My sweet Princess friend Caetlyn has articulated the plight of the Ice Queen very well in her latest blog. Let Them See You.
“But my happiness is completely irrelevant,” I said. I didn’t want my students to write to make me happy. I wanted them to write to make themselves happy. I wanted them to take pride in their words, to hear their own voice through their writing.
“But don’t you want to be happy?” they asked. “Aren’t you a Christian? Isn’t that the point? Aren’t you supposed to be happy all the time?”
My heart sank. This was what they have been told that Christianity is about. They have been led to believe that the point of Christianity was to be happy all the time about everything. They have been sorely misled, and sometimes I wonder if I have too. I spend a lot of time chasing happiness.
In theory, my happiness is just as irrelevant to my faith as it is to their writing. To me happiness is such a fleeting thing that is makes a poor goal. For example, most mornings I’m happily sitting at the table quietly drinking my tea when the girls start arguing about who’s turn it is to pick out a show and asking me to bring them their breakfast one item at a time. Suddenly I’m not so happy. Happiness can’t be measured; it can’t be obtained. Just when you think you have it, something changes. Happiness is just a happy by-product of being where you are. I’ve found it is too fleeting to be a final destination.
If the goal of my Christian life is to make me happy, then I’ve reduced my relationship with God to the same level as my relationship with a vending machine that will spit out my favorite candy bar. Then when God fails to do what I think he should when I think he should, I become a spoiled, tantrum-throwing child because he didn’t make me happy. And once again that happy feeling I’m chasing is gone. But if God’s main goal was my happiness and he gave me everything I needed for an easy and trouble-free life, he would not be a good father. He would have quite a mess on his hands trying to give all of us everything we wanted to make us happy.
Rather the simple goal of the Christian life is to follow. What God wants from me is not robot obedience or tear-filled repentance. Both are good, but ultimately he wants my trust. He wants to have my heart. He wants me to depend on him and trust him alone in every situation. This does not always lead to happiness. Mostly it leads to a lot of dying to self and giving up what I want. Not the definition of happiness, but it is a path that leads to much deeper joy, peace and rest. I’m reminded of this joyful song about dying to self called “Lay Me Down” on Rush of Fools’ newest album. You can hear it here or read about a post I previously wrote about this song.
When I find myself chasing happiness, my own or other people’s, I must remember that happiness is irrelevant. The only person I must please is my heavenly Father. When my only goal is to make God happy, everything else will fall into place. And in those fleeting moments of happiness, I’m grateful to the Father who gives his children good things. Even in the moments of my own unhappiness or the unhappiness and displeasure of those around me, I can feel the pleasure of the Father. As long as he is happy, I’m happy.
I have realized that I spend a lot of time in my metaphorical prison looking for a key. I’ve looked under every rock, and checked every brick in the wall. I’ve gazed out the window and plotted impossible escape plans. The escape plans usually require going back to my Ice Queen ways and using force to get what I want. I could kick the door down and force my way out. But then what. I’m pretty sure I would end up right back where I started. I would either have to keep running and pushing or fall to my knees, surrender and end up back where I started. I’d rather skip the fighting part and just live surrendered in prison.
But still I try to figure out a way to escape. Maybe there is one more lesson I have to learn. Maybe there’s an unconfessed sin lurking in the dark. If I can just find it and bring it out into the light, the door would open. Maybe I haven’t met the right person. How can I meet the right person? Where do I need to go? Who do I need to talk to who can get me where I want to be? Maybe I’m just not happy or content enough. Maybe if I can figure out how to change my heart and my mind, I could go free.
But I’m coming to see that there is only one key, only one way out of this place where I’m stuck. God has the key. He has to open the door from the outside in his good and perfect time. He’s not waiting for me to magically figure something out. He already knows when the timing will be perfect. He already knows the day of the end of my sentence when the work of the suffering will be accomplished, and he is anxiously waiting for me on the other side.
But waiting is so hard. The crazy thing about this prison is that he is not just on the outside; he is here with me on the inside. He is not just the person who holds the key; he’s the person who holds my peace. He is my peace; he is
It’s just really hard to stop trying to find my own key.
What have you been doing to try to find you own key, to make your own way out?
Lately I’ve been talking and writing about this idea of being in prison. Sometimes God takes us through seasons where he makes our worlds very small, and it doesn’t make sense to us. It got me thinking about Paul, John and others who wrote most of the New Testament while sitting in prison. I thought about the excuses I often gave and the things I complained about in my metaphorical prison sentence. They are things I say that discount my calling as a writer/ speaker/ teacher and discourage my heart. Here are 10 things we never heard Paul and John say in prison:
- I’m too tired to write.
- Only 20 people are going to read this, so why bother.
- I should be “out there.”
- God must be done using me if I’m here.
- Doesn’t God know I’m more effective as a speaker than a writer?
- I thought I was called to preach the gospel, but since I’m stuck here, I guess I was wrong.
- I’m not doing enough for the kingdom; I should be doing more.
- I’m just not happy.
- I’m wasting my gifts.
When I read this list, I have to say “ouch” because such things have often come from my heart. They reveal what I truly believe about God and about myself. I’m not saying that Paul and John never had down moments or moments where they thought these things. However they never had the audacity to put them on paper. In fact, they put quite the opposite on paper. What they wrote were words of deep faith and deep hope in spite of their dire circumstances. We know that they continued to preach the gospel and advance the kingdom no matter where they were.
The challenge for you and for me is to replace the faithless statements above with faith-full truths from scripture. I know what’s on my new list, what’s on yours?
Lately I’ve been thinking about and having conversations with other people about the idea of being imprisoned in a metaphorical, spiritual sense. It’s a season when you just don’t feel like you have what you need to do what God has called you to do. I have been through the wasteland and discovered who I am and who God is and who God says I am. But now, I just feel stuck. I don’t lack the vision, but I do lack the resources…the time, the money, the magical networking connections and coincidences that make a project go. It’s a time that feels like God is intentionally keeping my world small. I dug the ditches, but he has to make it rain. I set the sails, but he has to make the wind blow. There is no rain, and there is no wind.
Maybe it’s a career that you want to have, but just can’t get the right opportunities. In fact, you land exactly where you don’t want to be. Maybe you are a full-time working mom that would rather be a stay-at-home mom, but the money just isn’t there or you feel like you’re working alone. Maybe you dream of adopting a child, but your life circumstances make that impossible. Maybe you want to serve more at church, but the real job in the real world takes everything you have. Maybe you have big plans for what you would like to do, maybe even kingdom work, but you deal with a chronic illness that robs you of energy and keeps your world small. Maybe it’s been a series of unfortunate events that has taken away people or events, and you feel like you are starting over. Maybe, like me, God gave you a dream, but the dream doesn’t put money in the bank, at least not as much as your family needs.
Almost a years ago, the walls had closed in so much that something needed to change. I had publishers that were interested in my book, but none that actually pulled the trigger. I was booked to speak for a women’s retreat, and then I was unbooked. I was told there was a teaching spot for me at church, and then there wasn’t. So I did an online Bible study that was very successful, and then I tried another one that didn’t work so well. The entire year felt like a series of “yes’s” followed by “no’s.” The walls were closing in, and the money was tight too. We had cut everything I was willing to cut out of the budget, so it was time to make a change.
Reluctantly, angrily, I started looking for a job, a very depressing process when you haven’t held a full-time job in 13 years and haven’t even had a part-time job for three. I sent my resume off into cyber space with no response. It didn’t stand a chance next to people who had actually been getting real experience while I was at home with preschoolers. I made excuses about how I could never find something that would fit my schedule or pay enough to cover childcare expenses.
But when I told some friends I was looking for a job, I got a part-time job as a personal assistant that could work around my schedule. This job got me working again. I remembered how good it felt to be paid for the work you do, something full-time motherhood doesn’t grant. I also realized that my purpose in life was very simple: to love and serve people no matter where I was.
Then at the end of the summer, we decided I really needed to be working full-time, another Facebook post got me a another part-time job as a PR assistant. This prompted me to find a full-time childcare solution for my 4-year-old. I worked in the morning in Nolensville and then drove to downtown Nashville in the afternoon. I was still loving and serving people, and my work was appreciated. That felt good, but I began to realize that I really missed teaching. I was made to teach.
Then I found out about a long-term substitute teacher position at my son’s middle school. I was offered the job, even though it meant having my own son in class. But the benefit was that I got to know his friends and teachers. When the teacher I was subbing for came back, I started subbing every day. I remembered that I loved teaching. One day when I was subbing, I met the principal and told her that “Any day I’m teaching is a good day.”
The depression and the anger slowly lifted, but the uncertainty remained. But God had a plan, a plan that he unfolded right in front of my eyes. I interviewed for a high school English teaching position that was opening mid-year. The principal offered me the job at the end of the interview. What?? So here I am, loving and serving people, teaching senior English, Film as Literature and Creative Writing at a school that “does things differently” with a different kind of students. It’s a perfect fit for me.
I was talking to a fellow teacher this week. He asked if I still felt like I was still in prison. I smiled and said, “I’ve been moved out of the maximum security part and now I’m on a work relief program.” I don’t know when this sentence will end. I don’t know if the walls will magically fall down, and I’ll discover this is my new dream. I do know that I really love my job. I am grateful for God’s provision for our family and for group health insurance. Any day I’m teaching is a god day. Anywhere that I can love and serve people is a good thing.
That’s the trick of prison: learning how to be who you were made to be, to be fully alive and not give up hope. Joseph modeled that for us in his prison experience. He was still a leader. He still used his gifts. He still interpreted dreams, and he never lost hope. At least not in the parts that we see. He ultimately trusted God with his dream, and that’s what I must do as well.
Today is my youngest daughter’s fifth birthday. It has been five years since I was pregnant. Four years since I have nursed a baby. Five years since I have held a sleeping infant of my own on my chest, which is the best feeling in the world. It signifies the end of an era. No more kids to potty train. No more Mother’s Day Out programs. No more play dates.
Last fall things changed in our family. I was working full-time for the first time in 13 years. I had a conversation with my close friend. Her youngest was going to kindergarten, and she was looking at having her days open and free, wondering how she was going to fill them. We were both lamenting the fact that it had been weeks since we had seen each other, since we
have sat down and talked while the kids played. “Who knew the preschool years were Camelot?” I commented.
In the preschool days, I carpooled to Mother’s Day Out with friends. And during the drop off, we would sit and chat for an hour or two depending on the day. We would have play dates or swap childcare. We were constantly in and out of each other’s homes. During the preschool years, I went to Bible studies and enjoyed two hours of kid-free adult conversation. I even taught Bible studies. I remember climbing the stairs one morning, very pregnant, asking God to give me the strength and the words for the study I was leading at the time. It wasn’t easy, but I don’t regret it. Looking back, I’m grateful that I took advantage of the opportunities that I had then.
The other day I was driving to work, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for those years. A gratitude I don’t think I felt most days of those years. But that day, I was grateful for my Camelot. For the friendships formed. For the foundation in God’s Word. Because now, in the real world, I need those friendships and that foundation more than ever. I don’t have time for two hour chats over tea and weekly Bible studies at church.
I’m not in Camelot any more. Most week days my only goal is to make it to the end of my day, and the weekends are about getting the house set up for the busy week ahead. My youngest daughter will grow up with a working mom and not a stay-at-home mom like my oldest son knew. This is where God has me now. This is his provision for me and for my family. It is good. It is just as much God’s provision as it was for me to be at home during the early years. We are all still adjusting, but things are going well. I’m sure that when I say good-bye to this era, I will be even more grateful for it than I am today.
Being in prison is not the same as wandering in the wilderness. In Scripture, we see different characters deal with these two different challenges. The Israelites and Elijah experienced the wilderness. Joseph and Paul were familiar with prison. Lately I’ve been identifying with Joseph more than the Israelites. Unjustly accused, misunderstood, thrown away, discarded, locked up, prevented from going where I would choose to go. I used to think that the wilderness was difficult, but prison is a whole different story.
In the wilderness, you still feel like you are moving forward. Sure it’s slow and the steps are difficult and painful, but at least you are moving. In prison, you don’t go anywhere. You don’t feel like you are making any progress at all.
In the wilderness, you see the sky. You are in a vast, expanding place. In prison, it’s small and confusing. There is no freedom; no illusion of freedom. Everything you see, everywhere you turn you are reminded that you are not free.
In the wilderness, you are moving away from something bad, something that enslaved you. Even though you dream of going back and long for the comfort of Egypt, you know that the wilderness will ultimately bring you to the promised land, a better place. Each painful step is filled with the hope of a land flowing with milk and honey.
In prison, the good thing you had was taken away. Joseph was taken out of a prestigious position. Paul was taken out of his traveling ministry. Both good things; both things given by God. In prison, the good things were taken away without just cause, and there is no hope of a promised land. Your only hope is early release, and years of working your way back to a good reputation. But you have no control over when the locked door will open. For Joseph, it opened and led to his ultimate dream. For Paul, it opened and ended with a death sentence, which he joyfully received to enter the ultimate, eternal promised land.
You don’t really get new promises in prison. You generally harken back to what God promised before prison. This is why it’s called faith; it’s difficult to see the promised land sitting in a dungeon cell.
In the wasteland, you know there is a purpose, a point you will eventually get to. In prison, waiting is the point. You feel stuck. It’s like the progress is so slow and so small, you wonder if you are getting anywhere.
The lesson of the wilderness is to follow. Step after painful step completely dependent on someone else to guide you. The lesson of prison is to suffer. To suffer joyfully. To suffer and not lose faith. To suffer and remain hopeful.
The wilderness and prison are both places of testing. Testing of faith. Prison is a test of character; you find out who you are and what you really believe when you are sitting alone in the dark. Both test endurance and patience.
Prison makes you question what you thought you knew about yourself. Joseph emerged from prison broken and humbled. He was no longer the cocky kid brother boasting of his greatness. He left a mature man who understood his fate rested solely in the hands of the sovereign God. Paul was in prison so that he could write the words that impacted not only his generation, but many that followed. I wonder if he would have taken time off from traveling if it hadn’t been for house arrest. Prison is not without purpose. Prison is not outside the presence of God. He is still with me, and that is the hope that remains in this cold, confined space.