Saturday, June 10, 2017

Chopping Down Trees

For months my writing has been reduced to adding things and checking off things from my TO DO LIST. Currently there are only 19 items on it, a record.

But if I am honest, the blogging hiatus has been due to more than my status quo of an always busy life.  It’s been several long months of pushing my way through my personal forest of old familiar foliage, and finally opening up new spaces for the sunlight to find its way through.

What is that like?

It's hacking away at some old dead trees, some of which I've been working on for years.  When they finally fall, sitting down on them for a while, staring off into nothing.  Then finally forcing myself to get up and try to roll them off the side of the hill to make space for new life. 

And pausing to look up at the now visible sky between the trees that I hadn’t noticed before.

Then figuring out what to plant next, and how to transplant new plants into the space left behind.  Figuring out how to make them live, how much water they need, and how not to kill them.

And when you have some brand new baby plants you aren’t even sure how to take care of yet, you prefer not draw too much attention to them, lest the curious or the critical come and trample the new life before it gets a fair start.  Hence the lack of communication.

My big dead trees included some surprising things. 

Church was one. Church with a little c.  Finally being willing to walk away from what was hurting me and leaving me empty over and over again without feeling guilty that I was abandoning God or His Church.  I still attend services, I have not forsaken the assembling together, but I no longer have membership, volunteering, being accepted, having a ministry title, and belonging to the club on the pedestal I’ve had it on my whole life.
The final breaking point was definitely the election as it unfolded in 2016 and its results.  Seeing so much of the church embrace and defend what so little resembled the true gospel was the final crack in the root of that tree in my life.  Going forward, my loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings, not to the Bible Belt political gospel.

The crash of that tree has opened up a clearing in my forest for many beautiful moments of having picnics in the open space. Finding and keeping like-minded friends from a variety of backgrounds and hearing God speak to me through their voices and lives without agenda has been both rich and healing.

Let me know if you want to come over to a picnic. :-)

Another big tree that was pretty dead already was complementarianism.  For several years now as a Christian, I have been reluctant to openly declare that I am a feminist and egalitarian, but I’m at the point that I feel it is the most honest and most Biblical place I can be.  I can respect my friends who are complementarian, but I would ask for the same respect in return.  I had already chopped down the tree of patriarchy quite some time ago which probably quite literally saved my life since it had me cornered in a cult (but that’s another story).

For those of you whose hackles raised at the mention of feminism, the dictionary definition of that oft misunderstood word is simply this: “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” That’s it. No bra burning, no male bashing, and nothing to be afraid of as a Jesus follower.  It is, in fact practically synonymous with Galatians 3:28 in the Bible: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

And for those of you wondering, yes, you can be pro-life and a feminist.  Check out the New Wave Feminists movement as proof.

Then there was tree that still had quite a bit of green in it that I didn’t realize needed to come down.  This was the tree of white privilege. Getting woke, as they say, has not been hard in the sense that I resisted, but hard in the sense that I had no idea how much I was missing all this time, right here in the USA.  Listening to my American brothers and sisters of color, beginning to understand more about past and current systemic racism in my country, seeing micro-aggressions as real and daily, and most of all, comprehending that, as hard as my life has been in many aspects, I have continually benefitted from white privilege over and over again and still do, has all been part of my waking up.

In the past I mistook being missional and having a degree of cultural awareness and competency for being woke.  I thought because I had been a missionary and lived as a foreigner overseas for six years that I got it. I thought because I had seen discrimination from the other side, understood the plight of the persecuted church, interacted with sensitivity and appreciation among other cultures, and comprehended the immensity of first world luxury that I was fully woke.

I was not.  I would still hesitate to claim I have fully awoken, but I am listening and learning how to be a better white ally to those in my own neighborhood.  That is a journey I am still on.  Sadly, I find it puts me even more out of step with many church folks and people in my conservative homeschooling circles who still deny both that their white privilege is real and that their brothers and sisters of color deal with racism daily.

But oh yes, the homeschooling!  That big lovely tree over there!  Two out of three of my children have graduated and one has two years left in high school.  I have to put in a disclaimer that our current version of homeschooling is my son taking all his subjects from tutors- he is with them in classes one a day week at a co-op, and does the work at home on the other days.  I am still the school principal and class monitor, but he is well on his way to fully independent study.

Happily for me, all three of my almost adult children are still living at home, and we get along decently well almost all of the time. While the specter of the empty nest looms it still somehow seems unreal and far away.

My midwifery practice is definitely one of the biggest trees in my woods, and this year I’m learning how to take on the role of administrator at the birthing center where I work.  It’s gratifying but not always comfortable, learning how to take care of things that need to get done without stressing myself out or driving everyone crazy.  Fortunately work has always been my happy place, and still is, even in my role as (sort of) boss.  There is nothing more redemptive than the labor of a woman and the birth of a baby, and as hard as it is to be a full time midwife, getting to share that miracle over and over again has been one of the most consistently bright places in my life so far.

Here’s one more reason why I feel my job is sacred- my role being compared to that of the Holy Spirit.

So with the three big trees of church idolatry, complementarianism and ignorance of white privilege and racism chopped down, I think I now have a nice open space in my woods to set up my desk, open my laptop and get back to regular blogging. 

Stay tuned!  And let me hear from you! Where are you in your journey, and what trees have you chopped down lately? Comments are open! 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Vain Labor

Isaiah 49:4 is a verse I memorized at some point in the past. It has been going around in my mind lately as I ponder 2016, and my whole life in some respects. 

The first half…

Isaiah 49:4 NIV- “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.’” 

Sometimes I feel like this is me.

NLT- “I replied, ‘But my work seems so useless!  I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.’”

Getting the short end of the stick.

NET- “But I thought, ‘I have worked in vain; I have expended by energy for absolutely nothing.”

Wondering if all I’ve given out in my lifetime will ever pay off in something long term and tangible that I personally get to benefit from.

God’s Word Translation- “But I said: ‘I have worked hard for nothing.  I have used my strength but I didn’t accomplish anything.”

Often feeling unrewarded.

Today I went back to this place in the Bible, to read the context, to find the end of this story.  Turns out, Isaiah 49 is a Messianic chapter, describing the Messiah’s mission.  In other words, the “I” in this verse is actually Jesus speaking his feelings.

Yes, believe it or not, Jesus was feeling this.  Numerous commentaries back this up and expound on it:

Barns- “This is to be regarded as the language of the Messiah when his ministry would be attended with comparatively little success…The expression used here is not to be taken absolutely, as if He had no success in His work, but it means that he had comparatively no success; He was not received and welcomed by the united people; He was rejected and despised by them as a whole….it means than in His personal ministry He had exhausted His strength and seen comparatively little fruit of His toils.”

Gills- “…this is not to be understood of the travail of his soul, or of his sufferings and death, which were not in vain…but of his ministry and miracles, and fatiguing journeys among the Jews; which, with respect to them, were in vain, as to their conversation and reformation; they were rejecting the Messiah, slighting his doctrines and miracles, refusing to be gathered by him, being a faithless and perverse generation.”

Pulpit Commentary- “The Servant had momentarily desponded, seeing the small results of all his efforts to reclaim Israel, and had felt a natural human regret at so much labor apparently expended in vain…”

Trying to grasp that Jesus felt exactly the way I do.  That He, too, looked back over many years of miles He walked, prayers He prayed, people He poured into, hours of sharing his heart and being vulnerable with people, hard work He did, giving it all over and over, and momentarily wondered, “Was all that pain and sacrifice proportionate to the little bit of good that came out of it?”

I picture Jesus near the end of His ministry, standing on a hill a small distance away from His disciples sitting around the fire at night, watching them and listening to them talk and laugh, and feeling very tired, alone and discouraged.

To realize that these feelings I have were shared by Jesus, brings immeasurable comfort that I am not, indeed, at a dead end.  My feelings are real, and the place of grappling with disillusionment is also real.  But this is something normal that happens when we try to make a difference in the world, when we go out on a limb to not just look out for ourselves but invest in others. We will come to a place of wondering if the hard work and pain it cost us, and the lack and emptiness we now feel personally as a result, was worth the outcome.

But the reason for that may be because we invested largely in other peoples’ outcomes, not our own. We aren’t experiencing the fruits of our labors, they are.  So we feel empty because we have poured ourselves out, but there are other people in the world a little fuller because we did. 

The extent of our efforts may not fully be understood even by those we served, nor accurately measured in this lifetime. Those of us who try to be the most generous may look like we are coming in last.

But the end of the verse is our hope:

NIV- “ … Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”

All that we have given, invested, sacrificed does count.  It may not count in immediate tangible numbers, but in the final accounting, it does and will.

NLT- “…Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand; I will trust God for my reward.”

There are many kinds of rewards.  Some include appreciation, respect, loyalty, promotion, good outcomes, and positive results. 

NET Bible- “…But the Lord will vindicate me; my God will reward me.”

Or maybe even financial renumeration.

God’s Word Translation- “…Yet, certainly my case is in the Lord’s hands, and my reward is with my God.”

But the reward we get from the very hand of God, either in this life, or the next, will trump all else. Our current status, our position and our bank account balances are not the final indication of our effectiveness.

Barns- “…This expresses the confidence of the speaker, that God approved of his work and that He would ultimately give such effort to His labors as he had desired.  The sense is, ‘I know that Jehovah approves my work, and that He will grant me the reward of my toils, and my sufferings.  The idea is that he knew that God would own and accept His work through it was rejected by mankind.  It indicates perfect confidence in God, and a calm and unwavering assurance of His favor, though His work was comparatively unsuccessful- a spirit which, it is needless to say, was evinced throughout the whole life of the Redeemer.”

My 2017 prayer for myself and for my friends who feel the way I do is that we, like Jesus, will have a calm and unwavering assurance of God’s favor, regardless of all the things that haven’t worked out for us, even when we did our best to do the right thing.

And that we will learn to look to Him for our reward.

ISV- "I said, 'I've labored for nothing.  I've exhausted my strength on futility and on emptiness.' Yet surely my recompense is with the Lord, and my reward is with my God."