Half Full or Half Empty?

The older I get, the more it makes sense — why angels say “Do not be afraid” when they show up on the scene (Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Luke 2:10), why Jesus said “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:10) when he made his presence known following the Resurrection.

Change was on the horizon and change is always a little frightening. No  matter much preparation has gone into — starting a new job or moving into a new house or embarking on a new adventure — the unexpected will undoubtedly become part of the experience. When God has made quite certain those involved know his hand is involved — well, no amount of preparation can enable them to maintain their equillibruim.

The only stability they have during those storms of change is trust. Trust that God is at work. Trust that he can (and will) rebuke the winds and the sea, bringing a great calm (Matt 8:23-26, Mark 4:35-40, Luke 8:22-25).

Unfortunately, at least in my experience, trust isn’t  a coat you put on once and wear for the rest of your days. Rather, trust is a one-day-at-a-time choice in the face of life’s challenges.

For the past year, God has been turning my life upside down — not so much the circumstances (though there’s been a bit of that),  but the way in which he is calling me to look at the circumstances of my life and the choices I’ve made. As I do this, I am being asked to trust that he is at work, even though I have no idea what  re-envisioning my life story will accomplish. 

The most recent catalyst was the gospel reading on Monday, Aug.  20 (Matt. 19:16-22). A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus first reminds him to obey the commandments and then says, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor … then come, follow me.” As those who have read the gospel, or heard it proclaimed, know, “When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

My first question was: what does it mean to follow Jesus today? That was quickly pushed aside by a more provoking one: what does it mean to sell everything?

My first, glib response was: “I don’t have much.” However, in the days that followed, I recalled how difficult it was for me to decide what to do with my possessions which I considered entering religious life more than a decade ago. I don’t have much, but what I have is precious to me.

Growing up, I was told more than once that I wouldn’t amount to anything — and I didn’t. Not really. I don’t have a professional career or financial security or a spouse with whom to share my life. In many ways, I’m as vulnerable now as I was when I left home at 17, though I’m not quite as ignorant and naive as I was then, so my decisions are somewhat better.

Still, without any of the accoutrements of success, I have managed to put together a decent collection of original art (primarily by bartering my work for the work of my contemporaries) and I have the supplies necessary to pursue my hobbies (painting, knitting, scrapbooking, playing guitar). I also have a few pieces of furniture which have sentimental value and a fairly extensive library.

However, as I meditated on the question — what does it mean to sell everything? — I realized that in my case at least, material possessions were of secondary consideration, if they were of consideration at all. Rather, I was being asked to empty my life of all that prevented me from being open to God, which is a good deal harder.

At the Diocesan Women’s Retreat I attended last fall, I wrote in my journal, “Humility and obedience: Those are the lessons I need to learn at present. I spent my life wanting to impress people, but that kind of pride hurts me.” I knew with certainty that to grow in faith I needed to release from my worldview the pride and stubbornness with which I maintained my personal dignity in the face of life’s dissappointments.

Trusting that God was at work in this allowed me to accept a position at a convenience store when I would rather have been hired by another newspaper. But, in my heart of hearts, I maintained the image of myself as an award-winning journalist and an artist whose work was in museum collections. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve realized that in this hidden self-image, pride and stubbornness were masquerading as humility and obedience — and standing between me and what God is seeking to do in my life.

And so, these days I’m striving to embrace the life God has given me here, the life which he is using to shape me into his instrument in the world. I am striving to empty myself of the measure of my life that I have carried within me for a very long time. I am striving to give up all of those ideas about myself that have enriched the hours when poverty has been a burden that brought me to my knees.

I don’t know how to view this process beyond seeing it as necessary, as an honest response to God’s call. I do know it frightens me at times, which I suppose is to be expected. And I do know that in striving to empty myself of those dreams and ideas about life I cherished, I find myself feeling more than a little lost at times.

Still, I am hopeful that as I let go of worldly aspirations, I will be filled with the Spirit, and this storm of change will bring the sweet calm of a life surrendered without reservation to following Jesus — whatever that means, and I suspect it means something entirely different than I once believed. Time will tell.

Serpent in Paradise

Why was there a serpent in paradise?

That’s the question that popped into my mind this morning while I was writing in my journal. I’d been documenting some problems at work, noting not only what has happened but also how I felt about it and my brothers’ advice. Suddenly, there was that question.

The situation at work upsets and alarms me. An employee who is failing to do the work assigned to his shift has begun threatening me. He doesn’t know that until now, I have stood between him and the door. When the manager was talking about firing him, I suggested retraining and closer supervision instead. Needless to say, at this point, I am regretting that.

The employee, instead of being grateful he’s still employed, has become hostile because we expect him to work instead of read while on the clock. He began, on the night he was told he would be retrained, to bully me, telling me that nobody liked me, that I had no people skills, that I had no business working at a job involving people, that I should quit. About the third night I heard this, I told him he had no business accepting a paycheck from an employer if he wasn’t going too do the work for which he was being paid.

Since then, the verbal assaults have escalated. When I told him to stock the beer cooler, he threatened to go to the owner with all of his co-workers and demand that I be fired. When I told him the floor wasn’t properly mopped, he threatened legal action, saying I was creating a hostile work environment. He went on to write  the manager a note about my “foul attitude and harrassment.”

With the most recent attack, I felt in danger physically even though he didn’t actually threaten to strike me. The extreme response to what was an appropriate evaluative remark from a supervisor, though, set off warning bells. “This man,” something inside me said, “is an abuser nearly at the breaking point, watch out.”

I didn’t say a word in his response to his vitriolic tirade, but I did notify the manager. The manager just laughed — not at me, but to indicate it wasn’t anything about which I needed to be concerned. I am concerned, though; the disproportionate response to a normal workplace remark terrifies me.

I have been around abusive people. I know that when an abusive person is ready to snap, provocation is totally unnecessary. An abusive person will find an excuse to strike out at the selected victim — and the victim is selected. An abusive person doesn’t lash out randomly, like an angry person who snaps at everyone and anyone. An abusive person will often be charming and even professional with everyone except the selected victim. The abusive person will collect all the little frustrations and irritations life offers and unleash his response on one person.

I am afraid of being that person with this man. I was writing about these feelings in my journal this morning, and noted that fear has slipped into my consciousness like the serpent in paradise. Suddenly, my mind was off on a tangent. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

God creates right and left in the first book of Genesis, declaring what he has made to be good. Then he creates man and woman for one another,  placing them in the Garden — with an enticing serpent. I’ve often wondered if the serpent was incredibly beautiful — Whitney Otto writes in the novel, “How to Make an American Quilt,” that beauty makes us want to listen — or if Adam was the strong, silent type and Eve was just lonely for conversation. Really, why talk to a serpent?

But, this morning, the question changed. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

I’ve heard — I’m thinking this came out of Anthony Hopkins’ mouth when he portrayed C.S. Lewis in “The Shadowlands”  — that God wants us to grow up, that he allows suffering so that we can grow up. I suppose that answer would make as much sense as any other in response to my question. We do, after all, learn from experience.

In Adam and Eve’s case, the learning curve must have been rather steep. One day they were in paradise; the next they were on their own.

Maybe the answer is a little subtler and a little deeper than that. Maybe God wants us to grow up AND as we grow up, to develop fully into individuals created in his image and likeness — individuals who are creative, as God is creative, and capable of building community. After all, Adam and Eve ran around naked as a jaybird — a 20th Century idiom, which replaced the 19th Century idiom, naked as a robin, both of which are strange since birds have feathers — until the serpent entered into their lives. Then the spark of creativity which God placed in them lit the fire of their imaginations and they clothed themselves.

If I am going to theorize in that direction, I must ask myself this question: why this serpent at this time in my life? Why this fear of this man at this juncture? How can I grow more fully into the image of God in this situation? What is God attempting to spark in me?

I wish those were rhetorical questions. They aren’t. I don’t know the answers. I will have to live my way into them. But, oddly enough, just knowing God is at work in this in some way comforts me. That has to be a good starting point.