A different perspective

As much as I have whined, complained, doubted, and expressed anger toward God over my difficulties and trials in life, one thing that’s becoming increasingly clear is how beneficial these trials and hardships have actually been. Sometimes it’s hard to see through the gloom and feelings of utter despair, and so, caught up in my emotions and pain, I grumble at Him. Like the Israelites in the wilderness. I stupidly look back with fondness on the years when I was “living in Egypt”—-caught up in the things of the world, instead of the things of God, and though in bondage then, oblivious to it, because I was supposedly “happier” (mainly because I was in denial).

But going through the crucible of suffering does a marvelous thing to one’s character and  perspective. Lately, God is making me more and more aware of this. Going through the “valley of the shadow of death” helps one see the world, and life in general, with different eyes. I’m beginning to see more and more how selfish, worldly, and shallow I’ve been. And I no longer want to be so selfish, worldly, and shallow. Sometimes, as I stroll through public places like malls, I like to just observe the swell of humanity going by me. And what I see saddens me. People strut about, secure in their stylish clothes and outward appearance, chattering about meaningless, self-focused topics, and I wonder, do they really have any idea how lost they are? I ponder the same thing at my work-place. All day long I hear profanity and meaningless chit-chat, and all I see are shallow people who find their identities and security in their abilities and looks—incredibly shaky foundations.

Suffering, if allowed to do its work, can shatter every shaky foundation, rip away every tottering crutch, and open one’s eyes to see what truly matters in this life. It’s not one’s possessions. It’s not one’s achievements. It’s not one’s outward appearance. It’s not one’s intelligence. All of these are fleeting. And we are foolish to suppose they will bring us any lasting happiness or contentment.

So, as God strips away all the shaky foundations in my own life, He is helping me see that He alone is the one Sure Foundation. He alone brings true joy and contentment. All that the world values is actually smoke and mirrors. For too long I have thought as the world thinks, looked like the world looks, and valued what the world values. But as I have traversed this deep, dark valley of mine, my Father in heaven has opened up my eyes to see as He sees. And He is not encumbered by our illusions and self-imposed blindness. He sees reality as it truly is. And that is why I believe He has such special regard for the poor and broken of this world. In His upside-down kingdom, it is the “least of these” that have the most prominence. For it is in the valley of suffering that one is granted the privilege of seeing as God sees.

So I’m grateful. Grateful for the revelations, the depth and width of perspective, and the deep roots suffering has granted me. And I’m grateful too for being allowed my experiences in other parts of the world, where I have witnessed suffering far worse than my own. My own trials, and the awareness of the trials of others, have made me a more complete person. Not necessarily a better person—-for I am still a broken, weak, sinful vessel, totally unworthy of anything my Father gives me, but I’m beginning to see a little more clearly that His allowance of my “Valley of Achor” is a blessing, not a punishment.

This deeper revelation has begun to affect various practical areas of my life. One area in particular that the Holy Spirit has been convicting me about is my obsession with my outward appearance. Another big weakness is my vanity. I am a girly girl—-well, not overly girly, more earthy-hippie-girly—and I love pretty things. Pretty clothes, pretty shoes, pretty jewelry, pretty hair. I like looking as pretty as I can (without looking fake, that is—my obsession doesn’t go that far). Since I was such an ugly, dorky duckling as a child, and had a strict upbringing that forbid makeup, pierced ears, or any stylish clothes, I was like a kid in a candy shop as soon as I became an adult and gained some independence. I was all about transforming myself—-making myself as outwardly beautiful as I could by buying loads of clothes, makeup, shoes, and other accessories. Of course, this need to feel beautiful also tied in with the weakness I’ve already discussed—-my need to feel accepted and desired by the opposite sex.

But as God has been dealing with me in my shortcomings with men, so is He also dealing with me in my shortcomings in regards to my vanity. It’s been a gradual process, but one that probably began in earnest a couple years ago, when I went through all my health problems. It was then that I was literally forced to confront some of my insecurities.

One thing most people don’t know about me is that I was semi-anorexic for a good part of my adolescence and young adulthood. Not only did I not eat much, but I exercised like a maniac. I ran, I swam, I biked, I lifted weights—all in this effort to gain the kind of slender, toned physique I saw in magazines. Now, I am by no means “fat” in the first place, nor have I ever had a tendency to be overweight. I am naturally petite, naturally “small.” But I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted a certain physique, a certain figure. And the more men complimented me on my appearance, the more I felt the need to maintain it. And it drove me to unhealthy measures. But all that ended abruptly, when my body basically said “enough.”

So there I was, two years ago, nearly bed-ridden for a while, barely able to walk, let alone exercise, and forced to eat more. I gained weight. I completely lost that slender, fit physique I once had. I had to look in the mirror and totally change my thinking. I had to confront my insecurities.

And with God’s help, I have confronted and dealt with many of my insecurities since then. I no longer place unrealistic expectations on myself to look a certain way, and feel more comfortable with the body God gave me. In many ways I am far healthier now than I used to be. Maybe not as slender, maybe not as toned, but I am ok with that. I am just grateful that I can even walk again, and marvel at God’s grace in allowing me to even exercise once more. Walking/jogging two to three miles around the park is not something I take for granted anymore.

But lately it’s not just body image issues that God has been convicting me of, but how much time and money I still put in to looking “beautiful” or “cute.” It’s not that I feel God wants me to be frumpy and dress like a nun—I believe there is definitely a place for some outward beauty in a woman’s life. To a certain extent, God created us that way. We are meant to be the more beautiful sex, and to desire beauty is not necessarily a bad thing. We are simply being women by desiring to be beautiful. But that desire can become twisted, distorted, and overemphasized, especially in light of the culture we live in today.

What God has been gently prodding me with is, have I become so focused on attaining outward beauty, like the rest of the world, that I have neglected inner beauty? Especially as I get older, and realize my outward beauty is fading, I think, what is more enduring—my inner, or my outer, beauty? What should I be prioritizing right now? When I am gone, do I want my legacy to be that I was merely cute and wore stylish clothes, or do I want it to be that my life reflected the beauty of Christ? The obvious answer is the latter.

As that wise, well-known Proverb says, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.” That truth is hitting home to me more and more every day. I used to balk at that proverb, but now I understand it better, and desire to be the woman it describes. I am a long ways off, to be sure, and sometimes I wallow in despair and self-pity at the reflection I see of myself, but I just have to trust that God will continue to shape me into His image. And the way He’s doing it right now is through the valley.

There’s a beautiful song by the British band Delirious that addresses the hidden treasure of valleys in our lives, and I’ve found it comforting in many of my dark times. It’s called “Find Me in the River.” I think I’ll share it, as I think it is very appropriate, and a good way to end:

Find me in the river
Find me on my knees
I’ve walked against the water
Now I’m waiting if you please

We’ve longed to see the roses
But never felt the thorns
And bought our pretty crowns
But never paid the price

Find me in the river
Find me there
Find me on my knees with my soul laid bare
Even though you’re gone and I’m cracked and dry
Find me in the river, I’m waiting here

Find me in the river
Find me on my knees
I’ve walked against the water
Now I’m waiting if you please

We didn’t count on suffering
We didn’t count on pain
But if the blessing’s in the valley
Then in the river I will wait

Delight in disorder

There is a beautiful poem by Robert Herrick entitled “Delight in Disorder” that has been much on my mind lately. It’s a sensual poem, directed to a lover, but its theme captures, I believe, a truth that goes far beyond romance and is relevant to many areas of life. The poem, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows:

Delight in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

The last three lines, in particular, are striking, and articulate well a truth that I have been recognizing and pondering more and more over the last few years. What is true beauty? Where does one find it? In my experience, the truest, deepest kind of beauty is not found in the likeliest of places. Or, at least, not in the places that the world says it should be found.

Before I elaborate, I should explain that I am definitely an aesthetics connoisseur. I appreciate beauty in all its forms—in nature, animals, people, art, architecture, language, etc. So I am by no means insensible to “art that is precise in every part”—for such art is indeed often very beautiful. The grandeur of precision is seen in Creation itself, and such precision is awe-inducing and points us to a God Who also appreciates such beauty.

So what is this “wild civility” that Herrick is referring to? Is there a beauty that goes even deeper, that manifests itself in disorder and even, perhaps, in what we commonly think of as “ugly”? I believe so.

I first started noticing this kind of beauty when I traveled abroad, and my spoiled, sheltered American sensibilities were shocked and disturbed by the sight of real poverty and filth. I never knew real ugliness until I beheld the favelas and street children in Brazil, or the poor beggars on the streets of Morocco.

But once my initial revulsion to the outward ugliness of all that I beheld had lessened, and I had immersed myself in the culture, and become acquainted with the people, an awakening of sorts happened within me.

I was not the same person when I returned home. And I have never been quite the same since. Suddenly the neat, manicured lawns, the big, beautiful homes, the fancy cars, and all the outwardly attractive things that define and are glorified by our shallow, materialistic culture here in the US, were incredibly unappealing to me. I had been touched by a beauty that went far deeper, and made the “art precise in every part” seem so shallow, empty, and even “ugly” in comparison.

Over the last week, circumstances have only driven this truth of a deeper beauty further into my heart. God has blessed me with the privilege of house-sitting for a couple who live in one of the “ghetto” parts of my city. I feel like I have entered a different world. I have never truly been immersed in this separate culture, that exists almost literally in my own back yard. True, it is no favela, it is still relatively well-off compared to the poorest places in the world, and no homeless children are begging in the streets, but I immediately felt an affinity for this little section of my city.

The affinity was heightened too, as I pondered the contrast in this poor, mostly black community, and the wealthy, suburban neighborhoods I frequent in my baby-sitting jobs. I do a lot of sitting, especially, for my previous employer, for whom I was a nanny for over a year. Their family recently moved into a large house in a very well-to-do suburban community, that has a golf course, club house, beautiful homes, man-made lake, and perfectly-manicured lawns. The children of this family have everything, materially, they could ever desire.

But I never feel at home or at ease when I am in this family’s home or neighborhood. I actually feel repulsed by the shallow beauty all around me.

But put me amidst some “wild civility,” where there is beauty in an old house with chipping paint, a broken fence, and a rusting gate—-where there is beauty in little black children, in hand-me-down clothes, playing on hand-me-down toys, on the sidewalk—-where there is beauty in an elderly black woman sitting on her front porch watching the world go by and conversing genially with her neighbors—-amidst this, I feel very much at home. I understand fully Herrick’s delight in disorder when I am surrounded by such sights and sounds.

I gain a better understanding too, of God’s own delight in disorder, and His appreciation of this deeper kind of beauty. Jesus Himself is a perfect example. In Isaiah, He is described as having no stately form or majesty, or anything beautiful about Him outwardly that would attract us to Him. On the contrary, His beauty comes from what the world sees as ugly—-those nail-scarred hands and feet, that will be, for all eternity, a reminder of His deep, deep love for us. He is the supreme example of what true beauty consists of. And it is not “art precise in every part.”

Lastly, I find hope for myself, in this reflection on beauty. When I look at myself, all I see is “ashes.” I have nothing to offer God but my filthy, ugly sin and broken life. But God can turn even the ugliest ashes into something beautiful. He gave me a poignant illustration of this not too long ago. I was feeling low one day and dwelling on my shame and brokenness, when I caught sight of the huge pile of ashes, leftover from a bonfire, in a field near my house. I told God, “that pile of ashes is my life.” No sooner had I said this, than He drew my attention to a cluster of beautiful morning glories nearby. “And I will exchange those ashes for beauty,” He said to me.