Sunday, September 30, 2012

Feeling Tense?

I am taking a break from my 30 Days of Action posts to write about something that has been rumbling and bubbling and then finally settling peacefully in my heart these last few weeks. Something prompted by a thought that has followed me since I read Heather King's Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux in July. It's about being tense, or more accurately living in tension. And how that differs from but is not totally different from what we call guilt.

I have had many conversations with people who have read books or articles full of inspiring stories about people who are living radically, sacrificing everything and making huge differences in the world. While on the one hand they are inspired by these stories, on the other they find themselves battling scruples and guilt over the state of life in which they find themselves. Often overwhelmed by the latter, they toss the inspiration in order to free themselves from the weight of the guilt.

This is a feeling I am quite familiar with as a missionary. I battle with myself all the time about how much is too much for us, how little is too little and is asking too much from our kids, how much is just enough. I put things in my basket at the grocery store and then take them out. I stand at the corner giving myself the luxury of hailing a cab then wave it off when it stops and head to the bus instead. Recently, we discovered that one benefit of living in this mission with a car is that it has revolutionized food purchasing.

When we could only get to the very nearest city and that by bus, our purchasing opportunities were quite limited. Turrialba, while it is a city, still remains very typically Costa Rican and the stores market mainly typical fare in regards to food. In addition, whatever we purchased had to be loaded into recycled rice sacks and lugged to the bus where it sat for two hours on the ride home. Then we carried it on our backs to our house. Even when we had the occasional ride to the store, we were always eager not to be overbearing and so limited our purchases. Even then, we bought way more variety of food than the typical family in our pueblo.

But with our car to drive, we have a wider variety of options. One which we recently discovered is the opportunity to take a monthly trip into Zapote, a suburb of sorts of San Jose, to shop at Price Mart (this is apparently how you say Costco in Spanish -- who knew?) We went for the first time last month. After filling out our forms and having our candid snapshots printed on to plastic cards, I turned to find a long forgotten wonderland of flavored coffee creamer, donuts, toothpaste in four packs, pancake mix and maple syrup, barbeque sauce and feta cheese. I was totally overwhelmed.

We walked through Price Mart reveling in purchases we had not made in eight months. Olive oil. Syrup. French vanilla coffee creamer. Dark chocolate granola bars. We passed on the lovely cheeses, the sticky sweet donuts, and a load of other processed foods that appeared lovely in their familiar packaging but that we have learned really taste no better then the packaging itself. We bought a lot of food. Good food at good prices. We bought toiletries and medicines to last a long, long time at the best prices we have found yet in Costa Rica. We treated the kids to the cheap pizza and got an oil change for the car. We priced out some items we will need when we are sharing our mission with groups and other families. It was a good trip, and while we indulged ourselves some, I don't think we did too badly.

But in the weeks that followed, I was haunted by guilt over the French vanilla coffee creamer. I stressed about buying it. I stressed about using it up too quickly, not fully appreciating it. I scrupulously only allowed myself only one cup of coffee with the creamer and then drank plain. I would see families walking down the streets of our town and wonder how much rice I could have given them to feed their children with what I spent on my coffee creamer. I was so shell-shocked that I have not suggested another trip to Price Mart since then. Some people in my house are still lamenting not buying the big box of chocolate covered almonds they saw and I have feared I would be like some indulgence monitor, putting things in the basket and then guiltily taking them back out and stashing them on the wrong aisle, much to the chagrin of the Price Mart employees, I'm sure.

A couple of weeks after that shopping trip, I found myself sitting on a beach in southern Nicaragua reading the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess and pondering a lot of over-indulgence, consumerism and lack of gratitude. And how hard it is to overcome a lifetime if living in a culture that embraces all those things. My time as a missionary has opened my eyes and changed my heart in so many ways, but it has not taken away the impulse to buy more shoes than I need or the desperate craving for Coke Zero in Sonic Ice. Or my love of sticky sweet donuts and flavored coffee creamer. And sometimes, in light of the poverty I see every day, my affections for those things make me feel what in the past I had labeled as guilt.

But reading and thinking on the tenets in 7 and some of things I had read about St. Therese in Shirt of Flame has caused me to rethink what I call this haunting feeling that pervades my thoughts, my desires, my affections and makes me weigh them against the stark realities of poverty, sickness, human slavery and death. What we have labeled as guilt and thrown out as an unhealthy emotion, I think, may not be something altogether bad. Now, I am certain, as many people have commented to me in the aforementioned conversations, that our merciful Savior does not want us to live a life hindered by crippling, debilitating guilt. After all, it was precisely this kind of law that Jesus came to free us from. But I also think we have been a bit quick to toss out some really good inspiration because we were afraid to go where the initial guilt was taking us. We do not need to be a people of guilt, but I think when we begin to hear a warning cry in our hearts every time something makes us see our own ugliness and brokenness that says, "No, run, don't think about that. That's too hard. Jesus doesn't want you to feel badly about yourself" that we need to respond like Christ did to Peter when Peter shouted a similar warning at Him -- about the very hard and ugly way in which He would redeem the world -- "Get Thee behind me, Satan."

Why? Because while I think the Lord does not want us to be encumbered by a burden of guilt over which He has already risen victorious, I think He's perfectly okay with us living in a constant tension. It is the reality of our lives on this side of heaven. We live redeemed but sinful. We worship a merciful but just Savior. We serve a broken and beautiful Church. We are dying every day that we live. And we die in order to live forever. We pray to know better our Savior and He teaches us to know better ourselves. We eat bread that is His body while it still looks and tastes like bread. And we buy and we consume and we live while others beg and starve and die in a world He created. This is our reality.

And as Christians completing, as the Word telsl us, what was lacking in His sufferings, I do think we would be woefully amiss if that reality did not weigh heavily upon us most of our days. If my coffee creamer makes me think painfully of the hungry in my midst, it may not mean I need to toss the coffee creamer, but it also should not mean that I push aside the painful reminder of the poor. Perhaps there is something He is asking me to do, and the tension in my chest with each sip of delicious creamy goodness is His way of knocking. If that experience makes me think long and hard about what I purchase on our next trip and helps me to leave behind some indulgences and replace them with basic foods that can be shared, it has indeed done a very good work in my heart. And if I deliberate long and hard over each item and allow us only three indulgent purchases per trip, is it that really some kind of debilitating guilt? I don't think so. Maddening as it may be for the poor men who are forced to endure the shopping trip with me, I think it does us all some good to pick and choose intentionally as a family and to see the alternatives we are afforded when we bypass overindulgence.

Heather King says St. Therese lived in this constant tension. Feeling at once favored and special in the eyes of her Sweet Savior and alternatively small and humble and feeble in His service. Wanting with all her heart to be a missionary and yet embracing the call to the silence of the cloister. Being childish and simple and yet a spiritual giant all at the same time. If this is what embracing the tension can produce, then who I am to wave it off because sometimes it gives me a stomach ache?

I will be the first to admit that sometimes living in this constant tension does not make me the happy smiley girl I want to be. Sometimes, I just freaking want a Pumpkin Spice Latte and a Coke Zero with Cherry flavoring and extra ice. In a separate cup. There. I said it. But I have come see that that too is okay. This is where His tender mercy sweeps in and makes something beautiful of the mess that is me. You see, while I'm tempted to sulk and whine and grant myself way more indulgence I deserve in repayment for my measly sacrifices, He swoops into my struggle and draws me to Him--says to me, "Sweet Princess, there are no lattes today. But I am here. Come close. Rest from the struggle. Breathe the sweet incense of my presence. Feel better, little one? Good. Get up and do what I have asked." And then, one day when I least expect it, right in the midst of serving and doing and falling and rising, voila, a pumpkin spice latte appears out of nowhere, with the extra whipped cream I never even dared ask for even though I wanted it really badly. Because my Daddy loves me. Deeply, tenderly and intimately. And He loves to lavish me with gifts and surprise me with loveliness.

So these days, I am working at seeing all these impulses both indulgent and guilty as the forces that pull taut my spiritual heart rope, that keep me sober and alert, intentional and dependent as I try to be who God has called me to be in this crazy upside world that reeks of sin and shines with glory all at the same time. I think the Lord only pulls that rope as taut as we permit Him too. Sometimes, life demands that we let it fall slack while we put all our energies into growing a baby human inside us or rekindling love in our marriage or serving the demanding needs of our families or recovering from an illness. Other times, I think He asks if we will let Him pull it uncomfortably tight, so that it strains and stresses and pulls at us until we grow up just a little bit more. But I do believe that we are called to permit the tension to live within us, the feel its weight and to embrace it, not as guilt, but as another tender mercy meant to bring us further into the abode of His heart. And I think the spiritual progress we make is directly related to just how taut we permit him to pull our heart strings.

So if you are feeling the tension today as I am and battling the guilty grumpies as I often do, slow down rather than pushing it away. Run to Him and let Him show you what He needs you to see. Seek Him in the quiet and the stillness and, yes, the pain of your heart. Move past the guilt and give Him permission to pull your heart strings tight. And then see what He might do with you. And then happily, one day, if He is merciful enough, we might find ourselves sipping a double whipped cream pumpkin spice latte inside the gates of the Promised Land with no more pain or suffering, where our hearts strings fly loose and free in the light of His glory. Walk with me?

***P.S. Following any of the Amazon links in this post or on the sidebar and making a purchase will generate a small amount of credit for me. All credit will be dedicated to purchasing items for the Blessed Zelie Martin Initiative laid out in this post.

I have added this post to this week's Walk With Him Wednesdays link up at Holy Experience.


  1. Thank you for this. I also struggle with these things after working in social services. I totally agree that we shouldn't let go of the inspiration because of the fear of where it might take us. It is Christ calling us to lay down our lives in solidarity with those living in poverty...Though it goes against the grain of American culture.

  2. These are wise words. As a former missionary (Protesant) myself, I feel they are honest ones and know something of the tension you describe. You were my neighbor at one of the Holy Experience lists this week, and I'm glad I visited and took time to learn from you. May the Lord send you sweetness and comfort when you most need and perhaps least expect it.

    1. Thanks, tinuviel. I am glad you stopped by from Holy Experience too. And thank you for your prayers and encouragement.