rhythm and chaos

Home11.jpg

It has been one of my persistent struggles to understand my testimony and share it well. I get frustrated, because if anyone should know this story, it should be me; I’m the one who has lived it, who has benefited on a daily basis from the blessing of walking with Jesus since I was three years old. I should be able to bear witness to His work in my life. I should be able to see clearly, at least in hindsight, where He has done His greatest work in me.

In some ways, I can: I can look back and see the shifts and the weather patterns that have colored my years, and some of the purposes they’ve played out. I know these are all parts of the testimony God is writing in me, but whenever I try to sum it up in so many words, I’m frustrated by the attempt to “arrive” somewhere. I want to be able to draw a line clearly from the shift that happened one year ago, or eighteen months ago, or the day I got the phone call, or that undefined span of time as a newlywed, or on my wedding day, or when I moved to Bible school all the way to now and say, “This is it. This is exactly where God has brought me. Here’s how and here’s why.”

But I can’t.

Much as it sometimes feels like there must have been one moment in which everything changed, in which God ultimately revealed Himself and brought my testimony to its climax, the truth of the matter is that God works slowly. He works in processes, in moments, across years. He’s a farmer, not a magician.

I grew up watching (and sometimes helping) my dad farm, and I’m not sure anything has taught me as much about how God operates as that experience. Farming, a metaphor the Bible uses again and again to describe God’s work, is change and same, reward with disappointment; it’s past and now and future, all bound together somehow. There’s a rhythm in it, but also chaos - unpredictability. It is down-to-earth and touching heaven at the same time, in the most humbling possible way; a momentary glimpse of the Edenic vision in which God and Man and Creation coexist in harmonious relationship with each other.

And it doesn’t ever “arrive.” A year of abundant harvest is followed rhythmically by winter’s rest, only to try it all again when spring arrives. No two years will yield the very same, and the story is never over. There is progress and process, joy and frustration, years of fallow and change, but the work doesn’t reach an end-point or get wrapped up in a bow. The testimony is never quite complete.

Nor is mine. It can make for a frustrating story to tell, but also an exciting and comforting one. In moments and across years, in a way that will never be completed in this life, God is cultivating me. His work is hard, long, and emotional, but also calming, grounding, and restful. I can’t necessarily draw lines between the seasons and say “This is what, this is how, and this is why,” but I can point to the One who is constant through it all and say, “He is always near, and He is doing something in me.”

We are a culture that only puts the big, earth-shattering events on display. The trips to Europe, the births, the deaths; the times we audibly heard God’s voice or saw Him move in a tangible way. But I’m convicted that it’s in the in-between where the real work and growth is done. The mundane middle is what life is made of - the rhythm and the chaos, and the too-boring-to-be-documented. I don’t know if I’ll ever “get there,” or even know where “there” is in this life, but I know that if I’m walking with Jesus, it will be good.

big, improbable ideas

This week I read a statistic that troubled me. On the YouVersion app, which populates different Bible reading plans and similar resources, a reading plan covering the theme of “justice” in the Bible has a 70% user completion rate.

The problem? It’s only a three-day plan.

That is, only 70% of people who sign up for a reading plan that will take three days can actually follow through on those three days.

It’s not surprising. We all know that our attention spans are shrinking, our lives are getting busier, and longform content is becoming less and less popular. We’d rather get the one-minute summary video with an eye-catching slideshow than take in the full depth and breadth of a topic. But it is still troubling.

One of the biggest projects I’ve created through this blog so far is a plan to read through the Bible in 180 days. If 30% of people won’t follow through for three days, how many will still be in it at the end of 180? One percent? Less?

Part of me fears that my vision is too big. It’s too much to expect of people, to read through the whole Bible. It takes too long. They don’t want to do it. They’re too busy. They’re too distracted. It’s one of those lovely, big ideas that I should probably pass off as improbable, if not impossible.

And I know that IT IS a hard task. I myself took this year off from Bible180, because it’s a big investment of time, energy, and brainspace to read through the whole Bible in such a concentrated amount of time. But whether you try to read the Bible in seven days, 180 days, or 365 days - it’s still going to be a really big book that requires really big commitment. We can’t distill it down to a one-minute video and still capture the beauty and complexity of who God is and what He has done.

And I know this, too: There are people that have completed Bible180 from beginning to end. Some of them within the 180-day timeframe, some of them taking a bit longer, but they’ve done it. I know who they are. They’ve shared with me how it has impacted them. Even the ones who made it to Deuteronomy, or to Jeremiah, or to the end of the Old Testament - they experienced transformation, too.

There is a pressure to make things easier. Faster. More bite-size, accessible, watered down. There are plenty of voices telling me I have too many big, improbable ideas - that nobody wants to do that much work.

But I contend that some of us are hungry to put in the work.

Some of us are hungry for the dense, nutritious meat of the Word. Some of us - probably more of us than anyone realizes - have been on a diluted diet for far too long, and we long to know God in His richness. His depth.

Maybe it isn’t about whether I can keep 500 people on task to read through the Bible that matters. Maybe it’s about whether the five or ten or twenty of them that were truly starving get fed.

The Bible school that I attended in Florida attracts one, maybe two dozen students every year. Not the hundreds or thousands that other institutions can boast. But the ones that uproot their lives to spend their days marinating in the fullness of the Bible, the ones that put dollars and hours behind their desire to learn from its every page whether they ever reap a tangible return on the investment or not - these are just one example of the truly hungry. And when the truly hungry seek after what can truly satisfy, they will be filled - even as their appetites are whetted for more.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Matthew 5:6

We’re all in different places in our walks with Jesus. Some of us need the milk-based diet - we are babies and we need someone else to hold the spoon. Some of us have been stuck on milk for a bit too long, but haven’t yet identified our real need for something different. Some of us have long outgrown the liquid diet and our souls are crying out for more substantial nutrition - and the skills to feed ourselves - to fuel our growth.

There’s a good place for cutting things up into bite-size pieces. But to the fear that I have too many big, improbable ideas that “no one” will ever want to partake in, I say that’s not true. Because I am someone, and I am starving, and I know that I am not the only one.

Are you one of the hungry ones? I’d love to hear about your experience with the Bible and what you feel is missing from your current spiritual “diet.” Leave me a comment below!

(The photos in this post were taken on a recent hike to McCall Point, Columbia River Gorge.)

background noise

I have gradually become a rather avid podcast listener. In the aftermath of losing most of my interest in reading as a hobby (for which I blame Mrs. Kruse, and college classes in general), and in my ever-increasing sensitivity to emotional distress in all aspects of life which makes most television pretty unbearable to watch, podcasts have become an enjoyable compromise. They are varying degrees of educational, which satisfies my learner’s brain, and the stories they often contain are much more real-life (and therefore, less unbearably distressing or dramatic) than what TV shows and movies can offer. I like that the pace is slow, the discussion is overwhelmingly “normal,” and I can work with my hands and eyes while my ears take in the information.

But, like all media, they can be annoyingly diagnostic of my current emotional wellbeing.

More than once in the last week (we won’t talk about how much more than once) I caught myself staring blankly at my computer screen while the Bluetooth speaker blared on endlessly, strangers’ voices continuing a conversation I had lost track of twenty minutes ago, brain split between the complexities of formatting a manuscript in Adobe InDesign and that annoying subconscious awareness that I was purposely trying to drown myself out.

There’s a dual theme to my favorite podcasts: Conversation and consistency. I listen to shows in which the same two or three people co-host every episode in a loosely-structured conversational format. I hardly care what they’re talking about; yes, I listen to shows that reflect my own interests, like the Bible, health, self-improvement, or non-inflammatory news and political commentary. But in the past week alone I’ve listened to a show about “Wisdom Gained in Our 30s” (I’m 25), home decor (which is fine, but I don’t really care about it), and a discussion on postpartum recovery (despite the fact that I’ve never had a baby and am not pregnant), just to name a few. Sure, there’s an element of these shows that feeds my curiosity and hunger to learn about how other people live and what they care about, but overall these topics are not exactly what I’d consider reflective of my current interests or place in life. What I need is the conversation, the stimulation, the taste of being part of something.

When I start to binge on such shows, I know that my brain is trying to communicate something to me which I’d rather not hear.

Like Hey. You’re lonely.

Gah, I hate being lonely. I hate the feeling of needing people. I hate the fact that I can’t healthfully subsist in isolation and that part of my call as a disciple of Jesus is to be just one working part of His whole, diverse body. And I hate it when my attempts at pseudo-community fail to take the ache away.

Israel179.jpg

Ironically, I know that in this, I’m not alone. Authenticity is a buzzword in our world, and people keep trying to share their “imperfections” on Instagram in aspiration for vulnerability and relationship, but somehow it seems we’re all more isolated than ever before - maybe because only some imperfections are socially acceptable enough for public consumption, and if your only evident vulnerability is the short temper you wrote about in a caption online, what does that say about my dissolving relationships or secret addiction or desperate depression?

Some of the most bonding real-life conversations I’ve had recently have been based on the admission that I am lonely, and you are lonely, and we don’t know why or what to do about it. The trouble is that this seems to be where the conversation always ends, and then we return to our faithful Friendship Substitutes. For me it’s podcasts, but for you it could be TV, books, food, drink, social media, busy work, or any of a number of other options. Those things place no demands on us, and they make us feel better for awhile, but even in the healthiest usage they don’t solve the problem.

So how is this problem solved? Once we’ve bonded over our mutual loneliness, where do we go from there?

I can’t say I know a definitive step-by-step strategy, but my instincts say we need to move toward each other. We need to cut ties with our Friendship Substitutes long enough to get hungry for the real thing, and then move toward each other - offline, in real life, where I can see your face and hear your voice and touch your hand. The world is becoming more virtual and less real all the time, but our bodies and brains are designed for what is real. Our hormones and chemicals respond to what is real. Bonding happens in the real world.

A trendy hashtag does not a community make.

Last weekend I took a self-defense class at my church. I’ve been attending services there for seven months, but had hardly met anyone at all yet. I didn’t want to go to the class because I would be alone in a room full of strangers, but I went anyway.

And they were real.

All it took was for someone to say hello and start the conversation, to make eye contact and smile, and to start practicing hand-to-hand self defense with me, and I wasn’t alone anymore. I wasn’t lonely anymore. And more than that, I rediscovered a healthy appetite to be with real people in a real setting doing real things.

But here’s the rub, at least for me: once we’ve moved toward one another physically, we’ll need to start moving closer emotionally. We need those few, lovely people that we’re not only in bodily proximity with, but that are near to our souls. The people who know us for who we are - good, bad, or unimaginably terrible. They’re the ones who love us exactly the same no matter how much good, bad, or unimaginably terrible we bring with us, and who - by being the light that we desperately need shed on our inner worlds - will help to enact and reveal God’s work in us.

I’m not good at this. In fact, the real reason I often have to be dragged toward any kind of real-life social situation kicking and screaming is because I really, really don’t want to move toward others emotionally. In the aftermath of a formative friendship in which my trust and vulnerability was often exploited, I am happy to pretend, for as long as I can get away with it, that I don’t have any needs at all. But in this I’m not just isolating myself; I’m involuntarily isolating those around me who do have needs, and need to know they’re not the only ones.

I think it’s time to turn off the background noise and reach toward real-life relationships with real-life people. The kind that won’t just numb out the loneliness void, but fill it up and make it whole. The internet is a marvelous thing, but as much as it connects us, it will never be able to bond us.

2 Comments

Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.