The Secret of Contentment

The Secret of Contentment – a state of mind, not a matter of circumstance.

The secret to contentment is owning a Bentley. Just kidding. Ashley took this picture of us at a wedding and I just wanted to post it.
The secret to contentment is owning a Bentley. Just kidding. Ashley took this picture of us at a wedding and I just wanted to post it.

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.

(1 Timothy 6:6-12)

If you’re looking for purpose, look around.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Praise God that we are not reconciled to Him by our own efforts – by the “good” things that we do. I cannot imagine a life comparing myself to others, trying to be good “enough”, and the unbelievable rat race that would ensue. Actually, that’s probably exactly what’s happening in the world, which is why so many people are losing their minds in their pursuits of success. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

I memorized the above verses, Ephesians 2:8-9, as a kid in a scripture memorization class. We were talking about the plan for “salvation” – or, how to be reconciled with God. Somehow, I feel like I always overlooked verse ten. When I was younger, I used to think about God’s “will” for my life as a puzzle that one day I was going to figure out. I remember being so shocked when someone told me that a “blueprint was never going to fall from the sky into (my) lap.” How inconsiderate of God, I thought, to not tell me what I’m supposed to do with my life. I’m doing my best here, right?

We all want our life to count for something. I would like to suggest that we overcomplicate things. If we’re looking for purpose, we should look around. In verse 10, we are reminded that while we are not saved by our “good works”, God delights in giving us opportunities to serve him and serve others. How silly it is that we think our purpose in life is centered around our career, or marriage, or whatever. It’s in everything. We miss God when we look past today and tomorrow to make self-serving plans for a future that we can’t control.

When I look around, I see need everywhere. That is not an exaggeration. I see poor people who lack basic needs. I see addicts who lack freedom (a good moment to note that most of us are addicted to something, whether it’s something “socially acceptable” or not). I see successful people who are spiritually or relationally poor. I see loneliness. I see pain. I see neglected and unloved children. I see my own selfishness and how quick I can be to impatience. I see a God who loves justice, who has prepared good works for his people to do – and a gracious place from which to do them – and I see people (me, you) totally missing it.

I see these things and I see an invitation to come alive. God’s gift of salvation is not just an invitation to skip out on hell. It’s an invitation to live. Our pain is an invitation to experience God, and the pain of others is an invitation to find our God-given purpose in loving, serving, & giving of ourselves. In John 10:10, Jesus says he has come so that we may have “life to the full.” I used to think that was a Carpe Diem kinda thing – sort of a battle cry for adventure and love and all things that are good. Now I think about how the reality of life includes lots of darkness, and being fully alive means embracing the good with the bad – being brave enough to notice the need around us, and using whatever meager resources we may have to help. We will never do this perfectly, but it is important to try.

Looking back on my extraordinary, ordinary life, I wonder how many times I’ve missed out on the “good works” God prepared for me because the opportunities didn’t satisfy my ambitious spirit. I wonder how many opportunities I’ve missed because I thought I was “overqualified” or “above” an act of service. Or too busy. Or to prideful.

I am trying to stop searching for purpose in the extraordinary and explore what it looks like to be simply faithful with what God’s placed in front of me. My peers and I sometimes seem so busy trying to be extraordinary. Maybe what the world needs are ordinary, faithful people who are committed to serving others at the expense of their own ambitions. It will always be a work in progress, I will never arrive, and as soon as I deal with one problem another one will arise. Still, I find so much hope and peace knowing that no matter where I go or what I do vocationally, God will be there, and he will be providing good works for me to carry out. He will be inviting me to come alive no matter my circumstances, no matter my job, no matter whether others see me as successful or not.

And for that I say with confidence, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”

Growing Up

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Swinging over Edinburgh, Scotland.

9 January 2014

Something is happening to me. I think it might be called growing up.

Right now I’m on a flight from London Heathrow to JFK, rounding out a 12 day holiday in the United Kingdom and Ireland. I’m exactly where I want to be – going home, that is. On Tuesday in a letter to Bryant, I wrote the following:

“We are on the bus from Cork to Galway and I’m a little homesick. Homesick isn’t actually the right word – I’m not afraid, bored, feeling trapped, or any sort of lonely. Rather, I’m thinking about what’s at home and knowing it’s so much better than what I see here.“

Many things in life are a matter of perspective, and mine has been shifting. I love this quote that my friend Jennie posted recently – “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” (Miriam Beard). That has certainly been true in my travel experiences, and the situations I’ve found myself in over the years have given me perspective, new theological questions, a deeper sense of humility, sympathy and understanding for different ways of life, and an appreciation for culture. I also love the thrill of exploring a new place and meeting new people – it’s like a breath of fresh air in my lungs and can be addicting, really. At times the world has seemed bigger – so many people to meet, countries to visit, and things to learn. At other times, the world has seemed smaller – similar physical and emotional needs across cultures, improbable connections with strangers, and how quickly a location and people group can find a place in your heart.

However, in our culture and in my own life, I’ve seen a growing trend of “wanderlust” that is often just thinly veiled discontent. Travel and adventure, seizing the day and being free can often be a popular way to run from hard work, from commitment, and from investment – anything hard, permanent, or taxing. Lately, I am beginning to realize a few things…

It is my duty to be a responsible citizen.

I am almost 23 years old. I am an adult. Although somewhat true of our entire lives, something is certainly true now – my generation is beginning to have real responsibility for the world and all the good and bad that comes with it. We are moving from 22 years of education into a more tangible place of responsibility. In the truest sense, it is up to us to take that responsibility seriously. It is time for me to learn – really learn – how to take care of money; how to be a good steward of what I’ve been given and how to practice generosity. It is time for me to learn to see and meet need. Maybe you are way ahead of me and your paradigm shifted when you were sixteen – I thank God for you. But for me, although I was learning and doing important things in college, most of it felt like a practice run of sorts.

Life is changing.

I think I grew up subconsciously thinking that even though I was getting older, my parents and grandparents were always the same. As I looked forward to turning sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, I only thought about myself and the excitement that becoming a young adult would bring. Then one day I looked over at my little brother and he was six feet tall. My Mammaw was taken last October by cancer. And the friends that I grew up with and love dearly are getting married, moving away, having children. Life doesn’t slow down for anyone. And we don’t have much time together. “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” – James 4:14. We hear it all the time, don’t we – “Life is short.” But isn’t it? I wonder sometimes what my life would’ve been like if I’d taken a different road. It might sound silly, but I wonder occasionally what my life would look like today if, instead of selling my horse and focusing on sports in high school, I would’ve continued to make horseback riding my first priority. I’ll never know. What a strange thing it is, to live. We spend so much time trying to manage the opinions of others; so much energy trying to build our own wealth, popularity, and status and it’s so insignificant. We try to be perfect and drive ourselves crazy doing so, but don’t realize we’ll never get there because everyone’s standard of perfection looks a little different – you just can’t please everyone.

I’m here – I’m a college graduate looking into the great unknown, even though my “unknown” may have a few more pieces in place than many others in my position. I am getting married in June and moving to Charlotte. I am living in a little green house with a red door. But I’m here and I feel the pressure – the pressure to make a lot of money, the pressure to be independent and successful, the pressure to be beautiful and intelligent and well-traveled. And I feel myself pushing back against it all, asking, “Why?” “What is the point?”

As I begin this new chapter of life, there are lots of things I don’t want to do. I don’t want to be so all over the place that I can’t truly “do life” with the people I need and people who need me. I’ll always be adventurous, but I don’t want to idolize the pursuit of the next-best-thing. The past four years of my life I’ve traveled so much and been involved in so much that i’s been hard for me to truly, deeply invest anywhere. I don’t want to settle into a 9-5 job and making crock pot dinners for my hot and holy husband every night, totally insulated from the world around me. I want to dig in. I want to be ready to see and meet the need around me. I want my home to be a place that is known for having an open door and my table to be a place where full, life-giving conversations happen. I do not want to be tempted to find security for my future in false places – everything that is not from God can be taken away in an instant. Instead, I want to experience God more deeply by living life in a way that makes faith – the sense of trust in God’s provision – necessary. I want to be aware of my dependence on God. I don’t want my faith to be myopic and overly introspective – instead I want to life in the belief that I cannot “grow in faith by sitting alone and trying to flex my faith muscles…but by putting myself in situations that require faith.” (to paraphrase Jim Martin in The Just Church).

This whole post has been a stream of consciousness. I’m not sure that there is a thesis that can wrap up what I’m trying to say, and these thoughts are a product of studying scripture (Ecclesiastes, Isaiah 58, Luke 12), reading several books, and musings from the journey that God has me on. I think part of this is an urging to look at yourself and the motivations that lie behind your actions. Do you serve others? If so, why? Is it to look good to the folks you want to impress? Is it to feel good about yourself? Or is it truly from a benevolent and selfless place that is focused on the need of others? I admit that throughout my life, many of my motivations have been from a selfish place.

Are you filling your time by pursuing things that have no eternal significance? Do you romanticize travel and adventure to the point that they are idols in your life – things you do not to better understand the picture that God has painted with humanity, but rather to look and feel cool and adventurous and free?  Do you go on mission trips and have intense emotional experiences about the depravity and suffering present in our world, but make yourself a hypocrite by insulating yourself from the suffering and pain that is close by you in your hometown? I did for a long time; sometimes I still do.

Sometimes in the Christian life it is hard to find the balance between giving, giving, giving, and finding the freedom to experience joy and have fun. I find this commentary from JI Packer on the book of Ecclesiastes helpful:

“Fear God and keep his commandments; trust and obey him, reverence him, worship him, be humble before him, never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to him; do good, remember that God will someday take account of you, so eschew, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light at God’s assizes. Live in the present and enjoy it thoroughly; present pleasures are God’s good gifts. Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy, he clearly has no time for the super spirituality which is too proud or too pious ever to laugh and have fun. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do and enjoy your work as you do it. Leave to God its issues, let him measure its ultimate worth – your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that are before you. This is the way of wisdom.”

When tuning out means tuning in.

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

Decisions about life and the future.

“I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.”

THAT is the most common phrase I hear from people my age. We are early twenty-somethings who are making big-kid decisions for the first time. We want everything and are therefore paralyzed from moving toward anything. Our lives have consisted of school, then more school, then more school. For many of us, our biggest decisions have been about romantic relationships or how to spend our precious summer months. All of a sudden it’s time to walk down a career path, talk about marriage, and to step out of parental co-dependence into a world that is much less structured and kind. My intention is not to downplay the difficult decisions that many of us make during our adolescent years, because they certainly seem (and may very well be) huge when we’re faced with them. However, this new season of independence is equally liberating and terrifying. Here is what I think God has to say about it:

Find your identity in Jesus.

I will say that I am pretty okay with the future. For the most part, it doesn’t freak me out too much lately. But there are days – times when I get lost in thought about all the things I want to do, and I go into a manic job-application binge. During these times, I spend an hour on indeed.com feeling frustrated and thinking that I will be a boring old lady with nothing to offer the world. I worry about my ability to get my foot in the door somewhere; to be in a place that facilitates upward mobility and gets me closer to my ”dream job.” I worry that I will get stuck somewhere and that I won’t ever travel again, won’t ever have a thriving career, or will be miserable doing menial work for my entire life. I wonder if I’ll have children and have trouble prioritizing them over my career. I was thinking on this yesterday and all of a sudden I realized a common theme in my thoughts.

Me.

Me…my career, my success, my life, and ultimately my identity and my worth.

This is an ugly realization. Many of the things I want to do in life are careers that allow me to ”help” other people in tangible ways. I am interested in social justice, cross-cultural  relations, religious freedom, humanitarian aid, and poverty alleviation. So how do I get off making those things about me? If someone else told me that they approached these worthy causes with such selfish ambitions and motivations, I would think they were a horrible, selfish person. But it is the truth that rears its ugly head from the depths of my heart when my fears start churning.

So I am faced with a truth. I am a selfish person. I am never enough and no matter what I do, it will never be ”enough.” I rarely meet the expectations I have for myself, and when I do meet them outwardly, my motivations are often tainted by some remnant of pride. I look around and see the amazing things that others are doing and I rarely measure up in comparison. I lose perspective. I get bitter.

Then I remember what God says about me. That I am so very ordinary in my human-ness, but of extraordinary worth in the eyes of God. That my identity is not found in what I do, but in whom I belong to.

”You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” – 1 Corinthians :11

This is my identity in Christ. I am washed clean. In Christ, I have been brought to fullness. (Colossians 2:10). I look at this nifty list and remember that my life is not my own: Storyline Blog – my identity in Christ. Go Donald Miller.

I remember that I was bought with a price (Jesus’ life and death and life) and that God has saved me from a life that is all about ME. He has saved me by his grace through my faith in Jesus, not because of anything I’ve done. And he has prepared good works for me to do – also not about ME. He has asked me to think about myself less so I have more time to love and serve others.  Hear ye Christians, please do not raise money to go on a mission trip as an excuse to travel. Please do not lead a Bible study so you can look cool and spiritual. Please do not apply for NGO jobs because they are hip and trendy and you want to be hip and trendy. Please DO all of the aforementioned things with a pure and humble heart. The people around you need you and the love that you can offer them because of the love extended to you, by God, through Jesus.

So when you’re making decisions, join me in trying to think less about yourself and more about honoring God and serving people. I have a lot of work to do in this area. What will benefit society as a whole? What will reconcile people to each other and to God? What will help people have their basic needs met?

The conventional wisdom of today tells us that true happiness comes in the freedom to pursue whatever we want whenever we want. In my life, that eventually manifested itself as an inability to commit to anything, extreme indecisiveness, and the worst case of wanderlust you’ve ever seen. That is not freedom, it’s slavery to a life and to desires that are all about ME. Take my word for it, or don’t, and spend your entire life searching the world looking for the next best thing.

Now read as Tim Keller puts my thoughts into more eloquent words than I could ever hope to:

1. Put your heart’s deepest trust in God and his grace. Every day remind yourself of his unconditioned, covenantal love for you. Do not instead put your hopes in idols or in your own performance.

“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. Trust in the LORD with all your heart.” (Proverbs 3:3-5a)

2. Submit your whole mind to Scripture. Don’t think you know better than God’s word. Bring it to bear on every area of life. Become a person under authority.

“Lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5b-6)

3. Be humble and teachable toward others. Be forgiving and understanding when you want to be critical of them; be ready to learn from others when they come to be critical of you.

“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.” (Proverbs 3:7-8)

4. Be generous with all your possessions, and passionate about justice. Share your time, talent, and treasure with those who have less.

“Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (Proverbs 3:9-10)

5. Accept and learn from difficulties and suffering. Through the gospel, recognize them as not punishment, but a way of refining you.

“My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” (Proverbs 3:10-11)

As I meditated on these five elements–rooted in his grace, obeying and delighting in his Word, humble before other people, sacrificially generous toward our neighbor, and steadfast in trials–I thought of Jesus.

The New Testament tells us that the personified ‘divine wisdom’ of the Old Testament is actually Jesus.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:19)

And I realized that:

a) Jesus showed the ultimate trust and faithfulness to God and to us by going to the cross,

b) Jesus was saturated with and shaped by Scripture,

c) Jesus was meek and lowly in heart

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30),

d) Jesus, though rich, became poor for us,

e) and he bore his suffering, for us, without complaint. We can only grow in these five areas if you know you are saved by costly grace. That keeps you from idols, from self-sufficiency and pride, from selfishness with your things, and from crumbling under troubles. Jesus is wisdom personified, and believing his gospel brings these character qualities into your life.

Day 1 in the Wyld Wyld West

Day one of the Hutchins family western adventure began with a very rainy drive to Asheville, NC to catch our connecting flight in Atlanta. Mom and Dad were kind enough to drive and drop our happy trio at the tiny airport and we walked in feeling really confident. Jeff had never flown and Papaw hadn’t flown since 1960, so although it wasn’t his first rodeo, its pretty safe to say a lot has changed in the 53 years since he last boarded a plane. Thankfully, airport security at a place like Asheville’s small airport is a great opportunity to ease yourself into a healthy relationship with the TSA. We arrived an hour before our flight, which by my standards and past experience is incredibly early, so I sat outside and ate a burrito while Papaw and Jeff went through security alone JUST IN CASE it took longer than expected. Here’s a picture that is a pretty great reflection of everyone’s mood right before we boarded our one hour flight to Atlanta.

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The one-hour flight was uneventful and after taking the tram and walking “a country mile” to get to our next gate, we each had separate and delicious dinners and waited out our two-hour layover without much action. The flight to Las Vegas was, again, uneventful other than Papaw getting a crick in his neck from looking out the window too much and all of us feeling like fools when we realized Vegas was on Pacific time, not Mountain time, meaning our flight still had one hour left after we’d gotten all packed up and situated for arrival. Our landing into Vegas was a little rough and we were met with at the gate with all kinds of lights, fanfare, and posters of what appeared to be shirtless firefighters everywhere. We passed a group of slot machines and I said “Ooh let’s all put a quarter in one!”, which was met with disapproving looks from my two companions. This is now my second time to Vegas without dropping a penny in the gambling game, which either makes me a really good person or a really strange person, or neither, since the first time I was twelve and this time I’m with my grandfather.

Our first night, we stayed right off the main strip at a La Quinta and crashed as soon as we got there. We woke up this morning at 6 but it felt like 9, grabbed some continental breakfast, and stopped at the grocery store so we could buy snacks. Jeff bought a cooler for not one, not two, but TWELVE Diet Dr. Peppers (evidence below). Keep in mind that it’s only 24 hours until our next flight, so that’s one Dr. Pepper every two hours. Which is impressive.

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We stopped first at Hoover Dam, where we parked and walked across the top and took plenty of pictures. I’m amazed that something so colossal could be built right in the middle of flowing water. Kudos to engineers and river diversion. Afterwards, we continued on to the Grand Canyon, narrowly avoiding two collisions with other cars who failed to check their blind spot. I tried to convince Papaw and Jeff that they liked jerky so we could stop at one of those seedy jerky outlets in the middle of the desert and we could try some weird food (i.e. armadillo jerky), but no one took the bait, so we forged on.

We finally made it to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and it was certainly more breathtaking than I remember. We thought we’d missed the rain, but it came back…

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I’d argue that the canyon has to be more beautiful with a cloudy sky because it makes the view even more interesting. With clouds, certain sections of the space are shadowed and the sun shines through to highlight others, making the whole picture sort of ominous and magnificent.

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We saw some lightning in the distance and ended up getting drenched before we made it back to the car – not ideal, but part of the adventure. As I write this, we’re back in Williams, AZ, elevation of 6,770 feet, AKA not ideal for jogging. I learned this lesson the hard way about two hours ago.

Tomorrow we take on the Las Vegas strip before flying to Salt Lake City and beyondddddd……..pray for us.

Beautiful timing.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11

My internship with International Justice Mission finished up on Wednesday with the end of the first annual Northstar conference in Atlanta, GA. The conference was initiated by IJM’s Student Mobilization team for the purpose of equipping college student leaders with an interest the work of justice/the modern-day abolition movement. During our last evening session, I was sitting next to Gary Haugen (IJM founder) as Louie Giglio took the stage and began publicly thanking Gary for his faithfulness in IJM for the past sixteen years. I just sat there, glancing back and forth from Gary to Louie and having this weird out-of-body experience, thinking to myself, “HOW did I get here?”

What’s true is that there is no explanation for the things I’ve done, the opportunities I’ve been afforded, and the things I’ve experienced other than the gift of God’s grace. Let me say that again – it is by God’s grace that I’ve ever done anything noteworthy. When I look back on my life and trace God’s hand throughout it, it is so clear that I’ve had little to do with anything.

I had nothing to do with so many of the things that have made me who I am. I had nothing to do with the fact that I was born into a loving, whole home and raised by parents who love Jesus and love each other really well. It had nothing to do with me that I was given the opportunity to be educated. It had nothing to do with me that my parents taught me the importance of hard work and helped me believe in my abilities. I’ve just tried to do the best I can and squeeze a lot out of live as God directs my steps. Sometimes I do that with a pure heart, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ve run from what he wants for me and doors have slammed in my face. Sometimes I really screw things up and forget the purpose for which I was created, and try to make life about achievement.

I like this quote from Dallas Willard:

“Christlikeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment, of course. It is, finally, a gift of grace. Nevertheless, well-informed human effort is indispensable. Spiritual formation in Christ is not a passive process. Grace does not make us passive. Divine grace is God acting in our life to accomplish what we cannot do on our own. It informs our being and actions and makes them effective in the wisdom and power of God. Hence, grace is not opposed to effort (in actions) but to earning (an attitude).

Paul the Apostle, who perhaps understood grace as none other, remarks on his own efforts for Christ: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (2 Cor. 15:10) The supernatural outcome that accompanies grace-full action stands out.”

I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be perfect. Until a few years ago, I felt pretty good about getting what I want and doing things myself without ever really, truly understanding my need for God. That’s a problem for many reasons, but especially when it comes to grace. You see – we need grace, and without it, we’re doomed to a life of never meeting the expectations we set for ourselves. But we can’t rest in grace until we realize we need it.

God wanted to show me some things about His grace this summer. He wanted to show me that walking with Jesus is different from working for Jesus. So he put me in a community of people who valued intimacy with the Lord over worldly success, over popularity, and over charm. He put me in a community of people who live as if what they believe is actually true; people who are desperate for God because they’ve put themselves in positions where they are sure to fail unless God shows up. People who were exercising faith, not just struggling to have faith –  “Great faith, like great strength in general, is revealed by the ease of its workings. Most of what we think we see as the struggle OF faith is really the struggle to act as IF we had faith when in fact we do not.” (Willard)

God chose to put me in such a community, and he chose to do it in the world’s most powerful city. Have you ever been around people like that? In case you’re doubting that they exist, here’s some of them:

God used these people to sharpen me in the Proverbs 27 iron-sharpens-iron kind of way. My friend Laura taught me the incredible value in having a friend who is willing to gently call you out on the junk in your life and won’t let you justify your way out of it. My friend Katrina taught me a lot about thoughtful question asking and active listening as a way to draw people out. My friend Kevin was an amazing example of someone who knows how to have A LOT of fun while still taking intentional time to think through and reflect on (and write out) things that God places on our hearts. My friend Hannah taught me a lot about the value in being vulnerable and real and asking yourself hard questions. My friend Michael taught me a lot about being intentional with people and seeing how “inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on…” (Hebrews 10:24-25). My friend Nathaniel taught me a lot about what a kind, solid, wise man looks like and was a great example of humility and integrity. My friend Ellen made me better by being one of the most genuine, authentic people I’ve ever known.

I could go on and on, but I’m leaving in an hour and a half for Las Vegas, so this post will have to be continued at a later date, or on a later plane.

To end, I’m so thankful that God put me in D.C. this summer, that he surrounded me with the most amazing community I’ve ever witnessed, and drug me through some challenging stuff this summer. I am thankful that he closed other doors, that he didn’t let me come last summer, and that he didn’t let me breeze by just going through the motions of life. This summer I was built up in faith, surrounded by people whose lives demonstrated God’s love, and who will have an influence on my life for many years. And on top of all that, I learned something about my career and what jobs I might be good at…which hilariously seems so secondary. He certainly made this summer beautiful and immeasurably more than I could have asked or imagined.

Perfect Moments

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.

Believing in a God who loves justice.

The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Why am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

– Exodus 3:7-12

I felt like crying through the entirety of IJM Orientation. Our entire first week was devoted to orienting ourselves towards God, whom IJM truly believes empowers them to do their work. Allow me to pause on that for a moment…IJM truly believes that without the power and sustenance of God, they cannot do their work. Although I sort of knew that before I came to work here, I have been so amazed at the actual depth of that belief here in the office. Throughout my life, I have been exposed to a variety of different Christian workplaces, camps, and environments that claim to rely on God for their every need. I have also claimed that in my daily tasks, but the common reality is that we claim to trust God while actually putting trust in our own abilities and work ethic. What I find at IJM, however, is people who actually believe that they are helpless without God. While being some of the most competent, successful, admirable people I’ve ever met, the staff here walk in a humility and surrender to their Heavenly Father that I believe to be unmatched in the professional work. This element of surrender, combined with a passion to partner with God in the work of justice, has led IJM to rescue thousands of bonded laborers and sexually exploited children over the past 16 years. It is truly compelling work.

An excerpt from IJM’s Biblical Foundation – “From Scripture we learn that the Creator is a God of justice and righteousness; that he measures the acts of individuals against an absolute standard of divine holiness. We learn that every person, without distinction, is created in the image of God and is precious in his sight; that each individual human being is so loved by God that he gave up his only Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem from sin and death any who would believe in his name…God has sent the disciples of his Son to be salt and light in the midst of this world’s darkness and corruption in order that they might preach the Good News of salvation in Christ and demonstrate, in word and deed, God’s love and mercy toward those who suffer. We learn that a visible measure of Christian faith is the sacrificial love extended to those in need; and that while the earth awaits its final redemption in Christ, faithful men and women of God will obey His call to preach the Gospel, to seek justice, to reprove the ruthless, to plead for the weak, to remember the ill-treated and the afflicted and to deliver them, to speak for the voiceless and defend the rights of the afflicted, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free.”

Back to the Exodus passage – during our first day of orientation, IJM President Gary Haugen took us through this passage and landed on seven points after studying it. These points are foundational for IJM’s work across the world.

1. Suffering at the hand of the oppressor is real.

2. God does hear and see the suffering of the oppressed.

3. God rescues the oppressed.

4. God rescues the oppressed by sending his people.

5. God goes with us.

6. God brings the oppressed to a “good and broad land.”

7. Rescue and restoration return to Go as worship.

Each day at the IJM office begins with 30 minutes of stillness. From 8:30 to 9:00, a quiet settles over the office as we prepare ourselves for the day. We hit the ground running at 9:00AM and then pause again at 11:00 for communal prayer. Everyone in the office stops what they’re doing to gather together and pray for IJM’s work around the world. It is surreal to sit in as requests are made for successful prosecutions in Kenya; people rejoice over news of women, men, and children freed from a brick factories in South Asia, or stories are told of little Guatemalan girls healing after years of physical and sexual abuse. It is so inspiring to hear directly from those on the front lines of this difficult work and their words make things so much more real for those of us who are stateside.

IJM’s work is bound up in four casework outcomes:

1. Victim Relief – in short, rescuing people

2. Perpetrator Accountability – hold criminals accountable for their crimes

3. Victim Aftercare – help survivors of abuse heal and find new lives of peace and freedom

4. Structural Transformation – help communities fix long-term problems to stop abuse before it starts

IJM operates out of 16 field offices in Bolivia, Guatemala, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Kenya, South Asia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia (multiple offices in South Asia, the Philippines, & Uganda); two Casework Alliance Offices in Peru and Ecuador; and five partner offices in Canada, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia. 95% of IJM’s staff is from the country in which they work. Additionally, through “Collaborative Casework”, they “come alongside local authorities to help serve victims of abuse, not simply to criticize.” Through these sustainable methods, IJM builds bridges with the countries in which they work. Here are some examples of IJM’s work around the world:

  • In Cebu, the Philippines, after four years of IJM partnership with local law enforcement, outside auditors found a stunning 79% decrease in the number of children available for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • In the past five years alone, IJM has brought relief to more than 10,500 victims of violence and injustice, and secured the conviction of more than 400 violent criminals – with hundreds more on trial.
  • For the past several years, IJM Guatemala has been responsible for more than one out of every three convictions for child sexual assault in Guatemala City.

Please partner with me by praying for the work of IJM. If you are a person of Christian faith, it should greatly encourage you to see people pursuing God’s work of justice all around the world. If you aren’t a person of Christian faith, I hope movements like IJM restore your faith in humanity and give you a true picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally…a D.C. update.

I came in at 7:30 this morning (work starts at 8:30) to try to start a blog about the crazy adventure my summer has already been. My laptop charger broke just before I came to D.C. and I am too cheap to buy a new one, so my computer has been dead for around a month now…typical.

Let me start from the beginning.

I moved up to Washington, D.C. on June 2nd. I drove up by myself and on my way in had lunch with good ol’ Colin in Falls Church, VA. We reminisced (we always reminisce) on our middle and high school days and the crazy reality that he’s about to get married and that we’re both living and working in the big city this summer. I remember our 9th grade conversations about going to Georgetown and Pepperdine, law school and the military, marriage and family – remembering those times makes it sweet and surreal to be where I am now. I am so thankful.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult for me to know where to start. I always feel like the best version of myself when I have the opportunity to dive into a new opportunity headfirst, and I’ve been so energized by all the new people, places, and things to explore. I have been going at about 100 mph since the day I got here. Here are some highlights!

The family I live with, the Hannigans, moved here from Chicago less than a year ago. They are wonderful, brave, generous people. They have a one year old daughter named Talitha who IS the HAPPIEST BABY God has created so far. I love playing with her and sometimes she cries when I leave, which makes me feel loved. Thanks baby! I am rarely home (if you know me, that is no surprise!) but I love spending time with them when I get the chance.

I have been spending most of my time in the Capitol Hill district. It’s right across the river from where I live, and there are a lot of good restaurants, parks, the National’s Stadium, a trapeze school (?????), and friends nearby. The first week here, my dear friend Laura invited me to an intern Bible study at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I can honestly say that now, two weeks later, I am as excited about being a part of that church as I am about being a part of IJM. The community is amazing, the level of reverence for God and his word are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I am so challenged and encouraged by the people. The friends I’ve made in this study are my D.C. A-team…we have shared so many laughs and adventures already.

In 2 1/2 weeks, here’s what I/we’ve been able to accomplish:

– Sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial

– National Cathedral, Botanical Gardens, National Archives, National Gallery of Art, Arlington Cemetary, Union Station

– Lobbying for Anti-trafficking legislation on Capitol Hill

– Exploring Georgetown, paddleboarding on the riverfront, and riding bikes along the Potomac, jazz in the park, fancy fondu restaurant (thanks Bryant!)

– Monument tour after dark

– Nationals baseball game

In other news, my parents came to visit this week (Sunday-Thursday) and totaled their car on their way to meet me for lunch on Monday. They were unhurt and thankfully I had already planned to take a day off to explore with them, so I was able to pick them up from where they were towed. They are resilient people and didn’t let it ruin their week.  I loved having them here.

As far as things go with my internship, I am incredibly blessed. I think I’m going to write a separate blog on IJM, but here are the facts surrounding my time here:

I am one of 24 summer interns working at Headquarters and am enjoying getting to know my brilliant, competent, FUNNY coworkers. The atmosphere of the office is very unique in that it is professional – full business suit every day – and the work expectation is excellence, but everyone is so warm, kind, and inviting. I’ve heard the life and coming-to-faith stories of nearly all of the executive staff members and have had the opportunity to seek wisdom on everything from career to relationship advice in our workplace conversations. The only downside to this office is that I’m going to get spoiled by the intentionality and support of the people…everywhere else is going to look so uninviting compared to this place!! 🙂

I hope this suffices as a decent update for those of you who are wondering what I’m up to. Please pray for continued strength, focus, and surrender as I continue to grow accustomed to this place.

MB