Friday, March 26, 2010

Making It

A few nights ago, I was chatting with a friend at a social function. We ended up discussing some of the financial pressures that we 20-somethings face: paying off undergrad loans, housing payments, and grad school expenses. Sometimes it can be really hard at the beginning, when we start out under such a huge pile of debt. "Sometimes I kind of wish I could miraculously figure out how to win the lottery," he said. I smiled, because the same thought has crossed my mind many times. I even buy Powerball tickets every now and then. "Me too," I replied, "but I don't think God will make it that easy for me."

I can tell you right now what I would do if I won some crazy mega-millions jackpot tomorrow. I would pay off my house instead of selling it, pay off my car, and pay off all of our student loans, including my husband's pile of grad school debt. I would pay for some much-needed repairs on my mom's house and give my sister the money for a bigger place. Then I'd give money to pay off my church's mortgage on our fellowship hall addition and give a big chunk of money to my alma mater towards their Arts Union building project (and maybe later for a new music building). I'd set up a foundation to help me share my money with worthy charities. Then—let's face it—I'd probably spend plenty on myself. I'd go visit my Dad in China. In fact, I'd travel all kinds of places all over the world. I'd see more operas, plays, and concerts and eat more high-end cuisine. I'd quit my job so I could write full-time, and I'd throw time and money after learning new skills and enjoying more hobbies.

What I have described above is a bit of a fairy tale, and I don't really think that God put me on this Earth to live a charmed life. That's what Heaven is for. Here, I'm supposed to learn things, to grow, and to develop a stronger Christian character. Hardships are to be expected—they are the fire that will refine me. God is blessing my life, but He's giving me blessings that help me persevere and become a better person in the process, not blessings that allow me to coast through without trying very hard. Sometimes, like my friend, I really do want God to just give me an easy way out of this mess, but I know He has good reasons for withholding that kind of divine intervention.

I told my friend that I expected I might never actually get ahead, but as long as I'm making it, everything's fine. No, I don't have a big nest egg saved up for the rainy days ahead, but I am paying all my bills on time and leading a reasonably comfortable life. Things aren't always easy, but I don't really have too much to complain about. The future is scary sometimes, but in the present I'm making it, and I consider that to be nothing less than a gift from God.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Advice to a Younger Me

I work in a college publications office, and right now I'm working on a story in which a group of alumni offer advice to their 18-year-old selves. I'm asking alumni of various ages what they would have told themselves if they could go back in time to that moment when they were first heading off to college. As of today, I haven't received many responses. The alumni I've spoken to about it are having a hard time coming up with an answer to such an open-ended question. Several of them are enthusiastic about participating in the project, but they've asked for more time to ponder their responses.

It really is a hard question, and that's why I thought it might be interesting to try to answer it myself. What would I tell my 18-year-old self?
  • Everything that you love isn't going to be there forever, but that's OK. You're going to love so many people and places and things that the loss of one doesn't have to be devastating. Invest in what you love, and trust that as you make more of those investments, the risk of each one lowers.
  • You don't have to be naive to trust people. You can trust others knowing full-well that they will probably hurt you at some point. You're going to get hurt whether you trust people or not, so you might as well reap the benefits that come from trust.
  • Stop worrying about boys. Eventually you're going to find one who likes you the way you are. After you're married, even he will start to find things to criticize about you, but by then that sort of thing won't bother you quite so much anymore.
  • Don't be so shy. The more you smile at people, the better their impression of you will be. Just relax and don't be afraid to talk to people. 
  • Everything changes as you grow. Things you can't even imagine will come to pass, and problems that seem huge now will eventually fade. Don't freak out if you can't see what the future holds—the future will come and find you when the time is right.
  • It's OK to be a little adventurous. Do some things that feel a little crazy (although you should try to stick to fun-crazy and bizarre-crazy, not dangerous-crazy or harmful-crazy). Enjoy being free-spirited now, because it gets harder to get away with it as you get older.
  • Tough times are coming, but I promise you're going to make it through. You'll be a better and happier person on the other side.
  • God is with you, whether you can feel Him or not. Don't get scared when you don't know where He is or what He's doing. You'll be able to look back and see His hand in your life in retrospect. I promise He will never leave you.
The funny thing is that when I look back over this list, I realize that I haven't fully mastered these lessons yet. These are all things that I didn't really know when I was 18 years old, but they're still applicable advice for me today. I can celebrate all that I have learned since I entered college while still recognizing that I struggle with many of the same core challenges (although perhaps in different ways). In some ways, my 18-year-old self has some good advice to offer me. She can remind me not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to rediscover some of the vivacity and joy that I have lost as I've grown older.

A bonus challenge to my readers:
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self? Feel free to share by leaving a comment.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Lately I've been frustrated with my shortcomings. Why can't I keep up with more tasks and facts without forgetting things? Why can't I work more efficiently? Why can't I control my emotions better? Why can't I perform on a higher level? Why don't I have more or better talents? Why don't I have more resolve or perseverance? What's wrong with me?

Over the years I've learned that this sort of negativity isn't really going to help me. Getting frustrated about my shortcomings will not help me overcome them. Instead it will make me feel defeated and incompetent, and I will be less likely to improve than if I just cut myself a little slack. After all, just because I don't do everything perfectly doesn't mean I'm a useless failure. When I'm having a rough time, my flaws look greater than my strengths, but I realize that objectively that's not true. Having shortcomings doesn't diminish my talents, and those talents can even help me overcome my shortcomings if I give them their due.

So as I sit here trying to dig myself out of the pit of my inadequacies, I want to take a moment to remind myself that there are things I can do well, even now when I'm not necessarily operating at my best. As a matter of fact, I'm going to make a (non-exhaustive) list:
  • I can be a good friend. I don't always succeed at being a good friend, it's true, but I have the traits and character of a good friend in my heart. I can commit to people I love and I can make the right choices to be the kind of friend they need and enjoy. When I mess up in a friendship, it's just a transitory thing—it's not because I'm incapable of being a good friend.
  • I can dance. I have both the skills and the courage to dance (as long as it's social dancing—you won't catch me club dancing any time soon). I have hips, and I really can use them. I have decent posture and reasonably light feet when I'm in the right mood. I may not have all the moves, but I have the attitude, and that counts.
  • I can make a good mix CD. I realize that this is a subjective statement, but many people have enjoyed my mix CDs and complimented me on them. I'm pretty good at figuring out what kind of music someone will like and ordering the songs in an aesthetically pleasing way. I also have the motivation to make mix CDs, and I hope that this is a small but meaningful thing I can do to brighten a friend's day.
  • I can learn from books. I'm a quick learner, and sometimes reading about things and trying them out for myself works as well as a formal education structure. I'm good at finding resources to teach myself how to do things, and I don't usually need a lot of supervision or one-on-one help when I'm learning something.
  • I can sing. Even when I get nervous or there's a little gunk in my throat, I can usually manage to make a sound that the average person finds pleasing when I sing. I have the ability to touch people with my singing, and for some reason they respond very well to my voice. I'm happy that I can make them so happy just by singing.
  • I can sleep. I go to sleep pretty easily and quickly most nights, and I can sleep through a reasonable amount of noise or even sunlight. When something does wake me up, I'm often able to go back to sleep right away. This is an invaluable trait for someone whose body needs sleep as much as mine does!
  • I can keep an organized to-do list. I do forget things sometimes, but chances are if I write it down in my planner, it WILL get done. I can prioritize my commitments and get things done in a reasonably orderly and efficient manner.
  • I can do the crab walk. This might sound stupid, but for someone who's always been bad at all things physical, it's really heartening to have one thing in my workout classes that I can do better than anyone else. I couldn't crab walk very well in elementary school, but I can do it now!
  • I can trust that God has a plan, even when circumstances are driving me crazy. I get annoyed with God sometimes for not being more forthright with me, but I don't lose faith in His goodness or His plan. Even when I feel separated from God, I still believe that He's here looking after me in His own way.
Some of these things may seem small and insignificant, but they remind me that I am a complex person with both good and bad traits (and both good and bad days). I'm not always at my best, but there are always things I can do. I am never helpless or worthless, because God has given me gifts to see me through. Sometimes the smallest things can remind me that I am a special child of God, and I really appreciate that. So even though there are things I can't do (or do well) today, I know that's not the whole story. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Promises, Promises

The world is full of broken promises. Husbands and wives break marriage vows, business partners breach contracts, and teenagers break agreed-upon curfews. In fact, we consider it a rare and powerful thing when a promise is kept because we are so jaded by lies and failures. All of us break promises, both intentionally and by mistake, and I myself am no exception. When we get right down to it, there is only one being in the entire cosmos who has a perfect record of keeping promises: God.

Consider a few examples from the Bible:
  • God fulfilled his promise to Abraham by leading the people out of captivity in Egypt and into the Promised Land. "He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold, and from among their tribes no one faltered. Egypt was glad when they left, because dread of Israel had fallen on them. He spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night. They asked, and he brought them quail and satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock, and water gushed out; like a river it flowed in the desert. For he remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham. He brought out his people with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy." (Psalm 105:37–43)
  • When King Solomon was dedicating the first temple, he proclaimed, "Praise be to the LORD, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses." (1 Kings 8:56)
  • Jesus promised that the apostles would receive the Holy Spirit. Sure enough, the Day of Pentecost came and they spoke in tongues as they were filled with the Spirit. Peter explained to the astonished crowd, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear." (Acts 3:32–33) In fact, Peter told them that the promise of the Holy Spirit was for them, too. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 3:38–39) 
  • Paul also reminded his readers over and again that God's promises of redemption and eternal life through Jesus were for everyone. "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (Galatians 3:14) In fact, Paul calls us "children of the promise" (Galatians 9:8). Paul considered God's promises to be sure—in fact they were the only thing upon which a Christian could truly depend.
 It's true that I don't always trust people to keep their promises, but I need to understand that God is different from people. God is going to keep His promises even when other loved ones don't. God will love me and stick with me, and His redemption is not conditional. All I have to do is accept the gifts He gives me—I don't have to earn them. My conduct doesn't change God's promises. He keeps them in His own time, but He always keeps them. In a world of uncertainty, I'm glad I have this one thing to count on.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I've recently been researching the nonfiction book market, specifically the Christian living/inspirational market. Apparently competition is very fierce in nonfiction, and having good content isn't always enough to get you published. When you try to sell a novel, agents and publishers want to know about your story—if it's good enough, they can market it effectively no matter who you are. In the non-fiction market, however, the identity of the author can be even more important than the content of the book. A nonfiction author needs a platform in order to demonstrate his or her ability to sell the book.

There are two parts to a platform. First, platforms are about qualifications. Do you have an advanced degree or an extensive professional history in the subject you're discussing in your book? Are you already an established and successful writer? Are you paid to speak on the topic? As I browsed through the Christian Living section of a local bookstore, I saw books by pastors, founders of urban ministries, university professors, clinical psychologists, motivational speakers, and even bestselling novelists. Each of them had professional qualifications to demonstrate their competence in writing a nonfiction book about Christian living.

The second part of a platform is about name recognition and popularity. In order for a non-fiction author to be considered a good investment, he or she must already have a large following that a publisher can exploit to get the word out about the book. Publishers want nonfiction authors who are considered experts in their fields and therefore appear on television and radio programs. Even better are authors who host their own television or radio programs. Already-established writers are great, even if they've been writing in a different genre previously. Bloggers with lots of followers or professionals with a whole host of connections are marketable. Any sort of fame—even being related to someone famous or having been present at a memorable historic event—can be exploited to promote a nonfiction book. In order to know whether they can sell your nonfiction book, publishers and agents need to know if they can sell you.

Unfortunately, we sometimes worry that we need a platform for life. We hesitate to step forward to get involved, to share our opinions, or to step forward for leadership because we don't feel we have a platform. How can we be leaders or give advice if we don't have extensive personal qualifications? How can we really share our knowledge if there aren't many people who are currently paying attention to us? Who will "buy" what we have to offer if we can't sell ourselves?

The good news is that Christian life isn't like book publishing. In order to fully participate in the Christian community, the only platform we need is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit qualifies us to teach, preach, or lead in whatever ways God has called us, no matter what background we have. In addition, the Holy Spirit moves others to listen when God has something He wants to say through us. When Jesus himself first began to teach, he didn't have a platform. He was the unknown son of a carpenter, and as far as we know he didn't have any advanced formal theological training. Still, people listened to Jesus because he spoke the true Word, and he quickly gained a following. Likewise, when we allow the Holy Spirit to speak through us, we have all the platform we need. God's people will be drawn to our words because they are true, not because of who we are.

It's difficult to escape from the judgmentalism of a world that says we have to be someone special in order to do something special. Recognizing that God himself provides the platform for the work He wants us to do is a huge relief. We don't have to try to live up to the world's expectations because God is giving us the tools and help we need to live up to His expectations. Publishing platforms are about who you know and what you've done, but your ability to do God's work is based solely upon your loving relationship with Him.
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