On Giving God Advice

“And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Genesis 17:18

When God told Abraham his wife would have a biological son, Abraham laughed. It sounded great, of course, but it was impossible. They had been down this road before with nothing to show for it. Nothing except Ishmael of course, who, although he wasn’t Sarah’s son, seemed to be a good enough substitute. Abraham was too tired to start hoping again, so he decided to make a logical suggestion to God that would be easier on everyone. “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Like Abraham, I have the very bad habit of giving God advice.

Almost always, it has to do with a man that, for whatever reason, it just isn’t working out with.

And I catch myself praying like this:

“Lord, I love his heart for you. I’ve prayed for a godly man for so long; can’t you see what a great team we’d be for your kingdom?”

“Lord, I know you can change hearts [insert 1 to 3 verses to support my argument], so will you change his heart toward me? We’d be so great together [insert dissertation on our compatibility].”

But behind the flowery words and the Scripture citations isn’t a heart submitted to God or His word, but a heart scrambling in fear, fear that unless I present a carefully crafted argument for my heart’s desires, He’s going to forget about me.

And although I’m saying “Lord,” I’m stripping Him of the title and claiming it as my own.

What I’m really saying when I pray those prayers is this:

“Lord, I know better than you, why can’t you get with the program?”

“Lord, if only my plan might live under your blessing.”

I love God’s response to Abraham, a patient response that extended over years of his inability to trust that God would do what he said. Abraham and Sarah had taken things into their own hands with the Ishmael incident some years before (Genesis 16), yet God appeared to Abraham again, reassuring him that His promise was as good as ever. Abraham, though, was still stuck on fitting Ishmael into a mold God clearly had not created him for.

It’s pretty audacious to give advice to the Creator of the universe and the Creator of our own hearts, yet He continues to gently, patiently lead us when we can’t escape the confines of our own logic.

So this is a reminder to myself that the next time I start giving God advice, I step back and reflect on just how much higher His thoughts are than mine (Isaiah 55:9), remembering the miraculous birth of Isaac that expanded into a story so much bigger than Abraham and Sarah.

I’ll end with this powerful quote from Susie Larson:

“If the devil can get you to doubt God’s provision, you’ll grab for yourself and miss the wonder of God’s goodness….If the devil can get you to doubt God’s timing, you’ll rush ahead and miss the wisdom of His ways.”

So let’s trust in His provision, refuse to grab for ourselves, and wait in confidence for the revelation of God’s goodness that ministers to the intimate places of our heart, yet extends far beyond our small story.

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Genesis 17: 15-18 (New International Version) 

God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

 

3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help

Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts made a lasting mark on Christian culture, and rightly so. In her “dare to live fully right where you are,” she recounts her transformation from despair into joyful gratitude through the simple practice of counting her gifts, blessings from God that are all too easy to miss unless we commit our eyes to intentional sight.

“Morning shadows across the old floors,” she writes.  “Jam piled high on the toast. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce” (p. 45).

I read the book when it came out in 2010 and was captivated by Voskamp’s poetic writing and fresh expression of a timeless truth. And today, healthy and healed, when I count God’s gifts, a gloomy demeanor on an off day is put into perspective, an inward focus turns upward and outward, and joy begins to diffuse the despair.

But when I was severely depressed, this practice backfired. In the years of the deepest depression, I fought back with Voskamp’s advice. In a tear-riddled journal, I etched my gifts hard into the pages day after day.

And all I felt was shame.

Shame at how God had given me so much, yet I still had a perpetual lump in my throat.

Shame that the hopelessness I felt outshouted the hope I had in Christ.

Shame that God had given me so much to live for, yet, on some days, I wanted to die.

If the same has happened to you, you are not alone.And if the same has happened to you, remember this:

Faith and feelings are not synonyms. Continue reading “3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help”

I Have Seen the One Who Sees Me

Unclean.

Unclean am I, I am unclean, because of a bleeding that won’t stop, no matter how much I adhere to the doctors’ instructions, more outrageous and extravagant by the day. Weakness does not just fill me; it is me.

I feel cold in the sun.

I want to seek Him, Jehovah, the Lord, the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But I am cut off. Shame and sin are mine, are me. An unrepentant woman. I hear the whispers: “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” I am unclean, unclean am I. I used to have a name before the condemning blood.

When I heard about him from my mother, when she told me about what he did for the blind man that used to beg at the end of our street, all I could think of was how much he sounded like the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But compassion was a word for others; it could never apply to me. For my uncleanness, my sin, they said, had cut me off from the people. Compassion should not be shown to one who willfully persists in iniquity. It might imply that misdeeds were acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah. But with Mother’s story about this Jesus, I saw that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules.

A rebel, a kind rebel.

I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed. For a moment, I was thrilled, but then I felt the question like a slap.

“Who touched me?” 

I should have known better.

His voice wasn’t angry, but I knew it would be as soon as he realized that I, an unclean woman, had touched him. And if he was as powerful as my mother said, he would most certainly realize.

I feared that he would be angry, that I may have tainted his power with my unclean hands. But I was desperate; he was my last chance. My hands went numb and my body began to heave with tears that left me gasping for air. With my last bit of strength, I moved toward him, then fell near his feet, my hands scraped by the gritty ground.

“It was me! Forgive me, it was me.” The tears kept coming, but my face grew numb. I kept my head to the ground, waiting for the blow, or the curse, or the command to leave.

But instead, in a gentle voice, he said “daughter.”

I lifted my head in disbelief, and he looked in my eyes, really looked-not through me or past me as the others do. And when he looked in my eyes, his own filled with tears. And with a lump in his throat and a soft smile, he said, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”

He called me daughter, and he called me free. This compassion, this love, still feels strange and unreal. It’s been so long since I’ve been clean that I have to remind myself that my encounter with him wasn’t just a dream. But as I wake up every day with strength in my body and the memory of his words, I know that it is all true. And now I can proclaim with joy, just as Hagar did when he rescued her, “I have seen the one who sees me.” 

~

This fictional account is based on Mark 5: 25-34. Hagar’s words are from Genesis 16:13. Italicized words are direct quotes from Scripture.

If the Master and Margarita had a Sequel

Last night, I finally hit the halfway mark in the first full-length classic I have attempted to read in the original, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita! (Well, I actually attempted The Brothers Karamazov last summer, but that turned out to be way above my level at the time.)

Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, graffiti from the stairwell of the Bulgakov House, photo taken December, 2010
Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, graffiti from the stairwell of the Bulgakov House, photo taken December, 2010

I first became enamored with the book back in 2010 when we read it in my literature class in Nizhniy Novgorod. It grabbed me from the first page with it’s deliciously creepy opening scene in 1930s Moscow where an eccentric “intourist” named Woland argues with two atheists against their claim that Jesus never existed, then predicts that one will die by getting his head cut off, which happens not an hour later when he slips on sunflower seed oil and falls in front of a tramvai.

It soon becomes clear that this foreign visitor is none other than Satan, who has come to Moscow with an eclectic entourage, including a talking black cat and a tall, skinny man in a checkered suit and a broken pince nez, to drastically change the lives of the city’s intelligentsia.  This story-line is successfully braided with the tale of a brilliant writer, “the Master,” and his lover Margarita, and the Master’s novel itself, which imagines the last days of a Jesus-based character Yeshua Ha-Notzri and his hearing before Pontius Pilate.

Although this book is extremely entertaining from a surface-level reading, it becomes even more intriguing when you delve into the layers of philosophy and criticism of Stalinist Russia that make up the meat of the novel. It is no surprise then that The Master and Margarita wasn’t published in the U.S.S.R. until 25 years after Bulgakov wrote it, and even then, 12% of it was censored!

"Manuscripts don't burn." A famous line from the novel.
“Manuscripts don’t burn.” A famous line from the novel.

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So while I won’t give any spoilers to the book (which I do recommend you read!), I will share a few reasons why I think that if The Master and Margarita had a sequel, it would be set in Elabuga. One of the reasons the novel stands alone is that Bulgakov found the sweet spot between fantasy and reality, (what literature nerds would call magical realism) to the point where the strange events that the Devil brings to Moscow seem chillingly feasible. I have found this little town in Tatarstan strangely mirrors the feel of the masterpiece. On one hand, as some have said, Elabuga is “the realest place on earth,” but at the same time, I often encounter little mysteries that make me feel like I’m in a fairy tale, sometimes wondering if Woland will step out from behind a tree and start talking to me.

Here are a few of my Elabuga experiences that have kept me on my toes:

Mystery #1: Woland’s distant cousin?

The novel opens up with the “intourist” Professor Woland, (Satan) predicting that Berlioz, head of a literature firm, will have his head cut off, and that his companion, Ivan, a poet who writes under the pseudonym Бездомный, or “homeless,” will find himself in a mental institution. While conversing, Woland gives the men his business card. I had a strange conversation in the lunchroom at my university with a guy I like to call “Woland’s distant cousin.”He even had gold crowns on his right teeth, like Woland. After finding out I was an American, he called me an “intourist,” the reference so common during Soviet times, then he used the word бездомный (homeless) in conversation. Finally, he started telling me about a Bulgarian Professor Lozanov, whom he had studied English under during the Soviet Union. The method was very intense, he said, for the first four months, you were allowed no visual aids or texts, you simply had to learn by hearing and remembering. The last five months of the the nine month program, however, you were given books. Then, he looked at me with a strange smile on his face and said,

“the thing is, it was so intense, that after that year under Lozanov, everyone in my group died except me.”

My eyes went wide, not sure if he was joking. He kept up his broad smile, his gold crowns shining, and said “yes, I’m the only survivor.” And then, to top things off, he handed me this business card:

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This professor had basically covered chapter 1: gold crowns, business card, “intourist,” бездомный, and last but not least, death/mental overload.

Intrigued by this Lozanov fellow, I googled him and found almost everything this professor said about him to be true; his nationality, his methodology, the time period. The only thing I couldn’t find was information about a whole cohort of Soviets dying after a year with him. But as a Russian friend of mine said, “maybe it was secret information, and he accidentally spilled it.”

Mystery #2: The singing opera man

Around November, I started to hear this strange noise from inside my dorm room at random times. The sound would usually go on for periods of ten to twenty minutes straight, and sounded like a cross between an old-man singing opera and a ghostly moan. In November, everything in Elabuga seemed weird to me, and I think I just subconsciously accepted it as one of the quirks of my new surroundings. I didn’t tell anybody about it for over a month, and when I finally did, I realized how crazy I sounded. I mean, really? The ghost of an old man singing opera?

The sound continued, and around mid-December I had come up with a brilliant theory: it was the call to prayer from the mosque about 3/4 of a mile away from my dorm. After all, hadn’t I heard the call to prayer once in one of my classes, seeing how two of my girls closed their eyes and began to pray. An hour after that class, while walking home, I heard the opera voice not too far from the mosque.

But none of it really made any sense. I could still hear it loudly and clearly from the inside of my dorm room, a good 15 minute walk away from the mosque. One evening a friend came over who is also Muslim and she heard the sound. “What is that!?” she asked, scared.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I hear it every day.”

“If I were you, I would be scared to go to sleep at night!” She then assured me that it was most DEFINITELY not coming from the mosque. The next week, I heard it while I was outside of the dorm, the sound more resonant than I had ever heard it. I quickly grabbed my phone and began to record the sound, crunching through the snow, trying to find where it was coming from. I couldn’t tell if if was emanating from my dorm, or from another building that surrounds the mini-courtyard.

The audio file is as far as I’ve come in my little  investigation. No Russians I have asked have any idea where the noise could be coming from, and they seem to be just as intrigued as me.

And finally: The Devil’s Tower

This place makes me want to write books.

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So it’s not exactly a “mystery,” per se, but it’s a really mysterious place, and with The Master and Margarita‘s obsession with the use of any form of the word чёрт, or “devil,” the Devil’s Tower would fit right into the narrative.

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This sign tells us that the area surrounding the Devil’s Tower was inhabited in the “Early Iron Age” (7th-8th centuries), and that at the end of the 10th century the Bulgars built a military fortress. The tower with white-stoned citadels is the only remnant of the Volga Bulgars during the pre-Mongolian period. Archaeological and  architectural research has found a building on this site that is the remains of a fortress-mosque, built no later than the 12th century.

The view from the Devil’s Tower is a breathtaking panorama of wintry Elabuga life: against the backdrop of forest green and white, today I saw the tiny figure of a man ice-fishing in the Toima River, a man and babushka strolling down the slippery street far below, and beyond, the colorful churches and buildings of Kazanskaya Street. So in spite of all the strangeness and mysteries and unpredictability of this town, well, probably because of them, I’m really starting to feel a connection to this place. Whereas last semester, I was just trying to keep my head above water, now I have time to think and reflect and actually enjoy this town that is so very Russian, yet has a personality all it’s own.