When our Bible Study group cracked Acts 2 last Tuesday, it didn’t take us long to dive deep into conversation about “community” – what is it? How do we cultivate it? What does it look like at this stage of life?
Acts 2:42-47 paints a beautiful picture of community that the early church modeled. They were devoted to one another; committed to learning and praying and breaking bread together. They “shared everything they had.”
It’s no secret that cultural and technological changes have drastically changed the way we interact with one another. Moreover, my husband and I live in a city where it takes around 30 minutes to get anywhere – double that with rush hour traffic. This alone makes it difficult to have commitments on weeknights, and when you add in work and travel schedules, it becomes clear that having good community is not a passive process.
Bryant and I were having a talk last night about how fast time is flying by – how weeks fly and we do all we can to keep up with work and friends. Our life really is quite simple – we both work full-time, are involved in a spiritual community (church + small group Bible study), we both act as volunteer tutors once a week, and we both love having people over. We don’t try to do anything big and complicated, but it often seems like just working and keeping up with friends and finding time for our marriage leave little room for anything else – hobbies, projects, exploring new places in Charlotte…
There aren’t many “things” I want to cut out of my life. Again, our life outside of work is based on relationships, and that’s how I want it to be. However, I find myself wishing I had more time to do the things I love. Instead of cutting “events” from my life, I started to think a little differently – what time-wasters can I eliminate? What thoughts to I need to “take captive” so that my mind is centered around the things of God?
I first heard of the idea for a list like this from author Shauna Niequest, and my friend Ashley reminded me of it last week. The idea is that we “prune” our lives – get rid of good things to make way for the best things or the right things. Instead of a “bucket list”, make a list of things I won’t do.
Before I started writing this post, I had no idea how hard it would be to say “never”. I’ve realized that these “things I won’t do” are more like “things I will try hard not to do” – so many days I’m living the Romans 7 life – “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
For what it’s worth after that disclaimer, here’s my list:
The Things I Won’t Do
Apologize for liking to write.
I love to write. I love to explore a thought or idea, to reflect on something I’m learning, and I love the conversation that sharing my writing brings about. It is one of the most therapeutic things I’ve ever done – it wakes my soul and gets my mind going. It gives me a space to experience silence and solitude that I can’t seem to find doing anything else. So, instead of feeling insecure and worrying that others will think my words are silly and uninformed, I will just write. And I won’t apologize for liking it; for the good things it does for my soul.
Make the bed
B and I are getting pretty grown up, but we have not reached “pillow sham” level adulthood. We have a sheet set and a quilt, so even when we “make the bed”, so our distinguished guests can come over for distinguished dinner parties (sarcasm), it’s nothing to write home about. I’m not even sure it counts as “making the bed” if all you can technically do is pull the quilt up…? We used to have a white comforter with shams, but it got demoted to the guest bedroom for reasons involving red clay that appeared in our washer, etc. So we don’t…or can’t…make the bed. Mom I am so sorry.
Debate the gray instead of engaging real issues
In this culture of outrage, it seems that everyone is always angry about…everything. I am not a naturally critical person, and I remember feeling steamrolled sometimes in my Political Science classes when many of my classmates seemed to be so fiercely opinionated. From where I sit, it seems that the people who make real change are rarely those who have enraged, inflammatory things to say. The people who seem to have the most impact on the world for good – the people I’d consider personal heroes – are humble, compassionate servants. Bold and gentle, because you can be both. They are hesitant to say things that draw attention to themselves, but work tirelessly to defend the cause they care so deeply about. They don’t waste their time debating gray areas on the internet – they put some skin in the game and go to work. My heart is to be more like that.
Ignore complicated realities
I believe in truth. The absolute kind. And while I think there is black and white in this world, the way we engage situations is rarely black and white. To ignore the more complicated reality behind what’s “black and white” is to dehumanize the problem. For example, I tutor kids that, statistically speaking, are likely to live their entire lives below the poverty line. One boy in our group can’t read, write, or speak in English – yet he has advanced to the fifth grade. These are good kids. They have changed the way I view education, immigration, and have reminded me that everyone has a story. Neither they nor their families deserve the blanket statements and stereotypes that are spoken over them. They humanize the problem, and it’s a paradigm shift for me.
Hate the government
Did you know that an estimated 4 billion people live outside the protection of the law? Did you know that someone who sexually assaults a child in Bolivia is is more likely to die slipping in the shower or bathtub than to be sentenced to jail for their crime? Yes, our government and justice systems are flawed. That much is obvious, especially after a week like this one. But I thank God that our country does not experience the kind of systematic violence, corruption, and gross injustice that is a reality for half of humanity. I do realize I’m writing this as a middle class white girl, and do not mean to understate the issues our country has. Check out ijm.org for sources and more info – and maybe a little perspective.
I have friends who are expert knitters. My friend Nannette could probably knit something nice enough for me to live in – I mean as a shelter, not as a piece of clothing. I’m saying she might be able to knit a house. I went on a retreat last Christmas with my family and knitted my little heart out trying to create a “cowl” or “chunky scarf” (I think this is the easiest thing you can knit?) as a therapeutic activity. It was an utter failure. I am not sure I am delicate enough to knit, or patient enough, and since I have the attention span of Donnie from the Wild Thornberries it is pretty hard to keep count of the stitches. So I don’t/won’t knit.
The Secret of Contentment – a state of mind, not a matter of circumstance.
I am three months into my marriage, three months into a new job, and have lived three months in a new city. I am already restless. This is a large part of who I am, a part of my struggle. My entire life has been a series of phases – when I was a kid, I played every sport available to me, took tumbling classes, tae kwon doe, piano, guitar, rode horses, had a paintball phase, loved camping, had a stint where I was obsessed with Star Wars, the Chicago Bulls, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and NBA Street Ball 2k4. I was involved in at least five different extracurricular groups in High School and was all over the place.
College was no different – I was involved in a lot, traveled a lot, did a lot. Many of the absolute best memories of my life so far occurred in the midst of the freedom and adrenaline that comes with the adventure of “new”.
I was an overachiever and a bit of a flake – changing my mind and my interests at the drop of a hat and burning through the “next best thing” like it was my entitled right to do so. It was really fun, actually – I did so many awesome things, traveled to a lot of amazing places, went to great concerts, and made friends all around the world. I don’t think I would change many things about my past. But I had – still have – some lessons to learn from it.
The danger of a life like that is this: discontentment. Because at some point, you have to reel in your wanderlust and think about your roots, your legacy, your loved ones, the life you want to lead. You have to realize that the things you’re chasing satisfy you temporarily, then bore you, and the addiction continues – you need another fix.
My husband taught me that when he asked me to marry him. I ran from him for years, terrified of commitment and that love would tie me down from experiencing whatever “next best thing” I craved next. Then God began to teach me the value of commitment, the divinity of promise, and the need for His children to invest themselves in things for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Not just use up experiences for our own fulfillment, and move on to the next best thing, the next “temporary high”. How does this bring value to our lives, and more importantly, how does this benefit the good of all?
If you’re like me, you’re afraid of living an un-extraordinary life. You are afraid of getting to the end of your days and realizing you didn’t live a wide and full life like you always dreamed you would. I used to think the way to prevent a disappointment like this was to live harder. Do more. Be better.
Now I think it’s about letting go.
There is a big difference in seeking fulfillment and finding contentment. When we seek fulfillment, we put the burden on ourselves to give our life meaning and purpose. We try to do admirable things so that the story we write with our lives is one worth reading. We want to do something worth remembering, something to make an impact. So we strive to do that, we push aside everything else – commitments, relationships, roots – to try and make that happen.
Finding contentment is about being passionate about one thing – loving God and loving people – and trusting God with the rest. It is about ceasing to find your identity in your work output, your social media clout, and your influence. It is about being faithful and finding joy in what God has put before you, instead of wishing for something else. It is about loving what you have, instead of obsessing over what you want.
When I was freaking out about marriage, my friend Andrew gave me the most useful and practical analogy. It went something like this:
“It’s like your at a fancy buffet, Madisson. You are looking at all the delicious things you could choose to eat, and God walks up to you with a plate full of food saying, ‘Take this! You’ll like it – it’s good for you. It has everything you need. I know it!’ But you’re looking over his shoulder at all the things you didn’t get to try, only thinking about the things you’re missing out on.”
I often struggle to find the line where our efforts meet God’s will, so I keep trying to balance dreaming and doing with patience and practicality. For example, I have a dream of living overseas. But what a fool I’d be to rip up the roots we already have here – to leave family and work and community and ministry – just to move to Europe or Africa for a year because I want to and think it would be adventurous and fun. Adversely, what a joy it would be to move abroad for a year if God placed an opportunity in front of us and gave it purpose.
Contentment is something firm to stand on. It’s not letting praise get to your head nor failure to your heart. It’s a laser-focus on what matters, walking a path that winds through deserts and gardens and stormy weather and sickness and health and ultimately knowing where the path leads, even if at times you can barely walk it.
There is a desire for contentment that often eludes us. “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.” ― Spurgeon
We seem surprised when then rich and famous struggle, take their own lives, deal with addiction, citing that they had, “everything they could want.” Likewise, we seem surprised when we see poor families who are rich in joy and happiness, saying something like “they have nothing, but they’re so happy anyway!” But it is a lie to believe that contentment has anything to do with having plenty or being in want. Perhaps that’s why the rich and famous seem to be involved in scandal after scandal – when your dreams are realized and you’re still unhappy, what do you do with that? And to use Andrew’s analogy again, perhaps the blessing of the poor is that they aren’t tempted to look over God’s shoulder at what they don’t have, but instead are thankful for each gift.
It’s easy to talk about theories of contentment, harder to actually put them into practice.
I am making a commitment this week. A list of things I will and will not do – simple things – a list of ways to be present and thankful. Maybe you can make your own list.
1. I will not go ok Kayak.com or look at Groupon Getaways, Travelzoo, or Cheap Caribbean this week. Because I just went to Mexico on my honeymoon and am an entitled idiot for thinking I have to go on another big trip this year.
2. In the time I will save by not looking at every budget travel site known to man, I will read a book this week. I will underline my favorite passages and enjoy the warmth that comes with relating to an author.
3. I will wear a scarf and boots and go on a walk down our long, wooded road with my husband to celebrate Fall weather and Fall things.
4. I will cook a healthy and delicious meal – or at least try to – light some candles, turn off my phone, and sit down at the dining room table with Bryant to eat it.
5. I will go meet all the neighbors on our point that I haven’t met yet and leave them with baked goods – so domestic. (This is actually a bribe so they’ll think fondly of us even when we don’t mow the yard regularly.)
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
If you’re a 20-something and you’re on Facebook (is that redundant?) it’s likely that you’ve laid eyes on a dozen or more links that read something like this:
– 20 Things 20-Somethings Don’t Get
– 50 Things All 20-Somethings Should Know
– 10 Most Important Lessons for 20-Something Workers
This list goes on and on. These lists exist because there is demand for them, and therefore, the supply rises to meet me and my peers who are, as the internet seems to define us, wanderlust-y idealists who are facing unmet expectations.
This may be true of some of us. This may be true of a lot of us. I’ve read a lot of articles like these and will readily admit that they often contain great advice. I welcome advice. But I’m starting to have a problem with all these articles, and here’s why:
You are, I am, we are – unique individuals with a unique story. As young people who are largely inexperienced, we need all the advice and help we can get. However, I begin to worry when we allow strangers who know nothing about us and nothing about our stories heavily influence our decisions. As Christians, God asks us to work hard (Colossians 3:23), and to seek counsel from “many advisers”(Proverbs 15:22), but 2 Corinthians 5:7 also reminds us that we are to “walk by faith, not by sight.”
If we gather anything from reading about some of the Bible’s most compelling characters, we see that God often leads his followers down crazy, unexpected roads. He works in what seem to us to be strange, even nonsensical ways. But God is in the business of redeeming stories. One great example is Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers as a young child. That’s a rough start. God ends up using Joseph to save all of Israel and Egypt from a horrible famine (see: Genesis chapters 30-50). That’s a good ending.
So am I saying that horrible circumstances (i.e. being sold into slavery) means that you’re on the fast track to be second in command in Egypt? No. I’m saying that YOU DON’T KNOW – that you can’t predict the future – and that it would be unwise to find a false sense of security and a hollow sense of worth in how well your story fits nicely into the “20-Something To-Do Box.”
You are a unique individual with a unique story. Censor this internet advice through that lens. If you don’t make it to the 20 places to travel in your 20s and all that jazz, you are not defined by what you have or have not done. Sometimes we have too many voices in our head and it makes it impossible to think clearly, know what we actually want, and hear from God. Lots of good , well-meaning advice can lead to confusion and indecision.
What if tuning in really means tuning out – tuning out all the expectations of who we’re supposed to be as defined by our culture, the media…anyone who is not God. Seek counsel, but seek it from those who know you and your heart, your skills, your abilities, and your dreams. Have real dialogue with people you trust. Work hard. Read your Bible, soak in what God says is true. Seek a meaningful life that takes into account family, friends, career, and spirituality.
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
― C.S. Lewis
As far as this blog goes, I have struggled to know how to share my experiences this summer. Many of them have been profound but are still being worked out in my mind, others are too personal to share, and still others feel personally significant but not worth sharing. Today I was at my IJM desk reading an article that spoke of perfect moments. The author described these moments as “experiences shared with others when time stands still.” My mind immediately flashed to the movie The Sandlot, where Benny and Smalls are running to play baseball on the 4th of July and stop to stare at the fireworks as America the Beautiful plays. They’re captivated by the moment and, as silly as it sounds, I always get chills thinking about it.
When I read this, I realized the best way to share my summer with you was through snapshots of these perfect moments. Times when phones have been unplugged and hearts have been wide open. There have been so many in the 35 days that I’ve been here, and I don’t doubt that there will be many more.
1. Day one of IJM orientation. Gary Haugen is delivering the most compelling word on God’s heart for justice from Exodus 3. He speaks of what it looks like for someone to live in the absence of fear and shows us videos of Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. Mother Teresa is feisty and arguing with some men about her determination to bring aid to Lebanon and carefully addressing the needs of disabled orphans in Calcutta. “I have found the paradox,” she says, “that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only love.”
Martin Luther King Jr. on the day before his death – “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I’m in a dark room full of strangers and we’re all crying. I’m overwhelmed with the opportunity I’ve been afforded to be here this summer. A perfect moment.
2. Our commissioning ceremony at the end of IJM Orientation. All headquarters staff plus 80 new interns, fellows, and employees gather in a small conference room to celebrate new beginnings. It’s a rite of passage and I can’t wait to start working. We sing, take communion together, and thank God for the opportunity to partner with him in what he wants to do through IJM. We sing together and are individually prayed over by our mentors. I pause and know that I’m standing in one of the most anointed workplaces on planet earth. A perfect moment.
3. A regular night on the town that turned nostalgic. Colin, Taylor and I head to the district of Adams-Morgan and laugh about how in the world three people from Elizabethton have somehow ended up in D.C. together. Colin and I have been best friends since 7th grade and Taylor was his college roommate. We reminisce, as always. We go to buy THE LARGEST pieces of pizza you’ve ever seen in your life and our conversation digresses into hilarious laughter as we people watch from bar stools and drip grease all over ourselves. I’m feeling as young and free and happy as I’ve ever been. A perfect moment.
4. A sunset drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Myself, my friend Laura, and her sister Lynne are driving back to D.C. after a day at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. We’re salty, sandy, sunburnt, and full of coconut shrimp + crab bruschetta. The air conditioning doesn’t work in Laura’s car so we have all the windows down, our hair is wild, and we have country music blaring into the open air. The Bay Bridge is a two-mile arc over the water and the sun is setting, so I’m singing my lungs out and driving into the sky that’s on fire. A perfect moment.
5. The Hungarian Dance Barn. Colin and I meet up to explore the National Mall on Independence Day. We’re walking around checking out the Folk Life festival, which (from what I gather) is a celebration of endangered cultures and languages. We turn the corner and see a big circular wooden structure full of screaming, stomping people so we weave our way right into the middle. I spend the next twenty minutes trying to keep up as a tall, lanky, foreign man leads all of us in these crazy, loud, FUN line dances. It is sweatier than senior prom and therefore verifiably the sweatiest day of my life. Afterwards we get Lebanese food from a food truck and pineapples from hispanic ladies on the street corner and spend the next twenty minutes trying to guess the names of people walking by (we’re yelling names at people). We make a bet that whoever gets a name right first has to buy smoothies. We both lose so we both buy smoothies. So we both win? A perfect moment.
6. July 4th Fireworks. I’m on the roof of a huge house and have a 360 view of all the fireworks in the city. The sun has already set, it’s 75 degrees and breezy, and I’m surrounded by all the DC people I’ve come to love. I’m sitting cross-legged on a ledge but have the urge to stand on the corner of the roof, so I climb up and spread my arms out, laughing at the house next to us where people are screaming and dancing to “Party in the USA”. Dozens of fireworks light up the sky and fire trucks rush around trying to manage what I’m sure are plenty of firework accidents. I take it all in and consciously decide to never forget the moment. It’s perfect.
I have a friend named Johanri. She lives in South Africa, and a few weeks ago she sent me a message that simply said 2 Chronicles 15:7. We hadn’t talked in a month or so, and she had no idea what was going on in my personal life. Therefore, she had no idea how much I needed to hear these words – “But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.”
She had no idea that, as is my custom, I’d over-committed myself and was feeling helpless. She had no idea that my Mamaw had just passed away and that I deeply desired to stay at home with my family. That was practically begging God to let me give up; to let me drop my responsibilities and lay the blame on my circumstances. She had no idea that as I’d been seeking God’s direction, I kept feeling that I needed to keep going – to keep leading, to keep working, to keep believing that my work was not in vain. But I didn’t want to. I was doing it out of obedience and because I’ve been raised with importance on the idea of never, never giving up.
The Lord used Johanri, my sweet friend from across the world, to send me the exact encouragement I needed in His perfect timing. The verse was from 2 Chronicles 15, but in an effort to understand the verse in context, I read chapters 14, 15, and 16. I was struck as I realized the relevance of the words in my life.
King Asa was ruling over the land of Judah when he was feeling oppressed on every side. The prophet Azariah came to Asa and said, “The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.” and later, the verse listed above – “But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” – 2 Chronicles 15:7
When Asa heard these words, he took courage, removed the idols rom his land, and repaired the altar of the Lord. Then he and his people “entered into a covenant to seek the Lord…with all their heart and soul.” (v.15) They rejoiced because of this oath and sought God eagerly, and he gave them rest on every side.
So, I thought, that’s what I’m going to do. As I oversee the Beat Hunger canned food drive and the IJM leadership team that’s planning Stand 4 Freedom, I’m going to take courage. I’m going to remove anything that’s about ME from the equation (pride, selfishness, personal gain), and recommit my efforts to the Lord. They are His anyway; I’m a fool if I don’t acknowledge that and return them to Him.
The hard work didn’t stop, but rest came on every side. As well as the favor of the Lord, which was unmerited…that’s GRACE.
The photos above are just a few from Stand 4 Freedom – a 27 hours standing vigil put on by International Justice Mission: App State. Hundreds of students were made aware of modern-day slavery for the first time, hundreds more came to take a stand, and still hundreds more signed advocacy cards to let our government know that slavery is something we care about.
In the post prior to this one, you can see the video we created for the Beat Hunger canned food drive. As of today, we’ve raised over 6,700 pounds of food and over $400 in cash to donate to the Watauga Hunger and Health Coalition.
It’s always funny (?) to look back on things I worked so hard for, only to realize that they finally come together when I get totally helpless and surrender them to the Lord.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9