A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Just Right: Perfectionism vs. the Pursuit of Excellence

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(Okay, those of you who know me personally: thou shalt not laugh.)

I used to think I was a perfectionist.

Those of you who do frequently interact with me in person—especially the detailed ones (you know who you are)—know that, I am intentional about many things. I am even precise: about words, art, and music, for example. WordPress says I revised this post no less than thirteen times. However…I am not detailed.

Following recipes exactly feels restrictive. Math, though necessary, is annoying to me. And when it comes to housekeeping, I have this little problem seeing filth; the flexibility that allows me to thrive cross-culturally also occasionally means I am not overly bothered by disorder. One of my friends laughs because when she arrives, I always run to put in the bathroom a hand towel that, well, I only remember to put out when she visits (she asked me for one once, and I am often picky in my attempts to please people).

This year (about two decades later), I finally pinpointed something: The reason I thought I was a perfectionist was actually because I hated my own failure.

(I’m not speaking for any other perfectionists, so all of you truly detailed people can relax.)

 

What’s the Difference?

Recently I heard psychotherapist and author Timothy Sanford helpfully differentiate between pursuing excellence and perfectionism.[1]  Here’s how I interpreted it:

EXCELLENCE PERFECTIONISM
FOCUS: pursuing achievable reality chasing the ideal (which is in truth, a fantasy); avoiding failure
PERSPECTIVE: includes all the circumstances in the “now”; considers all the factors affecting the outcome considers only the ideal end result, and what didn’t go perfectly (and shouldn’t I have seen that coming?)
SELF-TALK: considers the choices we have in our capacity to make schemes, forces, and/or manipulates a bit at times to gain our desired outcome

So where do holiness and self-discipline fit into all this? Doesn’t God say to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? Shouldn’t we have zero tolerance for our weakness and sin?

When I was in high school, running hard after God, I really thought–if I could have one thing in the world–I wanted holiness. It sounds all uber-spiritual, I think. I mean, it wasn’t like I longed for unlimited leisure drugs or something.

But looking back, I actually think what I wanted…was to be perfect.

There in my leaking insecurity and steadfast identity in my accomplishments, I longed to be unchained from all my weaknesses and flaws. Yet as God shapes me deep inside, I have come to see holiness less as freedom from wrong and weakness.

Now, stay with me here. I don’t really believe, anymore, that holiness strictly lies in the perfection of my outward behavior. After all, my heart’s kind of a rotting onion: the further I peel into  knowledge of myself and God, the more underlying junk of my own is flayed open.

 

Author J.D. Greear writes,

There are only two kinds of religions: those that teach you to obey in order to be accepted; and those that teach that you obey because you are accepted. In every story…from the Bible…God confronts attempts at self-salvation[2, emphasis added]

Holiness now, rather than falling into fear–of failure; of weakness; of not being accepted–instead is falling into faith that I am unconditionally, overwhelmingly loved, accepted, and thankfully not in control. Rather than caught up in my ability to perform, holiness feels much more conscious of who I’m not; of just how–through Whom–I get to God. It seems more of a set-apartness, a nearness to God—where slowly He changes from the heart what I long for. I am no longer simply straitjacketing my behavior. Ultimately, I’m less and less focused on me and my rather sketchy (hand-towel-deprived) performance anyway.

Rather than strict control of my outward performance, holiness now feels like an act of worship, a jealousy for my life to be only His. True holiness, I think, has God as its source and object; perfectionism has myself as its source and object. You could say my behavior now more genuinely emerges (yes, through self-discipline) from my love for God, rather than a feverish clawing for His acceptance.

Honestly, His performance is a lot more reliable than mine. My ability to achieve seems to melt away in the presence of that kind of perfection.

Holiness is, in fact, an utter reliance on performance–on perfection. Just not mine.

 

 

[1] From Stoop, Dr. David. Hope for the Perfectionist.

[2] Greear, J.D. Breaking the Islam Code. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers (2010), p. 102. Kindle version.

 

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Guest post: What satisfies you?

Moment of truth: When I was a young mom, a baby on my hip and three toddlers/preschoolers welded around my knees, rising early for a quiet time simply did not happen. Part of it was that Mommy-radar kids possess—the one that somehow senses She Has Awakened, and it is now time for the pitter-patter of little feet to commence. Part of it was sheer exhaustion, nursing through the night or pregnant for literally five years; a REM cycle is simply too key to being a happy mommy. So I would fold open my Bible at night, after the last drink of water/trip to the bathroom/I found an owie on my toe routine. And just before my eyelids fell in exhaustion.

But now that I have passed that precious and grueling season of survival, there is something magnetic about curling in the quiet with my God, as the gray light turns softly pink, and before my now-taller children shuffle out for breakfast. It has become my “me” time. It is my time to be embraced, much as I seek to envelop my kids in their bedheads and still-warm PJ’s as they emerge. The Psalmist writes it succinctly: Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

And this prayer, whether my quiet time works out as planned or not—this begging of God to satisfy me—has become a vital element of my day.  I’m thinking about this on Barbara Rainey’s Ever Thine Home blog again today. Hop on over and check it out!

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31 Anything-but-Vanilla Methods to Bring Fresh Flavor to Times with God

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  1. Go for a different form of fasting. You might fast from that particular sin, worry, or burden whose tangle you just can’t seem to comb from your brain. You might choose a fast of simplicity, where you take your schedule down to the bare bones, or step away from all media—or, like has renewed me in Africa, pare down your material items beyond what is comfortable or “normal”.
  2. Utilize this quick and easy method I learned from YWAM’s Brian Hogan, a simplified version of inductive study. Place symbols alongside Scripture passages as they stimulate your heart: a lightbulb for a new insight, a question mark for what you don’t understand, a candlestick on something that sheds light, an arrow for where God is piercing a person’s heart.
  3. Take a walk, go on a run, or take a bike ride while you pray. Allow nature and other reminders around your house to act as “road signs” for ways to thank God, or to pray for others. If you want, take a journal, sketchbook, and/or watercolor supplies.
  4. Plug your headphones into some worship music, and stretch, complete yoga poses, doodle Zentangle, or watercolor as you meditate.
  5. Write down the names of God most precious to you right now, or a name of God into which you long to lean. If you’re artistic, consider writing these in a beautiful way.
  6. Make one of your favorite snacks or a great cup of tea or coffee; grab a basin to soak your feet, and a soothing lotion. Create positive, rewarding memories for your time with God that help you unwind. Or, take a bubble bath or a hot shower, with scents that soothe you. Again, help yourself to associate God with rest and fulfillment rather than demands or inadequacy.
  7. If you’re feeling easily distracted, use your hands to do something quiet and mindless: Crochet. Open pistachios. Brush the dog. Talk to God about each of the things that are distracting you. Press your thoughts through the sieve of prayer—into communion with God, no matter what’s rushing by on the outside. Keep your to-do list beside you, and if something comes up while you’re having your quiet time, write it down so that you can let it go. Or, set a timer, and until it rings, write down all the things you’re wanting to remember—even just to think about later. When the timer rings, turn your attention back to your time with God. Thank God for each of the things and people pinballing through your brain.
  8. Make music or artwork as an act of worship. Write a poem; sing; play an instrument; paint reflectively, perhaps meditating on a Bible passage. Consider a Bible that encourages artful worship, like these creative journaling Bibles.
  9. If not being able to unwind is a normal occurrence, prayerfully consider simplifying your schedule.  Are these the “good works [God] has prepared in advance for [you] to do” (Ephesians 2:10)—and only those? It’s so easy for us to gain the whole world at the expense of our souls.
  10. Ask good questions. Imagine God’s asking you, How is your heart? Author Sharon Brown utilizes questions from Scripture: Like God’s to abandoned, pregnant Hagar (“Where have you come from and where are you going?”) to the blind Bartimaeus (“What do you want me to do for you?”) to the disciples (“What are you looking for?” and, “Who do you say that I am?”). *
  11. Try to avoid getting too prescriptive in your times with God. Just like the same kind of date doesn’t work for every couple, there are different ways—“love languages”, even—that each of us are wired to best commune with God.  Think about what qualifies in your mind as a “good quiet time,” and why you believe this. Prayerfully compare this with Scripture’s idea of being with God. Do you connect with God most through service? Activism? Contemplation? Intellect? Here’s a quiz that may help you unpack your worship “pathways”—though I like to think even more specifically and creatively about the ways my faith comes alive.
  12. Go on a “prayer walk”around your neighborhood, praying for your neighbors, the kids and faculty in the local school, the churches around you, etc.
  13. Play a sermon podcast or worship music playlist while you work out; consider it toning of mind and body. As you stretch, then shower afterward, take time to reflect and pray.
  14. Keep a spiritual book you’re interested in for days when you can’t focus. (I’ve liked A Loving Life, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, New Morning Mercies, and The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms. I just ordered Devotional Classics.) Make sure you interact with what you’re reading by scrawling in the margins or keeping a journal.
  15. Review past journals to remember your journey with God, and to thank Him. Make sure to keep a pencil handy during your quiet time to keep your brain engaged and remember what you’re learning and hearing. A professor of mine once called a pencil “a crowbar for the brain” in one’s time with God.
  16. If you’re struggling with untruths or unbelief, consider making a T-chart of the lies you’re tempted to believe, across from Scriptures that directly confront them. Select for memorization a few of the most needed Scriptures.
  17. If you are an intellectual or visual worshiper, consider a resource like Tim Challies’ Visual Theology to call your mind to greater worship.
  18. Create a timeline of your life. Around this, outline your spiritual journey/timeline with God. Feel free to use different colors, illustrations, key words, or names of God you associate with each time. Reflect on where He’s brought you.
  19. Pick one verse to meditate on as you close your eyes and breathe deeply. The condition of my body is often so connected to my soul! Consider exhaling in repentance and surrender of specific burdens, and inhaling faith in this promise and truth about God.
  20. From the library, check out a book of Biblical paintings (you may also be able to find some online). See what you might rediscover about your favorite stories in the intricate depictions of artists throughout history. Try The Old Testament through 100 Masterpieces of Art and The New Testament through 100 Masterpieces of Art.
  21. Post Bible verses around your house, and change them frequently. Even writing them out can help with meditation. I laminate pretty, free Scripture printables from Pinterest that add to the beauty in my home—and which I plaster all over my kids’ areas. (There are a few quotes on my freebies page, too.)
  22. Utilize the Prayer of Examen, prayed twice a day by Jesuits. Here’s an example, and you can find more here: a. Become aware of God’s presence. b. Review the day with gratitude. c. Pay attention to your emotions. d. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. e. Look toward tomorrow.
  23. Proactively, make sure you’re getting plenty of rest at night, eating in God-honoring ways, and getting regular exercise. I am personally more worshipful—and create a more worshipful, peaceful atmosphere in my home when I am not wrung out.
  24. Select a very short passage for the practice of Lectio Divina as a way to actively meditate on Scripture, described well by this blogger: “Lectio Divina comprises four elements: lectio (we read the text), meditatio (we meditate the text), oratio (we pray the text), and contemplatio (we live the text).” Read more here.
  25. Establish some liturgy in your life. Some Christians find renewal in the Daily Office—scheduled times of prayer—which could be set on your phone, as times to continually call your mind back to God throughout the day.
  26. Find a prayer partner to meet with you regularly. Consider using questions that take your relationships deeper to pray more intensely and accurately for each other.
  27. Spend a little time on iTunes listening for some new worship music to rev up your collection. Then, use worship music as prayer—particularly to intercede for people who are on your heart right now.
  28. Also from YWAM’s Brian Hogan: Draw your perfect day with God.
  29. Select a handful of David Powlison’s X-Ray Questions to better understand what’s in your heart—and isolate what tends to stand in the way of your relationship with God.
  30. Study the New Testament “One Another” statements. Which resonate with you right now? Which do you find most difficult? What do they communicate about who God is to you?
  31. Consider investing in a discipline of working for the voiceless and/or impoverished. Isaiah 58 carries tremendous promises for this specific form of fasting. I find it a tremendous source of vitality.

*For this concept, the author credits Brown, Sharon. Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press Books (2013). Kindle edition.

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Victories of a different color: The Olympic Refugee Team

It’s a bold team, considering the climate of politics this year.
Well. It’s a bold team, considering the brash confrontation of reality required for these athletes to simply step onto the stadium’s spongy track there in Rio. After all, beneath whose flag would they walk? And who would fund their sportswear, their tickets? Something says their uniforms weren’t designed by Ralph Lauren.
No, this group is stitched together by something else entirely.
Perhaps it’s hope.

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Not the way I saw it going in my head: On second-guessing decisions

I think perhaps a reader phrased it best a few weeks ago:

[My husband] and I have wrestled with our “calling” to adopt years ago. We clearly felt it, and we have second guessed it almost every day since then, wondering what were we thinking? Did God really call us to this or were we just emotionally carried away, or as [this post] put it, is it an act of worship? I think in my naïveté, I assume that if I obey what I think God is clearly placing on my heart, he will “reward” me somehow with happiness and not trouble. My very wise husband points out that this is very bad theology!

I’ve written before about my temptation to think that if I’m trusting God, leaning not on my own understanding, praying for wisdom, and all that excellent jazz—somehow I will be shielded from failure. And of course there’s a chunk of truth in there. Walking in God’s ways unquestionably shields me—us—from so much error, heartache, and, well, stupidity.

But recently I’ve also found myself questioning whether I made the right decision if there is exquisite pain involved.

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Of course avoiding wrong and following the Holy Spirit is a little like Aslan pushing forward spring wherever he goes: Things come alive when God is in them. Yet perhaps I’m forgetting that Jesus, my forerunner, walked straight into God’s will—and straight into death.

A friend recently mused to me that he didn’t think God was “having favor” on him because, after he made a courageous decision, so many things were floundering and deflating around him. God must not be in this.

I wondered aloud to him of this whole theology of “closed” and “open” doors that seem to undergird so much of our decision making as Christians. Who’s to say that a closed door isn’t something through which we are to persevere, or work around? Who’s to say that an open door isn’t one through which we should proceed cautiously, or like Christ to the cross, may lead to utter loss and death before it blooms with life? Sometimes I’m so eager for signs, for certainty from God and freedom from ambiguity, that I…might even be making them up, like a thirsty person might conjure a mirage.

It even feels dangerous to me, to sense that God was “in” something—or not in it—based on what I can see. Sometimes verses carelessly extracted—like Deuteronomy 28, promises like “you will be the head and not the tail”; verses about us having authority over all things—perhaps are twisted to form God into some form of cosmic vending machine, rather than Job’s long view of Though He slay me, I will trust Him.

Marriage is maybe one of the easiest examples when. I’ve related how sometimes the vast differences between my husband and I can alienate us at times. But when I step back from whatever that thing is between us, I (sometimes) recognize how myopic I’ve been; how the zoom lens of my eye is hyper focused on the now and the pain or irritation I’m bent on eliminating, rather than twisting back to the striking panorama God’s creating, and has been—even long before our sixteen years together. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. I’m intrigued by Hebrews’ 12 idea of being “unholy like Esau”: forfeiting the invaluable for the immediate.

 

I love the story retold by Peter Scazzero of a wise man living on China’s frontiers. When a young man’s horse runs away and the village attempts to console its owner, his wise father asks, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?” When the horse returns alongside a beautiful stallion and everyone congratulates the young man, the wise man questions, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” The son falls from the stallion, breaking his hip. Of course, everyone offers their sympathy–and again, the grandfather: “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?” Finally, when nomads invade the border, the Chinese lose 9 out of every 10 of the summoned able-bodied men. Because he is lame, the son survives to care for his father.*

 

What makes you so sure? 

Second-guessing decisions, looking back with what I know now, is unquestionably a step of wisdom. Honest, humble evaluation embraces our capacity to improve, to learn. But perhaps, as my mom used to say, I can’t deal God a card He can’t play. He can redeem even my poorest, most selfish decisions. And I can take His steadfast love to the bank even when decisions I made arm-in-arm with Him feel as if they’re combusting in my hands.

This week, I hope you can experience the settling peace, not of zero regrets, but of a fiercely beloved child with a hope and a future.

 

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Did You Marry the Wrong Person?

The Beautiful Blend

 

*Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ. Kindle Edition.

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Give us this day: On bread and other minor miracles

The landscapes of my childhood are so different from those I view through my artfully barred windows. Instead of the lush, rolling hills carpeted with banana trees—Lake Victoria a slice of silver peeking from the top—our farmhouse rested in the center of miles of Midwestern fields, flat as a sheet of green construction paper. Though spread with a dull gray in winter, I can still hear the rustling of summer’s emerald cornstalks when I close my eyes.

One similarity I love about life in Uganda and life in central Illinois is the proximity to life cycles. From my mom’s garden with its rhubarb and asparagus and frothy heads of broccoli, to the ten chickens I presently have slaughtered about every six weeks for our family’s sustenance, there is something simple and good—something sobering—about seasons. About not simply grabbing my bag of chicken breasts from the price club freezer, but making a few portions smaller. Because actually, something else will need to die when our little family requires—requests?—more.

And this is what I have been thinking lately: That “give us our daily bread” is perhaps more evident when I am not merely sliding the cellophane off a perfectly shaped loaf from the store, which I picked up and gently tossed on that little shelf in my cart.

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Author Christa Parrish (one of my current favorites), in her novel Stones for Bread, helped me to wrap my mind around the intense labor poured into a single loaf of bread. Historically, bread involved not only the typical rigorous farming efforts of plowing, watering, scything. As a farmer’s daughter myself, I know too well that hopeful gaze at the sky for rain (the drought of ’88 is still seared in my memory), or the prayers for rain to stop, for frost to hold off. And that’s modern farming. I wasn’t threshing wheat, or  hunched over a stone, grinding our flour, hauling water from a river, or carefully laying a fire and stoking it.

Even now, the loaf landing neatly sliced on my table is actually the result of a number of highly complex activities begun months ago—years, if you consider the tending of the soil, the inventions of labor-saving machinery, the investments of the farmers in equipment and otherwise. God’s also arranged the arrival of electricity to the kitchen or a mechanic; the provision of fuel for the delivery truck, of marketing and human resource personnel to make sure there’s a company existing for this very purpose.

Daily bread in my mind has come to stand for what I need; what my body requires to sustain itself in this day. I ask for “daily bread” in my ability to thoughtfully and graciously parent and, say, not become the Incredible Hulk when my child launches something destructive over the stair railing. I need daily bread for the energy from my feet hitting the concrete floor in the morning to the time I tuck them (much dirtier now) beneath the blue coolness of the sheets at night. I repeatedly request wisdom for this blog, actually; I still liken that to waiting for manna, trusting God will reveal something of Himself to me that might be something I can share with you.

Daily bread, in all respects, then, is requesting not just soft, crusty slices on my children’s plates. It is an entire series of elaborate orchestrations God conducts to simply meet the need that sometimes, like a Pop Tart, simply arrives in my hand unceremoniously and just as quickly. When I worked in publishing, this included selling a number of books for me to keep my job and receive a paycheck. Here in Africa, it means God providing for a number of financial supporters (whom I steadfastly adore) who generously remember to sign up for automatic withdrawal or stick a check in the mail; generously sacrifice month after month after year. And this is on top of all the actions it took simply to make my bread from people around the world. (I generally eat around three times a day.)

I have thought often of Gandhi’s quote since moving to Africa: There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread. Now, there are so many gifts of grace required for bread, I may just see God all over bread itself.

Perhaps it’s also amazing that, thirty-five years into this, I at times struggle with unbelief in his intimate, intricate care for me.

Give us this day our daily bread is coming to mean for me a far greater trust in minute miracles, in which God sustains all the living beings looking to His hand–loaf after loaf.

 

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Yeah, but does God so love individuals? (As in, me?)

 

 

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Guest post: What’s in a Name?

It was my freshman year of college. I stood nestled in our college choir with the second-altos, clad in a uniform dress that somehow carried the ability to transform my appearance into that of a black olive. The first few notes of the piano introduction were lilting over the auditorium, in our first number after the break: Jesu, Dulcis Memoria. Jesus, sweet memory.

But as the notes softly vibrated, a member of the crowd, we found out, had been seizing. What I did not anticipate was that, as the word Jesu slipped out of our mouths, the seizure would cease.

I’m sure that some could call it superstitious or unfounded to correlate the two. And I’m willing to admit there are other explanations. And yet—I’m fascinated by stories like this in Scripture: God’s power in Elijah’s bones; in Jesus’ coat; in Peter’s shadow.

I posted recently on this idea, at Ever Thine Home’s blog (with Barbara Rainey of FamilyLife): The Power of a Name. Hop on over and check it out!

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In praise of Sabbath: On letting go

And…we’re gone.

By the time you read this, my family will likely have wrangled our carry-ons into that taupe-colored hum of a 757, bound for six months stateside. (After the lunacy of this week, preparing to abscond for six entire months, I surely hope we make it to the plane.)

I feel conflicted over this.

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Guest post: Crown Him with many crowns

My son—my oldest—turned twelve a few weeks back. Helping him with his piano lesson, I played a few notes of the “New World Symphony” for him. He didn’t remember a bit of it—though we played it night after night after night for him as an infant, willing that cranky boy to go to sleep in one different house after another during a crazy season of life. We visited 13 states in his first 13 months of life. I’m pretty confident he was grumpy in all 13.

But mothering him well looked so different than what it does now. Now we’re having conversations about puberty, about ethics; he just finished reading The Hobbit, and borrows my phone to play TobyMac while he washes dishes. Each stage—crabby or not—has enveloped me in a rich joy that could only be flattened if I attempted to describe it to you.

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As we celebrate another year—and really, come to grips with the fact that two-thirds of his time under our roof has already passed—I think of God’s fathering of me. I marvel how He’s brought me beneath that gentle, wonderfully all-encompassing kingship whether I was in kindergarten, or that awkward and painful freshman year of high school, or that new, cautious bloom of my first year of marriage. His steady, wise Lordship has expanded its definition in my life year after year.

I’m contributing again on Ever Thine Home’s blog (with Barbara Rainey of FamilyLife) today about this whole idea. Hop on over and check it out!

 

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Hope in the slums: Finding God in Namuwongo

Sometimes it’s hard for me to locate the goodness of God in poverty.

A project with a Ugandan friend of mine, completing her counseling internship, had trailed me into the slums after her. In some ways the dry season made it more tolerable than I’d anticipated. The unnaturally-colored, stagnant water clotted with trash would soon rise bearing cholera, typhoid, and worse.

My heart and my senses were constantly scuffed to a raw alertness. The ten women our project was seeking to assist earned about 1500 shillings per day; about 50 cents. We ducked in their darkened huts, my rudimentary Luganda tripping over my tongue like my tennis shoes over the jutting paths outside.

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