, like arugula or olives. Often, it’s only after reading something for the third or fourth time that I’ve been able to see the beauty of it and exclaim, “This was holy ground all along!” I’m so glad I stopped trying to jam the text down my throat to fill my hunger and learned to savor it, properly cooked, as the feast it is.

Reposted from July 2013 to celebrate my fourth complete read-through of the Bible. It really does get better every time!

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Love Thy Annoying Next-Door Neighbor

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Or how about not. How about some nice Matthew 5:45 instead? Photo credit: Kirk Kittell (flickr)

I remember donating my allowance to PETA back in eighth grade. I remember the first time I gave blood back in college, dizzy with excitement that I’d dared to do it. I remember walking out of a bakery one time in Greece with two loaves of bread in my bag and handing one to the beggar at the door. I tried to act cool as I walked away, but his smile burned into me for blocks.

Yes, giving is a rush sometimes. And rightly so, I think. Acts records the words of Jesus: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” I think we get joy from giving because God made us that way. Science has now discovered the “Helper’s High,” feel-good chemicals our brain releases when we do something charitable. We are wired to like it.

But if I’m going to be honest, I have to say one thing: sometimes it feels easier and better to help strangers than people who are much closer to me.

Weird, since Jesus said “love your neighbor,” that sometimes I find my neighbors hardest to love – especially the ones who make too much noise upstairs or set the fire alarm off again. Strangers are still a mystery, their annoying habits as yet unknown, often more likely to win a smile from me than someone who sits near me at work with whom I’m acquainted all too well.

This reveals something else about humans: we naturally feel good when we give, but we’re also naturally reluctant to do it – especially when we suspect the recipient might not deserve or appreciate our gifts. And sometimes the more we see someone, the easier it is to suspect this. And gradually, our relationship shifts from open-handed to close-hearted.

There’s so much evidence of this in my life, geologic layers of it. Piles of never-answered emails in my inbox. Dozens of lackluster, barely conscious exchanges each day (“How are you?” “Good…”). So many mundane tasks performed grudgingly instead of lovingly. So many offers of help and opportunities for listening left unexplored out of fear of seeming awkward, fate worse than death.

I can’t help but bring this back to Jesus. In love, no one could beat him for endurance. Behold his disciples bugging him, not getting it, and generally acting like morons on every page of the Gospels, and then abandoning him in his hour of need, falling asleep when he needed them emotionally and denying they ever knew him at the first sign of trouble.

Did Jesus let himself grow cold toward these people? Did he gradually trust them less? Did he ever seem to feel it wasn’t worth it? Sure, he got frustrated with them, sometimes exploded in anger, but stop loving them? Never. After he suffered and died a lonely death and come back to life again, he cooked them breakfast and hung out with them on the beach.

That’s the thing, I guess, about believing that you and everyone you know will live forever. There’s no reason not to be loving. There’s no reason not to start flexing your muscles now for life in Heaven, where we will live shoulder to shoulder with all these other imperfect, messed up people with whom we once felt mutual annoyance and, God help us, we’ll all enjoy ourselves. Or it won’t be Heaven.

I need to pray for the ability to love with endurance. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.” Always. Not just when it feels good. Not just when it comes with a tax write-off or a sticker that says “Be Nice to Me” – or even just when it comes with gratitude. I need to pray for the ability to love like God loves, like God’s rain falling down on all the thirsty people, those who praise him and those who don’t.

Because a good feeling is not enough of a reason to love. The only real reason to love is because he loved me first, because I deserve it least of all, because I lived in the desert and now I’m dancing in the rain.

How Jesus Ate My Livejournal

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Photo Credit: Amancay Maas (flickr)

Once upon a time, before this blog was born, I had a Livejournal. For those of you who don’t know, Livejournals are what those of us who compulsively overshare our lives used before Facebook and Twitter.

As a lonely teenager who hated making eye contact, Livejournal was a great way for me to make friends. Some of them I eventually met in “real life,” while others I knew only by their screennames. Many of them found me by discovering we had common interests. You could list all your interests on your Livejournal profile, up to 150 of them, beckoning people who shared them with you.

I maxed out my list, declared myself interested in 150 things.

This is so like me.

Looking back at the last version of this list, dating from my college days, I can see I definitely wasn’t equally interested in all of them. Some of them, like “Ancient Greek” and “books” and “baking” were bona fide obsessions which will never fade entirely from my life.

Others, like “linguistics and “Latin dance,” were more in the “I’m interested enough in these things to take a few classes in them” sort of category.

Still others (“gardening,” “sewing,” “rivers”) were more like, “Eh, I feel like I should be interested in these things, but the feeling isn’t strong enough to get any real experience with them.”

And some were just odd. “Fingerprints”? “Quixoticism”? The things you say in college to try and make yourself sound cool.

I’ve been interested in a lot of things in my life. I like the newness of learning something, not so much the discipline of staying with it until mastery. I’ve dabbled in ballet, modern dance, ballroom dance, swing, bellydance, and Argentine tango. I’ve studied Spanish, German, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, and Latin. I just can’t seem to decide on one thing. Heck, I have trouble with menus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is necessarily bad. It’s fun and healthy and uplifting to try new things. But I can’t be equally interested in everything, no matter how much I’d like to tell myself I can. My life is (gasp!) not infinite.

And some things are so much more worthy of my interest than others.

“Jesus” is on my Livejournal list of interests too, buried under 149 other things. And, yeah, I was interested in Jesus in college. But let’s face it, not that much.

My faith didn’t grow much in college. I was too busy sampling all kinds of new ideas and running from activity to activity to read my Bible, worship, or pray.

Now I am old and wise by comparison. Not really. I still try to do way too much. But I have learned one powerful thing: the more obsessed I am with Jesus, the better. He isn’t just one more thing on the list of things I’m vaguely interested in.

The more interested I am in Jesus, the more interesting everything else is too. And loving Jesus can be the unifying force that makes all my other seemingly random interests hang together.

With Jesus at the center of things, everywhere I travel becomes part of the Way. Every new idea I find is measured by the Truth. Everything I do becomes part of the Life. Sometimes hard, messy, frustrating? Sure. But also shot through with hope.

This is part of my Christian walk. This is part of learning faithfulness: putting all those random interests under the umbrella of the best One of all.

Humility and Freedom

Epitaph on Nikos Kazantzakis' grave. I don't h...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know Lent is over, but this post from last year has been on my mind lately. I need to write much more about this. Stay tuned.

And please, do share what you need freedom from in the comments so I can pray and ponder with you.

In 2005, on a trip to the island of Crete, I visited the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis. I remember his grave being hard to find, for such a famous landmark. Finally my friends and I drew close to it, the shadows growing long by now. Etched on the headstone in gracefully looping Greek were the words Δεν ελπίζω τίποτα. Δε φοβούμαι τίποτα. Είμαι λεύτερος. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

Holy Week is fast approaching, and what I’ve learned this Lent is that I’m not yet as free as I want to be.

Maybe it’s actually the lesson of every Lent. Many of us give up something that seems minor and silly, chocolate perhaps, and we’re hit in the gut by how much we long for it. We go without food, a minor inconvenience for those of us who don’t have medical or psychological reasons to abstain, and we are shocked by how much our hunger pangs obsess us. More than that, we realize how numb we are to the things that matter more. We are brought to tears over our caffeine withdrawal, but not by footage of war on the news. We thirst for our tiny pleasures and think we can do without Love itself.

What I gave up this year was Facebook. Sounds like a tiny thing, right? Well, for me it’s a tiny symptom of a much bigger problem: online or off, I live to be liked. I have an approval addiction. If my actions don’t provoke praise, I immediately question their meaning. If I incur even the tiniest criticism, my stomach churns, my muscles involuntarily tense.

And here’s the upshot of all this: when I care so much about what people think, I ignore what God thinks. I thrill to hear a random fellow bus rider say I’m pretty; did I forget I am by definition “fearfully and wonderfully made“? I quickly grow impatient with trying to help someone if I’m not thanked or swiftly shown progress; is that my answer to “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up“?

I am filled with unreasonable hopes and unrealistic fears. There is a lot of “me” in the way of my freedom. And yet I have one hope I know I can count on: that there is a Higher Power than me, that I don’t have to fix my own brokenness. That Jesus will help me empty myself of my ego so I can be filled with love, like he did in his time here on Earth.

I’d like to close with a prayer for freedom for me and for all us approval addicts. Thank you, Cardinal Merry del Val.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
Deliver me from the desire to be esteemed,
From the desire to be loved,
From the desire to be extolled,
From the desire to be honored,
From the desire to be praised,
From the desire to be preferred to others,
From the desire to be consulted,
From the desire to be approved.

Deliver me from the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of being rebuked,
From the fear of being slandered,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected.

O Jesus, grant that I may desire that others may be more loved than I,
That others may be more esteemed than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I decrease,
That others may be chosen and I be set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I, too, become as holy as I can.

Lenten Reflection 2014: Sometimes It’s Not That Complicated

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

I seem to forget that Jesus said that. Quite frequently, in fact. Sometimes all I can hear is the call to follow, to take up my cross and get going, to get out there and bring good news to everybody.

And it’s true that Jesus said these things, but I forget that he also said, in his very last days on Earth, “Abide in me.”

The One who had no place to lay his head told us he would be our place. The One who calls us to take up our cross and follow him said he would make our yoke easy and our burden light.

This Lent, Jesus called me to go back to my first love. To find joy and peace just in being with him, like how good friends can sit together, saying nothing, doing nothing, just enjoying each other’s presence.

During Holy Week, I read Psalm 131, which really brought it all home for me.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131 1-2

God welcomes me when I’m tired, when I feel overwhelmed, when I feel broken. God invites me to bring this to our times together and lay it down, so I can be calm and quiet, like a tiny child leaning on my mother’s shoulder.

Notice that it’s specifically a weaned child. The weaned child is not restless with hunger, fussing and wanting milk. The weaned child can be content just leaning on its mother, enjoying the deeper-than-words bond they share.

I’ve also been reading the book of John a lot lately, the one where Jesus says “I am” a lot. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Sometimes these statements don’t sound very humble. But the more I read them, the more I hear Jesus humbly offering to take care of all our needs. “I will feed you, lead you, light up your life. I will take care of you and satisfy your needs in a way no human person can. Just come rest in me.”

I make my faith about so many other things sometimes. I worry about getting to church on time, about reading the Bible “enough,” about doing the right things for the right reasons. And we should care what we do; we should want to grow and change for the better.

But the real insight of this Lent, for me, was that I can’t do any of those good things, not for long, unless I abide in Jesus. Like I can’t do a good day’s work if I haven’t gotten any rest.

I need to listen to that call to rest. When I try to pour myself out for others, I quickly feel like I have only the dregs left. But when I let God fill me first, that’s when my cup spills over.

My Not-So-Brilliant Career as a Footwasher

So Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Is that as gross and awkward as it sounds to our modern ears?

The answer is yes. Possibly even more so.

Imagine washing the feet of someone who gets around primarily by walking and who wears sandals all the time. And there are no cars yet, so the streets are pretty much covered in animal muck.

Foot washing was a necessary task in Jesus’ time, and it was one of the most important gestures of hospitality. It was also considered so disgusting and demeaning that a master was not allowed to order his Jewish slave to do it.

Now imagine Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, putting on a towel and stooping down to do this chore even some slaves wouldn’t do. No wonder Peter’s response was something like horror: “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus did, and then he washed eleven other pairs of feet. Then he asked his disciples if they understood why.

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,'” he said, “and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master…”

I’ve been thinking about footwashing this Lent, trying to figure out what the equivalent is in my own life. Now that we have showers and close-toed shoes and cars, what is it I’m supposed to be doing?

I believe it was Shane Claiborne who likened washing feet to scrubbing toilets. Seems like a good analogy to me. I think of that often when I’m cleaning my own house, when I don’t want to bend my knees and get down in the muck and mess.

Reflecting on this is good for me. My mother was not a great housekeeper, and neither am I. Mostly I just don’t want to take the time to do chores – not when there are so many other, better, things I could be doing. More noble. More important. More uplifting.

But Jesus says, Get in there. Wipe away that grime. Don’t let your pride get in the way. I don’t care who you are. I’ve set you an example.

But even more than housework, this applies to my job. I’ve mentioned before that my job is boring, stressful, undesirable. I certainly never wanted to work customer service. As much as I’ve learned from my job over the years, it’s also true that most of the time I feel like it’s a waste. I have a fancy degree. I’d rather be doing so many other things, and I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about that when I should be working.

This Lent I gave up surfing the Internet at work. It was my guilty pleasure: when I was on hold, or when I felt like there was nothing else to do, I’d look at a blog, a window on someone else’s life, and escape my own life for a minute.

It felt like a tiny vice, something everyone did from time to time. But I realized the more I did it, the less I wanted to serve. I felt annoyed at customers for interrupting my reading. I felt annoyed at the universe that I was stuck in the land of gray cubicles. I felt annoyed at God for not showing me a way out of this dead-end job.

So this Lent, I’ve focused on just serving – and trying to do it joyfully, as worship. Trying to see our customers as Jesus, as loved by Jesus. Trying to do my job, a job many would say only the desperate would take, generously and freely, just as Jesus did.

I have a lot to learn about the Lord’s gentleness and humility. My instinct in many situations is still to say, “That’s not my job!” or “They don’t pay me enough to care.” or “Clean up your own mess!”

This Holy Thursday, I pray for a different kind of attitude, a gentle and quiet spirit, an emptying of myself, a willingness to be a student of my Teacher.

Fear and Long-Term Memory Loss

I’ve heard that the most common phrase in the Old and New Testament is this: Don’t be afraid.

It makes sense to me, really. Sometimes repetition is the only way to get something into your head.

Remember who freed you from Egypt, says the Bible again and again. Remember the God who brought you out of slavery.

Sometimes I think that’s why God did that so spectacularly, supposedly hardened Pharaoh’s heart and made it extra impossible for the Israelites to ever get out of there: so we would all remember it forever.

And yet we forget. In fact, the people it was supposed to originally impress forgot almost immediately. You’d think that after being rescued from a lifetime of slavery by walking on dry land in the middle of the sea, people would realize God could do anything, would do anything for them.

But no: they gave in to fear. They missed the security of slavery, where at least they knew what the future held and where their next meal was coming from. The wilderness seemed so barren, empty, unpredictable. They forgot God’s power to help them through literally anything, power that was on full display before them not long ago. They let insecurity take over.

And I am the same way. Anxious about struggles and problems I see ahead, I forget the abundant grace that’s spilled out over my own life. I forget that God gave me the power to speak to my mother again after I’d ignored her calls out of fear and anger for over a year. I forget how lonely I once was, and now I have more love and friendship than I know what to do with sometimes. I forget that I used to be afraid to answer the phone, and now I do it for a living.

I forget that I used to be unable to believe, and now I do, and it’s changed the way I see the world forever.

I need to remember the grace of getting out from my own personal Egypts, even though there are other things I haven’t yet escaped. When I feel empty, I need to remember that – thank goodness! – there’s a Love out there big enough to fill me, and all the gaps my not-enoughness leaves.

Addiction and Living Water

My dad and I once talked about the moral implications of legalizing drugs as we waited in line at the post office. That probably tells you all you really need to know about our relationship.

Me: I just don’t think drugs are good for people.

Dad: Yeah, well, that bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream you have every night isn’t so great for you either.

Me: That’s different. I’m not addicted to eating ice cream.

Woman in line behind us: I am!

That conversation took place back when I was a teenager and knew everything. But the medical definition of addiction is “the persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful.” So, yeah, in that case, I am addicted to ice cream. And a lot of other things. Considering what I know about the harmful aspects of ice cream (the fat, the sugar, the non-fair trade ingredients, the mood swings and blood sugar crashes it causes), I should realize it’s potentially physically, psychologically, and socially harmful, but I love it and don’t want to give it up. So much for that argument.

The medical world also defines addiction as characterized by increasing tolerance, so whatever you’re addicted to, it leaves you wanting more. To me, that seems like the worst part of all, the fact that you’re always chasing some elusive horizon of enough, always seeking just a little more.

So much of my life is like that, if I’m honest. I’m addicted to so many things. They’re not illegal; most of them are even socially acceptable (my bouts of compulsive people pleasing come to mind). But I ignore the harm they do because they make me feel so good – I ignore their true nature because of their momentary appearance.

In a way, my addictive personality is perfectly natural, because I live in an addictive society. All around me, people overeat, overwork, overanalyze. We chase all kinds of things that, deep down, we know have nothing to do with true happiness. We spend our lives yearning to get rich quick, stay young forever, or some other impossible thing. Our society positively encourages addictions to money, power, violence. It’s hard to see another way, much less live it.

God does not want this for us. I love that that’s right there in Scripture. God does not want us to be endlessly, fruitlessly chasing something that doesn’t love us back.

God calls to us sadly through Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

The book of Jeremiah echoes, “My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

These words jump off the page for me, because I have lived them. I keep on living them. I feed my soul with junk food and let life-giving water slip through my fingers. And the whole time, there is a source of true happiness out there. The Bread of Life, the Water of Life are there, if I’ll reach out my hand and take them.

Jesus once sat with a woman at a well. She was an ordinary woman, just like me. She was out to get water and schlep it back home, the same old chore she did day after day. And she’d been trapped in an addictive cycle her whole life – wanting another person to complete her, protect her, satisfy her – but none of her five husbands, nor the man she was living with, had really ever helped her longings and loneliness become less.

She heard Jesus say the words living water. Right away, she asked where she could get it. How to get something to combat this raging thirst for more, something she wouldn’t have to chase after, pure joy with no side of pain?

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

She said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And then, gently, he brought her addiction to light. As they talked, she realized that he could set her free, that he was the truth that would set her free. No more need to spend her life running after food that just made her hungrier and water that was never quite enough. She was so happy, she told everyone she knew that she had finally found the source of living water, joy welling up inside her and overflowing.

I want that kind of joy. I mean, who wouldn’t? But the question is, do I want it more than ice cream, or people’s praise, or a sense of accomplishment? Can I stand turning my darkest deeds over to the light of truth? Can I empty myself of ego so there’s room in there for the good stuff, the water of life, life to the full?

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear: First Thoughts on Therapy

So six months after realizing I want to be healed, I finally visited a therapist. I climbed the stairs to her office on the upper floor of an old blue house. I drank the tea she offered me and filled out paperwork. She asked me why I was there, and I admitted it: I don’t know how to live the simplest commandments. How can I love God and my neighbor when my ideas about love have flourished misshapen, like a tree cramped and dwarfed by structures around it? She nodded, asked for details, took notes unobtrusively, while I struggled to articulate the things that seem to be holding me back from loving with my whole heart.

I was afraid, climbing the stairs to that room, afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid the therapist I’d chosen wouldn’t understand my faith. I was afraid she would understand it and would judge me. I was afraid she would decide it was the root of my problems. Most of all, I was afraid this would be a waste of time, or worse, that it would somehow cause me to be less loving, that what was meant to heal me would only make me worse. I feared that therapy would encourage me to be selfish, that instead of learning to love others better, I would stop at loving myself. All these fears had held me back from this moment: I’d shopped for the “perfect” therapist for months, delayed making an appointment, convinced myself I didn’t have the time or money to do this after all. But I made it: I fought through that naysaying crowd to say, “I need help.”

It all boiled down to this: I was afraid when I walked into that office, Jesus wouldn’t come with me. But even after just a few visits, I know that’s not true. Although my therapist doesn’t share my faith, she’s already started to shine the light of truth on my life. And the truth is, it’s been really dark in there for a long, long time.

For instance, already I’m starting to ask myself where all these fears came from, anyway. Not from Jesus, who says over and over in the Gospel not to worry about anything. I can hear Paul’s voice booming, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” but I let myself be shackled and ruled by anything I think will keep me safe from judgment, criticism, ridicule, disrespect, abandonment. I soften my opinions, hide my true self, the self that is my gift from God, because I fear rejection. But Jesus didn’t do that; Jesus knew exactly who he was, spoke bold words with love and without fear.

Perfect love casts out fear, so the Bible says. I have to not get caught up in the word perfect. I can never make my love perfect, and neither can my therapist, no matter how many hours we spend in her homey little office. The only perfect love comes from God, and it’s only God who can perfect me, make me complete. But I believe God can use this therapy thing, and I believe I need to go forward with it, with all the bravery I can muster. Once and for all I want to break that yoke of fear I’ve been living under for so long, the one I convinced myself I didn’t really mind. God wants me to be light on my feet, ready to help carry another’s burden without being crushed by the weight of what I’m already dragging along.

What do you think is holding you back from being healed? What is helping you move toward healing?

Am I a Joyful Girl?

With apologies to Ani DiFranco…

Sometimes, giving really does make me happy. I’m thrilled when people give to charity in my name. I give blood whenever my schedule and hemoglobin levels allow. I love hand-knitting baby blankets.

And that’s not bad. I should love giving. Freely giving is a Godlike instinct. God showers gifts on us – the evil and the good nourished equally by rain and sunlight. God loves to give good gifts to those who ask.

And yet, sometimes I see all too clearly that I don’t take joy in the giving itself. I love the thought of being known as a giver. I want that sticker that says, Be nice to me. I gave blood today. I save thank you cards forever. I want people to find them when I die and get all misty about my great personality. I’m only sort of joking.

But Jesus doesn’t want me to give for the sake of brownie points. When people look good for the crowds, he says, they have already received their reward. He says anyone can do good to someone who loves them for it, just like it’s easy to loan your money to someone you know will pay you back. To give when you know it will be totally unrewarded, even misunderstood? That’s much more like God, whose love never fails even in our worst moments.

I’m not going to stop giving blood or knitting baby gifts. But let’s face it: that’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is choosing not to get offended when someone speaks to me in the same rude tone they have used every day since I’ve known them. Laboring away in my tiny gray cubicle to brighten the lives of cranky strangers I’ll never speak to again. Listening generously to people talk about problems I’d feel lucky to have.

This is when I start to space out. There is no photo op, no thank you card. There are no memories to be made. This is when my life starts to feel gray and useless and not precious to God. This is when I pay lip service to serving, but really I am checking my email. This is when I pretend to listen, but I’m really thinking about what I wish I was doing instead.

This is when I forget God is present, that these moments are sacred too. This is when I forget I’m supposed to be loving and giving. I feel like because I’m not getting kudos, I have implicit permission to phone it in.

So I need to pray for joy in giving, just for giving’s sake, not because anyone knows or compliments me or because I get to feel good about myself. I can choose to give like God gives: just because. Just because it’s love’s nature to give. Just because I want to.