Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Waxing Spiritual: Good News?

(Disclaimer: Part of who I am (most of who I am) is someone who loves Jesus deeply. I grew up knowing a certain version of Jesus but realized sometime in early adulthood that the way I'd come to know him was incomplete, empty, impotent. The last twelve years have profoundly changed my understanding of faith, and I believe my understanding will continue to change and evolve as I continue to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. I need a place where I can process my "before and after and now" and work out my faith with "fear and trembling." I'd like to be able to do that here sometimes. I'll preface these posts with the title "Waxing Spiritual" so you know when I'm going there. You can skip them if you want. But if you're interested in the reflections of one who used to think she had all the answers but now finds herself following one who defies answers, I'd love to have you join me. Questions, thoughts, discussion are welcome in the comments. I submit all musings in humility, knowing I cannot possibly understand the beautiful mystery of God this side of death. But I want to love him with my whole mind anyway, so here we go.)


"It's like this," the pastor says on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, and I've heard it a thousand times, explained it this way myself in the days before I grasped how wide and deep and long is the love of Jesus.

"God loves you. But--"

The deconstruction of the mystery always begins with a "but." Can we pause for a moment to recognize the way this "but" frames God's love as conditional? The way this "but" establishes fear? The way this "but" suggests God's Love is not sufficient?

"But...we are separated from God by our sin." Here, an explanation ensues in an attempt to convince people they are imperfect.

Side note: Does anyone really need to be convinced of their own imperfection? It seems to me that most people are generally hyper-aware of their shortcomings and are too busy trying to fix and hide their failures to argue about their existence. I don't know any other mature adult who would claim perfection, or sinlessness, and we patronize the people around us to think otherwise.

The only time I ever needed convincing of my sinfulness was when I was a teenager saturated in Christian culture, ticking all the boxes of good, clean Christian living. Ironically, I am most ashamed of that season of life due to the hurt I inflicted on others out of pride, insecurity, and judgement.

Back to the sermon: "Because we are separated from God by our sin, we must suffer the consequence of sin, which is death (or hell, eternal separation from God)." Here, we are given a metaphor of the Grand Canyon, where we are on one side of the chasm and God is on the other, and no amount of jumping, leaping, or wishful thinking will get us across to God's side. Some may jump farther than others, but all fall short.

If only there were a bridge! Enter Jesus. "But God loved us so much, he sent his son as a perfect sacrifice for our sin so that we could be made right with God. The cross is like a bridge over the Grand Canyon, allowing us to be reconciled with God."A discussion of how Jesus is the only bridge follows: "All roads don't lead to heaven!"

If a pen and paper were handy, one could draw a cliff on the left with a stick figure standing on it, and a cliff on the right with GOD written on it, and a cross would sit right in the middle, it's horizontal beam bridging the gap: The Bridge Illustration.

And the closing: "Every person must decide for himself whether he will cross the bridge God has provided. Would you like to make that decision right here, right now? To accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior so you are no longer separated from God?" And so we pray. Sometimes, people are asked to pray along silently in their heart if they want. Other times, there is an invitation to come to the front as a public declaration of faith. In this church on this Sunday, the prayer was silent, and no public declaration was required.

After hearing this life-altering good news, we sang a song and went to lunch.


Is this the message Jesus came to deliver? Is this the message that will lead terrorists to lay down their weapons, that will set the addict free from her tyrant, that will reconcile family and friends estranged by deep wounds? Is this the good news? I mean, it's nice that there's a way to escape hell, but beyond that, what can be called good?

Paraphrase of supposed good news: Hey, World, we had a good thing going in the garden until Eve screwed it up and caused every human ever born to be afflicted with sin. Sorry I have to not only banish but torture you forever now (even though I really love you) unless you demonstrate faith in Jesus alone as eternal fire retardant. (I'll know you really have faith in Jesus by the rules you follow and the time you spend reading your Bible and praying and the doctrine you subscribe to regarding evolution, abortion, homosexuality, gender roles, and the nation of Israel.) Hopefully the years of sexual abuse and famine and war and corruption and abandonment and slavery and terrorism and racism and nightly news you've witnessed or survived or perpetrated won't make it too hard for you to find and trust me.

This version of the gospel falls flat to me. Rings hollow. Smacks of something other than Love.

Since gaining some distance from this perspective, I've discovered that most of the folks around me are profoundly discouraged by their own sin and deeply wounded by others' sin. Most of the folks I know desperately want to be good parents, friends, neighbors, citizens, but they recognize their love is not perfect, that often they act from fear or insecurity. They find themselves in the paradox of existence that Paul articulates so clearly in Romans: "Sometimes, I don't do the things I know I should. Other times, I do things I know I shouldn't. Why? Help!"

Here's what I've come to believe is the truly good, subversive, counter-cultural gospel of Jesus: mercy.

A quick search for a definition of mercy brought this: "compassion or forgiveness shown to someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm."

So consider: "God consigned all men to disobedience that he might have mercy on all."

I know this doesn't sound good, but stay with me.

We could not know mercy if we did not sin. Perhaps we cannot understand God's love completely if we do not experience his mercy. What if sin did not wreck his plan? What if sin and the mess it makes in this world are the vehicle God uses to reveal his love for us? What if, somehow, the riches of mercy are worth the despair of sin?

It bends my brain, but I can kind of understand when I think of my kids.

I relish (!) seeing them enjoy each other's company and play together happily as brother and sister. There is love and joy there, certainly, and I rejoice.

But there is something far more powerful, far more profound when one is distraught or hurt or heartbroken and the other has compassion, hurts alongside, and patiently endures and forgives the anger or crankiness of their aching sibling. That is a Love that reaches deep down in this Mama soul and whispers, "This. This is it."

Mercy reveals the real love.

Being loved in perfection is not as meaningful as being loved in our imperfection. This is the reason marriage is such a powerful crucible, why parenting breaks our heart and challenges our spirit. We receive mercy over and over and over, are asked to have mercy over and over and over, and in this act, we learn and reveal the heart of God.

What if the gospel were this: God loves us. And he loves us so much he doesn't want us to believe for a second that we can do anything to earn it or deserve it. So he made imperfection a condition of humanity and then sent Jesus to model how to love each other in the midst of our imperfections.

The challenge is that we generally feel deep shame about our imperfection, so we try to hide ourselves in accomplishments or good works or power or numbing activities (fig leaves). We generally run away from anyone who wants to shine a spotlight on our drinking problem, commitment issues, facebook addiction, workaholism, over-committedness, crankiness, or judgmental nature. But this hiding and running away slowly ruins us, leaves us suffering alone.

Fortunately, Jesus was never really interested in spotlights (anachronysm aside).

Instead, Jesus drank wine with folks. He hung out with them in their jobs, in their chores, around their tables. He went to their hiding places. And to parties. He enjoyed people. He told stories and asked questions and reserved the preaching for the religious folks who thought they had it all figured out. He was a truth-teller, not because he wanted to make people feel bad about themselves so they would repent but so people could stop hiding their mess and find real life. The truth sets people free.

God loves us with the kind of Love that suffers hell for those who crucify him. And then he takes care of our sin and shame by hiding us in Jesus, allowing us to be identified by Jesus's perfection rather than our imperfection. So now we're at peace with God. Already. Without doing anything. Thanks to the cross.

Doesn't that bring relief from the merry-go-round striving we typically subject ourselves to?

Please look elsewhere for self-help strategies, tidy boxes, and easy answers.

But please feel free to pick up a cross and follow Jesus away from the folks who know a lot about what's right and wrong in search of the outcasts, the lost sheep, the last and the least.

Brace yourself for suffering. Because shame leads people to hurt each other in unspeakably cruel and violent ways. And hurting alongside those who are the victims of injustice is part of your work as a member of Christ's body.

You might want to grab your yoga mat, too, because you'll need to do a lot of deep breathing as you learn to suspend judgement. If you follow Jesus, you'll find yourself at the dinner tables of pedophiles, terrorists, Wall Street tycoons, dictators, racist cops, pimps, producers of cable news, abusive parents, human traffickers, and those who disagree with you about evolution, abortion, homosexuality, gender roles, and the nation of Israel. Because they need him.

And because this will be impossible for you at times, Jesus will also come to your table for dinner.

This unreserved mercy is the scandal of the gospel. All roads don't lead to heaven, but all roads may lead to Jesus. Or perhaps more accurately, Jesus may find all roads and take care of the mapping system himself. 

If this kind of God sounds like good news to you, well then, consider yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ, because that's how God sees you. The sooner you believe it, the sooner you'll live it and be transformed in his image in a process that will last your lifetime. That's grace.

That's gospel.


"When the [religious leaders] saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why is your Teacher eating with tax collectors and sinners?" But when Jesus heard this, He said, "It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners." Matthew 9:11-13

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Beginning Again

Yesterday, the kids had their first piano lessons since we moved, and I was nervous for them.

Benjamin had taken lessons for two years before we moved, and Abigail had only played for six months by the time we had to pull them out. After nearly a year and a half without lessons or regular practice, I knew they had forgotten much.

I didn't want them to feel discouraged if they sat down to play and found it all unfamiliar and overwhelming. I also didn't want them to feel bored if she had to start them over from the beginning.

I shouldn't have worried.

Their teacher led them through the lesson expertly. She started them with an exercise that reinforced basic skills but felt absolutely doable, re-immersing them in language they once knew while building their confidence.

As they played, she asked them if they remembered certain terms or skills. "'No' is an answer," she'd say, making it perfectly acceptable to admit they had forgotten something.

My greatest surprise and relief came when she picked a song from the books where they had left off a year and a half ago, and then used that song to re-familiarize them with the basics. The songs she chose would have been too challenging to attempt unsupported, but she guided them back into the music, reorienting their hands to the appropriate keys, giving them clues and language to navigate the keyboard, breaking the song down into manageable pieces.

She didn't start them over, which would have felt patronizing. She didn't bore them with review, which would have smothered their enthusiasm.

Instead, she trusted them with a task appropriate to the skills they once had and slowly teased to life their body of knowledge, knowing that in the process of relearning this piece, the terminology and muscle memory would return.

The time and energy they invested back in Colorado was not lost. She recognized their experience is still buried in their brains, latent. It's simply a matter of time before their little minds fire the synapses enough times to re-connect the neural pathways and resurrect their skills.

I'm proud of my kids for returning to the piano: it is an act of courage and humility to endure the relearning process, but I know they stand to gain so much more from facing the temporary discomfort of re-entry than they do from avoiding something they once loved.

And their process encourages me. After a break from the gym or from writing, I am tempted to think the time and work I invested previously is lost. Beginning again can feel like starting over from nothing.

But it's not.

The foundations I built are still there, too, and while there may be a short period of reorienting and rebuilding, before long I will be growing from where I left off. 

No effort, no investment of work is ever truly lost--unless you choose not to return.

May we all be brave enough to begin again.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Less is Not Loss

This was the summer of "Mama, can I go out and play?"

Of doors opening and closing over and over while kids retrieved toys and rope and balls and paper and any other prop that might enhance their imaginary plots and schemes.

Of hours of noise while the kids and their neighbor friends invented worlds and dramas upstairs in the air-conditioned game room.

Of hours of silence while they did the same at someone else's house.

This was the first summer when they weren't always tucked securely in sight.

When they were given the freedom to roam the street and sidewalks and a few known houses provided they kept me informed of their general location.

When they could grab their bike or scooter or skateboard (and helmet) and transport themselves at-will up and down the block.

This was their first real taste of physical independence, of the responsibility that comes with privilege, of negotiating social dynamics without an ever-present adult to remind and admonish.

This was a summer characterized by good old-fashioned childhood fun: kid-organized, kid-led, kid-negotiated, kid-fueled.

They loved every minute. So did I. And not just because I had more time to myself.

Though I was out of sight much of the time, I kept watch through the windows, I listened from a distance to the tenor and content of conversation, and I heard each of them offer suggestions, clarify ideas, work out conflict, and otherwise participate in this group dynamic as kind and productive members of the community. All of the kids.

When necessary, I stepped in to help redirect or problem-solve when conflict escalated. There were moments of discord, to be sure, but they were generally short-lived and solved by a brief break and conversation with mom or dad before heading back out to make amends and begin again.

What I observed filled me with respect and gratitude for my not-so-littles and with the conviction that this kind of summer was far more productive and valuable than any camp or activity I could have signed them up for. Essentially, they received a summer intensive in working with people who differ in personality, age, objective, and skill.

They learned:

-how to invent their own fun
-how to establish rules that are fair for everyone
-how to include children ranging in age from three years to thirteen
-how to share ideas, resources, and roles
-how to compromise and reach consensus when people disagree about what to play/how to play/where to play
-how to apologize when someone's feelings are hurt

But the kids weren't the only ones to benefit.

I saw Ben and Abby for fewer hours in the day than I would have in previous summers, I had less direct influence, but they continued to learn and hone the values and skills we've spent their lifetimes cultivating.

And the time we did spend together was enriched by the wonder of observing how absolutely competent and mature and amazing these two little people are. They thrilled me and filled me with thoughts like, I just really like my kids. They're such cool people! My role was smaller, but I learned this reduction is not a loss. Rather, the freedom is pure gift, like getting all the benefits of a home-cooked meal with only half the prep.

It's been nine years of intense, daily investment, but the time and effort are paying off. And this reality gives me faith and hope that if we stay the course in the coming years, other milestones of freedom and independence like getting a driver's license and going to college will be rewarding in the same way. The quantity of time together will be less, but I have hope that the quality of relationship with these truly wonderful humans will be even greater.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Year Later

We are no longer the new kids.

It's amazing how quickly this happens. One introduction leads to another, one involvement begets invitations to new involvements, the simple act of showing up on the same corner every school day at 3:15 acquaints me with a host of folks with whom I exchange smiles at school events, at the grocery store, at the library.

Both kids knew at least half of the children in their classes this year, no small feat considering each grade has nearly two hundred kids. Between class and recess last year, soccer, activities, and neighborhood friends, they walked into classes as members of a community.

We are established now.

We carpool. We are asked to volunteer. We are invited to try out for teams. We run into friends around town. We have a pool in our backyard that fills with children in a matter of minutes.

There is power in the act of showing up a stranger but continuing, day after day, to be available to the possibility of friendship.

For all the heartache we endured leaving Colorado, I am grateful my kids have experienced the process of starting over: to feel the fear of many firsts and to muster the courage to enter anyway, to understand the loneliness of being an outsider and to witness how time and patience and a willingness to engage transform that isolation to connection, to experience the miracle that more than one place can come to feel like home.

Rare is the lifetime that does not require us to uproot and begin again. Now they've seen that a new life in a new place, though painful at first, can ultimately be transformed to blessing.

We went home to Colorado this summer, and when we left to return to Texas, Abby captured the feeling best: "When we're in Texas, I miss our family and house in Colorado, but now when we're in Colorado, I miss our friends and home in Texas."

This is the reward for facing down the loneliness and loss, for living in the vulnerability of newness, for walking into the unfamiliar over and over: friendship, feeling known.

Wherever we find ourselves, it is the richness of community that makes a place home.

Even Texas.

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