On opening the clenched fist

You know how you can take months (even years) to struggle through an issue, unable to move on or let go or make a decision or whatever the problem is, and then in one moment, the angst is sloughed away? I had that experience recently.

A friend was giving the children’s message at church to illustrate  Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who wanted to know whether he was doing all he could to get into the kingdom. Jesus loves him — this is an important part of the verse, I think, and one we don’t often focus on, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loves him and, in a glance, knows him, and knows that he has a problem with the love of money of which he needs to let go.

The children’s message involved a raccoon and a jar.

my great-grandmother's jar

He explained that raccoons love shiny things, and if they spy a shiny object at the bottom of a jar, they’ll stick their paw in and grab it.

sticking my hand in the jar

But then, sometimes, the neck of the jar will be too small and they can’t get their clenched fist out. They don’t want to give up the shiny item, so they don’t unclench their fist — and they’re stuck. All they have to do is let go of the shiny item, and they’re free.

I can't get my hand out!

But they don’t.

This was me. I mean, the photo is of my hand and my jar, but also, in broader areas of my life, I was clenching something tight in my fist and I wouldn’t let go. I was good and stuck. The thing I was holding: the desire to place my novelization of the story of David and Saul with a conventional publisher. Or with an agent who would then find said publisher.

Some of this desire was practical. It’s a novel for young adults, and (as of this writing) they read paper books more than e-books. In addition, being traditionally published can put you in libraries (both school and public), which are a major discovery tool for kids. Besides, lurking around inside me, still, is the girl who wants the gold star: “I’ve done something good — now acknowledge me!” Traditional publication would be a great big gold star.

And then it didn’t happen.

At first, I looked deeper into the story (after whining for a bit), and discovered some holes that needed filling. So I filled them. Still…crickets. While I’m the good student who wants the gold star, I’m also the daughter of an entrepreneur and do-it-yourselfer (long before that term even existed). I read James Altucher‘s blog, who’s such a believer in the idea that he titled a book, Choose Yourself. I’ve been following news about self-publishing for years.

I wasn’t ready. I put off every decision deadline I gave myself, still holding out for that one more chance. Stuck. Unable to get any traction on revising the next book in my stuckness.

Until that children’s message.

I opened my clenched fist and decided to self-publish. Like so many big decisions, there were no fireworks or giant resolutions. Just a quiet, calm, “yes.” Since then, I found an editor who doesn’t know me and sent her the manuscript; as an editor, myself, I know the value of an outside eye. I’ll start talking to cover designers soon (one lives a block away from me). A Calvin Seminary Old Testament professor recently joined my church, so I’ll ask her to look it over (for an honorarium, of course) to make sure I haven’t gotten any of the cultural stuff wrong. I’ve booked a room in Alexandria, VA for 6 days while my daughter is at a youth conference there, to take a writer’s retreat and get cracking on Book 2 — the best advertisement for your first e-book is your second e-book, so I’d like it to come out about 3 months after the first one. That’s my list so far.

Even my fortune cookie agrees. Here’s this evening’s widsom: You create your own stage and your audience is waiting!

Do you have any advice for me? Any areas you’ve come unstuck from recently? Any areas in which you’re stuck?

My Men In Black Image of God

Here is something I missed during the recent heat wave: thinking random and occasionally deep thoughts while my brain was occupied with the domestic task of making dinner. The oppressive heat has broken, so I cooked last night. And my random and possibly deep thoughts revolved around God and a character in Men In Black 3 and the future.

Griffin (in the center) is an alien who can see the future: all of them at the same time. There are many possible futures, each one affected by the choices the characters make. He is a sweet, sweet character, wanting the good futures to happen, wanting people to make the choices that lead to the good futures, but he sees all the negative consequences of various actions, as well. He helps the Will Smith character, guides him as much as possible, and gives him a very important gift that could save the world, but it’s up to the players to act and react and make the good future happen.

At a couple of points in the film, he stands outside the action, saying, “I hope this is the one where this happens.”

While grating cheese to go over the mushroom ravioli, I realized that this is my image of God and God’s plan for my life. I can totally imagine God watching me, seeing my various futures arrayed in front of me, hoping I choose a particular path, but prepared to work with me no matter what I choose.

There are a lot of Christians who are earnestly searching for God’s Plan/Will For My Life, as if it were one official plan that each of us had to figure out and then just go along with. This is certainly the point of view of the devotional we’ve been reading with the kids at night (Jesus Calling for kids). As if God has a planner, and if we miss an appointment, we could miss the entire plan. There is an expectation that God’s plan is detailed and specific: you need to find the one right college God wants you to go to, the one right career path, the one right spouse, the one right church, etc. If you ask my best friend, Mr. Google, how to “find God’s plan for my life,” you will find millions of posts with authoritative directions and multi-step processes.

I don’t see it that way, but I can see how people get there. After all, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘They are plans for good and not disaster, plans to give you hope and a future.'”

I was going to go into a paragraph about my understanding of Hebrew ideas, that they are less fixed than Western ideas of the same term, but Skip Moen already did it for me, and much better. He says the Hebrew word for plans in the above passage means, “thought, plan, or invention”:

“I know the new ideas I have for you.”  God’s plans are never cast in concrete.  They are flexible, adjusting to our lives as our circumstances change.  It is easy to think that God has only one perfect plan for your life and that if you make a mistake or sin, the plan will be forever destroyed.  Then you will have to live with second best, then third best and so on each time you fail to meet expectations.  But God does not have one perfect plan for you.  He has one purpose – one goal – that you become all that you were meant to be through conformity to the image of the Messiah.  The goal never changes.  But the plans are new ideas every day.  God is full of surprises.  An eternal inventor.

This makes me grin. The questions about “what should I do” become not, “Am I following God’s Plan for Me?” but “Will this help me conform to Christ’s image?” and “Can I be a faithful follower and servant here?” maybe even “Can I learn more about serving God here?” It could even be, “Which choice will bring me the most joy?”

My family is facing a church decision. We left our previous congregation a month ago, and while we’d prefer to wander around a variety of churches this summer and make a leisurely decision, that doesn’t seem to be where things are heading. My husband is being courted for a possible part-time job at one church. It feels too soon, but we’re pursuing it, praying about it, not putting up any roadblocks yet. Letting this surprise play out.

With my Griffin from MIB3 image of God, God is watching us on the cusp of this new direction, giving us bits of guidance and encouragement, and hoping we will make the decision that will bring about the most glory for God’s kingdom. For some people, God will give them very direct instructions: turn here, go there. give that person a specific amount of money. For others, it will be a piling on of circumstances, a layering of “coincidences” that all point in a specific direction.

The most direct message God has sent me is “Serve where you are planted,” which could mean a few different things: serve in the neighborhood you live in, no matter where you are you will serve, I will plant you somewhere and you will serve there, stay where you are and serve. It wasn’t a clear answer to the anguished prayer I had at the time, but I have served wherever it was that I was planted, and I’ll continue to do so.

However, the Griffin analogy breaks down, because he doesn’t make this promise: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom. 8:28).

Whatever we decide about this church, God will work it for good. Not necessarily for pleasant or for perfect, not always for fun, but for good. And God is with me however this plays out. My favorite promise of the three I’m quoting here is this one from Jesus: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Of course, we can choose wrong. We are sinful and often stupid, selfish and self-justifying. We can make cascading bad decisions. But God will keep throwing new ideas at us, plopping some miracles in our path, giving us chances, trying to nudge us into better decisions and more faithful futures.

In this way of looking at it, God doesn’t send us bad things, either. It might just be the spiritual toddler in me, but I can’t think that God “sends” cancer, rape, pulmonary embolisms, drowning, etc. These things happen and God works with them to wring as much good as can come. From this point of view, God didn’t give my cousin cancer so she could be more secure in her father’s love and esteem than she ever was when she was healthy. But she got cancer and that was one of the goods God wrung out of it before she died.

So those were my deep thoughts over the stove last night. And I didn’t even burn anything. What are you thinking about these days?