Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Loving and Loss

For the past couple months, Michael and I have been praying about an opportunity to move into an apartment complex in order to get to know people outside of our Christian bubble. Through a placement program in Dallas, we would be given an official role in an apartment community hosting events, fostering relationships and providing care for tenants. This idea thrills us because we love getting to know people and making new friends. But it intimidates us too, because it means leaving what we know and love in order to live among and serve a people unknown to us. 

This past week, we said goodbye to some friends who are doing just that. On Thursday, these friends of ours left-- for the Horn of Africa, one of the most dangerous places on earth-- to live among a people group that has never known Jesus' love for them or His grace extended to them in the gospel. They packed up their life, said their goodbyes, and left their home of safety and comfort to give themselves to an unknown people. Our relocation story is incomparable to theirs; but on the same day that we said goodbye to our friends who moved to Africa, we were asked to move into a specific apartment complex. On that day, the "idea" of living among and loving an unknown people became a reality, and it scared me. I felt the weight of what my friends are doing by leaving this country for good, and the weight of any decision to move into the unknown for the sake of loving others. On that day I realized that this kind of pain-- the pain of loss- is at the very heart of the gospel. 

The thought of moving out of our home is painful for me-- I will grieve the loss of our first home as a married couple; of the community we've been so blessed to be a part of here; of a family that has taken us in and blessed us beyond expectation. Here we've had a haven where we could adjust to a move across the country, transition into graduate school, and learn how to be married. Instead of being taken advantage of, we've been ministered to. And suddenly last week, we were committing to walk away from all that, in order to be in a completely unknown situation, where none of those things are a given. Our role in this new apartment community will come with responsibilities and risks; we'll be planning events to build community and minister to the needs of the tenants. We have no idea if we'll be liked, if we'll meet their expectations, if we'll be able to make one meaningful relationship. In fact, it's almost certain that this new situation will come with more rejection, conflict, and stress than we've experienced in Dallas thus far. 

As I was grieving our loss and counting the cost of this future commitment, I thought of my friend moving to Africa. How much more pain she must be feeling at the loss of her entire world-- not only is she saying goodbye to nice landlords and a sentimental apartment, she's saying goodbye to everyone and everything she knows. She's leaving her family, her culture, her every belonging-- in order to love those unknown to her. She's moving to a community that could potentially be far more hostile to her than apartment tenants might be to me. She's moving to a place where the very lives of her family members are at risk. 

And then, I thought of Jesus. He experienced the greatest loss of all, because He left the bosom of His Father- the most perfect, safe, and loving relationship imagineable. He left the comfort and warmth of His home-- not a fanciful Heaven with clouds and gold dust, but a place where there is so sin-- no brokenness, no tears, no conflict, no rejection. He left the safety and intimacy of that home to live in the midst of our sin and brokenness; to immerse Himself in the sickness of humanity. He did it in order to love a foreign people-- a people who would take advantage of Him, reject Him, and ultimately who would kill Him. Unlike both my friend and me, He left His home of comfort and safety knowing the exact cost it would be to love. He knew the ways He would suffer and He chose to love anyway. That is the heart of the gospel; that God left His position of safety and comfort in order to love us. 

After facing my pain and meeting Jesus there, I realized that the pain of the gospel-- the loss of safety and comfort in the call to love-- is overcome by the joy of the gospel. Jesus experienced ultimate loss for the sake of love, but it was worth it to Him. He faced rejection, suffering, and even death, and Yet He accomplished exactly what He came to do. He came to die- to give His life as a ransom for many-- and to be raised again in a life victorious over death itself. That same new life is what He offers to all who come to Him by faith. He was willing to suffer unfathomable loss in order to give it to us. Because of that, when He calls His own to suffer loss for the sake of love, they can look to Him and remember that whatever the cost, it's worth it. One person coming to know the love of Christ and the gift of new life with Him is worth any price I can pay. Why? Because my Savior considered it worth paying the ultimate price in order to bring me new life. 

I could lose my sense of comfort and familiarity for the sake of loving the tenants in an apartment complex. My friends in Africa most certainly will lose that-- and they could lose their very lives-- for the sake of loving the people around them. And yet, whatever the price, all we have to do is look at Jesus and be reminded that it's worth it; that the joy of new life is greater than the pain of loss. 

It was worth it to Jesus to suffer loss that we might know His love and experience new life in Him. Who has suffered loss in order to make that love known in your life? How is He calling you to do the same in the lives of others?  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Who is Jesus according to Lord of the Rings?

After college, The Lord of the Rings really got exciting to me. I read the books just last year and have watched the movies (yes, the extended edition...sigh) at least 3 times each since then. In a conversation about it, one of my friends-- who is getting a Master's degree in literature-- said that one reason that LOTR (and others like it) have historically been so popular is that because people feel that the grand stories of good versus evil are more true and more "real" than the other narratives that frequent our cinemas today. In other words, we know on some level that the great stories-- where everything is at stake in the battle and where the hero might win the victory by giving up his life-- are real to us because on some level, we feel that we are actually in such a story.

In The Lord of the Rings, however, there is more than one hero. Three that stand out to me are Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn. All of them give their lives for the redemption of Middle Earth; all of them experience a death of sorts; and all of them rise to victory and achieve the salvation of others through their sacrifice. Gandalf gives himself for his companions in the Misty Mountains. Aragorn willingly enters the Valley of the Dead to seek reinforcements. Frodo, of course, takes the Ring to Mt. Doom to destroy it. As a Christian reading The Lord of the Rings (and knowing the author was also a Christian), I've often wondered, "which one is supposed to represent the True Hero, Jesus?" 

In seminary, I've been learning about the three "offices" of Christ; the three ways He relates to His people. He is Prophet- He came to proclaim the Truth about God and the way to relationship with Him; He is Priest- He came to offer sacrifice to God on our behalf to pay for our sin; and He is King- He came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and to reign over it. The heroes of LOTR reveal that the True Hero doesn't fit in just one box; His role in securing the ultimate victory was and is three-fold. In other words, the three Heroes or LOTR help me to understand just how profound Christ's ministry is. Jesus, like Gandalf, proclaims the truth and helps illuminate the way forward. He, like Frodo, carries our burdens in His own body and made the payment for them. And Jesus, like Aragorn, is a King whose "hands are healing hands"; who wins the battle for the White City and who reigns over it lovingly. 

To be a Christian, then, is not just to know information about Jesus or to check a box saying, "I'd like to go to Heaven." To be a Christian is to know Jesus as Hero; to follow Him as prophet, priest, and king. It's to believe His authoritative proclamation about the truth, to receive His sacrifice on our behalf, and to submit to His lordship in the Kingdom of God. 

We are in a grand story.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Christian Thoughts on Earth Day

One thing I've been learning in the last few years is that "Christian" and "environmentally concerned" are not mutually exclusive realities. In fact, they actually help to make sense of each other. For example, why would Christians claim to love God and all that He has made if they don't care about the very expression of Himself that is all around us? And why would environmentalists fight to protect endangered species or care to preserve seemingly "unnecessary" plant varieties if those species are meant to die out by natural selection?  The Christian doctrine of creation gives greater significance and value-- and even purpose-- to all created reality than an impersonal "survival of the fittest." And the Christian doctrine of re-creation (that God, having rescued the world through Jesus, is making all things new) gives greater significance and value-- and even purpose-- to a desire to steward and care for the earth and all its beauties. (I wrote a lot more about this stuff here.) 

Here's a message from a Christian pastor in New York City who has said all this much better than me. If you're interested, I highly recommend listening to this guy! "Can Faith Be Green?" by Tim Keller (also free on itunes!)

And here's a post from a normal Christian person whose faith has influenced her toward seeing creation as valued by God. She's written a ton on ethical consumption, stewardship, and God's passion for oppressed laborers to receive just wages. Her posts are especially helpful for people who like the "idea" of these things but don't have a lot of practical resources. She did a whole series on businesses that actually seek to "do justice" by their very economic practices! Here's a shorter post about a conversation she had with her kids about Earth Day. "Earth Day Thinking" by Heather Hendrick. 

My favorite quote from her post: 

If God's Kingdom is coming, and our heart is set on it, I think it takes great faith to physically live as though this earth will be redeemed and restored.  As citizens of heaven, of a Kingdom we believe is advancing, I wonder if it should come more natural to us to look around this lovely place God formed, appreciate it, and want to see it protected and well stewarded?

I think so.  I want the faith to live so. 

Sometimes it overwhelms me how often God weaves into our normal, every day life, opportunities to live out faith.  I've never thought about recycling or repurposing being a way my soul longs for God's Kingdom to come.  However we care for the Earth, it's kind of nice to think of these normal, everyday, exercises being used to remind us of a coming Kingdom.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sibling Theology

Seminary is not like medical school. I’m not, for example, going to be like a doctor when I graduate— the person expected to think scientifically and biologically— so that the rest of the population can afford not to. In seminary, I’m studying theology—and that makes me no different from anyone else.  Everyone, whether they know it or not, is a theologian. Everyone operates out of beliefs they have about God and His interaction in the world. Whether atheist, agnostic, nominally Christian or in seminary, we are all theologians. We all do theology.

This past week I’ve been learning about some of the theology I brought with me to seminary- some of the beliefs I held about God, His character, and His interaction with His world. This past week, I’ve been realizing it needs some correcting.

I grew up in a big family, with five siblings who knew how to hold their own. So I looked for methods of survival— ways to be noticed. I looked at how Mom and Dad were treating Big Brother or Baby Sister, for example, and made conclusions. Dad takes Big Brother hunting with him. Conclusion- I’m not as special.  Mom takes Baby Sister shopping with her. Conclusion- I’m not as loved.  Baby Sister gets praised for some achievement, Big Brother gets admired for an outstanding talent of his, Baby Brother is complimented for his social skills. Conclusion, I’m an underachiever, a waste of space, a lack of talent, a loser. Conclusion- I’m as loved and as valuable only as well as I "measure up" to my brothers and sisters. Growing up in a family with outstanding siblings, this was a tiring aspiration!

Well, in God’s family, my siblings are no less outstanding. I have incredibly gifted sisters in the Lord at seminary, and their spiritual-giftedness shines brightly. They are praised and admired. I have brothers in the Lord who are dearly loved by the Father, and He lavishes His blessings of provision and grace upon them.  They beam with thanksgiving and excitement, and their stories of God’s miraculous care are spread and enjoyed. It’s easy to glow with pride and admiration for my friends when they shine or when God blesses them, and to want to tell the amazing works of God in their lives—but every now and then, I find myself drawing an old conclusion. If God gave them such great talents and gifts, and if He provides for them in such extraordinary ways, He must love me less. He must see me as less. I must be a waste of space compared to these people.

This is theology, a way of seeing God’s character, and I didn't learn it in a classroom in graduate school. I learned it at age eleven at my dinner table. Completely unaware, I was operating out of these beliefs about God and His interaction with His children before I knew what "theology" was. And He is so good to dig it up, point it out, and discard it. Slowly, painfully, He’s both showing me His affection toward me and His affection for all of His children. He’s showing me I can’t compare what He does in my life with what He does in another’s life, because He’s telling a different story in mine than He is in theirs. He delights in me, and that’s not threatened by His delight in another one of His children. This means I don't need to be competitive or shrink back from fear of not measuring up. 

He’s not like an earthly father, whose attention and capacity to love is limited or spread too thin. He’s not like an earthly mother, who picks favorites or glories in one child’s gifts over another’s.  His love is not like the potatoes on the dinner table (back to my big family pathology for a moment), that I need to worry about there not being enough for me if Baby Brother gets a second helping. I can be secure in His love— so secure that I can truly delight in the good He pours out in the lives of others— without feeling threatened. 

With God, there are enough potatoes to go around. That's good news for this sibling. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Where We Are In The Story

In March, my friend MaKayla and I went to a big Spring Celebration in her neighborhood. It was awesome. There were bounce houses, pink ponies (real ones, with sparkles!) and face painting booths. Ronald McDonald was there too, and a few other clowns who knew how to make cool stuff out of balloons. Of all the amazing things to do in one afternoon, MaKayla's first choice was the arts and crafts table. A girl after my own heart, MaKayla likes to make stuff. We heard there was a bracelet making table so we went there right away. 

I wasn't sure what to expect out of a bracelet making table at a party for over two thousand people, but I was a little bit surprised to find that the bracelets were "Story Bracelets." The kits came with a certain amount of beads with certain colors, which tell the story of God's love- The Story of history. Luckily, MaKayla and I love stories about as much as we love crafts, so it only doubled our excitement to be telling a story and making art at the same time. Not only that, we were pretty excited about the fact that the most important story of history- the story that our very lives are a part of- is in fact, a beautiful piece of art. And we were excited to have a beautiful, daily reminder of it to take around with us. 

It's a pretty simple synopsis, but it's a good one: 

Black beads- us in our sin, separated from God. 
Red beads- God's love shed abroad for us in the blood of His own Son, Jesus, on the Cross, to buy us back from sin. 
White beads- us washed and cleansed from sin and made to share in the new life Jesus won for us by being raised from the dead after dying on the Cross!
Green beads- our continued growth in the new life we've been given; learning to grow up as God's adopted children, to "look like Him"; to share the family resemblance
Yellow beads- the consummation that we get to look forward to when Jesus comes back and our new life in Him is fully revealed and experienced; when the very presence of sin and its damaging effects are erased from the world. 

I asked MaKayla where we are in the story right now; she pointed to the white beads. It was fun to tell her that she's correct- all of those who are in Christ are "white as snow"- but also to teach her about the fact that new life with Christ isn't stagnant- we are growing. We are learning how to walk in the newness of life we have in Christ, and that's called sanctification. It's hard but good. She and I are both experiencing it, and it's good to have the visual reminder of a hard thing sandwiched between two very beautiful things: new life that is already ours in Christ and perfected life that we await eagerly in Christ's return to "restore all things." 

Growth in Christ- sanctification- is hard because of just that fact. It's "sandwiched" between the times. Christ has already accomplished victory over sin- He has ransomed His own and raised them to new life. But He has not yet inaugurated the fullness of His reign over the earth, in which the very presence of sin and all its reside will be crushed. We are new creatures, God's adopted children and fully belonging to Him; but we still live in a world of sadness, experiencing the fallout of our own brokenness and of those around us. MaKayla and I both need to remember that we live between the times. We have been made new, but we don't experience that newness "in full" quite yet. 

But we are moving in that direction, and it's exciting! It's easier to persevere in the hard stuff when you know how the Story ends. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

High Church or Low Church?

Growing up in Christian subculture, I attended lot of different churches. Attending a choir college, I sang in a lot of different churches. I've learned that there are lots of ways to "do" church, but that they generally fall into two categories: high and low. In my measly 23 years, I've seen a lot of both: everything from sleepy-looking dudes in skinny jeans rockin' out in front of fog machines, to even sleepier-looking dudes in tall hats and cloaks swinging incense and speaking Latin. Having a relationship with Jesus and wanting others to know Him as well,  I've thought a lot about all the different kinds of churches I've attended, and I've cared about what happens in them. 

Which way is "right?" Which way more accurately expresses God's character and the nature of His interactions in the world? Which people are "really" worshiping? Are the hipsters offending God? Are the incense swingers putting Him to sleep? These are good and important questions, and I wish I had all the answers. All I have are some reflections- what I've been learning from Jesus about who He is, and about the life He invites me to live with Him. In my own life, both "high" and "low" church have helped me experience that better. But they also have left me wanting more.

High church is beautiful. The music is transcendent, and even if I don't always know what's being said or how to follow along, I can sense the glory in it. The liturgy is rich and I'm reminded of the weight of God's words to us and our words to Him. The silence is heavy and somewhat sacred, reminding me that to be in God's presence is an awesome and serious thing.  Everything in a cathedral- the sights, sounds, and even smells- proclaim God's holiness; His otherness. That moves me to worship. But sometimes I feel a bit unwelcome in a setting so pristine, like my messy humanness could be a problem if I don't keep it reigned in, or that the way I would naturally talk to or sing to God isn't "good enough" for a setting so formal and proper. Sometimes I end up feeling like a lowly worm cowering in God's presence, not like a beloved child welcomed into His arms. Sometimes I feel like high church only tells half the story.

Low church is honest. The music is familiar and singable, reminding me that God has come near in Christ, and that He speaks my language. The liturgy is understandable, and I feel like I am being addressed; not some better-educated version of me. The atmosphere is welcoming and open, reminding me that as God's child, I'm invited to quietly listen and pray, or sing at the top of my lungs, arms out-stretched. The people in leadership are usually dressed more like the average person, reminding me that they are just children of God, like me. They don't have special access to Him because they're "higher ranking" than everyone else. Everything about this warm, welcoming, free environment speaks of God's nearness to me in Christ, and of my unfettered access to His throne of grace as His beloved child. But sometimes, I feel it's a little too casual. I forget that I'm actually entering into God's presence in a special way, and that that is a sacred thing. Sometimes I long to hear the beautiful language and feel the mystery and the glory of communion. Sometimes I feel like low church only tells half the story. 

That's just it. They both express true and beautiful aspects of who God is and what He has done. God is holy and wholly other than me, and His presence is weighty. And yet God came down to where I am in order to have a friendship with me. He put on flesh and spoke my language and invited me into His inner circle. I am thankful for a God is so big and so great and so unfathomable that we don't always understand or express Him fully- and I'm thankful for "high" and "low" churches that remind me just how important the whole story is.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Washed Washers

Last night I attended my first ever Maundy Thursday service. Attending a church that celebrates Lent, I've learned a lot in the last 40 days! I've learned that Lent isn't just a time to diet from junk food or give up a bad habit; it's not just a 40 day period between two well-attended services (Ash Wednesday and Easter); it's not just a time to sing more choral music. It's a time to meditate on and experience with Jesus His last days on earth. 

I've written a little bit about union with Christ here; how I've come to see it as the "main act" of what it means to be a Christian- not a person with fire insurance or a ticket to heaven, but someone who has been united to Jesus and therefore will start to look like Him. In the same way that an adopted child or a husband or wife begin to take on the characteristics of the one they belong to, so those who belong to Jesus begin to take on His characteristics. They begin to bear the family resemblance, their lives begin to tell the story of their elder brother, Jesus. 

Last night at Maundy Thursday, the whole congregation was invited to have their feet washed. The idea was: Jesus washed His disciples' feet before His betrayal, and He commanded them to do likewise. Now obviously washing feet had a specific meaning in first-century Jewish culture that it doesn't have now. When we Americans think "servanthood" we don't think "washing feet." The point is Jesus served in the humblest, dirtiest, way conceivable, and He even served those who would betray Him less than a day later. He knew how His disciples would fail Him by scattering, denying Him, and betraying Him when He went to the Cross. And He still chose to wash the slime off their feet.

On our way home, Michael said, "the Christian life is both washing and being washed." I realized that's what is so powerful about the symbolic foot-washing of the Church. Christians aren't called just to be nice, to do good things, to follow a good teacher and serve others. That's not the whole story. They're first called to admit their own need to be washed by Christ alone, and to receive His humbling servanthood. They're called to let Him see their filth and to let Him wash them. This is not natural or comfortable because sometimes we see God as too high and holy to imagine Him washing the dirt off our feet. Sort of the way we'd probably not let the President do our dishes if he came over for dinner. That's how the apostle Peter felt. He said, "You shall never wash my feet!" But Jesus knew what Peter didn't-- His response was, "unless I wash you, you have no share with me." 

We don't get "in" with Jesus just by following His teaching. We don't become one with Him just by imitating. We must first receive Him for who He claimed to be-- the One who sees our filth and who washes it. Only then do we "share with" Him and then, because we've experienced the humbling eye of the Lord on our place of greatest sin and have received mercy, we can extend the same gentle, humble, servanthood toward others. 

Even those who betray us. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Life That Tells the Story

I've written a lot about suffering in the past, largely because it has been an unavoidable theme in my life. I've written about my father's battle with cancer and how I saw God use suffering to conform him more into the image of Jesus. I've written about my own suffering as a result of my father's illness, and how God used it to lead me to deeper joy than I ever imagined. Since starting seminary, I've written about how this experience (of greater joy and richer life through suffering) is actually a common one for Christians, because they've been united to Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered for us and out of his death came new life-- a life of victory made possible only because of the suffering that preceded it-- a resurrection power that defeated death itself. I've been learning that Christians don't just "make the most of suffering" because they have a positive outlook, but that Christians are actually one with Jesus and so their lives begin to tell the story of His life-- of His suffering and death--  and the resurrection that follows it. 

Today I came into contact with the story of Jesus on display in another. I visited a man who has very advanced MS. He's bedridden and totally dependent on others for the smallest things. Seeing him there in his hospital bed (his permanent home) I was unable to avoid the weight of his suffering. A brilliant musician, lawyer, and economist, he is now confined to a range of motion that allows him to turn a radio switch on and off. He can't use his gifts the way he once could; he can't engage socially the way he would still like; he can't even speak all the words he knows. His mind is still active, but his body has decayed. I felt speechless in the presence of such a tragedy. 

As I visited with this man, his mother told me how he just published his second book of poetry. She played for me a recording of two hymns he has written in the last few years. In other words, she showed me how he has been using his time in a bed all day. As I listened to the sweeping strokes of the piano playing his songs of praise to God, I wept. Here I was in the presence of a man suffering tragic and chronic injustice, listening to his response to it. His soul, hard-pressed on every side, has made music. His response to suffering has been to bless God, not curse Him. Out of his brokenness, beauty has been revealed; a beauty that is overwhelming in its power because of the place of sorrow from which it sprung. 

This is the life of Christ made present, in the flesh, in of one of His own. Jesus, who suffered the ultimate injustice-- betrayal, rejection, and even physical torture inflicted by those He came to serve-- responded by blessing both God and others. He took the curse upon Himself and bore our sins in his very body, only to rise victorious three days later. This man, who belongs to Christ, is living a life victorious over the curse that still afflicts him. There is a power, a purpose, a hope, at work within him that gives him a reason to bless God and others even in the face of extreme suffering. There is a reality-- a victory, a life-- that is his, and it outweighs any current disease, decay, or death. That reality is Jesus Christ. 

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh...
...knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."

2 Cor. 4:7-18