The Membership of the Living: the common anxieties

Before I set aside my phone for the night yesterday, a friend and I were texting. We're two friends who try to be faithful in the life God has given to each of us, in the season in which we find ourselves, to the church to which we've been covenanted, to the people we love and who love us. Anyone looking in from the outside would probably say the same about each of us. They might see a few places we could be righted or nudged forward in, more restrained about and more disciplined in, but I think, overall, most folks would view us as two well-adjusted, acquainted with sorrow, faith-filled women trying to live within the goodness of the gospel day to day. 

Yet most of our conversations are not full of accolades about ourselves or pats on the other's back or lists of how well we're each doing. Mostly they're full of confession of brokenness, fears, anxieties, discomforts. They're usually brimming with the asking of precise questions and then really listening to the answers, rarely giving counsel to one another (although she is by profession one and I am not without plenty to give), but mostly just listening. 

Last night I vaguely confessed some anxiety and she asked me to name my top three and, dear readers, I'm going to share them with you here without regret.

My first is that I will never be a good enough wife (although my husband has never and would never say that to me); my second is that my body will always betray me, no matter how healthily I eat, how faithfully I exercise, and how tenderly I treat it; and my third is that I have peaked in life, ministry, faithfulness, writing, and it's all downhill from here. These are the anxieties that arrest my soul. And then my friend shared hers. They weren't the same as mine, but they were nearly the same; the first having to do with love and marriage, and the want of it, the second having to do with the frailty of the body, and the third having to do with living in light of eternity. 

It occurred to me that most of us, if we're honest, probably struggle with these three main anxieties: the anxiety of being loved, the anxiety of being alive, and the anxiety of being faithful. Fill in the blank of your anxieties and my guess is they will fall somewhere in there somehow. We humans are more alike than we like to pretend in our individualistic world. 

I have been thinking a lot about listening recently. How good and right it is to listen well and how awfully bad we are at it. Most of us are thinking of the next thing to say before the other has said anything at all. Many of us only ask questions to ascertain information for ourselves or to turn a conversation in the direction we want it to go. Some treat conversation as an opportunity to interrupt or monologue or catch the other in a moment of poor logic, frailty, fear, or false theology. 

Recently my husband and I were listening to a friend talk about a hard thing that happened in her life and I wanted to interject counsel or a good idea or to give quick comfort, and my husband only said, "I'm sorry this happened. It must have been hard." And then he was quiet, listening longer, letting our friend speak freely, without caveat, without question, without interruption. I thought to myself, I want to be more like this. Rarely do we stop to consider how alike most of us all are, deeply wanting to be loved (or even liked), deeply desiring the full experience of being alive, and deeply wanting to be found faithful. And how most of us just want the comfort of another person acknowledging the pain of life on this orb, and then simply saying, "I'm sorry. I think I get it a little, but not all the way, but I want to sit here with you in it." 

I just finished rereading Wendell Berry's essay Health is Membership from The Art of the Commonplace again yesterday. It's one of my favorites and it ends with this short illustration from when Berry's brother was in the hospital undergoing a triple-bypass operation. The whole essay is wonderful and should be read by anyone who is alive, but I wanted to share the last few paragraphs with you today: 

The most moving, to me, happened in the waiting room during John's surgery. From time to time a nurse from the operating room would come in to tell Carol what was happening. Carol, from politeness or bravery or both, always stood to receive the news, which always left us somewhat encouraged and somewhat doubtful. Carol's difficulty was that she had to suffer the ordeal not only as a wife but as one who had been a trained nurse. She knew, from her own education and experience, in how limited a sense open-heart surgery could be said to be normal or - routine.

Finally, toward the end of our wait, two nurses came in. The operation, they said, had been a success. They explained again what had been done. And then they said that after the completion of the bypasses, the surgeon had found it necessary to insert a "balloon pump" into the aorta to assist the heart. This possibility had never been mentioned, nobody was prepared for it, and Carol was sorely disappointed and upset. The two young women attempted to reassure her, mainly by repeating things they had already said. And then there was a long moment when they just looked at her. It was such a look as parents sometimes give to a sick or suffering child, when they themselves have begun to need the comfort they are trying to give.

And then one of the nurses said, "Do you need a hug?"
"Yes," Carol said.
And the nurse gave her a hug.
Which brings us to a starting place.

Listening can be a hug. Asking questions can be too. Confession can be. And mirroring confessions can be too. Conversation is an art. It is a commonplace one, but no less worth the attentiveness of a master artist and maybe worth it more than all the canvases of the world hanging in all the museums of the world. 

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Marriage is as One Long Conversation

The old philosopher said, "Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you're together will be devoted to conversation.” The old philosopher was right, but as with all bits of rightness, it ought to be understood in its place. 

I have always known marriage was not an easy conversation. I am of Scotch-Irish descent; men in my family love their beer and asserting opinions, and as for the women, there's a demure outside but on the inside it's all fire and spit. Most conversations were spent seeing who could talk the loudest the longest without throwing the first punch—even if the punch was merely metaphorical.

When I began to grow outside the incubator of family alone, I saw the long conversation of marriage through a different lens. These marriages were built on the scaffolding of details: who is supposed to be where and when and how, who needs to be picked up, what's for dinner, what should we do about this child or that one. There was an ordinariness to the conversations of marriage, unaccompanied by emotive, defensive jabs at the other. It seemed simplistic. I know now it's because I was not in the middle of those marriages as I was in the middle of the marriages in my family, and when we are in the middle of something all our own, we see all its inconsistencies and broken-places.

As I stepped into adulthood and was able to see my skewed perspective of childhood and adolescence both, I began to see marriage was a long conversation, but the tone of voice could change it from a pleasant one to a violent one. Armed with this newfound knowledge of tone, intention, nuance, and even love, I began to assume all the long conversations of marriage could be blissful. A constant sharing of ideas and delights and hurts and confusions, a true partnership. Whenever I thought of being married it was the long conversation I looked forward to most. 

Marriage has been that for me and Nate. The cusp of our friendship was on deep conversation, leading to dates full of long, easy talks, quiet pauses, intentional listening, and slow responses. This was the long conversation of marriage I wanted, I could see that clearly from our first date. 

The long conversations become subject to the tyranny of the urgent, though, as most things can. A few weeks ago there were twelve decisions that needed to be made and seven of them required quick conversations but the other five required depth, time, focus, and charity. We were short on all of that, though, and so if the conversations were going to be had, they were going to be had on the surface, quickly, while we multi-tasked, and were short with one another. As with most conversations built on bedrocks like that, we needed to repent later to one another. 

The urgent doesn't let up, though, does it? There is always someone who needs an answer or thinks they need an answer, or wants one. There is always something that must be signed up for or paid or responded to or agreed upon. There is always something left unfinished, unsaid, unsealed. I have learned to say to others, "I want to talk to Nate about that first," but the when of talking sometimes comes slowly or is mingled among the other conversations, never finished.

Nate and I practice (and by practice, I mean we are very unproficient at this and must practice) the discipline of saying "No," to ourselves, our minds, our friends, and the tyranny of the urgent. If, in saying no, we find ourselves disappointed or others disappointed by our lack of a quick answer—this is the discipline of the practice. This is the sacrifice, the hurt, the pain. This is where we admit to ourselves and to others that we are not God, as much as we sometimes think we would like to be. 

I think about Jesus in John 16. He says to his disciples and friends, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you." I think about how often we fill conversation simply because we do not want to feel the lack of the incarnate Christ and we do not want to wait for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do. We are uncomfortable with the long silences, afraid the Spirit will not do what He does: move. 

Yesterday morning, in the early hours of our day of rest, Nate mentioned some conversations we've left unfinished this week, answers others expect. And then he said this: I want to pray about these things, ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, humility, and a direction, even more than we simply talk about them. And then, for the rest of the day, we didn't talk about things we could not solve on that day. We left space for the Spirit to enter in, give peace or withhold it. 

Marriage is one long conversation, but it is not, primarily, a conversation between two, but three. If we find the conversation to be focused on just two, it may go the brawling way of my family, or it may go the stoic way of my checklisting friends. But, I think, if we move ourselves away from one another for a moment, stop talking and begin listening, not primarily to one another but to the Holy Spirit, we may find that conversation more robust, full, and gentle than we could have imagined before. We may leave more things unfinished, more things unsaid, more events unattended, and more lists unchecked, but I do not think we will leave less full. 

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If you're married today, what might it look like to still the conversation—even about the rudimentary things or the things that seem pressing and necessary—and begin to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this longest conversation of your life? 

If you're not married today, what might it look like to trust the Spirit is still at work in all the seeming silences of your life? In the lonely places where you long for conversation, how can you exercise listening to the Helper, learning from him, and obeying him as he perhaps prepares you for the long conversation of earthly marriage and definitely prepares you for the long conversation of eternity? 

When the Words of my Mouth are Pleasing Mostly to Me

I've always been a fast thinker, deducing concepts, abstracts, illustrations, and material quickly—on almost everything except math. Sadly, that quick thinking gave me a smart mouth and I don't mean a studied, intelligent, and wise mouth, I mean the kind that got slapped, taped shut, and soap in it on the reg when I was younger. I could not bridle my tongue. I was a melancholy girl, prone to long spouts of reading and ruminating, and saving up zingers to drop at the moment of maximum potential. One of my parents favorite disciplines was to make me write the book of James by hand in a series of black and white composition books. I wish I'd saved them. To this day I both shudder and cling to the book of James because it holds so much gold for a wily, unbridled tongue like mine. 

Beginning in my late teens and into my twenties I began to realize the way to gain friends and influence people was to not speak words of death to or about them. I have always been interested in outcomes and results, especially when they seem to benefit me. I learned to unbridle my tongue with good ideas, principles, formulas, and carnal wisdom. If there was a question, I wanted to have the answer. If there was a weakness, I wanted to be the healer. If there was a puzzle, I wanted to figure it out. I wanted to be the go-to girl—if you need wisdom, gentleness, friendship, pity, a listening ear? Go to Lore. 

I didn't realize how pervasively this pride had grown in my life and heart, though, filling all my joints and marrow with the belief that I had enough of the answers or the right amount of gentleness or the perfect principles for someone's problems. I was okay if people saw me as the solution, even as I pointed to Christ as the ultimate solution. I was the conduit, but he was the water. Surely folks could see that? 

The problem is, folks don't see that, not unless you hit them over the head with it and I wasn't about to do that and lose their respect. I wanted to tickle their ears, not box them.

One of the things that drew me to Nate, before I even met him, was his Bible. I walked past him often enough in our coffee shop, he always sat there with his open Bible counseling men. His Bible was so underlined and scribbled in I thought, "Well, here's a guy who loves the Word." One of our first conversations was about a heated and polarizing issue, and he sat across from me with his Bible gently responding to all of my questions and points with scripture. He just never wandered far from what the Word said about anything

As I began to know him and move toward marriage with him, I saw this come out in the way he led our relationship, the ways he interacted with others, the ways he spoke and didn't speak, the ways he shared his sin and the brokenness of his former marriage, the ways he ministered to men, the ways he walked in discipline situations, the ways he submitted to our pastors and elders, and so much more. He was a man who for many years simply read the Word or about the Word, but in the past few years he had become a man who was empowered with, immersed in, captured by, and full of the Word of God. 

None of this changed in our marriage, in fact, I've seen even more up close and personal how he doesn't offer counsel, wisdom, good ideas about anything unless they're drenched in the Word of God. He has learned the way to truly bridle his tongue is to put on the reins and bit of the Word—to let the words of God direct, lead, and guide him in the direction he goes. 

I am so challenged by this. I want to be more like this. I know at the end of every day when he asks me about my day, the folks I saw, the people I prayed with, the counsel I gave, the counsel I received, we're going to have a conversation about whether and how Scripture influenced the words spoken. 

I have spent decades trying to figure out how to bridle my tongue, going from one extreme to the other, from utter silence to rampant zingers. This discipline of letting the Word of God be my bit and reins for a bridled tongue is the only thing that's changing me really, from the inside out. 

Practically speaking, if this is a struggle for you, what does that look like? 

Read the Proverbs. I've been sitting in the Book of Proverbs for weeks now, originally because I'd encouraged a friend to get in it, but now because I'm just so convicted about my tongue in my own life. You can't read five verses without stumbling across one dealing with the mouth, wisdom, the tongue, speaking, or being foolish. I've been getting wrecked in my own heart about my tongue and the pride in me.

Read the book of James. Write the book of James. Get the book of James inside you. Eat the book of James. 

Ask the Holy Spirit to convict you immediately when your words are coarse, unkind, gossipy, idle, unforgiving, or rooted in pride. And then, this is important, repent for your actions in the moment. This is really hard for me. I feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit seventy times a day and can't even count on one finger how many times that actually drives me to repent in the moment. 

Trust the Holy Spirit to do the work, not you. It's not your job to share the tidbit you think will make all the difference especially if your desire is simply to be heard. Zack Eswine said, "It's not our job to finish what Jesus has left unfinished," in regard to our desire to sweep up, clean up, tie up loose ends. Leave room for the Holy Spirit. 

Before giving counsel, ask a lot of questions. Ask what in Scripture is comforting, convicting, teaching, leading, guiding the person with whom you're speaking. Ask how the Holy Spirit is comforting them. Often times your questions will lead them to remembering the power of Scripture and the ministry of the Holy Spirit—the sources to which and whom they can always go. 

If you're someone who is quiet and only thinks the zingers, find some Scripture that is life-giving and speak it in the situation. Sometimes opening your mouth is the way your tongue is bridled. Ask the Lord to increase your empathy and love for people, to help you be patient, even in your listening. Sometimes your courage to speak Scripture in a situation will be the thing that changes you and the person with whom you're speaking.

If you're someone who is not quiet and says the zingers, maybe a fast from speaking is in order. A time of intentionally crafted silence, full of reading the Word, studying the Word, repentance, asking the Holy Spirit to convict you, change you, and help you to see your words are not the answer to everything. 

Friends, I'm convicted as I write this even more. I want the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart to be pleasing to God. I want to see my words and heart meditations as they are, being heard by the God of the universe, the Father who loves me, the Son who died for me, and the Spirit who is saying things too deep for words on my behalf. My zingers and smart-mouth and good ideas are like filthy rags to this God. I want to please my Father and the best way to do that is to fill my mouth with the words he's given me in his Word. I'm praying for you and me and all our friends today in this. 

 

 

High Noon and Our Hiding Places

I have always known the woman at the well came there at high noon when the fewest other women would be there. This is the first clue. Next is she is a woman at all and to do most anything by ourselves takes courage most often borne in fear somewhere down there. This is the second clue. The third is the way she stands by the well when Jesus reads her life before her, like a judge reading the charges. Her head high and drooping at the same time, the way pride and shame go hand in hand: the paradox of being both not enough and too much that plagues almost every woman I know. 

Perhaps it is that Jesus speaks to a Samaritan that should surprise us, or that she was a woman at all, or even that he knows her life as if he lived it beside her. But what catches my breath in recent weeks is that he met her at high noon in her loneliness, shame, and pride. He entered into the uncomfortable. 

It is often that I fear Jesus doesn't want to see or encounter my sin, that it is too much or I am not enough. I slink around the corners of confession, repentance, fellowship with him, thinking if I don't show up, he won't read the charges. 

I love Jesus in this passage because he is there, at high noon too. He is in the uncomfortable place  to meet the uncomfortable person. Not to read her charges, either, but to read her life and give her water that satisfies. I love that he doesn't demand her repentance, but offers it to her as if the gift of her repentance is one he gives. Another paradox of faith in him. 

I suppose we all have high noons in our lives, places we're hanging out alone or people we avoid or environments where we feel our shame the least and the most at the same time. And I also suppose Jesus is hanging out there too. It's strange, isn't it? She thought she was hiding and really she was standing out, being what she actually was: alone, ashamed, fearful, prideful, and empty. She came to the well in the heat of the day with all she ever did cloaked around and within her, sticking to her like her sweat and the day's dust and the scorching of the sun's heat in the red of her face. Unable to hide where she thought she was hiding. 

“He told me all that I ever did,” she said to her fellow townsmen.

And Jesus met her there. 

I love this. 

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When You're Walked Over, Pushed Aside, Overlooked: Outdo

I'm one of those quiet controllers. I don't have the loudest opinion about where we go to dinner or what to have for dinner or which curtains look best. Opinions I have, but voicing them amongst those with stronger (or louder) ones than I have isn't really my thing. I'm a cheap date, I tell my husband often, mostly because I'd rather peruse a used bookstore and come out empty-handed than a fancy rooftop dinner with micro-greens and chickens who had names. I like things simple and peaceful and quiet and easy. I want to slip in and slip out, mostly unnoticed, and hold myself to a pre-determined number of what I call "good conversations" with folks at most social events (Usually two is my goal, but if I get four I feel pretty okay about that.). This is how an introvert socials so hard. 

I quietly control, though, by the seething Wish I'd Saids and growing Piles of Regrets I let build up in my heart. I allow myself to be pushed over, walked on, shifted around, and then, one day, I'm surprised at the resounding No gurgling up from the mire inside. "No more." The Wishing I'd Said and Piling of Regrets has spoken and Lore reached her limit. 

I don't believe in limits, mostly. I believe in going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving my shirt and my cloak. And I believe most preferences and opinions are the modern day cheeks and cloaks and miles, especially for the modern day American who has all the shirts she needs and probably more than she needs. What else is there to give? Oh. My preferences

Preferences are everywhere and the thing about them is they're not wrong to have. There's a God who knit us together, crafting each of us with specificity and precision. He knows our inclinations and proclivities, and also knows we are dust. He knows dust hasn't got much to say for itself and probably wants to say as much for itself as it can. This comes out as preferences. And whether we have loud opinions or silent ones, we all have a preference or two or fifty or seven hundred. 

Romans 12:10 says, "Outdo one another in honor," and this means, literally, give preference to one another. Give my preference—the unique sometimes God-given desire I have, and even my preference for having a preference—away, deferring to the preference of another. Outdo my preference with theirs. 

This is convicting to me this morning because all this week I've felt shoved about by the preferences of others. My ideas and my plans and my hopes were pushed aside by the preferences of someone else, but instead of giving those preferences to them, I felt taken from in them. I felt as though my desires were stolen and someone else's given the star place. I'm convicted this morning because, well, that's no way to live. 

What does it mean to not need to control the outcome of a situation, but also not need the tally marks of self-righteousness for keeping silent as your preferences are overlooked? What does it mean to go about outdoing one another in honor? 

I think it means holding loosely to what we think is best, even if we really, really, really think it's best. I think it means posturing ourselves as servants more than masters. I think it means letting go of what we envision and giving instead to the vision of Christ: which is to serve more than we're served. I don't know fully how to do this because I'm an American and we like our opinions with a side of opinions, but I also know the Holy Spirit lives inside of me, bearing fruit I cannot bear on my own. And he bears the fruit of self-control—not me. The Spirit within me bears the fruit of a controlled self, freeing me to not control others and outcomes and opinions aplenty. He frees me to outdo my sisters and brothers in honor, truly making it my preference to overlook my preference and give extravagantly to them.  

This is a tough word for me today because I don't want to give up or give over. I'm weary of feeling like a floor-mat, of being expected to capitulate to the expectations of others, and not speaking up for my own—however unimportant—opinion. But I also know the Spirit inside of me who compels me toward self-control, also comforts me when I feel crushed. 

I'm praying for you and me today, as our preferences and proclivities get shuffled around and overlooked. I'm praying instead of feeling stolen from, we can embrace the words of Romans 12:10 and work to give that honor away before it can even think of being stolen. I'm praying that we become obedient, as Christ was, to the painful work of the Father in regard to our sin. And I'm praying that the Spirit comforts us when we're weak. I need that prayer today for my own heart, so I'm going to share it with you in case you do too.