Learning by doing

When I was in high school, I wanted to be an architect. It was a respected career; besides, I loved the angular handwriting with the slanted horizontal letter strokes. I did all I could to prepare: took extra math and drafting classes, and attended an intensive summer workshop in architecture. That clinched it for me – the atmosphere and professors and students were so very cool, and I wanted it so badly. So I applied to only one college, the third-highest-ranking college in the U.S. for architecture, because I was so sure of where I belonged. It was great… but as the focus became more real and less abstract, it became less fun for me, until finally I knew: it wasn’t for me. I had talents, but those weren’t my strongest ones. Still, it was hard to give up the image of myself I’d created, and, perhaps more importantly, I didn’t want people to think I had failed.

Eventually, I switched to graphic design. My whole life had prepared me – the hours doodling and coloring intricate design books because I was bored, the hand-drawn type, the “newspapers” I wrote and designed to send to my pen pals. I found that my time as an architecture student was rather valuable preparation. Learning to look at things in a different way, to find out-of-the-box solutions to a given problem? I learned that in the architecture program. The math? Helpful to me as I’ve run my own business these past 14 years. No matter how much we prepare for something, though, until we actually try it, we don’t know if we can do it. Would I be a better architect or designer? I didn’t know until I actually stepped into those roles.

I’ve always thought I had very strong faith, but I also knew it had never really been put to the test. Again, I prepared diligently: I spent years praying, learning the Word, and seeking the face and heart of God. The training was there, but not the practice. Now my mom has cancer, and I have to step into a whole new role and try it out. The problem? I don’t feel like I belong there, or that I’m strong enough to stand upright, or spiritual enough to find the good in this. I’m so afraid I don’t have what it takes to allow others to see God through me as my family walks this path. I’m fearful that my weakness will make everyone think I’ve been an imposter all this time, that I’m not really what they thought I was. My eloquent prayers have evaporated and I sit in silence, not knowing what to say. I’m scared.

But, even if, to my deep disappointment, I discover that my faith is not what I thought it would be, that I’m not very strong and I’m not very sure – even if that’s true – at least I can take comfort in knowing that all my preparation is not lost. It’s still there, deep down inside. The Word is written on my heart, if I’ll only dig down deep to find it. The Lord is leaning down, reaching out His gentle hands to hold me, if only I’ll grab on to Him. Though it’s hard to believe at this moment, I think I will find that I do, in fact, have the faith I always hoped was there. I didn’t believe that even as I started writing this, but I feel God assuring me now that I do. He has already filled me with His love and His hope and His faith; it’s not about my abilities at all anymore, just His. I just have to step forward into this new role, and believe. With Him, I can be anything He wants me to be. I can do anything. Even something I really don’t want to do. Even this.

Oxygen masks

I sat on board the plane, waiting for take-off. When the flight attendant started her safety spiel, I zoned out. It’s important stuff, I know, but I’ve heard it so many times I can’t seem to force myself to pay attention. I look down at my book, and glance up again as she demonstrates how to use the oxygen mask. If the plane loses pressure, the masks will drop out of a compartment above you. Tug gently on the mask to start the flow of oxygen. Secure your own mask before helping a child or elderly person sitting beside you.

That has always struck me as backwards. Shouldn’t we be selfless and help the needy first? After all, they may not know what to do, or they may be less able to follow the instructions. But, to be practical, if you don’t have air, you can’t help someone else. Neither one of you would be able to breathe. As a Christian, this idea seems particularly hard to justify. Aren’t we to help others? To give the coat off our backs to someone in need? To feed them, clothe them, pray for them and love them and show them God’s love? To put ourselves last, to be the least among our brethren? It seems obvious – we are never to help ourselves first.

But as soon as I had that thought, a still, small voice told me I was wrong. It’s just like the oxygen masks. Yes, of course we are to do for others, in all those many ways. But if we do not take care of ourselves, we aren’t much use to someone else. If we don’t feed ourselves with the word and fill our faith tanks with prayer, we have nothing inside us to give to the needy person next to us. God created us, and He breathed into us the breath of life. In John 20, it is written, “He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” If I’m not nourished by the presence of God in my life, I have nothing helpful or valuable to give to the person beside me.

I wrote these words many weeks ago, and now the oxygen mask means a different thing to me. When I wrote, my world was not crashing down, I was not falling topsy-turvy through the sky, I was not gasping for air. My mom has been diagnosed with cancer, and I feel like I’m free-falling, waiting to crash. During this time, I have to remind myself of two things. One, that God will give me what I need to be able to breathe, to be able to survive. And two, it is the blessing of my loving friends and family beside me who, thank God, have kept their air tanks filled and are holding the mask to my face for me. When I can’t help myself, I find myself grateful beyond words to those who sit right next to me, holding me up.