Friday, December 17, 2010

Smell The Roses

It took a phone call to step back and let something that had been nagging me in the back of my mind to come forward and confront me once and for all.

I was chatting with a friend about all kinds of things, jumping all over a variety of topics, but something in particular stuck. We were talking about differences between cultures, and how straight-laced and linear the Western mind tends to be, and he complained something along these lines: "It's like we look at a bird and wonder, 'What kind is that? What's its name?' and begin to categorize everything about it, while other people in the world just look and go, 'Hey that's a bird! Cool!'"

The additional thought that provoked me occurred about a week later in conversing with my pastor, who talked about a history class he took in college that focused on the Eastern hemisphere, and was taught by a Chinese man. He mentioned how frustrating it was sometimes to listen in class, where American students are used to going from the beginning of a topic to the end, and this professor didn't really do that; rather, he might go in one direction, come back, go somewhere else, and come back again, over and over again. His mind thought more cyclically than ours tend to do. It makes note-taking in our traditional fashion a bit messy. My pastor remarked that he couldn't tell you much about the actual content of the class, but he learned a huge lesson in ways of thinking: our minds just work things out differently, not one culture's method necessarily being better than another.

Having been raised in the U.S., looking at things from a standardized test point of view, I totally see how my mind is very much the analytical Western type, taking things apart and laying them out in a logical row, going from beginning to end -- very much the scientific method as we know it. I get frustrated when I can't dissect something to the point of comprehending it, or when I can't put something into a category or box that fits what I can understand. This kind of thinking pervades just about everything, from schoolwork to relationships. I aim to "get" stuff. And when I don't "get" it, I go kind of nuts.

I am one of those people who wrecks a masterpiece symphony in my head by thinking, "Wow, this song on the radio straight up stole this chord progression." I look at a beautiful picture of a lake and think, "Where is that? What animals are in this picture?" My brain doesn't take a break. If I spend a morning sitting on my porch drinking coffee, thoughts inevitably come that scold me for being lazy and taking so long to start getting ready for school, or doing some homework or chores. This isn't a conscious thing most of the time, but simply a worldview: we are supposed to figure things out, be productive, and be efficient. If we don't, we're wasting time and potential. I'm willing to bet that a great proportion of Americans have these values pretty deeply rooted in their psyches.

We apply this linear and restless way of thinking in our spiritual lives, too. It's easier to follow rules than participate in a relationship. It's easier to make a list of good works to do than to rest in grace and joy. It's easier to judge than it is to forgive or talk things through. It's easier to avoid messing up than it is to wholeheartedly pursue good instead. We try to box God into what our little human brains can comprehend, assuming that what He is or what He can do is in accordance with the standards we arbitrarily put on Him by our own understanding. We worry about upsetting Him, which either leads to outright rebellion in ways that we know aren't right or by perishing with despair that we are disappointments who can't do anything right. We busy ourselves with tasks and chores for Him, or to please whomever we choose, rather than bask in truth and let that free us from worry.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” -- Matthew 11:28-30

The point wasn't to burden us with rules or chores. The point wasn't to wear us out. The point wasn't to enslave us to the task of grasping God fully, completely, and perfectly. The point wasn't to fall beneath heavy weights of guilt, shame, and fear.

The point was to give us rest.

"Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise." -- James 5:13

These aren't hard instructions on how to live. They just require us to be still from our busy lives, which we tend to bring on ourselves a great deal of the time as middle class Americans. (If you're not one of these, then you are free from the generalizing part but should still think about it!)

If I'm happy in the morning drinking coffee on my porch, praise God for coffee, for my porch, for the fragrant morning air, and for the time to spend enjoying it!

It is a practice for me now simply to sit and enjoy something. It's not really easy, as I have been well-trained in busying myself with things to do so that I don't look lazy, and not necessarily because I really have the desire or need to. If I am exhausted and lay down, I try to stop punishing myself for wanting a nap by thinking endlessly and trying to imagine all the things I should be doing instead. If I am listening to a piece of music, I want to let the melodies soak into me and enjoy their beauty rather than think too hard about what makes them so lovely. And I might not ever understand God in His entirety -- in fact, I know I won't, because that is impossible for the human mind -- but I can certainly absorb what I know about Him from the inspired words that others who saw Him fulfill promises have written, and I can enjoy who He is, which is a list of words that is infinite and goes beyond what humans can utter.

So, I recommend taking a break from the daily routine. School is (hopefully) not the be-all end-all. Work (hopefully) won't be the treasure you take with you out of your life. Reputation (hopefully) will take a backseat in how you live your life. Rather, I say savor the taste of your favorite fruit, marveling at its natural beauty and sweetness. Get swept away by a song or piece that really captivates your spirit. Allow yourself to get lost in the feeling of a cool autumn wind or a warm, heavy spring breeze. Even stop and admire the thing you like best about yourself, be it your crazy big eyes (yep, that's me!) or your ability to put down exactly what you're feeling on a piece of paper with a paintbrush (unfortunately, not me at all, haha). Yes, all these things were wonderfully made, yourself included, and when we're happy, we are to give praise for these things!

This more holistic way of looking at our lives is hard to adopt, but sure makes it easier to experience the light burden that Christ lays on us when we follow Him, instead of choking under the ones we put on ourselves. Things don't have to be packaged in a way that make them more understandable, effective, useful, portable, or form-fitting to our "McDonald's" culture that tells us to keep going fast, keep mass-producing for cheap, and take out what isn't absolutely necessary to churn out more and more so that we can avoid stopping. In fact, if you are in Christ, you aren't really supposed to care a lot about what seems appropriate to the people in your society (Romans 12:2).

Organizing, dissecting, grasping, explaining, and streamlining our lives to be most efficient and nonstop are not necessary.

Simply pray, and give praise.

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