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Stories from a life in progress.

In (brief) defense of the Old Testament

Life continues to be busy here, though I think I'll have a little more room to breathe after this week.  I sincerely hope so -- among other reasons (such as "breathing is good") I wish I had more time to talk about some of the things I'm learning.  It doesn't add up to a coherent whole yet, but the pieces are fascinating and I'm excited to talk about them!

I can post one part today, because it's basically already written (is it cheating as a blogger to just post my class homework?)  One of the first assignments in my Old Testament class on the Pentateuch and Joshua was to imagine this scenario and respond: what if a Christian friend at another school asked you "why do we actually need the Old Testament?  Isn't the New Testament sufficient?  Doesn't the New Testament supersede the old Hebrew scriptures anyway?"

 Talking about the Hebrew Scriptures.  (Sometimes literally.)

Talking about the Hebrew Scriptures.  (Sometimes literally.)

I was very pleased to work on this, because the answer has a lot to do with my personal interest in the Old Testament (and why I may end up specializing in it some day, though I'm not far enough along to be at all certain).  In semi-specific order, here are my points in response to "Why do we need the Old Testament, anyway?"

  • Jesus himself endorsed the Hebrew scriptures.  He quoted them constantly, he relied on them when he was tempted (Matthew 4) and when he was suffering on the cross (Mark 15:34).  In the Sermon on the Mount he says "I haven't come to abolish this stuff, I've come to fulfill it.  Not a speck of it is going away."  (Matthew 5:17-19)  If you want to know what Jesus fulfilled, or what he was telling the people to follow, it's in the Old Testament (OT).  If Jesus himself relied on the Hebrew scriptures, we can do a lot worse than learn to rely on them too.
  • The other apostles also endorse the Hebrew scriptures; see the whole rest of the New Testament.  The OT is quoted all over the place.  When Paul says things like "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17), he's talking about the Hebrew scriptures.  The earliest church didn't have the New Testament, and they seem to have done all right for themselves, didn't they?  They learned from the OT and the teaching of the apostles -- in other words, the complete Bible we acknowledge now.
  • There's a reason the Bible repeats its teachings so much, and in different kinds of ways -- to help us learn 'em.  Without hearing the truth of the Bible taught in ALL of the ways it chooses to teach us, there's a bigger chance we'll miss something.
  • Stories are an awesome way to teach principles, with nuance and wisdom and humility and humanity.  A story can teach you a different thing every time you read it.  The OT is stuffed full of stories.
  • If the OT contains confusion, chronology, and wars, it also contains incredible rescues, beautiful triumphs, and a whole lot of real and relatable people.  It contains passionate love-letters from God to us, and I'm not even talking about Song of Songs.  Yes really.
  • This one took me a long time to figure out: the OT is like one long story about God, told in a lot of different parts.  Other characters enter and exit constantly, but God is the central character, the one that is involved with everything.  You want to know God?  Here's a big long book about him.
  • The OT was not just written for ancient Israel.  Do you suppose, when God inspired those texts, that he didn't see us coming?

Do you agree?  Disagree?  Wonder what the heck I'm going on about?  Leave a comment or question below!

The state of the thing

Apparently graduate school is pretty hard.

I thought I was going to start posting here regularly, like at least once a week, because connecting with people by writing about stuff is a big part of what I want to do when I grow up.  Instead I keep having to, you know, do school stuff.

All right, at the beginning I was more distracted by excitement.  I get to learn stuff!  I get to work with awesome professors and fellow students!  This is fun!

 Graduate school is aaaaaall about the books.

Graduate school is aaaaaall about the books.

I feel like I don't have time to have fun anymore.  It's the middle of week three, and already I feel like I'm running to keep up.  I have significant weekly assignments to complete for multiple classes.  I have two big projects due before the end of the month, neither of which I really know how to crack yet.  I have over 1,000 pages of reading to complete this semester, for JUST ONE CLASS.

I'm learning stuff, good stuff.  How to use pro-level software tools for Bible study, especially in the original languages.  An important clarifying point about the original text of Genesis 2.  How Jesus' authority was made apparent in his verbal teaching, and why it startled his hearers.  The literary structure of the book of Luke.  What a city wall looked like in ancient Israel, how houses were organized, what sorts of daily goods were used.

I'm afraid, though, that I won't be able to pull all of these fascinating, valuable pieces into a coherent whole, because that needs time for reflection and time is what I feel the most short on.  I'm afraid I won't be able to do any of my work up to a standard I'm happy with, because ALL of it is important but I don't have as much time as I'd like to spend with any single piece of it.

My body is giving me undeniable hints of stress, like achiness in places that don't have any right to be achy (a sign that I'm holding unrecognized tension).  I'm getting fixated on details that don't matter, like what I should eat for supper between classes on Tuesday.  This is not important enough to worry about.  I worried about it anyway.

Last night was Convocation, a combination of worship, lecture, and award presentation as the seminary begins a new academic year.  I sang hymns and songs with the campus community, and cried and sang and cried more and I have no idea why, other than maybe a need to release pressure.

I'm not hopeless.  I think I'll figure out how to get things done, and if I'm not always happy about how it goes, that's sort of how life works.  If I need to accept that I can't be a straight-A graduate student, as I mostly managed to be a straight-A college student and a straight-A everything-else student, that's probably a lesson perfectionist-me needs to learn.  If I don't have enough time to reflect on what I read and write and fit all of the pieces together, it will come later.  I'll fit what I can.

I'm a bit of a mess right now, but it's because of this incredible gift: the chance to do something really important to me, something that (despite my current feelings of "Aaaahhhhhhhh") I am enjoying a whole lot.

That's the state of the things for the moment.  I'd better go read something.

One down. What's next?

Tonight is my last summer class -- the last session of my first class as a seminary student.  One class session, then finishing a final by next week, and I'm done.

Whoa.

I'm not even sure I ever wrote here that I was starting my seminary studies this summer.  I thought that I would write about it all along, this new adventure, and then I completely failed to do that thing.  Oops?

It's been a full summer, I give myself that.  Evangelical Seminary offers its beginner-level language classes as summer intensives, so I've been busy stuffing Hebrew words and grammar into my head, classes twice a week, constant homework and memorization.  I've had some other things on my mind.

But the point of doing that work is to be able to do this work.  All summer I've had ideas for things to blog about, stuff I want to explore and write and talk about, and I haven't made a point of doing it.  Things I see in the Bible, things I see in the language, in culture, philosophy, theology, all over the place.

This work, this writing matters too.  So I want to stop completely failing to do it.

One class down.  More starting in a few weeks.

One new blog post written.  More coming here too.  It's past time, so let's go.

I am not valuable.

Rejection is a recurring theme on this blog.  I said once that it took until the very end of my second-to-last year of high school to realize, with amazement, that I had actual friends:  people who wanted me to hang out with them, who felt that their experience of things was better if I was there.  I've felt that same shock and amazement a handful of times since, and it still shocks and amazes because of how rare the experience has been.

That rejection-thread has run through my whole life, and it's a painful one.  I've only just discovered a parallel thread, one that seems quieter -- but which maybe lies the deeper, maybe damages the worse.

I don't value myself.  At all.  Nor can I easily conceive that other people do.

The rejection-thread came to light when I got pushed into some new experiences.  This one is being revealed by how I respond to work and money, the things causing me so much heartache lately.

One of my brothers' families has been looking for a babysitter to cover a few hours when both parents are at work.  It made me remember, for the first time in decades, of a sitting job I had -- not for kids, but sitting in the afternoons with an elderly lady who needed someone to be at home with her.  She was part of a neighbor family, and like my brother's situation, they just needed someone to cover a gap between work hours.

That was my first proper job, but it never occurred to me at the time that it was A JOB. I never actually understood that I was providing a valuable service for money, even though I got paid to do it.  I have no idea how I fell into it -- probably my parents knew there was a need and made the arrangements.  If someone had instructed me to go and do it for nothing, I would have because I did what I was told.  Nobody ever sat down with me and said explicitly "this is A JOB," and I never figured it out for myself.  (I don't remember how old I was -- 10?  12?  Older than you would expect to be confused by the concept of having A JOB.)  

That experience made no impact on me.  I didn't really enjoy it, and I didn't do it for long.  I never recognized that I was doing something needful and important.

I didn't work during high school, even though many of my friends (or rather, those people I didn't realize were my friends) did.  I didn't see a point.  I didn't understand why people would want to pick up after-school or weekend jobs, even though I listened to my friends talk about it all the time.  I didn't want money, or independence.  I didn't have a social life.  I didn't do anything outside of school, family, or church.  If I ever wanted to, I suppose I assumed it wasn't possible, because I didn't know I had friends.

I didn't start working until the summer after high school, when I needed to help pay for my college education.  It didn't occur to me that I should take serious responsibility for this, or that I even could.  Not even though I had been watching an older brother walk through the exact same process for two years before it was my turn.  I just did what I was instructed to do.  Like I always did.

I fell into the first summer job I was given and kept it -- a cashier job at a department store.  I never imagined I could keep looking and get something I liked better, or that paid more money (which was the point of the whole exercise, after all).

I didn't learn how to value my ability to work.  I did a good job out of fear, fear that I would be caught out and rejected for failure, not because I took pride in what I could do or grasped that it was my responsibility.

I never valued myself enough to think that it mattered much, whatever I did.

After college I fell into grown-up jobs, via being a temporary office worker.  That's how I got the job I kept for a decade.  I learned a lot of computer skills there, but still never grasped that I was valuable.

I mean, honestly.  I managed the entire document collection my entire financial-services company used to produce nearly every single piece of work we did for every single client.  I'm only right now, sitting in this very chair, grasping the true scope of that -- the responsibility and importance of that position.  How my work threaded through such a big percentage of my company's output, and how little pride I took in doing a good job at it, and how I didn't properly hold the responsibility, because I still and always just worked out of fear.  I was terrified of failing and being shamed for it.  My unspoken, unrecognized understanding of my job was still "do what you're told, and don't mess up.  (Or else.)"

I'm doing different work now, but I still don't value it.  I still don't value myself.  I put off personal writing for weeks, because it's "just mine" so who cares?  I'm not looking for potential freelance clients, because I don't recognize my ideas and skills are worth a hill of beans.  Not because the ideas or skills themselves are meaningless.  Other writers matter; writing itself matters.  It's just my work that doesn't matter.

My lack of value enables me to be horribly selfish, because if I'm not valuable I may as well suit myself.  It helps to dull the pain of not mattering.  I drop things so easily.  I let go of responsibilities and don't care because if I'm the one doing them, I assume they must not be very important.  Anyway, someone who matters will come along to take care of things soon.

I drop people too, which is much worse -- but I do it because I never, ever think those people could possibly care, that they will even notice if I disappear.

It does not occur to me that I'm significant enough to be missed.

I'm terrified about money because I don't believe I have the power to go get it, to pursue good and worthy work attached to a paycheck.  I'm valueless, therefore I'm powerless.  I'm thoroughly dependent on other people being nice enough to give me crumbs of work, and my family loving me (even though I'm pretty pointless) and giving me a place to live.

Am I correct?  Is what I am saying about myself objectively true?

My head knows the right answers.  Ask me out loud if I'm a valuable person, and I'll say "yes."  If you catch me on an honest day, I'll add "but I have trouble living that way."

But I don't really believe it.  Because I'm not acting like it.

There is a serious disconnect between the answer in my head and the one deep in my being.  The "I'm not valuable" thread is the one ruling my behavior most of the time, even though I can parrot the "right" answer when prompted.

Our behavior tells the real story about what we believe.  I believe I'm not valuable.  That I matter little if at all.

I've spotted it, this deep thread.

Now what?

Gaining and losing (and re-gaining)

I've been making some changes to my blog, with guidance from the Clumsy Bloggers course by Micah J. Murray.  (I've only just started working through the material, so ask me in a few weeks if you want a real opinion.  I am using it to edit things already though, so there's that!)  Yesterday I rewrote and redesigned my "About" page, and I'm much happier with it.

I noticed something after the fact, though.  I tried to think of the most relevant and significant things about myself, to give my kind readers some sense of who I am, and I never thought to mention music.  (You can go look.  Music isn't in there.)

There was a time when music would have been top of the list -- maybe the only thing I would think to put ON the list, the only thing I considered actually significant about myself.  Music-related activities were all I basically did through high school and college.  I've played a good handful of different instruments and done a lot of singing in my time.  I LOVED making music.

LOVE, I mean.  I LOVE making music.  Even though it seems like I never do it anymore.

I used to be one of the leaders of my church music team, but that ended when I left my childhood church.  I belonged to a really fun community choir for a few years, but the commute for practices got to be too much.

I barely even sing to myself anymore.  Days go by when I don't even pick up my iPod and listen to anything.  I don't think about it.

How do we DO this to ourselves?  Just up and lose track of things that are so important to us?

This is one I can do something about.  My current church has a fantastic music ministry, and tons of people participate in all kinds of ways.  I've contributed one or two pieces of music for services, but not for a year or two.

I know who's in charge of coordinating that program.  I know there's always room for one more.

Excuse me, folks.  I need to go write an email.  It's time to reclaim part of myself.

Writing in crayon

Do you ever have dreams located in some past area of your life -- a school, a job, somewhere you used to spend a lot of time?

I don't have them very often, but every now and then I'll dream about being a student again in my old high school.  Last night I had one.  Normally these dreams are connected with feeling alienated and rejected.  Those feelings characterized a lot of my actual school experience, so that's not too surprising.

This most recent dream was different.  For the first time I can ever remember, last night I had a "school" dream about performance anxiety.

If I remember correctly, I had two separate tests on the same day, and I didn't feel prepared for either one of them.  In the second test I had zero idea how to attack any of the questions -- none of them made a speck of sense to me.  (Because it was a dream, it's fully possible that the questions literally made no sense, but my dream-self thought it was HER problem, not the test.)

Actually, now I think about it, the teacher administering that test gave us crayons to write our answers with and pranced around the room singing, like a lunatic.  I'm not even sure I was a student in high school, it might have been a reversion to elementary school.  Not that I ever remember using a crayon to take a test, even in elementary school!

I find the specific details never matter in dreams as much as the emotional context.  This is not about school anxiety, even though returning to school is in my near future.  Academic work doesn't scare me, I've always been good at that.  (No worries, to make up for it I'm terrible at a whole lot of skills that you need to not make a mess of life in general.)

This dream is about feeling utterly lost NOW, in the work I'm trying to do.  I want so badly to expand my reach as a writer, to build a career on this skill, and I feel like I don't at all know how to do it.  Episodes like last week's freakout over money just make me feel more wobbly and uncertain.

I've got nothing to do but keep working, keep trying things, keep putting words together.  Keep connecting with people.  Keep praying and processing what I feel and experience with God my Father.  Keep asking him for guidance and opportunities.

Even if I do feel like an unprepared student writing a test with crayon here, that doesn't mean I ought to stop.  Lots of wonderful artists started out with crayon and later learned to use paints, pastels, pens.  Some even keep making extraordinary art with crayons.

Feeling clueless isn't a sign to stop.  It's a sign to keep learning.

I've been here before

You know the other thing giving me hope and and measure of peace this week?  Besides recognizing that my money isn't my money anyway?

This is the second meltdown I've experienced this month.  I didn't write about the first one.  But it happened before I created my bolt-hole, the office space I'm using now.  It happened when a bundle of personal and family pressures all combined into a big ball of misery and forced me to make some changes.

My sense of personal history (even recent personal history) is terrible, but I think it's been three weeks.  Three weeks since March Meltdown Number One, and things have been so much better since then.  I had a miserable few days, but a ton of good has come out of it.

So I'm hopeful.  I think Jesus is behind everything that's going on now, just like I think he was behind what went on at the beginning of the month.  He's making change happen in places I couldn't make it happen myself.

I think this must just be what it looks like sometimes, when Jesus makes everything new.

Not my problem

Do you believe in coincidence?  I don't exactly believe in coincidence anymore.  Not after learning how much in charge God really is, and how much he cares, and how much he pays attention, especially to the people in his family.  I can believe in coincidence in little things, like how a cloud can look like a turkey because the wind just happened to make it that way, but I don't believe coincidence is responsible when I find significant things happening in my life.

(Please note, God can also deliberately make the wind make clouds look like turkeys if he wants to.  Just to be clear about that.)

Last Sunday, several people in my Sunday school discussion-group class talked about how they handled really hard experiences, like major health crises or divorce.  Every one of them noted how they lived through it by relying on the knowledge that God is in control of what happens, no matter what things look like at the human level.  This carried them through major decisions, like whether or not to accept chemo in cancer treatment, or how to continue ministry in the face of failed marriages.

I can be a wordy so-an-so in this class (which is not always awesome, because I like being clever too much), but I didn't have much to add this week.  It was my turn to shush and listen.

And then on Monday, I melted down over the state of my financial life.

I believe this setup was totally not coincidental, because without hearing "God is the one in charge of all the things" many times on Sunday, I doubt I would have remembered it on Monday, or Tuesday, or today.  I don't think I would have gotten the lesson I badly needed, which is to STOP thinking I'm in full control of my money, either when I'm all on top of it or when it's all on top of me.  My choices matter, but God is the one who finally and definitively chooses what happens in my financial life.

Without Sunday, I would have probably lost one of the main things giving me peace this week:  the ability, through prayer and need, to finally say "it's not actually my money, Lord, it's your money, and whatever happens here is what you want to happen.  Even a negative sign that pierces me to the heart.  This is your doing.  All of the numbers add up how you want them to, all the time, including right now, and I'm wrong not to acknowledge that."

The bible is clear that we are not owners in this world, we are managers.  We have both the privilege and responsibility to use what's available to us here, we can even gather up bunches of money and stuff and hoard it if we want to and figure out how to, but it still isn't really OURS in any fundamental way, certainly not in any permanent way.

My money isn't really mine, and I'm acknowledging it now.

I'm praying multiple times every day, "it's all your money, Jesus.  Please help me make the choices you want made with it."

There is enormous peace in this, because the pressure isn't on my shoulders when I remember it's not my stuff.  It's God's stuff.  The God who promises very specifically to provide what I need out of his own love and generosity, not because I earn it from him or prove myself worthy of it.

I am guessing some people will read this and say "yes, that's right" and others will say "she's dissociating herself from the problem," and possibly both of those are true.  I think the teaching is right but I'm not at all sure I'm carrying it out the right way.

Whichever is the case, all I can do is carry on -- and keep writing about what happens.  So watch this space, if you want to see the effects of this perspective.  I haven't got a clue what to expect now, so I'll be watching to find out too.

The thing under the thing

I'm greatly indebted to the teaching of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church for helping me understand what the Gospel really is and how to take hold of it.  One thread that runs through Keller's teaching is that sin is not all about the actions that happen on the surface.  Sometimes we need to dig under our surface actions and find what's hiding underneath in order to really get to grips with what we're doing wrong.  This is true especially for constant sins, besetting issues which return and return in our lives and keep tripping us up, especially when it seems we should "know better by now."

A related thread of Keller's teaching is the idea of "over-desires," from the Greek word epithumia.  Sometimes it is translated "lusts," sometimes "sinful desires."  The word "lust" implies to modern people that this concept is only talking about sex, while "sinful desires" doesn't quite carry the force or specificity needed.

As I understand it, epithumia refers to inordinate desires, controlling desires of all kinds -- not just for things which are clearly evil, but for ANYTHING.  A passionate, hatred-ridden compulsion to murder someone is clearly a "sinful desire."  But compulsively staying at the office too late, hovering over your kids too much, or clinging to a relationship which is no longer healthy are also examples of inordinate desires -- even though work, family, and all kinds of relationships are good things and gifts from God.

In the latter cases, it's not the THINGS that are wrong, and it's not wrong to desire them.  It's the fact of desiring them TOO MUCH which is a problem.  It's not being able to let go of something, or to keep it in the right perspective.  This kind of desire bends your whole life around your epithumia object, just like an addicted person's life becomes bent around their addiction.

One of the ways to identify an epithumia-level desire is to watch your reactions to things.  Really extreme emotional reactions to pretty ordinary, common, or no-big-deal events are a clue that you might have an over-desire at work.  

I think this is what I've got going on.  Because with some rest, time, and perspective, the kind of reactions I felt yesterday don't make a ton of sense.

I mean, how many people overdraw bank accounts occasionally?  It's not awesome to do, but it happens.  I know I'm not the only one, so why all the gut-tearing shame over it?

Also, guys?  The number isn't even that big.  I realized yesterday that the number wasn't really the problem, it was the negative sign, and not because it is a mathematical indicator on the wrong side of zero but because it felt like a sentence handed down from the bench.

This is not right.  This is so not even about the money.  This is some epithumia, some over-desire getting stepped on and howling about it.

If I think about this over-desire rationally, it's hard to see it.  I can't sit here at my keyboard, calm and composed, and put words around it for you.

But I know what I said yesterday, when I was not calm and had no words but desperately honest ones.  I said a negative sign felt like negation.  It felt like a personal judgment.  Confirmation that this world is one of scarcity and hardship.  Confirmation that I'M NOT WANTED and I DON'T DESERVE GOODNESS.

What's that all about?  What does money have to do with being wanted?  I know for darn certain that my family and friends don't love me for my money, so ... what?

(Why does reviewing these ideas make my eyes well up again?  There's something malignant buried here, all right.)

Somehow, money has gotten tied to my sense of worth.  Either it's how I feel worthy, or it's how I cover up a sense of feeling unworthy.  Either way, when you remove money, you remove my emotional security.  You remove my ability to deal with life, to talk to people sanely about problems, or to ask for help.  This is what just happened here.

I'm not done, now that I've seen a peek of this.  I've got to dig up the thing under the thing -- this controlling desire that is bending me in half.  It has to go.

The lizard

In his book The Great Divorce (an allegorical fantasy about a peculiar bus trip to Hell and then Heaven), C. S. Lewis describes a ghost with a little red lizard on his shoulder.  The lizard is an embodiment of a particular sin, and the ghost struggles to decide whether or not to keep his familiar lizard companion and be doomed to existence in Hell, or whether he will permit a terrifying, bright, burning angel to kill the lizard so he can be free -- with no promise that removing the lizard won't be dreadfully painful to the ghost, and no specific certainty of what will happen to the ghost once the lizard is gone.

You can look up the story if you want to see how it turns out, it's well worth it (believe me, my brief description does not do it justice, and this is only one tiny part of the whole story).  Today my mind is captured by the image of the lizard.  I feel like I can relate to that poor ghost.

Yesterday I felt such a sense of tangible, strangling fear, that it started to take on a real shape in my imagination -- maybe inspired by some tucked-away memory of Lewis' lizard, though I didn't make the connection until later.  This fear doesn't look like a tiny red lizard to me, though.  It's coiled, black, muscular, and pitiless.  It doesn't care about me, it only cares that it gets to live -- and that means keeping me strangled and tame, keeping me from dealing with my fear about money and the bigger fear living somewhere underneath.

Maybe it isn't really a huge, strong thing.  Maybe my eyes are what's darkened, maybe its size is all shadow and illusion.  Maybe there's a burning, invisible angel close by, hands ready to grab my tiny lizard and kill it.  I only know that, whatever its form, it needs to die and I can't do that by myself.