Tuesday, April 18, 2017

His Work, Not Yours - Chapter VI

            I am so excited to share today's guest blog post by my oldest friend, (as in since before birth!) Sarah Ashwood.  Sarah is a published author with a fabulous fantasy trilogy, numerous poems and awesome ideas too numerous to count.  But she is also one of the most thoughtful and generous people I have had the privilege to know.  I am truly blessed to call her my friend.  You can check out her books at Amazon-Sarah Ashwood.

Just in case there was any doubt, Sarah is the one in white :-)

I have a confession to make. When my dear friend Mary first suggested this book reading and discussion group, I was excited. However, when the first book she proposed was “Stepping Heavenward,” I groaned.

I’d read “Stepping Heavenward” years ago, probably in my early teens, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I remember thinking the main character was very whiny and sniveling. Well, she does cry a lot, which got on my nerves. I’m not a crier, and never have been. I came from a family with a strong stoic streak; thus, as a teenager, I found relating to Katy very difficult. There was never a time in my life where I would fling myself on the bed and cry for hours at a time. That just didn’t happen. She seems to do this an awful lot when the book starts.

Furthermore, along with the stoicism, there is a strong streak of contrariness in my family. Unfortunately, I inherited that one in spades. If everyone else likes something or praises it, my first and automatic reaction is to head the opposite direction. As a young teen, I remember my mom and all the other moms and all the good teenage girls (you know, the ones who were sweet and lacked a huge contrary streak) loving “Stepping Heavenward,” so of course my back was up. Then my mom forced me to read the book, which I really didn’t appreciate, and—as you know by now—I simply didn’t enjoy it.

Old prejudices die hard, I’m afraid, and I was not enthused about rereading this book nearly two decades later. I nearly dropped out. Then I saw several ladies in the discussion group, ladies with excellent character traits whom I very much admire, talking about how excited they were to reread “Stepping Heavenward.”

This forced me to reconsider.

“Okay, if these women love this book so much, maybe there’s more to it than you remember. Maybe it’s worth a second reading, and this time with an open mind.”

Convinced, I dug in. First impression: yes, Katy was whiny. She does cry a lot. Too much. Annoying. However, second impression, there was much more to her than that. She could also be pretty snippy at times, which someone with a mean sense of humor might find humorous. (Cough cough.) She was petty and flighty, impetuous and sassy. Yet, underneath it all, as the book progresses, one can see her heart for the Lord and her hunger to grow into a better Christian.

I’ll be honest. I was amazed by how much I identified with Katy on my second trip through the book. (Except for the perpetual crying.) Like the book’s heroine, I tend to be impetuous. I dive into things without thinking them through. I get mad easily, but it usually blows over quickly. Unfortunately, during the short storm, there’s no telling what trouble I’ll get myself into. Like Katy, if I could just learn to keep my mouth shut, I wouldn’t bring so many problems on myself. I am easily amused, as Katy is, and not nearly as serious as I perhaps should be. I tend to view people who are quiet and even-tempered and even-keeled as saints, like Katy does her mother. Also, like Katy does her mother, I despair of ever making progress in learning to be like them.

Above all, Katy’s spiritual journey is what stands out to me the most in this book. She wants to follow the Lord, she truly does. But every time she feels she’s gained some new spiritual insight or mastered some terrible trait, she finds herself tumbling right back to where she started. As I kept reading, I realized this, this, must be why so many people love this book. As Christians, I am sure we can all identify with Katy on this level. We do have a desire to be better and to do better. That is a part of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling work. Sadly, we fail so often: or I do. I fail more often than I ever make progress. In fact, while rereading this book, it occurred to me that I’ve been a Christian over twenty years now. Twenty years. Two decades. That is a long time to work at something. If I’d been practicing any other skill for twenty years, you would think I’d have mastered it by now. Alas, not so with being a Christian, or with the Christian graces. Katy says and I believe, “the truth is, the journey heavenward is all uphill. I have to force myself to keep on. The wonder is that anybody gets there with so much to oppose—so little to help one!”

Now, I can’t say I don’t have a great deal to help me: wonderful Christian parents, siblings, and friends. A husband who is my biggest encourager, but will also point out when I’m crossing the line. (I need that.) A solid church. Years of habit in reading and re-reading the Bible. You really would think I’d have made better progress. I suppose some of us are just slower to learn than others. I think Katy is. I know I am. Katy puts my own feelings into words when she says, “If I am growing better how slowly, how slowly, it is! Somebody has said that ‘our course heavenward is like the plan of the zealous pilgrims of old, who for every three steps forward, took one backward.’”

Katy, like me, definitely does have her helpers along the way. First and foremost is her godly mother—and any person with godly parents should appreciate them for the jewels they are! She also has Dr. Cabot, who is so saintly he puts me to shame as he does Katy. Yet he has lots of good things to say, especially in Chapter Six, in a letter of encouragement he writes to our heroine. The entire letter is excellent, full of practical advice to any Christian on how to live their lives on a daily basis. Yet there was one line that seemed specifically highlighted towards me.

“Remember,” he writes to Katy, “that it is His will that you should be sanctified, and that the work of making you holy is His, not yours.”

His work. Not yours.

That’s a hard lesson for Katy. That’s a hard lesson for me. I’m not very good at not working, or at realizing I can’t accomplish something—unless it’s algebra. I’m not very good at being patient. I’m not very good at sitting still. Even if I’m outside playing with my kids, convincing myself I’m being a “good mother” by temporarily ignoring my to-do list, on the inside is a running mental playlist of all the things I need to be doing. It’s very hard for me to be a Mary and choose the better part of sitting quietly at the feet of Christ, when I was born with a Martha’s heart, who wants to be up and about serving and complaining to Jesus that other people don’t see the work that needs to be done the same way I see it. Shall I tell you a secret? Nearly everything I do during the day gets ticked off my mental or physical to-do list. Even reading my Bible and devotionals and praying—the urge is there to get it done and get it ticked off the list. Only by God’s grace am I ever able to shut out the noise and sink myself into what I’m reading. This really does require God’s grace, because I always feel I need to be doing, doing, doing instead of sitting quietly. When I do slow down for time with the Lord, I am amazed by how refreshed I feel. I think of more people for whom to pray. I take more time to pray actively for my husband and children. I see my faults, but I also see the beauty and grace of a Saviour Whose love “will not let me go.” I am encouraged to keep on, in spite of my numerous shortcomings and mistakes.

This is God’s doing.

His work. Not yours.

Yes, Katy has her personality flaws. So do I. Most definitely so do I. But so do you. So do we all. Every one of us has their own areas where they struggle. Maye you are the complete opposite of me: maybe you are very good at shutting out the running playlists and you refuse to live by to-do lists. Maybe you find it easy to sit at the feet of Christ and learn. Maybe it’s easy for you to actually enjoy playing outside with your children without thinking the whole time, “I have so many other things to do!” Maybe you excel at silence and patience. On the other hand, maybe it’s harder for you to get motivated to do the work you really must do? Maybe it’s not. I don’t know.

You see what I mean. We all excel in some areas and fail in others. This is a part of being human. In the spiritual realm, our Christian life isn’t any different. I think we all have the tendency to occasionally get frustrated with our fellow Christians and the things they do or don’t do, forgetting that we are all at different stages in our journeys and at different levels of understanding. We can learn something from Katy who, despite her many outbursts and many failings and many tears, never gives up. She keeps on that journey. She keeps stepping heavenward, even if the progress is agonizingly slow and she sometimes takes three steps backward for every step forward.

But, you see, that’s not Katy. That’s the grace of God. That is God doing His work. Philippians 2:13 reminds us, “It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” So it is God who must bring us along, even when we feel like giving up because the way is too hard or we’re discouraged because we don’t see any progress. If we are really the Lord’s, He simply won’t let us fall by the wayside. He WILL keep us going. He may permit us to make mistakes, but He is going to ensure that we learn lessons too. He will sanctify us through a variety of methods and means. I sort of doubt there will ever be a point where we stand on the hilltop, hands on hips, and say triumphantly, “Look how far I’ve come!” (If we do, we might want to be leery. After all, “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” 1 Corinthians 10:12.)

Nevertheless, one day, one day, on the other side of this life, even if we’ve reached heaven with tottering baby steps, we will be able to raise our Ebenezer and say, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

In conclusion, if you haven’t read “Stepping Heavenward” or maybe didn’t care for it the first time around, I would heartily recommend giving it a second chance. Place yourself as a Christian on your own spiritual journey in Katy’s shoes. I honestly feel her story is one that will resonate with most, if not all, of us. I am very grateful God used my friends and their commendation of this book to override that contrary streak and convince me reread it. In fact, it’s been so uplifting to me that I read a small section every morning, along with my Bible, like a devotional. (And it helps that you can purchase the ebook for next to nothing and have it handy on your Kindle or Kindle app.) “Stepping Heavenward” is a wonderful book overall, and doubtless a journey I will take again with Katy in years to come.