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I really want to write this book for you. I really want to invite you onto a narrow path of your own. I really want to convince you of a grace that allows for far more mess than you and I are even initially comfortable with. To remind you that while we technically cannot move out from under that grace once we've accepted it, sometimes it sure feels as if we have. There is a problem, though, in my periodic bouts of wanting to write for you, and that is that I am often supposing that your faith will play out according to my own. I caught myself doing this just yesterday.
A friend of mine wrote a blog post talking about his struggle to find his identity as an artist. He mentioned all the artistic hats he has tried to wear over the past few years, and he questioned whether any of those were what he should actually be doing with his life. Then he mentioned Jesus and how Jesus didn't die so he could wear an artistic hat; He died so we could be like Him.
I read the post and felt icky inside. I tried to make sense of why I was feeling that way. I could totally relate to being an artist who felt spun around by all the different possible roads to run down. Which to focus on? Who to be? How do I make any of these artistic pursuits "my very own"? But I couldn't relate to the part about Jesus. I disagreed.
I do believe Jesus died so I could be an artist. I do believe God pursued me in this way because He knew it was the only way I would be able to believe in a grace that was big enough to use even me. I do believe that if it weren't for reading Galatians and becoming convinced of His grace for me, I never would have had the guts to write like I am writing now, and I so badly want to write with honesty. I do believe Jesus died so we could feel freed up to go after life to the full, so we would feel equipped to take risks and not beat ourselves up when we fail. He didn't die to make our lives look perfect. He died so we could stop feeling as if our lives have to be perfect for them to mean something.
I felt panic reading my friend's blog post. Is he going to walk away from being an artist? Does he think he needs to search for ways to suffer for Christ instead of live for Him? Is he trying to rid himself of everything he enjoys so he can be sure he's matching Jesus hurt for hurt? Is he trying to perform his way into a life that looks like Christ's and only pursue his art after he achieves this impossible perfection? Cue the feelings of fear and worry and despair. I had to stop him. I had to make sure he wasn't choosing legalism over love. I had to step in front of the train before it took him to a destination I felt sure he didn't want to go to. My intentions were good—a heartfelt plea for a dear friend who might be lost in a jungle he didn't intend to end up in—but there was a piece of me that was feeling a burden not my own.
"He doesn't need you," my friend Teresa reminded me shortly after I left a couple of comments on my friend's blog post and was still feeling uneasy about it all. I wasn't sure which "he" she was referring to. Was the "he" God, or was the "he" my artist friend who wrote the post? I decided it didn't matter. Both of them didn't need me. And you, dear reader of this book, you don't need me either.
I sat for a while in silence thinking about all this. I kind of maniacally laughed, wondering why I write at all then. Why create if I'm not needed? I realized this isn't what Teresa meant. It isn't that the words God (the Muse) gives me can't be used; it's that there is no pressure to have the words be perfect, to have the synapses be sterilely constructed. While it's fine for me to write a heartfelt note to my friend, it isn't necessary for me to think that the richness and fullness of the life he has not yet lived are dependent upon me and my words. I don't have to make sure he "gets it" and stew that perhaps his faith isn't going to play out like mine.
The gut wrenching I felt was due to my belief that I must leave a comment, and it must solve everything. Because the Divine has opened my eyes to how He wants to interact with me, I figured I must be sure to open up everyone else's eyes accordingly, even if I had to pry them open with force and prop them open with toothpicks. I'm giggling at how forcefully I can wield the sword of grace, which isn't meant to be a sword at all. The peace I longed for after reading my friend's post could only be present if I left the comment and then walked away and waited on God's timing of my friend's unfolding, knowing the words could be helpful or could not be, and it didn't matter which was the case.
Last night I read the post one more time. I began to see that it could be taken to mean two very different things, depending on how one defines "be like Christ." I became a bit embarrassed that perhaps we were actually on the same page, and I just read his words to mean something they didn't. I knew for a fact my friend was on a similar journey to mine, trying to declare freedom from legalism, so maybe this was just a necessary stop along the way.
There is a song sung by Joni Mitchell called "Both Sides Now." In it she discusses the very opposite ways we can look at the exact same thing. She talks about love and how she has been able to see it as both something to throw herself into and something to protect herself from. I think it's wise to realize this is true of God's love for me. God has been both someone to throw myself into and to protect myself from. I use her lyrics, superimposing God's name where appropriate:
I've looked at God from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's God's illusions I recall.
I really don't know God at all.
In any sort of deep contemplation, it's easy to get turned all topsy-turvy. Read philosophy for too long, and you'll begin to wonder if you even exist. I do this with my faith. I think I have something figured out and that I should stand boldly on that truth, and then the tables get turned, and I'm standing on my head and seeing a completely different angle of who the Divine is and what that means to my life.
I realize that this is what happened with me yesterday. I had God figured out. I had grace understood. I read my friend's post and felt 99 percent sure that someone living in grace could not write such a post. I felt it necessary to set him right and make sure he understood what I was saying. I had to know if he was wrong, so I could know if he needed my help.
Oh what a slip-sloppy mess I made. What a bumbling-fumbling way to stir a pot I didn't even need to have my hands in. So I back up. I see that initially I was acting out of love, and I give myself the benefit of the doubt. I laugh at myself lovingly and wrap my arm around my own shoulder and say, "You sure are a passionate young thing, aren't you?" There is no need to get down off my high horse, for I have already fallen in a little pile of knees and elbows below. So I just dust myself off and thank God I'm not injured, only a bit rattled. I realize our journeys, as humans, are interwoven, but the stories all play out differently, and I don't have the script. I just have my own completed scenes and the completed scenes of others who have gone before me. They give me insight but not formulas.
There is a scene in the book The Horse and His Boy from C. S. Lewis's series The Chronicles of Narnia. The boy Shasta is talking to something, but he doesn't quite know what it is. He wonders if it's his imagination, if it's a giant. He can't see the creature in the dark, but he can feel its breath. The thing asks Shasta to tell him why he is so distraught. Shasta relays the whole frightening story. How one bad thing after another has happened, ending with Aravis the horse being wounded by a lion. The voice of the thing ends up sharing with Shasta that it was he who wounded Aravis. The voice was the lion.
"But what for?" Shasta asks.
"Child," the Voice says, "I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no-one any story but his own."
I think of this giant lion, and I think perhaps he is the voice of the Divine. A voice that is telling me, "Mandy, I'm not telling you why your friend who wrote the blog post needed to let go of the artistic hats and focus on being like Jesus. But for some reason that thought resonated with him, and he felt closer to Me because of it, and that's okay."
The voice of the Divine inside me continues, "There's a lot about other people's stories I'm not telling you. I'm not telling you why so many Jewish people were tortured in concentration camps; why Jay-Z grew up on the streets, hustling drugs to help feed and clothe his family; or why Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath committed suicide. What I am telling you is your story, and your story happens to involve a girl who has a season of life when she skips out on church, leaves her small group, closes up her Bible, and gets really messy with her faith. You don't have to stress that everyone else's story may not look like yours. You don't have to try to force them to step into your precise footprint impressions on the narrow road you walk. I don't need you to understand why someone else's story may involve the exact opposite actions: going to church, joining a small group, opening their Bible, and cleaning up their messy life. I just need you to live out your own story."
* * *
A couple of days ago, my kids and I took a walk to get donuts for breakfast with some money that my mom had sent them. The three oldest insisted on riding scooters, because "It's more fun that way!" After we got our box of donuts, we walked a block or so to a tiny little park with concrete benches. We sat there in the shade and snacked on our donuts. When we finished, I asked Charis if she would be willing to throw our trash away in the Dumpster. She said she didn't want to because she was scared that flies might fly out when she opened the lid. So I turned to her older sister, Zoe, and asked if she'd be willing to throw the trash away. She held out her hand to take it and then asked, "Where is the trash can?"
I pointed to the Dumpster, which was to my right. She looked at it and then took off as fast as she could down the sidewalk toward the left. In my impatience, I made an assumption that she was directly disobeying me. I hollered out, "Forget it, Zoe. Never mind." Then I turned to Nehemiah and said, "Would you be willing to throw the trash away?"
He was elated. "Sure! I'll do it."
I told Zoe to hand over the trash to Nehemiah, and she was furious. "You told me I could do it. Why won't you let me do it?"
"Because, Zoe, I told you the Dumpster was one way, and then you took off in the opposite direction. I assumed you weren't listening, so I decided to give 'Miah a chance at it."
She was livid. She threw down her scooter and stomped the trash over to Nehemiah. "You didn't even give me a chance. I wanted to ride on the smooth parking lot, so I was just going to ride to the end of the sidewalk and then zoom across the parking lot. I was going a different way at first, but I was still going to end up where you wanted me."
I think I do this with other people, but with Christians in particular. I look at them and think, If you're veering off to the left, there is no way you are ever going to make it to the narrow gate that is over my right shoulder. I specifically know you can't be going that way, because God told me we must go this way. You're way off track. I'm so busy looking for a certain path to be followed that I don't realize there are multiple ways of getting to the same exact place. And God is telling me, "It's not your story. They don't need you to reroute their stories to match yours."
I really want there to be a formulaic way to calculate things like grace and God's voice and timing. I really want to be able to say to you, "Why, my dear friend, all you need to know is that X + Y always equals Z," but I can't, because yesterday when I did the math, X + Y equaled N, and I have no idea why. Just yesterday that equation looked like something I had mastered, but it seems my formulas are just illusions of how God operates, so most times I'm just making best guesses.
I warn you, this book in your hands contains no magical power except for the magical power you bring to it. This book you hold in your hands is a reminder that your story remains unfinished, and you have the capacity to write it precisely how you've been longing to write it. This book cannot give you answers, but it can reintroduce you to a Divine indwelling that burns with the chance to be known, explored, battled, embraced, questioned, pursued, and loved. You don't need my formulas. You don't need the Mandy Steward approach. You don't need another set of rules and regulations, of laws and decrees. You need to explore a messy grace that knows no limits. That says, "Yes, even in the valley of the shadow of death, I am still holding on, because I know what I want, and I'm relentless in going after it. Who will listen to me, if not me? I've tried a lot of different ways, but now I'm ready to try my own way."
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said so well in his poem, "Gnothi Seauton," "Give up to thy soul / Let it have its way— / It is, I tell thee, God himself."CHAPTER 2
I distinctly remember the "Beware of God" girl in high school. She occasionally wore a black shirt with strong white lettering. The letters spelled "Beware of God" across her tiny chest. It was a bold statement, and one that certainly got my attention. In fact, I think I kind of followed her around like a lost puppy, only if you had asked me at the time, I thought she was the one who was lost and searching for someone to follow. She was younger than I was, my upperclassman trumping her freshman status. Her hair was bleached blonde, dark roots betraying her fake yellows. Her eyes were always heavily outlined in black eyeliner, which I assumed was a sign of rebellion and angst. She seemed a bit hollow, as if something had been carved out from behind her eyes where life was supposed to dance.
I felt drawn to her, her magnetic powers scooting me across slick high school hallways and pulling me in close. If I had to guess, I would say her name was Amanda, but I can't be sure. I don't believe we ever officially met. I always saw her in the same place, sitting on the waist-high walls that partitioned off the cafeteria from the rest of the school. Sitting on the waist-high walls that no one was supposed to sit on. She was a rule breaker.
Her shirt spoke to me, and with that shirt, she became the epitome of the "unsaved" person we learned so much about in Sunday school and church youth group. She represented the quintessential non-Christian to me at the time, even though, looking back now, I have no clue if my assumptions were true. What I do know is that her shirt stirred up emotions in me that I didn't want around. I thought she needed saving, and I thought I was just the right person to do so. What I was really battling was opposition to my beliefs and the frantic desire within me to prove I was, in fact, right.
She haunted me a little, this girl, her "Beware of God" shining like headlights, superimposing its capitalized statement over all the Christian answers I had memorized.
She made me want to live my faith out a little louder, because if I could be a little louder, maybe I could be a little surer.
One day I stood in front of slamming lockers at the end of a school day and told passing students that God loved them, to which one guy spouted back at me, "Go to hell!" I wore this "persecution" like a badge of honor and soaked up the sympathy of my Christian cohorts, who wrapped arms around my shoulders and said, "Of course he was out of line to say that," and "Of course he clearly needs God's love more than anything."
I shook my head in confusion at one certain churchgoing friend of mine who said, "Maybe you need to back off a bit." Me? No way! He should be apologizing to me.
I think about the younger me, and my tendency is to be a bit embarrassed by her overenergetic enthusiasm. She seems cheerleaderish now, shaking black-and-white pompoms in the faces of those whose lives were lived in the gray areas. I shook plastic pompoms of polished love and shiny answers in unsuspecting faces and then wondered why they looked a bit turned off. This is the same Mandy who kept a stack of Christian tracts and pass-it-on Scripture cards in a special place on her bookshelf at home. Oh, believe me, she was primed to get the Word out.
Excerpted from THRASHING ABOUT WITH GOD by Mandy Steward. Copyright © 2013 Mandy Steward. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 7, 2014
It's not expected, and it's certainly not linear or entirely clear all the time, but Mandy Steward's story? It's not all that different from mine. And so I connected with her voice, her struggle, and her need to thrash about with faith.
This is a book to read if you've ever struggled through what you believe or redefining faith when you've changed. I love it. I got it at the library, but I'm ordering my own copy now to read and underline and adore.
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Posted April 5, 2014
This is a book filled with bright words. Bright words are those clusters of ideas that speak to you, that you need to hear.
We all know what our bright words are, and they change all the time as we change. That's why I'd keep this book handy. At different points on different days, there will be different chapters that hit you just right and help put cracks in the walls around your heart.
With chapter titles like "Illiterate," "Darkness," "Naked," "Voice," "So?," "Mystery," "Love," "Labeled," "Rhythms," and "Friend," this book can evoke a lot of emotion and thought as you read.
Let me say this upfront. When I think about Time Spent With God, I tend to think of peaceful time.
I don't tend to think of oceans roaring apart into walls of water and then closing again and crushing armies, I don't think of the sky going black around a bloody hill while everyone trembles, and I don't think of thrashing. Thrashing makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to thrash myself, and I don't want to see anyone I care about having to thrash about with God. I want everything to be easy for them, I want faith to be simple, and I want the results in their life to be nearly picture perfect.
Except you know what? If I had my way, I would be condemning people to deadness. The fact that a person has thrashed about with God means that they are alive, they have lost and found and felt their own strength, and that most of all they have encountered the truth that God is Alive and will thrash back with them.
Thrashing isn't pretty. It can't be whitewashed. It has to just be what it is. And that's how Mandy Steward's book unfolds: Raw, Honest, Personal, Genuine.
As much as she warns us that this is her own journey, and that no one else will duplicate it, I think she's speaking to a lot of us here.
There are her thoughts on Divine Romance, on our expectations and the punishing judgements of others, on hearing our own frequently-smothered voices and the difficulty we have in accepting ourselves, on art and the need to create, and many other things. These aren't just lofty musings either.
They're deeply personal, learned by her own experience, and she gladly states that she's still discovering more, dancing to the song of God's Love and being shaped by His touch in every moment.
If you read this book, there will probably be many times when one concept or another meets you where you are. For me, in this reading, it was the way Mandy found out that God loves to woo us in ways that will appeal to us personally. These gifts, blessings, and messages are not even likely to come in expected packaging or conventional places. There were times she felt compelled to do something- watch a certain movie, for example, and she experienced God there where you'd never think to find Him.
Reading her story made me feel free to accept these touches of love. I may be receiving comfort from Bob Seger's music and Rich Mullins' music on the same day, and that is perfectly fine. God can speak through the haunting words of "Mainstreet" and "The Color Green." One praises Him directly, one is a ballad about the lostness and longings common to us humans.
Maybe we all need to live our lives with both eyes open and both hands out, comfortable in our own skin.
I'm really glad I read this book.
Thank you David C. Cook for my review copy.
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Posted January 12, 2014
Posted January 21, 2014
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