Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Body of Christ

The Bible tells us that we are the body of Christ.  Casting Crowns sang a popular song about such several years ago, one that went wildly popular on the contemporary Christian charts.  And as I've talked about our physical bodies (in particular, mine but I am hoping you thought also of yours), strengths and failings and limitations, I think it's important that we look at another body that has failed.  His.

The aforementioned song shared the lyrics, "If we are the body, why aren't His arms reaching?  Why aren't His hands healing?  Why aren't His words teaching?  And if we are the body, why aren't His feet going?  Why is His love not showing them there is a way?"

Christ's body - His church - has been broken for so long that there are people out there struggling to trust it, as we would struggle to trust any body this infected.  We've seen it in the abuse scandals in the Catholic branch of our body, but the truth is that there are a billion less-publicized atrocities happening in our churches.  Foregoing forgiveness.  Guarding grace.  Mocking mercy.  Lacking love.

It's not just people walking in our doors and back out again; some of those hardest hit by the failing of His body are the same ones who sit in our pews (or pick-your-church's-favorite-color interlocking chairs) faithfully, looking for a God who says He is in His people in the people who declare they are in Him and winding up confused and aching.

Like anyone pushing their own body to find its strength, these people are pushing our congregations but finding we're not strong enough.  We're failing them; and as such, we are failing Him.

I don't say that to condemn, necessarily.  There are a number of reasons we're finding it hard to be His church.  Largely, we're fighting both a preconceived notion and some extremely bad press.  These are significant obstacles.  The bad press, we've all seen.  It's the priest sexual abuse scandal.  It's the protests of soldier funerals.  It's the little boy singing an anti-gay song from the stage.  It's the wedding turned away for race, the union rejected for interracialness.  In memory from when I was growing up not even in the church, it's the bombings of abortion clinics in the name of preserving life.  It's these grand pronouncements to the world-at-large that we're a body of hypocrites, or often worse.

The preconceived notions are also killing us.  It's tough to bring Jesus into anything without also introducing awkwardness.  I once heard someone say that even people who love Jesus cringe a little when you start to talk about Him.  And I laughed (and am still laughing) because it's absolutely true.  He's got this stigma that isn't really about Him; it's about the way we've used Him over the past two thousand years as kind of a go-to and a feel-good and a drive-home: we revert to Him when we don't know what else to say even though we've not got any conviction to our words, we use His name to sounds more holy than we actually are (how many celebrities who have thanked Jesus on stage have actually thanked Him in more than public words), and we use Him to condemn whatever we don't like and convince people that they're misguided or simply wrong.  It's sad to say, but we've lost our authenticity behind this man Jesus, and I think that as soon as we bring Him up, we shut a little bit of our audience off.

Then how are we supposed to be the body?  How are we supposed to break through?  How are we to respond to those that are seeking Him and pushing us and heartbroken that we're not proven strong enough?

I think we're already on part of the right track.  We're already hypocrites; we just have to embrace that and spin it a little.  Admit to what we are - imperfect people - and stop pretending that His body isn't broken.  Two thousand years ago, a spear ripped Him open and His body has been broken ever since.  We needn't be ashamed of that.  But what we need to do is not live lives hypocritical to our faith but instead live faith hypocritical to our lives.  

Own up to what we're not and point to what He is...because really, that's all anyone's ever been looking for - not a perfect God but to be perfected in God.  Our world is looking for a God that knows where they are.  Where we are.  And doesn't make all things perfect, but makes all things new.  Makes all things mercy, forgiveness, and grace.  Makes all things love.

Through His body - imperfect arms reaching, imperfect hands healing, imperfect words teaching.  His body - imperfect feet going.  Imperfect love showing them there is a way.  Jesus is the Way.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Wrecked in Reverse

Jeff Goins sent me an advance copy of his new book, Wrecked, which comes out on Wednesday (August 1) and asked me to review it before it hits the shelves.  So that is this.  Rather, this is that.

Wrecked is about getting out of your comfortable life and coming face-to-face with the depravity of the world, where your comfort is rocked and your life is shaken and you can never be the same.  It is a collection of stories, strung together with narratives, of individuals whose lives have been turned upside-down by encounters in the third-world and the underworld by poverty, homelessness, disease, and missions work.  Goins has a unique ability to present these stories as a man who has had these encounters and one who works with others in the midst of their own encounters.

It's the kind of book I normally put down almost immediately, but I read this one all the way through in just two sittings.

The reason I normally put these books down is because they are generally very tedious to me.  Stories of people with no practical exposure to the real world who find out what life is really like and then have to figure out what to do with that.  Encouragement to draw from your privilege to reach out to those with so much less and almost nothing.  Really, these kinds of books about ministry that seem to purport to make you feel guilty about growing up in America and having toys, friends, and education are just tough pills to swallow.  And I guess there's been a wounded place in me that is so grotesquely offended by them that when I read the synopsis, I rolled my eyes and muttered something like "here we go again."

I'm not saying this is a bad concept for a book at all; I know many eyes that could use some opening and this is a great tool for doing that.  This book, in particular, is challenging to those who need this very thing.  But I don't connect with these books.  I know, I know.  I've grown up in America and by many definitions, that makes me the privileged, spoiled, blind young person that so many of these books target, but that's not my story.  My story doesn't begin with comfort and end with depravity; it begins with depravity.

Then why did I love this book so much?  If it's not the kind of book I'd normally bother to read and it's not a story I feel like I can connect with, why couldn't I put Wrecked down?

Because I was connecting with the other side of every story and thinking about what those stories mean.  I was connecting with the mother in Africa who had given up two children, then found a way to earn a living and actually adopt a few others in her four-room house with one light bulb.  I was connecting with Micah, a man in Seville, Spain, who wrecked Goins' world but really just wanted a cheeseburger.  I was connecting with Steve and the community under the city of Nashville, ignored and neglected and hiding from a painful world.

And I was thinking about my own wrecking...and theirs.

Jeff writes about wrecking like it takes us from the good to the bad, from privilege to poverty, from comfort to conflict.  To an extent, and to guys like Jeff, that is absolutely true.  Reading this stories, though, I was profoundly aware of the way my life has been wrecked.  Sort of in reverse.

I wasn't comfortable.  I knew pain.  I knew conflict.  It seemed my life was driven by these two things.  I didn't really know that at the time; it was normal, this life of struggle.  It was just how things were.  I knew what it was to make the tough choices, to sacrifice when losing more was only cruel punishment, when the days took it out of me and the nights failed to give it back.  I had no illusions of being privileged, untouched by the depravity of the world.  I was living depravity in every depth of my heart.  And I was content to do very little or nothing with my life, so long as I could push through and survive another day.  There wasn't a tomorrow, just more tomorrows until one day, they would end.  And I was ok with that.

Then in my mid-teens, I was wrecked.  I met a Man who turned my world upside-down, who showed me something so powerful as love, comfort, and rest.  Those were radical ideas that, had He never shown me, I would have lived my days without.  In that, there was a choice - to turn my back and walk away unchanged, shirking this invitation to a grander scheme or to embrace what He laid out before my eyes and my heart, letting my life be wrecked.

It threw me into a deeper darkness than I had known existed, as I allowed the struggle of light and dark to enter my being.  It penetrated me in this profound way that is indescribable unless you've been there, and I believe it's the same kind of thing that happened to the people in the stories in Jeff's book - the man who trekked to Guatemala and couldn't get it out of his heart, so moved back for two years.  Except in this wrecking, instead of being the missionary seeking the lost, I became the lost seeking the missionary.  As the darkness began to resolve, more than a decade later, I found purpose and passion in what God has been asking me to do with my life.

That's really why I enjoyed Wrecked.  It did what it was supposed to do - bring together the pain in my heart with the promise of my blessing and the position I'm in, with His presence, to do something greater with my life.  It just came at me from a different direction.  From wholeness, peace, and an invitation wrecking my perfectly content to die devastated life.  It hit at that place in my heart that is drawn into ministry, that story that is greater than mine that I'm itching to be a part of telling.  It reminded me of the privilege of being in this place, poised to serve in a powerful way through a powerful story because of a powerful Love.

That said, Wrecked is a recommended read for anyone with that nagging feeling something is missing in their life.  But I say that with a bit of caution, because I want to also say this: it doesn't take a dash of depravity to wreck your life, though that is primarily the focus of this book.  Sometimes, it takes a little Love or a gram of grace or a moment of mercy.  So when you pick up this book (and you definitely should - August 1), pick it up with an open heart and throw yourself into the stories.  Not looking for anything in particular but opening yourself to what these words might speak to you.  If I had followed my gut and put the book down the moment I knew it was one of those books, I'd have never found the blessing in its pages and would have missed the chance to connect to my own wrecked story, which has infused my days with passion and purpose and this incredible grace from my incredible God.  Let these stories guide you, not guilt you, into finding your own wrecking...that may one day be your reckoning.

And as a side note, as I think back to the words of this book, I'm still thinking about the mother in Africa, the homeless man in Spain, the community of vagrants in Nashville, and a host of others...and I'm thinking (Jeff, help me out on this) how cool it would be to tell their stories, too.  Because I guarantee, from my experience as the depraved, that when those missionaries left, when those moments were over, the Americans with opened eyes were not the only ones wrecked; so were those left behind who maybe never left that one spot but who found a new world with a new love and a new reason.  Ask that mother in Africa how it was to be wrecked...and to work out that conflict in her heart by building something new in her life.  Ask Micah how it was to be wrecked by a redhead from the midwest, a cheeseburger, and a beer...and ask him what that meant the next time he saw a man like himself.  Ask Steve what it meant to be wrecked...and to know there was more to the world than the underworld and how that agonized his heart to thirst for more instead of settle.  Not because it will build our egos as missionaries, not because we need to see the fruit of our good works.  There are a million books like that, too - to make us proud of ourselves, to make us think we're making a difference.  Tell the wrecked in reverse stories for the sake of those whose only life is depravity and who would never think of wrecked as a good thing, but who could find a little grace and find meaning and purpose in their stories and in their lives.  For the sake of those looking for what they can do from this side of wrecked.  Just a thought.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Push

There is more to living well with our bodies than trusting their strength or embracing His healing, and that is respecting the innate wisdom of our bodies themselves.  It means responding to ourselves with a measure of grace, and it is absolutely one of the hardest things to do.

But so often when we think we are trusting our bodies to be strong enough, we are actually trusting our minds to will us through and pushing our bodies to achieve it.  That's kind of why we're a nation living on aches, pains, and pills - because we're dragging our bodies through our lives with us and not listening when they tell us we're not up to it.

I've had those days.  I've had a lot of those days, and continue to have a few as I try to learn this physical grace.  Days when you wake up and you're a little under the weather with a summer cold or a bit of hay fever or whatever and you consciously say to yourself, "Oh, heeeeeeeelllllll no.  I'm not doing this today," then push up out of bed and pretend your body isn't screaming for your attention.  Or you're looking at a bag of water softener salt and thinking, "I really don't feel like carrying this to the basement right now" but you do it anyway because your mind ought to have control of your body.  You ought to be able to make yourself do whatever you want or need to do.

It's a familiar sentiment.  We somewhere gather this idea that our bodies are nothing more than tools to be exploited and used to their fullest for the accomplishment of our minds.  And whatever we mess up in the process will be quickly sedated with pharmaceuticals or appeased by a good night's sleep.  Then in our waking ours, we resent our bodies for dragging us down and condemn them for showing wear.

It's a tough pill to swallow - the inconvenience, not the aspirin.  The inconvenience of having our plans ruined or our timing shifted because our bodies are crying out they can't do that right now.  Missing that concert you were looking forward to for weeks because you're caught in a coughing fit and can't breathe, let alone drive or dance.  Skipping a Sunday morning service because everyone in your family just got over the stomach flu and you feel like you're coming down with something.  Having to take a pass on a special occasion because your body is screaming so loud that you wouldn't enjoy it anyway, even if you forced yourself to go. 

It sucks, and that's why we don't stand for it.  We don't have time or patience to honor ourselves with healing...so we push hard and keep living and hope that whatever's coursing through our veins works its way out in a day or two and if it doesn't, well, by then, we've just sort of adjusted until our days are consumed by our silent cursing of ourselves and our stronger conviction that we ought to be stronger, better, more able than this...and we push ourselves harder.

There are a great deal of us trying to get back in shape, in one way or another.  We've gorged ourselves on fast food and junk food and now hate what we see in the mirror or we've let ourselves waste away in front of a television or computer and now we despise that we don't have the energy to do anything.  So we hit the gym and punish our bodies for not being what we'd want and not keeping up with our imagined lifestyle, even though it was our actual choices of living that got us here in the first place.  That workout hurt?  Good.  "It's supposed to."  And keep coming back tomorrow and the next day because that pain means your body is getting the message; it's certainly not a cry of agony or a scream for help.

We're tearing ourselves up, then despising ourselves for being torn.  For being ragged.  For having moments of weakness and vulnerabilities.  We're ignoring the burning pain and screaming agony coming from our physical being, then burdened by the way the volume seems to go up every day.  We're in constant battles with our bodies, fighting against ourselves because our minds and our hearts want what they want and haven't a measure of grace for the strength that's supposed to get us there, bodies that weren't built to run as our society keeps us running.  Bodies that need more than we give them.

One of the biggest changes to come out of my prolonged illness is that I've learned (and am still learning) to listen to my body.  To give it the right fuel, the right food that it needs to do what I'm asking it to do...and to dole out a measure of grace when it's just not up to the challenge.  To stop thinking it's going to get better if I just ignore it, to stop believing that it's had enough trouble and the only thing coming against it is me and that if I put my mind to thinking myself strong, I will be strong. It's bull.  It grates against what my body says.

Sometimes, wisdom means working.  Sometimes, it means sleeping for a day and a half straight.  Sometimes, it means taking a little ibuprofen; other times, it means sweating it out.  It's inconvenient to listen.  Sometimes heartbreaking.  Sometimes infuriating.  There's a part of me that thinks after so much sickness, I should never have so much as sniffle again.  But learning to trust the wisdom of my body, treating my physical presence with grace, makes life worth living.  It makes things better.  It means that every moment isn't a fight; it is love.

So when it comes to the push - to demanding our bodies keep up, to forcing ourselves to accomplish, to ignoring the cries coming from within - shove it.  Trust in your body, but trust in its wisdom.  It knows what it's aching for, and it knows what it needs.  And it has the wisdom to heal, strengthen, and whole itself, given that you give it grace.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


I'm coming off two days of hard work on the construction site.  For those of you who haven't stayed in the loop, I've been working directly under a contractor since about mid-June (until, you know, I can find some less physically demanding work that's a bit more stable) and I'm absolutely loving it.  But there's an added benefit to this opportunity that's impact is not lost on me.

It's the chance to put myself back in my body.

As some know and many don't, I became very ill in 2004.  Unexpectedly, severely ill to the extent that the doctor in the emergency room was honestly shocked when I regained consciousness the first night we realized anything was wrong.  What followed was five solid years of pure agony during which time, I dropped 60 pounds in about five months, had trouble eating and drinking (for more than half a year, I literally woke up in the mornings, shoved a mini bagel pizza down my throat and didn't eat for the rest of the day; I couldn't), spent my days lying in bed too weak and scared to even try to get up, and having absolutely no idea, despite tens of thousands of dollars and dozens of doctors, what in the world was happening to me.  The only thing that anyone could tell me was that if we didn't figure it out soon, I wouldn't live to know the answer.  (Oddly, they said this with the same urgency at day one as they did at year five.)

It was an excruciating five years, to say the least.  I'd have a few days here and there where I felt like I might be a little stronger, only to try to do something so simple as go to church and fall hard into medical emergency all over again.  I was bouncing in and out of emergency rooms and knowing the ambulance crews on a first-name basis, signing out Against Medical Advice because I needed more than "you're going to die" to convince me to stay in a hospital where they admitted they didn't know how to fix it.

Somewhere in all of that, my body took over my mind.  I came to be in this constant state of assessment, checking on my status at every second to make sure nothing was creeping up on me, that I'd be able to stand up long enough to take a shower, that there wasn't a chance I'd have another severe episode somewhere terrible and be - for real - horribly embarrassed.  Worried about the tiniest signs in myself that might indicate my homeostasis was about to be shaken.  Because honestly, I didn't know either.  I never knew when it was going to get bad or when I'd get a few hours break (rarely).  I didn't know what was causing it, so I didn't know how to stay away from the bad stuff and protect myself.  I really felt like I was a victim to everything around me because something was coming against me hard and I couldn't find it.  So the only control I had was to be in concerted analysis of my own body and pray that I could catch it before it caught me.

Then in 2009, we nailed it.  An actual diagnosis with an actual plan of action that, to be honest, I had researched on my own with a 3"-thick binder full of five years of test results.  I stumbled upon this fairly rare (.04 of 1% at adult-onset) condition that fit absolutely everything I had, then went back over it all with one of my then-doctors.  The treatment...the only possible treatment out there, which is a control treatment rather than a cure...worked in less than 24 hours.  I swear to you I felt my body finally release after all those years.

And I cried.  And I thanked God.

And I worried again.  Because it seemed somehow terrible that the answer was so simple when five years had been so hellish.  Because it seemed ridiculous that the doctors had never caught, in any of those emergency rooms, what was right in front of their eyes and should have been something they'd have recognized right away, at least as a problem in itself though for this case, it is merely a symptom. Because over five years, I'd had probably three dozen different diagnoses that never panned out and I refused to believe any more that I could ever trust this body to heal.

Three years later, I hate to say it, but it's easy to be in constant check mode, looking around for that next thing that's going to push me over a steep edge, though I admit that it's nice to finally know what most of those things are.  (A few surprise me here and there.)  I have tools to handle it now.  But I had no idea how hard it would be to ever trust my body again.  I have known how much I was holding myself back because of my concern, because of always watching over myself...skipping things, missing things, stopping, and just caving in to every little nerve in my being...because I just haven't known how to go back to how things used to be - when I had strength.  When I had power.  When I could do anything I wanted to do and not think about it.  When I was a runner, a dancer, an athlete.  When I attended every school event and every church function and a few things here and there just because.  When I jumped in my car and drove back-and-forth to college (an hour each way) and didn't worry about being a hazard to other drivers on the interstate.  When I didn't worry about being out somewhere and something happening.

Then my neighbor dropped this job in my lap, and I jumped on it.  This is work that I love to do and work that I actually did before I got sick - domestic mission trips four summers to renovate and rehab houses in poverty-stricken areas.  Painting.  Porches.  Drywall.  Windows.  Cleaning up.  Plumbing.  Stairs.  Delivering goods.  Those were some of the best summers of my life.

Now, this one's right there, too.  Because I get to get up every morning and do this again.  And I get to get up every morning and make a choice.  A choice to give my body a chance, to trust in myself to be able to do it, to trust in my tools and my medicines (2 daily, 1 emergency - down from about 37 pills multiple times per day), and to just throw myself into this work and get lost.  And at the end of the day, to realize that I'm fine.  I'm better than fine; I'm fantastic.  I'm strong.  I'm buff.  I'm able.  (I'm tan.)  And I'm hungry.  Ravenously, ravenously hungry...and blessed to eat.  A lot.

So yeah, I'm getting some cool work.  A little bit of money.  A great way to spend a summer, doing something I love so much.  But the greatest blessing in all of this is getting back into my body and learning to trust in its wisdom, in my strength, and in His healing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Names of God

Yesterday, I told you why I'm easily stoked - because God has named me Little Fire, and He stokes me.  There's a great value in knowing what it is God calls you and how He's weaving that into your story to draw your promise out of you and into His story.

But I think it's equally important by what name we know God.

One of the most powerful sermon series I ever heard was an extended look at the names of God, and to be honest, I think two of my senior pastors have done such a series over the past twelve years.  And I love reading those passages in the Old Testament, where God has shown up and done something so powerful that His people remember Him by building a pile of rocks and naming it after the trait of God that they knew at that place - the God Who Heals, the Lord Who Fights For Us, the God of Victory.  It's awesome.

I'm also a foreign language afficianado and love the old Hebrew and Greek words for things, so I love the idea of an El Shaddai (God Almighty), El Elyon (God Supreme), Adonai (my Lord).  Sidebar again: I stole those three in particular from the old school song "El Shaddai," by Amy Grant, which is a fantastically beautiful song to play on the piano but every time I start to tap it out, my mother gets excited and thinks I'm playing the theme from M*A*S*H.  Hilarious.  I always tell her, "Still no."

But I love these names of God, and I think they are important to our faith.  To call God by a name that is a trait of His character, that is a way in which we have experienced Him.  It gives more depth and accessibility to this Creator we call God.

By the name of God, He can seem so far above us that He's beyond our reach.  We can put Him in the Heavens, lording over us (pun intended) with a removed or distant hand that sort of kind of knows what we're doing here but just isn't touchable.  When we choose to narrow it down, to describe Him as we have known Him, to call on Him by the name of what He's done here, we start to get a God we can relate to.

God has graced us with His presence...is more removed than God, who is present.  God sent His Son to be a sacrifice for our sins...is less personal than God, who redeemed His children.  God, who met me in my darkness.  God, who held my hand.  God, who stuck up for me.  God, who created this butterfly.  God, who encouraged me.  God...

God who, by simply naming Him in these simple ways, becomes a tangible part of our lives, becomes here instead of everywhere, becomes someONE instead of something.  God, who I'm reminded of by knowing not only Who He is but how He is.  This is a God I can call on, a God I can talk to, a God I can trust in and walk beside and know.

As you can see by my examples, I'm not saying we need to memorize a bunch of ancient Hebrew or koine Greek to know the names of God; we simply need to do as His people have been recorded doing since the first generation - naming Him as we know Him, so that we know Him when we need Him.

In those tough times, it's an encouragement to know God by the names we have given Him from our experience of Him here.  It's nice to be able to look back at the places in our lives, marked by Rock, and say, "This is God as I have known Him, and He is still that today."  That is what our sane, rational brain is looking for in moments of trial - a memory to hang onto, a truth to know, something experienced rather than something studied.  A God who is here because we have known Him to be here.

There is one caveat, however, and it is this: we should never get so used to naming God, to narrowing Him to our experience, to our moments of interaction, to the answering of our needs, that we forget to embrace and stand in awe of the fullness of His glory.  He is God.  He has been God as we need Him, but we must always remember He is more than we could ask or imagine or even encounter here.  Our hearts know this is true.

For while it helps our sane, rational minds to know Him by name and to remember His intervention, His presence, and His love here in this way or that, in our times of greatest needs, our anguished hearts need only one name - the name above all names -

Abba.  DADDY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


It may surprise you (not at all) to know that I'm fairly excitable.  It's not very sophisticated, but it's how I am, and I don't think I should apologize for that.

However, what's happened over the years is that I'm excitable about different things than I once was.  As a youngster, as I think is true for most of us, I was mostly excitable over my own accomplishments.  It's part of that achievement-based society that tells us that we are whatever we can do, and that makes us proud and excited about what we actually get done because we feel like somehow, that is making us something.  And we're all desperately searching to be something.  But this kind of excitability leads to pride, arrogance, a better-than-you mentality that lives loud and rubs people the wrong way until people practically (actually) scream at you that you aren't what you do, that you don't have to be, even though we all kind of know the truth from living in this society that to an extent...we are exactly that.

The past few years, though, have seen a switch in my excitability, and I'm not really hung up on what I do any more.  What gets me is what I get the opportunity to do.  Chances.  Opportunities.  And still mail.

Sidebar: Mail excites me.  Irrationally so.  Just last week, my boss and I were coming back from the recycling center in his truck, and as we pulled up to hitch the trailer to the back, I noticed the mailman had been to my house.  I jumped out of his truck with all the excitement of a four-year-old, squealing something so profound as "Mail!" and bolted for my front porch.  It's not that anything particularly good comes, but it's the chance that one day, it might!  If you're not excited about mail, I think there's something seriously wrong with you.  Or you get too many bills.  

Anyway, instead of being excited now about what I do, I'm excited about what I get to go.  The chances God gives me to put something to use in me.  The ways He invites me to connect both with His Spirit in me and His Spirit in the world.  The way He uses my overflowing to pour into a void somewhere greater than I could imagine.

It's an entirely different perspective from this kind of excitability.  The achievement-based excitement of youth is one that puts its head down and plows forward, then looks up and raises high an accomplishment in search of approval.  The matured excitement of purposeful living is one that looks up for direction and pulls itself down to grounded.  The achievement-based excitement lives loud, shouting itself from the mountaintops in hopes of being heard.  Matured excitement lives out loud, letting its actions speak for itself and not caring about drawing the attention because it has already heard and therefore doesn't need to be heard.  It's the difference between arrogance and service, between self and sacrifice.

And it's pretty cool.  But I have to admit that I'm still over-the-top excited in situations where it seems like I'm the only one in the room rarin' to go, as we say here in the Midwest.  Give me a project, let me tap into what God's put in me, let Him work through me and I'm all over it.  I could go for days, weeks, years...as long as He's fueling me.  And I let Him, and that gets me all excited.  I don't always get it right; sometimes, I still let my excitability live loud instead of out loud, and it drives me absolutely nuts.  I'll condemn myself for days in my own mind because I know that's not it, and I know that if I'm living loud, there's something in me trying to make it about me.  I don't like that in myself; maybe one day, God will help me finally move past that, though I am excited (see?) to see that those moments are already becoming fewer and further between.

But I wondered one day, out loud with my God, just what makes me so excitable like this?  Where does this passion, this energy come from that doesn't seem to translate to everybody?  It's not that I'm against being an odd-ball, it's just that it pains me to see so many other people living 'above' excitement, like it's somehow unholy or unacceptable to let this kind of joy, hope, and expectancy overwhelm you and show on your face.

Then God reminded me of my name.  Aidan.  And I could only smile.  You see, Aidan is a Gaelic name meaning "little fire."  I've known that for several years, and I've known that is what my God would call me.  Little Fire.  Little Flame.

In the moment He said that to me, reminded me of my name, I got it.  But He said it anyway.

"Little Fire, is it any wonder you're stoked?"

Stoked.  All the time.  Excitable.  Driven by purpose, ready to go.  Engaged in the moment, wrapped up in this chance.  Fueled.  Stoked.  

Yeah, that's pretty much it.  My Father stokes me.

I encourage you to find the meaning of your name and pray about how God would work it into your life, how He uses it to encourage and inspire you.  And be open to the possibility that, as we are reminded in His Word, He has a name for us, too, and that might not be what your parents called you.  Ask Him what He calls you; it's a clue to your passion, your personality, and your promise.

Friday, July 20, 2012

God's Vengeance

In the ferociousness of our fury, when we're really steaming, I think we all have at least one friend who will turn to us and say, in an attempt to calm us down, "It's not your place.  Vengeance belongs to God."  That settles us enough to let the moment pass while entertaining visions of the object of our wrath burning in Hell as we stand at God's side and point and mock.

Really, it's the stuff dreams are made of.

Then, I think we all have a few friends who will also tell us to let it go, that getting back or getting even only lessens our character.  That is true, too, because you're just prolonging this pain in your heart and it hardens you...while the other party has already moved on and doesn't know what you're so upset about (or doesn't care).  And then we revert to visions of God's justice and their burning in Hell.  (We really like the idea of Hell, as long as we're not the ones going there.)

But what is God's vengeance?  Is it justice?  Is it revenge?  Is it something in between or something different altogether?

I think it's love.

This morning, my Bible study took me into the heart of Ezekiel, where God is talking to this prophet He calls the son of man, laying out the future for a people (Israel) who have turned their back on Him and His promises.  In chapter 20, He's talking about the past and present sins of His people and how He has responded each time.

So I was going to pour out my fury on them and unleash my anger on them in Egypt.  But I acted so that my name would not be dishonored among the nations where they were living.  While other nations were watching, I made myself known to them by bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.  (verse 8d-9)

So I was going to pour out my fury on them in the desert and completely wipe them out.  But I acted so that my name would not be dishonored among the nations who had watched me bring the Israelites out of Egypt.  (verse 13e-14a)

So I was going to pour out my fury on them and unleash my anger on them in the desert.  But I didn't use my power so that my name would not be dishonored among the nations who had watched me bring the Israelites out of Egypt.  (verse 21e-22)

Three times in one little chapter, talking about the atrocities of a people who had been loved with reckless abandon, and God recounts the ways they've turned their backs on Him and lays out how justified He would be to pour his fury on them in these various stages of their peoplehood.  Then each time, He says He didn't do that.  Because it would have tarnished His name.

That's beautiful.  It's certainly love.  It is integrity and honesty of character for God to say things like, "I could have, but I won't.  Because to do so diminishes me."

Some of us have a hard time when we read the Old Testament and see a God who has condemned certain peoples or towns or individuals because of this or that.  It's easy to get trapped in these thoughts that God is wishy-washy, that we have to somehow predict His whims and hope to stay on His good side because when His vengeance falls, it falls hard.  Then we live a life of dancing around God instead of with Him.

Verses like these remind us that God is steady.  He is true.  He is as He has always been, and He's not willing to compromise that for anything, not even what we might call 'justice.'  He wants us to know that whenever we look for Him, wherever we are, whatever we've done, no matter what it is, He is there loving.  We can count on that.

Then what about vengeance?  What about setting wrongs right?  Are we just supposed to hope that one day, everyone will suddenly realize there is a rock-solid God and be ashamed of themselves?  That this whole justice thing will just work itself out?

Nah.  We're just supposed to hope that before we've gone too far, we will realize there's a rock-solid God and be kind of ashamed of ourselves.  What anyone else does or does not do isn't really up to us; we are to live a life of honor before our God and set our hearts right.  And we know from experience there's nothing more piercingly convicting than in all your fury to look up and find a loving God who hasn't changed a bit and who is loving you anyway because that is His name.

And that's also why we don't take our own vengeance.  Because we need to be a people bearing our names well if we hope to be a people bearing His.  Because the world needs to see in us a rock-solid integrity that refuses to compromise itself for anything, not even what we might call 'justice.'  That will make them wonder where we get that from.  And that will point them to God, who has shown us the same.

As for the evildoers, the ne'er-do-wells, the people we're prone to envisioning in Hell?  That takes care of itself, too.  Listen to what God says:

I also allowed them to follow laws that were no good and rules by which they could not live.  I let them dishonor themselves... (verse 25-26a)

They dishonor themselves.  They don't know it until they turn back to God, and maybe they turn back to Him through something they see in us.  But isn't that the greatest conviction, the harshest judgment of all - to be standing before a loving God, feeling every bit of your depravity in contrast to His grace?

I know it gets me every time.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Encounters (continued)

As much as these dramatic, intimate encounters with a personal God are invitations to forget, they are also invitations to remember.

To remember that the whole world isn't like that.  To remember that not everything is out to get you.  To remember that in the darkest night, the sun is just around the corner.  That in the fiercest storm, there is a remnant of calm (the eye of the hurricane, the breaking of the clouds).  To remember that, thank God, there is something bigger in all of this than you.  That memory alone takes the pressure off.

Remembering makes you fell less singled-out, less targeted, less universally chosen without your permission for the persecutions of life.  It gives you a little new space to breathe, to gather your head, and to see realistically what's happening because, at least as I so often find, it's never really as big as you make it out to be.  Not in the grand scheme of things.  Not in the encounter.

That little breath, that little bit of perspective that comes from remembering invites you to remember something else, too.  Something called hope.

Let me preface this by saying, I get it.  If you're stuck in that place right now where there's not a lot to hang onto, nothing I'm going to say right now is going to get you one step away from hopeless.  I've been there.  I can't tell you the prolonged stretches, the endless nights that I'd have to be honest and say I wouldn't have seen hope if you'd smacked me in the face with it in a closet of a thousand light bulbs and mirrors.  That's darkness.  It's a terrible place to be stuck; it just gets hold of you and all this talk I'm about to do about hope grates against whatever few nerves you have left.  If you're there, I acknowledge the power of that place and please don't take my words offensively.  But if you've got one shred in you willing to look at a bigger story, then these words are for you.

Because honestly, when I think back, there has been a piece of me that dared to hope.  Not in the darkest, darkest moments, maybe, but more often than not, there has been a piece of me longing for something more.  Something better.  Something greater.  These encounters with God are a chance to remember that hope...because for a moment, it is that hope.

It is everything I dreamed of, everything I dared to imagine.  It is everything I would never have let myself entertain out loud for fear of looking foolish but everything I harbored in my heart that one day might be.

In remembering, you know that there is this thing out there that once upon a time, you believed in.  And now here it is, it's happening.  Maybe not forever, but for this moment it is.  For this moment, you remember and that helps you in the next one.  When the lights go out again, when darkness falls, when life sucks you back in and it seems God is suddenly so far away, you can't forget that split second you remembered.

Then you remember to remember.  You have the audacity to stare trouble in the face and remember peace.  You have the audacity to hope amidst the hopelessness.  You remember...because that encounter, that intimate moment with a personal God, that invitation to remember...is a moment you can never forget.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I've been blessed with some very powerful, intimate encounters with this Man named Jesus and this Father named God that have defined my story in so many ways.  In the past few days, I have shared two of those with you.

Now, I don't believe that all of faith is based on such encounters; there certainly is a place for Bible study, devotionals, small group study, sermons, etc.  The thing is that these disciplines help us to stay open and searching for God, but all the knowledge in the world does not substitute for the dramatic effect of one moment actually with Him.

The difference is this, and maybe it's just me but I find that the more I dare to share such things, the more I find that it really isn't just me (Except on those awkward occasions when it actually is, and then I can only smile because God made me this way)...but the difference is that an honest encounter lets you forget.

When I stood in the waters of baptism, I forgot.  I forgot that everything within me was convinced I shouldn't have that moment.  I forgot that my conscious brain told me there wasn't enough water in the world to make this girl clean.  I forgot the pain and the torment and the hours of back-and-forth in the lobby.  Because in the encounter, none of that mattered.

When I met Christ again in the thick of my darkness and He invited me to lay down my story, I forgot.    I forgot the obligation I felt to tell it.  I forgot the heavy weight with which it defined my life.  I forgot that there was this other voice telling me I could never just lay it down, that life didn't work that way.  Because in the presence of God, none of this mattered, either.

We study our Bibles.  We read God's stories and the stories of men and women we consider giants or at least, good role models.  We see what God has done throughout the history of His people, through His love, through mercy.  And it's easy - at least, it is for me - to read those stories with a hint (often more) of longing.  Measuring our lives against what we read there, finding all the faults and all the ways our story is not and cannot be that.  We look at these lives and they are not our lives, and we are immediately drawn to this wistful resignation that these will never be our lives nor will they be our stories.  That this God...whatever this God is that we're finding in these pages, encouraged by, and thirsting for...somehow just isn't our God.

So while I think study and quiet time and Bible disciplines are great for teaching us how to begin looking for God, I don't think we can ever walk away with an honest impression of Him because we don't find Him there.  We find some other God playing into some other story, helping some other person.  We're convinced that the way to God is not to be looking for Him but to be changing our story into the kind of narrative where He will just show up.  In the midst of all that, He becomes a more distant God than He was before we cracked open those pages.

But in the encounter...oh, in the encounter there are no hesitations.  There are no questions.  There's nothing holding you back.  It's you and it's God and His presence is real, tangible.  His voice is confident, reassuring.  Everything in that moment is answered in this overwhelming abundance of all that He Is and you've got no choice but to surrender fully to that encounter....and forget.

And it's really nice.  Forgetting, I mean.  Whether it's a few seconds or a lifetime, a momentary freedom or a burden firmly lifted, everything within you changes right there.  Right then.  And then when you're blessed to have more encounters, your life becomes this drawn-out process of forgetting because the moment has no past and no future; the encounter is now and that's all your heart has room for in the company of the Almighty.

It's why I catch myself laughing when I think about meeting God one day for eternity, standing before Him and thinking of all the obnoxious, haughty, presumptuous, seemingly life-and-death questions I have for Him (and a good stern talking-to for Him, as well, because He needs to know what this is down here).  I laugh because I've met Him, and I know when I have the chance in the fullness of His presence to ask those questions and wag that finger, I'm not going to.  His presence alone is the answer, and the chance simply to stand before Him and beside Him is going to make all those questions moot.  I'm going to forget.

Because that is the blessing of an intimate, personal encounter with a loving, gracious God - the invitation to forget all this.  For just awhile for today.  And tomorrow, for eternity.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


It wasn't until several years later (about nine, to be honest) that I understood how much of my story was washed in the water that day.

And these days, it's a story that has melded into being a part of me, a part of what I'm doing, and a big part of what I know God is doing through me...but it's also a story I tell less often.

There are a great deal of people who have strengthened and encouraged me by sharing their story, and I have witnessed the telling of tales that changes lives.  It does.  God uses our stories for the benefit of each other.  I trust that He uses mine that way, as well; in fact, I have seen it.

But the story I knew, the story I took into that baptismal pool with all my fears, my worries, my history, my self-hatred, it was a story that I never told anyone until sometime after that night when those youth minister people finally got me talking.  But once I started telling it, I couldn't stop.  It felt like a betrayal to try to tell any other story, so this - this brokenness, darkness, painful story that was all my own - became my primary narrative. 

I felt like I had to preface everything I did or said with what used to be.  As such, I was hauling around this heavy baggage and calling it almost noble.  I wanted to show what God was doing in me, give credibility and credence to my words somehow by showing the contrast between what it was and what it was coming to be, though I knew in my heart I wasn't getting any closer to it.  Because dragging it with me all those years, working it out in very public ways, burdening myself with that truth being the preface of everything that was and that ever could be...was only making me continue living that story.

I couldn't figure out how all of these people were sharing their stories with me with so much love, respect, and freedom from living them while every time I spoke a word, I felt like I was driving myself further into my own little hole.  (Which for those of you who don't know, was a deep, dark one.)  On the few occasions when I felt like I could break free and not have to tell it for a few minutes, something about it came through anyway - like the time I gave a short talk to our congregation about one of our youth mission adventures and the newly-hired associate pastor shook my hand afterward and said, "You're deep."  Then clarified that he wasn't talking about anything I'd just said, about any of the quips or Biblical applications I'd put so much work into.  He was seeing my story, and then I felt bad about not taking that opportunity to tell it.  Because now, this guy's first impression of me wasn't coming from that story that I thought I had to tell everyone (warn them) lurked beneath my surface.

Maybe it was a blessing that he saw something else first.

The thing was, I wanted my story to be like that.  I wanted my story to be the kind of strength and hope that so many other stories had been for me when I was able to listen and really hear them.  My heart wasn't there yet; it was still living that story like it was the most true thing about me.  As I've come to know, not everything that's fact is Truth.

A few years ago, I finally understood what story really is.  My story, in particular, but more largely, His story.  In another one of those dramatic personal encounters with a God who wouldn't leave my heart alone, He gave me permission to stop telling it.  Altogether.  Just stop.  He'd never be able to use it, He said, as long as I refused to stop living it and since I hadn't figured out how to tell it without embracing it, then it was best for the time to just leave it alone.  Lay it down.

I can't tell you what that feels like.  When you're exhausted, deepening into a darkness you're more convinced each day you'll never crawl out of, burdened with this story that is...pain and yet so powerful when used right, longing for something more to come of this and starting to suspect it never will...and all of a sudden, someone tells you that you can just stop.  You can.  (Not that it's easy to just do so.  It took many strong, emotional, intimate encounters, an increasing weight of sheer exhaustion, and an undefeatable whisper of hope that there has to be something more for me to finally...for a second, just to see if I can do it, Lord...lay that story down.)

Good, He said.  Now start to tell my story.  And when it's appropriate for a burden of hope, we'll use yours and weave it back in.  Then He showed me the strength and the power and the real good that my story has...when told with honesty and respect for what has been but with graciousness for what is and an audacious faith for what is to come.

That's redemption.  That's how He gets us.  When He invites us to tell - to live - His story and simply to use ours.  That's the God I met in the water.  It took me nine years to get back to Him, though I visited His house every week.  I was so glad to see Him again.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Baptism (continued)

I said let's do it, but the truth is there wasn't possibly anything more contrary to the life I knew than this baptism.  In my case, it wasn't just a kid coming to Christ; this was a radical shift in everything.  Not even a shift.  A turning-upside-down.

I was a loner was about to stand in front of hundreds of strangers and make a bold statement.  When I say loner, I mean that I didn't go to parties, wasn't even invited, ate lunch by myself in high school (though I had an open invitation with the aforementioned boy's group of friends and sometimes indulged).  I was wrestling with a lot that I couldn't tell anyone about and to that point, hadn't.  Some of which I mentioned in my last post - the feelings of unworthiness, of dirtiness, of self-contempt, confusion, darkness.  Among many others.  It embarrassed me (and not in that cool, chic, humble way) to be the center of attention, particularly for anything good (as was, ironically, often the case because I was kind of a smart cookie and a bit of a smartass and a standout in things like band), because it clashed so radically with everything I thought of myself.  That Saturday night, though, I was standing there for the greatest 'good' thing I could ever do.

Yeah, it was a reality shift.

And not as much.  Because part of me was aware that I'd managed to find a way to make myself the center of attention and felt guilty about doing so.  Like I was trying to be more important than I was or trying to sucker people into my story by doing this big dramatic thing.  I desperately longed for this not to be a cosmically manipulative moment...and though it felt like that, too, it also didn't feel like that at all.

My head was spinning.

Then these youth ministers (husband and wife) said we would go and get ready.  The wife was going to help me get ready, whatever that meant, and the husband was going to prepare on the other side.  Wait...there was going to be physical contact?  It grated against my story.  I didn't want anyone touching me.  There'd been too many people over my life touching me and I panicked at the sheer thought of not only being touched by, but inviting this stranger to lay hands on me.  That alone almost made me back out.  When I say almost, I mean...I said no.  Right away.  Then I kept begging for the wife to do it.  I still wanted the baptism thing, I thought, but it would maybe be less offensive with a woman on the other side.  Still a measure of the undesired, but I thought maybe an unspoken woman's heart to an unspoken girl's, she might be more delicate with my disgustingness.  I was prepared to be taken advantage of by touch, even if either one had only grabbed my hand - it made me panic.

I was not prepared to surrender myself to it.  And I was not prepared for what it really was.

Then we're backstage, behind the baptistry, behind the commotion, and I've talked the wife into doing it.  By sheer panic, I'm sure, though my emotional state is this messy blur of both thirsting for what was about to happen, questioning my deservingness to do this, and feeling the weight of my story crash down on me.  (What I was not aware of until later was the discussion going on out front, for I was unaware I was in a traditional Church of Christ where women were not allowed to do...anything...and so someone later told me there was a discussion about whether or not the baptism would be valid, whether they could let this go on inside their doors, etc.  I am pleased to say we have come a long way since then.  A long way.)

So I'm standing backstage, and the woman hands me this stiff, dark-blue, unidentifiable-materialed robe and says, "Just take everything off and put this on."

Now I have to be naked?  My doctor didn't even have permission to see me naked.

"Well, unless you want wet underwear for the rest of the night."

All I could think about for those next few minutes was that I was actually doing this.  I was actually stripping down to my birthday suit, about to don a certainly-used piece of material that almost came to my knees, step out in front of a crowd of a few acquaintances and hundreds of strangers who I was certain would only be talking about the fact that underneath this flimsy robe thing, I was naked, make a statement that I still didn't fully understand the repercussions of, and allow someone to lay their hands on me and shove me under the water, where I'd have to hold my nose like an idiot because I never learned to breathe any other way despite the number of times my own dad had thrown me into our backyard pool for a laugh.

I climbed those few stairs and saw the woman climbing on the other side, a smile on her face and tenderness somewhere in there.  I don't think we said a word to each other.  Then we stepped out into the baptistry in front of those hundreds of onlookers...and you know what?

My story didn't matter.  For those few minutes, it didn't matter at all.  There were hundreds of faces staring back at me, smiling, waiting for my true story to begin.  They hadn't been in the lobby.  They didn't know it had taken me all day.  They didn't know the battle I was fighting in every inch of my being just a few seconds before reaching that last stair.  They were just joyed at what was about to happen - something they all understood so much better than I did.  They were all smiles, and they were all ready.

The woman asked if I believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that He had died for my sins and so forth.  At that very question, my whole body tensed and seemed to lock up on me as it was this culmination of the moment, the last bit of fight between all that was and all that was about to be, and I sort of mumbled a response, a yes.  Yes.  Even though I had only had one of those dramatically personal encounters with Jesus running head-first into Him against the grain of my story and didn't know much about Him or really any of how He'd done what He did with the cross but knew only that I was looking around that weekend, that I was looking around that moment, that I had been looking around all day and I wanted that.  

That was enough for me to make that decision.  When I came up out of the baptismal pool, I was a little dizzy from all that had released in my body in half-a-second of holy water.  I forgot I was naked.  I forgot that I'd given myself willingly to something like this.  I forgot that this woman had touched me...and was thankful when she reached out again to keep me from falling back into the water.  I was just dizzy and all the cares of the few minutes prior and the few hours before that and the whole evening in the lobby washed away in that water.

My story was still there, but it was taking a new twist.  It wasn't instantaneous as I had hoped, but for awhile, it was.  For awhile, I forgot everything and lived in the euphoria of what it is to be saved.  To have this guy named Jesus standing there next to you and being ok with that.  For the first time in my life, not feeling alone.  It took awhile for my questions to sink back in, for my heart to re-embrace the struggle against my story, but when it finally happened, I had a whole new family at my side to fight with me.

And a Man who wouldn't let me go.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Baptism, a Personal Story

Since I won't be using my computer tomorrow (I don't even turn it on on Sundays; haven't in two years), I thought I'd take this evening to tell you a story.  You know, in anticipation of tomorrow rather than waiting for the passed moment of Monday.

Tomorrow is the twelve-year anniversary of my baptism.  And yes, there is cake.  And the house smells like butter pecan goodness.

Some people think it's weird that I remember the date; a lot more think it's more than a little odd that I mark it.  But why wouldn't I?

It's a day, a moment, I will never forget.

For some people, baptism is planned-out and worked-toward.  I know parents who sit down with their children and talk about what it means.  Pastors who sit down with their congregants and hash out exactly what they're getting into giving their life to Jesus.  Friends and family who receive invitations, services orchestrated to a T, dress clothes pressed, extra underwear crammed in a bag, infants dressed in bright white, baptismal heaters kicked on a few hours prior (supposedly - does this ever actually work out?).  I get it.  It is a big moment, and I take great joy in seeing how someone has studied, prayed, counseled, and come to this decision that this is right and this is right now.

But I really like my baptismal story, too.

I didn't grow up in the church.  I grew up across the street from the church (not my church, but a church nonetheless) and was asked to leave both Sundays I convinced my dad to take his curious daughter.  Two Palm Sundays in a row, and dad couldn't keep his palm frond to himself.  He kept poking little old ladies with it.  So we left.  And then I had a great-aunt who took me to her church fairly regularly for a couple of years, a rinky-dink little country church with a total membership of 7 (after I got there).  It was a great place for Bible thumping, but not a whole lot of Jesus.

Then there was this boy.  This one lone boy in middle school who ventured to talk to a girl like me.  (Trust me, I was not worth talking to for awhile.)  He invited me to his church, and I'd been once - some bizarre night when the youth group put paper bags over their heads and made animal noises while trying to find friends of the same species somewhere in this fairly large room.  That's what I remember.  And he and I always teamed up on school projects that we'd then craft in his church's large artsy supply room/area.  He never really talked about God or anything, but I was getting comfortable with the church red carpet (the fad of the late 90s, if you'll all remember).  And I met what he called his 'youth ministers' once when they came to have lunch at school.  They were nice, but I had no idea what youth minister meant.  

This boy talked me into a weekend thing his church was hosting.  Youth groups from all across everywhere were coming in for this big thing called "Encounter."  Speakers, dramas, a sanctuary (which I later learned we call an 'auditorium') packed with kids from all over, singing and smiling and laughing.  It was such a far cry from anything I had ever known, in my limited experience in church and in my life in general.

Everybody there was full of something.  The cynic in me thought it might be the kool-aid, but this was something so powerful and so authentic and so real.  I was suckered in instantly.  The Friday night was a nice introduction, kind of a feeling-out and getting to know what was going on.  Saturday...that place hit me.

I remember spending some time in the lobby, by myself, off and thinking.  A little crying.  I was completely overwhelmed by whatever this was.  The boy who had invited me came out and spent some time kneeling there, talking with me, tears streaming down my face that I couldn't explain and honestly still can't.  It was so powerfully something invading my complete sense of nothingness.  I kept telling him to go back in and sing, to be with everybody else, that he didn't have to stay out here with me.  He stayed anyway.  His youth ministers (which I still didn't get) also broke off and came over.  Now three people kneeling around me, volunteers taking over and running other things.  I felt so bad drawing all this attention away from the awesomeness in the other end of the building and just kept apologizing.  

I had no idea what this moment was.

I'm not sure how baptism came up, but I remember them explaining it very quickly and what it meant and what it was.  I didn't get it; the only thing I understood out of that whole conversation was that this was the way to get what they all had, what I was witnessing before me and longed for so bad...even though there wasn't a shred of me convinced I deserved any of it.  I felt guilty wanting it.  Undeserving.  Insecure.  Like I would finally decide to go with this thing they were trying in vain to explain to me only to have the heavens open up and God wag His finger, declaring such good things were not for me.  Then have the anger of Hell on my back.

It was an agonizing decision, and I think the four of us knelt there (well, they knelt; i was sitting with my face buried in my hands, too ashamed even to look up at them) for well over an hour.  My heart teetering back and forth between taking the plunge and knowing I was too disgusting for it.  It was racking everything in me and I could feel myself starting to shake and just cry harder.  The boy finally left and went back to the Encounter, but the youth ministers stayed.  

There was no pressure.  No condemnation.  No frustration.  No impatience.  Nothing.  Just the simple presence of two people who somehow knew what my heart was wrestling with and were there until it worked itself out.  Explaining, as many times as I needed to hear, what was going on.  Listening, as I tried in vain to put words to what it was without demonizing myself...because so far, these people didn't know me and I didn't want to base their knowledge on me with the secrets I guess the rest of the world knew, about how bad and terrible and nasty and bruised I was.  They were just there.

When I said the words, when I found it within me to push fear aside and say the words - "Ok.  Let's do it.  Whatever that baptism thing is" (which I still didn't fully get) - they didn't question me.  They didn't try to talk me out of it.  They didn't lay out a whole bunch of conditions or a set of rules.  They looked down at their watches, across the hall to the auditorium, and back to me.  Did I want to do it in front of everyone?  Or wait a bit until it was more private with just the few of us?

Now.  My answer was now.  Before I lose my guts.

Ok, but you need to call your parents, they said, and get the ok.  They may want to know or even be here.  (I was 15.)  

No, I said.  No parents.  For a lot of reasons in my messed-up, wounded teenage heart, for the sake of all that this is, do not call my parents.  This is me.  And nobody's going to mess this up.

They finally agreed, a bit reluctantly, no parents.  This was my heart; they got that.  They didn't know my story yet, but they heard in my voice I suppose that this was how it had to be.  So my time was now.  After just a few hours of wrestling with a man named Jesus who had my heart in a half-nelson since I'd actually met Him the previous night.  Amidst the back-and-forth of my wavering heart that so longed for what it was seeing in these other kids and yet knew its own history, its own story.  Among the doubts and the fears and the brokenness inside me that never felt so heavy in all my life.  Screw it all - let's do it.  Now.

So we did.  Twelve years ago tomorrow, and that is why there is cake.

There's a bit more to this story, but the post is running a bit long, so perhaps I will continue that on Monday.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Grace and Guilt

We all feel a little guilty about stuff like this.  About taking from people who are giving it away, I mean.  Four days ago, my neighbor asked me to come over and hang a new toilet paper holder for her; yesterday, she told me she felt so bad asking me to do that.


I think it's because in our need, we know exactly how little or how big of a favor we're receiving (asking, in some cases, but always receiving) and we count the cost of our depravity, for lack of a better word.  I think that's normal, for us to know how much we're getting or receiving and for that to make us bite a little and grit our teeth.  The receiving end is so often a tough place to be.

But not with grace.  And I think that's the problem with some of us, who get stuck in this mindset of all we are getting from the world around us and feeling like we're not giving enough.  We all know these persons - people who will give you everything they've got, then beat themselves over the head with guilt for weeks if they dare need ask for even the tiniest help.  Look at some of those people - they are full of grace.  They feel like they're taking a lot because they're counting every iota of depravity...and extending grace without counting a speck.  As it should be.  That is grace.

Grace, though, has this unique quality to it that later removes guilt by its very nature.  There have been times in my life where people have loved me well, and I didn't even know it.  I felt like I was sucking them in, taking everything I could get out of them, draining them dry even though in hindsight, it always seems like such small things.  That is the measure of depravity - that even when you're getting what you need, you always seem to see only how incredible much you are needing and it kind of skews your vision of the whole moment.  I know I could (and have) beat myself up for days, even weeks, over the some of the things this world has given me.  Until my heart opens and I understand that the entire exchange was always less about my emptiness and more about grace.

Here's kind of how you know, and why it puts your heart at ease.  Remember, grace isn't counting.  It's not tallying all it has given you, not putting anything on your tab.  It's not waiting on that moment when you've had enough, waiting to cut you off.  The cool thing about grace is that when you find yourself needing it again (and if you're like me, you need a measure of it just about every moment), it's right there and it doesn't seem to remember that you were knocking at its door fifteen minutes ago.  It's just how it is.  It's not counting.  Not keeping score.  Not measuring itself out.  A measure of grace?  It's kind of a paradox.  When grace falls, you get a whole pouring out.

And we like that grace doesn't seem to remember how often we need it, that it welcomes us anew each time.  It makes us feel less depraved, less like a special case and a total drag and a repeat offender.  It just meets us here again and again.

Remember, too, that grace isn't arrogant.  It isn't using you to prove itself.  It isn't bragging behind your back about how selflessly helpful it is to poor, pitiful people like you.  There's not an ego boost hidden in grace.  If there were, it wouldn't be grace.

So we like that grace isn't building its own reputation by putting us down.  It makes us feel less depraved, less like we don't measure up and more like we are a part of something bigger, a part of love and the story around us because there's something out there that helps us to stand.

Finally, remember that grace doesn't name itself and doesn't remind you what it's done.  It doesn't even tell you what it's doing.  When I gave away my paycheck, I didn't announce, "Take this!  It is a measure of grace for you!"  (Though I'll admit it's been kind of awkward and difficult to try to write about it with grace because it's kind of contrary in itself to do so.  I hope you are getting my point and losing my details - that's the goal.)  When I walked into my neighbor's house to hang a new toilet paper holder for her, I didn't march across the street shouting, "Ok!  For you need a little grace today!"  When people have taken their time to sit up with me or to meet me at the ice cream stand or to talk with me on the phone, they haven't attributed to grace.  Grace defines the moment, but the moment does not announce grace.  You only kind of figure all that out later when it finally sinks past depravity and into your heart.  And grace never reminds you what that moment was.  I can't imagine a moment when I'd say to my neighbor, "Hey, you remember that time I hung that toilet paper thingy for you?"  I've never had anyone call me back on a grace they'd offered me.  "Don't you remember that time I stayed up until 2 a.m. with you because you were having a rough night?"  Grace counts everything in the moment and knows exactly what it's giving, but shortly after, it simply lets it go because remembering isn't really a part of grace.

Grace's letting go lets you let go, too.  It lets you forget for a bit your depravity in that moment, lets you turn aside whatever troubles your heart about having received.  Because somewhere down the line, that moment comes into your heart as grace.  Undefined by any word, but known by the heart by its very nature that this was grace.  Then it sinks in and does two things: frees you to have accepted the gift (and not feel guilty about it) and inspires you to be grace for someone in some other moment.  In that same quiet way that somehow, someone in your moment was grace for you.

I think there's something wrong with you if you don't feel a little guilty at first, receiving a gift so freely given.  But when that encounter sinks into your heart and you realize it as grace, I'd think there's something wrong with you if you can't let go of that guilt and give in to grace.  Simple grace.  Simply given.  To be simply received.  With simple thanks.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Discipline of Grace

Well, hey, if I'm just giving money away....

Two days ago, I told you about my paycheck and how, to date, I've given every penny away.  Maybe you read that story and thought, "I need to talk to her...."  I took a slight detour yesterday to give you a little glimpse of a Biblical way to break bondage, to stop living by this or that, as I put it.  But there is more I wanted to say about this money thing.  Well, not really; it's more about grace.

Money is a good offer.  I get that.  We get excited when we suddenly come into a little bit.  A few years ago, I found a bit of cash in my baby box (not a lot; nothing worth robbing me over)...and I put it back in there so I can be overjoyed to find it again at some future date.  And that fiver you find in your winter coat pocket after a long summer in the closet?  Gold.  I agree.

But when someone is giving money away (and remember, I'm speaking money but it's also anything - time, possessions, gifts, love, mercy, whatever it is that they're giving. This time, for me, sparking this thought track, it happened to be money, but that's rare) we kind of have a few gut reactions:

They're showing off.  They have so much that they can just throw it around.  What an arrogant jerk!

They're foolish.  They don't know how much they've got here.  Enough to keep at least a little for themselves.  What a fool!

They don't care.  They're not thinking about what this really means.  This is something, not nothing.  What an idiot!

We kind of look down on people who give things away, who give freely of themselves and their resources, like they're trying to prove something or even buy something under the guise of goodness.

Grace isn't any of these things, and that's the difference.  That's where we have to change our hearts to see whether what we're doing is grace or grandeur (as of the delusional sort).

Grace isn't showing off.  It's not just throwing things around.  Grace acknowledges a void and assesses its resources to see where it can pour into the emptiness and prays somehow to make a difference there with its meager gift, even if that meager gift is everything in the storeroom.  It's not arrogant.

Grace always knows exactly what it's got.  Maybe not how it's going to work, but exactly what it's got.  It knows what it has to give away, what it has to keep, what it either gains or loses in a given exchange.  It's not foolish.

Grace cares.  It knows every bit of what this really means.  It knows this is something, a greater something.  It isn't aloof.

Grace is a discipline.

Some of these givers in our world, they count the cost and keep counting.  How incredible it is that they have given so much or, conversely, how they are now struggling personally because they have given too much away.  (Some kind of awkward pseudo-pious pity maneuver in which we kind of want to help them out because they got that way by being too generous.)  But even too generous isn't grace.

Grace counts the cost and considers it negligible.  It knows, ahead of time, what it means to give this, to give now.  It knows what that means down the road, what sacrifices are going to come, which ones are already here.  Grace is realistic about everything it has, everything it's giving but refuses to keep counting.  Grace doesn't keep score.

There are people who try to take advantage of grace when they find someone willing to give it.  People who will suck everything out of you if you give a little.  If they succeed and you give more than you're willing, you've gotten out of grace.  Because grace isn't something guilted out of you.  It's not something coerced.  It's just a gift.

From an honest assessment of what you have to an honest assessment of a void in the world.  From a realistic understanding of what you've got to sacrifice to a realistic understanding of something greater.  From a heart that has received the gift of grace poured out...to a heart you can see needs a little.

That's all it is.  A little pouring out.  A simple gift.  And a discipline...because you can't be a pushover about it; then it's not grace.  You have to be a fall-to-your-knees about it; and draw on the gifts He has poured out on you.  Then give freely what is grace.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pray for Babylon

This week, it's money.  But at any point in my life, it could have been any number of things we were talking about.  Things that looked like they ought to have a stronger hold on me (and often did) but never should have.  Things I had to choose not to live by.

And I hope that from yesterday's post, maybe you're thinking about money.  But maybe more, you're thinking about whatever it is that you live by that you'd rather not.  That thing that has control of you that's bogging you down and keeping you up at night and holding you back.

There is a way to freedom from anything and no matter the bondage, the way is the same: prayer.

Before you get all down on the idea and start protesting that you've tried prayer and it doesn't free your heart, allow me to expound a bit.  Because when I say "prayer," I'm not talking about the prayers you've likely prayed.  When we're stuck in...whatever it is we're stuck in...our instinct is to pray for our freedom.  To pray for release.  Lord, we pray, set my heart free from this.  Come and meet me here, Father, and set me free.  Abba, I don't want to do this any more!  Unburden me, Lord!

These are not inherently bad prayers, but neither are they as powerfully freeing as we dare to hope they would be.  What these prayers do, at best, is unleash the burden from our hearts and set it on the world, where it will come back to haunt us again and again as it searches for its stronghold, its place here amongst...this.  The real key to peace, the key to freedom, the key to release?

Pray for Babylon.

It was maybe three or four years ago when I really read this passage in Jeremiah for the first time - and heard it.  "And work for the peace and prosperity of Babylon.  Pray to the Lord for that city where you are held captive, for if Babylon has peace, so will you."  (Jeremiah 29:7)

Set the stage.  God's people are being led away into exile, captives of a contrary country (Babylon).  They don't want to be there.  They want to go home.  To the Promised Land.  To their own cities.  But here they are, far from home, living not as free men and women but as prisoners of war.  Plunder.  Captives.  And God tells them that the answer to that gnawing in their hearts is not resistance....it is grace.


Pray for Babylon.  Pray for its identity crisis.  For its power struggle.  For its security and stability.  Like it or not, you're there.  You're part of its mess now, and the only way for both of you to have any peace is to give Babylon peace first, so that this place doesn't have to fight any more.  So that it's not trying to prove anything.  So that it understands that it has what it wants, what it seeks, what it thrives on.  Pray for Babylon to be the fullness of Babylon...not your enemy, but simply a place looking for exactly what you're looking for - peace and a way to be.  When it finds itself, when it finds 'peace' as we call it, you will find it not such a bad place to be for awhile because there will be no angst, no power struggle.  It will simply be.  And you will simply be, as well.

So it is with any place we find ourselves captive.  God doesn't tell us to pray for our peace; pray for the peace of that place where you are held captive.  Is it money that holds you?  Pray for the peace of money, that it would know its purpose and place in this world rather than demanding greater attention. Is it hurt that holds you?  Pray for the peace of hurt, that it would understand the questions it is asking and hear the answers so it can stop shouting over the life you want to live.  Is it anger that holds you?  Pray for the peace of anger.

There have been times in my life where Babylon has been a person, someone who has seemed to have control over me to the point where that bondage was just about tangible.  Is it someone else who holds you?  Pray for the peace of that person, that they would find the answers to their insecurities, woundedness, darkness.  You'll find that when they have peace, they ease up on you and you have peace (and a new love) as well.

Peace is resting in that sweet spot where something is as it was created to be.  Nothing more and nothing less.  You know that - because you have known your own peace when your heart is as it should be, when life seems well.  Then to pray for the peace of whatever holds you is to put it in its place, to help it find that sweet spot where it can be as it was created to be.  You pray for peace and you give whatever holds you an invitation to stop fighting, to stop shouting, to stop demanding....because when it has peace, it is as it was meant to be.  What could it fight for?  Why should it shout?  That place of peace is everything.  Peace is grace.

If you're looking for a way to say, "I don't live by _______," and you know full well that your heart is in that tug-of-war, take a note from Jeremiah and extend grace.

Pray for Babylon.