Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fitting in the Pieces

Image courtesy
Last week I flew to Kansas to visit my grandmother and my aunt & uncle with whom she lives. One of the things we did to pass the time was to work on a jigsaw puzzle. Now, when it comes to video/computer games, spoken riddles, murder mysteries, etc. my brain enjoys a good puzzle. However, this particular puzzle was hard. In fact, I'd say this was the hardest jigsaw puzzle I have ever tried to complete. It was a 750 piece Thomas Kinkade picture, so each piece was particularly small, and most of the colors were soft and difficult to distinguish from each other. Working on this puzzle was the kind of thing that makes you understand how there can be violence in the world. I just wanted the misery to end... but at the same time I felt strangely compelled to keep working.

Fortunately, there was some benefit to this experience. Other than the time I got to spend with my aunt and grandmother, a few thoughts came to my mind that I found interesting:

2 Peter 1:3 (NIV) says, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness." On the table, we had everything we needed to complete the puzzle. We were even able to put together the edge pieces to form the frame. However, we still had a hard time fitting in the middle pieces. Sometimes our lives seem like that. We can trust that we have everything we need to live a godly life, but most of the time living a godly life is still very hard. God is absolutely perfect, and His will is absolutely perfect... and he actually bothers to offer us love (John 16:27; Revelation 1:5), total forgiveness (1 John 1:7,9), full lives (John 10:10), and the same power that raised Jesus from the grave (Romans 8:11) But, we can't even stick to our diets/exercise plans, finish our chores, and keep ourselves from wasting time on the Internet. (Hmm, maybe that's just me...) The pieces are all there. We just grow weary of trying to fit them in, and so they lie there in a mess on the table.

When we take this perspective, it is easy to start feeling stupid. The fact that we each lack nothing but are still a mess can make us feel infinitely incompetent. However, that's like saying, "I know all the letters of the alphabet. Why can't I write a novel?" Obviously, writing a novel is more complicated than that. For one thing, it has to be inspired. Also, there is a lot of research and study involved. To write a book, not only do you need to know a great deal about your subject matter, but you also need to know about grammar, punctuation, and writing techniques. In the case of the puzzle, our "research and study" consisted mostly of looking at the complete picture on the box. I don't even want to think about trying to put the pieces together without some kind of a standard. In the case of our lives, we have (of course) the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the example of other people who have the same goal. Ultimately, though, I think the best way to get a complete "puzzle" is to let God be the one to fill in the pieces. The truth is that we are infinitely incompetent, but everything is possible with God (Mark 10:27).

Sometimes we think we know which piece goes where. In doing my puzzle, there were many instances of me picking up a piece, looking at it, and assuming, based on the shape, colors, and patterns in it, that it fit in a certain spot, only to discover that I was wrong. In those cases I just wanted to mash the piece in anyway and make it fit. I'm sure I have done the equivalent even more times in my real life. However, that doesn't work. If I put a piece in where it doesn't fit, 1) I won't have that piece to put where it is supposed to go, 2) when the real piece comes up, it won't have a place to go, and 3) the other pieces around that piece will likely be wrong too. Proverbs 16:25 (NIV) says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." ;Also, Jeremiah 10:23 (NIV) says, "I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps." Finally, Proverbs 20:24 (NIV) says, "A man's steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand his own way?"

In practice, it is hard even to know how to give God that kind of control over our lives. Like Isaiah, we can say, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8), but because we still have to make little decisions every day—which driving route to take, how much time to spend watching TV, which stocks to buy, etc.—it still feels like we have to put the pieces in ourselves. Just like doing my puzzle, life is not easy. But, the more we really internalize the fact that God is in control and that He has given us everything we need, the more we can come to trust and rely on Him. When we find ourselves saying, "But... that piece goes there!" we should try to remember to let go of our control and rejoice in the fact that God knows what He's doing.

As further proof that we can trust God, I want to tie in a small thing that happened to me today. When I first opened my eyes this morning, I looked at the clock and saw that it was 8:28. That number is permanently stamped in my brain because of a cross-stitch that was on the wall in my dining room growing up (incidentally, given to my parents by my same aunt in Kansas). On it were the words of Romans 8:28 (which was also, interestingly, part of my daily reading yesterday), which says, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." With God working for my good, I don't have to worry that I don't have all my pieces put together. I can just focus on loving Him.

What about you? Do you have any "puzzle pieces" you have tried to mash into your life that don't fit? Do you feel overwhelmed by having a mess of pieces on your table that you can't fit together? Have you experienced God putting in the pieces for you?


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beginning the Transformation

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
—Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)

Tommy and I are in the middle of a transformation. There are many, many things that have brought this on—too many to try to explain in one post—but the bottom line is that we really are trying to take our faith seriously. Weren't we trying to take our faith seriously before? Well, yeah, we thought we were. But, this is different. I realize that "taking faith seriously" can pan out to look very different for different people in different circumstances, so I'm not trying to judge anyone else here. I just want to explain what is going on with us right now. (Well, I guess I can only speak for myself; Tommy can give you his own perspective.)

I grew up in "the Church" (meaning the Church of Christ), and I have attended the same congregation all my life. I was baptized at church camp when I was 13. I met my husband (Tommy) at church, and we were married there. A good handful of our family and many of our friends are in our church. Sometimes we teach children's Bible class. Sometimes we work at our camp. Sometimes we do things for our families or volunteer for other random nice things. All of that is great, and it is all very meaningful for me on a personal level—but it is not enough.

If I were to make a pie chart of how I spend my time, my energy, and my thoughts, the biggest piece of the pie by far would be what I do for myself (or for Tommy and me together, which still counts as being for myself in the long run). If I am completely honest about the situation, that is just sad. Other than simply being a human (which brings in all sorts of nasty characteristics of human nature) I think the root of my warped mindset comes from being a middle-class American.

Please don't get me wrong; many things about America are insanely wonderful, not least our freedom. However, we have created a system that breeds selfishness. Whether we like to admit it or not, we place the most value on making money. I have really struggled with this concept for the past few years as I have been a housewife without a "real job." It has been a real challenge to find the worth in myself and in things I was doing just because I wasn't bringing in money. Okay, I admit to laziness and some self-indulgence on my part, but even the "good" things I did—besides cooking and cleaning: making meaningful connections with other people, using my creativity and God-given talents to produce beautiful things, and even taking time to commune with God—seemed at times somehow less important than earning money. Isn't that just stupid?

We might say, "Yeah, that's all well and good, but we still have to eat and to clothe ourselves." That's true, but here's what Jesus said about that:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
—Matthew 6:25-34 (NIV)

I'm sure most of us who are Christians have read this passage a million times already. I know I had (give or take a thousand), and I felt like I understood it. I always put the emphasis on the "worrying" part, and I thought I was safe because, while I enjoyed food and clothes and often thought about them, I didn't actually worry about them. You know why? Because I already had them. My parents made enough money to feed and clothe me, and then so did my husband. Why would I worry about things like that when we were "doing just fine"? The problem wasn't that I had those things—God knows that we need them—it was that I was trusting in money and in other humans for those things. When I read this passage now, I see that the provider is God. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with buying food and clothes (or fulfilling other "needs" that we have), but they shouldn't be our main concern. When we get them, we should recognize that they come from God, not from ourselves or from anyone else.

Is it possible, then, that if we changed around our lifestyle to better seek God's kingdom and His righteousness, sacrificing money in the process, that God would make sure that our needs were met? Yes, I believe it is.

Before you too firmly establish your opinion of me and what I'm saying, let me throw some other things out there. I don't think it is "bad" to have a paying job or to make money. That could be part of how God meets your needs or the needs of others. It is important that we have people who pick up our trash or teach our children or grow our food, and I think it is right that those people be paid. Also, I have not yet actually acted on any of these principles. I am still working out exactly what it all means for me (though I have some ideas). The point is that my mind is being "renewed" as Tommy and I are actively trying to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness." The idea that our American society causes us to focus on making money so that we can satisfy our own selfish desires is just one of the many things we are re-thinking right now. Other thoughts will have to wait for later posts.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Have you had any of these same thoughts, or do you think that I am crazy? Have you ever experienced being transformed by the renewing of your mind? If so, what did you end up doing?

In Christian Love and the Pursuit of Truth,
-Becky Brown