Simplify, simplify!

I have decided to confess a most terrible vice. I have this… erm… problem. With Barnes and Noble. Nothing against the store or anything – in fact, it’s probably one of my favorite places in the continental U.S. But sometimes, I get into these horrible and awful cycles of book-buying. Ok, who am I kidding. Really, it’s quite fun. I get an idea in my head, and decide to rush off to B&N to become an expert on the topic. While I am there, I discover a dozen more pressing interests that must be sated by the purchase of a germane title. Then I leave, a little guilty, with three or four books and an absurdly long list of works which I really wanted to buy but decided (ever so maturely) to deny myself. But what is really awful is when I let the rate of my book purchases far exceed the rate of my reading speed, which is quite decidedly average. You’d think I was trying to build my own Bodleian Library by 2020!

So there we have it. I am a compulsive book buyer, and sometimes, I think more about the possibility of reading than actually reading. Therefore, I am on a book fast. And not in a spiritual sense (or else I wouldn’t be telling you), though I must say, I have been much more focused on studying my Bible since limiting my book consumption.

What on earth does this have to do with finding purpose in the everyday? Well, I believe that we tend to fill our lives with a lot of activities and “stuff,” maybe to fill a void, maybe to channel excess energy, maybe because we can’t say no to other people or to our very own whims. I tend to fill my life with a lot of unread books because I see a great potential in each of them, whether it be the knowledge to start a new project or just the benefit of knowing about a new topic, and I often get caught up in things before I ask myself, why bother?

“Everything is permissible for me,”says Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” In Christ we have great liberty from sin and existential fear, but the fact that we are not enslaved to the obviously evil does not mean we are not bound to the seemingly innocuous cares of this world. The things that we fill our lives with say a lot about our priorities, and I think that to find purpose in the everyday, we must rid our lives of “fillers.”

God is not going to step in and give us some grand purpose in life when we are too focused on consuming endless media or pursuing our empty projects to even hear Him speak. If we are feeling devoid of purpose, the first thing to do is go to God’s Word, and pray. If we don’t even have time for that, then the problem is pretty obvious, to me at least.

Thoreau says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I can’t say I identify with Thoreau in every way, but I completely understand his fear of getting to the end of his life and finding that he had not lived. I consider his philosophy a secular echo of Christ’s paradoxical warning:

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” – Mark 8:35-36

Great and lasting purpose can be found in losing our lives for Christ. As Americans, this probably doesn’t mean death, but it might take a painfully deliberate effort to root out the “fillers” to make room for such self-denial. What greater cause is there than the glorious Gospel, which offers redemption to the lost and healing to the broken-hearted? And what greater master of our lives than the Lord of Lords, and King of Kings? Are we just too distracted by our own pursuits to follow the Lord in the only way that offers purpose – total surrender?

If so, I say, simplify, simplify! Live deliberately for the Kingdom of God. Cut out the nonessentials and throw off everything that hinders, everyday. Lose your life to Christ, and you will live with purpose.

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Finding Purpose in the Everyday

I’ve been pretty introspective the past few days, not that this is terribly uncharacteristic of me. I’ve had a lot of time and space to myself to think, pray and write. There is something about the prospect of getting married that has motivated me to deal with issues that have long plagued me; I think it comes out of a desire to be at my “best” come August 11th out of love for Chris, but also because there are certain habits and insecurities of mine that I am just sick and tired of living with. Do you ever feel that way?

You see, right now, I have an inordinate amount of time.

Time to plan my wedding, time to read, time to watch television, time to bake, time to pursue just about any hobby I fancy, and of course, time to blog. And way too much time to think. I don’t foresee having another such abundance of time for many decades, to tell you the truth, unless of course I contract some terrible disease and am bedridden for months on end. But even that wouldn’t be the same as this season in Sarasota. It seems a fitting time to confront an issue that has hovered over my shoulder for years: finding purpose in the everyday.

When I say “purpose,” I mean it with a capital P. I could make a list of goals (and I frequently do) and decide to accomplish them in a given day, week or month, but the sense of purpose fades just about as long as it takes to write out my list of lofty to-dos. Having been extremely goal-oriented in high school, and to some extent in college, I know well the lure of perfectionism and success. But even now as I am about to officially graduate, the figurative “sweat and blood” (and all too literal anxiety and tears) that it took to live up to my self-imposed standards tempt me to ask the terrifying question – was it worth it?

Of course it was “worth” certain results, like going to the college where I met my future husband and a few dear friends, and now being on my way to attending J-School at Medill to pursue my (finally) chosen career, but what I refer to is the value of my striving. Try as I might to dedicate my school work to God, too often, my personal pursuits feel far too personal to be purposeful – i.e. they are all about me. My transcript. My accomplishments. My goals.

The beauty of this present season is that the stress of having to prove myself (to myself) is lifted. But with that comes questions. What is the point of today? What is the point of my life? I could boil it down to a Christian catch-phrase or catechism, but life (or my life at least) is too complicated to fit into those molds, because the questions about the purpose of today versus the purpose of my life tend to produce different sentiments. I pray that my life glorifies God, but how does this worthy purpose play out in the often mundane details of today or tomorrow? I intend to blog continuously about this in the coming weeks, maybe months. This issue has many simple and obvious answers but it does not always come so easily to me. Therefore, I am convinced that this series will benefit at least one other person out there, somewhere.

I could ramble for weeks, but instead I will end with a question, thankfully not from my own troubled psyche, to be addressed at length on a later day.

How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? – Jesus Christ, to the Pharisees. John 5:44

For the Directionless Graduate

Sanctus Real – I Want to Get Lost (Acoustic)

Being about to graduate from college has the undesirable effect of magnifying every insecurity about my future life that has been dormant (or active) these past three years. I am starting to realize just how common a general feeling of “lostness” is for the many students leaving college… save for the ones who have been pre-professional from day one and now have jobs lined up in June. Those of us who defiantly refused to focus on “career prospects” during college ( and were perhaps a little too lulled into the liberal-arts-education ethos!) now look around with undeniable envy at the students walking around in suits, heading off to job interviews this fall. But, despite this future-malaise, I have hope.

You see, my fear was always of getting stuck in a position of success. While this might seem counter-intuitive, what I mean is that my fear was not of succeeding in general, but in succeeding in a field that I hated, and not having the courage to leave a position of security for the more nebulous route of following my “passions.” (I sense the scoffs of the gainfully employed.) Passions are not always profitable, but what else are one’s 20’s for, anyways?

If you are a humanities major feeling lost, the safest bet might seem like applying to law school. But one should apply to law school because one loves law, not because one has no concrete plans for the rest of one’s life! (Which is a long time I might add!) At the end of a semester, a wonderful professor of mine reminded our class of aspiring writers of the obvious: you only get one shot at life! Do you want to spend it doing something you love? Try before consigning yourself to a life of your personal version of mediocrity. And if all else fails after a few years, and you are wallowing somewhere in a miserably obscure and joyless job, then ok, ok, apply to law school already. At least you tried. Unfortunately, people who hold dreams sacredly close to their heart will sometimes decide it is better not to find out if one will “make it” to avoid shattering the dream. This is nothing short of the most shameful sort of cowardice, to which I fall prey 50% of my waking hours.

And so I end with the song posted at the beginning. “I Want to Get Lost” is the title, and although it might sound like it applies to the starry-eyed freshmen who start their college careers off in comparative literature seminars and Russian language classes and end them in English literature and Russian culture classes (i.e., me), the lyrics are far more purposeful. In case you are unfamiliar with Sanctus Real, it is a Christian band. And so, I interpret with confidence that the song refers to getting lost in the infinite and Almighty God of the Universe. What this means for each person looks a little different, but I would wager that getting lost in God is a far more mysteriously wonderful experience than feeling lost by oneself at the end of college, feeling as though everyone else has things figured out and I should probably get an LSAT prep-book because I have a degree that prepares me for everything but nothing and my parents are getting concerned that I am going nowhere in life… Ok ok, stop hyper-ventilating (yes, I say this to myself in actuality). God is not worried about my future. He is not looking over my resumé and wondering why I took Ancient Greek instead of getting an internship last summer. And I can be assured that if I get lost in Him, He will not lose me. Besides, He is the God who goes looking for His one lost sheep, when the other ninety-nine are safe in the sheep pen!

 

What is Jesus Worth to You?

One night in the middle of last summer, I drove to the Barnes and Noble in Asheville, North Carolina. Going to Barnes and Noble is my fallback activity whenever I need an escape from normal life. There’s something about the smell of thousands of books, the aisles that wend their way back to the CD section, the sweet-smelling Starbucks off to the right (I could go on and on) but on this particular night, I remember I was there, searching. Sometimes I go just to look at books, sometimes I go for a particular book or project, but this night, I had no objective, just an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. I browsed for an hour – nothing. The store was about to close and I stopped by the Christian inspiration table near the front. A small orange book caught my eye. It was written by David Platt, the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills, in Birmingham, Alabama. I glanced at the back, decided to buy it on impulse, and rushed out of the store to be back by curfew.

Little did I know the wake-up call I was about to receive. In the front of the book, reviewer Russell Moore says,

“Sometimes people will commend a book by saying, ‘You won’t want to put it down.’ I can’t say that about this book. You’ll want to put it down, many times. If you’re like me, as you read David Platt’s Radical, you’ll find yourself uncomfortably targeted by the Holy Spirit.”

A book you want to put down… sounds like a real treat, right? But like many difficult spiritual teachings, though they are painful to hear, once you realize their purpose of bringing you closer to Christ, life any other way is meaningless. As I made my way through the pages Dr. Platt’s book, I began to re-learn what I had been desperately questioning – my purpose on this earth. It is easy to remember the fundamental commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, but to understand this in practical terms, the Holy Spirit must awaken our souls and propel us into action.

“This is love for God: to obey his commands.” – I John 5:3

For a long time, I thought that doing the things that “good Christians” do (or don’t do) would be “enough.” I went to church, stayed away from parties, read my Bible, etc. But, there was a growing despair within me – surely there was more than this? The message of Radical blew my conception of “enough” out of the water. Jesus is worthy of all our devotion, not just going to church on Sunday and staying out of trouble. There are billions of people who need to hear the gospel and there are billions living in poverty. American Christians are among those who have the voices and resources to alleviate the world’s spiritual and physical pain. They are also among those who turn a blind eye to the world’s suffering.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I went to Barnes and Noble to escape my tiny world – but the Holy Spirit awakened me to the reality of a world much larger than the one in front of my eyes, and imbued me with what I craved – purpose.

This is a link to Dr. Platt’s Radical sermon series, a total of eight messages.

This is a link to Dr. Platt’s book Radical on Amazon.

I will end with the words of Jesus, one of my favorite verses:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Matthew 16: 24-26

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