The people God uses

In my spare time, when I’m not writing or chauffeuring kids or exhausted from CFS, I like to redo furniture. This past summer, I got the brilliant (at the time) idea to find a new writing desk. My old one had been forced into duty as a sewing machine center and my study was empty. Based on the skills that I learned from furniture upcycling with the ladies’ association, I knew that I didn’t have to pay top dollar for a new desk.

I searched Pinterest, got ideas, and off I trotted to the local Salvation Army thrift store. No desks. But there was a dresser.

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Here, it’s turned on its side so you can see the banged-up laminate. The back piece of plywood was wobbly, too. It was in sad condition.

The drawers couldn’t open and close properly and as for the mirror that was originally attached to it: well, let’s just say that it wasn’t attached anymore.

Obviously, this was my new desk. 

It took sanding. And priming. And painting. (Lots of painting!) Then an antique glaze and a few coats of wax sealer. And help from my supportive husband, who allowed his garage to be filled with sawdust, drop cloths, and little room for his car for a few weeks.

Now this $25 dresser is a desk . . .

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and a set of bookshelves . . .

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Why, yes, those ARE copies of Ruminate in the lower right corner!

. . .  and an accent piece in my library. (That would be the mirror, which is still not hung on the wall! No photos of it.)

This morning, I thought about how I had looked at this sad, abandoned piece and decided to change it. Is this how God views us?

God takes joy in picking unlikely people for his work.

  • You’re laughing because you’re barren, past menopause, and this stranger is prophesying that you’ll be a mother of a great nation; you think that can’t happen? Not so fast, Sarah. I’m not bound of natural constraints on fertility. Menopause? Infertility? Not a problem.
  • Oh, you think you’re just a little guy from an insignificant family, and you can’t possibly be a military leader? And you’ve only got 300 men to fight with you against the army of the Midianites? Hold on, Gideon. I’m not bound by numbers and statistics.
  • Oh, you’re a beauty queen trophy wife who has to get permission to talk to her own husband? You think you can’t intervene on behalf of your people, the Jews, when their lives are in danger? Think again. Esther, I gave you great beauty for a reason: so you would be in this palace, at the time, with this corrupt king as your husband. Now I’ll give you courage, and your people will be saved from genocide. I’m not bound by societal norms or cultural expectations.
  • You’re a terrorist, self-righteous Pharisee, and intent on destroying the infant church? Mm, Saul, you’re going to end up being Paul, a missionary for this very church you’re trying to destroy, a speaker who’ll end up talking to corrupt politicians, demon-possessed slave girls, and everyone in between? Oh, and you’ll write a lot of letters that scholars and ordinary people alike will read for a long, long time. I’m not bound by your motivations and desires.

Unlikely people. A great God.  

Unlike me in my creative mode, God doesn’t have to scour Pinterest for ideas, search the web for tutorials, or ask for help from anyone else. He has plans to change us.

No matter how broken down and weak you are, no matter how bruised or scarred, no matter how evil and vile your past has been, know this: God can use you. 

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  –2 Corinthians 4:7

Our children are watching

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Passion, Perseverance and Grit

file-5Currently, I’m midway through two books. One’s fiction (The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford) and the other is nonfiction (Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth). I first encountered Duckworth’s research in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, so when I saw the cover of Grit at the library, I snatched it up.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of grit, then here’s the gist.

Passion + Perseverance = Grit

As she explains to a young entrepreneur early in the book, it’s not just doing what you love (passion). It’s doing what you love and staying in love with it. It’s consistency over time. That’s not easy. (Ask any couple who have been married five or six decades.)

I suppose that most people, if asked, would like to be gritty. But . . . those distractions. Setbacks. All that hard work. I’m just not good at that, they lament. “That” could be math homework or writing or a particular sport or an aspect of their job. And because I’m not good at it now, I’ll never be good at it.

On the flip side, there are people who are wondrously talented. No challenges get in their way through childhood or adolescence; people gush over their talent. But then something comes along and–wham! Failure. And they give up. They don’t know how to continue.

Duckworth, drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, says that this is a “fixed mindset.” Both sets of people think that their innate ability/inability to do (whatever it is) is fixed. It can’t grow. They’ll always be as bad or good at that task as they are now.

Recently, my daughter, who is on the varsity tennis team at school, told us a story at dinner. We were discussing two of the boys on the guys’ team. Let’s call them X and Y. Both are the same age, both were new to tennis last year, and as you’d expect, they were ranked low on the team. Only the top 6 players get to play official matches. X, who was slightly better, was ranked #6. Y was #7.

My daughter said that X never worked hard at tennis: he didn’t like running, ditched practice at least once (this year) because it was “crap”, and barely made it on time to his match for sectionals. In contrast Y worked hard. He took lessons outside of practice; he got better. (His balls still go over the fence, yeah, but not as much as before!) But X has a fixed mindset.

“He takes for granted that he will always be seeded higher than Y.”

-my 13-year-old daughter’s complaint

My daughter and another tennis friend urged Y to challenge X to a match in hopes that Y could be moved up a seed. Alas, the match was cut short. But my daughter maintains that Y could’ve beaten X. As Y took lessons all summer, I imagine that he will.

People become better at things through deliberate practice.  That’s not just any old practice: hitting the ball over and over without improvement, for example. It involves intense, often painful, practice that works on a particular component that is just a bit beyond their ability (call it a stretch goal), gets feedback, and seeks to improve with each repetition. Recognizing and applying this are key to having a “growth mindset.”

So perseverance is a huge part of this grit equation. But so is passion.

We don’t necessarily recognize our passion when we first encounter it. There’s spark: hey, that looks interesting. Then comes practice. And more practice. After a while, we seek to do this thing not just for ourselves but because we see how it benefits others. And then, finally, we find hope that these efforts can make us stronger. That when we fail, we can get back up. (We often need help with getting back up.) That out of those failures–the missed shots, the rejection letters, the setbacks–can come success.

There’s so much more in this book: about helping others develop grit, for example, and developing it within ourselves.

As for myself, I’ve decided to apply the principles of Grit to my own writing. I’ve often told myself that I’m a lousy blogger: too inconsistent in posting, too interested in writing fiction to bother with non, too focused on maintaining momentum in novel drafts to hit pause and type up anything of substance. Besides: my depression! my fatigue! my mania! I’m not a great blogger.

Fine. I’m not a great blogger yet. But I can improve. There is a definite skills set in successful blogging, just as there is in fiction writing, non-fiction writing, poetry. I have to learn, and that means deliberate practice: a clearly defined stretch goal (look at what skills I lack); full concentration & effort (no peeking at Pinterest!); getting informative feedback (listening to the advice of more successful writers); repetition with reflection and refinement (do it again, only better).

How about you? Have you read Grit? What things have you persevered at and improved in your own life? What skills would you like to develop? 

And, hey, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, what blogging skills can I improve? I love–okay, need more than love–feedback. 

Invisible in Church? Here’s my story

file-1This past Sunday, I had someone email me because my post “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew” struck a chord with her and she wanted to know the end of the story. What did I do? What have I done? The post was written several years ago–2013, to be precise–so naturally, she was curious.

Is there an end to this story?

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: It’s complicated.

Here’s where I was in December 2013: My family was attending a megachurch (5000+ members), and my husband and I were visiting various adult Sunday school classes to find the right place to fit. After three different classes, including one where we stayed for 2-3 months of faithful weekly attendance, we still felt invisible. No one knew us. That week, my mom ran into an acquaintance from her church. This younger woman and her family now attended this megachurch; she recommended her class. My husband and I did like the class and felt more connected. (Yay!) Unfortunately, some doctrinal issues arose and we didn’t feel that we could continue attending a church where these things were taught. (Sigh.)

At the same time, we had transferred our elementary aged daughters to a new school and were moving to a different area of the county. It was a good point to try the churches in this new area. My mom ran into a woman from one church we’d visited in the past, but had felt was too far from our then-current home, and that woman said the church would love to have us, as we were now close to the building the church had bought. (Yes, my mother talks to many people.)

I visited other churches but ultimately, we did end up back at that church.

Now, this church has many things in its favor. Good children’s and youth ministries. Solid, excellent preaching. Godly leaders who are trying to learn from the mistakes that other churches have made. A willingness to address tough issues. A desire to reach out to the community. A desire to help people assimilate and connect within the church. These are all things that we appreciate, and that work in its favor.

Me “fitting in” is not one of them. After months, I still felt invisible. I didn’t “fit” with the women. Or the men, either, for that matter. (They were mostly electrical/mechanical/aerospace engineers, who have many lovely and valuable characteristics–I’m married to a rocket scientist–but tolerance for minority opinions isn’t one of them. They also tend to marry nurses or teachers, though I haven’t figured out why. Me? I’m neither of those. And I’m definitely not a tech person.)

The other problem was that the ways the church presented for “fitting in” were all things that have been disasters or near-disasters for me in the past.

  • Ladies’ Bible studies: I’ve never had a positive experience with one.
  • Small groups: I’ve had mixed results.
  • Ministry opportunities: I had no interest in nursery duty (I got sick from the little sweeties’ germs); children’s ministries (ditto); youth ministry (my teen told me that she absolutely, positively, please-mom-don’t-you’re-embarrassing-me!! did NOT want me there); hospitality (not my gift); or greeting (ditto). Not only did I not have interest in these things, I had no energy for them, either.

My husband and I agreed that he and the girls should continue going there and I should explore other churches in the area. Which I did. Once.

Different megachurch. Same issues.

At that point, I decided that there were three options:

  1. Quit church. 
  2. Visit more churches. 
  3. Stay at our current church. 

file-3Let’s take option #1. Many Christians have “quit church.” They’re frustrated, they’re hurt, they’re angered by theology or people or both, so they quit attending church, or perhaps make only sporadic appearances at church.

While I understand why individuals might choose this option and sympathize, this isn’t for me. (I wrote a post in 2012 about why I haven’t quit church, and it still applies now.) It goes against my theological bent and my personality. Say what you like about me, but I’m too darned stubborn to give up on something that matters to me. (This same stubborn streak–you can call it “grit” or perseverance–got me through college and has kept me writing, even when I’d rather give up.)

I also think that this sets a poor example for my daughters. What does it tell them about persevering through difficult circumstances or learning to accept and love others even when they aren’t like me?

file-2On to option #2: visit other churches. That takes energy. Unfortunately, that is one thing I don’t have. I’ve never been a high-energy person; even my “manic” episodes are low(er)-key compared with other people’s. This has worsened over the past year.

(We’re fairly certain that I have chronic fatigue syndrome, which has to be the most unfortunately-named disease around. “Fatigue” is nothing like what I’m feeling now. It doesn’t describe the joint pain, muscle aches, mental fog, the exhaustion that any exertion exacerbates and no amount of rest alleviates. Oh, and by the way, a lot of people dismiss it as “all in my head” or “laziness.” Mm-hm. Yeah. So please don’t tell me that you’re tired, too.)

I looked online at other churches. It was mostly more of the same. Nothing piqued my interest enough to offset the energy it would take to get me there.

file-4Option #3: Stay at the same church.

This is the one I chose.  The Sunday I visited megachurch #2, my husband and one of the elders, a friend of his, talked about my situation. The elder mentioned that his wife didn’t feel like she fit in, either. As a result of this conversation, we’ve been to their house for dinner and had a great time. They’re coming to our house for dinner tonight, which I hope will also be fun.

It makes a tremendous difference to have 2 people who I know and who know me. Attending church feels easier, and I don’t feel quite as invisible as before.

Remember that this church has many things working in its favor. It’s a relatively healthy church and I had seen them make positive steps toward inclusion of women in leadership. I respect the leaders and teachers. There are a few doctrinal issues where I differ from them, but they’re tolerable for me.

Many of those who have commented or emailed me about that original post are not in healthy churches. They’re in toxic ones. So my choice may not be an option for everyone.

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But if you’re feeling invisible at church, don’t lose hope. In Genesis, Hagar names God “El Roi”: the God who sees. No one is invisible to him. He cares. There are probably other people sitting in your sanctuary, sharing your pews, singing the same songs, who feel like you do. The hard part is finding them. It’s hard, yes, but not hopeless.

Persevere, my friend. Keep going.


A long post, yes, but if you simply can’t get enough of my writing on this subject, here’s some related posts: 

Empty Spaces (An Autobiography in Seven Parts)

8741278f18d44861b5beaa869293506eAs I mentioned earlier this week, I have a piece of creative non-fiction that was published on Altarwork.com. It’s titled “Empty Spaces (An Autobiography in Seven Parts).” Here’s the opening: 

Chairs

He got the chairs. We got the sofa. After my father loaded them into the car trunk, strapped them down with cords and drove off, the living room had empty spaces.

I wasn’t there when he left. (Read the rest on Altarwork.com/empty-spaces. Be sure to check out some of the other work on the site.)

Don’t give up

f2927c549dfc4b7995379a47cec9f05fWell, it’s been a rough summer. I won’t bore you with the details. But I’ve had one very positive thing happen: a publication picked up a creative non-fiction piece of mine, and it will be published this coming Wednesday. 

This is a piece I wrote five years, two houses, and three manuscripts ago, intending it for an anthology. But the editor of the anthology turned it down. In retrospect, I’m glad. But at the time, I was miffed and hurt. It was good, right? I thought so. I couldn’t see how it could be improved. I submitted it to Ruminate. (I didn’t volunteer there at that time.) They, too, rejected it, though the editor said it was a strong piece and had made it to the final stages of being considered for publication. (Now I realize that means there were multiple people who had voted ‘yes’ on it.) Those words of encouragement, written years ago by a stranger, stayed in my mind. This was a good piece of writing. It needed to find a home.

But it was rejected again. And again. And again. And at some point, I think I gave up on it.

Then a few months ago, I posted a blog and another blogger–that would be you, Dyane!–told me that I needed to have it published. That hasn’t happened for that particular piece, but her words did make me reconsider my essay. Hmm.

I re-read it, and felt convinced that someone, somewhere, needed to read this. I don’t know who or where. So I began submitting it. And got more rejections.

This past week, @Altarwork began following me on Twitter. Naturally, I checked out their twitter feed and website, and I liked what I saw. (Go check them out and dig around on their site. It’s worth the time, I promise.) I also thought that maybe they would be interested in my writing. Checked their submission guidelines. Checked the piece for odd typos. Followed the guidelines. Clicked “submit.” And waited. And got the answer I’d been waiting for: yes.

(See how valuable words of encouragement are?)

Lesson to learn: don’t give up. That applies to more than writing and publishing; it applies to life. Recently, I attended the funeral of someone who ended her own life. I didn’t know her, but I saw the hopeless grief of the mourners, people I care for, and saw the bewilderment, the questions, the loss left in the wake of her death. I don’t know what she was thinking; no one does. My best guess, based on the times that I’ve been suicidal, is that despair overwhelmed her and she wanted to give up–and did.

There are some things that are valuable, far more valuable than an essay or novel. A person’s life, for one. So if you’re reading this, and you feel discouraged, overwhelmed, despairing, and want to give up, please don’t. Help is out there. You are valuable. You are unique. And you are loved by God. Keep going, my friend.  

 

When It Comes to Faith, Don’t Hedge Your Bets

This post was encouraging to me, and I hope it will be for you, too.

Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another

How about a cement wall with razor wire?

“I’m going to pray a hedge around you.”

I can’t remember who said it the first time I heard that, but I do remember thinking it was about the goofiest hing I’d ever heard. Apparently so did Tim Hawkins:

It turns out the hedge of protection is biblical:

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” (Job 1:8-10, emphasis added.)

Tim Hawkins was more right than he knew. Satan can’t get through the hedge.

The hedge goes both ways

Job saw the hedge from a different angle, though.

Why is life given…

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