In the Middle

I’m surrounded by extremes. My physical world is one where I can take one street to see desperate poverty and drive a bit further the other way to find luxurious homes. There are streets littered with trash and swarming with vendors, and then there are wide lanes immaculately landscaped with the occasional white (always white) Land Cruiser. Even the physical landscape around us is extreme: a mountain range to the northwest and an ocean to the east. We are in the middle. Halfway up the mountains from the sea.

Politically, we find ourselves in the middle. I am solidly of middle age now. For goodness sake, I am even a middle child.

Let’s just say this is a familiar place for me. At the same time, it can be a strange and unnerving place to be. It’s like taking a long road trip. At the beginning, there’s excitement to be setting out and beginning an adventure. But after several hours, when you find yourself between home and the place to which you’re heading, you would rather just be in one of those locations. Enjoying the journey is not easy to do for very long.

And yet, the longer I am in my thirties, or rather, as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, I see that much life is lived in this middle space. Childhood is a foundation for the lives we will go on to lead, Lord-willing. By the time we grow into maturity enough to realize what our lives are about, we are already in the middle of them. And the end of life can look very scary and intimidating, even if we have confidence about what’s after death.

Even historically, from a biblical point of view, we may not be in the Middle Ages but we are most definitely still in the middle ages – between creation and complete restoration – we are living the middle redemption story, waiting patiently (most of the time) for when God will finally make all things right again. But it can seem a long way off, can’t it? There is too much brokenness, too much darkness, too much evil. When we will just arrive, Father? How much longer?

There’s this moment, whenever we travel from South Africa back to the States, when we have left our keys with our house sitter, and we’re suspended over the Atlantic ocean – this moment when I truly feel homeless, or if I’m in a better headspace, between homes. It’s disorienting, it’s frightening. And in that moment, every time, I feel held by God in the suspended middle. If this plane goes down, he’s got me. In my passport home which doesn’t feel like home, he’s got me. In my actual home which is not my childhood home, he’s got me. Any which way it can go, I can rest in him.

But I am also tired of this messy middle place. I am tired of the residual grief, the secondary guilt. I am weary of the in between – home there, home here, but really, home nowhere. Sharing the resources we can with our poor neighbors, but is it enough? Of grieving another loss, of praying for yet more mercy and peace to reign. Of making a fire in my home and feeling guilt that we have a warm home when others don’t.

And yet (again), isn’t this part of being awake to the world around us as Christians? Of being keenly aware of the kingdom breaking through the darkness, but of the darkness that has not yet left? Maybe this is why it is so vital to look for the light, maybe this is why we must turn our faces to look up, to focus our minds on Christ, because there is no peace in this messy middle without him.

There is no peace without him. Hasn’t he told his disciples (and now us), “And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age?”

It will, no doubt, be glorious to arrive at our final destination in Christ. And many of us have some time in this messy middle before we arrive there. In the meantime, I can either wallow in the discomfort of sitting in this middle-place, yet again; or I can let it lead me to the heart of Christ. I can let it lead me into seeking wisdom from the Spirit for how to live well, in the middle of my extremes. Perhaps this is a holy discontent – the world is not yet as it should be. It’s not what you’ve promised, God! So we will wait for you, to make it new in your time.

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16

Turning to God in the Anxiety

One night last week, around 2:30am, I dreamt a horrible dream. No matter how hard I tried to turn over and dream of something happier, I could not. So I got up, drank some water, and sat in our living room with my Bible. “Help, God” was the only prayer I could offer in the midst of that paralyzing anxiety, prompted by an unwelcome dream. Eventually, I fell back asleep until morning, feeling nearly tangibly wrapped in the arms of the Father: “I remember you upon my bed, meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy” (Psalm 63:6-7).

As often happens though, the morning after a dark night like that, I woke feeling fragile in mind and sore in heart. My emotions were raw, my eyes weepy. I felt almost violated, that in the peace of my sleep, such horrible thoughts can enter my mind and deeply disturb my heart at rest. It can be tempting to welcome the light of the sun, the dark night leaving; to enjoy the first cup of coffee, the sounds of our happy home, and attempt to push out of the fragile place on my own.

Trusting God isn’t about never experiencing anxiety – it’s about turning to him in the anxiety.

Though it’s easy to move straight on with our lives while anxiety lurks in the depth of our minds, the habit of addressing our anxiety can be deeply helpful. I’m learning that it is better if I take the time to sort out with God what is happening on these dark nights, with these unwelcome thoughts. I do not expect to ever completely resolve anxiety this side of heaven, but rather to learn better how to deal with it through the power of the Spirit. Trusting God isn’t about never experiencing anxiety – it’s about turning to him in the anxiety.

What does it look like to turn to him in the anxiety? Let’s look at Phil. 4:5-7 as we think on this:

“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

+ we name our requests to God. Is this because he doesn’t know them? By no means; but in the naming of our requests, of our anxiety, we acknowledge our total dependence on him. It also usually helps me to name my anxiety to someone else I’m close to, and ask for prayer.

+ we pray, in everything. A former pastor of mine once said, from this passage, that “anxiety and prayer are opposites… instead of being anxious, pray.” From my experience, I cannot be actively engaged in grateful prayer to God and be crippled by anxiety at the same time. As I mentioned above, in acute anxiety, sometimes the prayer is as simple as “help, God.”

+ we focus on thankfulness, particularly for who he is: “to begin by praising God for the fact that in this situation, as it is, he is so mightily God—such a beginning is the end of anxiety” (Karl Barth). We can proactively address anxiety by engaging in prayers of gratitude.

+ we let peace rule in our hearts. This is easier said than done, no? I’ve found that setting good boundaries around news and social media help tremendously as I fix my eyes on Christ (Heb. 12:2) and my mind stayed on him (Is. 26:3).

We recognize that fighting anxiety requires strength from God and his Spirit in us. But just as we are spiritual beings, so too our physical habits matter.

Amy Gannett recently articulated the importance of daily disciplines to combat anxiety in a short Instagram post, and provides practical ideas to do during the day. She writes, “God has seen it fit that the choices that we make in our practical lives deeply affect our experience of the work he is doing in the world.” I recommend her list here; perhaps we each take a few minutes to articulate our own practices on days in which we are struggling with anxiety.

How have you turned to God in your anxious moments? What practices have helped you when you awake from anxious nights?

On New Years and Some of the Same

It can feel as though not much has changed since the calendar turned, am I right? COVID is still raging in many areas around the world, the US is still highly polarized politically. We know many people who are suffering, and are still in varying levels of government-mandated protocols. Here in South Africa, our church is not meeting (again), we are staying home (mostly), and it’s tempting to look at 2021 with the same weariness in which we finished out 2020.

However, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope as we begin afresh. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Scripture passages, in Lamentations:

“the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22-23)

We have this framed on our living room bookshelf, and I am grateful for the daily reminder that God’s faithfulness has carried us through all these days before, and his love and mercy will carry us all the days forward. I am prompted to think through the ways God has shown his steadfast love to us, his unending mercies. Here’s some of what’s on my list from 2020:

  • the consistency of our already homeschooling life
  • sweet times of fellowship with our church family in November and December
  • a family getaway (rescheduled twice!) that finally happened in early December
  • regular craft and story times for the girls with my parents via Facetime
  • our new family routine of Sabbath every week
  • further developing our principles on wise technology use
  • the intentionality of making Saturdays fun (and a bit different than every other day 😉 )
  • our growing garden which has fed us well this season
  • forest walks and the extra urge to be outside

And so many more! What good gifts from the hand of God, even in a difficult year. I would love to hear what’s on your list for 2020, as you take time to see God’s steadfast love and faithfulness in your life this past year.

And what can we anticipate for 2021? Is our hope in vaccines, a new president, declining numbers, continued good health? No, we hope in God. We can expect that God’s love will continue no matter what, his mercies will extend beyond what we face, his faithfulness will be our safe place. Here’s to 2021, friends! He is good!

A Quiet Life

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…

1 Thessalonians 4:11

What kind of reaction do these words create in you? For me, the opposite of quiet is noise, and in these times, we could describe our human experience as very noisy, no? If it isn’t the election news calling for my attention, it’s COVID news; if it isn’t news, it’s social media; if it isn’t social media, it’s my WhatsApp and email inboxes; if it’s not on my phone or computer, it’s my home, and believe me, my home is noisy!

All of this noise – for now, we can say neither good nor bad, just noise – is overwhelming, right? Is it just me? My days can feel chaotic, my mind a war zone, my attention so divided that no one entity gets what it needs, particularly those who need it most. While in decades and centuries past, it may have been more natural to lead quiet lives, it is anything but natural now. To lead a quiet life takes determination, intention, and even work.

And yet, as the noise increases each year, my desire for a quiet life increases along with it. We all talk of COVID fatigue, of election fatigue, of social media fatigue, and then there’s just normal physical and emotional fatigue. Truly, I don’t think our capacity as image bearers of God is to carry so much noise in our hearts, minds, and bodies. And, I wonder, does it not impact our ability to “love one another”? To “win the respect of outsiders”? To “not be dependent on anybody, or as other versions say, “not be in any need”?

It’s difficult to “not be in any need” when your inbox is flooded with curated advertisements highlighting your very interests, when we see dozens of commercials each week, when we follow many small and large businesses or influencers on social media pointing our attention toward How often do we pause and consider, “do I actually need this?” Likely, if we did, the answer would be obviously, no. We have so much already that we need to read books on how to get rid of it; minimalism, which was once how most people lived, is now a trend; truly, when we slow down and consider deeply, there is very little we need. But it takes quiet to realize this.

It’s likewise difficult to “win the respect of outsiders” when our lives are so full that we rarely even talk with them; when Facebook or other platforms have become the medium for important conversations but rarely an effective one; when all outsiders are being portrayed to us as the enemies of our freedoms or values and we’ve forgotten that Jesus even said to love our enemies. What has happened to Christian witness in our times? It’s been slowly, methodically destroyed as we show the world how we can compromise, how we can be selfish, and how we can continually fail to love. But it takes quiet to see this.

And though it is wildly unpopular, I deeply trust that God’s way of life is far better than that of the world.

And it’s difficult to “love one another” when we haven’t a spare moment to give to each other; when we can’t set our phones down long enough to look our children or spouse in the eyes; when we haven’t noticed the needs of those in our neighborhood or church because we weren’t really looking. It takes quiet to do this.

More than ever, this appeal to a quiet life calls to me. Not only because as a human being, I realize I am not made to sustain the kind of noise the world is creating, but also because I realize I need it in order to live the kind of life to which God has called me. And though it is wildly unpopular, I deeply trust that God’s way of life is far better than that of the world.

When You Are Weary

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

There’s much this year that’s wearying, isn’t there? 2020 is one of those years that we will talk about with our kids and grandkids for the next several decades – but we’re still in the middle of it. What’s particularly unique about this year is that we are all experiencing versions of the same struggles. No one is exempt. The upside of this is that we are all in it together. I don’t know about you, but I find this comforting.

Throughout the last few months, I have heard most people in my life at some point share that they’ve had enough; it’s getting to them; they are fed up/worn out/weary of the hardships of this year. Because of the ongoing nature of the pandemic, of the racial tension, of the politicization, we are hitting this point more than once, perhaps. I know I have.

If you’re in this place now, what does it look like to “throw off everything that hinders”? How do we “fix our eyes on Jesus” so that we “will not grow weary and lose heart”? Here are a few ideas:

+ put away media // The balance between being informed and being overwhelmed by media these days is one very fine line. It may be healthy to resist the urge to check the news daily for a period of time. If anything major happens, ask your spouse or friend to share it with you. Otherwise, the mental space you’ll gain from a media break is worth the short-term ignorance, particularly if you’re feeling weary.

+ get outside // Could you spend one whole hour outside today? Maybe two or three? Take the kids to a nature preserve, pack a picnic, and leave your phone at home. Walk a long trail, pick flowers, lay on your back and look up at the shades of blue in the sky. Nature is healing. Seeing God’s handiwork with intention is healing.

+ confess sin // Has it been awhile since you brought your worries, your fears, your open heart to God? Since you’ve asked him to reveal the ugly attitudes, the prevalent discontent, the deep-seated selfishness? Taking a few moments to sort out our hearts before Christ and to confess the sin found there is an act of obedience and restorative to our souls.

+ look for beauty // When the world is looking ugly and bleak, look up. Look out. Look at the moon, the stars. Look at the variety of trees, at the birds, at your children, the color of their eyes. Look in a good book, look in Scripture. Look in your relationships, look in your church. Look in your food – how many colors are there? Open your eyes wider to the beauty in your everyday world.

+ put away technology // We are brilliant multitaskers, aren’t we? We can cook dinner, listen to a podcast, check Instagram, mhmm to our children, and respond to a text all in a minute’s time. This isn’t the best for a myriad of reasons, but for now, can you identify how you feel in the midst of that? Is there a twitchiness? A elevated stress level? What if you put the phone away for a few hours, for a whole day? What if you aimed to get your screen time to under an hour a day? Not only for the sake of your home, your children, and your spouse, but for you? I guarantee that with reduced technology use your mind will clear a bit; the fogginess will lift slightly, your eyes become more trained to see beauty. And it’s glorious.

+ focus your eyes on Christ // In my experience, a lack of peace, a world weariness is directly correlated with where my eyes and heart are focused. Not surprising, is it? When my days are filled with social media, with the news, with multitasking, my mind is a busy space, a restless space, flitting from thought to thought, to new ideas, to old memories, and there is little peace or rest. But once we’ve put away the news, and the technology, we use those pauses, those little captured moments to look to Christ – in nature, while on a walk, in our kids’ hearts, while washing the dishes. We read the Scriptures well placed throughout the house, we reflect on the morning’s devotions, we commune with Christ in prayer, and our souls are refreshed.

Consider him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:3

A friend articulated recently that what is particularly hard about this year is that we don’t know when these struggles are going to end – how long do we have to “hang in there” for? It’s a long haul, but we can shake off the weariness with intention, looking collectively for the beauty, encouraging each other to fix our eyes on Christ. We’ll get through this.

Social Media Principles for the Thoughtful Christian

**A brief disclaimer: I am not perfect at using social media, shocking, I know. I am still learning how to be wise in my own social media practices and thought this article might be helpful for those of you who are also craving wisdom and discipline in this area of life.**

Between reading a few helpful things on technology use, desiring to maintain margin in my life, and noticing highly varied approaches to responding to social issues, I am compelled to outline a few principles for wise social media usage for the thoughtful Christian.

The vast majority of us utilize some form of social media daily, and have become consumers of these developing social platforms without considering the cost to us personally or developing principles for using it wisely. Personally, I have struggled through sin issues which have been exacerbated by my social media usage, such as comparison, discontent, unfounded judgment, and others. Yes, these sinful attitudes would likely emerge under other circumstances, but it is worth noting that Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, cut if off” (Matt. 5:30). Perhaps these sinful attitudes are more prevalent in our lives because of the way in which and the frequency with which we use social media.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1:5

Maybe you too, like me, have longed for a better understanding of what it looks like for us as believers to use social media wisely. Let’s keep in mind James 1:5, as we consider these principles:

Understand your level of social responsibility

My purpose here is not to argue against freedom of speech, but rather suggest gently that by virtue of taking out an account on any kind of social media platform, we are consciously (or unconsciously) joining a larger social group. With membership in such a group comes some level of responsibility. Undoubtedly, there are varying levels of understanding of that responsibility, and many contributing factors to navigate. Wisdom is necessary to determine what level of social responsibility each of us has, and how best to use our platforms wisely, whether we have one hundred Facebook friends or 20,000. On a social platform, as in a real life conversation, speaking up about an issue communicates something; in both cases, so also does staying silent.

Avoid dependence

Richard Foster, in his classic A Celebration of Disciplines, discusses outward and inward practices for the discipline of simplicity. One of his outward principles is to “reject anything that is creating an addiction within you.” This might bring up a number of convicting thoughts; at the moment, it’s worth considering how this might apply to our social media usage. Is Facebook or Instagram the first thing we must check in the morning, or the last thing before falling asleep at night? If we can honestly say we are struggling with addictive behavior in using social media, it’s probably a good time to take a break.

Be in charge of your social media usage, rather than letting it control you.

Use with margin

What did we do before this era of social media? Maybe, we woke up slowly with the sun, read more great books, lingered over the dinner table, dug our hands into fresh dirt more often, took long walks, invited more people into our homes, laid under the stars, played family games. In our tech-crazed world, we have irresponsibly allowed technology to enter into so much of our white spaces, our in-between times, our margin. Those quiet moments during the day. Those empty minutes. What if we claimed those back? What if we looked each other in the eyes more often, and our kids saw our faces gazing at them? Several months ago, one of my daughters articulated this, painfully, when she said, “why are you looking at your phone so much, Mom?” From my experience, it is so helpful to create boundaries around social media, and really, all of technology. Put it away at an early hour in the evening, or during the day if you’re home with kids. Be in charge of your social media usage, rather than letting it control you.

Take regular Sabbaths

In a related way, make a plan to take longer breaks from social media. Andy Crouch, in The Tech-Wise Family, recommends taking a break from technology one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. How hard would this be? How life-giving might this be?

Personally, we are working on “low-tech” Sundays in our family, which we hope will eventually be “no-tech” after these pandemic days when our church services are online. It requires discipline, but it’s also become a sweet rest from the noise of online life, and we are finding more time to read, to reflect, to just be together.

That fraction, that glimpse into our lives that we’ve chosen to expose to the world, what does it communicate about what’s most important to us?

Consider what you are “all about”

Many people, though not most of us, use social media for marketing purposes. Any social media platform will show only the smallest fraction of our lives, our thoughts, our opinions, our values. That fraction, that glimpse into our lives that we’ve chosen to expose to the world, what does it communicate about what’s most important to us? If Jesus were following our Twitter feed or Instagram, would we be embarrassed by what he might see, or might not see? If we only have a small fraction of our lives to show on social media, ought we not carefully and intentionally choose what glimpse we are giving? Think about it this way… if someone had to describe you, what you cared about, in five words based upon your social media account only, what words would they use?

Do not let social media distract you

In the same discussion of the discipline of simplicity, Foster says, “shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.” Ultimately, social media platforms are a tool, an optional add-on to our lives. They are something we have each decided to opt into at some point. But if these platforms become a distraction from our walk with God, or our God-given responsibilities, then perhaps it’s time to be take a break, or delete an account. Instead, we actively “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33)

Or put another way, “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

If, after all, social media is causing our gaze to stray from Jesus, and distracting us from seeking first God and his kingdom, then it is essential that we either learn wisdom for using it or reject it altogether.

It is possible for us to use social media wisely, so that we are not controlled by it. It is a beautiful way to stay in touch with people, particularly for us, in our transient, overseas life. And even more so, it can be great tool for proclaiming the goodness of God and the transformative power of the gospel in our everyday lives, if we choose to use it in such a way.