Young Love: The Backstory

When I first published my observations of enduring and sacrificial love from an elderly couple (which you can read here), I had little idea that it would be shared and re-posted enough that it would eventually get back to the man about whom I wrote it. 

I came in the door after a tiring 2-day surf trip with the youth group this summer and had a letter waiting for me. I dropped my suitcase, keys, and sunglasses in the floor and opened it eagerly. And with tears rolling down my cheeks, I read a carefully typed 2-page account of their love story. Jim later told me, “I’ve never written anything like that before.” And he gave me permission to share it with you. So here are the main excerpts from his letter:

Lauren,

That you would observe and write such a beautiful article about us is humbling. I am especially grateful that you see our situation in a positive light, since I do not wish that our ‘nonconventional’ appearance be a negative factor… I don’t wish to bore you, but I would like to make a couple of comments related to the subjects about which you wrote:

…I don’t consider my efforts to be anything outside of normal behavior… I do not [consider it an] obligation…I don’t do what I do ‘because I have to.’ To understand, I need to take you through a little history.

We started dating in high school in 1942 when we were both 15; she was a sophomore and I was a junior. We did all the ‘school things’ and Saturday night movies with hamburgers and cokes (I was a real big spender). We dated as much as we could after my graduation while I worked for a year…then I was in the Navy for 17 months. After the Navy I started my freshman year at [college]…. At the end of my freshman year (August 1947) we married. I will not bore you with a lot of subsequent history; although it is pertinent, it is not necessary to make the point that I am trying to make.

Take a look at our situation when we got married. We were almost 21, she had a steady job… and things were going pretty well for her. To marry me she would have to move away from her family, change jobs, live she-didn’t-know-where, and work for 3 more years so we wouldn’t starve. I, on the other hand, had just finished one year of college, had spent what savings I had on that, and didn’t even have a bicycle for transportation. Even more, with my background of having graduated from only a small 100-student county school in Tennessee, having worked as a mechanic, spent time in the Navy and one year in a junior college, why would she even think I had what it takes to graduate from a prestigious engineering college like Georgia Tech? You would think that such a smart, pretty, employed girl who had so much going for her would have had far better offers than I could make. However, she did agree and we hitched our wagons to my star of becoming an engineer.

During college, money was pretty tight, and I remember once we had a serious discussion about whether we could afford for her to have a 5 cent coke with her sack lunch each day. [We agreed] that when I got out of college, she would keep the home and care for any children we might have, and I would be responsible for providing the income. That would mean we would adjust our standard of living to my salary. That was not to say that everything was easy or always one way. We made most decisions together, and a number were made differently than if I had been single; she could say the same.

So what is the point I am trying to make? In addition to all the above-mentioned reasons for my desire to care for her, there is the matter that she very early-on gave up her independence and put her faith and trust in me to see that she, and a family, were taken care of. I made a covenant with her before God and a few people to do that, ‘in sickness and in health.’ So, am I now obligated to meet her needs for 24/7 care, and do I do it for that reason?…No — I do it because I want to, and even though she does not know it, I want to express my appreciation for the love and confidence that she, as a smart, beautiful, rosy-cheeked, auburn-haired young lady expressed in me 67 years ago, and has continued to do so ever since! I suspect the time will come when I will not be physically able to personally meet her needs and other arrangement will be necessary. Until such time, I will continue to care for her and nothing else will even be considered.

I hope that you will meet and marry a Christian with whom you can have the same love and commitment that [we] had/have, to jointly ‘hitch your wagons to a common star,’ with God’s Word guiding you along the path. You may find that while someone may have to temporarily give up that 5 cent daily coke, it will not matter since 67 years later, despite the circumstances, you can say, “I would do it again.”

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Published in: on August 26, 2014 at 11:28 pm  Comments (2)  
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Young Love

It’s a Sunday morning in a small town church, and the preacher stands before the congregation, his Bible open to today’s chosen Scripture.  From where I am sitting in my church pew, I glance across the aisle at the couple on the second row, sitting side by side and sharing a hymnbook.

Church dates are the cutest.  It looks like it’s their first.

She modestly smooths her dress over her knee, and he tentatively reaches out and puts his hand on top of hers.  For a moment he looks apprehensive, as though he’s afraid that his gesture will be rejected.  But although she is too shy to reciprocate at first, she turns toward him and her eyes light up with that spark of young love.

Ever so gently his thumb strokes the back of her hand, and the words of the sermon fade out as I become absorbed in their little romance, staring shamelessly.

Because it looks like their first church date, and for her, perhaps it is.

But her dress is outdated and her hair is white.  And by now, as her ragged breath comes in gasps and she grips his hand, looking frightened and ill at ease in her wheelchair, their Sunday morning excursions number in the thousands.

Fifty-two Sundays a year, for at least sixty years, they have walked together through the doors of the church.  But now he walks behind her as he wheels her toward their pew.  When the communion tray is passed around, he breaks the bread for her, and the ushers respectfully stand and wait as he feeds her the body of Christ in a sacred moment.

She becomes anxious, compulsively plucking at her dress and loudly whispering words that don’t make sense.  But he turns his creased and careworn face toward her, with love and longing and a depth in his eyes that I, at 21, cannot understand.  And he steadily reaches over and takes her wrinkled hand in his, comforting her as he gently continues to rub her hand with his thumb.  Her breathing slows and her panic subsides, and she looks down at their entwined fingers as though she is surprised to see them there.  Perhaps as though it is the first time.

At church, we talk a lot about Jesus and we talk a lot about love, and now I’m not sure that any of us, even the preacher, really knows what we’re talking about.

But I think Jim does.  Oh, I think Jim does.

10 Quotes that Changed My Life in 2013

Words are powerful. Sometimes, people say things that sear themselves into your memory, for good or ill. You’ll never forget where you were when they were spoken, or how they made you feel, and you’re a changed person because the depth that they conveyed introduced you to a reality you hadn’t seen before. 2013 was a year of significant growth for me, and I am indebted to those who have shaped me along the way. So without further ado, here are the 10 quotes (and one picture) that changed my life.

“Things will never go back to normal. You’re changed because of the people you’ve met and the things you’ve experienced. There’s a new normal that incorporates all of that and how it’s shaped the way you look at life.”

Specifically, this quote was about the difficulty of moving on with life after a life-changing mission trip. As obvious as it may sound, this was so freeing as I realized I didn’t have to ‘move on’ – that is, I didn’t have to choose between two realities. I could embrace the new and let it make the rest of my life even more amazing. And so far, it has.

“You may not have heard this a lot growing up, but you’re gifted to preach. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”

If I could point to one life-changing moment in 2013, this is probably it. I can still point to the specific table in Starbucks where I was sitting when these words made my heart skip a beat. Until March of this year, I had never really given much thought to public speaking.  Ironic, then, that it has somehow become one of my most apparent ministry gifts. My knees were shaking as I walked to the podium that Sunday in March – bad combination with six-inch heels – and saw 600 faces looking back at me. And then I found my voice. Sometimes it takes other people to discern a calling for you, and without one man’s faith in my ability, I never would have thought of myself as (what?!) a preacher. To those who have supported, encouraged, and affirmed me along the way – you’ve changed my life.

“We need more people like you in the churches of Christ.”

Me? Church of Christ? I spent the first 3 years of college becoming convinced that those two didn’t fit together. But a fellow misfit — an abstract, artsy youth minister in a tradition of intellectuals who nevertheless believed in belonging — thought differently, offered me a job, and supported me through the growing pains of discovering a unity that transcends uniformity.

“It’s so obvious that God had a purpose in bringing you here.”

We all have those times when we wonder if we’ve actually made a difference – especially when we feel more like we’ve made a mess of things. But God brings beauty from the broken. I was sitting on a wooden bench with my aunt watching an incredible sunset over the water when she spoke these words. Yet, even more affirming than the words themselves may have been the tears that gave voice to my own depth of emotion.

“Find a husband to share life with, because even an independent girl like you will get lonely trying to go it alone. Don’t be in a rush — slow down and enjoy life. When you have a decision to make, ask yourself 2 things: Is it best for you, and will it hurt other people? God’s picked me up and dusted off my britches after too many selfish mistakes. And go out and look at the stars on clear nights, and see which ones are looking back at you.”

This is advice from an 88-year-old WWII veteran who joined the Navy at 15, fought as second loader at Iwo Jima, and came back and started a successful business without a high school education. I figured it would be wise to pay attention.

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A picture is worth a thousand words, right? This picture will always stay with me. Pope Francis looks at a crowd and sees individuals whose pain is very real. Learn to truly see people, and truly love them.

“Take pain and doubt with you as your companions. Say to them, ‘You can come with me if you want, but we’re moving forward.'”

Reid Hillin, Woodmont Hills college minister. He claims to have paraphrased this from another source, but either way, it’s a powerful concept. Let pain shape you and change you, but never control you. Life doesn’t have to be put on hold while you try to figure things out – live wholeheartedly, if imperfectly.

“I see people. They look like trees walking around.”

Mark 8:24. This is a text that I preached on for my Communicating the Gospel class, and this unlikely quote from my good friend Second Touch Blind Guy has changed the way I look at those around me. Do I see others imperfectly, distorted through the lens of my prejudices and cultural biases? Or do I love and appreciate their uniqueness and individuality?

“You know what disgusts me the most about Christianity? Grace.”

This was a little unexpected – and a lot thought-provoking. People have all sorts of pet evangelism methods – as if one size fits all! “Just tell people they’re going to hell without the grace of God!” Well, it changes things up a little when grace itself is the barrier to belief. Maybe evangelism – which simply means sharing good news, and is not at all synonymous with ‘conversion’ – is more about listening and understanding than it is about shoving a pre-packaged philosophy down someone’s throat and expecting them to think the same way you do.

“It would be difficult being with you, but it would be worth it.”

You asked me when I started to change my mind about you. And although I told you I couldn’t pinpoint a specific moment, this might be the closest one. As I recall, you also said that you read my blog posts hoping for a shout-out. Here it is, and I hope you’re reading, because this is about as close as I get to PDA. Thank you for loving me for who I am.

I’ve heard the first part of this quote more times than I can count, but never amended by the second half. It can be difficult for feminists such as myself to find a man who accepts the fact that we will never be domesticated creatures, yet still has his own clearly defined sense of self. These words prove that you are both. They reflect honesty and careful evaluation of the cost as well as a deep appreciation for the return. Although they might not be considered super romantic by some standards, they were to me.

“I love you.”

To anyone who has said this to me over the past year, it never gets old. These words are always life-giving and sustaining, and I could never have made it this far without the genuine love and support of so many people. May this new year be filled with abundant blessings, and may you find beauty in pain as well as joy, in failures as well as successes. Continue to love well, and change the world around you. I love you all.

Published in: on January 1, 2014 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, and a Touch of Compassion

The thought first came to me while watching a video on Mother Teresa. I still find it difficult to articulate. But if I could attempt to describe it, it would be something along these lines: We are compelled to serve others in humbling ways simply because their humanity, in all its brokenness and — well, humanness — deserves recognition.

It came to me during a shot of Mother Teresa caressing the fingerless hand of a leper. Something inside me drew back in revulsion, and then was ashamed at my reaction. I tend to shy away from what is gross or uncomfortable, but after all, the hand is suffering and can’t help how it appears. It is a very human part of a soul whom I am called to love, and I must love it because it is a part of them. I must honor the mundane and even the downright unpleasant, because it is a part of God’s good creation, and it is a privilege to care for it.

We cannot shy away from the unattractive parts of our humanity, or pretend they don’t exist. We must embrace the blood, the sweat, the tears, the snot, everything that makes a person human.

I find feet to be creepy and disturbing, but they deserve to be washed with all the respect and tenderness of Jesus.

Hands deserve to be held.

Faces deserve to be touched.

Eyes deserve to hold a steady gaze.

The broken, the diseased, and the deformed yearn to be touched, and to be the one whose touch brings a smile to their face or tears to their eyes is just as great a privilege as holding the hand of a boyfriend or girlfriend — because in so doing, we affirm their humanity and our own.

The second time I thought — or rather, felt — this concept was when I saw these poignant pictures of Pope Francis blessing a man whose face was disfigured with a rare skin disease.

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It was fascinating to read comments like these from non-Christians who were touched by a picture of authentic love: “I assumed that any religious figure in public life was a fraud, but this guy makes you want to go to church to hear more. I’ve never felt that before.” And they say this because, from what I know of Pope Francis, he spends more time simply living like Jesus than pontificating stuffy religious principles. And profound theological insights, unless they manifest themselves in service which is profoundly practical, are not profound at all. We must spend at least as much time washing the feet of society as we do theorizing about heady ideas.

Very few speak the language of theology…

…But every broken person longing for a touch understands the language of love.

When, like Jesus, we engage in the brokenness of the world, it declares that humanity is worth something. Love is not only a feeling or a stagnant reality. Real love declares a truth, and in so doing, creates it. It does not merely exist, but by its very nature it calls into being the reality which it chooses to profess. In other words, by loving those whom the world considers unworthy, we declare a new reality — that they ARE worthy — and our very act of loving them makes them so.

Jesus took up His cross and declared that we are worth dying for.

As we selflessly love and serve and give, we profess the same reality — and in so doing, bring the Kingdom to earth.

Sex is Not About Sex

holiday“Sex makes everything complicated,” said Cameron Diaz to Jude Law in a 2006 romantic comedy called The Holiday. “Even if you don’t have it, the not having it makes things complicated.”

She’s right. Sex is complicated. This may be because sex is one of the most misinterpreted and misrepresented things in our culture…and I include church culture in that statement. As such, this post is going to look at sex not from a typical evangelical Christian standpoint, but from a Jesus standpoint.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Throughout His ministry, in every word He preached and every parable He told, Jesus was concerned with matters of the heart. This has never been as abundantly clear to me as it has been these past few weeks as I’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus seeks to reframe a legalistic understanding of the law by showing us that we tend to focus more on the action than on the intent. As the Pharisees demonstrated, it is often easier to regulate and micromanage our actions than it is to undergo a radical change of heart. The former requires control; the latter, surrender. It is more difficult to navigate the ambiguity of the heart than it is to impose fixed outward regulations.

The church’s teaching on sex has become a vicious cycle. Most teenagers growing up in Christian homes are admonished to save sex for marriage. However, for some, this has created a stigma that makes it impossible to have guilt-free sex even within the context of marriage. How can something that has been bad, bad, bad, suddenly become okay? This deeply rooted mindset cannot be overcome in a 15-minute exchange of vows when our minds have been shaped our whole lives by a warped understanding of sex.

And so as it became more acceptable to talk openly about sex, churches began talking about it. A lot. To combat the shame associated with sex, Christians began teaching their children how great sex is, explaining that it’s a special gift from God that we don’t want to “open too early.” Obviously this approach is hardly better, as it dangles sex like a carrot that they can’t have for another 8 years or so. The pendulum has swung too far — now we focus on sex more than we probably should.

With this new understanding came another misconstrued notion about sex, which claims either explicitly or implicitly that if you save sex for marriage, your sex life will be far more gratifying than it would otherwise be. Youth pastors become statistical machines teaching us that monogamous couples have more sex, pure couples have better sex, and it’s all about sex, sex, SEX.

But I’m going to be so bold as to say that Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, teaches that sex is not really about sex at all. And searching “sex” in your concordance to figure out what God thinks about it won’t get you very far, because a well-developed theology of sex is found in:

1) A true understanding of creation. “In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Our humanity is uniquely defined by its status of being “in the image of God.” When we truly understand this, not just with our minds but with our hearts, it changes the way we see the rest of humanity. Each person is incredibly valuable regardless of gender, age, race, or social class, and we must treat with reverence whatever God’s holy hands have touched.

We must also understand that God’s creation is what it is; it is neither more, nor less. Pornography is damaging to relationships because it presents an unrealistic expectation of women and of sexuality. It not only causes men to see women as sex objects, but as inferior to the porn stars that feed their addiction. This is a horribly distorted view of creation — a woman’s body is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Her beauty should be loved and appreciated for what it is, and should not forced to compete with unrealistic fantasies. God created each woman, and each woman is a good creation. Respect her, because she is the image of God and the work of His hands.

And to the women — we tend to be pretty hard on the men because they struggle more with the physical side of this, and sex is a physical act. But if Jesus is right, and lust is a matter of the heart, where does that leave us concerning emotional affairs? When we dreamily indulge in steamy romantic movies and fantasies of Prince Charming, this is also a distortion of reality that the good, honest men in our lives can never live up to. Don’t spend your time wishing that the perfect man exists, because there is no such thing. God created each man, and each man is a good creation. Respect him, because he is the image of God and the work of his hands.

2) A true understanding of surrender. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1st Corinthians 6:20).

A theme that I see running through each teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is this unspoken phrase, “It doesn’t belong to you.” You don’t have a right to be angry (Matthew 5:21-24); you can’t just dismiss your wife because she isn’t your property to dismiss (Matthew 5:31-32); don’t resist the one who takes your tunic, because it’s not really yours in the first place (Matthew 5:38-42). If even you are not your own and therefore must honor God with your body, then it must surely be true that because she is not yours, you must honor God by the way you treat her body. To use someone in any way (not just sexually), is to objectify them and demean their created status. Lust and pornography are so damaging because they declare that God’s creation exists solely to satisfy our appetites and is not worthy of our respect. We must understand that whatever we desire is not ours for the taking. The creation belongs to the Creator.

3) A true understanding of relationship. “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

The Bible speaks of equality, of mutual submission, and of sincere love far more than it speaks about sex — but I think that every one of these relational qualities is inseparable from a true understanding of sex. Sex is only one of the many ways that we can choose to selfishly gratify ourselves at the expense of another, but it so easily reflects an imbalance of power and further contributes to chaos and brokenness within the creation. If we were to outdo one another in showing honor, women would not seduce and men would not solicit. There would be no “If you love me, you’ll show me.” Instead, valuing each other as equals, we would seek the highest good of the other.

Marriage doesn’t automatically make sex right. If it’s still a power play within the context of marriage, it’s just as wrong as adultery, because it devalues your partner in the exact same way. If your marriage fails because you’re “sexually incompatible,” you’ve missed the entire point of covenant faithfulness. If your demands cause your partner to feel inferior or ashamed, you have failed to honor him or her. This is what I mean by the phrase I used earlier, “the ambiguity of the heart.” Because there’s not one straightforward rule that divides appropriate sex from inappropriate sex, we have to critically examine the motives of our hearts. And sometimes that can be more difficult and painful than following a set of rules.

How does this change the way we teach about sex?

1) These foundational principles apply to far more than sex. 

If you reread the first two, you’ll find that a theology of environmentalism flows just as easily as a theology of sex. If you understand the second two, you’ll learn that leadership in any capacity is a matter of servanthood, not of coercive power.

If we teach our children these fundamental truths of Kingdom living as a framework for their lives, rather than rules about sex that have little or no context to support them, it will make far more sense in light of the big picture.

2) It shifts the focus from sex to purity.

Creating rules about sex is like treating the symptoms of an illness rather than the cause. When we constantly teach abstinence, the focus is still on sex, when sex is clearly not the main point of sex at all. When we teach relational (not just sexual) purity, questions like “How far is too far” become irrelevant. These principles shift the question from “How selfish can I be?” to “How unselfish can I be?” They don’t just tell us why sex outside of marriage is wrong; they teach us why purity outside of marriage is right.

3) It reframes the whole biblical discussion of sex.

Why is the Song of Solomon in the Bible? It represents a loving, egalitarian sexual relationship.

Under the law of Moses, why would a man who raped a woman have to marry her? Because he had dishonored her, and now he was bound to care for her.

Why did Jesus say that divorce is tantamount to adultery? Because both treat your spouse as disposable, rather than caring for him or her as a precious creation of God.

When we seek to understand the Word of God, proof texting misses the mark. All of Scripture is bound up together in a beautiful mosaic of Kingdom values, and until we see the big picture, we won’t understand where each piece fits in. If Scriptures about sex aren’t about sex, they must be about far more.

So take a moment and examine your heart. Do you view your brothers and sisters in Christ with reverence, or with objectifying lust? Does your sexual relationship honor and validate your spouse, or does it just satisfy your desires? Is sex about sex for you? Or is it an expression of something far deeper?

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for one another, love one another deeply, from the heart. –1st Peter 1:22.

For further reading that has recently helped to shape and refine my understanding of sex and relationship, you can click on the following links:

The Porn Myth — Naomi Wolf

My Virginity Mistake — Jessica Henriquez

Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex — Rachel Pietka

How a Critic of the Church Became a Lover of the Church

To some extent, I get why my generation as a whole is leaving institutionalized Christianity. They’re coming to see the missional call of God as something that is better expressed outside the church, because in many cases, the church has failed to live up to its own missional calling. It has turned inward rather than outward, becoming exclusive and judgmental and self-centered. There are plenty of things wrong with the church. Like Adam and Eve, like Hosea’s wife, like Israel, she has prostituted herself to the gods of American culture.

I get it.

But Jesus still loves His unfaithful bride.

I’ve had to come a long way to understand this. I empathize with my generation; I’m part of it. Having spiritual gifts that I believed were worthless in my church tradition, having a restless heart, a progressive mind, and a revolutionary spirit, I went through my own phase of bitterness and criticism.

My story is similar to the stories of my peers, but with one big difference. I understand the frustration and the temptation to give up on the church. I have experienced the pain that the church has caused. I’ve been judged for my appearance, been told I’ve overstepped my bounds as a woman, and even been accused of heresy.

I’ve waded through misinformed doctrine, bad theology, judgmental attitudes, and all manner of distorted truth and confusion and contradiction, stripped away the layers of tradition and preconceptions, and torn off the ribbons and adornments of centuries of religious assumption built upon religious assumption, until my naked hope found a beautifully simple and uncluttered Jesus.

And now I find myself in a unique position. I was raised in a conservative church tradition, broke the mold, rethought and reshaped practically all of my beliefs…and came back.

I came back to the tradition I swore I never would, because I believe that God has a unique role for me to fill. My role is not to run away and be some individualistic rebel without a cause. My role as a broken, messed-up person is to be in community with the broken, messed-up body of Christ. My role, as one who has experienced and empathized with both sides, is to bridge the gap between them.

Here’s what I’ve learned on this journey.

1. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. I don’t have to agree with your views on predestination or premillennialism to accept you, love you, answer your phone calls at 2am, or call you my best friend. I believe that God calls us to a unity that transcends uniformity. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what are you doing more than others?” By the same token, if we only consider those who share the exact same beliefs on every minute detail to be part of our community, how will we look any different to the world? All these denominations who “took their toys and went home” just look like a bunch of squabbling children. Again, Jesus said we would be known by our love, not by our exclusivity.

2. It’s a misconception that one can just “read the Bible” and find the one solid, absolute truth on any topic with no trouble. There are a lot of things the Bible is unclear about, and just about any position can be argued either way — and it’s been that way for centuries. There’s a reason that much of our theology is widely debated. Just because your brother or sister comes to a different conclusion, doesn’t mean that he or she hates God and is trying to destroy the church.

3. You can discuss differences without debating them. But the moment the Bible becomes a weapon, the moment it becomes about winning rather than about shared discernment and community, you need to backtrack quickly, repent of your divisive attitude, and reconcile with your brother or sister — who, by the way, is still your brother or sister.

4. Community is hard, but God intended for us to live in community. If you peace out because you’re tired of the uphill battle, you’re telling our Triune God that His greatest gift, indeed His very nature, isn’t worth fighting for. Jesus said that he who seeks will find. If, as I did, you hang on with dogged determination to what you know must be underneath the layers of confusion, you will find community there.

5. Leaders don’t leave behind. Think about it. If you turn around and there’s nobody following you, you’re not a leader. You’re just a loner. God has given me a passion for leadership and the strength to blaze trails, but if I become bitter or impatient and strike out on my own, I’ve forfeited my gift and have a lot of wandering sheep to answer for. What good is a scout who explores uncharted territory but doesn’t go back to tell those with him that there are green pastures ahead?

6. If you dislike the church as an institution, then love the church because of the people. If you dislike Christianity for the negative connotation often carried by religion, then love Christianity because of Christ, and love the church because He loves it.

7. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it, to be intolerant of intolerant people? Truthfully, I can’t stand them. I still struggle with it. I find it so much easier to have compassion on truly horrible people of the world than on members of the church who are bound by self-righteous legalism. And although Christ did tend to call these people out more so than “sinners,” it was not out of a spirit of hatred but of love. His righteous anger was for the self-made chains that bound those whose knowledge should have made them the most liberated. But have compassion on the intolerant, and pray for them to awaken to freedom.

8. As I said in another recent post, for every reason to leave a church, there are a million ones to stay. Every smile, every hug, every moment of fellowship, is like an anchor that pulls at my heartstrings and tethers me to the church. I can leave because of pride…or I can stay because of people. Broken, imperfect, irritating, beautiful people…just like me.

Do I still have growing pains? Absolutely. Do I still call out the church for its blunders? Yes, or I wouldn’t be true to my calling. But now it is in an entirely different spirit — one not of bitterness and one-up-man-ship, but of a loving leadership that desires the church to find its full expression of life and freedom in Christ.

And these lessons, beloved brothers and sisters, each one learned along a difficult journey with blood and sweat and tears, are how an angry critic of the church came to love it passionately, learning to make sacrifices and serve in humility. Because in the end, we’re all just trying to be like Jesus — but since the beginning, Jesus just wanted us to be together.

The Society Gap

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with my uncle in which he mentioned that Christians keep at an arms length away from society.  I started thinking about that comment.  It kept me up that night as I mulled it over.  For some reason, it didn’t quite sit right with me, but I wasn’t sure why.  And then I realized.

We talk about being “in the world, but not of the world,” based on Jesus’ words in John 17:14-17.  But I think we focus more on the latter half of that phrase — “not of” — more than we focus on the fact that we are, indeed, very much “in” the world, and I believe we are called to be right in the middle of society.

Why?

First, if we look at the life of Jesus, we find Him in all the places we would tend to avoid.  With Samaritans (Arabs?), tax collectors (crooked lawyers?), lepers (AIDS patients?), the demon-possessed (mentally ill?), and prostitutes.  Jesus didn’t keep an arms length away.  There was no society gap that His love didn’t cross, no barrier that wasn’t swept away by His indiscriminate tidal wave of compassion.

Second, we consider that we must separate ourselves from society in order to distinguish ourselves as upright, moral people.  But truthfully, Christians did not invent the society gap.  There are thousands of society gaps created by racists, sexists, politicians.  All of them want to separate themselves as wheat from the chaff.  Nobody wants to be associated with people groups that they consider in any way inferior; everyone is trying to make some sort of statement by their separatism.  People are very used to being excluded from various groups, and Christian separatism is no different to them.  We think we can make people change their behavior by not associating with them in any legitimate capacity until they conform, but it doesn’t work that way.  Instead, they simply think, “Another group who thinks they’re too good for me.  Whatever, I don’t need them.”  We want to be known by our reputations of high moral character — but Jesus said we would be known by our love.  Jesus wasn’t concerned with His reputation.  In fact, in many circles, He had a pretty crummy reputation, but He didn’t bother defending Himself to those who misjudged Him.  The outcasts who truly encountered Him were forever changed, and that was enough for Him.  It was worth the risk to His reputation.  You see, we think distancing ourselves from society will make us stand out, but it doesn’t, because everyone else thinks that as well.  Here’s the paradox: if we want to look different from the world, we have to plunge headfirst into it.

Why don’t we?

I think in a lot of ways, it’s far easier to distance ourselves from society than to wade through the gray areas of unconditional love.  You see, love is messy.  Really messy.  It gets into all these complicated issues of accepting people vs. condoning behavior, loving the sinner and hating the sin, etc., etc.

Do we throw a baby shower for a baby born out of wedlock?

Can we enjoy hanging out with an alcoholic?  Or do they have to be a project, a charity case?

How many times do we let someone mess up before they’re a lost cause and we cut them off?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions.  They’re hard questions.  But I think we need to confront and work through the tough stuff instead of brushing it under the rug and pretending it’s not there.

Dean Barham from Woodmont Hills church of Christ once spoke on the parable of the sower, introducing a new twist I had never thought of before: the Sower didn’t plant His seed carefully.  He scattered it at random, without concern for what kind of ground it would land on.  It didn’t matter if it landed among the thorns.  It just mattered that He sowed it.  And it’s the same way with us.  We can’t be selective about who we love.  We’re not called to invest in the ones with the most potential.  Sometimes we just need to scatter the seed of Christ’s love without worrying about where it falls or how it’s received.  Really, isn’t that what unconditional love is all about anyway?  You can’t rein in the radical love of Christ.  Sometimes — no, all the time — we just need to let it spill out onto everyone around us, whether that’s buying a stranger’s lunch or being the only one to have compassion on the preacher who was fired for embezzling.  When justified scathing judgment is hemming him in, maybe a bit of unexpected, undeserved love is what will bring him to his knees.

Not only is it easier to distance ourselves, but it’s also a great deal safer.  As much as we talk about surrendering to God, I’m pretty sure that very few of us have actually surrendered our reputations.  A lot of it we excuse by saying, “I can’t be seen hanging out with this person because it will damage my witness!”  To you — and to myself, because I’m guilty too — I’ll say the following: first, that’s just an excuse.  That’s you wanting to be in control of what people think of you.  You say that you’re trying to protect Jesus’ reputation, but He didn’t care about protecting it, and He doesn’t need you to protect it.  Second, if you’re worried that people won’t be able to see a difference between you and the world, you’re probably not living right yourself.  If you’re all out for Jesus, it won’t matter who you hang out with.  They’ll see the difference.  They’ll know.

We also want to protect ourselves and our kids from the influence of the world.  With kids, I’m a little more understanding, because they’re like little sponges.  But if it’s about you, forget the fear and get your head in the game.  You might be introduced to some new ideas and difficult questions outside the security of your Christian bubble.  Good.  You can’t find truth if you never have to look for it, and you’ll never get answers if you never ask questions.  Being in the world turns theoretical discussions into practical ones and makes you think about why you believe what you believe.  It’s like being pushed out of the nest — it might be a little uncomfortable and a little scary, but that’s how you learn to fly.

What do we do about it?

Living in the world, in the gray areas, takes a lot of faith.  It’s not all black and white out there, and like I said, love can be really messy and really awkward.  So the first thing you have to do is rely heavily on Jesus.  You have to trust Him with your reputation and trust Him to guide you through the murky waters of messy love.  You have to feel your way through when to confront in love and when to let go in love, when to speak in love and when to be silent in love.

Pray a lot.  Love a lot.  Live a lot.  Read about the life of Jesus over and over.

See people as people, as beloved children of God.  We all have a common denominator; we’re all broken and we all need Jesus.  Some people may not be receptive right away, but they still need Him.  He loves them, and so should you.

He breathed the same life into that struggling addict that He breathed into you.

He counts the tears of the “slut” who cries herself to sleep trying to find acceptance.

He carefully formed each little finger and toe of baby Hitler.

No one is an accident.  No one is a mistake.

If nothing else, we must love people because they are His creation of whom He said, “It is good.”

And maybe as we start to strip away our own pride and complacency and see a lost, broken, hurting world, rather than a bad, sinful, malevolent world…

…maybe love and compassion will take over and the society gap will begin to close.

Falling into the Reach of Glorious Grace

What a wordy title.

Well, I’ve always had trouble with the concept of falling of love, maybe because I’m such a perfectionist.  There’s a part of me that can’t take that deliberate step off the cliff to trust someone with my heart and let them love me, because then I have no control over what they love about me.  There’s a fear that they might love an imperfect part of me that I’m uncomfortable with anyone seeing.  A part of me that I myself do not love.  If someone loves me for something other than my accomplishments — my proof of value — the ways I have tried to make myself lovable — I’m not really sure why they love me at all.  And it’s uncomfortable not to be able to calculate my value or define what I’m worth to them.  If I don’t know why they love me, I have no control over it.  They could stop tomorrow, and I wouldn’t know why.  My whole life, I’ve tried to prove myself to people who already love me unconditionally, and it robs me of the joy and fulfillment that comes with being loved and loving them in return.

A while back, I let someone hold my hand for the first time in nearly two years.  It alarmed me at first.  There was some subconscious horror rising up in me that desperately wanted to voice the anxiety in my heart: “Why are you holding my hand?! I’ve never done anything for you, you know none of the things about me that I consider even mildly impressive, and you can’t hold my hand because I can’t handle you caring about me more than my accomplishments.”  It was such a ridiculous thought, and fortunately I didn’t voice it.  Instead, I made the deliberate effort to relinquish a little bit of control…and held his hand a bit tighter because I could either hold onto the unknown and hope it would catch me, or I could run away from it.

I think grace is the same way.  The risk of grace is not something we can carefully calculate.  Like love, grace is something we have to fall for.

And for us perfectionists, that can get a bit dicey.  We hold onto our accomplishments like a security blanket.  We like the thought of grace, so long as it supplements our works rather than replaces them.

Except…it doesn’t work that way.

Grace and self-sufficiency cannot coexist in ANY amount.  If you base 1% of your salvation on works, it’s 100% based on works.  If you haven’t taken that step of faith off the edge of the cliff, grace hasn’t caught you at all.  Grace is a gift that only the surrendered can experience in all its beauty.

There are at least two super uncomfortable parables about grace in the Bible.  The first is that really obnoxious story of the man who pays the same wage to the workers who worked 12 hours and the ones who worked 1 hour.  It’s uncomfortable because most of us identify with the offended characters.  Everything in us balks at the seeming injustice because it doesn’t fit into our worldview. Yeah — welcome to Jesus’ parables.  Perhaps this is one of the few that actually retains its rhetorical impact for modern readers.  Kingdom values are upside down and offensive to the proud.  The reason this parable irritates us is because a lot of us think we’re the 12-hour workers.  We’ve gone to church our whole lives, know the books of the Bible by heart, go on mission trips, and pray every day.  And we don’t get any more grace than the hopeless sinner who disgusts us? It’s not fair.

The other parable is that of the prodigal son.  It’s all too easy to see things from the older brother’s point of view: “I worked for you all these years, and you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours who has squandered your wealth with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”  And we’re like, “Yeah, where’s the justice in that?”  Because we’ve been working all this time, but it seems an awful lot like drudgery when we see the rescued sinner rejoicing, and we wonder what he has to be so happy about.  If he gets off the hook, what have we been working for all this time?  That question, of course, leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: perhaps, all this time, we have been working for the wrong things.

No matter how hard we work, we will never be worthy of grace.  Paul says that our salvation is by grace, not by works, so that no one can boast.  Dear ones, God is not impressed by your talents; He’s the One that created them.  I can just see Him shaking His head and laughing as we eagerly say, “See what I’ve done!” and hold up empty hands.  For us 12-hour workers and older brothers, it’s time to face the painful reality that we have done nothing to earn His love.

It’s a frightening thing to take a step off the cliff and fall for grace.  But when you do, you’ll find a heavy weight lifted from your shoulders.  If nothing you do can earn you grace, nothing you do can take you beyond its reach.

As inconceivable as it may seem to us, God wants to hold our hand.  He wants us to grasp His tightly and trust Him when we have nothing else to hold onto.  He’s waiting there to catch us…if we’ll only fall.

Love as Defined by Culture…Love as Defined by Christ

A few days ago I was chatting with a friend about love.  Being college girls in our early twenties, just a year away from graduation and still without prospects like we were promised at freshman orientation, we spend a lot of our time discussing it.  Probably too much.  This particular time, we were discussing the difficulty of seeing a long-ago friend-zoned guy in a romantic way.  And then I said, “One day, we’re probably going to figure out that this whole marriage thing is really more about being with a steady, supportive companion anyway.”  And I think what I said was right, but why can my words not connect to my heart?

In other blog posts, I’ve ranted on and on about how desensitized we are to our culture and how, even though we think we follow Christ, we often follow culture instead because it’s all we know.  I’ve been so convicted about taking off the blinders and seeing the narrow road for what it is.  And tonight God showed me a new aspect of that: we have warped, twisted, and disfigured His idea of love into some wishful, lustful, fantasized romance.

Love is unconditional – yep, we got that.  But we’re only going to unconditionally love the people we choose, and we choose the ones who are good enough for us, which really erases the need for the whole unconditional part.1-corinthians-rings

I’m not saying that we need to return to a system of arranged marriages, but think about it for just a second.  It’s hard to comprehend, because we’ve never known such a thing.  The thought horrifies us.  Learning to love someone after marriage?  Learning to love someone simply because you have to, because you’re stuck with them in spite of hardships and grievances and petty annoyances?

Hmmm. Sounds uncomfortably like the love of Christ.

In the movie The Wedding Planner, Mary’s father tells her how he fell in love with her mother:

“Your mother and I had an arranged marriage.  We met on the day of our wedding.  We wouldn’t even look at each other.  I was in love with another girl, and your mother wanted nothing to do with me.  She said I had big eyebrows and a low IQ.  Anyway, one day I got very sick with scarlet fever, and she stayed by my side.  She took good care of me.  For the first time, I appreciated her.  Then appreciation grew to respect.  Respect grew to like.  And like grew to love…a deeper love than I could ever hope for.”

We’re conditioned to flinch at the thought of being with someone we don’t “love,” but what do we really mean by that?  Someone we’re not attracted to?  Someone who doesn’t meet our every need?  It’s not about being with who you love, but loving who you’re with.

A while back, I was journaling my thoughts and prayers and asked God to bring me a man of spiritual maturity and depth who would be more in love with God than he would ever be with me, who would be a good father and who would care about me and support my call to ministry.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but then I panicked a bit, realizing that this type of person might also be a sensitive man who cries, or a romantic who’s a little more into PDA than I.  So a part of me wanted to add, “And who never embarrasses me in public, please God, amen.”

Yes. I can be that shallow.

But the words never passed my lips, because as soon as they entered my brain I realized their utter ridiculousness.  Instead, God brought me to my knees in humility as He convicted me of my cultural short-sightedness and began to show me a glimpse of real love.

You see, our society has taught us to believe that we’re defined by who we love.  If we love somebody bold and important and exciting, that elevates our social status.  Conversely, if we love someone who’s not cool, that must mean we’re not cool.  If they do something awkward, we feel embarrassed because we consider it a reflection on ourselves and our taste in men/women.  But we’re not defined at all by who we love; we’re defined by how we love.  Jesus said that all men will know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35) — regardless of how easy to love the “one anothers” are.

No marriage will be without its frustrations or irritations.  The vows of “sickness and health, richer or poorer” are not just nice fluffy words.  There will be hardships and pain, and yes, times that you want to hide and pretend you don’t know your spouse.

But if God does bring me a man of integrity who loves Him above all else, whose only fault happens to be that he makes dumb jokes or embarrasses me with PDA, it won’t kill me to laugh and to hold his hand in public.

But even if it did, isn’t unconditional love something we’re supposed to die for?

A Guy You Can Brag About

Heads up: this is not a bait-and-switch, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend post.  When I say “a guy you can brag about,” I’m talking about an actual, physical, human guy in the 21st century that you can hold hands with.  Girls, this is practical advice on how to lead your heart when looking for the kind of guy you want to be with.

The kind of guy everybody else is jealous of.

The kind of guy you can be proud of and want to scream to the world at the top of your lungs that HE’S THE BEST.

But it still might look a little different than you’re expecting.  It came as a surprise to me when the realization hit me like a bucket of ice water, because it can be a little disconcerting, but it’s a vital concept to hold onto as you mature and begin to see the beauty in it.

In middle school and high school, sometimes in college, and for some misguided women, their entire lives, girls tend to be drawn to the “bad boys.”  I know this is a concept heavily debated between bitter nice guys in the “friend zone” and girls who insist that they don’t like the bad boys.  But, for the most part, the guys are right.  We like the bad boys.

If you think about the popular guys in your school — the ones everyone wants to be with — what makes them so amazingly cool?  If you were dating one of them, what kinds of things would you want to brag to your friends about?  Take a moment and write down some reasons.  Then see if any of these are among them:

Everybody’s after him.

He doesn’t care what anybody thinks.

He’s tough and strong.

He does whatever he wants, and his parents let him.

He’s like an unattainable god.

He’s so mysterious.

He drives 120 mph with the sunroof open and it’s AWESOME.

He’s the life of the party and can handle more alcohol than anyone else.

He manages to sneak out at night while your parents are lame and make it impossible to escape the prison of your room.

He’s proud, spirited, passionate, spontaneous, and an attractive dose of just plain cocky.  Don’t say it’s not attractive, because it totally is.

5939227-portrait-of-a-beautiful-brunette-woman-shouting-through-megaphoneWe’re drawn to these people, and we can’t help it.  The heart wants what the heart wants, right?  There’s this undeniable attraction that we can hardly describe or define.  We just know that he’s the one we dream about, the one who makes our hearts pound in our chest, the one we would do anything to be with because he’s so exciting.  We want to tell everyone about him, because he’s what everyone wants.  And if by some miracle he can be ours, we’ll be shouting it with a megaphone to crowds of bitter rivals.

But here’s the thing: it’s a temporary, immature attraction, and the heart can be deceived.  They tell you to live for today, but if you do, you won’t be prepared when tomorrow comes.

While you’re attracted to these guys now, it’s never too early to start thinking about what you want in a guy long-term.  What do you want out of a marriage?  What do you want your family to look like?

Pause for just a minute and think of one of those guys.  Got one in your head?  Can you picture him?  Now I want you to briefly sketch out your life.

Picture yourself walking down the aisle.  How do you feel?  What emotion is on his face?

Think about your honeymoon.  Will he make you feel loved, treasured, and adored as his bride?  Or will he act like a typical guy?

How will you spend your evenings together?

Imagine having your first child.  Is he ready for that responsibility?

What if there’s a dream you want to pursue?  Will he support you, or leave you high and dry to pursue his own?

The bad boy thinks only of himself, and for some reason, that’s sexy.  But when you have goals of your own and you need your partner’s support, only to have him do his own thing and never care about your ambitions — that’s a little less sexy.

When the bad boys sneaks out at night during high school to go party, it’s so wild and rebellious and attractive.  But when you’re alone in bed at night because the same boy has expertly snuck out to be with another woman — well, it’s not attractive anymore.

When he’s tough and doesn’t care about anything, the thrill of the chase makes you want him desperately.  But when there comes a day that your world is falling apart and you’re in tears, sensitivity and comfort are what you’ll want desperately.  It won’t be so attractive then for him to shrug you off.

When he disrespects his parents, it’s oh so bold and independent.  But one day when you need him to man up and take responsibility and he says “to heck with you” — suddenly it means something very different.

All these girls that you know now — your friends with whom you dream and flirt and live life and brag that the popular boy talked to you in the hall — statistically speaking, most of them will live through heartbreak and divorce and miserable marriages, all because they followed their heart.  They lived for today, but when tomorrow came, it found them brokenhearted and alone, hoping their three small children couldn’t hear them crying themselves to sleep.

And if you’re with a gentle, patient, steady man who loves you faithfully and unconditionally, you’ll be the one with a megaphone.  You’ll be bragging to everyone that he loves you and only you.  You’ll be boasting that he works hard at a job that he hates so that you can feel secure, and then comes home and changes the lightbulbs you can’t reach.  You’ll tell everyone that he understands you and holds you and talks with you.  You’ll shout from the rooftops that you never feel ashamed, afraid, or inadequate because even though he’s too good for you, he never makes you feel that way.

And by then you’ll be the one everyone envies.  You’ll have the man every other woman wants — a man you can brag about.  Do yourself a favor.  Wait for him.

A word to the nice guys: I know how frustrating it is that girls are drawn to the bad boys.  I’m truly sorry that that’s the way it is.  But please, please, don’t change.  The same principle applies to you: don’t just live for today.  Look at the future.  Be the man who treats your girl with respect and makes her feel safe and honored and special.  Set your goal to have a marriage that not only lasts, but is absolutely amazing.  There will be a girl out there who desperately wants what you have to offer, who wants to brag to her friends about you, who wants to be the kind of woman worthy of your love.  Do yourself a favor.  Wait for her.