Recently, I began reading a book by the author Jennie Allen, a book I’ve had on my “books to read” list all year. It’s called Restless, and it explores the wrestling that we do with our desires to do and contribute and create more: not to have more stuff or even more time, but to live more of a purposeful life. To live a life that both asks and answers the question, “What else?”
I do believe we wrestle with those desires because (as the author describes in this book) we wonder about our gifts and our purpose and our dreams–if and what and how we should pursue them. My current wrestling involves fully embracing and honoring the life I already have while also longing to do good and meaningful things outside my home and family–good things that impact more people than my own little tribe.
This is nothing new, really, but I want to be wise and strategic about how I invest my time, energy, and life. To be sure that I’m aligning my story with God’s greater story; to be sure I am surrendering my dreams to the Lord–not just asking Him to sign off on what I’ve already determined to do. I feel the Lord is refining that in me just now, honing and sharpening my priorities about how I will invest my life in order to multiply it.
Over the years, I’ve thrown myself into doing the good and the important where I could, where I could hammer away a bit at a need and hopefully make a little dent with the tools that God has given me.
Using the tools of pen and stationery and stamps, I threw myself into letter writing. Not just writing letters to loved ones, but writing letters as a ministry.
I began this several years ago by connecting with a ministry in Chicago where I’d volunteered one night in the summer of 2000. I’d read about their outreach to incarcerated individuals who wish to correspond with another person for encouragement. This would be a great outlet for me, I thought. I could accomplish it from home but have an impact beyond these four walls. I got in touch with the ministry. I submitted an application and references. Eventually, I got matched with a man in prison and wrote my first letter to him. I labored over what to say, how to express myself. I did my best, mailed it to the ministry’s office in Chicago (so they could vet it and then send it to the inmate), and waited for a response.
A short time later, the intern who coordinated the pen-pal connection wrote to me. She sent my letter back–the one I’d written to the inmate matched as my pen pal. She explained that she’d made a mistake; the organization actually didn’t need to recruit more pen pals. They had enough volunteers to cover the needs. The letter came back to me unopened, unread. Useless. She did indicate, though, that she would contact me if they needed other pen pal volunteers in the future. I haven’t heard from her since.
Not long after that, I wrote some cards, two to be exact–Christmas cards for soldiers recuperating from injuries at a military hospital, but I just addressed the envelopes “to any soldier.” Because that’s what my friend Pam said would work–Pam, who is former military herself, and who somehow had information that the hospital would accept these cards and then distribute them to patients who didn’t receive much mail, even though the cards weren’t addressed to any particular name. I poured heart and soul into the messages I wrote in those pre-printed cards, sitting out back of our house the day after Thanksgiving in a lawn chair while my boys played at the pond. It felt extraordinarily important that these cards be instruments of encouragement and hope. And then the cards got returned to me–unopened, unread. “Return to sender,” they were marked. They weren’t instruments of anything–they were just lifeless pieces of paper and scrawls of ink. Useless.
I also wrote a letter to a woman involved in a program helping her regain her life after living on the streets. This was an opportunity to volunteer with the ministry that ran the program, and I was recruited to take part in it. Knowing I could do this work from home (just like the other letter-writing opportunities), I jumped on board. I wrote one letter, which was to be approved by the director and then passed to the resident–the idea being that, after receiving a letter from me, the woman in the program would write back–and we’d start an encouraging, uplifting pen-pal relationship, kind of like discipleship via pen and paper. Weeks later, I emailed the director to find out whether “J” had received the letter I sent. The director had no idea about this letter; she’d never seen it. Somehow it had never made it to her desk, or at least not to her attention. Another unopened, unread letter. Useless. Then the resident left the program, so she and I never exchanged a single letter. I thought I might be assigned to another woman who might enter the program later, but so far I have not.
These letters, cards–they were self-investment and hope-investment with seemingly no return. I tried to give something beautiful, and somehow, each time I did, I thought that *I* would matter more if I could make those letters matter, those pieces of my own heart poured out to help others (hopefully) flourish.
Each time those letters got returned–and I deemed them useless–I heard the whisper, “You don’t matter. You don’t matter because what you DO doesn’t matter. Maybe you don’t have anything to offer.”
But that whisper is a lie. You hear me? A LIE. I DO matter–and so do you– and here’s why: I matter not due to what I do, but because of what God says about me. Bearing His glory, sharing His beauty with the world, I matter because my Creator says that I have value. Even if I couldn’t hold a pen or write a sentence or seal an envelope, I would still matter. I gave those letters to the Lord first and foremost, and He knew every sentence in those letters even if nobody ever read them. He received each one as a gift even if it ultimately disappeared down a crack between the director’s desk and the wall, where it may collect dust until it’s discovered and tossed in the trash.
I want my life to be used to help others flourish; I dream of making lasting, meaningful contributions. But mostly–right now–I want my dreams to be surrendered to the Lord, the One who assures me that I matter even when I feel like I don’t.