Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Unexpected but Exciting Turn

'Around the Bend' photo (c) 2009, Basheer Tome - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I'm a planner; it's simply in my nature. However, in the past five years, God has, as a rule, kept me in the dark about most things in my future. For example, a year ago seminary was in the five-year plan, but I would never have guessed that I'd now be nearly half-way through my master's degree (in terms of credits).

Because of this, my husband and I now hold our plans for the future very loosely. We have goals and dreams, but we know that thus far, God has only shown us a few steps at a time, so we try to focus on being faithful for those few steps and not getting ahead of ourselves. 

In predictable fashion, God has given us a new opportunity that we would not have expected at all.

A few months ago, a good friend shot me a quick email reading, "Not sure what your job life is like these days with school and pregnancy, but was thinking you'd rock at this." The email had an attachment with information about a job opening for a Christian organization. Before this email, I had decided to cut back to part-time status at seminary beginning in the Fall, for multiple reasons including the baby, and had thought I would be spending more time at home writing and freelancing. However, I opened that darn attachment and a little seed was planted.

Upon reading the job description, I immediately recognized my suitability and qualifications for this job. I didn't get too excited about the opportunity though, primarily because I was in the dark days of pregnancy sickness and was doing all I could to just find food I could eat, let alone think about the future. But a week later, a second friend emailed me about the exact same job. After that, I just couldn't shake thinking about the possibility.

Of course, the big mental block to applying was my pregnancy. The position needed someone to start at the end of Summer, right around the time I'd be hitting the lovely full-term mark. The other aspects of the position were great for my situation, but the start time seemed problematic. I know that one major transition at a time is hard enough. Two big transitions close together? That just seemed like I was asking for trouble.

Shortly thereafter, I showed the position description to my husband. He was surprised that I was interested before he read it, but after reading it, he completely understood. After talking and praying about it, we felt like I should apply. I know it sounds totally corny, but I actually felt that God wouldn't let me not apply; he just kept bothering me about it. I could not shake the feeling that He was leading me to this.

So I applied.

Not only did I apply, but I slowly started to really, really want this job. It wasn't just that I would be good at it; I realized that thinking about doing the job requirements actually brought me great joy. What a good sign, right?!

And now, after six weeks and a fairly extensive interview process, God has surprised us once again: I got the job!

What does this mean? I'm not entirely sure yet. But here are some quick thoughts:

1) I won't be posting information about the organization or my position publicly until they do so. So, if you don't know me in real life, you'll have to wait for the details. Sorry. I'm not sure I even want to put the name of the organization here on my blog at that point, because someone searching for info about them would be able to find it and I'm not sure I want to create the possibility of negative ramifications for the organization based on posts I have written. I know that might sound unlikely, but you'd be surprised.

2) For now, my blogging should remain unchanged, but it might seriously slow down in the Fall. I'm not sure yet, but it is a possibility. I will have two new responsibilities that will take priority over writing. 

3) God is definitely full of surprises.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wrestling with Reconciliation



Wrestling with Reconciliation
By: Laura Ziesel
May 21, 2012

Scripture:
"Then Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept." Gen 33:4

Reflection:
Genesis is my favorite book of the Bible; it's full of poetry, stories, and revelations about God. You might remember the story of twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, that starts in Genesis 25. In the chapters of Genesis that follow, Jacob steals Esau's birthright in dramatic fashion, a story which many of us have seen or heard at Sunday School.

But afterward, what many people don't know, is that Jacob and Esau part ways as adult men. Jacob moves far away, takes wives, has many children, and establishes himself. We don't hear much about Esau, but we are told that he stayed in his father's home country. From what we can tell, these twins were mostly estranged. We can guess that things between Jacob and Esau were, to put it mildly, tense. Later in their lives, Jacob decides to return to his father's land, a land that he knows is occupied by his estranged twin. Reading the text, we can tell that he was very anxious about seeing Esau again.
'lunchtime hug' photo (c) 2006, paddy patterson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
But as Jacob is preparing to see Esau, something strange happens. The night before Jacob and Esau were to see each other for the first time in decades, Jacob is met in the wilderness by God, and God wrestles with Jacob, changing his name to Israel and leaving him with a permanent limp. This story might seem strangely out of place, but I think the timing is perfect: Before Jacob can be reunited with Esau, he must wrestle with God.

When I think about reconciliation between people, especially among family members, I often think of this story. Yes, I think it's important to hash out our differences with those we love, but this story shows us that before we can do that, God is the one who must deal with us. Before true reconciliation can take place with others, we must wrestle with God about our guilt, inadequacies, and our very identity. God might even break us in the process.

And what follows Jacob's wrestling with God is one of the most touching scenes in Genesis. The next morning, Jacob limps toward his home country, probably still anxious to see Esau. And probably in a very surprising turn of events, Esau runs toward him, embraces him, and they both weep. Instead of experiencing more bitterness and tension with Esau, Jacob experiences forgiveness and love.

What drove this deep love between two brothers who were once metaphorically at war with one another? My guess: Before reuniting, God also intervened in the life of Esau. I'm not sure if God came to Esau to wrestle, or came to him in a dream, or simply spoke to him in a soft whisper; but I just have a hunch that, somehow, Esau learned how to forgive from our forgiving God.

Life today might not seem as cinematic as the story of Jacob and Esau, but our relationships are just as broken. We sin, we hold grudges, we feel deep shame. But we serve a God who wants to meet us in the midst of our insecurities. Instead of leaving us to our own devices, God enters our story and asks for us to wrestle with him, to let him change us. And I believe that if we receive God when he is calling us, we too will be able to experience the sort of deep reconciliation in our relationships that Jacob and Esau experienced, to weep in unity with those with whom we were formerly estranged.

Prayer: 
Father, you know more than anyone else that I am a broken person. I have sinned against others, and others have sinned against me. I come to you now, asking for you to bring healing to all of the broken relationships in my life. I ask that I would learn to be as loving and forgiving toward others as you have been toward me. Thank you for absorbing my sins and the sins of others on the Cross so that we are able to experience reconciliation.




________________________
I will be posting my devotionals from The Redemptive Pursuit once a month as they are published. Sign up to receive these weekly devotionals via email hereFollow The Redemptive Pursuit on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Things I Don't Blog About

'PRIVATE' photo (c) 2011, Rupert Ganzer - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
I'm a blogger.

For better or worse, I write publicly about my thoughts, my feelings, my life. I've written about my church, my school, my work, my marriage, my home, and my miscarriage. I've shared deep hurts and hopes that I'm almost too afraid to talk about. Heck, I've even shared about our birth control choices and my cycles. It probably seems like I write about everything.

But I don't.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. I often write for myself, but I simply choose not to publish many of these words.

I do have a private life.

Honestly, if I wrote about those things, my blog stats would probably increase. I'd probably pick up new readers who I would love to get to know. I'd get a load off and probably get encouraged for doing so.

But for now, I choose not to write negatively about my husband, friends, or family unless I really feel led to do so (and have cleared it with them first). I choose not to write about people who are highly private, positive or negative. I choose not to publish blogs that are written in anger until I have had some time to cool off or received the a-okay from someone else (who is not angry as well). I carefully consider words that could negatively impact my or my husband's careers.

And it has occurred to me that my son will grow up one day and be able to read all of these thoughts, even the ones that are about him, which means all of his friends, teachers, dates, and employers will be able to do the same thing. (We have a very unique last name.) As he grows, I'm sure I will choose not to publish many things about him, as well as our other children, should we have them.

One day, I might choose to share my experiences of those things with you world. But for now they are either too precious, too difficult, or too dangerous.

My hope is that these judgment calls are made out of love and wisdom, not out of fear. Thank you for helping me as I figure it out and sometimes make mistakes.


And....in related news, I became an aunt today!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Small Groups with Tinies

'Doe-eyed adoration' photo (c) 2009, normalityrelief - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/As both singles and as a couple, Josh and I have been in a number of small groups as part of para-church organizations and churches. From our experience, these small groups are the real powerhouses of the Church.

I've mentioned our current small group occasionally here. We launched it last Fall with four committed couples. However, we had a problem that I think is common to small groups: our group came with kids. At the time we launched, there were four children under the age of five. Kids aren't a problem in themselves, but they can certainly limit the vulnerability and intimacy of conversation among adults when they are present. On the other hand, we believe in doing life together as families, including the messy "Mommy, I need you" calls from the bathroom. The thought of attempting to truly build a community that didn't include our children seemed a bit fake. Plus, hiring a babysitter weekly is quite a financial burden on some parents. Some genius in our group (I honestly don't remember who came up with this format), proposed the following:

-We meet on weekends during the day rather than on weeknights when parents and kids are in the dreaded bedtime hours.

-We meet once a month as adults only for more serious conversation and prayer. Everyone in the group needs to commit to this time as we consider it the cornerstone of the group. (We chose Sunday afternoon.)

-We meet once a month as women only while the men provide childcare at home. (For these times, the women often meet after children's bedtimes on Friday or Saturday nights, often partaking in food and drinks together.)

-We meet once a month as men only while the women provide childcare at home. (These times also tend to be after children's bedtimes on the weekend, though this might be changing soon as the men try some new activity options.)

-We meet once a month as families for a casual potluck. (We also do this on Sunday afternoons. Thus far, the kids seem to play together swimmingly well.)


We didn't know how well this small group structure would go, but we gave it a shot. And voila! It's not perfect, but it works surprisingly well. Since the Fall, our group has grown considerably as well, I think in part because of our ability to accomodate young families. We now have seven couples and seven kids, with two more kids in utero. (While our group is all couples, some are newlyweds who aren't looking to have kids anytime soon.) 

I share this information about our small group because I know of churches that are full of growing families yet struggling to launch meaningful small groups. I know a lot of pastors and lay leaders read this blog, and I hope I can encourage you in your difficult mission by providing some very practical information about what is working in our neck of the woods. I know this small group format won't work for everyone, but in the hopes that it provides some fresh ideas to a few people out there, I thought it was worth sharing.

If you've been in a small group, please let us all know what worked and what didn't! Hopefully we can learn from one another.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Refuse to Feel Pain? Say Goodbye to Joy.

Lately I've been a bit more emotional than usual. Previously, barring abnormal circumstances, I would feel emotions, but there were about five metaphorical doors that had to be opened before I would cry (good or bad cries). As a pregnant woman, I'm pretty sure four of those doors are always open, so there's only one hurdle to cross before I break down in tears. So, things have been... different. 

This has left me thinking a lot about emotions in general and how they affect decisions, relationships, etc. And recently, one interesting concept has really stood out to me. I've heard it before from my husband, but I heard it again recently from another source. The concept?

You can't numb yourself to negative emotions without numbing yourself to all emotions. 

I knew this reality when grieving my miscarriage, which is one reason I let myself deeply enter into the pain. I knew that if I refused to feel the pain, I would simultaneously be muting all of my emotions, even joy, pleasure, and love.

And it's occurred to me lately that this is a concept that I will need to remind myself of over and over while parenting, both in regard to myself and my husband, but also in regard to our children. When I'm scared or sad, I will be a great parent by letting myself admit those feelings. If I brush them aside, it will hinder my ability to fully feel joy. Likewise, if I am always quick to placate my son, to "fix" his negative emotions, I will be doing him a disservice.

Our current small group from church is a mix of young married couples and young families and it has been a great honor to do life with these people. It has been particularly valuable lately to watch our friends with children as they figure out parenting. I'm seeing parenting modeled in different ways by each couple we know, and it's fascinating.

One thing nearly all of our parent friends do well is that they affirm negative emotions in their kids. When their kids are sad or angry or scared, they don't instantly try to make the negative emotions vanish; they calmly ask, "Why are you angry?" or say, "Tell me about it" or "I'm sad, too. Wanna come sit with me?" Seeing parenting modeled in this way has been great.

But I've also been thinking about this phenomenon of emotions being intertwined from a theological standpoint. Mostly, I've been thinking of how it points to Shalom. Shalom is a foundational theological concept for me, although I don't talk about it much explicitly. But it's always there: We are broken, but we know, fundamentally, that we should be whole. Shalom in our wholeness, not just individually, but societally and spiritually. Shalom is the harmony of all things. And shalom-on-earth in our emotional life means that we experience the full range of all emotions, even the ones that bring tears and pain. We are wired to avoid pain for good reasons, but denial of existing pain is anti-shalom, and it rips us apart even further. The further ripping apart of my already-broken self is not something I want to encourage. And so, I'm letting myself feel, even when what I'm feeling is ugly.

Just some rambly thoughts for today. They don't feel very poignant or purposeful, but that's okay, at least with me. Your thoughts are welcome in return anyway. They will probably even help as I continue processing.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mother is a Verb

'Mother-Teresa-collage' photo (c) 2009, Peta-de-Aztlan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Last year, Mother's Day was extremely difficult for me. I had miscarried my first pregnancy a month prior. I was in pain, and I resented that there was a holiday to remind me that I wasn't a mother. More so, I was scared of going to church because most churches make a big deal about Mother's Day. When I was a kid, my home church had all of the mothers stand during church for recognition and applause on Mother's Day. I dreaded something like that, something that would leave me sitting with an empty womb and empty arms.

This year, I'm pregnant with an energetic baby boy, and perhaps I should view this as my first Mother's Day. Most people would probably. I could be celebrating and basking in the glory of getting some recognition for my swollen belly. But I'm not.

Instead I'm thinking about all of the people Mother's Day is hard for: those whose mothers are absent or deceased, the women who long to have children but don't, the women who are actually or effectively single mothers and have no one to thank them. 

For them, and for myself, I'm a little bit pissed at the greeting card industry. But I think we can use this opportunity for good; this is the appropriate time to step back and say, "But wait, what makes someone a mother?"

At the end of November, right around my first pregnancy's due date, I had tea with Elizabeth. Elizabeth has five kids and often speaks out on behalf of mothers. She, in my book, has every right to. I don't remember exactly what prompted it, but at some point while we were chatting Elizabeth reached out, took my hand, and said, "You are a mother." I immediately teared up because she had spoken directly to my heart with those words. I don't remember her exact words that followed, but I remember that she said something about Mother Teresa having no biological children but being as much of a mother as she was. 

Since that rendezvous in a Starbucks with Elizabeth, I've been reflecting on my status as a mother. And I've come to the conclusion that I've been a mother for a long time in many ways. Because of that, I'm not considering this my first Mother's Day, although it may be the first one that is recognized by others. Nor was my first Mother's Day last year because I had a baby in heaven. No, my status as a mother has very little to do with my biological reproduction or my legal status as a parent; my status as a mother has to do with the mothering I've done in my heart, with my words, and with my hands. 

I don't know what the exact definition of mother should be, but I think we should stop viewing it primarily as a noun and start viewing it as a verb. I mother when I put other people's needs before my own. I mother when I share my concerns about a friend's destructive behavior. I mother when I feed the hungry, or even just the droves of college students. I mother when I commit to always be there for someone else, even if they need to call at 4am. I mother when I encourage, when I pray, when I clap my hands at a friend's recital. And yes, I mother when I force myself to eat vegetables for the sake of my son. My son will always be the recipient of my mothering, but he won't be the first.

I know the verbs "mother" and "mothering" have a lot of negative baggage. I know they carry hints of nagging, being uptight, or even being emasculating. But I really don't care. Yes, we can sin in our mothering, just like we can sin in any of our actions. But to mother is to rise to a high calling, not a low one, even if people associate it with negative images. Let's redeem those images, ladies, and mother with the very best of us, asking for grace, forgiveness, and help along the way. 

And so, on what will be my first Mother's Day according to the world's standards, I shake my head at your recognition of my status as a mother according to my baby bump. I am made a mother by my heart, by my words, and by my actions, not by my womb. 


_________________

(Fortunately, it turned out that my church is sensitive to people who struggle on Mother's or Father's Day. Our church service last year didn't give moms flowers or ask them to stand. I was relieved. In fact, they think through how they can use Mother's and Father's Day to reflect the heart of God to those who are hurting. Praise God! Won't you do the same as you plan your service for Sunday?)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reviving Ophelia

Me, age 8
My mother has been known to say, "Laura, you used to be so nice and sweet. What happened to you?" 

She doesn't intend to be mean; she is simply observing how I have changed throughout my life. I was, in fact, quite a joyful, people-loving, carefree child.

I had what many would consider to be an idyllic childhood: I read, played both with friends and by myself, put on Christmas concerts for neighbors, wrote poems, performed "chemistry" experiments in our family creek, chased frogs, danced, loved fishing, shot bbs into V8 cans, and was a pretty darn good bonfire attendant. I excelled in school and was simply a happy kid. 

And then something happened. 

I don't remember when or how, but I changed.

My transformation probably wasn't noticeable to most people. I didn't become depressed or violent and my grades didn't slip. But my joy left me. Slowly, the love of life I had experienced slipped away and I grasped for many different things to find it again.

Today I'm high-performing, happy, and content. I'm fine with who I am as a 27-year-old woman. But something definitely changed within me. If you had charted the life trajectory of my personality and interests before I hit the age of 10, I would not end up here. And if you met me now, you would probably imagine 10-year-old Laura in a very different way than the Laura my friends and family knew.

I've never thought about this transformation much as an adult. Because I have never really understood it, I chalked most of it up to "normal growing up" and moved on.

But last summer I started volunteering with sixth grade girls. By the time our second hang-out night rolled around, I knew I needed to get a bit more in touch with my 11-year-old self. A friend had mentioned a book about the transition from childhood to adolescence among American girls, so I decided it was time to give it a read.

'Ophelias story' photo (c) 2007, L. Whittaker - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher explores the inner lives of adolescent girls. In the pages of this book, I read a lot of things that resonated with my own experience:

"Adolescence is when girls realize that men have the power... They do not suffer from...penis envy..., but from power envy"(21).

I had never read or heard the phrase power envy, but that is exactly what I was going through as I left childhood. Pipher says that girls become "increasingly aware that history is the history of men" and that their own stories are largely ignored except for when their stories intersect with or influence the stories of men (41). Intelligent and/or intuitive girls are particularly likely to have earth-shattering realizations that life isn't fair, that they're not on a level playing field, that the men they know tend to have more power than the women they know.

Whenever this realization does occur, girls tend to respond in a combination of these four ways:

1) Conform
2) Withdraw
3) Depression
4) Anger

During this transition, girls also distance themselves from their parents, but Pipher says this is "just at the time when they most need their support" (23). As a result, "parents experience an enormous sense of loss when their girls enter this new land....Everyone is grieving" (24). I don't know about this dynamic from the parenting side, but I can see how that would be a very, very difficult time as a mother.

During the course of this book, Pipher makes many keen observations about adolescent girls. Worth mentioning are:

"Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts." (22)

Attractiveness is of the utmost importance for girls because they learn that "Helen of Troy didn't launch a thousand ships because she was a hard worker" (40). 

"Our daughters need time and protected places in which to grow and develop socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically. They need quiet time, talking time, reading time and laughing time. They need safe places." 230

All in all, I thought Reviving Ophelia was a great read. It has helped me to process my own narrative, and it also helps as I interact with middle school girls on a regular basis.

Of course, the book has some limitations from a Christian perspective. It's not a Christian book, so I don't hold that against Pipher at all. She writes an excellent book. But I think the Christian parent, pastor, or teacher would benefit from conversation with other Christians and prayer as they read her thoughts.

Of particular interest to me was the romanticized way in which girlhood is viewed. As a happy child, I believe I could easily romanticize my childhood self. But the reality is that I wasn't always happy, I wasn't perfect, I wasn't free of wounds and scars. As a girl, even before I hit adolescence, I lied, I blamed, I was a glutton. Sometimes I was downright cruel. In short, even though I was a happy child, I was still a sinner.

As Christian people, we always have to make room for sinfulness in our understanding of human development. When I hit adolescence and had power envy, a portion of my feelings were probably fueled by a legitimate desire to see equity and justice, but a good portion of my feelings were also fueled by my own sinful need for control. It's hard to untangle my desires for justice and control, but recognizing that they were both at work is essential.

If you have a girl approaching adolescence, if you work with girls and teens, or if you simply want to think through your own story a bit more carefully, I would highly recommend Reviving Ophelia.

____________

I received no compensation for this post. I wrote this review entirely of my own volition.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Is Bible Criticism a Worthy Pursuit?

'the earth and the sea' photo (c) 2010, kevin rawlings - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I'm simultaneously finishing up my first year of seminary and my first year of paying attention to the Christian blogging world. It's made for an interesting combination!

I am pursuing an MA in Theological Studies in the hopes of pursuing Bible scholarship as a profession. I had never engaged with Christian Bible criticism before this year, at least not in the formal sense. But now I've flexed muscles I never knew I had in regard to analyzing what I believe to be holy Scripture. 

At the same time, I've been in the blogging world. I rarely blog myself about Bible criticism, but that's not because I find it uninteresting. However, during the past year, I've also noticed some negative criticism in the Christian blogging world about Bible scholarship. And I think this negative perspective of Bible scholarship reflects a broad evangelical sentiment: Faith doesn't lead to analyzing things that you think are holy. I feel there are two main camps of naysayers in this regard. First there is the Scripture-means-what-it-says, literalist camp. Second, and at the other end of the spectrum, is the let's-intuit-truth-from-the-Scriptures, mysticism camp. Both have their valid talking points in my opinion; Scripture is complex. 

But it has been hard for me to sit and read these negative perspectives of what is, from day to day, my discipline. In all honesty, Bible criticism isn't for everyone. But for some of us, well, I don't know how to explain how fulfilling it is. It turns out I've been practicing novice Bible criticism in the privacy of my own mind (and sometimes in the company of close friends) since the age of about 12. I didn't know what I was doing, but my mind analyzes without my consent. It's just what it does. (Read about INTJ's if you haven't met one of us.) 

So for me, finally being trained in Bible criticism by God-fearing men and women has been a breath of fresh air. I have never found any application of criticism(s) to a text irreverent. Rather, I am learning to engage with the Scriptures analytically, as I always have, but in the presence of those who are more skilled than I am and give me feedback. For someone who can tend to live in her head, this has been invaluable. 

However, I don't just want to defend Bible scholarship because it's good for me personally. I honestly believe it can be highly honoring to our creative Creator. If we use the best of our minds to dig into Shakespeare, Dylan, and Whedon, should we not also use the best of our minds to dig into Scripture? If my mind is created to analyze, as so many are, shouldn't I use it to engage with the Holy? What are we scared of? Scripture will not crumble under our inquiries. 

Often, I think we're scared that Bible criticism will lead to a world in which God seems smaller. But I've always struggled with a small view of God. I've prayed about it, done Bible study after Bible study, entered into worship expectantly; and my view of God has only grown in temperate amounts. But now, now that I am being trained in how to dig into the Word of God effectively, things are changing. Never in my life has God seemed bigger, and for that I am so grateful.

I know not everyone's journey is like mine. I know that many enter Bible classes and leave with a shattered faith. But I'm not them, so I can't speak to their journeys. The only journey I can truly speak for is mine, and my journey through Bible scholarship has led me time and time again to the Throne, to the Cross, to the Cup. And so I continue on without reservation, digging into the Scriptures in what some would consider an irreverent, corrupted fashion, for this discipline is one of the ways in which I am made fully alive.
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