Monday, 15 September 2014

Confessions of an Aspiring Hermit

Last month, I came home from serving in NY, and as great as it always is, I must confess something unusual happens to me when I come home.  I crash and become depressed.  There, I said it.

I haven't been able to completely understands why this happens to me.  It seems to vary depending on the circumstances that are present in my life at the time.  But when I come home from serving, I have often become depressed, self-absorbed, crabby, and no good to be around.  I have spent weeks giving of myself, from the time I get up, to the time I go to bed, and now suddenly, I don't want to.  I don't want to give of myself anymore.  I don't want to sacrifice for other people.  I want to be left alone, to myself, and do my own thing.

Again, it seems to vary based on circumstances.  I come home to no job, therefore I find I have little motivation to get up in the morning.  Without what I perceive to be a meaningful way to give of myself, I become very unmotivated and selfish.  Yes, there's my family, but sadly I have discovered that it's often a lot easier to give selflessly somewhere else than it is at home.  No, it shouldn't be this way, but that's often how I become.

So in my depressed, unmotivated state, I come up with a grand, noble idea.  I'll become a hermit!

Noooo! I don't want to be a crab!

Wait a minute.  Did I say before I was crabby?  Uh, yeah, about that..... 

A hermit.  I want to be a hermit.  Since I don't want to go anywhere or do anything or see or talk to anyone, I'll just stay at home.  I'll take the opportunity to read, and study, and spend time with Jesus, and it's gonna be wonderful!  If I don't go anywhere and don't talk to anyone, I won't hurt anybody and nobody will hurt me.  I will keep to myself, learn and blossom in knowledge and in my relationship with the Lord in the parameters of my two rooms.  Oh, just the thought is almost bliss!  What could possibly be wrong with this?

Here's my confession though.  I have never been a happy hermit.  At least not for very long.  Every time I set out to be a hermit, the excitement is short-lived.  But instead of simply becoming sociable again, a raging war ensues.  You see, when I make up my mind to become a hermit, it's hard to persuade myself to get out of my shell, even after I know I won't be happy in it.  I mean, it can be hard to get out.  My mind can conjure up so many great excuses, that I can make sound very legitimate, why it's best to stay home.  Alone.  I become almost like Gollum and Smeagol, arguing with myself.  I can spit out lists of things I could do, time, finances, health, or other clever things depending on the situation.  But deep down I know.  This isn't for my long-term good.

"No man is an island."  Ah yes, one of the famous quotes we learn in school.  It's true.  As much as I would like to convince myself I could live a happy life as a hermit, I need people.  There is a risk in opening ourselves up to people, true.  But it is needful.  We need community.  Bad things often happen to people who shut others out.

As the body of Christ, we need each other, the church.  We need people to come alongside us and lift us up when we're weary.  And instead of just focusing on ourselves, we also need to be there for others when they are down and weary.  We are meant to bear each others' burdens and encourage each other in our race on earth.  When I get into my depressed, hermit-like mood, I have to remind myself of Proverbs 18:1.  "Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment."  Isolating ones self from other people is not wise. 

Tenth Avenue North recently released a song that speaks on this matter.

So take their words to heart.  We're not meant to live this life alone.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Struggles of a Dreaming Realist

It sounds complicated, because it is.  I have entitled this post "Struggles of a Dreaming Realist", but that's really only a condensed title.  It could be "Struggles of a Christian Dreaming Realist Who Happens to be a Single Mennonite Young Woman Taught in a Conservative Church Environment, Always Too Concerned What Others Will Think of Her".  Now that provides a little more context.  But I think modern writing laws likely forbid such lengthy titles.

This is essentially an article that explains why I am the way I am, at least to the extent that I'm willing to share publicly.  I find myself in a transition phase of life once again, trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up, and how am I possibly going to get there.  I am 22, single, unemployed, and evaluating my options in terms of work and education.  I just finished a summer of volunteer service in NY, but find myself wading through the struggle again of finding my place, having to make ends meet, trying to find something I actually enjoy doing, and maybe breaking down some of the barriers in my life that keep me from greater things.

But it's not easy.  The challenges of circumstances, upbringing, and what has been drilled into my brain for the last 10 years doesn't make it easy.  I have come to a place where I don't have to worry for a second that people will shoot down my ideas and dreams.  I do that myself.  And I do that to just about everyone else that make suggestions to me for my life.  I only realized this in the last few weeks and months in the conversations I've had with various people.  They see my potential, the things I'm capable of, the knowledge, the ability, the talent and tell me about what I could do.  My response usually ends up being my well thought logical reasoning (ahem, excuses) of why it's not possible.

I wasn't always this way.  Eight years ago, I was going in 10th grade, and like everyone else, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I had good grades and teachers had high hopes for me.  I was going to defy my cultural upbringing, go on to university, and build a successful career.  I took up a feminist flag and was going to follow my dreams.  I just hadn't ironed out the details yet.

Then life changed.  I had a spiritual breakthrough, started to home school, and a year later my dreams and life goals consisted of getting married, having a family and home schooling my children.  And I expected it to start happening fast, like, before I was 20.  (Are there ever prayers I'm thankful God didn't answer!)  With such a life ideal, there was no need to pursue a career.  Not only was there no need, it wasn't Biblical.  This was my way of thinking at the time.  So a post-secondary education at an institution was a waste of time and money that I didn't have anyway.  As a young woman, I was expected to stay at home, honour my parents, live a quiet life, prepare for marriage and wait until God brought my husband to me.  Oh, and no matter what happened, I had to be content!

Over the next few years, I swayed from this.  Prince Charming didn't come riding in before I was 20 and I was destined to become an old maid.  I began to toy with the idea of going back to school.  I had a love for writing and studying classic literature, maybe philosophy, and I wanted to do that from a Christian perspective.  But a visit to a university convinced me that for that, I was better off studying at home.  Besides, what if Prince Charming happened to show up during that time, or what if he would have come into my life, had I not gone off to pursue my education?  I hate to admit it, but the elusive prince was (and still is) always in the back of my mind when it came to making big life decisions.  I didn't want to do anything that might crush that dream and doom me to be single forever!

I started to become a rebel of sorts in my Christian surroundings.  I had grown in my faith under some solid teaching and had adopted some strong standards and convictions in everything from courtship, modesty, media, and Biblical womanhood, many for which I am incredibly grateful for.  But things tended to slip at times.  When tested, my convictions didn't stand.  I compromised.  And I realized many of the convictions I held to weren't actually my own.  I had only adopted them from others.  And when convictions are not your own, they don't stand the test.

And so I began to take risks and became more "me."  I would voice my daring opinions, do things others might not, and live a slightly more exciting life than some of the young people around me.  I tried new things and went places others hadn't.  There were some choices I'm very happy about, and there are also many I regret.  But today, I still find myself concerned for my reputation and what other people will think of me.

Please understand.  I want God's will for my life.  I really do.  However, God's will and the church's will can often get confused.  And when your ears are so accustomed to hearing the church's expectations and other people are pulling at you from different sides, it can be hard to discern God's specific plans for your life.  There simply is not a cookie cutter mold that fits for everyone.

At the present time in my life, I find myself very torn.  I desire God's will for my life in all areas.  I still desire marriage and a family, and I still want to focus my energy on raising and teaching my children, as opposed to being a working mom.  But that dream remains on a distant horizon.  In the past year and half, I have volunteered, traveled, and discovered great ways to use my gifts and talents.  I have had many people observe me and encourage me to use those skills and to find a good, well-paying job.  I have also had more encourage me to continue my education, so that I can pursue the better-paying careers and make the most of my skills and talents.

In one way, I'd love to.  These people have shown me that I have let a part of myself die.  They have dared me to dream again, to revive old interests and talents, and to become everything I could be.  And they mean well.  They really do.  And I appreciate them for that.

The problem is, the realistic thinker kicks in and explains the challenges of the rural area in which I live, the commuting distance for those better jobs, and how my lack of post-secondary education disqualifies me in the eyes of so many employers.  "Have you considered going back to school?", or something like that, is a question that comes up with increasing frequency.  And I continue to explain my circumstances.  Finances presently do not allow and I am incredibly adamant about living debt-free as far as I possibly can.  Besides, I can't decide exactly what I want to do, so I don't want to invest the time and money.  And if I do, I have to make sure that it doesn't conflict with my long-term family goals.  On and on I go, spitting out my reasoning, trying to make myself sound like an intelligent young woman, trying to convince them I'm right.  In the back of my mind, and in prayer, I continue to wrestle with what God's will for my life is.  And what about, what about...the prince?

Today, I sat down and explored some more educational options.  I'm trying.  I am.  I'm trying to evaluate which educational or career path would be best for me, what would be the best use of my skills and interests, what would open up the most opportunities.  Do I go for something that seems safe, or something I would really enjoy?  Something that would mean being out in the work force, or allow me to work from home?  There are many options, many possibilities, all of which are currently out of reach.

I made a plan about a month or so ago outlining how I was going to begin opening up opportunities for my life, how I was going to try things I've always wanted to learn, like swimming and crocheting, how I was going to study literature again and work on my writing skills again.  And yes, even buy my own flute and start playing again.  I put all these goals, these hopes, into charts and neatly prioritized and applied the finances required to see some of these dreams fulfilled, in the midst of all the other demands on my time and finances.

It felt good.  It felt good to dream again, to have a plan, to know I could go home and forge ahead, see things happen, achieve a level of success, accomplishment, and just do things I had so often wished I could.  But as so often happens, God showed me just how quickly he can turn everything upside down, and nothing but dust may be left of my dreams.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how great my dreams, and how much I plan, I'm not in control.  It means nothing if it's not what God desires for me.  And perhaps sometimes He sits on His throne, shaking His head, wondering "Why is she trying this again?"  I have seen God change my plans time and time again.

No matter what I do, life is still unpredictable.  Everything can change in a heartbeat.  The plans, the hopes, the dreams that once mattered so much can become entirely insignificant.

So what does this long rant and explanation of my life leave me to conclude?

I can try.  I can dream.  I can make plans and set goals.  But without God's leading, it means nothing.  I can put myself on the throne and force things, make them happen, no matter what the cost, but it will mean nothing.  I will not be happy or fulfilled.  And people would have no reason to applaud me for any of my accomplishments.  I could give all my time, resources and energy and perhaps attain success, but completely miss the mark!

So how do I respond?  I have but one choice that makes any sense.

If the Lord wills, I will.

"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." --Proverbs 16:9

Monday, 1 September 2014

How MDS Impacted My Life

The following is a brief talk I shared last week at MDS's closing ceremony in Staten Island.  I was asked to share on how serving with MDS impacted my life.  For those who couldn't be there, here it is.  This is the end of a chapter of my life.


I'm Margaret Neufeld, 22, and from Ontario.  I first found out about Mennonite Disaster Service a year and a half ago, from a radio ad in my town, and since then, I have spent 20 weeks volunteering here in Staten Island.  Most of that time, I have served as the Office Manager here.

The impact that MDS has had on my life is hard to put into words, because it has been so great.  So much so, that it has even compelled me to resign my job in order to come back here and serve.  I remember when  I first went home in April 2013 after being here for one week, how so many things in life seemed so insignificant and I knew I had to come back.  It has been an incredible opportunity for me as a young woman to serve and give myself to something that has been so meaningful.

MDS has allowed me to apply my administrative and leadership skills in a non-profit project.  The way in which MDS has involved me and so often invited my input has made me feel valued and allowed me to grow rich in experience.  I never felt like "just a volunteer:"  In the 20 weeks that I have spent here, I have sanded drywall, painted, cooked, cleaned, learned to identify a lot of different tools, kept the books, crunched a lot of numbers, assigned rooms to volunteers, wrote reports, and a lot of other things I won't mention.

For me, serving with MDS was an avenue to demonstrate my faith.  As it turned out, it also increased my faith many times.  I never would have imagined spending my summers in New York City volunteering in a disaster response project.  I have seen the Lord open doors when things looked impossible and have been able to spend much more time here than I expected.  I praise God for that.  There have been many challenges, many long, tiring days, and much budgeting at home to make it possible for me to go months without an income so I could be here.  Some would call it a sacrifice.  I consider it a blessing.  It has been rewarding beyond anything I could do for myself.  I have stored up memories, made new friends, learned from experience, discovered many of my strengths as well as many of many of my weaknesses, and become a richer person because of it all.

In the past year and a half, Staten Island has become a home, and the people a family.  Within the walls of this seminary and on this island, I have laughed, cried, loved, prayed, succeeded, failed, hurt, and healed.  I have lived life here.  I have met around 400 different volunteers, not to mention all the clients, staff, partners and church family.  I have lived and worked alongside amazing people who have been there to support me, cheer me on, help me recognize my potential and caused me to dream again.  Romans 12:15 says "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."  I have experienced that here time and time again.

MDS has shaped so much of who I am.  I look forward to hopefully one day sitting down with my children and telling them the stories of what I did during this time of my life, the people I met, the memories I made and the way it changed me.  I will miss this place and all the people here, but it will always remain a part of me and I know that many of our paths will cross again.  Thank you, MDS, for letting me be a small part of this project.